Archaeology, Biblical Research and Ancient Israel

Biblical verses and archaeological finds cannot simply be superimposed. Results from excavations cannot and do not confirm stories from the Bible, if only because archaeology’s research aims are completely different from the Bible’s meaning.

See Also: Inhabiting the Promised Land: Exploring the Complex Relationship between Archaeology and Ancient Israel as Depicted in the Bible (Oxbow Books, 2019).

By Margreet Steiner
Independent Archaeologist
December 2019

Almost weekly, headlines shout out new findings that supposedly confirm the stories told in the Bible. The palace of King David has been found, an inscription mentioning the giant Goliath, a seal that once belonged to Queen Jezebel, a text in which the prophet Balaam cautions and curses. But how reliable are these accounts? Is it even possible to connect archaeological finds and biblical texts that unambiguous? The exultant stories reach the Internet and the newspapers; the critical comments forwarded by others get much less attention.

It seemed high time to write a book for the general public to fill in this lacuna. A book that not only explores how the biblical texts depict the people inhabiting the Promised Land and the towns and temples they built but that also shows what archaeological research reveals of the land, its people, and the ways they lived their lives. A book that takes the reader to where archaeology and biblical texts meet, and that explains how to interpret the correspondences and differences.

I have endeavored to write that book, based on many years of experience giving lectures for people interested in what used to be called “biblical archaeology.” This book does not set out to confirm the Bible nor the opposite. It aims to explore ancient texts as well as the results of dozens of years of archaeological research. Information is gleaned from royal inscriptions and mundane cooking pots, from heroic biblical stories and excavated shrines, from names mentioned in texts and pig bones in the ground. Together, these sources allow us a deeper understanding of the people inhabiting the ancient land.

I appreciate the opportunity offered by the editors of this website to explain how I set about this project. The following is a slightly adapted and shortened version of chapter 2 of the book: In search of Abraham and his descendants.

A major point of discussion in the past, and today, is when the patriarchs lived. In other words, which historical period do they belong to? Whoever asks that question implicitly assumes that they actually did live in a certain period. That does not mean that every detail of their life stories has to be correct, but it does imply that the stories, as handed down to us, have a historical core that survived in age-old oral traditions. By giving the patriarchs their rightful place in time, one can, as it were, “prove” that the general storyline – the nomadic patriarchs of the people of Israel coming from elsewhere to the Promised Land – is historical. Of course, a drawback of this approach is that if you cannot place the stories in a historical period, that would mean that they are not true. It is, therefore, vital for faithful researchers to find the “correct” period for these stories.

This has become a parlor game with many dedicated players. The rules are as follows: details in the narrative that are historically or geographically verifiable are isolated and compared to historical data from the Bronze and Iron Ages – any earlier period is too early; any later one is too late. In this way, one can arrive at the correct period and prove in one attempt that the stories are historically verifiable. There are various hypotheses.

The patriarchs lived in the Intermediate Period (2400-2000 BC)

In the 1950s, the archaeologist W.F. Albright dated the stories to the Intermediate Period. The preceding Early Bronze Age had seen the first urban societies in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant. This period would have ended with the invasion of the Amorites, a nomadic people from the Syrian steppe. According to the Bible, the patriarchs were nomadic tent-dwellers. In this theory, Abraham was a wealthy Amorite caravan trader, traveling from Mesopotamia (Ur) to Syria (Haran) and from there on to the south.

However, the hypothesis of an Amorite invasion destroying the urban civilization of the Early Bronze Age has since been discredited. There are no traces of a major invasion in the region. The towns rather seem to have suffered a gradual decline, perhaps as a result of climate change (droughts). Also, archaeological evidence does not support the existence of a major nomadic people wandering over a wide geographical area. On the contrary, the Intermediate Period saw mainly rural societies with farmers living in small and large villages. Moreover, the towns, particularly those mentioned in the patriarchal narratives such as Hebron, Shechem, Bethel, Gerar, and Beersheba, were unoccupied in the Intermediate period. So Albright’s theory has little support left.

The patriarchs belong in the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BC)

The cities mentioned in the patriarchal stories may not have been settled during the Intermediate Period, but they were certainly inhabited in the Middle Bronze Age. Researchers also found parallels between the patriarchal narratives and Mesopotamian legal texts such as those from Mari (17th century BC) and the Codex of Hammurabi (18th century BC). The problem is that various prominent features of the Middle Bronze Age, such as the major fortified centers of Hazor and Megiddo, are missing from the patriarchal stories. The Mesopotamian parallels are not limited to the Middle Bronze Age; they appear in other periods as well. For example, in Nuzi (15th century BC), a barren woman was obliged to give a female slave to her husband to give birth in her place – as in the story of Sarah and Hagar. That puts a Middle Bronze Age setting of the stories in jeopardy – they may as well date to the Late Bronze Age or even later.

The patriarchs date to the Early Iron Age (1200-1000 BC)

It has also been posited, based on things that were earlier seen as anachronisms in the biblical texts, that the patriarchs lived in the Early Iron Age. Examples are the mention of the Philistine king of Gerar (Gen. 26:1) and the presence of Aramaeans (Gen 25:20). Both peoples, Philistines and Aramaeans, have only been identified in the region in the Iron Age. A setting of the patriarchal stories in the Early Iron Age would completely turn the biblical chronology on its head – after all, the consensus was that the people of Israel had fled out of Egypt and settled in the Promised Land at the beginning of the Early Iron Age. Everything that happened between Abraham and the Exodus would now have to be squeezed into a very short time frame. Apart from that, many details in the narratives are at odds with Early Iron Age society.

It has been suggested, among others, by Thomas Thompson in the 1970s that the stories are not historical at all and, therefore, cannot be dated to a particular period. They are folk tales, possibly incorporating memories from ancient times – “ancient” being a diffuse period with no particular time frame. That does not mean that the events themselves are completely made up (we do not know that either), but we have to interpret the whole story cycle as a composition put together with a particular purpose in mind and then placed in an earlier period. However, if these biblical stories cannot be placed in a historical setting, if they are not historically “true,” why were they ever written? Who invented or composed them? And when, and for which audience? In other words, what is their Sitz im Leben?

As usual, scholars agree on some aspects, but not on others. The disciplines of both archaeology and history have recently developed surprising new insights into the background of these narratives.

Traditional Sitz im Leben

Most biblical and archaeological scholars assume that the stories featured in this chapter have their origins in the Iron Age, even though they may have been written down and edited later. The period of the Exile in Babylon would have especially triggered a need to consolidate the old traditions and to record the history of the people of Judah. Oral traditions and stories, legends, and archives were transformed and woven into a grand narrative cycle with a clear historical core.

An example of this trend is the study by the biblical scholar H. Jagersma, A History of Israel in the Old Testament Period. This book assumes the historicity of the biblical stories unless proven otherwise. The Sitz im Leben is considered to be the Iron Age, 900-600 BC, for the stories mentioned above, with possible later additions and revisions. Jagersma’s book is an erudite retelling of the biblical narrative within a context provided by archaeological finds and texts from Israel and its neighbors.

An archaeologist making the case for the historical reliability of (some of) the biblical stories is William Dever. He has written a book with the ominous title What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel.

Minimalists

In contrast, some biblical scholars reject any trace of historicity in the biblical narratives. Thomas Thompson, in his book The Bible in History: How Writers Created A Past, even states that “The Bible’s Israel … is literary fiction.” We should stop searching for a historical background for these stories, which according to him, were mostly written in the Hellenistic period (4th -2nd centuries BC) and focus instead on their theological and literary meaning. Biblical scholars who reject a historical core in the Bible sometimes get the derogatory label of “minimalists.”

Brilliant scholars in the 7th century BC

In 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman published a book titled The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. The authors claim that the patriarchal narratives were clearly written in the 8th and 7th centuries BC from the perspective of the kingdom of Judah. They see these stories as a sharp comment on the political condition in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods. The clear focus on Judah in the book of Genesis is an indication of this background. The authors conclude that the patriarchal traditions should be seen as a “pious prehistory” of the Israelite people with Judah as the prime mover. The stories would have been written in Jerusalem in the late 7th century BC by a group of brilliant scribes and scholars. In those days, Judah was just a residual state, subdued first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. To give its desperate people a history and one that elevated their kingdom on the international stage was the purpose of this (religious-nationalist) exercise. A historical core is largely missing in these stories since they rather reflect the ideology of that period. The authors base their dating in the 7th century BC on numerous details in the stories, which do not fit into earlier or later periods.

One can imagine that this thesis has been heavily criticized. The suggestion that these stories sprouted solely from the imagination of a group of clever scribes at the court in Jerusalem was a bit too “innovative.” It is, however, interesting to see the stories dated solely by archaeological remains rather than through the “critical method,” for once. But it remains a hypothesis.

An invented history after the Exile

In 2005, the historian Mario Liverani published a book titled Israel’s History and the History of Israel. In this fascinating study, he presents two versions of the history of ancient Israel. The first is a “traditional” history based on archaeological remains, inscriptions, Assyrian and Egyptian texts, and a critical study of the biblical text. This he calls “A Normal History.”

The second half of the book addresses the Sitz im Leben of the patriarchal stories, the Exodus and the Conquest. Liverani states that these stories were composed after the Exile in Babylon. After his conquest of Babylon, the Persian king Cyrus permitted the exiles to return to their homelands. Not only were Judeans allowed to return (2 Chron. 36:22-23), but also exiles from many different countries, as shown by the Edict of Cyrus, a cuneiform text found in Babylon and now on display in the British Museum.

However, when the Judean exiles returned in 538 BC, they found, not an empty land, as they might have expected, but a fully settled country. There were “the people of the land,” those Judeans that had not been exiled by the Babylonians but had stayed and still adhered to the ancient Jahwistic religion. Then, there were exiles from elsewhere, who had been sent to Judah by the Babylonians. There may also have been Persian and other soldiers who had stayed behind after their campaigns and settled there.

The stories mentioned above, then, were written to create a possible “blueprint” for the returnees of how to live together with all these different groups - namely in isolation. The returnees were the chosen people, intermarriages were not permitted, and JHWH was a jealous god. The stories amalgamated ancient folk traditions, historical sources, and Babylonian mythological stories into an epic narrative of a people brought by God to the Promised Land (like the exiles from Babylonia), where they had to take on various local groups. Notice the similarity between the Egyptian sojourn and servitude with the people working on the pharaoh’s great building projects and the seventy years of exile and servitude in Babylon, working on Nebuchadnezzar’s building projects or the similarity between the Exodus and the return of the exiles from Babylon. Liverani calls this part of his book “An Invented History.”

You may realize that the same thing is happening again in our time: the Jewish people’s return to the Promised Land, the myth of the empty land, the conflicts with the local population, and the old stories being used as justification for a renewed settlement of the land. In the past thirty years, the biblical stories have increasingly dominated this process. And that is something that Liverani’s devisers of an invented history, or Finkelstein and Silberman’s brilliant scribes would never have foreseen…

Epilogue

So many Bible stories, so many excavations and finds, so many inscriptions, and so many different opinions and interpretations. Would the reader of this book now be capable to “read” the biblical stories in the light of the results of excavations? Or relate the archaeological finds to the information extracted from the Bible? Probably not. But maybe this has been made clear: biblical verses and archaeological finds cannot simply be superimposed. Results from excavations cannot and do not confirm stories from the Bible, if only because archaeology’s research aims are completely different from the Bible’s meaning.

Archaeological research sets out to find traces of the people inhabiting the land and from that deduce the social, economic, religious and political systems in which they lived. And yes, sometimes it is possible to glimpse their historical development. The Bible’s meaning is not to describe the lives of the peoples and the history of their kingdoms but to show how God intervened in those lives and histories. The stories were once written down to communicate this central idea, not to be “true.” That does not mean that no historically reliable components are present in the stories; it means that archaeology and the Bible approach the ancient land and its people from completely different angles. Sometimes they converge, but often they do not.

In the best of times, excavation results can provide a picture of the tangible situation “on the ground,” of the living conditions in the region in which the biblical stories are set. And - sometimes - the biblical stories can give insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people living in the Iron Age, even if these stories were written down long after the fact.

I hope that after reading this book, the reader will take a step back when hearing once again that archaeology confirms the Bible, that this time an excavated inscription really proves that David slew Goliath, or that archaeologists have found the palace of Queen Jezebel. I hope that s/he - with me - thinks: No, that is not what archaeology does or can do. The relationship between archaeology and the Bible is much more complicated than is presented here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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