Late Bronze Age Settlement Patterns in Ancient Israel

NOTE: This is a paper that I wrote back in late 2014 on Late Bronze Age Settlement patterns in Ancient Israel, and how they provide archaeological evidence for events in the Bible. There was some research that I did not have access to at the time, such as the work of Bryant Wood (Part 1, part 2), as well as Ted Wright (Link). I recommend watching their video presentations to get some additional perspective on the book of Joshua, and especially the site of Jericho.

The Late Bronze Age (1,500-1,200 B.C.E.) was a period of major upheaval for the land of Palestine (or Cisjordan, as it is sometimes called). Massive changes in material culture and populations in urban centres are evidenced in extant archaeological data, as well as in textual records found from the same time period. This data points to major changes in the demographics of the region. This change in demographics, combined with the incursions of the Egyptians and other foreign powers into Palestine, produce a chaotic picture of that particular time period.

Of particular interest is the relationship between the archaeological and textual data found in Late Bronze Age Palestine with the data found in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the books of Joshua and Judges. This relationship has led to many attempts among archaeologists and biblical scholars over the past century to attempt to find correlations between the two. This has also led to some lively debates over “Minimalism” and “Maximalism,” with the evidence being used to support many conflicting theories that fall into various locations in the Minimalist/Maximalist spectrum. Various theories have been proposed to try and reconstruct the origins of the nation of Israel using the available archaeological and textual evidence, although none thus far have gained the unanimous acceptance of scholars.

In this essay, the data from various archaeological and textual sources in the Late Bronze Age are brought together to create a coherent picture of the settlement patterns that were prevailing in Palestine at around that time. What emerges is a picture of one ethnic group giving way to another ethnic group. As will then be shown, this picture correlates well with the picture of Late Bronze Age Palestine that is found in the books of Joshua and Judges, especially in terms of the conquest and the subsequent conflicts between early Israel and the surrounding nations, pointing to a possible harmonization of the data found in all these disparate sources.

Archaeological Findings

In examining Late Bronze Palestine, there are a number of important general features which suggest that there is a discontinuity between the peoples of prior to the 14th century B.C.E. and right after it, all of which act as probable “ethnic markers” that point to a change in the settled populations of the region. These markers indicate that the Canaanite culture of the Bronze Age was displaced by the Israelites, although this displacement occurred gradually rather than suddenly, and that a Canaanite element remained in some areas well into the Iron Age (Finkelstein 1988:28-29)

The first such marker is the absence of pig bones from the Late Bronze age right up to the Iron Age. Prior to the Late Bronze Age, pig bones were ubiquitous throughout Palestine, especially in the rural areas. Dever (2001:113) notes that pork was a common food in Bronze Age sites because pigs were well-adapted to different areas.  From the Late Bronze Age onwards, pig bones largely disappear from the rural areas and are restricted to a few urban centres, with the largest concentration of pig bones to the southwest in areas controlled by the Philistines. This indicates the presence of two distinct people groups: One that consumes pigs and one that does not (Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:100). This is consistent with what we know of Ancient Israelite practice, since swine flesh was considered unclean and forbidden to eat, according to the Pentateuch (Leviticus 11:7), a prohibition that they would not have shared with their Canaanite and Philistine neighbours. For this reason, Dever states that the disappearance of pig bones “may thus be our best archaeological indicator of the much-debated ‘ethnic boundaries’ and their physical extent” (2001:113).

Another important piece of archaeological data that is relevant here concerns the gradual change in ceramics towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, from highly decorated Canaanite ware to much simpler, undecorated pottery, with the highly decorated ware becoming limited to Philistine territories. Various scholars, such as Younker (cited in Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:100) have suggested that this is “a marker for ethnicity,” pointing to a transition from Canaanite to Israelite settlement in the transition from the Late Bronze to the beginning of the Iron Age. This is a matter that will be taken up later on (see Interpretation).

Another notable discontinuity can be seen in the large urban centres of Palestine. It is notable that quite a number of cities get depopulated at around LB I Period. For example, Ussiskhkin’s site report on Lachish indicates that the site was suddenly deserted early on in the Late Bronze Age, only to be populated again in much later on (Ussishkin 1978:91). There are also several sites that display destruction in the thirteenth century B.C.E. (Harrison 1963:49-51 and Merrill 2008:136-137), as well as two that display destruction in the fifteenth century B.C.E.: Hazor and Jericho. These two cities are of particular interest in examining the settlement patterns in the Late Bronze Age, and will be examined in turn.


Hazor is perhaps the most illuminating of the sites when it comes to the Late Bronze Age. The site is among the largest in Northern Palestine during the Late Bronze Age. The total area of the site is 205 acres, of which 175 comprise the lower city, and the remaining 30 acres comprise the upper tell (Wiener 2012). This is consistent with the characterization of it that is found in the Hebrew Bible, where it is regarded as being the chief of all the Canaanite city-states (Joshua 10:10). Because of its historical significance, it has been excavated numerous times from 1928 onwards. The most significant among its excavators was Yigael Yadin, who remains one of the foremost scholars on Hazor (Yadin 1972:14, 18). Yadin’s periodization is different from that of later scholars, as he list as MB II dates that are now regarded as LB I, a fact which should be remembered when cross-referencing his work with that of more recent reports.

Of particular interest is stratum 2 of Hazor, which is the stratum that is dated to the LB I Period. There is a stark discontinuity between stratum 2 and the preceding stratum 3, with only the walls from stratum 3 continuing to be used into the LB I (Yadin 1972:32). The main clue as to the source of this discontinuity is a thick layer of ashes separating strata 2 and 3, which indicates that a violent conflagration had taken place at this point in time. Yadin dates to the end of the MB II period, stating that this thick layer of ashes is what separates the MB II from the LB I period (Yadin 1972:124-125).

A more recent excavation report from 2001 by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem places the conflagration right in the LB I period. According to the report: “The ceramic assemblage associated with this earlier phase, albeit meagre, seems to place the date of this earlier destruction somewhere in the Late Bronze Age I (fifteenth century B.C.E.)” (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001). What is interesting is that Yadin initially accepted this date as well, but changed his mind later on and argued that it actually took place in 1,230 B.C.E. (Cited in Merrill 2008:137). Mazar likewise asserts that the destruction of Hazor must have taken place sometime during the 13th century B.C.E. (1990:332-333). Despite Yadin’s change of mind, however, the evidence remains decisively in favour of the a conflagration occurring at 1,400 B.C.E., as shown by John Bimson (Cited in Merrill 2008:137), as well as Noah Wiener (2012), and most recently by Amnon Ben-Tor (2013:26-36).

Ben-Tor’s report is particularly interesting, because he shows conclusively that the destruction could not be attributed to an Egyptian invasion, since the Egyptians did not pass by the area during their campaign (Ben-Tor 2013:32-33). Also, several facts militate against the hypothesis that it was an internal revolt, such as the fact that private houses were also destroyed and the fact that the area was left uninhabited for 200 years (Ben-Tor 2013:33-35). He concludes that the conflagration could only have been caused by an incursion from an external force, which he identifies with the early Israelites (Ben-Tor, 2013:36). This meshes neatly with the Biblical account of the Israelite conquest, if one takes the late 15th century B.C.E. date for that event (cf. Joshua 11:10-13; See Interpretation).


Jericho is best known as the first city that was conquered by Israelites, according to the Hebrew Bible (Joshua 6). It is also an interesting sample for examining Late Bronze Age settlement patterns. Unlike Hazor, the findings at Jericho are far less clear, and have been the subject of considerable debate over the years.

Jericho was excavated by John Garstang in the 1930s. Initially, he dated the destruction of Jericho to around 1,400 B.C.E., using evidence derived from analysis of ceramic ware, as well as Egyptian scarabs found in the ruins (Archer 2008:202, Bartlett 1982:31-33, Harrison 1963:48 and Livingston 1988:14). As Bartlett (1982:32) points out, if Garstang’s dating is to be accepted, then one can correlate this destruction to the account found in Joshua and date the latter event to the end of the 15th century B.C.E. (a date which will be discussed further in Interpretation).

However, Kathleen Kenyon (1957) overturned this date when she asserted that the destruction of Jericho must have taken place earlier in 1,550 B.C.E. Kenyon points out that after the Hyksos expulsion from Egypt into Palestine in the MB II period, several Canaanite towns were destroyed. She then posits that Jericho was one of the towns destroyed, and remained abandoned after the destruction for two centuries (1957:229, 254-255). The main evidence for this is the wall surrounding Jericho, which is a MB II style glacis (Mazar 1990:202). Kenyon also notes the presence of Middle Bronze shards in the earth fill between the inner and outer parts of the rampart (Kenyon 1957:46, 170, 181). Because the wall is dated to the MB II period, it is assumed that the site could not have endured up to the Late Bronze Age. However, as noted by Archer (2008:202), there is no reason why an MB II wall could not have remained in use until the LB I period, which is the date Garstang originally proposed. Unfortunately, due to severe erosion, most of the rest of the archaeological evidence has been lost, and what remains is difficult to piece together (Kitchen 1977:89).

One could conclude then that Jericho was undoubtedly destroyed in a catastrophic event at some point in the Middle Bronze Age. However, as Merrill points out, the exact date of this destruction is so confused because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and the contradictory dates posited by different archaeologists that one cannot reliably date its destruction (Merrill 2008:128). Kitchen also points to the fragmentary nature of the evidence as a reason why such dates are difficult to establish, stating that Jericho “is a classic example of incompleteness in the archaeological record caused by the depredations of man and nature combined” (Kitchen 1977:89). While a destruction at 1,400 B.C.E. cannot be ruled out, neither is it confirmed by the evidence, and can at best be inferred by cross-referencing data from the destruction of Jericho with data from the destruction of Hazor, which is decidedly much clearer.

Textual Records

In addition to the data obtained from archaeological sites, various textual records from the Late Bronze Age also shed light on the settlement patterns of that period. The two main records available are the Merneptah Stele and the Amarna Letters, whose significance will be explained herein.

The Merneptah Stele

Dated to either 1231 B.C.E (according to the upper chronology) or 1210 B.C.E. (according to the lower chronology) the Merneptah stele a giant inscription found in Thebes which contains an account of the exploits of the Egyptian ruler Merneptah, who claims in the stele to have led a campaign into upper Canaan during the 5th year of his reign (Merrill 2008:85). It is notable for having the earliest extra-biblical reference to “Israel.” Towards the end of the Merneptah’s account of his military expeditions, he mentions a campaign in Canaan. One line in the inscription states: “Israel is laid waste; his seed is not” (Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:52).

Although various interpretations have been proposed, it has been pointed out that 1) the surrounding context demands that the “Israel” in question be situated within Canaan (as opposed to the Transjordan, or anywhere else), and 2) the word has the determinative sign for “peoples,” which rules out their being a city or other geographic entity (as is the case with the other names listed along with it). Thus, the evidence points to “Israel” here being a distinct socio-ethnic group located in the central hill country of Palestine (Dever 2001:118-119 and Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:48-53). It is this same “Israel” that Ben-Tor (cited in Wiener 2012) credits with the destruction of the city of Hazor in the LB I period, creating a direct link between the contents of the Merneptah Stele and the catastrophic events that are presented to us in the archaeological records. Michael G. Hasel (in Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:59) points to this stele as an important chronological marker establishing a lower limit for the establishment of Israel, showing that such a socio-ethnic group would have already been well-established around the LB II Period.

The Amarna Letters

The Amarna letters are another interesting piece of textual data that emerge during the Late Bronze Age, particularly during the LB II Period, or what is known as the “Amarna Age” in Ancient Egyptian history (ca. 1,360-1,333 B.C.E.). These letters, of which there were 300, comprise political correspondence between various Canaanite political rulers and the Kingdom of Egypt. Sixteen of these letters are particularly significant because of the appearance of the term Habiru (or ‘Apiru) in them. The term is used to refer to various unwanted elements of society, be they fugitives, bandits, outlaw gangs, brigands or mercenaries operating in the Southern Levant on both sides of the Jordan river. In time, they also came to be used of refugees and displaced people groups residing in the Levant, indicating the term’s derogatory use in political discourse. (Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:105-106).

The Habiru were known for causing instability and unrest among the various Canaanite city-states, as evidenced by how their rulers request help from Egypt to repel attacks by the Habiru (Merrill 2008:122-123). Interestingly, the Israelites may have been regarded as one of the various Habiru groups active in Cisjordan. The close similarity between the term Habiru and the word Hebrew (‘Ibri), as well as the military activities of the Israelites in Canaan, are taken as evidence for this. It is also suggested that the pejorative use of the term Habiru may be the reason why the Israelites seldom refer to themselves as Hebrews (Bartlett 1982:32, Harrison 1963:47-48 and Merrill 2008:118). Furthermore, some scholars in the the 1980s such as Marvin Chaney (cited in Hess, Klingbeil and Ray 2008:103) have suggested that the Habiru constituted evidence for a modified version of the Peasant Revolt Model (to be discussed below), with the Habiru being landless peoples that dissociated themselves from the city authorities and settling in agrarian lands, where they developed into the nation of Israel. Regardless of whether one accepts this model or not, a connection between the Habiru and Israel seems to be fairly commonplace, and almost certainly has a ring of truth to it.

Interpretation of Evidence

The problem with interpreting all of the archaeological evidence just presented is that there are so many conflicting models that attempts to make sense of all the data that it is difficult to piece everything together. As Patrick Mazani (in Hess,  Klingbeil and Ray, 2008:96) astutely observes:

Each investigator approaches the data with his or her own presuppositions. It is intriguing to note that different investigators use the same data on the evidence for early Israel but draw contradictory and irreconcilable conclusions.

In general, however, the various viewpoints held to by archaeologists regarding the relationship between archaeology and the Bible can be classified as either “Maximalist” or “Minimalist.” Maximalism is the viewpoint that the stories found in the Bible more or less accurately describe how events actually took place, unless archaeological data indicates otherwise. Minimalism, on the other hand, is the viewpoint that the narratives contained in the Bible should be treated as fiction, unless archaeological data says the opposite (Livius, 2009). These two are not absolutes, however, as archaeologists fall into different positions along the Maximalist/Minimalist spectrum. It is necessary to examine different theories put forward by these positions to see how well they explain the archaeological data that has just been discussed.

Another debate that falls under the purview of the Maximalist/Minimalist discussion is the question of where Early Israel originated from. Historically, there are three models proposed by archaeologists: 1) the Conquest Model, which posits an external invasion of Canaan by the Israelites (ie. the model found in the Hebrew Bible), 2) the Peaceful Infiltration Model, which posits a more gradual nomadic settling of the region by groups that would later coalesce into the nation of Israel, and 3) the Peasant Revolt Model, which posits that the Israelites were Canaanites who revolted against the existing rulers of the Canaanite city-states and formed their own nation (Dever 1992:29-30). In addition to this, Dever mentions a fourth theory, called the Symbiosis Model, which posits that Proto-Israelite peoples coexisted with the Canaanites for centuries in Bronze Age Palestine before eventually displacing them and establishing the nation of Israel. This is the theory that Dever holds to (1992:30). Bill T. Arnold (2002:244-246), provides support for this when he demonstrates that tribal groups could enter a region centuries before they begin to leave an impact on the material culture, and that Semitic tribal groups (ie. “Proto-Israelites”) could have done precisely that in Palestine.

Interestingly, the Symbiosis Model rests upon the premise that the Israelites were not new to the region by the late 13th century, but had been around for much longer before that. This ties into yet a third debate, which is when the Israelite conquest as described in Joshua is to be dated. It is believed by many archaeologists that the conquest should be dated to the late 13th century. On this, Dever notes: “There is not a single destruction layer around 1200 B.C.E. that we can ascribe with certainty to the Israelites” (1992:32). However, there is an alternative viewpoint, which is that the conquest is to be dated to the end of the 15th century B.C.E.

This date is arrived at via calculations from two passages in the Bible, which are pointed out by Merrill and Archer. The first passage is 1 Kings 6:1, which states that construction of the temple began 480 years after the Exodus. If we accept the common date that for the construction of the temple (circa 960 B.C.E.), and subtract the 40 years in the wilderness from the 480 years, we arrive at a date of approximately 1,400 B.C.E. (Archer 2008:196, Merrill 2008:74). The second passage is Judges 11:26, which states that the Israelites possessed the Transjordanian territories claimed by Moab for 300 years. Given that the events of Judges 10-12 are often dated to the second half of the 12th century B.C.E., this points to the Israelites having possessed the territories since the  15th century B.C.E. (cf. Numbers 21:21-26), which correlates with the calculation based on 1 Kings 6:1 (Archer 2008:196, 254, Merrill 2008:167-168). Merrill (2008:74-92) provides a strong exegetical case for regarding the conquest as having taken place in the late 15th century B.C.E., showing that none of the facts that are said to point to a 13th century exodus and conquest actually point to it. In addition to Merrill and Archer, Hess, Klingbeil and Ray (2008:55) point to twenty-two other scholars and archaeologists who advocate a 15th century B.C.E. date for these events, showing that this theory is still alive and well among scholarly circles. It also explains the data adduced in support of the Symbiosis Model, showing that the Israelites did indeed enter the land long before the 13th century B.C.E., and did not finally displace the Canaanites until then.

As for the rest of the sites which were destroyed later on in the 13th century B.C.E., Merrill (2008:124-125, 136-137) connects these destructions with the upheavals recorded in the book of Judges, after Joshua’s conquest had already taken place, noting that the conflicts between the Israelites, the remaining Canaanites and various foreign powers written about therein would have provided sufficient explanation for the later destructions, as well as the Amarna Letters’ references to the Habiru people. As mentioned earlier, the Palestinian city-states that record troubles with the Habiru are the same ones that, according Judges 1-2, were never under Israelite control to begin with. Furthermore, he notes that according to Joshua, only Jericho, Ai and Hazor were burnt with fire (Joshua 6:24, 8:28, 11:10-13), and that had the other sites been burnt at the same time as these three, then such evidence “would be an embarrassing contradiction to the biblical witness” (Merrill 2008:137). Based on the time gap in the archaeological records would have to conclude then that the destructions of those three cities and those of the other cities must represent two separate periods in Canaanite history.


If this approach is to be taken, then we have plausible reconstruction of the massive upheavals that take place in Late Bronze Age Palestine which harmonizes the data found in the Bible with the extant archaeological and textual records. According to this reconstruction, the events found in the Joshua 9-12 take place in the late 15th and early 14th centuries B.C.E., as attested in the evidence found in Hazor (and arguably Jericho). The events found in Judges 1-9 then span the next two centuries up to end of the Late Bronze Age, as attested in the evidence found in the Amarna Letters and the destructions found in the other sites of the region. Of course, this does not mean that the Maximalist perspective automatically wins the debate, as the archaeological evidence alone does not warrant such a leap. However, this does mean that we can take the events in the Bible with relatively more confidence than Minimalism allows for. Amnon Ben-Tor (2013:36) writes in the conclusion of his article on Hazor:

Biblical historiography, in particular the books of Joshua–Kings, cannot be considered a completely accurate account of the events described in them, because they are motivated by a theological and-to some extent-a political agenda. They do contain a considerable number of true historical nuclei, however, and the account of the downfall of the last Canaanite city of Hazor is very probably one of them.

Whether the theological and political motivations of the biblical authors impugn upon their reliability as historians is still a matter of debate, and is outside the scope of this archaeological essay. However, it is a good start that we do not automatically treat the Biblical accounts with skepticism, but give them the benefit of the doubt when correlating the Biblical record with the archaeological and textual records.

Overall, although much has already been said regarding the archaeological record of the Late Bronze Age, the proper interpretation of the evidence still remains a matter of dispute among archaeologists. It is hoped that this essay will assist towards providing a more unified understanding of the evidence adduced herein.

References Cited

Archer, G.L. 2008. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Revised and Expanded Edition). Moody Press, Chicago.

Bartlett, J. R. 1982. Jericho (Cities of the Biblical World). Lutterworth Press, Guildford

Ben-Tor, A. 2013. Who Destroyed Canaanite Hazor? Biblical Archaeological Review 39.4 (July/August 2013): 26-36.

Arnold, B.T. 2002. What Has Nebuchadneszzar to Do with David? On the Neo-Babylonian Period and Early Israel. Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations, ed. Mark W. Chavalas, Mark and K. L. Younger.

Dever, W. G. 1992. Unresolved Issues in the Early History of Israel: How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite. Pp 26-60 in The rise of ancient Israel, ed. Hershel Shanks. Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington D.C.

__________. 2001. What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Finkelstein, I. 1988. The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Israel Exploration Society.

Harrison, R.K. 1963. Archaeology of the Old Testament. The English Universities Press, London

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 2001.  2001 Excavation Report. Electronic document,, accessed November 18, 2014.

Hess, R. S., G. A. Klingbeil, and P. J. Ray Jr. (eds.). 2008. Critical Issues in Early Israelite History (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 3). Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake.

Kenyon, K. 1957. Digging Up Jericho. E. Benn, London.

Kitchen, K. A. 1977. The Bible in its World: Archaeology and the Bible Today. Paternoster Press, Exeter.

____________. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Livingston, D. 1988. Exodus and Conquest. Archaeology and Biblical Research 1.3: 12-17.

Livius. 2009. Maximalists and Minimalists. Electronic document,, accessed November 20, 2014.

Mazar, A. 1990. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000—586 B.C.E. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Merrill, E. H. 2008. Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Second Edition). Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

Ussishkin, D. 1978. Excavations at Tel Lachish – 1973-1977. Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv.

Wiener, N 2012. Scorched Wheat May Provide Answers on the Destruction of Canaanite Tel Hazor. Electronic document,, accessed November 18, 2014.

Yadin, Y. 1972. Hazor: The Head of all those Kingdoms, with a Chapter on Israelite Megiddo (The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy, 1970). Oxford University Press, London.

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