The conquest of Palestine

The Bible gives scant information about the years “forty” years (Dt 1,3) that the tradition says they spend in the Sinai desert: only a list of “legs” (Nm. 33), from which we have to deduce that they roamed into a Midianite territory, where they probably stayed for all those years. How many, precisely, we’ll see very soon.

Precise information of a chronological type resurface in the Bible only in the imminence of the military campaign carried on to conquest  Palestine. “And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spake unto the children of Israel, according unto all that the Lord had given him in commandment unto them” (Dt. 1, 3).  We do not know the year when this happened, so we are not able to transform this information into a precise date; what we know for certain is that it was the day of the new moon in April. In that moment Israel was camped in the Moab valley, on the eastern side of the Jordan river, in front of Jericho that stood on the other side of the river.

In that same day Moses convened an assembly of all Israel and pronounced a great speech (quoted in the book of Deuteronomy), at the end of which he took leave from the people, moved up to Mount Nebo and ... died. A mourning of thirty days followed (Dt. 34, 8), after which Joshua made the last preparations for the invasion of Palestine and send two men in reconnaissance mission to Jericho. It was the beginning of the 12th month of the year, in may. A few weeks later Joshua crossed the Jordan river. It was “the time of harvest” (Js. 3, 15), therefore end of May, beginning of June. The “ people came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped in Gilgal, in the east border of Jericho” (Js. 4, 19), and “ they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month, and they eat of the corn of the land on the morrow after the Passover” (Js 5, 10-11), it was the full moon nearest to the 21st  of June.

Then the military campaign to conquer Palestine started, which had to be concluded before the end of summer, with the partition between the Jewish  tribes of the conquered territories. By autumn each tribe had taken possession of its “inheritance” and finally, after a summer of slaughter and destructions, order and peace were restored in Palestine.

Chronology of the conquest

The “seasonal” frame of the conquest is quite correct and precise, based on a number of elements provided by the Bible. To calculate the precise year, however, we have to look at the historical records of that period for that area. During the reign of Merenptah Palestine was firmly under Egyptian control and we know for certain, both from historical and archaeological evidence,  that it was still so at the time of Ramses III, the second pharaoh of the XX dynasty.

In the 8th year of his reign Ramses III carried on a great military campaign in Palestine, to stop a horde of the so called “people of the sea”, Pulasti, Sicala and Sardana,  who had settled along the coast of southern Palestine and threatened to invade Egypt.

The People of Sea were defeated and Egypt’s invasion averted, but Ramses had to accept the permanent settling of the Pulastis (Philistines) in four towns of the fertile coastal plain of Southern Palestine, Gaza, Ashcalon, Ashdod and Ekron. On that occasion Ramses built a series of strongholds along the road to Egypt, and established Egyptian governors on several Palestinian towns, as testified by numerous archaeological findings bearing his name.

From the book of Joshua we know that several of these towns, like Ghezer, Lakis and Megiddo, had been destroyed, or depopulated,  by the Israelites during the conquest. This necessarily means that Joshua invaded Palestine before the settling of the Philistines and therefore before the 8th year of Ramses III. As the Jews had to sojourn in the Sinai desert for at least 15 years, the chronological window is rather narrow and we can further reduce it through simple considerations.

First, we cannot possibly believe that the Israelites could have had conquered Palestine fighting directly against its legitimate “owners”, the Egyptians, and even less against Ramses III, who was the most powerful sovereign of that time. Certainly they had to enter the land during a period of temporary eclipse of the pharaohs’ power in Palestine, or rather with the consent or even with the support of the pharaoh himself.

After the death of Merenptah, on 1202 b.C., Egypt went through a gloomy period, during which inept sovereigns succeed each other on the throne, who let the land fall into disorder and chaos.



1212 - 1202 b.C.


1202 - 1199 b.C.

 Sethi II

1199 - 1193 b.C.

Merenptah Siptah

1193 - 1187 b.C.

Tauseret regina

1193 - 1185 b.C.



1185 - 1182 b.C


Ramses III

1182 - 1151 b.C

Egyptian chronology of the Exodus’ years (by Von Beckerat)

The chronicles of that period are reported in the “Harris Papyrus I”, written during the reign of Ramses III. They portray an apocalyptical picture of  Egypt’s situation during the reign of the last four pharaohs of the XIX dynasty, when the nation was left to be a prey to anarchy, plunder and widespread destruction.

If this was the real situation of the country, it’s difficult to believe that Egypt could have maintained control of Palestine; we have to presume that it was left to itself, with no military  garrisons, which had to be withdrawn to support the intestine conflicts in the motherland.  All the towns of Palestine suddenly found themselves free and in charge of  their destiny, but at the same time they were left without any protection and exposed to be assaulted by relatively weak enemies like the Israelites.

We can therefore presume that Israel took advantage of the absence of Egyptian  military  forces in Palestine, for invading it  and conquering large extensions of territory,  during the reign of Siptah or that of the Queen Tauseret, between 1193 and 1185 b.C.,  relying on the inertia of the pharaoh, too busy with his domestic problems.  They certainly couldn’t rely, however, on an indefinite eclipse of the Egyptian power in Palestine: soon or later it had to be restored, as it actually happened with the XX dynasty. Certainly Moses had to take into consideration this scenario when he planned the invasion; he therefore had to think out something to avert reprisals by the Egyptians, once they would had come back to Palestine. In this way we might explain some very inhuman dispositions that he left to Joshua immediately before the invasion: he recommended Joshua to exterminate all the inhabitants of the conquered towns down to the last child. which Joshua thoroughly executed in all the conquered areas.

Such atrocious order has no justification, but one: it had to be intended to eliminate once and for all the possibility that somebody could advance future claims to the possession of those territories.  Once a strong pharaoh would have restored his control on Palestine, he would have been presented with a fait accompli,  with nobody asking him to make good the wrong suffered, and with new subjects professing unreserved loyalty to him and ready to appease him with enormous donations. At this purpose Moses had ordered to reserve for “Jahweh” (where this name indicates the godlike sovereign of Egypt), all the valuable objects plundered on the conquered towns, gold, silver and precious vests.

This logic looks correct and it would be even convincing, if  some precise facts reported  in the Book of Joshua were not outlining a completely different scenario. According to them, indeed, the Israelites invaded Palestine with the consent and the support of a pharaoh, or even on his express request.  We find the evidence for it in the following verses (Js. 5, 14-16):

And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand. And Joshua went unto him and said unto him:
‘Art thou for us or for our adversary?’
And he said:
‘Nay; but as captain of the host of the Lord am I now come.’
And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him:
‘What saith my lord unto his servant?

These verses are clear evidence that soon after Joshua had crossed the Jordan river, he was met by the commander of the Egyptian army and put himself under his orders.  Immediately after this encounter, in fact, as a clear sign of submission and a token of absolute loyalty, Joshua circumcised  all the males of Israel. Circumcision was an Egyptian custom and was imposed to all the subjects  of the pharaoh. The Jews born in Egypt were all circumcised, while those born in the Sinai desert, outside the control of the pharaoh, were not.  The first think that Joshua did as a result of the encounter with the Egyptian commander was circumcising them (Js. 5, 2-8).

Under this light, we can easily understand why a small population like the Israelites (they had in total a little more than five thousand fighting men) could invade Palestine without serious problems. They were utilised  by the pharaoh to conquer territories which evidently had gone out of his control. He gave them the order of exterminating the rebel populations, replacing them and getting hold of  their territory and their cattle; gold and all precious objects plundered, instead, had to be conferred to the pharaoh. Orders that Joshua scrupulously complied with, to the point of  executing an entire family of the Judah’s tribe, on a charge of having stolen some precious objects after the destruction of Jericho (Js. 7, 24-26).

Sethnakht, the pharaoh of the conquest

Who was this pharaoh? No doubt about it: he only could have been Sethnakht, the founder of the XX dynasty. We know very little about him, almost nothing. Probably he was an old soldier, who had served in the army since the times of Merenptah. After the death of the last sovereign of the XIX dynasty, the queen Tauseret, he rebelled and took the power, restoring order all over Egypt.

There is no information about military campaigns carried on by him in Palestine, but we know that he left to his son Ramses III a completely pacified empire. Therefore it was certainly him who restored order also in Palestine. Did that country have rebelled against Egypt? No historical source makes any mention of a rebellion of Palestine during the last years of the XIX dynasty. The apocalyptic description of the miserable conditions of Egypt during those years, had the precise scope to legitimize the usurpation of the throne by the founder of the XX dynasty; therefore it is certainly very much exaggerated.  It might be that Palestine never rebelled. Traditionally, the small feudal lords (the Bible call them “kings”) who governed its main towns, pledged loyalty personally to the legitimate pharaoh in charge. In all probability, then, they were loyal to queen Tauseret, the last sovereign of the XIX dynasty.

Sethnakht, however,  was an usurper and as such he couldn’t relay on a pacific submission of the Palestinian populations to his authority. He had to submit them by force, but he couldn’t do it while the main part of his army was engaged in taking control of metropolitan  Egypt. He solved this problem brilliantly, with a minimum employment of men from his side and on top of that with a large flow of  money in his coffers. A solution absolutely unscrupulous, but genial as it appears from the biblical account of the conquest. Somewhere north to Eilat the Midianite territory was roamed around by a population that a little more than twenty years before had fled from Egypt and that Merenptah had tried to annihilate; a population that longed to go back to that Palestine where it left from at the time of Jacob.

Sethnakht planned to replace the hostile and untrustworthy populations of Palestine with the tribes of Israel, who couldn’t have problems pledging loyalty to him, the usurper of the detested XIX dynasty. And in fact Joshua immediately submitted to the officer send by Sethnakht to Gilgala, to support and lead the invasion of Palestine. It was him who gave the Israelites free way for the invasion, him, who gave the order of exterminating down to the last child the populations of the conquered towns, evidently with the purpose of avoiding any future complication and in the same time to give a terrible example to the neighbour towns.  The Israelites were allowed to settle in the  conquered territories and get hold of the good and cattle of the populations they exterminated, but they had to  confer the gold, silver and any other precious object to Sethnakht, who in this way was assured a large flow of financial resources to consolidate his position in Egypt. It could be that these resources and the terror inspired by the ruthlessness and ferocity of the Palestinian  campaign were decisive for the success of  the usurper in Egypt.

Without the support of Sethnakht, Israel would never have been able to conquer Palestine, but also the opposite might be true, that without Israel Sethnakht would not have succeeded in sizing power and the XX dynasty would not have been installed. A couple of years later Sethnakht left to his son Ramses III not only a pacified Egypt, but also a quiet and completely loyal Palestine. He could install there Egyptian governors without any opposition. Archaeological evidence of his administration has surfaced in a long series of towns, several of which had been conquered to him (but not destroyed, see Gs. 11,13) by the Israelites, like Megiddo.

The precise year when Palestine was conquered

Is there any possibility to calculate when Palestine was conquered? If we succeed in doing this we could also calculate how many years, exactly, the Israelites spent in Sinai desert and to fix the precise dates when the operations for the invasion started. Unfortunately we do not know when and why  Sethnakht decided to size power and how he managed to do it; even the year when he was crowned as pharaoh is not known with certainty, neither when he died. In the following table there are several proposals at this purpose by different scholars: 


Years of reign of Sethnakht


1200 b.C. - 1198 b.C.


1996 b.C. - 1994 b.C.


1990 b.C. - 1987 b.C.


1188 b.C. - 1186 b.C.


1187 b.C. - 1185 b.C.


1186 b.C. - 1184 b.C.


1186 b.C. - 1184 b.C.

von Beckerath

1185 b.C. - 1182 b.C.

The dates regarded as more probable by the Egyptologists are those proposed by von Beckerath, that is from 1185 to 1182 b.C. which we will rely on for the present analysis. Almost certainly the Israelites entered Palestine not before the second year of Sethnakht. The encounter of Joshua with the representative of the pharaoh, in fact, happened soon after the crossing of the Jordan river, in June,  right at the beginning of the year; it’s highly improbable that it could have been the first year of Sethnakht. According to this theory Israel should have entered Palestine on June 1184 b.C. after 24 years had passed since the beginning of the exodus, on June 1208 b.C..

Most probably Sethnakht entered into negotiations with the Israelites, through Moses, since the beginning of the adventure that took him on the throne of Egypt, or even before. It might be that in his strategy aimed to conquering power an important role was reserved for them: that is, to take care of Palestine while he was taking care of Egypt. In this case, we have to assume that a pact of alliance was stipulated amongst them.

There is no way of knowing who of the two, Sethnakht or Moses, had taken the initiative to contact the other, but in any case we cannot exclude that it was Moses himself. He had promised to “his” Israelites that they would have settled into Palestine, and the only way to fulfil his promise was to seek the support of a pharaoh, possibly not belonging to the XIX dynasty. We can even hypothesise that it was him who suggested to Sethnakht the idea of sizing power, proposing him a well detailed plan. He was indeed capable of doing that. After all it was him who conceived that most daring enterprise of robbing  Merenptah of an entire population and destroying in the Red Sea the war chariots charged to stop him. The advise of a character like him couldn’t be discarded too lightly.

In that moment the Jews were dispersed in the Midianite territory, centred on the Ovda Valley, north of Eilat. As soon as the negotiations with Sethnakht were concluded, they got together and went back to Kadesh, passing through Avrona and Eilat (Nm. 33) and then heading along the Darb el-Aza, the main track  that from Eilat runs all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. They started the journey probably at the end of summer of the first year of Sethnakht and in autumn they reached Kadesh. A few weeks later Aaron died, whom they mourned for 30 days. They then went on heading towards the Jordan Valley.

They annihilated two populations opposing their passage, thus conquering all the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and of the Jordan river, and finally they set camp at Sittim, in the Moab Valley. It was not later than March. Here they stopped for a while, waiting for summer, traditionally the favourite season for the beginning of military campaigns.

In April Moses died and two months later Joshua crossed the Jordan. If it was the year 1184 b.C. (most probable), we can determine the precise dates also for these events, just calculating  the dates of the new moons of spring 1184; we can easily do it utilizing the eclipses’ tables for that year. There was an eclipse on 19 July 1184 (today’s 7 July), therefore the preceding  new moons of spring happened on 19 June, 21 May and 21 April 1184 b.C. (respectively 7 June, 9 May and 9 April of today). Therefore, the following dates are fixed as follows:

-          19 June 1184, beginning of the first year of Sethnakht, the last one spent by Israel in the desert

-          the first day of the fifth month (Nm. 33, 38), that is the 16 October 1184, death of Aaron

-          the first day of the eleventh month (Dt. 1, 3), that is the 11 April 1183, death of Moses

-          8 June 1183 begins the year of the conquest of Palestine

-          18 June 1183 Joshua crosses the Jordan river and sets the camp at Gilgala. That same day he meets the commander of the Egyptian army in Palestine and asks for orders

-          after 24 years Israel puts an end to its rebellion and start to conquest the Palestine under the pharaoh’s orders

-          October 1183 Joshua puts an end to his military campaign and allots the conquered territory to the tribes of Israel

-         November 1183 b.C. [1] Sethnakht  engraves the stele of Elefantina, where he decleares that all the empire is conquered and pacified  

[1] The official Egyptian date is the tenth day of the second month of the “shemou” season of the second year of  Sethnakht. This date is referred to the Egyptian civil calendar, that in 1183 begun around 28 May (greg)