Reply to the Richard Hess’ review of Old Testament in Archaeology and History

Ebeling, Jennie, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott, and Paul V. M. Flesher. The Old Testament in Archaeology and History. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2018.

 

By Mark Elliott and Ed Wright
Arizona Center for Judaic Studies
University of Arizona
February 2020

 

We thank Professor Hess for his review that in a couple instances alerted us to new information. However, at several points in his review of our textbook,  Old Testament in Archaeology and History , he misrepresents what we say, or is simply mistaken in his critiques.

Criticism on Chapter 2: Introduction to the Old Testament and its Character as Historical Evidence

1. Pentateuchal Criticism

Hess claims that the focus on “Pentateuchal criticism” rejects or ignores any view that critiques this approach." This is false. We did not ignore critics of Wellhausen’s approach. In this general summary for beginning students, we discussed a number of authors who disputed Wellhausen, notably Gunkel on oral tradition, Smith concerning Ugarit, Hess himself on personal names in Genesis, Milgrom on dating the Priestly source, Hendel on the use of memory in Exodus, and Hurvitz on the Priestly source that should be dated to the pre-exilic period rather than to the postexilic period as argued by Wellhausen. Here the issue is that Hess simply doesn’t accept critical assessments or our conclusions which best reflects the consensus of most biblical scholars in the Academy.

2. Dating Ancient Hebrew

Hess states: “For example, the linguistic evidence for the broad dating of biblical Hebrew into Classical and Late (as well as Early) is dismissed as “a long way from reaching a consensus.” In this case Hess has unfortunately mischaracterized what was written. Here is the full quote from page 72: “Moreover, over the past twenty years or so, there has been an ongoing discussion among Hebraists about the efficacy of language for dating the origins of biblical writings, and in the present moment those scholars seem to be a long way from reaching a consensus on the matter…” We didn’t dismiss any theory on dating “Hebrew into Classical and Late” time frames. The point of that entire paragraph is to say that today there are scholars who, on the basis of linguistic features, date material early (as Hess would seemingly prefer) and others late. We think that a majority of scholars would find that paragraph to be an honest and fair assessment of the state of the debate, and one of our goals in this textbook is to represent reasonable perspectives on debated issues.

3. The Merneptah Stele

Hess points out that “the clear mention of ‘Israel’ in the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, dating the existence of Israel as a people group in the land of southern Canaan at the end of the thirteenth century BCE, is followed at the bottom of the same page by the what the authors regard as the ‘incisive’ statement of S. R. Driver that archaeology has not confirmed any ‘single fact’ recorded in the Hebrew Bible prior to the tenth century BC. Yet the books of Joshua and Judges would place Israel in the land by the late thirteenth century BC, in agreement with the Merneptah stele.”

 

Driver wrote these words in 1899 while countering specious claims by apologetic/faith-based scholars who employed archaeology in attacks on higher criticism. He was eluding to Shishak (tenth century) as the only evidence that supported the biblical narrative. Just what was the archaeological evidence that verified the events in the books of Joshua and Judges that Hess is referring to that should have been known to Driver in 1899?  There was no evidence. Merneptah Stele does not verify the books of Joshua or Judges. There is no mention of Israelite invasions or destruction of cities in Canaan by Israel on the stele.  The books of Joshua and Judges hardly place Israel in Canaan in the thirteenth century. It is the archeological data that most likely places an entity archaeologist believe is Israel in thirteenth century Canaan. The internal biblical dates in 1 Kings and Judges do not coincide with Merneptah; instead, they place the Exodus centuries before Merneptah. And certainly, no respectable biblical scholar argues that Joshua and Judges are contemporary accounts of the events they portray.  

As for  Driver’s comments on Merneptah, they are rather more nuanced than Hess presents. Driver was responding to claims that the Merneptah Stele validated the Exodus. He never argued that there were no Israelites in thirteenth century Canaan; rather, he argued that to use this stele as an Egyptian version of the Exodus was untenable. He pointed to the problem that the stele described Israel as “desolate” and the inscription did not confirm an Exodus story of “triumphant deliverance.” The inscription was indefinite and could not prove the Exodus account as it appears in the Bible. The stele only mentions an entity called Israel living in Canaan at that time. We should point out that, despite Merneptah’s boasts, Israel was not destroyed, and the stele does not confirm the Exodus. Joshua and Judges don’t mention Merneptah’s invasion, nor do they confirm the destruction of “Israel.” More importantly, they have no recognition of Egyptian military and political control of Canaan throughout the Late Bronze age. But before Hess dismisses Driver concerning this egregious comment, one should recognize Driver’s reputation as a biblical scholar. One contemporary, George Albert Cooke, called Driver “the greatest Hebraist of his generation, recognized both in England and in America as a master among Old Testament scholars.” And more recently John Rogerson described Driver’s An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament as the most influential introduction “ever to be written by an Englishman,... in advancing the critical cause in English Old Testament study” (1985, 275). The book became the standard work for English and American Bible students until 1941.

Criticism on Chapter 8: The Book of Genesis and Israel’s Ancestral Traditions

4. El Worship

Hess points to the discussion of the worship of El as needing further explanation. He states, “A few additional notes are appropriate. Jacob’s stone pillars are explicitly memorials, not objects representing other deities (as in Deuteronomy 12:2-3). The tree that Abraham plants (an ’eshel) is identified with a different term from the Asherah pole forbidden in Deuteronomy 16:21.” We don’t agree with the following comments by Hess.

  1. “Jacob’s stone pillars are explicitly memorials, not objects representing other deities (as in Deuteronomy 12:2-3).”

In light of Jacob’s actions, this appears to be more than a simple memorial. Jacob anointed the pillar with oil and made a vow at Beth-el (house of El), a Canaanite city until the beginning of Iron Age I. This appears to be the kind of polytheistic practice prohibited in Lev 26:1; Deut 7:5 12:3, 16: 21-22.

  1. “The tree that Abraham plants (an ’eshel) is identified with a different term from the Asherah pole forbidden in Deuteronomy 16:21.”

Eshel is used once in the Torah (Gen 21:33), and after planting this tree Abraham invokes the name of “Yahweh, the everlasting God” (el el-olam). Day argues that this passage appears “to support the view that the Asherah was or could sometimes be an actual tree …” (2000, 54). Note also in this regard Deuteronomy 16:21: “You shall not plant for yourself any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of Yahweh your God that you make for yourself.” Day also points out “Probably El-Olam was the local Canaanite god of Beer-sheba but as we know from archaeology that Beer-sheba was not settled before c. 1200 BCE, the cult there will not antedate that time” (19 ). We did not see any need to lessen the worship of El.

5. Ur of the Chaldeans

Hess writes, “Contrary to Elliott and Wright, the term “Chaldeans” (in “Ur of the Chaldeans”) is increasingly unlikely to be anachronistic, as it is now attested in the twelfth BC (see review of Becking, chapter 19 below).”

We appreciate professor Hess alerting us to new evidence concerning the first mention of “Chaldeans” now possibly dating to the eleventh century. The information can be found in Ron Zadok’s “A Cylinder Inscription of Aššur-ketta-lēšir II” (Zadok 2017, 309-40).

Zadok notes that a cylinder inscription of Aššur-ketta-lēšir II – king of Māri at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the eleven century bce – mentions the Chaldeans reaching the middle abur Valley early in Tiglath-Pileser I’s reign (1114–1076). Zadok argues that practically “all the Chaldeans migrated to Babylonia….” Another cylinder inscription of Aššur-ketta-lēšir II leads him to conclude the following: “It can be surmised that the Chaldeans penetrated and overran the Babylonian alluvial plain as early as the eleventh century BCE. Babylonian sources might contain some vague reminiscences of this process” (333). It should be noted that Zadok’s article was published in 2017, when our book was already in print.

However, at present this new information does not change much concerning “Ur of the Chaldeans.” The Chaldeans’ reign in and control of Babylon came much later. “The first Chaldean ruler of Babylonia was Marduk-apla-usur, who reigned at some point at the end of the ninth or early eighth century (Frame 104). This point is also noted by Bill Arnold (2011, 179-85).

Of course, Zadok’s article is welcome information, but it does not change the fact there is no evidence of Middle or Late Bronze Age Chaldean control of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, and so there are no data supporting the account of Abraham living in “Ur of the Chaldeans.” The phrase only makes sense after the end of the ninth or beginning of the eighth centuries, hundreds of years after the purported time frame of the folk tales of Abraham and his family.

6. Camels

Concerning the dispute on the dated appearance of camels in the Levant, Hess states "Camels appear in a Middle Bronze Age ceramic design from Alalakh with indication of bearing a load. They also appear as early as the third millennium BC in lexical texts (Martin Heide, “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible,” Ugarit Forschungen 42 [2010]: 331-83).

As we pointed out, Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef argue that “The new evidence indicates that the first significant appearance of camels in the Aravah Valley was not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE. This date accords with data from the Negev and the settled lands further to the north when the low chronology is applied to the early Iron IIA (2013, 227)…. As most probably significant trade between southern Arabia and the Levant was not feasible before the use of camels as pack animals (see, e.g., Jasmin 2006), it could not have commenced before the last third of the 10th century BCE” (283). If, according to Hess, domesticated camels are not anachronisms in Genesis, then why are they not in the archaeological record until the tenth century in Canaan?

7. Philistines

Concerning Isaac’s and Abraham’s encounter with the Philistine Abimelech at Gerar, Hess argues, “Gerar (Tel Haror) may be a small site in the Late Bronze Age (and later) but it is one of the largest sites in southern Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 40 acres), a traditional date for the stories of Genesis 20 and 26. The use of the term, “Philistine,” may be an updating of references to Aegean people in the region. Aegean culture is attested by Middle Bronze Age Cypriot pottery and Minoan-style handles.” 

Here in his effort to preserve the integrity of the biblical narrative, Hess has moved the goal posts. Knowing full well that the Philistines did not inhabit Canaan in the Middle and Late Bronze age, and are not mentioned in the Tell Amarna letters, he wishes to view the term “Philistines” as an update of “Aegeans.” It is very difficult to believe that Aegean invaders founded a small city-state at Tel Haror during the Middle Bronze Age before the larger-scale invasion of the Philistines in the early twelveth century. Thousands of  imported sherds and vessels from Cyprus and the Mycenean sphere of culture have been uncovered throughout Canaanite cities in the Late Bronze age and not just at Haror. The vast majority of archaeologists see this as evidence of extensive trade; few scholars are arguing for a large scale Aegean invasion in Canaan in the Late Bronze age. Could Abraham have met an Aegean/Philistine named Abimelech in Canaan during some undetermined era? Even if Abraham existed, there is no conceivable way to verify if the stories attributed to him are historical. For Hess, the possibility that something happened in Genesis, no matter how remote, is evidence that it likely did take place. Hess appears to have missed Anne Killebrew’s chapter in our book on the Philistines. Killebrew, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Philistines, writes: “The Philistines first appear in Genesis (Gen 21:32-34; 26:1, 8, 14-15) where their encounters with Abraham and Isaac are described. Most scholars consider these verses in Genesis and later in the book of Exodus (Exod 13:17; 15:14; 23:31) as chronologically misplaced and anachronistic” (318).  As the vast majority of scholars maintain, Philistines in Genesis are chronologically misplaced and anachronistic.

8. Dan

Hess also writes: “The mention of Dan in Genesis 14:14 is no more surprising than the modern statement that “the Dutch settled New York” (rather than New Amsterdam). Here we agree, it is not surprising especially since the Torah was written long after the events portrayed in the text. The reference to Dan is simply irreconcilable with later history. It is clear, then, that the appearance of Dan in Genesis 14:14 is an anachronism. As has been known now for at least two centuries, updated equivalents of outdated archaic words demonstrate that Genesis is a composite work written and edited by different authors from varying eras.

Criticism on Chapter 9: Israel in and out of Egypt

1. Hess seems to believe that a criterion for the historicity of the Exodus is the story itself. “Why did the nation choose to begin its history as a nation of slaves? Who would invent such a national epic?” Lots of peoples/cultures would. Oppression to freedom, and class mobility stories, are common throughout history. This is not a historical argument. It is immune from both evidence and examination. All scholars recognize that there were thousands of slaves in Egypt. The possibility that some Israelites could have traced their origins to slaves in Egypt does not make the entire Exodus story itself literal history. Incredulity over the fact that people would create or at least elaborate on a story involving early slavery and oppression leading eventually to freedom under divine blessing is not evidence that the story actually happened as written.

2. Hess writes: “A few pages later the authors note that “the book of Joshua’s stories of the conquest of Canaan never even presents the Egyptians as opponents in battle. A critical reader might ask, how important is this to establish historicity? How often must the accounts mention the names of pharaohs and Egypt or the Egyptians?”

Where are the Egyptians is an important question. Joshua and Judges have no recognition of Egyptian military and political control of Canaan throughout the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages. This appears to reflect a lack of knowledge of the historical reality of the 13th to 12th centuries in Canaan. Again, this demonstrates that these books were written long after the Early Iron Age.

3. Hess notes that the Tel Amarna letters never mention the Pharaoh’s name, and then surmises that this would lead us to conclude that the Amarna Letters, too, are non-historical since that parallels our comment regarding the absence of pharaoh’s name in the Exodus account.

Hess: “There and in the international correspondence, pharaoh’s name does appear. Regarding “Egypt” or “Egyptian,” only six occurrences can be found in any Late Bronze Age documents from the area of Canaan around Tyre and to its south. This contrasts with the book of Joshua that mentions Egypt/Egyptian 18 times (see R. Hess, “Joshua and Egypt,” cited above, especially p. 149). By the standard of naming pharaohs and their country, the Amarna letters must be non-historical texts, certainly not from the time they purport to come. Of course, that is nonsense as is the “evidence” that the authors of ch. 9 use to decry the exodus account (and that of Joshua).”

Hess’ claims here are totally spurious. We did not “decry the exodus account (and that of Joshua)” in any way. Instead, we stated that there are problems trying to identify historical elements in the exodus story. The “Exodus story itself seems written to avoid historical specificity” and makes it difficult for scholars to determine “when the exodus took place” and we point out that the writers fail to mention the pharaoh (see pp. 241-42). There is nothing radical about these statements. These are the circumstances in the book of Exodus that nearly every biblical historian recognizes. Rather than rejecting the Tel Amarna Letters, we discussed them in our chapter on Egypt (352-254). Of course, the Tel Amarna Letters are contemporary historical documents and their historicity is recognized by all biblical scholars. But more importantly, the Tel Amarna Letters cannot be compared to the book of Exodus whose authors are unknown, and whose composition spanned generations, even centuries according to most scholars.

4. In a long reply, Hess points out that we “argue that many of the sites mentioned in Israel’s wandering that can be identified, were not occupied in the Late Bronze Age (and thus did not exist at that time): Hebron, Arad, Hormah, Heshbon, Dibon, and the kingdoms of Edom and Moab.” He continues to argue, “Names of sites can shift as, for example, Jericho which moved several miles between its OT and NT sites. Heshbon may not have been Tell Heshbon but nearby Late Bronze Age sites such as Tall al-‘Umeiri or Tall Jalul. Dibon is known as a conquered population center in a Late Bronze Age itinerary of Ramesses II (Egyptian tbn). The biblical texts purporting to come from the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age do not require the site to have people living at Hormah. It may simply be a place so-called (“destruction”) due to events (such as battles) there; and there may have been more than one place called Hormah (Numbers 21:3; Judges 1:17). The same may be true of Arad or the site name may have been applied to nearby Tell Mil (Tel Malata). Late Bronze Age pottery and tombs were found near Tell er-Rumeideh, the site ascribed to ancient Hebron. Edom was likely occupied (sedentary) early in the Iron Age, and perhaps earlier, beside the copper mines at or near Khirbet en-Nahas; rather than in the highlands as previously thought. Late Bronze Age towns have already been mentioned and additional ones have been identified by the Madeba Plains Project. This evidence for occupation, whether sedentary or mobile pastoralism, suggests that coalitions could exist, especially temporary ones for special needs.”

As Hess’ response demonstrates, trying to defend the exodus route from this tradition is problematic. Despite the efforts of Hess and other conservative scholars, his observations on the Israelite itineraries in Transjordan are not compelling arguments. Hess’ reply based on “special needs” must depict Transjordanian sites listed in the exodus as having moved, or geographically misplaced, or the names of sites shifted, or there were duplicate sites, or people were living elsewhere. It seems Hess is making an argument that the writers of the exodus have little actual knowledge of thirteenth century geography of Transjordan. Moreover, as Bill Dever has shown (2017: 120-124), there is very little archaeological evidence for thirteenth century settlements in central and southern Jordan despite extensive excavations in this region during the past thirty years and most of the thirty or more sites mentioned in Numbers 21:21-32 remain unknown. Importantly, neither Heshbon nor Dibon were occupied in the mid to late thirteenth century and no evidence of architecture dating to the twelfth-eleventh century has been identified at either site. Until the Iron I pottery excavated at Tell el-‘Umeiri is completely published, it is impossible to know how it compares to pottery characteristic of the Israelite settlements in the central highlands in the eleventh-century (168-169). Dever concludes that the biblical portrait of Transjordan at the time of a thirteenth century exodus is unrealistic and the biblical writers viewed the region from their point of view in the seventh century of or later (124). We may disagree with Dever’s dating of the biblical texts, but as most scholars admit, the texts we possess are centuries removed from the world of thirteenth century Transjordan.

5. Hess writes: “The authors summarize the exodus story and then describe the Documentary Hypothesis which enables them to state as a matter of fact that the exodus account was written down four centuries later. I believe that the Pentateuch contains literary strands similar to the documentary sources. It is, however, speculation that the exodus and other Pentateuchal accounts waited four centuries before ‘they began to be written down.’”

Hess certainly has the right to “believe” whatever he wishes about the dating of the Pentateuchal sources, but what is certainly true is the fact that the scholarly consensus is that these narratives date to the ninth or eighth centuries BCE. That is not to deny that there are memories or traditions reflected in those narratives of lifeways related to earlier periods. In the end, these folk tales were altered, modified and embellished and initially passed on in an oral context. The final product is part of a long and complex process of transmission. These texts do not contain the historical information needed to create a dependable history of the Exodus. The narratives as they stand betray their later date in multiple ways, again as the majority of scholars have recognized now for generations.

We appreciate Prof. Hess’ interaction with topics that present challenges to traditional/conservative approaches to issues in the study of the Hebrew Bible. His notes fit into a long line of traditional/conservative responses to these issues that for the vast majority of biblical scholars in the academy are largely settled issues. In the end, we find that the points he raises amount to grasping at straws in an attempt to defend the strict historicity of the biblical narratives. That approach is comforting to a good many people, and we respect that. As editors of an introductory textbook, we were committed to a project that presents a picture that reflects a general consensus among the majority of biblical scholars.

References

Arnold, Bill T. 2011. “Aramean Origins: The Evidence from Babylonia.” Archiv für Orientforschung 52: 179-85.

Ben-Yosef, E and Lidar Sapir-Hen. 2013. “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern  Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley.” Tel Aviv 40: 277–285.

Day, John. 2002. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. New York: Continuum.

Dever, William G. 2017. Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Frame, Grant. 2013. “The Political History and Historical Geography of the Aramean, Chaldean, and Arab Tribes in Babylonia in the Neo-Assyrian Period.” In Aramaeans, Chaldeans and Arabs in Babylonia and Palestine in the First Millennium B.C., edited by A. Berlejung and M. P. Streck, 87–121. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Hogarth, Driver, Griffith, Headlam, Gardner, Haverfield, . . . Haverfield, F. (1899). Authority and archaeology, sacred and profane; essays on the relation of monuments to Biblical and classical literature. London: J. Murray.

Rogerson, John William. 1985. Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Zadok, Ron. 2017. “A Cylinder Inscription of Aššur-ketta-lēšir II.” In “Now It Happened in Those Days”: Studies in Biblical, Assyrian, and Other Ancient Near Eastern Historiography Presented to Mordechai Cogan on His 75th Birthday, edited by Amitai Baruchi-Unna, Tova L. Forti, Shmuel Ahituv, Israel Eph’al, and Jeffrey H. Tigay, 309-40. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns.

 

 

Article Comments

Submitted by Niels Peter Lemche on Wed, 02/12/2020 - 10:01

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Good response.

One point: If I am right, the EA-letters includes a couple of references to the name of Pharaoh, in the correspondence between Pharaoh and the Babylonian king. Hess' argument is ridiculous.

He should be happy if there was a scholarly consensus of the dating of the sources of the Pentateuch. There is none such consensus today, except in the backwaters of critical scholarship. The debate today centers on either very late 'monarchic' dates (Josiah) or Persian or Hellenistic dates.

Submitted by Martin Hughes on Fri, 02/21/2020 - 14:11

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The proposition that Israel existed in Palestine c.1200 might be regarded as confirmed by M’ptah, the proposition that Israel was dominant in Palestine might well seem to be contradicted. So whether Driver was right or wrong depends on which you think is the fact that the Bible affirms.
Driver was ‘alluding’ to Shishak, perhaps eluding the arguments of the fundamentalists.
The Bible does not really say that the Israelites originated as slaves but that at one point they were reduced to slavery. The Romans too claimed that they had gone through a phase of being refugees, even a miserable rabble, before beginning a career as conquerors. Just to mention that that popular thinker Boris Johnson - in a book called, as I remember, ‘Have I got Views for You!’ - that there was influence between Israelite and Roman foundation stories.

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