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"Chapter 26: Biblical Archaeology "


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Biblical archaeology is another immense area of study, so large that we can do no more than give an introduction to it. The remains that have been dug up are of two basic kinds, written and unwritten.

Genesis 23:3-20 tells us that when his wife, Sarah, died at Hebron, Abraham bought land from the Hittites to use as a burial place. There was once a great Hittite empire in the eastern part of Asia Minor, extending down into Canaan at the point of its greatest expansion (two periods: 1900-1650 B.C. and 1430-1200 B.C.). Some Hittite monuments had already been discovered in the seventeenth century, but it was only in the late nineteenth century that much excavating was done. A German expedition that began in 1906 found Hittite state archives, more than twenty thousand clay tablets written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped writing). The writing was not deciphered until 1915, when the Czech F. Hrozny managed to read the tablets and found that the language was related to Indo-European (the ancestor of most families of languages of Europe and some in India).

Special interest has centered on the Hittite vassal treaties. Pioneer work in this field was done by G. E. Mendenhall (see Biblical Archaeologist Reader, vol. 3, pp. 25-53, and D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, rev. ea., Biblical Institute, Rome, 1978). There are some resemblances in format and wording between such Hittite treaties and the covenant described in Exodus 20 and Joshua 24. However, it does not seem likely that the Hebrews deliberately modeled the covenant on the Hittite treaties. Similarities are not nearly close enough to require that, and we know similar situations can call forth similar responses.

Ugarit, though not mentioned in the Bible, has yielded a rich find of tablets. It is a city on the Phoenician coast that flourished in the period about 2000-1200 B.C. The modern site is called Ras Shamra. About fourteen hundred tablets in Ugaritic have been found, in a cuneiform that is close to alphabetic.

From the Ugaritic myths we learn how to understand better the language found in Amos 1:3 to 2:8 and Proverbs 30:18-31. Ugaritic often uses a synonymous parallelism wherein a thought is repeated in different words in the next line. The synonym for any number is the number plus 1. Amos 1:3, for example, says, "For three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment." The two numbers are considered the same. Similarly, ten thousand becomes a synonym for one thousand (see Stories from Ancient Canaan, ed. and tr. by M.D. Coogan, Westminster, 1978; esp. pp. 1418).

Since Ugaritic is a Semitic language rather similar in some ways to Hebrew, Mitchell Dahood, in his three-volume commentary on, and translation of, the Psalms (Anchor Bible, 16-17A), thinks he can throw light on, and revise lines of, the Psalms. For there are many words in Hebrew whose meaning is not fully certain (about seventeen hundred words occur only once in the Hebrew Bible). Ugaritic, Dahood thought, could shed light. In Anchor Bible 17A, (pp. xii-iii), Dahood's revisions could lead scholars to revise their notions of how early the Hebrews came to know of retribution in the future life. His conclusions have been challenged, but they are still highly probable.

A related development comes from the finds at Ebla (now Tell Mardikh), a city estimated to have had about a quarter of a million people. Uncovered in 1974-1976, it yielded over sixteen thousand tablets, eighty percent of which are in Sumerian, about twenty percent in Eblaite, a Semitic language that, according to Dahood, is closer to Hebrew than is Ugaritic. Unfortunately, the value of the find is still clouded by bitter fighting between Paolo Matthiae, chief archaeologist and Giovanni Pettinato, first epigrapher of the expedition. Before his early death, in 1982, Dahood worked closely with Pettinato. His proposals can be seen in "Afterword: Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible", (The Archives of Ebla, Doubleday, 1981, pp 271-321). Many personal names not before known outside the Bible are found in the tablets: Adam, Eve, Jabal, Noah, Hagar, Bilhah Michael. Israel, and others. Pettinato and Dahood believed that there are theophoric names (names with a divine element built in, such as Mi-ka-ya, "Who is like Ya?") that show Yahweh was known in Ebla long before the time of the Bible. The tablets probably are to be dated 2400-2250 B.C.

The ancient site of Mari, on the Euphrates River, was excavated in the 1930s and 1950s. Mari was great in the period 1750-1697 B.C King Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mesopotamia there, was a contemporary of the great Hammurabi of Babylon, who was a contemporary of Shamsi-Adad I of Assyria. Since the latter's dates are known, we can date Zimri-Lim. This may well have been the period of Abraham. Twenty thousand clay tablets have been found there.

To the east, and somewhat north of Mari, is ancient Nuzi, excavated in the 1920s. There five thousand cuneiform tablets have been found-several hundred years after the Mari tablets. But the Nuzi tablets shed light on some practices of the patriarchs, for example, Abraham's adoption of the slave Eliezar (Genesis 15:2-3), who was later replaced by Isaac. This is in accord with Nuzi custom. Again, if a Nuzi wife were sterile, she was expected to give her husband a slave concubine to provide children, as we see in Genesis 16:2. These things do not prove that Abraham belonged in this period, but they do help show his historical character.

Fascinating texts also come from Amarna, called Akhtaton in ancient times. Situated on the Nile between Thebes and Memphis, it was the capital of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaton and worshiped the sun disc instead of Amon. Among the 375 items found there are many letters from vassal rulers in Palestine and Syria, some of them almost frantically asking help against the Hapiru, a name similar to Hebrew.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were reviewed in chapter 25, should also be mentioned. There are other written finds, but now let us turn to the unwritten matter.

Does archaeology prove the Bible is right? While it supports some things, archaeology raises problems about other things. Very many problems cluster around the date of the Exodus, the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt, and deal with the cities they were supposed to have conquered or been involved with soon before or after the entrance of the Hebrews into Canaan.

While in the desert, the Hebrews spent much time around Kadesh-Barnea. But there seems to have been no settlement there until much later, about the tenth century. Then the king of Arad defeated the Hebrews near Hormah. But Arad seems to have been uninhabited c 2700-c 1100 B.C., and Hormah was not occupied between 1500 and 1200. The Hebrews would have seen these sites in a first attempt to come into the promised land through the Negeb, the south. Later they came around the east side of the Dead Sea and skirted Edom and Moab. The Hebrews conquered the kings of Hesbon and Bashan, and of course, caused the walls of Jericho to fall. But there are problems: Hesbon was not inhabited in the millennium before 1200, and there was no notable city of Jericho after about 1500. Some archaeological data, however, do agree with the Old Testament. Lachish and Hazor, for instance, were destroyed c 1250-1200.

In chapter 15 it was suggested that probably the genre of the Book of Joshua, which describes much of the conquest, was at least similar to that of epic, an idealized story of the great beginnings of a people. Similarly, it is likely that at least parts of Exodus are somewhat epic in character. Some scholars become so free in their interpretations as to say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not really grandfather, father, and son, but tribal heads who later were associated in an epic pattern. Further, there are speculations that the Hebrews did not go down into Egypt all at once or leave all at once. Some say that the four major biblical traditions (Exodus-SinaiWilderness-Conquest) belonged originally to distinct groups. G. E. Mendenhall thinks that the conquest was just some guerilla campaigns by people already on the scene at the time of a great breakdown of the city cultures in Palestine in the period 1300-1200 B.C.1

These proposals are much too radical. Yet genre gives us much freedom here. Exodus 12:38 does tell us that "a mixed multitude also went up with them," that is, with the Hebrews. Further, Joshua 8:3035 tells how Joshua, after the conquest of Ai, held a great covenant ceremony on Mount Ebal. He seems to have met no interference, though Mount Ebal was near the city of Shechem, the excavations of which show it to have been powerful at that time, though Joshua was not said to have conquered it. Could it be that the Hebrews had friends or relatives already in that area, perhaps Hebrews who were in an earlier segment of the Exodus, or even Hebrews who had not been in Egypt at all? (See Biblical Archaeology, G. Ernest Wright, revised 1962, Westminster, pp. 76-77.) An epic genre would be quite capable of taking in these proposals.

The problems cluster around the highly uncertain date of the Exodus. The root of the trouble is that the Old Testament does not give us the name of the Pharaoh who was on the throne when the Exodus took place. This is in accord with normal Egyptian practice. The real name of the king was too sacred; he was a god. Pharaoh was used for all kings. Meaning "Great House," the use of the word Pharaoh was loosely comparable to our use of "the White House." Other means must be used to date the Exodus.

There have been two groups of theories. One, which has long enjoyed favor, starts with Exodus 1:11, which tells how the Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrews with forced labor: "... and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses." Now Ramses II (c 1290-1224 B.C.) moved his capital to the region of the delta and began building projects there, including the city of Raamses. So the Pharaoh of the oppression and of the Exodus would probably be Ramses, which would date the Exodus about 1300-1280 B.C. The next Pharaoh, Merneptah, put up a stele, a monument claiming he had defeated the Hebrews in the Canaan area, around 1220 B.C. Further, it is claimed, the rapid rise of Joseph to became vizier in Egypt is more easily explained if the kings then were the foreign Hyksos (perhaps including Semites), who dominated Egypt c 17301570. Then when the Hyksos were expelled and a new dynasty came, there would be a new Pharaoh who "did not know Joseph" (Exodus I :8). This theory is quite tempting, though the evidence for it is hardly conclusive.

An older theory is again gaining favor. This view starts from I Kings 6: 1, which says: "In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign ... he began to build the house of the Lord." Now Solomon probably began to reign about 961 B.C., so his fourth year would have been about 957 B.C. On that calculation, the Exodus would have come around 1437 B.C. We must say "around" since the number 480 is the product of 12 x 40-both highly favored numbers in Hebrew approximations.

We should still suppose, nonetheless, that a date sometime in that century is correct, according to this theory. If we accept 1437 B.C. as the approximate date of the Exodus and then add the 430 years that Exodus 12:40 says the Hebrews spent in Egypt, we get around 1867 B.C. for the entrance into Egypt. Some will object that this is too early for the Hyksos. But Joseph gained power with the help of Providence, so there is no need to suppose that favor from foreign-born Hyksos was necessary. Of course, the 430 years in Egypt is only approximate, but the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew says that "the dwelling of the sons of Israel, which they spent in Egypt and in Canaan, [was] 430 years." Galatians 3:17 gives 430 years for the period between the promise to Abraham and the giving of the law on Sinai. Clearly, we cannot press the numbers tightly, knowing the inclination of the Hebrews to use very round numbers. In this connection, the Hebrew of Jonah 3:4 has Jonah threatening destruction to Nineveh in forty days; the Septuagint of the same has three days. It seems the number was round, very round, and the Septuagint translators felt three expressed it better for Greek speakers. (Review the matter of variant traditions, which was explored in chapter 15.) This figure of about 430 years allows us to estimate the approximate period of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These dates fit well with other known data.

This older theory has recently been revived and much improved in a new book by John J. Bimson, Redating the Exodus and Conquest (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, vol. 5, University of Sheffield, England, 1978). Bimson places the Exodus at about 1470 B.C. Allowing a full forty years for the wandering in the desert, the fall of Jericho would have been around 1430 B.C. This date, as Bimson shows with new evidence, would fit with all the existing archaeological information on Jericho and many other sites. In fact, a review in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (vol. 42, January 1980, pp. 88-90) says: "The MB II C destruction of Jericho is everything one could ask for Joshua.... And so it goes down the list of relevant sites, with the exception of Ai and Heshbon." Bimson replies, (p. 64), that we need not identify the later village of Ai with the one destroyed by Joshua, (p. 69), that Heshbon need not have been a fortified site at the time of Joshua.

Kenneth Kitchen, of the University of Liverpool, adds some helpful observations in The Bible In Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today (InterVaristy Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1977, pp. 10-15). Kitchen notes that the mud-brick buildings of the ancient Near East could gradually have been swept away by wind, sand, and rain. Further, excavations are very costly, and not always is a site completely excavated. For example, ancient Ashdod covers about seventy acres of lower city area and another twenty acres of acropolis. But by 1977 only one and a half acres had been excavated. As to the site of Ai. only a tenth of the site of Et-Tell (supposed to be Ai) had been excavated by 1977. Only a small portion of Jericho has been excavated. There can also be site shift. When people no longer could live comfortably on the crest of their mound, they might move to an adjoining area or some small distance away. This could happen more than once. Jericho was abandoned from Hellenistic times, and moved to near the springs of Ain-Sultan, onto the site that became modern Jericho (Er-Riha). But in Hellenistic and Roman times, palaces and villas were constructed at still a third site near by (Tulul Abu elAlaiq). So today there are three "Jerichos."

R. Brown admits this site shift in regard to Arad (whose king defeated the Hebrews near Hormah). He writes in Recent Discoveries and the Biblical World (Glazier, Wilmington, 1983, pp. 68-69): "Aharoni, the excavator, argues that in Canaanite times Arad was not at Tell Arad but at Tell el-Milh (Malhata), 7 miles southeast of Tell Arad, while Hormah was at Khirbet el-Meshash (Masos), 3 miles further west."

So we see that archaeology at times supports the Old Testament; at times raises problems. But the problems can be solved-some by an application of the principles of genre, some by adopting the chronology proposed by Bimson, some by the use of Kitchen's principles. So there is really no need to have recourse to the extreme reconstructions of Exodus-Sinai-Wilderness-Conquest that some propose, even though by supposing an epic genre most, if not all, of these proposals could be digested.


1 [Footnote missing.]

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