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Israel’s Footprint on the Arabian Peninsula

The Israelites in the Wilderness by Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510 – 1592)

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson April 25 – May 1, Exodus 24, 31-34

In 1987, Hershel Shanks, a US attorney and amateur biblical archaeologist, wrote an article in the Washington Post, entitled “Searching for Signs of the Exodus.” ( He stated that, “ direct evidence has been found to prove that they [Israelites] wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Even where the results of archaeological research do seem to fit the scenario of the Bible, other contemporaneous archaeological discoveries conflict with that scenario.”

Shanks then stated that there is, “…one fixed point on which virtually all modern scholars agree: In about 1200 B.C. scores of agricultural villages appeared in the central hill country of Canaan. Archaeological remains of 97 new villages have been found so far, built on previously uninhabited land. Both the architecture of the houses and the pottery found in these villages are different from that found in earlier periods. The Bible tells us that when the Israelites came to Canaan, they settled in the hill country: ‘Their God is a God of the hill country,’ says the king of Aram (1 Kings 20:23). Biblical historians and archaeologists…agree that these new villages were the habitations of the Israelites in Canaan.”

By 2001, the number of new villages had risen to 220. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman wrote about surveys addressing Israelite population decline and explosion in their book, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Free Press, New York, 2001). They stated, “These surveys revolutionized the study of early Israel. The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages – all apparently established within the span of a few generations – indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE… In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites.”

William Dever, in his book, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K., 2006), stated, “The new Israelite settlements… are almost all founded de novo, not on the ruins of destroyed Late Bronze Age sites, but in the sparsely populated hill country extending from Upper and Lower Galilee, into the hills of Samaria and Judah, and southward into the northern Negev.”

I stated the following in a previous post (The Israelites in Egypt): “Furthermore, Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, has pointed out that the modern state of Israel has undergone extensive archaeological surveys. He has stated that, based on those surveys, it can be quite accurately estimated that around 2000 BC (some 600 or so years before the Exodus), there were 220 settlements in what is now Israel, with an estimated population of 40,000. Then, by the eighth century BC (after the Exodus), there were over 500 sites, with an estimated population of 160,000. [Finkelstein, Israel, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel (Ancient Near East Monographs), Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2013] Those numbers give a population doubling rate of around 550 years – and an estimated growth rate of just under 0.1%, which is very much in line with population growth around the world at the time.” That is an average of 182 people per site in the early period (2000 BC) and 320 people per site in the later period (800 BC). If we consider Finkelstein’s estimate that 220 of the 280 new sites were de novo Israelite sites, then the total Israelites moving into the hill country of what is now Israel was about 70,400 people. That number is probably an over-inflated maximum, and the actual number is probably quite a bit smaller, as the more established 280 towns and cities in the lowlands would, no doubt, have been much larger than the new villages in the hills. For example, Hazor, the largest biblical-era site in Israel, had a population in the second millennium BC of about 20,000 people. Hadera, another city in Israel predating the Exodus, had some 5,000 to 6,000 people.

In his book, The Forgotten Kingdom, Finkelstein also stated (p. 38) that the 220 new Israelite sites occupied a total built-up area of around 194 hectares. With an estimated population density of 200 people per hectare, there would have been a population of around 38,800. We may consider that number to be a more realistic upper estimate of the number of new people in what is now Israel. Finkelstein also proposed that some of that population growth could have been from valley people moving away from the valleys into the hill country. Furthermore, the movement into the hill country did not occur all at once, but occurred over some 200 years or more, beginning around 1200 BC.

Shanks continued, in his 1987 Washington Post, article, “The earliest extra-Biblical reference to Israel is found in a victory stele …set up by Pharaoh Merneptah in about 1230 B.C. -- shortly after the Exodus…The names adjacent to the name Israel in the Merneptah stele include determinatives indicating the names are cities. Israel alone, however, is signaled by the determinative for people, indicating that the Children of Israel had not yet settled down in their own cities.”

He stated, “Yet there are problems with the theory of a 13th-century exodus: Archaeologists and biblical scholars have been able to identify almost none of the many Israelite stops in the desert after they left Egypt. As a result, half a dozen exodus routes have been hypothesized…The most important stop in the wilderness was at Kadesh-Barnea, which has been located. The Israelites stayed there, according to the Bible, 38 out of the 40 years they lived in the desert. Kadesh-Barnea is identified with Ain el-Qudeirat, which has a perennial spring and is the largest oasis in northern Sinai. Extensive excavation of the ancient remains of Kadesh-Barnea, however, has revealed nothing earlier than the 10th century B.C. -- the time of King Solomon and three centuries after the Children of Israel would have been there. Between 1967 and 1982, Sinai was accessible to Israeli scholars and archaeologists. They scoured the length and breadth of it, but found almost nothing from the end of the Late Bronze Age, the archaeological period when the Exodus was supposed to have taken place. Defenders of the Exodus argue that a scraggly bunch of ex-slaves, now semi-nomads, would hardly be likely to leave a trace that could be found, especially after more than 3,200 years.”

Shanks concluded, “Mainstream archaeologists and biblical scholars are proceeding on a different tack in their efforts to learn more about the Exodus. Most of them begin with that fixed point in about 1200 B.C. when Israelite villages suddenly begin to dot the central hill country of Canaan. About this, all agree. The question is, where did they come from?”

In my opinion, Shanks pretty well described the condition of Exodus archaeology in 1987. Has anything changed in the past 35 years? Not much, as far as I can tell. Many modern Biblical scholars agree that there was only one Kadesh, located at what is now known as 'Ain el-Qudeirat, whereas other Biblical and rabbinical scholars opine that there were two locations named Kadesh.

Two years ago, in 2020, Joshua Berman, professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University, brought the discussion up to date in a paper in AISH (, entitled “Evidence for the Exodus.” That article was excerpted from his new book, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid, Jerusalem, Israel, 2020).

Berman stated, “…let’s consider the absence of specifically archaeological evidence of the exodus. In fact, many major events reported in various ancient writings are archaeologically invisible. The migrations of Celts in Asia Minor, Slavs into Greece, Arameans across the Levant – all described in written sources – have left no archeological trace. And this, too, is hardly surprising: archaeology focuses upon habitation and building; migrants are by definition nomadic.”

“There is similar silence in the archaeological record with regard to many conquests whose historicity is generally accepted, and even of many large and significant battles, including those of relatively recent vintage. The Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain in the 5th century, the Arab conquest of Palestine in the 7th century, even the Norman invasion of England in 1066: all have left scant if any archaeological remains. Is this because conquest is usually accompanied by destruction? Not really: the biblical books of Joshua and Judges, for instance, tell of a gradual infiltration into the land of Israel, with only a small handful of cities said to have been destroyed. And what is true of antiquity holds true for many periods in military history in which conquest has in no sense entailed automatic destruction.”

I am quite familiar with the Norman invasion of England in 1066, having recently spoken on the topic of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings. Although an estimated 4,000 - 10,000 men died in that battle on 14 October 1066, no human remains or artifacts from the battle site have ever been found. Where are all the bodies? John Grehan and Martin Mace, in their book, The Battle of Hastings 1066; The Uncomfortable Truth; Revealing the True Location of England’s Most Famous Battle (Pen &Sword, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK, 2012), have proposed another site. They have identified Caldbec Hill, rather than Battle Hill, as the site of Herald’s battle lines. That hill is only 200 yards behind Battle Hill, which is the traditional site of the king’s lines during the Battle of Hastings and the site of Battle Abbey, the church built by William the Conqueror to commemorate his victory at the battle. Grehan and Mace have proposed that the missing bodies and armor may be located at Caldbec Hill, or the now filled-in swamp behind the hill. The problem is that there has been a Windmill on Caldbec Hill since time immemorial and no excavations have been undertaken at that site.

Berman continued his analysis of the paucity of Israelite sites, “Many details of the exodus story do strikingly appear to reflect the realities of late-second-millennium Egypt, the period when the exodus would most likely have taken place – and they are the sorts of details that a scribe living centuries later and inventing the story afresh would have been unlikely to know:” He then lists eight bullet points concerning such details, including:

  • There is rich evidence that West-Semitic populations lived in the eastern Nile delta – what the Torah calls Goshen – for most of the second millennium. Some were slaves, some were raised in Pharaoh’s court, and some, like Moses, bore Egyptian names.

  • The names of various national entities mentioned in the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) – Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, et al. – are all found in Egyptian sources shortly before 1200 BCE; about this, the book of Exodus is again correct for the period.

· The book of Exodus (13:17) notes that the Israelites chose not to traverse the Sinai peninsula along the northern, coastal route toward modern-day Gaza because that would have entailed military engagement. The discovery of extensive Egyptian fortifications all along that route from the period in question confirms the accuracy of this observation.

I have already addressed most of his other five bullet points. Berman then states that the,

“Comparative method [comparing Biblical and Egyptian texts] can yield dazzling results, adding dimensions of understanding to passages that once seemed either unclear or self-evident and unexceptional. As an example, consider how at the Seder table we recall how God delivered Israel from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Most would be surprised to learn that this biblical phrase is actually Egyptian in origin: Egyptian inscriptions routinely describe the Pharaoh as ‘the mighty hand’ and his acts as those of ‘the outstretched arm.’”

There seems to be nearly uniform agreement among modern archaeologists that Israelites showed up in Canaan beginning around 1200 BC. However, their wanderings for forty years in the desert, as yet, have left no trace. Furthermore, the number of people who settled in the hill country of modern Israel probably was considerably less than 40,000; certainly not the 600,000 men proposed in Exodus 12:37, or the 603,550 men, plus all the women and children mentioned in Numbers 1:46. I believe that the Biblical story of the Exodus is true, but the hyperbole added by later writers, often added more confusion than insight into that story.

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

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