Does a Jordan Valley Site Reveal the Origin of Ancient Israel?

Early Israelites at Khirbet el-Mastarah

How did ancient Israel come to be? Did the early Israelites enter Canaan from the east by crossing the Jordan River “opposite Jericho,” as recounted in the Book of Joshua? Or were the early Israelites already in Canaan as part of the indigenous population? The topic of Israel’s origins has been debated for well over a century by archaeologists seeking to use material evidence to fill out the picture described by the Biblical account.

Hidden in the Jordan Valley in one of the hottest places on earth, the ancient site of Khirbet el-Mastarah may shed light on this thorny question of the origin of ancient Israel. Khirbet el-Mastarah contains numerous enclosures and structures, which appear to have been used by a nomadic or semi-nomadic group at the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1200 B.C.E.). In their article “Khirbet el-Mastarah: An Early Israelite Settlement?” in the July/August 2018 issue of BAR, Khirbet el-Mastarah excavation co-directors Ralph K. Hawkins and David Ben-Shlomo examine the evidence.

khirbet-el-mastarah-origin-of-ancient-israel

Archaeological excavations at the site of Khirbet el-Mastarah in the Jordan Valley may help to shed light on the origin of ancient Israel. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph K. Hawkins.

According to Hawkins and Ben-Shlomo, the theory that the early Israelites had already been indigenous to Canaan—rather than had come into the land from the east—is in part based on the idea that there isn’t any evidence for early Israelites in the east during the Iron Age I (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.), particularly in the Jordan Valley. However, archaeological investigations in the Jordan Valley, from Adam Zertal’s survey of the hill country of Manasseh starting in the 1970s to Hawkins and Ben-Shlomo’s excavations today, are providing evidence for early Israelite origins.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

A 2.5-acre site primarily occupied during the Iron Age, Khirbet el-Mastarah lies in the middle of a wadi surrounded on three sides by hills. Excavations conducted at this ancient settlement in the summer of 2017 revealed stone enclosures, rectilinear rooms, and pottery dating to the Late Bronze Age II (1400–1200 B.C.E.) or to the Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.). To get a better understanding of the nature of this site and its relation to other sites in the region, the Khirbet el-Mastarah archaeological team researched current Bedouin settlements, reviewed ethnographic studies, and visited the nearby fortified site of Khirbet ‘Auja el-Foqa—identified as the Biblical city of Ataroth (Joshua 16:5) by Adam Zertal.

khirbet-el-mastarah-room-origin-of-ancient-israel

One of the stone rectilinear rooms at Khirbet el-Mastarah. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph K. Hawkins.

“By the end of our 2017 season, we were struck by the fascinating picture that had begun to emerge in the Jordan Valley, a region that up until recently has been virtually unknown archaeologically,” write Hawkins and Ben-Shlomo in BAR. “Within a range of just a couple of miles, we may be able to see the evolution of early Israel from a domestic-scale culture [at Khirbet el-Mastarah] to a political-scale culture [at Khirbet ‘Auja el-Foqa].”

Take a closer look at Khirbet el-Mastarah and how the archaeological picture developing from the Jordan Valley supports the Biblical account of Israelites entering Canaan from the east by reading the full article “Khirbet el-Mastarah: An Early Israelite Settlement?” by Ralph K. Hawkins and David Ben-Shlomo in the July/August 2018 issue of BAR.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Khirbet el-Mastarah: An Early Israelite Settlement?” by Ralph K. Hawkins and David Ben-Shlomo in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

A Biblical Altar on Mt. Ebal and Other Israelite Footprints in the Jordan Valley?

How Israel Became a People
Aren M. Maeir reviews Ralph K. Hawkins’s book

Daily Life in Ancient Israel
What was life like for the settlers of Canaan during the time of the Biblical Judges?

You Are What You Eat: The Israelite Diet and Archaeology

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  • Helen says

    What makes ppl build and live in a wadi — a dry riverbed that is subject to periodic flooding?

  • Jacqueline says

    Abraham was there so the
    lord brought them back to the land that He promised them.


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