The Origin of the Hebrews

By Inge Etzbach - 



Archaeologists on the full spectrum of positions, political or otherwise, do agree that there is no evidence of a forceful conquest of Jericho and Canaan. External material evidence supplies no proof whatsoever of the biblical account of a large-scale and determined invasion of Israelites into Canaan. We now know that the stories about military conquest are later literary inventions, partly for theological reasons.

But where did the early Israelites come from? William G. Dever in his book Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? approaches the text in theTorah, as well as the external data, with no preconceptions. He singles out the ‘convergences’ of the two lines of evidence, and remains skeptical about the rest. It is this approach which he uses in his book and which carefully evaluates the details.

There is general agreement that there was a slow takeover, rather than a conquest. Here are several models of peaceful infiltration:
Dr. Adam Zertal of the University of Haifa is convinced, from his surveys and the examination of pottery finds, that there was a gradual move westward over the Jordan by Bedouins who settled in the mountain range running down the length of Canaan. Others consider that questionable, since Bedouins who are used to deserts and tents, do not settle down easily, preferring nomadic life.

Another explanation might be that, in response to a wide-spread drought in the Mediterranean area during the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age, peasants were driven out of farmland in the low-lying areas along the seashore and migrated to the hilly spine running from North to South through the land of Canaan. In addition, between 1200 and 1176 BCE, the so-called “Sea People” invaded and settled along the Mediterranean, causing wide-spread chaos in the region that forced inhabitants of that area to flee into the less accessible mountains.

Another model would be based on “withdrawal” of certain Canaanites called Hiberu or Apiro into the hill country to avoid contact with other tribes. These people, variously described as “nomadic or semi-nomadic, rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, bowmen, servants, slaves, migrant laborers, etc." were reported in a 14th century BCE letter from the king of the Canaanite city-state of Shechem to his Egyptian overlord.

The word Hebrew has been associated with the words Hiberu or Apiru, described as the name given by various Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Mitanni and Ugaritic sources (from before 2500 BCE to around 1200 BCE) to a group of people in areas from Mesopotamia and Iran to Egypt and Canaan. The Hiberu seem to have been more a social class than an ethnic group, living as itinerant people at the outer edges of civilization, contributing to political instability.

Archaeologists cannot easily prove the social movements in the distant past, but they know from their excavations that a wave of new settlements appeared in the previously uninhabited Middle East during the Bronze Age. They were similar to existing settlements, but different in one aspect: the inhabitants of the new settlements did not eat pork since no pork bones were found. One of the excavations showed that these people might have had some idea of a precursor of Yahweh, but were still venerating the Canaanite god El, just like their Canaanite neighbors. After all, “Isra-El” means “fighter for El”.

It is an accepted assumption that the ancient Israelites were not conquerors and immigrants from other parts of the country, bringing their fully-formed god Yahweh with them, but part of the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan venerating Canaanite gods. According to Jon Entine, author of Abraham’s Children – Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People , DNA research by Dr. Ariella Oppenheim of Hebrew University has shown that “seven out of ten Jewish men and half of Arab men whose DNA was studied inherited their male chromosomes from the same paternal ancestors, who lived in the prehistoric Middle East during the Neolithic Period, about 7,800 years ago.” They have about 18% of their chromosomes in common, showing a genetic closeness from prehistoric times, but little intermixing since the establishment of their respective communities. This affirms the scientific findings that the Israelites started out as part of the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan and have their roots in the same population that brought forth the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern peoples.

Inge Etzbach was born in Germany, emigrated to the U.S., B.A. in Philosophy, M.A. in Political Science, Interfaith Minister. In 1987 she spent several months in Israel, working in a kibbutz and as a volunteer in the Israeli Army. Over the next few years, she participated in several Peace-Building Delegations, interacting with Israeli and Palestinian officials and ordinary citizens in Israel and the West Bank and participating in Mideast Workshops. Inge has written two books about Israel/Palestine including ‘Bitter Harvest in the Promised Land: Myths, History and Conflict’ (2013). 

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