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.
The biblical material beginning with the reign of King David (c. 1000 BCE) tends to preserve more historically accurate material, including palace and Temple records. Israel’s first king, Saul, is succeeded by David, the founder of one the longest running dynasties in history. It was David’s son Solomon, however, who is credited with the centralization and prosperity of the kingdom, evidenced by his great building achievements (including the Temple) and vast trade network.
This period of prosperity was short lived. According to the biblical account, the kingdom was divided after Solomon’s death into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom of Judah consisted primarily of the tribe of Judah and was ruled by the Davidic family. The Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel, consisted of the remaining tribes and was ruled by a series of dynasties.
Beginning in the ninth century BCE, we witness an increase of extra-biblical textual references–from Mesopotamia and throughout the Near East–to the Israelite nation and other international affairs mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. During this period, both the northern and southern kingdoms experienced periods of prosperity as well as conflict. At times, these two kingdoms fought each other; at others, they joined together against hostile neighbors.
The greatest threat began in the middle of the eighth century BCE, with the western campaigns of Assyria (Iraq) that eventually brought about the demise of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. Assyrian control over the region continued until the end of the seventh century BCE. At this time, Judah experienced a brief resurgence under King Josiah. This too, however, was short lived. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian heirs to the Assyrian empire ravished Judah.
The fall of Judah resulted in the exile of a significant population from Judah. Some were led off to Babylonia and some fled to Egypt, but many also remained in Judah. It would be almost 50 years before the exiles were allowed to return to their homeland.