The Land of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Lester L. Grabbe
The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection of studies follows in the wake of several other similarly themed volumes edited by Lester Grabbe, each of them focusing attention on a specific century or historical period in biblical history. This series represents the published proceedings of the European Seminar in Historical Methodology. Without exception, the seminar's publications are helpful compendiums that highlight current historical and archaeological approaches to their respective subjects. This book, Grabbe’s latest addition to the series, concentrates on the Late Bronze Age (LBA), approximately 1550-1200 BCE, and corresponds to the traditional date of the Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness sojourn of the Israelites, and the conquest of Canaan. A vigorously debated historical period for Biblicists and historians alike, the volume’s eight contributors present their interpretations of various aspects of the LBA, and offer moderately critical to highly critical viewpoints regarding the degree of veracity, or relevancy, of the biblical accounts. Grabbe writes two of the chapters himself in order to cover aspects of the LBA not addressed by the other contributors, as well as providing a useful introduction and content summary, and a concluding reflection on the discourse.

Meindert Dijkstra provides a lengthy discussion of the LBA to Iron Age transition from an Egyptian perspective, and argues that the Egyptians maintained their presence in Canaan until the close of the twelfth century BCE, withdrawing after a series of military and domestic setbacks during the eleventh century BCE. Dijkstra likens the mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele to a mere footnote; a minor issue of marginal interest related to Egypt’s quest to keep roads open in the highlands.

Reconstructing the LBA from biblical and Egyptian sources is a challenge that Grabbe attempts to address in two successive essays. Noting that Egypt, to some extent, controlled Canaan during this time, Grabbe fails to see correlations between biblical texts and other sources of information. Despite the mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele, he cannot see any circumstances in which a large-scale exodus or settlement in Canaan could have taken place. Therefore, Grabbe believes the biblical narratives contain little, if any, historical information for the period; a conclusion he repeats in his summation essay.

The next two chapters comprise an interchange between Philippe Guillaume and Raz Kletter in response to a paper by Avraham Faust, which uses archaeology to argue for an egalitarian ethos. Faust’s argument is rejected by Guillaume, who posits that trade with Canaanite centers allowed Israel to survive and promoted egalitarianism. While Kletter largely agrees, he elaborates and clarifies some of Guillaume’s points, questioning the ability of archaeology to illuminate ideology.

Contemplating the origins of Israel, Ernst Axel Knauf sees the Israel of Merneptah (e.g., Shasu or ‘Apiru Bedouin) as a different entity than Israel under Saul. Knauf’s conjectural theory of Merneptah establishing a “road of well stations” in the highlands on the basis of Joshua 15:9 and 18:15, which led to the sedentarization of nomads and the much later rise of Israel as a tribal chiefdom during the eleventh century BCE, is an example of the varied conclusions drawn from the data associated with the LBA. Many of these theories, such as Knauf’s, are very creative, but lack credible supporting evidence.

Two essays focus on the Amarna Letters. Niels Peter Lemche associates the ḫabiru (‘Apiru) with internal Canaanite politics and name calling, which Egypt simply ignored. While Lemche’s assertion that the Amarna correspondence is an important corpus of information is entirely true, his stated yearning for a new critical edition has now been answered by the superb two volume work of Anson F. Rainey (The El-Amarna Correspondence, Brill, 2014). Lemche reluctantly acknowledges Rainey’s edition, but laments the continued reliance on translations due to the lack of Akkadian as a required language for biblical studies. Less controversial is the essay by Andrew D. H. Mayes, which broadly treats international diplomacy during the Amarna Age.

The only essay devoted entirely to archaeology is contributed by Eveline J. van der Steen. She presents an excellent big picture view of the LBA period based upon excavated data and written sources. Various destructions mark the beginning and end of the LBA period. However, the period becomes one of the most cosmopolitan in the history of the Levant, with extensive imports and continued Egyptian presence. Largely abstaining from reconciling the LBA evidence with the biblical accounts, van der Steen nevertheless recognizes the evidence of a population movement westward from Transjordan.

In his summation essay that completes the volume, Grabbe’s approach in correlating the biblical, Egyptian, and archaeological evidence is comparable to looking at a glass half empty rather than half full. Not unlike some conservative scholars, Grabbe errs by offering relatively simplistic interpretations and conclusions regarding the available data, which, in its current fragmentary state, allows for a wide variety of historical reconstructions. Indeed, the broadly diverse views and extensive literature devoted to this period stand as a testimony to this fact. Apart from their strongpoints along the coastal road (the so-called Via Maris) at cities such as Joppa, Aphek and Beth Shan, the extent of direct Egyptian control over Canaan during the LBA is far from certain. Aside from isolated finds, such as evidence near Jerusalem presented by Gabriel Barkay (“A Late Bronze Age Egyptian Temple in Jerusalem?” Israel Exploration Journal, 1996), the weakening hold of the Egyptian empire probably led to their abandonment of the highlands due to various unavoidable logistical reasons, a reality that the Amarna correspondence seems to suggest. Noting that the Ottoman empire’s waning control over the Levant during the nineteenth century was confined to several cities, such as Jerusalem, es-Salt, and al-Karak, may provide a useful analogy. The need for Merneptah to conduct his campaign into Canaan and then boast about it actually argues against a strong, permanent Egyptian presence in the land during his reign. On the other hand, his mention of Israel as a distinctive people, to which he “laid waste” is anything but irrelevant and in fact confirms the recognizable, if not established presence of Israelites in Canaan during the closing years of the thirteenth century BCE.

A combined bibliography at the back of the book is a welcome feature for readers searching for references, but regrettably overlooks some publications cited in the text. Grabbe’s treatment of the LBA in Canaan, always a provocative topic to address for biblical historians, Egyptologists and archaeologists, provides a worthy contribution to the ongoing discussion of this fascinating, but complex historical period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey P. Hudon is adjunct professor in the department of religion at Bethel College.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lester L. Grabbe is professor emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Hull. He is founder and convenor of the European Seminar in Historical Methodology. A recent book is Ancient Israel:What Do We Know and How Do We Know it?


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.