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Israelite Origins



Genesis 12 through Joshua describe the Israelite quest to settle the Promised Land. Many scholars consider this a later mythology, created out of ethnocentric self-preservation in the face of numerous people and powers that surrounded Israel.

The prevailing alternative theory to the biblical narrative is that the Israelites were originally local semi-nomads, Canaanites or perhaps Shasu from northwestern Arabia, and over time separated their identity, perhaps due to isolated circumstances, peacefully as opposed to by a military conquest. Here I only look at Genesis 12 through Deuteronomy.

  1. Earliest Mention of Israel
  2. Habiru
  3. Material Culture
  4. Language
  5. Religion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Resources

I. Earliest Mention of Israel

The Merneptah Stele probably can't be omitted from any discussion on Israelite origins. This dates to ~1205 BC and despite some minority alternate interpretations, this is the earliest mention of the Israelites. Another ancient Egyptian source from the 14th century BC was suggested in 2001: the Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687. But this is too speculative and doesn't have much agreement.

The presence of Israel as a large enough group to have been noticed by the Egyptians suggests they'd been there for at least some generations, since the stele depicts not a land or city but a people. A 13th century BC Exodus is a bit of a tight squeeze, but nothing impossible.

Notably, the Israelites are not grouped in the same category as Canaanites by the scribe in the Merneptah Stele, who was careful and consistent in his use of determinatives, and uses the determinative for Israel of "people" not land. [Sparks, K. L. Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel (1998), p.105]. In other words, the Israelites lived within the geography of Canaan, but as Sparks puts it: "Israel's identity did contrast with some of its neighbors." [ibid] This, to my mind, is pretty strong evidence against a Canaanite origin for the Israelites. If the far away Egyptians didn't group them under Canaan, then it's unlikely these were some sort of Canaanite hill faction that splintered, especially if they aren't much older than the 13th century BC.

And the same Stele differentiates them, also by clothing, from the Shasu - nomadic groups around Midian.

Lemche objects to any consistent description of "Canaanites" on the basis that the inhabitants never refer to themselves as such and these designations are usually given by Mesopotamian or Egyptian scribes, far removed from the locales, making broad, artificial assumptions. [Lemche, Niels Peter. The Canaanites and Their Land (JSOT Supplementary Series 110), pp.153-4]

Canaanites may have preferred to refer to themselves not as "Canaanites" but by their town or land which is natural, but there was certainly an ethnic collective recognized as Canaanite as a letter from Ugarit shows where a slain merchant from the "sons of Canaan" is to be paid for by the "sons of Ugarit". [Sparks, K. L. Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel (1998), p.102, 104] It's a little like someone identifying themselves as American or Canadian vs the Latin "Norteamericano". Even the Merneptah Stele itself shows that the land Canaan had different centers (Ashkelon, Gezer, Yano'am).

II. Habiru

The origin of the ethnic description "Hebrews" is a mystery. This has given rise to the hypothesis that originally the ancient Near Eastern derogatory term "Habiru" was applied to the semi-nomadic marauders. The Bible doesn't give an interpretation or history, so its silence may be taken as implicit support.

Anson F. Rainey objects on the grounds that Habiru was never an ethnic group and predated the Israelites by centuries: the term has been known to have been used to describe groups in Mesopotamia in the 19th century BC. But this completely misunderstands the application of a slur. When Jesus is called a "Samaritan" in John 8:48, it's certainly to imply he was a heretic.

The ethnic designations "Turk", "Hun", "Scythian", and "Cimmerian". Groups from central Asia in the ancient sources are described in typical phrases used for nomads in the ethnographic literature of the period, as people who "live in tents, earn their living on the meat of livestock and fish, of wild animals and by their weapons (plunder)". [Golden, Peter Benjamin (1992). An introduction to the History of the Turkic peoples: ethnogenesis and state formation in medieval and early modern Eurasia and the Middle East. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. ISBN 9783447032742. p.97]

For example, we have the following from Procopius:

in the old days many Huns, called then Cimmerians, inhabited the lands I mentioned already. [Golden, Peter B. (2011). Studies on the Peoples and Cultures of the Eurasian Steppes. Editura Academiei Române; Editura Istros a Muzeului Brăilei. ISBN 9789732721520. p.140]
The term "Canaanite" itself was originally a class of people (traders and merchants), and not an ethnic term. But it became one later anyway. Similarly, to this day the Arabic word for Europe is "Farang", because most of the European crusaders were "Franks"! So it's unclear why Habiru couldn't have been used for various groups, and for the Israelites as a slur which stuck.

III. Material Culture

The infamous "four room house" that is commonly associated with the Israelites has its origins in the late 13th century BC, crystallizing (at Israelite sites) from the 11th/10th century and on (till Nebuchadnezzar). Of course, it doesn't have to be that wherever one finds these there must've been Israelites, but the change and persistence in Israel (and Judah) would be a little too coincidental with the Merneptah Stele.

Also around this time we see almost nonexistent pig bones in hill country Iron Age I (1200BC and on) sites, whereas the Canaanites of the Bronze Age had them as part of their livestock and pigs are very suitable for that terrain. This simply accords very well with the Merneptah Steele in painting a picture of a large enough Israelite presence by 1200 BC.

This wouldn't mean the Israelite presence cannot predate the 13th century BC, because the earliest Israelites would've been too few to have any material evidence left for us to examine, even for centuries - just like the Scythians, or Aramean kingdom of the 9th-8th centuries BC, where the material culture at sites farther south (e.g. Tell-Ashtara, Tell er-Rumeith, et-Tell, Tel-Dan, Tell el-Oreme ('Oreimeh), to name but a few) do not show many features distinguishing from the material culture of ancient northern Israel. Similarly Moab which is mentioned as having been conquered by Ramses II (13th century BC), yet not much archaeological remains. Also the southern Negev. [Ben-Yosef, Erez et al. “Ancient technology and punctuated change: Detecting the emergence of the Edomite Kingdom in the Southern Levant.PloS one vol. 14,9 e0221967. 18 Sep. 2019, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0221967]

And this brings me to an important point: the early Israelites cannot have had something so fundamentally different from the Canaanites because they always lived among them. Canaanite culture was prevalent in Hyksos Egypt. [Kitchen, K. Reliability of the Old Testament, p.351f.] It would be like expecting someone who was born in Saudi Arabia but moved to the United States at age 1 to always wear the thobe. This is why the earliest Roman Christian art was essentially identical to non-Christian Roman art: Jesus is a young man, clean shaven, with short hair, etc.

The minority always assimilates into the majority:

  • The Hyksos assimilated into Egyptian culture. Early Hyksos kings of the 15th Dynasty (e.g. Sakir-Har) used the title Heka-Khawaset. Later Hyksos rulers adopted the traditional Egyptian royal titulary; Apophis, abandoned the Heka-Khawaset title and retained instead the customary Egyptian prenomen, just like the kings of the 14th Dynasty. The Egyptians then use the Hyksos weapons such as the iron chariot in expelling them and conquering much of the Levant under Thutmose III.
Even when with a big minority, we have assimilation not cultural revolution:
  • Strabo writes that the Idumaeans, constituting the majority of the population of Western Judea, adopted their customs. [Geography, Book 16.2.34]
Or as conquerors:
  • Alexander the Great retained the Persian political structure of satrapies after his conquest
  • The Arabian 7th century conquests produced Byzantine-style architecture and coinage in the West, and Sasanian in the East
  • The Normans after William the Conqueror retained the institutions of the Anglo-Saxons as they found them
  • The music of ancient Rome borrowed heavily from the music of the cultures that were conquered by the empire, including music of Greece, Egypt, and Persia.
And even when they have their own state, like the Philistines, who eventually adopted their neighbors' culture, including circumcision!
Circumcision, however, was practiced by many groups in the ancient Near East, and it is commonly accepted that if circumcision was an ethnic marker, it functioned mainly against the "foreign" Philistines, who did not practice it. Interestingly, all the biblical texts that depict the Philistines as םיצרל (uncircumcised) project this reality into the pre-monarchic period (Iron I), regardless of their date, source, or genre. Not a single text, regardless of genre, uses this pejorative to describe the Philistines in the monarchic period (Iron II). This clear-cut dichotomy is supported by additional historical and archaeological lines of evidence (direct and indirect) and is in line with other changes in Philistine culture. All this seems to suggest the Philistines started to circumcise in Iron II, the time when they ceased to manufacture their Aegean-inspired decorated pottery, adopted the local script, changed their foodways, and so on. [Faust, Avraham. “The Bible, Archaeology, and the Practice of Circumcision in Israelite and Philistine Societies.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 134, no. 2, 2015, p. 273. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.15699/jbl.1342.2015.2936.]

The Philistines quickly mixed with the Semites (they have Semitic king names soon after a few generations), and only in the 7th century BC was there some kind of nationalistic Pan-Hellenic revival (Yadin, Vetus Testamentum 54.3, p.385). The Philistines appear to have been absorbed with that of surrounding peoples:

During the Iron II (tenth-seventh centuries B.C.E. ), the Philistines completed the process of acculturation with the surrounding indigenous culture (Stone 1995). By the end of the Iron II, the Philistines had lost much of their distinctiveness as expressed in their material culture (see Gitin 1998; 2003; 2004 and bibliography there). My suggested chronological framework for Philistine acculturation spans the tenth to seventh centuries B.C.E. (Tel Miqne-Ekron Strata IV-I; Ashdod Strata X-VI) [Killebrew, Ann E. (2005). Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel, 1300-1100 B.C.E. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1-58983-097-0., p. 234]

If the Philistines, who came from the Aegean in many groups lost their distinctive pottery and culture within a few centuries, how do we expect the Israelites, who were never away from geographical Canaan to have their own type of pottery, etc? The fact that the Israelite house even exists is more than enough evidence, not to mention the conscious ethnic identity, highlighted by the Merneptah Steele, that the Israelites were never Canaanites!

Other examples are the Northern Wei dynasty of the 4th century which adopted China's titles and administration. Or the 16th century remnants of the Golden Horde whose nobility were Russified.

Culture simply spreads from the more numerous:
  • Thutmose's last campaign was waged in his 50th regnal year. He attacked Nubia, but only went so far as the fourth cataract of the Nile. Although no king of Egypt had ever penetrated so far with an army, previous kings' campaigns had spread Egyptian culture that far already, and the earliest Egyptian document found at Gebel Barkal dates from three years before Thutmose's campaign. [Grimal, Nicolas (1988). A History of Ancient Egypt. Librairie Arthéme Fayard, p.215]
  • Similarly the Viking conquerors of Ireland: often referred to as Norse-Gaels. As early as the 9th century, many colonists (except the Norse who settled in Cumbria) intermarried with native Gaels and adopted the Gaelic language as well as many Gaelic customs. Many left their original worship of Norse gods and converted to Christianity, and this contributed to the Gaelicisation.
  • In England within 50 years of the 865 Danish invasion the Norse invaders adopt English culture: religion and writing as seen on their coins.
  • Within a century of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 intermarriage between native English and Norman was common. By the early 1160s, Ailred of Rievaulx was writing that intermarriage was common in all levels of society. [Thomas, Hugh (2007). The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror. pp.107-9]

Only if the society had relative isolation for some time could a separate culture develop, such as the original inhabitants of Cyprus, prior to Mycenean settlers. Or if there was a highly centralized power such as the Scandinavian empire under Cnut the Great - pertaining to legal matters which included some Norse elements, some English canon law: not the case with tribal hill-country Israel in 1200 BC!

The fact that the earliest Christian art is indistinguishable from Roman art in terms of how the figures are drawn (Jesus has short hair, clean shaven, looks like a Roman, etc) conforms much more to Israelite religion having a foreign to Canaan origin, just as Christianity was foreign to Roman culture and religion.

The Bible depicts and archaeology confirms that the Israelites were more than happy to mix in with the local Canaanite majorities. Why, then, they would ever break off from them to such an unrealistic ethnic degree, is a mystery whose supporters need to explain further than the simple generalization of: "the Israelites broke off and were originally Canaanites"!

IV. Language

Hebrew is indisputably related to the Semitic languages at the time. The proximity between Hebrew and Canaanite before c.1000 BC does not mean much because Phoenician is also indistinguishable, yet hardly are all three groups uniformly the same. Similarly, the Philistines by the mid-first millenium BC. [Faust, Avraham. “The Bible, Archaeology, and the Practice of Circumcision in Israelite and Philistine Societies.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134.2 (2015), p.273] Hebrew origin is certainly from Canaanite. But why it developed at all and was widespread throughout the land becomes a mystery. Finkelstein notes that both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern Judah spoke different dialects of the same language: Hebrew. So if the Hebrews were Canaanites, why didn't they speak dialects of the local Canaanite languages? The Mesha Steele shows the Moabites had their own (closely related but distinct) language. If Hebrew was retained by the northern Israelites, then it must've been ingrained in the origin of Israelite identity as distinct from the Canaanites around them, or else the Israelites, who were much more numerous, richer, and had more land, would've absorbed some other local languages or, more likely, have made their own.

Examples from history that support this conclusion is, for example Brittany which was never really French, and periodically resisted the French as an occupation. Even as late as the 20th century (e.g. Jeanne Coroller-Danio's Breton nationalist book Histoire de Notre Bretagne (1922)). Similarly, perhaps, the Catalans of Spain, Basque, Montenegrins, Kosovo, etc. Modern Macedonians, who are mentioned in texts from at least the 1700's, are considered by some of the older generation of Bulgarians to have been "confused Bulgarians".

Regarding certain central Asian groups in ancient times (Kutrigurs and Utigurs), the ancient historian Agathias writes:

...all of them are called in general Scythians and Huns in particular according to their nation. Thus, some are Koutrigours or Outigours and yet others are Oultizurs and Bourougounds... the Oultizurs and Bourougounds were known up to the time of the Emperor Leo (457–474) and the Romans of that time and appeared to have been strong. We, however, in this day, neither know them, nor, I think, will we. Perhaps, they have perished or perhaps they have moved off to very far place. [Agathias; Golden, Peter Benjamin (1992). An introduction to the History of the Turkic peoples: ethnogenesis and state formation in medieval and early modern Eurasia and the Middle East. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. ISBN 9783447032742. p.98]
Sandilch's (Utigur leader) own words:
It is neither fair nor decent to exterminate our tribesmen (the Kutrigurs), who not only speak a language, identical to ours, who are our neighbours and have the same dressing and manners of life, but who are also our relatives, even though subjected to other lords. [D. Dimitrov (1987). "Bulgars, Unogundurs, Onogurs, Utigurs, Kutrigurs". Prabylgarite po severnoto i zapadnoto Chernomorie. kroraina.com. Varna]
Also Procopius confirms their common origin:
in the old days many Huns, called then Cimmerians, inhabited the lands I mentioned already. They all had a single king. Once one of their kings had two sons: one called Utigur and another called Kutrigur. After their father's death they shared the power and gave their names to the subjected peoples, so that even nowadays some of them are called Utigurs and the others - Kutrigurs. [Golden, Peter B. (2011). Studies on the Peoples and Cultures of the Eurasian Steppes. Editura Academiei Române; Editura Istros a Muzeului Brăilei. ISBN 9789732721520. p.140]
Yet Sandilch was bribed by Justinian to fight the Kutrigurs. So money and politics can easily divide kinsmen. Similarly the Germanic tribes that unified under, for example, Arminius, and were only divided politically, not ethnically.

V. Religion

It's just strange that as (former) Canaanites who in later times did everything the Canaanite way when possible, Yahweh isn't a Canaanite deity. The differences don't end there. In his Old Testament Religion in Light of its Canaanite Background, E.A. Elmer notes two factors of Ancient Near Eastern religious practice that was widespread from Mesopotamia to Egypt:

  1. The universal appeal and use of the baalim - lords of various aspects in life such as the well-known Storm god
  2. Cultic prostitution
The opposition to the first is well-known in the Bible. This didn't stop the ancient Israelites from making a consort goddess to Yahweh: Asherah. It's hard to understand why the Bible would consistently and uncompromisingly condemn such a popular religious practice if it started out with it and especially if the Israelites were originally Canaanites.

As for cultic prostitution, this was understandably always tolerated and accepted. Eli's sons, for example, could get away with this in the eyes of not just their father but Israel for years (1 Sam. 2:22). Various attempts to depict the persons dedicated to Yahweh as this (e.g. Num. 31:40 - 32 prisoners of war made a tribute to God) exist. But, again, it's hard to see why this condemnation would originate almost as if out of a vacuum, if the Israelites were Canaanites. Another common Canaanite practice which the Israelites adopted was the sacrificing of the firstborn son to Molech. Supposed remnants such as Exodus 13, amended from an original burning to slaying of animals, are again hard to understand if it was anything other than a dedication of service (e.g. Samuel), or some ritual symbol (the Levite firstborn in Numbers 3).

The idea that Yahweh was originally a north Arabian (near Midian) Shasu deity is based on some biblical texts that has Yahweh "marching from Seir" as well as the Exodus path leading through Edom. Also, 14th/13th century BC Egyptian inscriptions which mention the "Shasu of Yhw". But here Yhw is a toponym. Even so, "Yahweh" could've been the name for God to show he was no lesser deity, similar to how Genesis refers to Him as El/Elohim, and in Genesis 14 El Elyon (among other nicknames - Fear of Isaac - typical ANE religious designations). After all, Moses lived in that area for decades, and knowledge of it was probably widespread to the nearby Hebrews in the eastern Nile delta. Just like how the Romans equated their gods with Greek counterparts, or how Spanish missionaries explained God in equivalent religious terms or even persons. For example, the Catholic missionary to Japan, Francis Xavier used the Japanese Dainichi (Buddha's celestial form: Vairocana) to explain God, and tried adapting it to local traditions. Paul does something similar with the altar to the "unknown god" in Acts 17. These are all relative identities amounting to "God", and that's all "Yahweh" needs to be with respect to Moses and the Israelites even if he was a deity in the Shasu/Midianite/Kenite pantheon.

And this again underscores that the Israelites were probably not Canaanites. If they were Shasu, why would the Merneptah Stele distinguish the two? The Kenite Hypothesis is plausible in theory: that's how the Syrian moon god Hubal made its way all the way down to Mecca in Muhammad's day. But again, why would the Israelites adopt this as their main deity and not the much more popular Baalim as they do in later history? So a simple long-term Kenite hypothesis is unlikely. And a short-term one would require the Israelites to be identified as Shasu early and consistently, conflicting with the Merneptah Stele. So this theory has its flaws.

The unity and common origin of the northern and southern Hebrew kingdoms is again shown by the fact that northern Israelites had shrines in the South (Bethel, Gilgal, Beer-sheba - Amos 4:5)! Too widespread and rich of a Hebrew religious tradition to be some peaceful immigration/Canaanite break off, or for Yahweh to be some Kenite/Shasu import from the south. Despite the ancient religious status of Bethel, it's still hard to understand why there would be such a strong northern Israelite connection to it and the others as late as Amos' day (740 BC) if there was no common (southern) origin for both Israel and Judah - i.e. both are Hebrews. Dialects form quickly, and even the nearby Ephraimites had their own, like mispronouncing "sh" sounds as the tradition of Judges 12:4-6 tells us.

It's not so much that a group can't break away and become ethnically different, such as the ancient Italian tribes (Samnites from Sabines). However, the widespread extent of the Israelites (from Arad to Dan) would not exist, seeing that both language, culture, and much of religion remained so consistent amongst the north (Israel) and south (Judea) for centuries. This suggests that it was the same group deviating from a common Hebrew origin, rather than a Canaanite one because of these deep similarities that otherwise wouldn't exist if they independently broke from the Canaanites in their own directions. This is confirmed by examples such as the ancient Italian tribes who occupied relatively modest territories prior to the Roman domination; and they assimilated with the Romans over the centuries. Moreover, the dominant religious practices of the Near East would not be so adamantly condemned in the Bible. If this disdain originates in an attempt at ethnic separation, it's hard to imagine how or why it ever took root so firmly in Jerusalem, when in fact a total rejection wasn't necessary (as seen from "Yahweh and Asherah" syncretisms in Arad in southern Judah around 600 BC(!), for example).

The Sefire Steles may, under one possible interpretation, record the names of El and Elyon, "God, God Most High" possibly providing prima facie evidence for a distinction between the two deities first worshipped by the Jebusites in Jerusalem, and then elsewhere throughout the ancient Levant. [John Day (2000). Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Continuum International. p. 20. ISBN 0-8264-6830-6.] Essentially, this could show how the Bible dealt with widespread, ancient paganism: avoiding syncretism by making epithets.


Consider how conveniently the counter-biblical hypothesis has to be: the Jews (and Christians) copy from all of their neighbors: the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks. But lo and behold: the Israelites made their own thing and broke away from the Canaanites! The bottom line is, nobody considered the Israelites to have ever been Canaanites: not the Egyptians, not the Israelites, not the available evidence.


  1. Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah?