What Archaeology Tells Us About Joshua’s Conquest

Is there any archaeological evidence for Joshua entering Israel and conquering cities in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age?

René-Antoine Houasse (c. 1645-1710), “Joshua Battles the Amalekites”
René-Antoine Houasse (c. 1645-1710), “Joshua Battles the Amalekites” (photo: Public Domain)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Moses died around 1250 BC (which date I accept). According to the Bible, Joshua took over as his successor and as military leader of the Israelites. And it’s said that he led a campaign to conquer cities in Canaan, in order to take control of the “promised land.” Christians believe that Joshua acted as an agent of God’s judgment in these conquests. The Canaanites were ripe for judgment, but that vexed topic is for another article.

The question I am taking up is whether there is any archaeological evidence for Joshua entering Israel and conquering cities, in the late Bronze Age (about 1550-1200 BC) and early Iron Age (1200-1000 BC).

The first evidence has to do with the altar on top of Mount Ebal (near Schechem or present-day Nablus in the West Bank). For the biblical references, see Deuteronomy 27:1-13 and Joshua 8:30-35.

The late Dr. Adam Zertal was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. In April 1980, when exploring Mount Ebal, he discovered an interesting structure made of stones, unlike anything he had previously observed. He published his initial findings and conclusions along these lines in his 1985 article in Biblical Archaeology Review, “Has Joshua’s Altar been Found on Mount Ebal?” He wrote there:

“We were immediately able to date these sherds to the early part of the period archaeologists call Iron Age 1 (1220-1000 BC), the period during which the Israelites entered Canaan and settled there. Iron Age 1 also includes the period of the Judges.”

What he found was a nearly square structure, almost nine feet high, and about 25 by 30 feet in width and length. Evidence then started surfacing as to its function as an altar. He commented further:

“The bones, which were found in such large quantities in the filling … proved to be from young male bulls, sheep, goats and fallow deer. ... The close match of the bones we found in the fill with this description in Leviticus 1 was a strong hint as to the nature of the structure we were excavating. …”

Later, in 2004, he noted that not a single bone from wild boars, which are common in the area, had been found on Mount Ebal. Mosaic Law forbids Jews from sacrificing or eating pigs.

What this evidence shows is a remarkable confirmation of biblical descriptions of an altar built by Moses’ successor, Joshua, in Canaan, with an early range of archaeological dating (1250-1220) that exactly fits the period immediately after the death of Moses.

There is further evidence that backs up the biblical accounts, in conjunction with the biblical Canaanite cities Hazor, Lachish and Bethel.

Hazor in the Late Bronze Age (see Joshua 11:10-13) was the largest and most important city in Canaan (as confirmed by both archaeology and ancient historical accounts). Professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Yigael Yadin excavated the city and determined that the city was totally destroyed in the Late Bronze Age; likely between approximately 1267-1233 BC — within about 17 years of Moses’ death.

Eminent archaeologists like Yohanan Aharoni (chairman of the Department of Near East Studies at Tel Aviv University) and Amnon Ben-Tor (professor of archaeology at Hebrew University) also concur with the judgment that the former city was destroyed by the Israelites, who rebuilt and occupied an early Iron Age town.

Precisely as the Bible states, and very soon after Moses’ death.

Lachish (see Joshua 10:31-32) was another significant city-state in pre-Israelite Canaan. It has been determined that it was destroyed by fire in the 13th or 12th centuries BC: just as the Bible reports. David Ussishkin (professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University) concluded that the biblical story and archaeology exhibit great harmony: including a lack of fortifications, leading to a quick and successful attack, with a later resettlement of the annihilated city by Israelites.

Bethel was also destroyed by fire (see Judges 1:22-25). According to the great biblical archaeologist William F. Albright, this occurred around 1240-1235 BC. At least some archaeologists in our own time agreed with this assessment. After the annihilation of Bethel the Iron Age I rebuilt town was poor and very different in nature. And it was inhabited by Israelites.

There is also much verification of biblical accuracy when we examine conquered versus unconquered ancient cities of Canaan. Archaeologists have determined that in 10 of 12 excavated “conquered” cities (i.e., as determined by the biblical stories), Canaanite culture was prevalent in Late Bronze Age II. Cultural change in all 12 sites between that period and Iron Age I is readily observable. In some cases it was quicker than others, as resettlement occurred in different times. In eight of 12 cases, the new culture was Israelite.

On the other hand, 10 “unconquered” cities have been excavated. Canaanite culture dominated all of them in the Late Bronze Age. In the Iron Age I period, the same culture was found in four cases, and a Philistine “Sea People” culture in five cases. In other words, there was no Israeli conquest in these cities — precisely as we know from the Bible.

There are, assuredly, other areas (most notably, Jericho) where the archaeological evidence is puzzling and could not be said to be a confirmation of the Bible. But this is strong archaeological confirmation of the biblical descriptions of the conquest.

Recently an atheist I have been debating stated that there was “little to absolutely no evidence” of the conquest of Joshua and settlement of new Israelite residents. But the secular science of archaeology roundly contradicts this skepticism.

I found most of the information about Hazor, Lachish, and Bethel in Eero Junkkaala’s book, Three Conquests of Canaan: A Comparative Study of Two Egyptian Military Campaigns and Joshua 10-12 in the Light of Recent Archaeological Evidence (Finland: Abo Akademie University Press, 2006). It is available online as a PDF file. See in particular, pages 230-231, 233-236, 238-239, and 299-300.