Collapse and Rebirth

The emergence of biblical Israel and the dawn of the Iron Age

The Merneptah Stele, dated to c. 1207 BCE, is believed to be the earliest reference to a people named Israel living in the land of Canaan. Image credit: By 𐰇𐱅𐰚𐰤 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Looking back at the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE), it is easy to imagine the collapse as a single cataclysmic event that rocked the eastern Mediterranean at a single moment in history. In reality, however, the process was more complicated and, often, much slower. To be sure, in some places a singular event, such as an earthquake or the violent incursion of an outside group such as the Sea Peoples—who themselves were likely fleeing the decline of their own home regions—brought the local way of life to an abrupt halt. But for others, drawn-out processes such as drought and famine were just as responsible for the decimation of the population. The southern Levant in the 12th century BCE was a region tipped into chaos, as resources became scarce and trade routes disappeared or fell prey to bandits.

In the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Eric H. Cline explores the ways in which the Canaanites and other peoples in the area sought to adapt, carry on, and find some way to persist in the face of these challenges, in his article entitled Rising from the Ashes: Israel and the Dawn of the Iron Age.”

Cline begins by posing a series of fascinating questions about the experiences of the survivors of the Bronze Age collapse: What did they do or fail to do? Did anyone at the time know they were in the middle of a collapse? How did they regroup and recover? Or did they? Did they adapt or transform? Or did they simply go under, to be replaced by new states and new societies such as the ancient Israelites or Philistines?

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For readers of BAR, the emergence of biblical Israel likely comes readily to mind as an important development of this type in the ensuing decades and centuries. Debates about precisely how the ancient Israelites came onto the scene are complex and controversial: Did they conduct a military conquest of Canaan? Did they infiltrate the region and integrate peacefully? Did they represent a revolt of nomads or semi-nomads against the Canaanites living in urban centers? Or did they themselves emerge as a “splinter group” within Canaanite society? Each of these models has garnered both champions and detractors in scholarship.

Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified city of considerable size established in the early tenth century BCE that overlooked the Valley of Elah, is associated with the growth of biblical Israel’s United Monarchy. By Davidbena – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever theory one prefers, Cline points out that the Merneptah Stele, an inscribed monument from Egypt dating approximately to 1207 BCE, claims that the Egyptians defeated a people called “Israel” living in the land of Canaan. Moreover, he notes, settlements established by the ancient Israelites were in place by the end of the 12th century, and the number of these settlements exploded in the early 11th century.

On the basis of this evidence, Cline speculates that however this people first emerged, they may have simply taken advantage of the chaos brought on by the Late Bronze Age collapse. As the Egyptian New Kingdom gradually withdrew from the region, the Sea Peoples wrought havoc along the Levantine coast, and various other calamities (drought, rebellion, etc.) roiled the urban centers of the Canaanites, the Israelites may have been able to claim both major cities and smaller towns all by themselves. Then, as the biblical authors recorded the story of biblical Israel’s rise, they likely gave complete credit for the capture and destruction of the Canaanite cities to the Israelites without even mentioning the involvement of the Sea Peoples (known from the Bible only in terms of the Philistines) or the other contributing factors.

The Taanach Cult Stand, dating to the tenth century BCE, is thought to represent a vestige of Canaanite culture in the early Iron Age. פעמי-עליון, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

If one prefers, then, to see the ancient Israelites as a segment of Canaanite society that ascended to power in the wake of the Bronze Age collapse, then one might characterize this development as one of resilience, adaptation, and innovation, eventually leading to the rise of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon in the tenth century. On the other hand, if one views Israel as an interloping group that penetrated the land of Canaan in the wake of the profound changes taking place (whether peacefully or violently), then one would describe their movement into and control of the southern Levant as the incursion of a newcomer taking advantage of the unstable power vacuum in the region—a very different assessment of the nature and behavior of this group.

Meanwhile, Cline asks, what became of the Canaanites who had been living in the southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age? In his view, they likely were not simply annihilated, but rather were assimilated into the various emerging Iron Age peoples in the region: Israel, Moab, Edom, Ammon, and so on. While vestiges of Bronze Age Canaanite society lingered, that society ceased to be uniquely identifiable in the archaeological record.

For more on the aftermath of the Late Bronze Age collapse and the emergence of biblical Israel, read the article by Eric H. Cline entitled Rising from the Ashes: Israel and the Dawn of the Iron Age,” published in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Subscribers: Read the full article, Rising from the Ashes: Israel and the Dawn of the Iron Age by Eric H. Cline, in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily

Bronze Age Collapse: Pollen Study Highlights Late Bronze Age Drought

Excavations Highlight Late Bronze Age Jaffa

Adornment in the Southern Levant

Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel?

How Should We Study Ancient Israelite Religion?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library

The Last Days of Canaanite Azekah

It Is There: Ancient Texts Prove It
Margreet Steiner asserts that in the Late Bronze Age (1550–1150 B.C.E.), the period just before the Israelite settlement, there was “no … town, let alone a city” of Jerusalem.

The Sea Peoples and Their Contributions to Civilization

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