The Historicity of Exodus and Joshua
January 11, 2019: This post needs some serious tightening, updates, and transitions.
As some of you may know, Passover begins soon. So, I wrote up a huge-ass post about the historical and archaeological issues surrounding the books of Exodus and Joshua because I’m that kind of dick at the seder (jk only to my mom on the way home when i’m wine drunk). But I digress.
This is an excerpt from the story of the late 23rd, early 22nd BCE ruler, Sargon the Akkad (also known as Sargon the Great):
My mother gave birth to me in secret at Asupiranu, the city of Saffron. She hid me in a basket woven from rushes and sealed with tar. My mother abandoned me on the bank of the Euphrates, the Euphrates carried my basket away. Akki, the royal gardener, lifted me out of the water; Akki reared me as his own. Akki trained me to care for the gardens of the Great King. Ishtar, my divine patron, cared for me. Then I became a Great King. I ruled the Sumerian peoples for fifty-five years.
Sargon was one of the greatest rulers of the Akkadian people, and it has been theorized that this story was written as a justification for his rule.
The similarities between Sargon’s story and the story in Exodus 2:1-2:10 are pretty glaring, so glaring, in fact, that it would be correct to assume they are not a coincidence, but a result of literary use of common Ancient Near Eastern literary conventions.
Anyway, Moses is in the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, etc. The rest of Exodus tells the story of the enslavement of the Israelites, and of their eventual escape. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy tell of their wanderings in the desert, Joshua details their return to the Promised Land, and Judges tells of the beginning years of their society.
Joshua is an odd book. It reads like the dramatic conclusion to the cosmology begun in Genesis,complete with a glorious return, and a successful military campaign. But that’s not the odd part. What’s odd is that it lowkey tells the same story as Judges. They both purport to document the beginning of Israelite civilization in Canaan. In Joshua, it describes them finally returning from their long wanderings in the desert and promptly destroying all the Canaanite cities and everyone in them before starting their civilization.
Judges, however, describes a loose, tribal society developing in the central hill country of Canaan. It describes that society engaging in warfare with surrounding Canaanite groups, and sometimes with each other. On multiple occasions, the Canaanite peoples at war with the Israelites are the same ones identified as having been destroyed in Joshua.
In addition, the archaeological evidence doesn’t quite add up. Though archaeologists have found Iron Age destruction levels at some of the sites identified in Joshua, most of the sites identified in that book show no signs of having been destroyed at that time (~13th century BCE). Many of those cities have much later destruction levels, or show clear signs of having been re-built soon after the destruction.
So what actually maybe might have happened? If Exodus is a story, and Joshua grandiose fiction, then where did the Ancient Israelites come from?
The answer is that they came from within Canaanite society. Nothing grand, nothing fancy; they were merely a loosely connected group of tribes that broke away from the rest of Canaanite society around 1200 BCE and began their own culture in the central Judean hill country.
The beginnings of this society are documented in the Book of Judges. If you read Judges, what you’ll see is a patchwork of stories relating to a variety of tribal rulers and their deeds. Some, like Sampson, are likely folkloric figures who were shoehorned into the Judges framework because their stories were considered important, or too popular to exclude. Some only have one line dedicated to them, indicating that they probably existed, but weren’t important enough to have anything else said about them other than that they killed someone with an oxgoad. Some, like Deborah have multiple versions of their story included in two separate literary forms.
Judges is written in such a way as make the reader believe that the stories of twelve consecutive leaders are being told, when in reality, it tells of the overlapping rules of tribal leaders and of their conflicts with surrounding Canaanite factions, and with each other.
There is no archaeological evidence that says “Yael was a bamf and staked Sisera through the head on this spot.” There is no archaeological evidence of Abimelech’s brief kingship, or of Samuel’s proto-Marxist anti-monarchic diatribe (technically Samuel was not in the book of Judges, but he was still regarded as a Judge).
What there is, however, is archaeological evidence of a new society formed in the central hill country around 1200 BCE. Without any knowledge of the Hebrew Bible or of the Israelites, archaeologists could look at sites and definitively conclude that a new culture, a new kind of society, was developing in that area at that time.
The location of those sites matches many of the locations named in Judges, and the dating of those sites matches the general time-frame which generations of Biblical scholars–both religious and secular–have set and agreed upon for Judges.
I can assume that eventually, as the years went on and as the Davidic dynasty consolidated its power, the other Canaanite groups became consolidated into Israelite culture. And then, when Israel fell and Josiah was making his reforms, the priesthood decided to connect their cosmology to their history.