In my last blog post, I discussed the “Trouble with Jericho” and how the archaeological “facts-in-the-ground” unearthed to-date, don’t line up with the Biblical narrative as most of us have come to understand it. I said that the problem may be with what we have read into the story that isn’t actually said rather than their being some problem with either the archaeology or the Biblical account.
I put forward the idea that God may have used this smaller Jericho settlement as a proving ground for the Israelites entering the land to help build their faith in Him—nurturing or seasoning them in preparation for bigger battles to come. For me, this seems to fit better with how I see God work in my own life—and probably yours as well. He works with us, shapes us and equips us for what is to come.
So, was there a big battle they were getting prepared for? I think there was.
Conquest of the Land?
Within the scholarly world, there is a big debate about where the Israelites came from and how they settled the Land. Any early theory was that the Israelites came in (via the Exodus) and fought major battles for much of the land. This is often called the “Conquest Theory.” There is certainly some evidence for battles and conquests (more on that later), but there are also real challenges with it. We don’t have archaeological evidence to support some of the Biblical claims of battles at places like Ai or Gibeon. “Ai” actually means, “the ruin.” Sort of makes you wonder why a battle would be named after a place that already seemed to be desolate.
A second theory is that when they entered the Canaan, much of the Judean Hill country was unoccupied and they simply settled there without the need to fight battles. They just moved in. This is referred to as the “Peaceful Infiltration Theory.” There is archaeological evidence to support this theory—to a degree.
A third class of theory is that the Israelites were Canaanites already in the land that simply revolted and banded together forming a new people group. This is the position held by scholars who deny that an Exodus ever took place. At some point, they have to deal with the fact that Israelites did exist (as much as some of them would seem to prefer that they didn’t). Personally, the hoops one has to jump through in order to make this theory workable are too problematic even to discuss.
Those are the main academic theories. But, what can we learn from a careful reading of the Biblical Text? There are clear indications in the Bible that Israel fought battles at various points in their occupation of the Promised Land. However, the idea that they had to fight battles everywhere (i.e. Conquest Theory) is probably the result of a poor reading of the Text. It certainly makes for more interesting Sunday School classes if you can talk about Joshua and the Israelites fighting spectacular battles everywhere they went. Yet, there are passages that also indicate that they were able to peacefully infiltrate large sections of territory without having to raise a sword.
One such place is Joshua 17. Joseph (Jacob’s favorite son) was the eldest son of his second (and favorite) wife, Rachel. The tribes of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received large allotments within the Promised Land. In fact, they got the cream of the crop. Yet, in Joshua 17, there is an interesting exchange between Joshua and the leaders of these tribes of the sons of Joseph:
The tribe of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, since we are a numerous people, whom all along the LORD has blessed?” And Joshua said to them, “If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and clear ground there for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.” (Josh. 17:14-15, NRSV)
These tribes complained that their allotments were not big enough for all the people they had. Joshua’s response? Clear the trees and make settlements for yourselves! In other words, you have plenty of land. You don’t need to fight anyone for it. Just get in there and clear out places to live!
Interestingly, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein did a survey of the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh. He wanted to understand population densities before and after Israelite settlement in the land. What he found was that many of the sites where there was Israelite occupation were virgin sites, with no prior settlement. These were hilltop settlements without city walls. They had rings of homes and hillside terraces for farming. He estimated that in the Late Bronze Age (Pre-Israelite) there were 30 “cities” and approximately 4,500 inhabitants in the areas of Ephraim and Manasseh. By the end of Iron Age I (time of the Judges) there were 300 “cities” with 30,000-50,000 inhabitants in total. Here it seems that both the Bible and archaeology support the idea of peaceful infiltration in some parts of the Promised Land.
The Bible also tells of various battles along the way as they sought to take over the Promised Land. Joshua 10 is full of conquest stories. What is interesting in these accounts is they laid siege to the cities and killed all the inhabitants. It doesn’t say they destroyed the cities. In fact, you would expect Israel to want to preserve the cities and towns because they wanted someplace to live after the battle. They weren’t seeking to ravage the land, they wanted to move in!
Yet, Israel’s success against these cities had another effect, it awakened the beast: Jabin, King of Hazor.
The Big Kahuna
Hazor is not a household name. I can count on a single finger the number of Sunday school classes I have been in where Hazor was discussed. Wait. That’s not correct. It’s two fingers. I taught the class at two different churches. Nobody knows about Hazor. We don’t tell our kids about Hazor. We’d rather stick with the Veggie Tales-esque Jericho. Yet Hazor was a much bigger deal.
In the Late Bronze Age, Hazor was a MAJOR city. It was the largest city in the land of Canaan and one of the most important cities in the Fertile Crescent. Situated in Upper Galilee, north of the Sea of Galilee, Hazor was on the major international highway running from Egypt up through Damascus and on to Mesopotamia. It played a major role on the Tin Route—which was required to make Bronze. The city was split into two sections: an upper and lower city. It covered an area of around 200 acres. In fact, it was bigger than Babylon during that period. Hazor and its king, Jabin, were serious players on the world stage.
So, when Joshua chapter 11:1 says, “When King Jabin heard of this…” (meaning Israel’s infiltration and taking of various cities) it is BIG news. What was King Jabin of Hazor’s reaction? He calls on all of his vassal kings and assembles a massive force to deal with the “Israelite Problem.” The Bible says they were as numerous as the sands on the sea shore with many horses and iron chariots. In other words, a huge and formidable army with the most modern weaponry available at the time.
The Biblical Text implies that Joshua and the Israelites were rightly concerned with these developing events. Actually, that might be saying it too mildly. This would be like Puerto Rico taking on the combined forces of the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. They were quaking in their boots (or sandals). This was the biggest force they had ever gone up against. Yet, God tells Joshua not to be afraid because, “I’ve got this.” (my paraphrase of Josh. 11:6). Indeed, he did.
The Canaanite armies had camped about 10 miles northwest of Hazor near the “waters of Merom.” According to the Biblical account, Joshua and the Israelite army caught them by surprise and panic ensued. The Text says that they chased them to the north and east; hamstringing their horses and burning their chariots in the process. Then the Bible gives us some very interesting information about Israel’s #2 objective:
Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms. And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire. And all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded. But Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn. (Josh. 11:10-13)
Notice the specific details given in this Text. They burned Hazor with fire. They killed all the people. They burned none of the towns that stood on “mounds”, except Hazor. That is some very specific information. So, the question should be: what has been found at Hazor?
Not surprisingly, Hazor was one of the first sites excavated by archaeologists after Israel became a State in 1948. The initial excavations were carried out from 1955-58, and again in 1968 by Yigael Yadin of Hebrew University. Excavations have continued at this site since that time. These excavations have confirmed a massive city from the Late Bronze Age that included a very large palace. It was clear from the excavations that this city was violently destroyed by fire. In fact, stones in the palace show evidence of fracturing under the stress of intense heat. What was the date of this destruction? The best estimate is around 1200 BC—a date that fits well for those that hold to the “Late Exodus” theory. What’s more, they found cuneiform tablets at the site which reference a monarch named, Ibni Addi. Some have suggested that Ibni is the etymological root of Jabin, the king of Hazor mentioned in Joshua. While we haven’t found anything that clearly states this destruction was done by Israelites, the evidence certainly lines up with the Biblical account pretty cleanly.
The other interesting detail is what it says happened to the other cities built on “mounds.” First, the word for mound in Hebrew is “Tel” (תֵל). This is a special kind of mound or hill. When a city or town is destroyed, the next inhabitants would often tear down the ruins from the earlier period and build over top. With each successive civilization, these layers would build up and the result was a man-made hill—a Tel. You see them all over Israel today. It’s interesting that even ancient Israelites knew how to distinguish a Tel from other types of hills. In this case, it says those towns that were built on Tels were NOT burned with fire.
One of the things you hear people say sometimes is that there is little evidence of actual destruction in the Land that would coincide with the Biblical account. Well, the Bible actually doesn’t say they destroyed everything. In fact, it says just the opposite. This fits with the idea that they were interested in inhabiting these places. What better way to do that than to leave the cities and towns standing.
Israel’s Journey of Faith
The real reason that I think Hazor is important is what it says about God’s development and nurturing of Israel’s faith as they enter the land. If my assessment of Jericho is correct from the previous post, then we see God take this stiff-necked group of desert wanderers and start to make a nation out of them. They move from smaller victories to medium-sized victories until they get to Hazor, where they take on the biggest army in the Land. God knew just how to nurture them along this path so that they were ready when the big, important battle was at hand.
I think our tendency is to read the Bible and envision spectacular displays of power and might. We secretly wish that if God would just act like that in our lives, we would have a stronger faith. Yet, the more I study, the more I see God working in the ordinary. He leads His people. He takes them wherever they are and gradually works with them—pushing them little by little—giving them incremental success—building and refining their faith and trust in Him.
I think most of us can identify with that type of relationship with God. When I see Him work through Israel in that way, it’s easier for me to see (and accept) Him doing the same thing in me.