Biblical Archaeology Review 34:6, November/December 2008

Inside, Outside: Where Did the Early Israelites Come From?

By Anson F. Rainey

Before they settled in the hill country of Canaan, where did the earliest Israelites come from and what was the nature of their society?

The Bible is very clear. They were pastoral nomads who came from east of the Jordan. Much of the scholarship of the last part of the 20th century, however, has reached a far different conclusion. One might almost describe it as diametrically opposed to the Biblical account. According to this scholarship, the Israelites were originally Canaanites fleeing from the city-states of the coastal plain west of the hill country.

On one thing all scholars agree: In the period archaeologists call Iron Age I, from about 1200 to 1000 B.C.E., approximately 300 new settlements sprang up in the central hill country of Canaan that runs through the land like a spine from north to south. Almost everyone also agrees that these were the early Israelites settling down. The famous hieroglyphic text known as the Merneptah Stele, which dates to about 1205 B.C.E., refers to “Israel” at this time as a people (not a country or nation) probably located in Transjordan.

According to the Bible, Abram (later Abraham), the first Hebrew, was born in Ur, a city far east of the Jordan. Then the family “set out ... for the land of Canaan,” though they first sojourned in Haran, a site in the modern “Jezirah” of northeastern Syria (Genesis 11:27–32).

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