Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Conquest of Canaan: Israelites, Philistines, and Phoenicians

Posted by foryourfaith on August 16, 2010


Israel is mentioned in the Merneptah stele, in the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah of Egypt, about 1207 BCE. In this inscription, Merneptah says that Israel has been laid to waste. In this same year, in another set of inscriptions Merneptah mentioned the invasion of the Sea Peoples, who conquered most of the countries of the Mediterranean at this time. The Mycenaean’s and Minoans of Greece were conquered by them. The Hittites of Turkey were conquered by them. Even Cyprus was conquered, as were the peoples of Canaan. It was only the Egyptians under Merneptah, and then his successor Ramses III, who were able to stand up to the Sea Peoples.

The Invasion of the Sea Peoples

Did the invasion of the Sea Peoples allow the Israelites to eventually take over the land of Canaan? The Exodus took place (most likely) by 1250 BCE at the absolute latest, and may, in fact, have been a process that took place over a period of two hundred years. If the Israelites wandered in the desert from 1250 to about 1210 BCE, and then conquered the land of Canaan by 1207 (the time of Merneptah’s inscription), this coincides with the time that the Sea Peoples took over Canaan as well.

The Sea Peoples pillaged and then departed the region (until they were later resettled in the area by the Egyptians). Some think the Sea Peoples left the Canaanite city-states in smoking ruins, allowing the Israelites to take over territory that they would not otherwise have been able to conquer. This would contradict the biblical story of Joshua’s conquest, which credits Joshua and the Israelites for conquering the region – but then again, does it?

Who Conquered Canaan?

The Book of Joshua tells of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. This is after Moses died, in Transjordan, within sight of the Promised Land. Joshua took over, and it is under his command that the Israelites conquered Canaan. Joshua 12 lists thirty-one kings who were conquered by Joshua. At the same time, the Book of Judges says, “[B]ut the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites, who dwelt in Jerusalem. So the Jebusites have dwelt with the people of Benjamin to this day” – and says that other tribes did not drive out inhabitants from other villages they shared, such as the inhabitants of Megiddo, and that the Canaanites continued to dwell there. “When Israel grew string, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.”

Obviously, there are two tales, one which Joshua and the Israelites were able to conquer the land of Canaan completely and another account in which they conquered the land, but did not absolutely kill and suppress everyone.

Both the biblical accounts and the archaeological accounts leave enough contradictions and negative evidence that an advocate of a military conquest has to accept that theory on faith. On the other hand, recent archaeological research and information offers several possibilities in addition to military conquest. William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University was one of the original proponents of the theory that the conquest took place as told in the Bible. However, Albrecht Alt suggested that semi-nomadic Israelites peacefully infiltrated unoccupied areas of the Hill Country, gradually built settlements, and became sedentary; that is, they became tied to the land and only later displaced the Canaanites in the cities. Alt thought that the military encounters only took place after the Israelites began expanding out of these central highlands, so then would follow the conquest put forth by Albright.

The third suggestion is what’s known as the Revolting Peasants hypothesis, or the Peasants’ Rebellion. This was put forth by George Mendenhall and Normal Gottwald, who suggested that Israel emerged from a melting pot of Canaanite culture in a revolutionary social movement among peoples who were already in Canaan, and that this revolt might have begun in Transjordan to the east and then spread westward across the Jordan to the West Bank and beyond. The model for this was taken from Habiru inscriptions that say that they rebelled against the Egyptians about a century earlier. Here was basically an alliance of disenfranchised elements of Canaanite society going up against established society. In this case, the so-called conquest of Canaan is not so much a conquest as an internal revolution led by population elements that were already there. There was no unified military campaign conducted by forces from the outside, and there was no mass killing of the inhabitants of the land. The problem with the Peasants’ Revolt hypothesis is that there is no supporting evidence from archaeology or other texts.

The fourth possibility suggests that the Canaanites and the Israelites were one and the same people; that is, the Israelites were part of the Canaanites, and they simply took over. The story of the invasion was then made up by later biblical writers.

The Phoenicians

However the Israelites conquest of Canaan took place, when the Israelites ended up in Canaan, they came into contact with the Phoenicians and the Philistines. In fact, the first king of Israel, Saul, was killed in battle against the Philistines.

The Phoenicians are basically the latter-day inhabitants of the Syrian coastal area. The names of both Canaanites and Phoenicians are derived from words that mean purple. The land of Phoenicia is where Lebanon is today. The political and economic centers of Phoenicia were the cities of Tyre and Sidon and Arvad, as well as Beirut and Byblos. Some of these cities were already major Canaanite centers by the Bronze Age, and some, like Beirut, remain inhabited today.

The civilizations of Phoenicia is a conglomeration of different elements. This region of the Lebanese and Syrian coasts has always been a meeting place of Europe and Asia. However, the main contribution of the Phoenicians is undoubtedly the invention of the alphabet, which was taken by the Greeks and Romans throughout Europe.

The Phoenicians were remarkable merchants and traders. They sailed from modern-day Lebanon to Crete and Greece, to Italy and Sicily, to North Africa, and even founded the city of Carthage. They sailed as far as Spain, and to Sardinia and areas in between. The name Phoenician means purple, and their name implies that they were merchants of purple dye, as were the Canaanites before them.

The tenth century is the golden age of Phoenician wealth and power, and it was during this period that the Phoenicians interacted with the Israelites and the earliest kings of Israel down to the time of David and Solomon.

The Philistines

The history of the Philistines is known mostly from the Bible, Egyptian records, and archaeological finds. The Philistines are first mentioned in the Egyptian inscriptions about the Sea Peoples, where they are known as the Peleset. According to Egyptian sources during the time of Merneptah and Ramses III, at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the twelfth centuries BCE, the Peleset are defeated by the Egyptians and settled in Philistia in the southern part of Canaan. They named the land Palashtu, from which the name Palestine eventually came.

The Philistines ruled in small city-states and seemed to have had a military advantage over the local Israelites, because they had chariots and knew how to forge iron. During the period of the Judges, the Philistines exercised a definite superiority over the Israelites, and it was not until the time of Saul and David that there was a shift toward Israelite advantage.

The five cities of the Philistines (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath) are all in the Coastal Plain, on the far western side of the region of Israel, or in the neighboring foothills, the Shephelah region. In addition, there are smaller sites (a site in Tel Aviv, for example).

Philistine pottery owes quite a bit to Mycenaean pottery from Greece and to native Canaanite styles. And Philistine pottery seems to have a particular preference for birds, particularly birds looking backwards.

The Phoenicians and the Philistines interacted with the early Israelites during the period when the Israelites became a monarchy. The first kings of Israel came along during the time of Saul, David, and Solomon.

Saul’s Rise to Power

The Bible contains what are known as the Samuel-Shiloh stories, in 1 Samuel. Samuel lived at a temple in Shiloh, which was run by an old priest named Eli and his two sons. Samuel was the last of the Judges, the spokesmen for God. The people of Israel wanted a monarchy, and Samuel was asked to anoint Israel’s first king. Samuel said it was not a good idea, but the people of Israel wanted it, and so the period of Judges gave way to the period of the first kings. Samuel opposed the institution of the monarchy and warned the people of the many ways that future kings would take advantage of them, but then, following divine guidance, he is reported to have selected Saul. Samuel then explained the rights and duties of kingship and wrote these in a book.

The stories of Saul in the Bible are the primary source of information about Saul’s rise to power, but they are probably a mixture of folk memory and legend intertwined with a kernel of actual truth. When Saul came to the throne, he immediately had to deal with the Philistines, and it seems that much of Saul’s reign was a fight against the Philistines in an attempt to establish his own kingdom.

Saul vs. the Philistines

Saul believed that his kingdom needed to expand. The Philistines saw the expansion of the Israelites as detrimental to their existence, so for much of Saul’s reign, there were ongoing battles between the Israelites and the Philistines. This was probably somewhere in the eleventh or into the tenth centuries BCE. There is little extra-biblical evidence, but David must emerge by the year 1000 BCE, so Saul should be placed a couple of decades before that.

Saul’s final battle against the Philistines took place in the Jezreel Valley, in the north of Israel, near Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon. The Philistines considered this area crucial, and they wanted to encircle and capture the heart of Saul’s kingdom. The Philistines already held Beth-shan to the east of the Jezreel Valley and the Coastal Plain to the west. If they won the Jezreel Valley, they would cut Saul’s kingdom into two parts and separate the Israelites in Galilee and the Jezreel Valley from the rest of the Israelite tribes.

Saul, therefore, had no choice but to fight the Philistines for control of the valley. The story of the battle is told in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles. There are as yet no contemporary extra-biblical sources to confirm these accounts, but in Saul’s case, at least, the story is repeated with some embellishment about a thousand years later by Josephus, the Jewish general turned Roman historian, in his book The Antiquities of the Jews.

The Valley of Jezreel was extremely important in antiquity. The Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, went right through the valley. Megiddo is in the middle of the valley. The Jordan River is to the east and the Mediterranean Sea is to the west. Anybody who wanted to invade this area had to go through the Jezreel Valley, so there have been no fewer than thirty-four battles fought in the last four thousand years in this single valley. It is one of the bloodiest places on earth. It is not surprising that the author of the Book of Revelation placed one of the final battles between good and evil at Megiddo, near where Saul fought his last battle.

During this battle, Saul was killed, along with his son Jonathan and several other sons. The Philistines won the battle. David became king upon the death of Saul, whose head was cut off and whose body was hung up on the wall at Beth-shan. And with that, the first era of the Israelite monarchy came to an end. David assumed the throne, and there followed the period referred to as the United Monarchy, the golden age of Israel.


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3 Responses to “The Conquest of Canaan: Israelites, Philistines, and Phoenicians”

  1. urlop said

    This is genuinely a superior interpret for me, Have to admit you go on to be first from the best bloggers I e’er met.Thanx for mailing this illustrative article.

  2. Adrian said

    In the light of the many ‘Hebrew Roots’ believers that are around in these times, and their inclination to the ‘Paleo Hebrew’ writings, and almost inherent hatred towards anything that is Greek, do you believe that the Paleo Hebrew alphabet / pictograms are actually an ‘off-shoot’ of the original Phoenician alphabet, and if this is the case, what evidence is there that supports this? Your article is a very interesting read.

  3. Arttai said

    As recent thinking goes the Proto Cnaanite Alphabet was the source of the Hebrew Phoenician and the Greek Alphabets, as well as other alphabets.

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