An interview with Bryant Wood by Gordon Govier
Bryant Wood began concentrating on the Late Bronze era during studies at the University of Toronto. His doctoral thesis was on the local Canaanite pottery of the period.
He became a controversial figure in the field when he publicly criticized Kathleen Kenyon’s conclusions about Jericho. Wood maintains Jericho was occupied when the Israelite conquest began, and says the excavations on the site have verified the Biblical account.
He has no criticism of Kenyon’s field work and methodology. In fact, her meticulous work helped his reexamination of Jericho. But he believes her conclusion that Jericho was unoccupied during the period of the Conquest, was weak and unsupported by her excavation.
In this interview, conducted for the weekly “Book and the Spade” radio program, (WNWC, Madison WI), Wood discusses how his research continues to support the Biblical account for the beginnings of the nation of Israel.
There are two basic versions of what happened then, that are out now.
The primary theory among scholars today is that Israel came into being in the 12th century BC. They emerged, as they say, from the Canaanite peoples living in the land. This, of course, is very much in opposition to what the Biblical account tells us.
Scholars say Israel wasn’t even a nation until about 1150 BC. They say Israel had no prior history, there was no Conquest, or an Exodus. They have jettisoned the Biblical record and relegated that to the realm of mythology and legend. There’s a sharp conflict between modern archeological theories and what the Bible has to say.
According to the Bible, the Israslites came into the Promised Land under Joshua and overthrew the Canaanite peoples through military means. We can assign dates to these events because in the Old Testament we have a chronology given to us. We can work back and determine that the Exodus from Egypt took place around 1450. That would place the Conquest of Joshua around 1410.
My own perspective is that the Biblical materials are valid history. They should be treated as ancient sources, as any other ancient document, unless
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you have very strong evidence to the contrary. In my investigations I have found the Biblical accounts stand up very well to the evidence.
I guess the Bible is one of three important documents that are being used to look at this important time. The other two are the Merneptah stela and the Amarna letters, which both surfaced about 100 years or so ago. You’ve found evidence to support your position in these two other documents.
When we look at all the evidence, archeological and literary, it supports the Biblical model.
The Merneptah stele is a record of the Pharaoh who was the son of Ramses II, who ruled at the end of the 13th century BC. On this stela, found in his mortuary tomb in the 1890s, there is a record of his accomplishments. At the end of the record is a short poem which deals with a campaign into Canaan. There are a number of places mentioned that Merneptah was able to conquer and it also mentions the people Israel for the first time outside the Bible. We can date this event to about 1210 BC.
That means Israel was already in the land, well established, in 1210, quite a number of decades prior to the mid 12th century. This is strong evidence in support of the Biblical model.
The other group of documents are what we refer to as the Amarna letters. These are cuneiform documents unearthed in Amarna, an ancient capital of Egypt around 1350 BC. They are letters from the rulers in Canaan to the
Merneptah Stela documenting a campaign into Canaan ca. 1210 BC by Pharaoh Merneptah in which he claims to have destroyed Israel. Discovered in 1896 by Sir Flinders Petrie in Merneptah’s mortuary temple at Thebes.
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Pharaoh, describing the situation and the difficulties they were facing.
These letters are coming from about 50 years after the Conquest, according to the Biblical model. They’re describing the political situation there, and it is very much what we would expect from the Biblical account. These kings are being threatened by a people they refer to as the ʿApiru.
These ʿApiru are stateless people, renegades, rebels, refugees, outlaws, etc. It’s the kind of term, though it’s a generic term used in other areas over a long period of time, that would’ve been applied to the Israelites.
When we compare the book of Joshua and the Amarna letters we see a close compatibility between the two.
I understand there’s no linguistic connection between ʿApiru and Hebrew, even though they sound similar to us. When we talked with Anson Rainey (a Tel Aviv University scholar), he seemed to dismiss any connection between the ʿApiru and the tribes of Israel.
I’m not a linguist so I can’t go into technical details. Rainey expresses one viewpoint, but there’s another viewpoint. There are a number of scholars that do believe you can make a linguistic connection between ʿApiru and Hebrew.
A selection of Amarna Letters on display in the Egyptian National Museum, Cairo.
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In the Amarna letters, Shechem seems to have a pretty significant role.
Shechem, at this time, was the major urban center in the central hill country where the Israelites were living after they had conquered the land under Joshua. From my studies, it appears to me that the Israelites were coming into the land under the patronage or the protection of the king of Shechem. We’re not told that in so many words in the Bible, but as we read the account in Joshua, Shechem occupies a special place in the narrative.
The Israelites go to Shechem on two occasions to renew the covenant (Jos 8:30–35; 24:1–27). There’s no mention of Shechem being conquered by the Israelites. They evidently were on good terms but this is not spelled out for us.
When you look at the pattern of the conquest, you see the Israelites conquered all the cities from the area of Jerusalem and southwards (Jos 8–10). Then they totally bypassed the area controlled by Shechem and went up to the north. There they defeated a coalition of kings at Hazor (Jos 11).
Even before the Israelites came into the land, they were commanded by Moses to go to Shechem to read the blessings and the curses on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, the two mountains just to the south and the north of Shechem (Dt 11:29–30; 27:4–13). So there is a very unusual relationship there. I believe, after studying the evidence, the king of Shechem provided a safe haven for the Israelites.
Is there any more evidence in the Bible that would shed any light on the reasons for a special relationship?
If you look in the Bible for references to Shechem, you’ll find that it’s the first place Abraham stopped when he came into the Promised Land. We’re told he erected an altar
Ancient Shechem as seen from the base of Mount Ebal.
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at Shechem, by the great tree of Moreh (Gn 12:6–7).
When Jacob came back into the land, he stopped at Shechem. There he purchased some land from Hamor (Gn 33:18–20). Hamor had a son named Shechem, and it seems the city was named after his son. From the archeological evidence it appears the city was built first in the time of Jacob.
When we read about Jacob’s death, we find that piece of land was willed to his son Joseph (Gn 48:21–22). Then when Joseph is on his death bed, he makes his family promise that when God delivers them from Egypt they will bury his bones in the land of Canaan (Gn 50:24–25). In the book of Joshua, we read that after the Israelites have conquered the land and renewed the covenant at Shechem, Joseph’s bones were buried at Shechem (Jos 24:32).
In Judges 9, we have the story of Abimelech, the son of Gideon. He aspired to be king, so he went to the city of Shechem. The son of a concubine who lived at Shechem (Jgs 8:31), he was set up as the ruler of Israel. We read how Abimelech was crowned king at the oak in Shechem. So there are a number of references.
The Israelites set up their tabernacle at Shiloh (Jos 18:1). That was pretty close to Shechem, wasn’t it?
It’s in the central hill country near there. It became the religious center of the Israelites from around 1400 BC to around 1085 BC, when it was destroyed by the Philistines (Ps 78:56–64; Jer 7:12–14; 26:6, 9).
Beneath the Iron Age I stone-lined pits seen here on the north side of Shiloh, a Late Bronze Age dump was found which contained mainly cultic material.
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There has been some archeology done at Shiloh, under Israel Finkelstein, who is one of the main proponents of this other view of the end of the Bronze Age.
Finkelstein excavated Shiloh in the 1980’s and found some interesting material at a dump on the site from the Late Bronze period. Most of the earlier area has been removed by Byzantine builders but they found a great dump on the northeast side of the site. They found a lot of material from the Late Bronze period, it was quite clear it was from some type of religious center. There were cultic artifacts there, including a lot of bowls with bones and ash in them.
It was quite clear these were the remains from sacrifices made in this religious center. Finkelstein’s interpretation was that this came from a religious center used by nomadic peoples living in the region, in the Late Bronze period. He came to this conclusion from a study of the bones found in the bowls from the Late Bronze period. He found a large percentage of sheep and goat bones, indicative of a pastoral type people. Earlier, in the Middle Bronze, there was a high percentage of cattle bones, indicating an urban type of people. During the Late Bronze period, this religious center was used by a nomadic people.
If you follow the Biblical model, the Israelites were already there in 1400 BC, and the findings are entirely consistent with what we’re told in the Bible. The Israelites established a religious center at Shiloh and they came there to offer sacrifice, and Israel Finkelstein has found the evidence.
Touching on other sites: Yigael Yadin excavated Hazor, and found destruction
Remains of a temple at Hazor (Area A) destroyed in ca. 1400 BC.
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at about 1230 BC, which he interpreted to be the destruction connected with Joshua.
Yigael Yadin’s interpretation of that 1230 BC destruction was that it was evidence for the Israelite Conquest of the land. This is what we refer to as the 13th century conquest theory. It was championed by W. F. Albright, beginning back in the 1930’s. He believed the archeological evidence indicated the Conquest took place in 1230 BC. In the 1980s the evidence for this theory has really evaporated. That is why most scholars now have turned to this alternative idea.
But there is another model, the Biblical model, which states the Israelites were there in 1400. At Hazor, if the 1230 destruction was the destruction under Joshua, then we have a problem. We’re also told in Judges 4 and 5 that Deborah and Barak defeated Hazor. If the 1230 destruction was Joshua’s destruction, then there’s nothing left for Deborah and Barak, because following the 1230 destruction, Hazor lay abandoned for several centuries. There would’ve been no city for Deborah and Barak to conquer. The solution is that there is a very clear destruction earlier at 1400 BC. I believe that’s the Joshua destruction.
And there’s a connection back to the Merneptah stele?
I believe that this event brought Israel on the stage of international politics. We read in Judges 4 and 5 that a number of tribes came together to go against the king of Hazor. Now Hazor at that time was the largest city state in Canaan. It occupied an area of about 200 acres. It was a significant strong-hold. The Israelites were able to defeat the armies of Hazor and destroy the city.
This would’ve brought them to the attention of the Egyptions. When Merneptah made this record of a campaign into Canaan about 1210 BC, Israel had some international status, otherwise they would not have been mentioned on the stela. The purpose of the stela was to show the great accomplishments of Merneptah. In the description of that campaign, it talks about various peoples he conquered and it mentions, in the area of Canaan, the people of Israel. So Israel must have been the most significant entity in the land at this time. Their destruction of Hazor gave them that position, as the primary power in the central hill country.
That was to change in the next century when the Philistines came in, but at the end of the 13th century, around 1210 BC, Israel was the most powerful force in the land and that’s reflected in the Merneptah stela.
(Reprinted by permission from Institute for Biblical Archaeology Newsletter, Oct-Dec 1992.)