Did Recent Scientific Findings Actually Disprove the Biblical Account of Israel’s Conquest of Canaan?

This is not an anti-science post. I love science. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemical Engineering. I graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. I have worked in STEM fields and have taught science to middle and high school students. If I hadn’t gone into the Christian ministry, I would be working in STEM fields today.

Due to all my love and appreciation for scientific knowledge and discovery, I was interested when I saw the following title pop up on my news reader, “Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites,” a recently published article in Science magazine. I was interested to read the article, not because I expected any scientific findings to render the bible irrelevant, but because I wanted to read for myself what had been discovered in the study.

This article, which you can read for yourself in the link above, presents evidence from a UK based geneticist who extracted DNA samples from ancient skeletons buried in the ancient city of Sidon. Then he compared his data to the DNA of modern Lebanese people. This is what the author of the article wrote in summary:

If the Israelites had wiped out the Canaanites as the Bible claimed, the ancient populations wouldn’t have been able to pass on their genes to modern people. Instead, Haber found that the present-day Lebanese population is largely descended from the ancient Canaanites, inheriting more than 90% of their genes from this ancient source.

This would be sound reasoning if the Bible claimed that the Israelites had completely destroyed the ancient Sidonians. But the Bible does not make any such claim. Thus there isn’t so much a problem with science here, but with comparing those scientific findings with the actual data found in the biblical narratives.

In fact, in the text of Joshua itself, which tells the story of Israel’s conquest, we find a description of areas that had not been conquered by the Israelites in their conquest. In Joshua 13 we read this:

Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the LORD said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess. 2 This is the land that yet remains: all the regions of the Philistines, and all those of the Geshurites 3 (from the Shihor, which is east of Egypt, northward to the boundary of Ekron, it is counted as Canaanite; there are five rulers of the Philistines, those of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron), and those of the Avvim, 4 in the south, all the land of the Canaanites, and Mearah that belongs to the Sidonians, to Aphek, to the boundary of the Amorites, 5 and the land of the Gebalites, and all Lebanon, toward the sunrise, from Baal-gad below Mount Hermon to Lebo-hamath, 6 all the inhabitants of the hill country from Lebanon to Misrephoth-maim, even all the Sidonians. I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel. Only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you. (Jos. 13:1-6 ESV)

So the text of Joshua explicitly says that they were not able to conquer the Sidonians, along with many other Canaanite peoples that remained in the land. As the biblical narrative continues through the books of the Kings, we to find that these peoples were never displaced and continued to live alongside the Israelites. In fact, there were times in Israel’s history that the kings of Sidon had a friendly relationship with Israel and even aided them in the building of their Temple, as we see in Solomon’s letter to Hiram King of Tyre:

Now Hiram king of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father, for Hiram always loved David. 2 And Solomon sent word to Hiram, 3 “You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the LORD his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the LORD put them under the soles of his feet. 4 But now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune. 5 And so I intend to build a house for the name of the LORD my God, as the LORD said to David my father, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’ 6 Now therefore command that cedars of Lebanon be cut for me. And my servants will join your servants, and I will pay you for your servants such wages as you set, for you know that there is no one among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians.” 7 As soon as Hiram heard the words of Solomon, he rejoiced greatly and said, “Blessed be the LORD this day, who has given to David a wise son to be over this great people.” 8 And Hiram sent to Solomon, saying, “I have heard the message that you have sent to me. I am ready to do all you desire in the matter of cedar and cypress timber. (1 Ki. 5:1-8 ESV)

We later find in the last stages of Israel’s recorded history in the Old Testament that the Sidonians were still around to help with the rebuilding of the Temple under Ezra:

So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia. (Ezr. 3:7 ESV)

Remarkably, we also find in the Gospels the Jesus himself visited the region of Tyre and Sidon and met with a Canaanite woman there, who begged him to heal her daughter of demon possession. So we find that throughout the history of the biblical narrative, there was never a claim that the Sidonians, or any of the Canaanite peoples for that matter, had been completely annihilated as the article in Science magazine claimed.

Now, as I stated above, I have training in science and have a deep appreciation for scientific knowledge and discovery. I also said that this would not be an anti-science post. Let me expand on that briefly. One of the main reasons for my interest in this subject is because I am also a credentialed Historical Theologian. When we approach the science of history we are trained to utilize the many sources at our disposal. Written texts are the most prominent. But scientific disciplines such as genetics and archaeology are a very important piece of that puzzle. Thus the reason why I came to the article with a dose of skepticism (the sensationalist title notwithstanding) is because I have already studied quite a bit in the area of Ancient Near Eastern archeology, and have been convinced of the veracity of the biblical accounts.

The study bible I use in my daily bible reading has excellent notes that often discuss the archaeological findings that verify the text. I have also preached through books of the bible, like Amos, and have had my study enriched by sound archaeology that has surfaced regarding the geographies and peoples mentioned. But the main source of my confidence is founded in the influential work by British archaeologist Kenneth A. Kitchen entitled On the Reliability of the Old Testament. In that tome, which approaches 700 pages, he meticulously compares the biblical text with archaeological findings and shows that while the text cannot always be proven through archaeological science, known archaeological findings do not contradict the basic biblical narrative.

One of the sections Kitchen deals with is the Israelite conquest. The entire chapter is insightful, but I will make two brief points. The first is that we simply have not dug down deep enough in many of these archaeological sites to get to the time periods where evidence for or against the conquest would be found. Kitchen writes (page 183):

In any modern attempt to trace the effects of the campaigns several points need to be made. First, the text of Joshua does not imply huge and massive fiery destructions of every site visited (only Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were burned). The Egyptians did not usually burn cities, preferring to make them into profitable tax-paying vassals; the Hebrews under Joshua sought basically to kill off the Canaanite leadership and manpower, to facilitate later occupation. These Egyptian and Hebrew policies are not readily detectable in the excavated ruin sites. Second, even when a Late Bronze II settlement is found to have been damaged or destroyed, there is no absolute certainty as to who was responsible (Egyptians? Local neighbors? Sea Peoples? The Israelites?). Third, the identifications of some biblical place-names with mounds known today are not always certain — a wrong identification can bring a wrong result. Fourth, the erosion of an ancient settlement mound through the centuries by natural causes or human destruction can result in loss of the evidence for occupation and destruction of particular levels in a site. Fifth, with 95% of the site undug (as is common), the evidence may still be under the ground.

With this in mind, Kitchen carefully surveys the relevant archaeological data and concludes that the biblical narrative is reliable, “Of these twenty-four entries, only four can be regarded as deficient in background finds for LBII [Late Bronze Age II], and in those cases there are factors that account for the deficiency,” (page 189).

Therefore, with all due respect and acknowledgment for the scientific knowledge and contributions of geneticists, and with full support and hope that they will continue their work to deepen our knowledge of the Ancient Near East for historians and biblical scholars, the particular conclusion claimed in the title of the article recently published in Science magazine cannot be substantiated. The genetic science is sound, no doubt. But the conclusion is erroneous because the overall science (scientia – Latin for knowledge) of the biblical text and relevant archaeological data has not been adequately considered. I look forward to geneticists working with biblical scholars and ANE archaeologists to further the scientific knowledge of the bible in the future.



Author: Tim LeCroy

Tim LeCroy is Pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO. He is husband of Rachel and father of Ruby and Lucy