Discovering the Danite Migration

Apostasy ran rampant within Israel during the difficult days of the judges when “there was no king in Israel [and] everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). The tribe of Dan’s migration from its God-given territory to Laish (Leshem), a distant Canaanite city, typifies Israel’s apostasy (Josh. 19:47).

During the time of the judges, “the tribe of the Danites was seeking an inheritance for itself to dwell in” (Judg. 18:1). Apparently, the Danites were too impatient to wait for their divinely appointed tribal allotment; so they claimed an inheritance in Laish.

The Danites abandoned their God-given territory because they embraced an unholy compromise with the pagan Canaanite culture. They hired a wayward Levite (17:7–13) and forcibly confiscated an Ephraimite’s pagan household idols for themselves (18:14–21). Then they invaded the isolated, peaceful city of Laish and slaughtered its inhabitants (vv. 27–29).

Dan’s spiritual corruption resulted in the entrenched apostasy of Israel’s northern kingdom, leading to the nation’s exile from its land.1 Dan’s immorality was fully manifested when King Jeroboam established an illegitimate shrine and priesthood in the north to rival God’s ordained place and priesthood in Jerusalem (1 Ki. 12:25–31). Jeroboam’s plan succeeded in part because the earlier Danite settlement made spiritual compromises.

A team from the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem led by Avraham Biran discovered the location of Jeroboam’s high place at Tel el-Qadi on Israel’s northernmost border.2 A Hellenistic-era inscription in Greek and Aramaic that recorded a vow “to the god who is in Dan,” made by a person named Zoilos, positively identified the site.3 A Greek inscription on an altar step, reading Temenos Dan (the high place at Dan), identified the high place.

The team found cultic artifacts that indicated Israel’s syncretistic worship here, the largest religious site ever found from the Israelite period.4 Its excavations also revealed the period of the earlier Canaanite settlement of Laish, including a large, arched mudbrick gate that served as the entrance to the city. Here, too, the team discovered evidence of when Dan resettled Laish.

Prior to this discovery, many biblical critics contended the entire story was made up in the later postexilic period and added as an appendix to the book of Judges. The Tel Dan excavations countered this anti-biblical theory.

Renewed excavations at the southwestern end of the high place provided further evidence of the pagan influence on the Danites in Laish. This excavation uncovered evidence of probable Canaanite intermarriage with the Danites and foreign influence from Aegean, Syrian, Cyprian, and Egyptian sources.5

Dr. David Ilan, who directed the excavations, believes Egypt controlled Dan during much of the Late Bronze Age; and the presence of Greek-style ceramic vessels, ritual objects, and tools demonstrated Dan’s adoption of foreign beliefs and practices. Some believe such influence may have come from the Aegean people who occupied much of the tribal area given to the Danites (Gen. 10:14; Judg. 5:17).

God purposed for Dan to conquer the prevailing pagan culture and witness to the foreign merchants who traveled its coastal plain. The tribe’s failure led later to Philistine dominance of this area.

Scripture records the details of these places and events, and archaeologists confirmed them with physical discoveries. Such excavations highlight how defections (like the Danite migration) from Israel’s covenant relationship with God led to Israel’s spiritual corruption and fall. These accounts instruct us to avoid the spiritual compromises that divided Israel and led the nation spiritually astray.

ENDNOTES
        1. John Lübbe, “The Danite Invasion of Laish and the Purpose of the Book of Judges,” OTE 23/3 (2010), 691.
        2. Avraham Biran, Biblical Dan (Hebrew Union College, 1994).
        3. “Archaeological Sites in Israel-Dan- The Biblical City,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 29, 1998.
        4. Avraham Biran, “Sacred Spaces,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1998.
        5. Philippe Bohstrom, “Tribe of Dan: Sons of Israel, or of Greek Mercenaries Hired by Egypt?” Haaretz, December 4, 2016 (tinyurl.com/DaniteInfluence).

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