2500 BCE to 539 BCE: The Story

Over the past century, a scholarly consensus has emerged that the Hebrew Bible derives from a variety of sources which, with the exception of a handful of poetic selections, date back no earlier than the tenth century BCE. This observation has led many to question the historicity of biblical narratives covering earlier periods. These narratives describe the nomadic wanderings of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), the enslavement in and exodus from Egypt, the journey through the desert, and the conquest of Canaan.

It has also been observed that, though the narratives concerning later periods preserve more historically reliable data, they are nonetheless told from an Israelite perspective.  Thus, to gain a clearer picture of Israelite history, scholars often look to extra-biblical evidence to complement the biblical account

There is no extra-biblical textual mention of the Israelites or any major biblical figure until the end of the thirteenth centuries BCE. Some scholars have noted parallels between various customs mentioned in the biblical accounts of the patriarchal and wilderness periods and older customs known from Syria and Mesopotamia (including customs regarding the importance of an heir, birthrights, and legal traditions). We must, however, note the limitations of these comparative materials; they shed light on the biblical text, but they do not validate its historicity.

The first extra-biblical reference to Israel is found in a late thirteenth century BCE monumental inscription erected by Pharaoh Merneptah in Egypt, claiming to have dealt a severe blow to Israel. It is therefore apparent that the Israelites had arrived in Palestine sometime before this. How and when they arrived is open to question.

The archaeological evidence does not support the biblical account in the Book of Joshua that the Israelites conquered the land and displaced the previous occupants. Quite the contrary, there seems to be a fair amount of cultural continuity with the peoples who inhabited the land in the centuries prior to the first known reference to Israel and the subsequent period. One possible scenario is that pre-monarchical Israel was made up of a mixture of groups consisting of refugees from Egypt, migratory peoples from Syria and Mesopotamia, and local Canaanite peoples, with each group contributing its own traditions into the mix.

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