A new and dramatic find has confirmed the Israelite conquest of the land of Israel, as told in the Books of Joshua and Judges. The odd thing is that the archaeologists in charge don’t realize the significance of their own find. Before I explain, let’s take a step back.
When it comes to Biblical archaeology – especially the Biblical Exodus – much of what archaeologists find is a function of the archaeological dating game. Meaning, if you’re going to look for a historical event, you have to know when it happened. Imagine that 3,500 years from now people are arguing whether the American Civil War is a myth, or a real historical event. Let’s say the common wisdom is that it’s a myth. Moreover, let’s say future archaeologists say that if it happened – which it didn’t – it occurred during the tenure of President Clinton i.e., sometime at the end of the 20th century. Future archaeologists might argue that they found Clinton’s archives and there is no mention of an American Civil War, ergo it didn’t happen. But we know better.
We know that the American Civil War is history, not myth, and that it took place during the tenure of President Lincoln i.e., in the mid-1860’s. It’s easy to see how Lincoln might be confused with Clinton. Their names sort of sound alike. Also, they are only separated by approximately 130 years. Peanuts, really, if you consider a 3,500 year time span. So if we were speaking to some future archaeologists we might tell them to push the clock back some 130 years; look for evidence during the period 1861-1865 and you will find as much evidence as your heart desires. Similarly, with the Biblical Exodus.
The general consensus is that if it happened – which it didn’t – the Exodus occurred during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 BCE – 1213 BCE). Archaeologists generally date the Biblical Exodus to 1270 BCE, but they say there is no evidence to be found during that time period. Ramesses II, archaeologists say, faced no slave revolt, no major cataclysms, and no setbacks as described in the Bible. If you think about it, this is a peculiar way of thinking. I mean, how do you date something that you believe never happened? Also, why focus on Ramesses II? As it turns out, archaeologists equate the city of “Pi-Ramesses”, built by Ramesses II, with the city of “Ramesses”, one of the store cities that, according to the Book of Exodus (1:11), the Israelite slaves helped to build in Egypt. But “Pi-Ramesses” may have as much in common with “Ramesses” as “New York” has with “York”. The fact is that there is no evidence connecting Ramesses II with the Biblical Exodus. So who is the pharaoh of the Exodus and when did it really happen?
If we look at the Bible, the Book of Kings (1 Kings 6:1) tells us explicitly when the Biblical Exodus happened. It occurred 480 years prior to the reign of King Solomon. King Solomon roughly ruled around 970 BCE – give or take. 480 years earlier would set the Biblical Exodus around 1500 BCE – give or take a few decades. Remember, we’re talking about events that happened 3,500 years ago so it’s hard to establish precise dates. But at least this way we can see that the Biblical sources place the Exodus just over 200 years prior to the commonly accepted view. During the period in question, Pharaoh Ahmose ruled Egypt. He was the first pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. And what do you know? During his reign there is a famous stele called the “storm stele” recording terrible calamities in Egypt, including awful storms and days of darkness. More than this, some have dated the Ipuwer papyrus, which is housed in Leiden, Holland, to Ahmose’s reign. The author of the papyrus witnesses to days of darkness, the river turning into blood, and the slaves leaving with the wealth of Egypt. In other words, if you look at the right time period, you find the archaeological evidence.
The Exodus is bookended with the conquest of the land of Israel. According to the Bible, the Jews were encamped in the Sinai desert for some 40 years after the Exodus and before the conquest. Led by Moses’ successor, Joshua son of Nun, the Israelites then conquered the Holy Land. If the Exodus happened around 1500 BCE, then the conquest began around 1460 BCE. But how long did it take? The Book of Joshua seems to be talking about a quick “conquest”, while the Book of Judges describes a slower process. Both can be true. As we’ve seen with the birth of modern Israel, there was a quick conquest resulting in the creation of the State in 1948, but 65 years later the struggle goes on. So, too, with the ancient Israelites. Meaning, there should be evidence of conquest and destruction somewhere between 1450 BCE and, say, 1380 BCE. And there is.
Which brings us back to the latest dramatic find at the Biblical City of Gezer – a Canaanite stronghold. Digging at Gezer, archaeologists have just found a late Bronze Age destruction level ca. 1400 BCE. Co-directors of the dig, Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, report finding a city wall that was 1 meter thick with several rooms attached to it. These rooms were filled with debris attesting to “a massive destruction”. The destruction layer is almost 1 meter high and it includes many Canaanite storage jars, Philistine pottery, and a group of cylinder seals dated to the time of Amenhotep III. Since this pharaoh dates to around 1390 BCE, the late Bronze destruction level perfectly synchronizes with the Israelite conquest of Canaan, as described in the Bible and as outlined above. Ortiz and Wolff have made a huge find. But they are not looking for the Biblical Exodus in the 15th century BCE. They are looking for it in the 13th century BCE, during the reign of Ramesses II. As a result, they don’t know what to do with the destruction layer they’ve uncovered.
The archaeologists admit that “this destruction corresponds to other destructions of other cities in the region.” But, rather than conclude that the Exodus and the conquest happened earlier than they expected, archaeologists continue to search for the Exodus around 1270 BCE. As a result, they are forced to look for an unknown Canaanite Civil War to account for the destruction layer that they’ve just discovered.
Maybe it’s time we stop playing the dating game. Maybe it’s time to stop looking for the Exodus in all the wrong places. Maybe it’s time to push back the date of the Exodus to the reign of Ahmose, and the conquest to the reigns of his successors in the 18th dynasty. Put differently, what we’re looking at in Gezer are not the remains of an unknown Canaanite Civil War, but the traces of the Israelites as they marched out of the desert and into the Promised Land.