Archaeology of the Judges Period

The Israelite Conquest under the leadership of Joshua was a relatively short period of time, lasting approximately 5 years (cf. Joshua 14:7-10). Following the time of Joshua, there is a period of over 300 years until the Israelite Monarchy begins with the kingship of Saul, leading to the period of David and Solomon (cf. Judges 11:26). This period is the time of the Judges, when Israel was ruled by more localized leaders instead of one king or supreme commander. This era, set archaeologically in the Late Bronze II and Iron I periods, is a time in which Israel fought battles, conquered cities, and began settlements—all things that are attested on the archaeological record. Both Hazor and Jericho, key cities in the conquest under Joshua and detailed in episode 3, are also involved in events during the Judges period (Judges 3-5). Events at the sites of Dan, Shechem, and Shiloh, in addition to Israelite settlement during the Judges period also are important in establishing the historicity of the Biblical accounts of this time.

In Judges 3, a story about the assassination of Eglon of Moab by an Israelite Judge named Ehud takes place in “the city of palm trees,” also known as Jericho (Judges 3:7-13; Deuteronomy 34:3; 2 Chronicles 28:15). According to the Biblical chronology, this event takes place in the late 14th century BC. During the excavations at Jericho directed by Garstang, an isolated, large residence or villa with a short period of occupation dating to the end of Late Bronze IIA, the late 14th century BC, was discovered on the mound (Garstang, The Story of Jericho; Kenyon, Digging Up Jericho). In addition to the large size of the residence, finds there indicated a wealthy inhabitant, including a cuneiform tablet—an extremely rare find in Late Bronze Age Canaan (Bienkowski, Jericho in the Late Bronze Age). The discovery of this building at Jericho agrees with the narrative about Eglon in Judges 3, and demonstrates the historical nature of a story from the early Judges period.

After being destroyed by the Israelites under Joshua in ca. 1400 BC, the Canaanite city of Hazor eventually recovered and was reestablished as a powerful city-state and oppressor of the Israelites (Judges 4-5). During the period in which Deborah was a Judge in Israel, two of the tribes, under the leadership of her and Barak, defeated the army of Hazor and put an end to the Canaanite city there once and for all at the end of the 13th century BC (Judges 4-5). At Hazor, excavations of the last Canaanite city revealed a destruction of several Canaanite temples and the desecration of various statues of Canaanite and Egyptian gods and kings at the end of the 13th century BC (Ben-Tor and Rubiato, “Excavating Hazor, Part Two: Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City?”). Following an occupational gap, the city was resettled by Israelites, then eventually rebuilt during the rule of Solomon. The excavation director at Hazor, Ben-Tor, believes that the archaeological data shows the Israelites as the prime candidate for the destroyers of the city. This destruction of Hazor and its Canaanite temples during the period of Deborah and Barak is a prime example of the agreement between archaeology and the Biblical narrative.

Sometime during the 12th century BC, following the attack upon Hazor by Deborah and Barak, but before the Philistines had taken the Ark of the Covenant in a battle near Shiloh, the tribe of Dan was searching for a place to settle (Judges 5:17; Judges 18:1, 31; 1 Samuel 4:10-11). While searching, they decided upon a city north of the Sea of Galilee, originally called Laish. The tribe of Dan attacked this city, destroyed it, and then resettled the area and named the city Dan (Judges 18). Archaeological excavations at Tel Dan uncovered a destruction of the Late Bronze II city in the 12th century BC and a rebuilding and resettlement of the site (Biran, Biblical Dan). However, the most telling evidence came from an analysis of the pottery at the site. A close examination of the pottery from the rebuilt city showed that the new settlers had come from another area of the country, and that their pottery was of the Israelite collared rim type (Biran, “The Collared Rim Jars and the Settlement of the Tribe of Dan”). Here is striking evidence of the conquest and settlement of Dan by the Israelite tribe of Dan during the Judges period.

According to the Biblical chronology, Abimelech proclaimed himself king at the city of Shechem, located north of Jerusalem in the present day city of Nablus, near the end of the 12th century BC (Judges 9:6). After ruling for three years, the people of Shechem rebelled against Abimelech. The evil ruler responded by attacking, destroying, and burning the city (Judges 9:32-49). Archaeological work at Shechem revealed a fire destruction of the city at the end of the 12th century BC, which the excavators connected with the attack by Abimelech (Wright, Shechem: Biography of a Biblical City). The account in the book of Judges even gives some architectural details of the city which were discovered in the excavations—a gate on the east side of the city and a massive fortress temple called the temple of Ba’al Berith (Wright, Shechem: Biography of a Biblical City; Judges 9). Like the destructions at Hazor and Dan during the time of the Judges, the account of the destruction of Shechem by Abimelech is also corroborated by archaeological data and further supports the historicity of the the book of Judges.

Shiloh was the site of the Ark of the Covenant for much of the Judges period. At the end of the period when Eli was a Judge, in the late 12th century BC, the Ark of the Covenant was temporarily lost in a battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:10-11). Although the battle recounted did not take place in Shiloh, it was nearby, and therefore it is likely that Shiloh suffered an attack by the Philistines after the Ark of the Covenant was taken. Excavations at Shiloh have shown not only a significant, occupied city in the late 12th century BC, but that the city was destroyed not long after (Israel Finkelstein, “Excavation at Shiloh 1981-1984”). This destruction was probably a result of the Philistine campaign against Israel, briefly highlighted in 1 Samuel 4 and 7. Further, archaeological investigations at the site discovered a large, flat area that would accommodate the size of the Tabernacle, which according to the books of Judges and Samuel resided at Shiloh during this period (Judges 18; 1 Samuel 1). Found around this flat area were holes dug into the bedrock at intervals—perhaps in connection with the Tabernacle—but their exact nature and date are unknown. At Shiloh, archaeology not only confirmed the site as an important city during the time of Eli and Samuel, but excavations have also further illuminated events and buildings at the site.

The Israelites did not begin mass settlement of their own villages and cities until later in the Judges period, but many continued to live in tents in a semi-nomadic form of life long after they arrived in Canaan (Joshua 24:13; Judges 7:8). This, in addition to adopting the local material culture (pottery, etc.) is likely why evidence for specifically Israelite settlement is not found on the archaeological record until the late 13th century BC. At this time, however, villages in the highlands and the Galilee region begin to appear. In these villages, features specific to Israelite settlement are found—the 4-room/pillared house, collared rim storage jars, and the absence of pig bones. It is also in this period when Israel is first clearly mentioned on an Egyptian monument, called the Merneptah Stele. This stele, which dates to the end of the 13th century BC, was erected by Pharaoh Merneptah as a monument of victory over enemies of Egypt. Included on the stele as one of the main enemies of Egypt, and located in the land of Canaan, is a people called Israel (Hasel, “Israel in the Merneptah Stela). This stele, along with the settlement evidence, demonstrates that by this time Israel was recognized as a powerful and unique ethic group in Canaan, and that they had finally begun to establish their own villages, their own material culture, and adopt a widespread sedentary form of life. This is the same picture of settlement seen in the books of Judges and Samuel—that the Israelites generally do not begin living in houses and cities which they built until long after their appearance in Canaan, and explains the archaeological invisibility of the Israelites before the end of the Late Bronze Age ca. 1200 BC (Joshua 24:13; Judges 20:8; Judges 8:27).

A review of the archaeological data uncovered at the sites of Jericho, Hazor, Dan, Shechem, and Shiloh, plus general settlement evidence from Canaan along with the Merneptah Stele, illuminates and corroborates the Biblical accounts from the Judges period. Even a brief archaeological investigation of the Biblical accounts of the Judges period has shown this section of the Bible to be historically reliable.

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