The Bible’s Buried Secrets was a very informative NOVA program. Taught me quite a few things I hadn’t known.
So, we all know the story. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land and Joshua conquers Canaan from the outside. (And the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.) But the archaeological record suggests the Israelites were, in fact, Canaanites themselves who merely evolved with changing times. Indeed, that there was no such thing as an “Israelite” until groups of Canaanites got together and invented this new identity — and an Exodus story to go with it.
The Egyptian-controlled Canaanite city-states of Jericho, Hazor, Ai and others today reveal archaeological evidence of Israelite-type houses, but no evidence of major warfare or invasion that can be attributed to Israelites. Rather, the evidence shows areas of disrepair and abandonment, signs of a culture in decline and rebellion from within. Archaeology and ancient texts agree that a long period of decline and upheaval swept through Mesopotamia, the Aegean region and the Egyptian empire around 1200 B.C. As the oppressive social system declined, families and tribes of serfs, slaves and common Canaanites abandoned the city-states and made new homes in the surrounding hills and countryside.
While there is no evidence to support the story of hundreds of thousands of people leaving Egypt in a mass migration, some scholars now believe that a small group of slaves may have escaped or left. Some ancient Egyptian texts do refer to a small band of people leaving the area. But these were Canaanites returning to their homeland. On their way they passed through southern Canaan, an area the Bible calls Midian, where they encountered a people known as the Shashu and their god “Yahu”. The book of Exodus says that Moses first encountered “Yahweh” in the form of a burning bush in Midian. These former slaves eventually reunited in the hills of Canaan with the tribes who had recently fled from the crumbling city-states. The liberated slaves attributed their freedom to the god they met in Midian, and the story of deliverance resonated with the other Canaanites who themselves had left oppressive conditions in the city-states. These peoples were a combination of disenfranchised Canaanites, runaway slaves and nomads. The story of deliverance and conquest solidified a new common identity as “Israelites”.