“Now the Lord said to Joshua: ‘Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed; take all the people of war with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, his people, his city, and his land. 2 And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king.’ Joshua 8:1-2
Investigating what the Bible claims Joshua and the army of Israel did in Canaan involves a lot of detailed work. That’s because the Bible claims Israel defeated 31 city kings during the 14th century BC. As an atheist journalist in 1971, that looked like evidence that could be verified or denied using the tools of both history and archaeology. What did I find?
The 12th Chapter of the Book of Joshua lists the 31 kings that Israel supposedly defeated during its military campaign in Canaan.
“And these are the kings of the country which Joshua and the children of Israel conquered on this side of the Jordan, on the west, from Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon as far as Mount Halak and the ascent to Seir, which Joshua gave to the tribes of Israel as a possession according to their divisions, in the mountain country, in the lowlands, in the Jordan plain, in the slopes, in the wilderness, and in the South—the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: the king of Jericho, one; the king of Ai, which is beside Bethel, one; the king of Jerusalem, one; the king of Hebron, one; the king of Jarmuth, one; the king of Lachish, one; the king of Eglon, one; the king of Gezer, one; the king of Debir, one; the king of Geder, one; the king of Hormah, one; the king of Arad, one; the king of Libnah, one; the king of Adullam, one; the king of Makkedah, one; the king of Bethel, one; the king of Tappuah, one; the king of Hepher, one; the king of Aphek, one; the king of Lasharon, one; the king of Madon, one; the king of Hazor, one; the king of Shimron Meron, one; the king of Achshaph, one; the king of Taanach, one; the king of Megiddo, one; the king of Kedesh, one; the king of Jokneam in Carmel, one; the king of Dor in the heights of Dor, one; the king of the people of Gilgal, one; the king of Tirzah, one—all the kings, thirty-one.” Joshua 12:7-24
The first thing I noticed was the historical specificity of the list. It was not a general, sweeping statement about Joshua and the army of Israel defeating “all the kings of the land” or something along that line. The list was so specific that each one could be investigated.
Journalists, like historians and archaeologists, work with specifics. That’s necessary to the job. If I arrive at the scene of a crime and ask questions about what happened, I expect to get specific answers to specific questions. Some people answer journalist’s questions in a general way, as in “somebody died.” Any experienced journalist knows they need more for a story than “somebody died.” Follow-up questions would include “who died,” “how did they die,” “did you see them die,” “do you know the dead person,” “do you know the person you say killed them,” etc. Journalists are interested in facts, corroboration of those facts, and reliable witnesses to those facts.
Archaeologists and historians have their own “process” during excavations and investigations that have some similarity to the journalistic process. I wondered what they had discovered about the truth claims in Joshua.
We’ve already addressed the information about Canaanite kings that archaeologists and historians found in the Tell el-Amarna letters. Many of the letters were from city-state kings and leaders in Canaan asking Egypt for help in dealing with a conquering force known as the ‘Habiru’ (also spelled Hapiru) during the approximate time the Bible claims Joshua was leading Israel into Canaan.
Another archaeological artifact that impacts the investigation is known as the Merneptah Stele. It contains an inscription from Pharaoh Merneptah (reigned during the latter part of the 13th century BC) mentioning the defeat of Israel, along with Egypt’s defeat of other Canaanite cities (e.g. Gaza, Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam). One thing significant about this stele is that the Egyptian king confirmed that Israel was already an established people group in Canaan in the 13th century BC. That fits with the story timeline about Israel in the Books of Joshua and Judges. Interestingly, the hieroglyphs that refer to Israel include a symbol used for “foreign” or semi-nomadic people without a king and capital city. That also fits with the Bible history that Israel was ruled by judges until the middle to latter part of the 11th century BC when Saul became the nation’s first king.
Another important note before we move on is that Joshua 12 is specifically about kings that Israel conquered – “And these are the kings of the country which Joshua and the children of Israel conquered…” Atheists, agnostics and other non-Christians often accuse Bible believers of being wrong concerning the burning of all of the 31 cities mentioned in the list. Joshua 12 is about conquered kings, not cities burned. According to the Book of Joshua, Israel burned three cities during its conquest of Canaan: Jericho (Joshua 6:24), Ai (Joshua 8:28), and Hazor (Joshua 11:11). British archaeologists John Garstang and Kathleen Kenyon confirmed the burning of ancient Jericho. Archaeologists prior to 1971 did not confirm the burning at what was believed to be the Ai site (Et Tell), but other archaeologists since that time did find evidence of the burning of ancient Ai at what is now believed to be the ancient Ai site (Khirbet el-Maqatir), located about half-a-mile west of Et Tell. Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin excavated the Hazor site during the 1950 and 1960s and confirmed the burning of ancient Hazor.
Another question I had about the historical accuracy of the Old Testament concerned Israel’s supposed King David. Was he a real person? We’ll see what archaeology tells us as we continue our investigation into Convince Me There’s A God.
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”