Introduction and synopsis of major themes
Until comparatively recently, most scholars took the same view as most believers – that the Exodus and the invasion of Canaan were historical facts. T
he authorship of the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch was also freely attributed to Moses, but if this was indeed the case, then he managed the quite remarkable feat of describing his own death and burial !However, following recent refinements in archaeological technique and hermeneutical analysis (text interpretation) of the Bible, most biblical scholars worthy of the name now incline to the view that the invasion of Canaan never happened as a real event, but is representative of an analogy for a series of circumstances which evolved in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE when a new generation of Israelites returned from captivity in Babylon to their “promised land” – Judah and Israel – rewriting ancient myths and legends to accord with their experience along the way.
Analytical examination of the text also revealed that the Pentateuch in general and Genesis in particular were not contemporaneous creations but later compositions as revealed by their persistent references to place names and landmarks as still existing “to this day”.There is in fact no archaeological evidence to substantiate an Exodus from Egypt, and no evidence (apart from the Bible itself) that the Israelites ever were in Egypt as a captive people. There is no mention of them at all in contemporary Egyptian or other extant texts, and despite an extensive physical examination, archaeology has failed to find any evidence of large scale wanderings in the Sinai at the supposed time of the Exodus in the thirteenth century BCE, whereas it has proved more than capable of tracing even the very meagre remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads elsewhere all over the world.
Indeed all the evidence adduced by modern archaeological techniques is that the early Israelites came into existence and evolved within Canaan itself somewhere around the thirteenth century BCE and not by way of freedom from slavery in Egypt. Previous archaeological “finds” which appeared to support the latter theory have proved to be the result of bad dating techniques, and do not take account of the fact that Canaan was under Egyptian control at the time, so fleeing to Canaan would have been an exercise in futility.
In other words, the Biblical narratives concerning Moses and the Exodus, Israel’s journey and the conquest and settlement of the so-called Promised Land are the stuff of myth and legend and there is no objective historical or archaeological evidence that they ever occurred at all. On this way of viewing things, the historical saga in the Bible – from Abraham’s encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – was not a miraculous revelation, but instead a brilliant product of the human imagination. So, does this mean that the Moses and Joshua legends are entirely without foundation?
The real significance of the Moses and Joshua legends
Not entirely, according to Dr Susanne Glover, whose singular contribution to this field is noted below and throughout the text. As she pertinently points out, the Moses legend had to come from somewhere and the current thinking is that it was via the tribal tradition of the Joseph tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh). The most likely scenario is that some of the later tribal entities who formed the nucleus of Israel had this story as one of their primary legends and cultivated it in the northern kingdom until it was brought south. Semites had always gone down to Egypt as nomadic traders and there is evidence of settlements in Egypt by “asiatics” or “Appiru” recorded in Egyptian documents. A pharaonic dynasty, the Hyksos, consisting entirely of Semites, ruled Egypt for some time until they were very forcibly driven out. In the fullness of time, the story grew and the legend developed. It is a story of deliverance and it became a template for the second Exodus out of Babylonia.
Nor, says Dr Glover, is the story of Abraham entirely without foundation. Many elements which made up the northern Kingdom of Israel would have come out of Babylonia and the Euphrates basin. They too would have brought stories of divine guidance in their search for land and water; stories which coalesced around a tribal hero. “Nothing comes out of nothing”, she says. “Myth grabs the imagination and binds communities into a common identity”.
However, the real significance of the Moses and Joshua legends lies not in their their truth or falsity or even their embellishment but in the fact that they retrospectively reflected the experience of the exiles when they returned from Babylon, and the underlying significance of the Abrahamic legends lies in the fact that they provided a foundation to explain the “origins” of the Israelite tribal confederacy. During and after the exile, the elders and scribes had time to reflect on why these misfortunes had befallen them, and they went about creating a shared identity between Israel and Judah around Moses and Abraham which endowed the faithful with a claim to the land: Moses and Joshua by conquest, and Abraham by divine mandate. Considered in this light, the Hebrew Bible metamorphoses from an assemblage of iron age myths and legends into a collection of stories designed to give an identity to the Jewish elite who returned to their homeland in the post-Exilic period.
The ongoing search for the physical evidence
Meanwhile, the ongoing search for physical evidence has continued and in this regard, after the 1967 six-day war, a new generation of Israeli archaeologists, influenced by new trends in world archaeology, changed their focus of attack, and instead of taking their lead from the Bible and proceeding from there – digging up specific sites and answering their own leading questions, as previous generations had done – they concentrated their attention instead on the Canaanite hill country from Judaea in the south to Samaria in the north, which they then proceeded to systematically explore, map and analyse, rather than just dig.
This approach revolutionised so-called “Biblical archaeology”. What they discovered was a network of highland villages, all apparently established within the span of a few generations, indicating that a social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE, as successive waves of pastoral nomads settled in the sparsely occupied Canaanite hill country, this resulting in the emergence of about 250 hilltop communities. Their emergence took place at a time when the Canaanite cities in the valleys and plains below were in a state of social disintegration following a temporary breakdown in the Egyptian hegemony.
There was found to be no evidence for a violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. So, far from taking the land by military conquest, the archaeological evidence revealed instead that the inhabitants of these villages were originally indigenous inhabitants of Canaan. A complex demographic transformation then took place over many years in the course of which a unified ethnic consciousness slowly began to coalesce, this culminating in the gradual emergence of an identity which could ultimately be described as “Israelite”. As a corollary to this process, the Israelite belief in “One God” also emerged only gradually from the worship of a whole pantheon of gods worshipped at one and the same time by both native Canaanites and Israelites alike.
The concept of a united monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon fared no better at the hands of this new archaeology. There is no compelling archaeological evidence for the historical existence of a vast united monarchy centred in Jerusalem and encompassing the entire land of Israel. There is some archaeological support for the actual existence of a David, or a “House of David” in an inscription making reference to the military defeat of one of his successors, but no archaeological or documentary evidence in contemporary texts for the existence of Solomon outside the Bible, and no archaeological or other evidence to substantiate the size and the magnificence of Jerusalem, nor the existence of any ambitious building programme initiated by Solomon. Indeed, Jerusalem seems to have been something of a cultural backwater at the time, little more than a small hill country town.
As Matthew Sturgis writes: “The whole paradigm of archaeology in the Near East has shifted away from thinking of the Bible as a reliable archaeological field guide to that of a collection of ancient fairy tales and legends”. Paul Tobin takes things one step further with his comment that “(b)iblical archaeology has helped to bury the Bible”. The comment achieves some poignancy when considered in the context of the title of Finkelstein and Silberman’s text, The Bible Unearthed.
Moving from archaeological research to historical source criticism of the Bible itself, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) are notable among the first to identify the many confusions, contradictions and inconsistencies in the biblical text as long back as the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) raised constructive biblical criticism to a new level when he published his conclusion that the Torah was originally four distinct narratives, each complete in itself, then welded together replete with numerous internal writing styles, background and internal contradictions. The broad lines of Wellhausen’s hypothesis are today accepted by all biblical scholars considered worthy of the name.
These two tools of analysis, the new archaeology and biblical source criticism, have intertwined to reveal the HBOT not as the inerrant word of “God”, but as a very human construct. It is nevertheless a book for which I have a profound affection – more literary than theological – for its role in recording the traditions of the Jewish people over thousands of years, thereby endowing their own lives with meaning. It is also a magnificent work of literature, very enjoyable to read, the more so when one understands the process by which it came into being.
Much of the Hebrew Bible as we know it today is a retrospective rewrite of the facts following the defining experience of the Exile. The captivity in Babylon is portrayed as a prophecy, as a punishment for their idolatry and disobedience to Yahweh, similar to the biblical presentation of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. During the exile, the Sabbath came to acquire significance, as did the synagogue, the penitential prayer, and circumcision (a sign of the Covenant). The originally Canaanite festivals of Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles were recast and retrospectively converted into remembrances of the liberation from Egypt. The Jews, thinking of themselves as the Holy Seed and purified by their experience, returned from Babylon bringing in settlers to settle the land. They reconstituted their identity in the light of their traditions, the Torah was written and assumed a central role in their life, religious practice was centralised, intermarriage with foreigners forbidden and the sacred canon of the Hebrew Bible is about their survival.
Although I have had a general interest in this subject matter for many years, the firm foundation for this site was the WEA course Hebrew Bible in Crisis course subtitled “It Ain’t Necessarily So” I attended in 2012 presented by Dr Susanne Glover PhD, MTh, BD (Hons), and I acknowledge my indebtedness to her valuable insights in what follows. Since then, I have also read quite a number of books and articles on the subject, discoverable in the footnotes and bibliography, which have assisted me in formulating my own ideas and conclusions. Above all, the bringing together of all these sources in the form of a single document and presenting them in a more or less organised and, I hope, coherent fashion, has assisted me in retaining them, otherwise a large proportion of what I have read would undoubtedly have been lost in the ether.
The reader will appreciate that I am not a scholar or a specialist in this field. I do not lay claim to originality; and I lean heavily on the works of so-called real scholars. My aim is to present to the reader what I have culled from their works in a digestible and understandable narrative which I, and I hope others, will be comfortable with. Accordingly, I have quoted extensively, and where I have not quoted, I have paraphrased, with appropriate acknowledgments in the notes and bibliography. In the words of Ibn Warraq in his introductory remarks to his excellent tome Why I am not a Muslim, “there is hardly an image or a thought that I can claim to be my own”.
A hint for navigating this site appears below the footnotes.
Last revised: June 2020
 The Old Testament has 39, but the difference is largely accounted for by the fact that many of the so-called Minor Prophets (so called not because they are lesser in importance, but because they are shorter in length) are rolled into a single book in the Hebrew text. The elaboration of the Hebrew Bible to canon stage, and how it came to be a separate and distinct document from the Old Testament is elaborated in the final page herein “When was the canon of the Hebrew Bible fixed?”
 Deuteronomy 34: 5-6: “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is”.
 This is evidenced by persistent references to place names and landmarks as still existing “to this day” (eg Joshua, 5,9; Joshua, 8: 29). Anachronisms abound.
 Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed – Archaeology’s new vision on ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts, Touchstone, New York, 2002, 63.
 Ibid, 78, 81.
 Finkelstein and Silberman, op cit, 1.
 The fact that the early Israelites settled in the hill country while the indigenous Canaanites continued to hold the plains is affirmed by Canon FW Barnes, Canon of Westminster in his contribution entitled “The story of the Bible”, in John Drinkwater’s The Outline of Literature, GP Putnam’s Son’s New York. Remarkably it was published in 1923, long before any archaeological excavations attested to the fact, though of course Barnes was of the conventional view at the time that the Israelites came from Egypt.
 Ibid, 97-107.
 Ibid, 98.150.
 The Tel Dan stele, noted within.
 It Ain’t Necessarily So – Investigating the Truth of the Biblical Past, Charnwood, Leicester, 2003.
 The rejection of Pascal’s wager – A skeptic’s guide to the Bible and the historical Jesus, Author’s Online, 2009, at p 118
 Etienne Charpentier, How to Read the Old Testament, CCM Press, 1981, 22.
 Indeed, I have in fact borrowed this paragraph almost verbatim from that text, published by Prometheus Books, New York, 1995 (2003); see the Acknowledgments p xv, since it amply describes my own situation. Where they occur, the portions in italics are my own interpolations.