O! ROT! Part III: Joshua and the Exodus

File:Poussin Nicolas - The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites copy.jpg

After a hiatus, we continue with our series on the book On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Kenneth Kitchen.

Before diving into everything about the time of Joshua, it is important to note one thing Kitchen stresses in the section bridging the time of Joshua and that of the judges.  With respect to overall archaeological background, Joshua's conquests were not a sweeping blitzkrieg wiping out all the inhabitants.  When this reality is kept in mind, there is no tension between Judges and Joshua, contrary to some claims that Judges is an alternative narrative of conquest or an outright contradiction.  Judges starts soon after Joshua's death with more campaigns to further consolidate the land given.  More detail on this will follow.


Kitchen begins by observing that on a stele, Merenptah recorded defeating the people of Israel in his fifth year of reign.  This means that Israel had entered Canaan by at least 1209BC, with 1210BC being a good baseline.  Therefore, the time of the judges covers 1210-1042, and the battles of Joshua took place in the decade before 1210 at the latest. This corresponds to the end phase of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of Iron I. This requires a "late" date for the Exodus, in agreement with famed archaeologist William F. Albright, but stands in contrast to the "early" date argued by most conservative Christian scholars (1446BC).

Kitchen then summarizes what is recorded in the book of Joshua, and also notes what was not recorded; for example, only three cities are recorded as being burned (Jericho, Ai, and Hazor) and there is no mention of occupation of most cities.  This is important because detractors often assume that more cities were burned and that all or most cities defeated were then occupied.  It is also important to note that Joshua contains much that Kitchen considers typical rhetoric.  A complete domination, destruction, and occupation which is assumed by hyper-conservative scholars and liberal scholars trying to discredit the book is not merited.  As Kitchen says, "The fact is that biblical scholars have allowed themselves to be swept away by the upbeat, rhetorical element present in Joshua, a persistent feature of most war reports in ancient Near Eastern sources that they are not accustomed to understand and properly handle."1

For the same reasons as with the United Monarchy (see here and here), there are little to no external sources which corroborate the history of Joshua, so Kitchen focuses on showing that the events are not unprecedented in ANE history. For example, Israel may not have been the only wandering nation. The Amari letters record the wanderings of the Apiru, who are often considered to actually be the Israelites, although this is not an easy connection to make. Further, Joshua was a great military leader, but not some Alexander-meets-Aragorn-meets-Luke-Skywalker fantasy. Abdi-ashirta and his son built a kingdom from scratch in Lebanon that "geopolitically ... represented a much more ambitious achievement on the ground than the modest initial Hebrew occupation of the Canaanite upland area from Hebron to Jericho/Ai (bypassing Jerusalem) up via Shiloh to Shechem and Tirzah."2  There is precedence of other events as well, such as the espionage during those times, the divine commissioning for conquests, night fights.

There are also various stylistic similarities with external sources, such as rhetoric.  For example, "In [Joshua] 10:20 we learn that Joshua and his forces massively slew their foes 'until they were finished off', but in the same breath the text states that "the remnant that survived got away into their defended towns."3  Additionally, the divine intervention recorded in Joshua is not entirely without precedent, nor is it a good reason to assume any sort of non-historicity for the Bible or other ancient sources.

Moving on to archaeological background, Kitchen states five limitations in attempting to do archaeology: 1) the text does not imply fiery destruction of every city, 2) even if a city of the time period is found to be destroyed, it is terribly difficult to figure out who did the destroying, 3) identification of places in the Bible with current tels in the land is no easy task, 4) erosion ruins stuff, and 5) 95% of most sites have yet to be excavated, so there is much yet to be discovered.

That said, Kitchen soldiers through 24 cities, giving the biblical record and the likely tel that represents the city mentioned in the text.  Jericho and Ai are given the most time.  The tel that is certainly Jericho has seen significant erosion through several periods; there is little to excavate from the time of Joshua (this is in contrast to much "history" that makes its way on to the TV).  Jericho was always a small town.  It is likely that it had walls during the time of Joshua, but it was not some mega-fortress-wall-city thing like the romanticized Jericho. Ai is simply an enigma for archaeology; it is likely to exist, but it has not yet been identified with a specific tel, and the text is not specific enough to find the exact location. Other than Ai, the great majority have been identified with specific tels. And all of them show clear signs of destruction around the late Bronze/early Iron Ages. Nonetheless, there is still much excavation to be done, and much to be learned.

Kitchen then backtracks to just before entering the land of Canaan.  The passages in the Bible that cover this time are Num. 10-34, Deut. 1-3, and two brief passages in Joshua that recalled this period in the exodus.  The Israelites stayed in Qadesh-Barnea  more than once during this time.  It has been located by historians at Ain el-Qudeirat, but does not have any remains of the time period.  However, this should come as no surprise since the Israelites and many other tented wanderers have commonly left no surviving traces.

The Israelites then went to Canaan by skirting around the Dead Sea and crossing the Jordan.  This means they had to contend with the Edomites and Moabites.  Kitchen details the consistency of what is recorded with the topography of the lands they traversed and the likely outlay of Edom and Moab, as well as some of the recent archaeological finds in the area where the Israelites settled east of the Jordan.  Knowledge of actual locations is scarce, as there is very little external information.

The Exodus- Introduction

We now move on to the Exodus and the Covenant.  Because of its central role in the history of Israel and because it is perhaps the most controversial period of the OT, there is a lot to discuss.  Needless to say, it is a rather important period in the history of the Israelites: "Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is no single event (or theme, if the status of "event" be denied) to which its various writers hark back so pervasively as the tradition of the ancestral Israelites being liberated from servitude in Egypt, then forming a community under their deliverer deity YHWH, before undertaking their long (and prolonged) journey to the banks of the Jordan to enter Canaan.  The pendant to leaving Egypt was the Sinai covenant, with its renewals in the plains of  Moab and in Canaan."4

There are basically two sets of sources in the Bible with respect to the time period; the first, and the more substantial, is Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy.  The second is the constant allusions throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. After summarizing briefly these allusions in the Old Testament to this time, Kitchen makes this very important point.  "Thus the phenomenon of an exodus-deliverance recurs all over the biblical corpus, in law/covenant, in historical narratives, in the poetry of the Psalms, and in the messages of the prophets, at all dates in the biblical saga from Sinai itself and the plains of Moab down into the Persian period.  If there never was an escape from Egyptian servitude by any of Israel's ancestors, why on earth invent such a tale about such humiliating origins?  Nobody else in Near Eastern antiquity descended to that kind of tale of community beginnings."5  This is perhaps the central point of the chapter.  As you may have noticed, Kitchen often stresses the similarities to other cultures, to show that the Israelite history and context was not without precedence, as if it were just make-believe story invented during the Persian captivity.  Because of this, the quote just given should be all the more striking.  In this case, it is precisely the reason that the Israelites claim a humiliating origin - and no other ANE culture does - that lends credence to its truthfulness.

That said, what we have in the Bible may only be the rather embellished version, stemming from a small seed of truth.  This is why independent sources are "indispensable" in asserting historical reliability of the Bible's recording of this period of history.

And here we find Kitchen immediately discharging a salvo against skeptical biblicists.  The beginning of Exodus clearly describes what must have been Egypt's East Delta.  This poses severe limitations in terms of archaeology; the delta is a fan of mud with no source of stone within.  Buildings were either made of mud or mud-brick, and were often razed and replaced.  Of the little stone used for structures, it was shipped in from the south, and little of that exists.  It was often recycled, century after century from the dynasties all the way down to Islamic times, because of the limited amount.  "So those who squawk intermittently, 'No trace of the Hebrews has ever been found' (so, of course, no exodus!), are wasting their breath.  The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again."6  Further, something like 99% of discarded papyri has perished forever from the East Delta because of the mud and the constant flooding of the Nile.

Now, it is clear that the Egyptians lived on the East Delta for centuries.  Yet, all we have is a small fraction of reports from Memphis, "otherwise, the entirety of Egypt's administrative records at all periods in the Delta is lost."7  Monuments are extremely scarce, and one would hardly expect the pharaohs to monumentalize the exit of a large contingent of foreign slaves along with the loss of a full chariot squadron.  In summarizing, "On these matters, once and for all, biblicists must shed their naive attitudes and cease demanding 'evidence' that CANNOT exist.  Only radically different approaches can yield anything whatsoever. 'Archaeology' that limits its blinkered evidence solely to what comes out of modest holes dug in the ground can have no final say in the matter."8  Pwned.

So we must rely on themes and data present in the biblical text, and see if it is consistent with external sources.

From what we know of the Egyptians, it is clear that their use of foreign labor changed over time. There is no evidence of foreign labor in the Old Kingdom ("Pyramid Age" - 3rd millenium).  By the time of the New Kingdom, however, things had changed, so that bringing back prisoners - sometimes in great numbers - to be workers became common.  Records of brick-making by foreign slaves are found in tombs, as well as the Louvre leather scroll of Ramesses II.  And the records are not limited to brick-making; many were agricultural workers.

What of the plagues?  Remember, Kitchen is approaching this from a purely historical standpoint, and so "we must stick firmly to clearly tangible data."9  However, the plagues deal with realia, "not a fantasy world of dragons, monsters, genies..."10  G. Hort gave what is in Kitchen's opinion the most straightforward explanation of the phenomena.  A table summarizes the first nine plagues with their likely natural explanation, noting that the plagues correspond with the calendar as well.  For example, the third plague - insects - is pegged at Oct./Nov., once the Nile has flooded; this may have cause mosquito over-breeding in the pools of the flood.  I could give you the explanations for all nine of the first plagues, but that would take some time.

With respect to the tenth plague as compared to the previous nine, Kitchen says "what happened in the tenth plague if treated as at all historical would be regarded as a miracle by believers of any stripe, and as an exaggeration or 'strange event' by nonbelievers of any kind; but it cannot be used to prejudge the preceding nine plagues - they are too closely tied to tangible realities to permit any such pranks."11

Part IV will cover the Exodus itself.  Stay tuned!

1.  Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 163
2.  p. 166
3.  p. 174
4.  p. 241
5.  p. 245
6.  p. 246
7.  "
8.  "
9.  p. 249
10.  "
11.  p. 250
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  1. Is the book actually interesting to read or is it rather boring?

  2. Good question! It's a mixed bag. Some of the sections I found really fascinating, while there were others that I did have to work hard to get through. It is 500 pages, after all, with tons of end notes, so it definitely takes time. It's faster reading than say a 500 page book on philosophy, but still takes some concentration.

  3. End notes? That makes me sad. I have the book, but it's a little deeper in my "to read" list but I've been considering moving it up for awhile.

  4. Yes, I'm a fan of footnotes, myself.