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Origins of the Israelites

Tremper Longman III on possible explanations for the origins of the ancient Israelites.

The origins of the ancient Israelites is one of the most difficult and debated questions in biblical studies today.  There are three main types of sources of information that are used in order to answer that question, and they are the Biblical text itself, ancient Near Eastern documents, and archaeology.  And the answer that different scholars give depend in large part on how they understand the nature of these sources in the first place; and then secondly, how they relate these sources of information to each other. 

But let’s start with the extrabiblical data, and there are two main sources here; first of all, the Merneptah Stela.  The Merneptah Stela is a victory stela set up by Pharaoh Merneptah in the late thirteenth century B.C.E., typically in the last decade of that century.  This is the first extrabiblical mention of Israel; and for most people, most scholars, this kind of provides evidence of the latest time that you could talk about Israel being in the land. 

Now the Amarna Letters are from an earlier period of time; and they were discovered in the late nineteenth century; and they are letters written by the Canaanite city Kings to Egyptian Pharaohs, as I say, in the early fourteenth century.  When they first came out they caused quite a dramatic stir because there’s a mention of a group called the Habiru, and if you say that fast enough, it sounds almost like Hebrew; and these Habiru are giving a lot of trouble to the Canaanite city Kings who are writing to the Egyptian Pharaohs saying we need help. 

At first, of course, people thought that was mention of the Hebrews, but it became very clear as time went on, that Habiru is not an ethnic term like Hebrew is often used in the Bible, but rather it’s a social category referring to landless people who are harassing people in a civilized area. 

Now there’s not as direct a connection to, therefore, to Israel with the Amarna Tablets, even though some people, and I’m open to this idea, that even though it’s not a ethnic category, the Canaanites might have thought of the Hebrews as Habiru.  So you have that extrabiblical document. 

The real rub comes in the relationship between the Biblical text and the archaeological material.  And of course, I can’t go into all the details here; but, the Bible describes the origins of the ancient Israelites as a people who come up out of bondage from Egypt and enter into Canaan, and through a kind of violent incursion, establish themselves in the land.  Whereas, the archaeological material throws question on the idea that there was in intrusion of a foreign people into the land, and of course, there is even a debate over when exactly this takes place, whether in the fifteenth century or the thirteenth century—that is where the Bible situates this event. 

If it’s either the fifteenth century or the thirteenth century, there are problems or issues connected to the archaeology, and again, we can’t go into all the details here.  Some of the cities that are said to have been burned—and there are really only three: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor—don’t show evidence of being burned at that time.  And some of the cities, Jericho for instance, is thought by the most recent archaeological excavations in the 1950s, not to even be really occupied at that time.  So that creates tension between the biblical text and the archaeology.

And so, in my thinking, when you asked me the question, “Where did the ancient Israelites come from?” I think that the ancient Israelites, did as the Biblical story say, come out of Egypt.  Now I wouldn’t defend the idea that there are two million people moving through the wilderness, but I do think that there is a group of escaped, not escaped slaves, but freed slaves who worship God and, as they come into Israel, you know, I think they do, it is a violent intrusion.  On the other hand, we do have stories like the Rahab story, which shows that there were Canaanites who came over to the Israelite side, and that might be just one of a number of examples, after all, in later Israelite history, we read about Shamgar, son of Anath, or Uriah the Hittite, so those theories which say that, you know, that the Israelites are really kind of transformed Canaanites may have an element of truth in them in my thinking. But again, I would point to the Bible as a helpful and reliable historical record.

  • Tremper Longman III is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. Longman has authored or co-authored over twenty books and numerous articles that approach the study of the Bible through literary criticism. His interest in history and historiography is expressed in his book A Biblical History of Israel (co-authored with Iain Provan and Phil Long; Westminster John Knox, 2003). He has also written commentaries on Song of Songs (Eerdmans), Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans), and Daniel (Zondervan) among others; he wrote Introducing the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2012) for lay audiences.