Part 2. Revised History of Early Israel

The traditional story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, wandering in the desert for forty years and then under Joshua smashing into Canaan from the east slaughtering everyone in sight all in the late 13th century B.C. does not match the external evidence. To fit the known facts the following summary is hypothesized.

First, some Israelites left Egypt with the Hyksos in the 15th century B.C. The Hyksos were Semites who took over ruling Egypt from 1720 to 1560 B.C. This group corresponds well with the Genesis account of the Patriarchs in Egypt (Joseph etc.). These Israelites evidently destroyed Jericho, who's destruction dates from this period and not the 13th century.

Second, in the mid 14th century B.C. groups of Habiru are harassing Canaanite city-states. Nearly 300 of the Amarna Letters discovered in Egypt are from Canaanite Kings asking for help against the Habiru from the Pharaohs Amenotep III through Tutankhamon (King Tut). Many Canaanite sites show they were destroyed at this time.

Third, in early 13th century, more Israelites left Egypt and entered Palestine from the south with Moses, while another group entered from the east under Joshua. The traditional account in the Old Testament conflates all of these into one. (J1)

The idea that the Hebrews were nomads is a mistake of the 19th century scholars who assumed they could use the Bedouins as a model. On the one hand the Bedouins are now known to be semi-nomads and do have ethnic ties to a village to which they seasonally return. (B1) On the other hand the Hebrews are cast as total incompetents in the wilderness. They escape from Egypt and only the help of a Midianite familiar with the environment saves them. Most are depicted as unfamiliar with desert terrain and modes of survival and many perish. They are rescued repeatedly by miracles - water and mana. They settle for years at the oases at Kadesh and certainly practice agriculture there and their recollections of fish and vegetables is hardly nomadic fare. (I1)


We should look a little more closely at the second group above. Canaan or Palestine in this period was divided into small city states which had reached a certain level of urbanization (2000-1000 B.C.). There were however people who did not feel comfortable and dropped out of the present culture. This condition was common throughout the ancient Middle East. The Code of Hammurapi itself had provisions to deal with a person who stated overtly or in effect "I hate my king and my city". By doing this one renounced any obligations to or benefits from their former society. These people sold themselves into slavery or formed gangs and worked as mercenaries for other city states. It is this kind of 'withdrawl' from society which the word 'Hebrew' implies and is the way it used throughout the Middle East from 2000 B.C. through King David, who is the last person referred to in the Old Testament as a Hebrew. Recall that before he was king he fled from Saul and formed a band of thugs who offered their services to other kings, even at one point to the Philistines to fight against Israel (I Sm 27:1-2, 28:1-2, 29:1-11). (B2)

The different possible etymologies of the name "Habiru" or "Hapiru" is significant, it means "killer, aggressor, violent person" in Summerian; "robber" or "migrant" in Akkadian and comes from syllables meaning "to bind or join" or "to cross, pass" making it mean "confederates" in its Hebrew form. The word "Hebrews" originally meant "migrants, transients". (I2)

There is still controversy over whether the Habiru were the Hebrews but it is a growing consensus that the Hebrews were at least a subset of the Habiru.

It is now thought that the Twelve Tribes of Israel were twelve of many tribes in Canaan who banded together and over through their local kings. The tribe being a pre-existent unit in Palestine. (B2)

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(c) 1999 Thomas F. Swezey All rights reserved.