In earlier issues, The Good News examined archaeological finds that illuminate portions of the books of Genesis and Exodus. In this issue we continue our exploration of discoveries that help us understand other aspects of the Exodus account, beginning with the incident of the Israelites' worship of the golden calf.
After crossing the Red Sea (see "The Red Sea or the Reed Sea?," p. 24), the Israelites made their way to Mount Sinai. The account of Israel's appropriation of a golden calf to worship was by Mario Seiglie
This silver statue of a calf, excavated from the site of ancient Ashkelon, dates to more than a century before the Exodus. This find proved that calf-worship was practiced at the time of the Exodus, contrary to the opinions of some critics.
long questioned by secular scholars. They noted that bull-worship was common in both Egypt and Canaan, but not calf-worship. However, in 1991 a silver statue of a calf was found in an excavation of ancient Ashkelon on Israel's coast. Authorities dated this calf to more than 100 years before the Exodus.
When Aaron shouted to the people, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:4), he knew well how popular calf-worship was. Four centuries later, almost the same words were uttered by King Jeroboam when he made two golden calves and told the people, "Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!" (1 Kings 12:28). In Biblical Archaeology Review, an extensive article on the discovery of the silver calf notes: "The Golden Calf worshipped at the foot of Mt. Sinai by impatient Israelites (Exodus 32) may have resembled this statuette" (March-April 1991, p. 1).
During their wilderness years the Israelites complained to God that they had only manna to eat: "Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: 'Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!'" (Numbers 11:4-6).
This list represents one of the 10 major mur-murings of the Israelites against God and Moses (Numbers 14:22). God decided to give the people what they asked for: "Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, 'Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?'" (Numbers 11:18-20).
The next day, quail descended on the Israelite camp to a depth of 12 inches. These fowl were common in biblical times and remain so in the Middle East. They are migratory birds that fly at the end of the European summer to the Sinai peninsula, where they remain for six months.
"The old world quail . . . a small, mottled brown game bird about 18 cm. (7 in.) long, is the only member of the [pheasant] subfamily ... that is migratory. The routes of migration run from southern Europe, along the eastern Mediterranean coast,
through the Sinai Peninsula, to Arabia or West Africa. The quails travel southward in the late summer and northward in early spring (the time of the Israelite exodus from Egypt) . . . As recently as the early decades of the 20th cent[ury], migrating quails were killed by Egyptians at the rate of two million annually; in 1920 a kill of three million was recorded" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1988, Vol. 4, pp. 4-5).
The miracle of God was to bring these quail to the Israelite camp and deposit them in huge numbers in that precise location.
When the Israelites began their final journey to the Promised Land, they passed through the land of the Ammonites close to Moabite territory. They needed passage through this area to enter Canaan by way of Jericho. But King Balak of the Moabites refused to let the Israelites enter peacefully. He resorted to a known pagan prophet of the times, Balaam, to prevent them from entering his land.
"Then he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River [Euphrates] in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: 'Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me'" (Numbers 22:5).
Apparently, Balaam's renown was such that a Moabite king would pay a considerable sum for his services. In 1967 archaeologists digging up the remains of Deir Alla, an ancient Ammonite city on the east bank of the Jordan, found an inscription
Scholars advocate various routes for the Exodus and offer different interpretations of the biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea. Regardless of their views, the Red Sea miracle was so astounding that it left a permanent mark on Israel's history.
that mentioned Balaam, the son of Beor. The 16 lines of an incomplete inscription on a wall turned out to be part of one of Balaam's prophecies, in language similar to that is recorded in Numbers.
The Bible describes God's censure of Balaam. One night God forbade him to curse the Israelites. Disappointed, he told Moabite messengers he could not help them. "So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, 'Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you'" (verse 13).
Later God forced Balaam to prophesy of Israel's blessings and victories. "Then he took up his oracle and said: 'The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor ... who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, with eyes wide open: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! ... God brings him out of Egypt; he has strength like a wild ox; he shall consume the nations, his enemies; he shall break their bones and pierce them with arrows'" (Numbers 24:3-8).
Shortly after these events Balaam, greedy for money (2 Peter 2:15), helped the Moabites induce Israel to sin. Not surprisingly, he perished after the defeat of the Moabites and Midianites (Numbers 31:8).
The restored text discovered in Deir Alla reads: "Inscription of Balaam, son of Beor, the man who was a seer of the gods. Lo, the gods came to him at night and spoke to him. According to these words, and they said to Balaam, son of Beor thus: 'There has appeared the last flame, a fire of chastisement has appeared!' And Balaam arose the next day and he could not eat and he wept intensely. And his people came to him and said to Balaam, son of Beor: 'Why do you fast and why do you weep?' And he said to them: 'Sit down! I shall show you how great is the calamity! And come, see the deeds of the gods! ...'"
These words are strikingly similar in detail to the biblical account. Apparently the memory of what happened to this seer remained in the memory of the Ammonites and was recorded in their version.
Archaeologist Andre Lemaire, who pieced together the incomplete script, wrote: "... The inscription from Deir Alla,
The Red Sea or the Reed Sea?
For many years scholars have disagreed over the identity of the sea the Israelites crossed and thus the site of the drowning of Pharaoh's army. Three routes for the Exodus have been proposed and continue to be debated.
Some believe that the Israelites' path took them north to the coast and that the "sea" they crossed was part of Lake Sirbonis, an arm or bay of the Mediterranean, after the crossing of which they turned south into the Sinai Peninsula.
Others have adopted the idea that the Israelites took a central route and crossed a shallow lake north of the Red Sea called the Reed Sea. The term in Hebrew is yamsuph. Yam means "sea," and suph is generally thought to mean "reeds," "rushes" or possibly "seaweed." That is why some versions of the Bible call it "the Sea of Reeds" or "Reed Sea" instead of the Red Sea. (See Exodus 15:4 in the Revised Standard Version, New American Bible and Jerusalem Bible.)
Some scholars prefer the translation "Reed Sea," noting that lakes north of the Red Sea are abundant with reeds. They usually designate one of these shallow bodies of water as the site of the Israelite crossing but say that the Egyptians, with their heavy chariots, got bogged down and somehow drowned.
Other scholars prefer a southern route, pointing to evidence that they feel demonstrates that yam suph may mean "sea at the end of the world," as some conceive it to have been. Says theology professor Bernard F. Batto: "What we call the Red Sea ... was regarded by the ancients as the sea at the end of the world. Interestingly enough, the Greeks applied the name Red Sea not only to our Red Sea but also to the Indian Ocean and, later when they discovered it, even to the Persian Gulf . . . Yam sup came to refer to the Red Sea because like other ancient peoples, the Israelites did not distinguish the Red Sea from dated to about the middle of the eighth century B.C. and written on the wall of what may have been some kind of religious teaching center, is very likely the earliest extant example of a prophetic text. The principal personage in the Deir Alla text is the seer Balaam, son of Beor, well known to us from the stories in Numbers" (Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1985, p. 39).
oceans further to the south. To their way of thinking, the Red Sea—the yam sup—was the sea at the end of the earth" (Biblical Archaeology Review, July-August 1984, p. 59).
In other biblical references, yam suph means Red Sea or its arms, the Gulf of Suez and Gulf of Aqaba. In 1 Kings 9:26 we read: "King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea [yam suph], in the land of Edom." If this were a marshy lake close to Egypt, this would certainly be a strange place for Solomon to build his great fleet. But geographers know Elath is a port at the northernmost end of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Notice also Numbers 33, which mentions the stops the Israelites made in the wilderness of the Sinai. After crossing "the sea," they camped in Marah, then Elim. And "they moved from Elim and camped by the Red Sea [yam suph]" (verse 10). How could they have crossed a "sea of reeds" and, after many days of travel, still camped by that same "sea of reeds"? No body of water in the region except the Red Sea would have been large enough for the Israelites to have traveled so long and still be close to its coast. Other references that support the Red Sea are Numbers 21:4 and Jeremiah 49:21.
Which route did the Israelites take, and at what point did they cross the sea? We cannot know for sure. However, one author of several works on biblical history offers this perspective: "The crossing of Israel . . . cannot be explained as a wading through a swamp. It required a mighty act of God, an act so significant both in scope and meaning that forever after in Israel's history it was the paradigm against which all of his redemptive and saving work was measured" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1987, p. 66). GN
Here we have another biblical figure who cannot be dismissed as myth.
Another source of scholarly controversy concerns the route the Israelites took to enter the Promised Land. "The Bible is very specific in its list of places along the final stage of the Exodus route taken by the Israelites on their way to the
Promised Land. Yet it is this very specificity that has made it vulnerable to criticism from some scholars. Many of the places in question, they say, did not exist when the Exodus is said to have occurred" (Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1994, p. 5).
Yet three lists showing the very route the Israelites took to enter Canaan have been found in Egyptian monuments.
Numbers 33:45-49 describes the Israelites passing through Ijim, Dibon Gad, Almon Diblathaim, Nebo, Abel and finally the Jordan. The route the Egyptians took to supervise this area, which they ruled for many centuries, includes eight places, of which six appear in the same combined egyptian route biblical route
(Yamm) ha-Melach Melah
(means "salt," or the Dead Sea) Iyyin Yyyim
Aqrabat Dibon-Qarho Dibon Iktanu
(Source: Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1994, pp. 57-59).
sequence mentioned primarily in Numbers 33: Melah, Ijim, Heres-Hareseth (mentioned only in Judges 8:13), Dibon, Abel and the Jordan.
Charles Krahmalkov, a professor of ancient Near Eastern languages, speaks of the accuracy of the biblical account: "In short, the Biblical story of the invasion of Transjordan that set the stage for the conquest of all Palestine is told against a background that is historically accurate. The Israelite invasion route described in Numbers 33:45b-50 was in fact an official, heavily trafficked Egyptian road ..." (BiblicalArchaeology Review, September-October 1994, p. 58).
Thus, archaeology, notwithstanding scholarly criticism, confirms another part of biblical history. GN
Archaeology and the Book of Joshua: The Conquest by Mario Seiglie
How accurate is the biblical description of Jericho's destruction? The question spurred a lively debate throughout this century after several major excavations of the city took place.
In earlier issues The Good News examined archaeological finds that illuminate portions of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In this issue we continue that series, focusing on the book of Joshua, which chronicles Israel's entrance into the Promised Land.
After wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites were finally permitted to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Moses was about to die, and God instructed him: "Behold, the days approach when you must die; call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tabernacle of meeting, that I may inaugurate him" (Deuteronomy 31:14). Shortly afterwards, Joshua was named as the new leader, and Moses died on top of Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1, 5). Thus begins the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan.
Debated dates at Jericho
"Now Jericho was securely shut up because of the children of Israel; none went out, and none came in" (Joshua 6:1).
The first city the Israelites faced was Jericho. According to the archaeological evidence, it is one of the oldest settlements in the world. How accurate is the biblical description of Jericho's destruction?
The question spurred a lively debate throughout this century after several major excavations of the city took place.
The first extensive dig employing modern techniques was conducted by British archaeologist John Garstang in the 1930s. After six years of excavations he reported:
"In a word, in all material details and in date the fall of Jericho took place as described in the Biblical narrative. Our demonstration is limited, however, to material observations: the walls fell, shaken apparently by earthquake, and the city was destroyed by fire, about 1400 B.C." ("Jericho and the Biblical Story," Wonders of the Past, Wise, New York, 1937, p. 1222).
In the 1950s Garstang's conclusion was rejected by another British archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon. She placed the destruction of this stage of the city 150 years earlier than Joshua's time and believed that no 15th-century city existed for him to conquer. This argument lent support to many scholars who dismissed the biblical story as a myth. Archaeologist and pottery expert Bryant Wood observed: "Scholars by and large [had] written off the Biblical record as so much folklore and religious rhetoric. And this is where the matter has stood for the past 25 years" (BiblicalArchaeology Review, March-April 1990, p. 49).
Unfortunately, Kathleen Kenyon died before her work could be published, making careful evaluation of her reports difficult. Fifteen years later her findings were published, and the task fell to Bryant Wood to methodically review them.
After studying her work and taking into account new discoveries, his startling conclusion was that Kenyon had been completely wrong on her date of the fall of Jericho. He found a direct correlation between the archaeological evidence and the biblical account.
What led to such a turnabout?
First was the use of a tool not available in Kenyon's days—radioactive dating. When a piece of charcoal from the burned city was examined by carbon-14 testing—generally reliable for materials up to 4,000 years old— it yielded the date of1410 B.C., almost precisely the time of the conquest and burning of Jericho as determined from biblical chronology. (According to 1 Kings 6:1, Solomon's temple was inaugurated 480 years after the Exodus, which would place this event at approximately 1443 B.C. After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites would have entered the Promised Land around 1403 B.C.)
Concerning the evidence that the city was incinerated, Kenyon found a layer of ash and burnt debris a yard thick in this level of the city.
"The destruction was complete," she reported. "Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire . . . In most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt ..." ("Excavations at Jericho," Palestinian Exploration Quarterly, 1955, p. 370).
This description of the devastation fits the biblical account of the fate of the city: Israel "burned the city and all that was in it with fire" (Joshua 6:24).
Moreover, evidence included three Egyptian scarabs—beetle-shaped amulets— discovered in a cemetery inside the city. These bore the names of three pharaohs who ruled from 1500 to the 1380s B.C. Such dates clearly contradict Kenyon's belief that the city had been abandoned around 1550 B.C.
A third type of evidence was the unusual amount of stored grain found in the ruins of Jericho. "The most abundant item found in the destruction apart from pottery," says Wood, "was grain . . . In her limited excavation area, Kenyon recovered six bushels of grain in one season! This is unique in the annals of Palestinian archaeology. The presence of these grain stores in the destroyed city is entirely consistent with the Biblical account. The city did not fall as a result of a starvation siege, as was so common in ancient times. Instead, the Bible tells us, Jericho was destroyed after but seven days (Joshua 6:15,20).
"Successful attackers normally plundered valuable grain once they captured a city. This of course would be inconsistent with the grain found here. But in the case of Jericho the Israelites were told that 'the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction,' and were commanded, 'Keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction' (Joshua 9:17-18). So the Israelites were forbidden to take any plunder from Jericho. This could explain why so much grain was left to burn when [the city] met its end" (Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April 1990, p. 56).
Finally, the type of pottery found confirmed the traditional date of the conquest, since some bore a style that appeared only during the period of1450-1400 B.C. Wood concludes: "Despite my disagreements with Kenyon's major conclusion, I nevertheless applaud her for her careful and painstaking field work . . . Her thoroughgoing excavation methods and detailed reporting of her findings, however, did not carry over into her analytical work.
"When the evidence is critically examined there is no basis for her contention that City IV [the level corresponding to a violent destruction and burning of the city] was destroyed by the Hyksos or Egyptians and sacrificed peace offerings " (Joshua 8:30-31).
The barren region of Mount Ebal had lain undisturbed for centuries. In 1982 a team of archaeologists began to scratch its surface. This was in the West Bank area and had not been explored until 1967, when Israel occupied the territory.
Adam Zertal, an Israeli archaeologist, supervised the excavation of a strange mound found on top of Mount Ebal. Slowly, after months of work, the site began to yield its secrets.
An artist's rendering shows the stone structure discovered on Mount Ebal as it might have appeared in the time of Joshua. Its excavators believe the central platform was Joshua's altar, to which priests ascended via the ramp in the center.
in the mid-16th century B.C.E. The pottery, stratigraphic considerations, scarab data and a Carbon-14 date all point to a destruction of the city around the end of Late Bronze I, about 1400 B.C.E. Garstang's original date for this event appears to be the correct one!" (ibid., p. 57).
When Time magazine published an article about these new conclusions on Jericho, the evidence appeared so convincing that Time writers remarked, "Score one for the Bible" (Michael D. Lemonick, Time, March 5,1990, p. 43).
"Now Joshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel in Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: 'an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool. 'And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord,
It was a rectangular structure made of large, uncut stones with a ramp leading to the center. It was quite a massive formation, 28 feet by 24 feet and 9 feet tall. Inside the construction was a fill of ashes, rocks, dirt, potsherds and animal bones. More than 4,000 animal bones were found and sent to a laboratory for analysis.
At first Zertal thought the structure had been a farmhouse, but it had no doors and no floor. All the houses in that period had floors, even if only of compressed earth.
From nearby Jerusalem came the analysis of the animal bones. Almost all of them were from bulls, sheep and goats, precisely the animals prescribed for sacrifice in the book of Leviticus. None of the bones came from typical farm animals that the Bible defines as unclean—horses, donkeys, pigs, dogs and cats. After further examination, this did not look like the remains of a
Continued on page 29
Continued from page 23
farmhouse at all. What could it be?
Based on four more years of excavations, Zertal finally completed the picture of the structure. The resulting illustration bore a striking resemblance to the biblical specifications of an altar.
As per God's instruction, the stone ramp did not have steps: "And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it. Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it" (Exodus 20:25-26). This was a precaution so the priest's tunic would not expose his legs as he ascended the altar.
Also, the Bible describes an altar with four surrounding walls and completely filled with earth and rocks. On top of this fill a fire could be lighted for the sacrifice. This is precisely what was found.
Around this altar Zertal discovered a small wall that apparently served to define a perimeter of an area for many people to congregate. He concluded that this area was a prototype of an Israelite worship center with an altar and an open-air meeting place. He thinks this could be the altar built by Joshua at Mount Ebal (Biblical Archaeological Review, January-February 1986).
On God's instructions Moses had said: "Therefore it shall be, when you have crossed over the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones, which I command you today, and you shall whitewash them with lime. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; you shall not use an iron tool on them. You shall build with whole stones the altar of the Lord your God, and offer burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God. You shall offer peace offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 27:4-7).
Therefore, there is strong evidence that God's orders were solemnly carried out by Joshua. An altar at Mount Ebal was built with the unusual specifications of uncut stones and a ramp instead of steps. At this site only remains of animals biblically approved for sacrifice were found.
Future issues of The Good News will examine other archaeological finds that confirm and illuminate biblical history. GN
Archaeology and the Book of Judges
During this period of more than 300 years, God periodically raised up judges to rescue and rule over Israel as the Israelites struggled with indigenous peoples over control of the land.
by Mario Seiglie
Erevious issues of The Good News have ined archaeological finds that illuminate tions of the five biblical books of Moses and the book of Joshua. In this issue we focus on a tumultuous time in ancient Israel's history, the era covered by the book of Judges.
Judges begins by describing the settlement of the Israelite tribes in Canaan. The aged Joshua distributes the territory among the tribes. A short while later he dies at the age of110 (Judges 2:8). Then comes a period during which faithful elders who had lived over from Joshua's time governed Israel. When they died, no leader immediately succeeded them. A dangerous political void existed.
Many among the younger generation, born in the land of Canaan, had largely forgotten the miracles accomplished during Moses' and Joshua's time. "When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10).
The religion of the Canaanites held great appeal for the early Israelites. Shown are a statuette of Baal, left, the weather god, and a fertility figurine. The Baal figure apparently originally held a lightning bolt in its hand.
The new generation found itself surrounded by many Canaanites who adhered to their own popular religion. Instead of eliminating this foreign influence, as God had commanded, in many instances the Israelites simply coexisted with those holding false beliefs. God had warned them what would occur if this situation were allowed to continue: "Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: 'I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, "I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars." But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, "I will not drive them before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you"'" (Judges 2:1-3).
During this period of more than 300 years, God periodically raised up judges—we find at least 12 of them described in the biblical account—to rescue and rule over Israel as the Israelites struggled with indigenous peoples over control of the land. Judges ruled simultaneously with each other in various regions of Israel. The surviving Canaanites frequently attacked and reconquered territory taken by the Israelites.
What does the archaeological evidence reveal about this time?
The extensive scientific evidence points to a gradual change from a Canaanite building-and-pottery culture to a less-advanced Israelite cultural style.
Charles Fensham, a professor of Semitic languages, argues that "archaeology has shown that [around] 1200 B.C. certain cities in Palestine were demolished. A flowering culture of Late Bronze [Canaanite] was obliterated. The new developments ... were of a lower culture than the preceding. The break is thus obvious and points to seminomadic groups in process of settling down. This evidence is clearly to be connected with the
invading Israelite tribes" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1982, Vol. II, p. 1158).
This is consistent with the biblical record, which shows that the Israelites, initially slaves in Egypt and culturally impoverished, at first simply took over the existing Canaanite cities as they conquered them. God had told them, "So it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full—then beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).
The book of Judges indicates that this cultural change was gradual. "And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites under tribute, but did not completely drive them out" (Judges 1:28). The Canaanite culture survived for many years until the Israelites finally replaced it.
"The Israelites had lived in Egypt as enslaved [people], and then spent 40 years as seminomads before entering Canaan; this makes it unlikely that they brought a distinctive material culture into Canaan ... At the end of the Late Bronze Age and the start of the Iron Age, around 1200 B.C., a major change occurred in settlement patterns [in Canaan] ... While we do not believe the new settlements mark the arrival of the Israelites, we are still happy to call them 'Israelite' settlements. This is because, in our view, the Israelites had been in the land for some two centuries by 1200 B.C. and were therefore involved in the changes that took place at that time" (John Bimson and David Livingston, "Redating the Exodus," Biblical Archaeological Review, September-October 1987, pp. 52-53).
Here, then, is additional evidence from archaeology that appears to confirm the biblical account. It shows a
During most of the last century, many liberal critics believed the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament was little more than the fabrication of later Jews from around the sixth century B.C. For instance, they believed there was no solid evidence of Israel being a nation at the time of the events described in the biblical book of Judges.
Yet, in 1896, British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie found evidence of Israel's existence as far back as 1200 B.C., precisely the time of the events in Judges. In the ruins of an Egyptian temple, he discovered a monument that narrated the military victories of Merneptah, an Egyptian pharaoh. In this beautifully carved pillar, dated around 1207 B.C., the monarch mentions the nation of Israel.
For this reason the monument, technically termed a stele, is called "the Israel Stele." It can be seen in the Cairo Museum. On it Merneptah recorded his victories in Canaan and mentioned Israel as one of his vanquished enemies. This would place the battle during the time of the judges of Israel, when Israel was continually being attacked and invaded by nearby peoples and then liberated by the judges God chose and used to deliver His people.
In the last two lines of the text, the stele mentions four of Merneptah's defeated foes in Canaan: "Ashkelon has been overcome. Gezer has been captured. Yanoam was made non-existent. Israel is laid waste, [and] his seed is not."
The reign of Merneptah is dated around 1212-1202 B.C. By recording his victory over Israel, Merneptah shows that during this time the Israelites were already in possession of the central portion of the land.
Of the other places mentioned on the monument, Ashkelon was one of the coastal cities of the recently arrived Philistines. Gezer and Yanoam were in the lowlands, still under the possession of the Canaanites. As recorded in the Bible, Gezer was not conquered by the Israelites under Joshua. "Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer among them" (Judges 1:29). Thus Merneptah's statement corroborates that this city was not in Israelite territory.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia sums up the findings: "Among Merneptah's conquests in Syria-Palestine is Ysr'r (Egyptian for Y'sr'l), clearly recognizable as 'Israel' ... Thus the Israel Stele provides a terminus ad quem [limit from which to date] for the presence of the Israelites in Palestine ..." (Eerdman's, Grand Rapids, 1986, Vol. 3, p. 324).
—Mario Seiglie gradual supplanting of Canaanite culture by Israelite settlers.
After Joshua's generation had died out, "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths" (Judges 2:11-13).
Why the seemingly irresistible tendency for the Israelites to worship Baal over Yahweh? Again, archaeology sheds much light on the Canaanite religion and helps us understand the deadly allure the indigenous religious practices held for the Israelites.
In 1929 excavations began in Ras Shamra (the ancient port town of Ugarit) in northern Lebanon. This work continues. The remains of a palace discovered in the first year of excavation yielded a library containing hundreds of ancient documents that provided a wealth of information about the Canaanite religion. What did these tablets reveal? "The texts show the degrading results of the worship of these deities; with their emphasis on war, sacred prostitution, sensuous love and the consequent social degradation" (The New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale House Publishers, 1982, p. 1230).
The pagan religion was enticing to the Israelites for two primary reasons. First, it was not as morally demanding as the biblical religion. Second, the Israelites fell victim to a superstitious respect for the gods that supposedly controlled the land of the Canaanites.
"The Canaanite religion was completely different from the Israelite. So far, no evidence has been found in Canaanite culture of a series of rules of conduct similar to the Ten Commandments . . . It was a great temptation for the Israelite invaders to respect the existing gods of the land which were regarded as being responsible for the country's fertility. In addition, the worship of these gods was much less demanding than the rigid Israelite laws and rituals. Consequently, many of God's people yielded to this temptation. The result was a gradual moral decline of the nation" (The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible, Lion Publishers, 1983, p. 153).
Recognizing the great danger to fledgling Israel, God insisted that His people destroy every aspect of the degenerate native religion. "According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. You shall observe my judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 18:3-4).
"And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire [be sacrificed] to Molech ... You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination . . . Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants" (verses 21-25).
The corruption found expression in grotesque cultic sexual practices. "The pagan world of the ancient Near East worshipped and deified sex." So intertwined were sex and religion that "the term 'holy ones' [was used] for its cult prostitutes" (Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 79).
Although the details are crude, they reveal why biblical proscriptions against the Canaanite perversions are so pervasive. "[A] ritual involved a dramatization of the myth ... [and] centered in sexual activity since the rainfall attributed to Baal was thought to . . . fertilize and impregnate the earth with life just as he impregnated Asherah, the goddess of fertility, in the myth. Canaanite religion, then, was grossly sensual and even perverse because it required the services of both male and female cultic prostitutes as the principal actors in the drama.
"Unlike the requirement in Israel, there was no one central sanctuary. Baal could be worshipped wherever there was a place especially visited by the numinous presence of the gods. These places were originally on hills (hence, 'high place') but later could be found in valleys or even within the cities and towns" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, Baker Book House, 1987, pp. 160-161).
Included in these Canaanite practices was child sacrifice, described in the Bible as having children to "pass through the fire to Molech" (Jeremiah 32:35). The Ras Shamra tablets also mention the god Molech. Some unrighteous kings in Israel instituted the practice of sacrificing infants to Molech. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, denounced this ghastly ritual. "For the children of Judah have done evil in My sight," and "they have built the high places of Tophet [related to Molech worship] ... to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart" (Jeremiah 7:30-31).
In the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage—part of the Canaanite culture—some 20,000 urns containing the remains of sacrificed children were found. The archaeologists at the site apprise us that "the Carthaginian Tophet is the largest of these Phoenician sites and indeed is the largest cemetery of sacrificed humans ever discovered. Child sacrifice took place there almost continuously for a period of nearly 600 years" (Lawrence Stager and
Samuel Wolff, Biblical Archaeological Review, January-February 1984, p. 32).
Kleitarchos, a Greek from the third century B.C., described this sacrifice as the heating up of a bronze statue with outstretched arms. Infants placed into these red-hot arms quickly perished.
Struggle for a nation's heart obviously, God did not want the Israelites to destroy their own offspring. When righteous kings such as Josiah ascended the throne, they obeyed God and abolished the practice. "And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hin-nom [in Jerusalem], that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech" (2 Kings 23:10).
Some might think the prophets were overly harsh in condemning the Canaanite religion. Yet now, with detailed evidence of Canaanite practices found by archaeologists in this century, it is clear why the prophets were uncompromising.
"The prophets and chroniclers tended to be thought of as men who, in their zeal for Yahweh and their anger against foreign religions, had probably gone too far," writes one author. "This objection was leveled at the Bible right up to the present day . . . With us it is accepted as a matter of course that every half civilized community controls the morality of its citizens. But in Canaan in those days the cult of sensuality was regarded as the worship of the gods, men and women prostitutes ranked as 'sacred' to the followers of the religion, the rewards for their 'services' went into the temple treasuries as 'offerings for the god.'
"The last thing the prophets and chroniclers did was to exaggerate. How well founded their harsh words were has only become fully understood since the great discoveries of Ras Shamra . . . What temptation for a simple shepherd folk, what perilous enticement! ... Without its stern moral law, without its faith in one God, without the commanding figures of its prophets, Israel would never have been able to survive this struggle with the Baals, with the religions of the fertility goddesses, with the Asherim and the high places" (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, Bantam Books, New
Continued on page 29
Continued from page 26 York, 1980, pp. 286,289).
Thus the periodic backsliding of Israel into Baal worship described in the book of Judges is a realistic depiction. The description draws support from the archaeological finds that document the struggle for the soul of Israel. God persevered in sending His messengers to warn His people of the dangers of Baalism. An apt description of this struggle was penned by Nehemiah:
"And they took strong cities and a rich land, and possessed houses full of all goods, cisterns already dug, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and grew fat, and delighted themselves in Your great goodness. Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against You, cast Your law behind their backs and killed Your prophets, who testified against them to turn them to Yourself; and they worked great provocations.
"Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their enemies, who oppressed them; and in the time of their trouble, when they cried to You, You heard from heaven; and according to Your abundant mercies You gave them deliverers [judges] who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest, they again did evil before You. Therefore You left them in the hand of their enemies ... Yet when they returned and cried out to You, You heard from heaven; and many times You delivered them according to Your mercies" (Nehemiah 9:25-28).
A nation's early years
The book of Judges is notjust documentation of ancient victories and heroic acts. It represents a realistic description of a fledgling nation that began to assimilate the perverse culture of its defeated foes. The book candidly reveals Israel's struggle—not always successful—against the barbaric Canaanite religion. It explains Israel's frequent relapses and resultant humiliating defeats at the hands of its enemies. Through it all one constant factor shows through: God, who is concerned about the moral and spiritual life of His people.
Future issues of The Good News will examine additional archaeological finds that confirm and help us understand the biblical record. GN
King David's Reign: A Nation United
In earlier issues The Good News has examined archaeological discoveries that confirm and help us better understand the biblical accounts in the five books of Moses and Israel's history as recorded in Joshua and Judges. In this issue we focus on the beginning of the Israelite monarchy, the time of King David. The Bible discusses this period in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.
When the period described in the book of Judges ended, a new age arrived with the kings of Israel, an era lasting more than 400 years. (It came to a tragic close with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah both being taken into captivity and exile.)
The monarchy lacked an auspicious beginning. God eventually rejected Saul, the first king, because of his continual disobedience. David, the son of Jesse, replaced Saul.
David's reign began the golden age of Israel. This powerful king wisely governed the tribes of Israel, forging them into a unified nation. God blessed this obedient and multitalented man. David was not only a valiant soldier, but a great military strategist, able administrator, by Mario Seiglie
Secular historians once questioned the historicity of King David. However, recent archaeological discoveries confirm the evidence for his existence and reign.
Fragments of an inscription recovered at the site of biblical Dan prove that David was a historical figure. The inscription refers to the "house of David," the dynasty founded by King David.
diplomat, composer and musician.
Under David's inspired leadership, Israel soon became powerful, extending its northern frontiers to the River Euphrates and its southern borders to the Red Sea. "And David defeated Hadadezer king of Zobah as far as Hamath, as he went to establish his power by the River Euphrates . . . So David reigned over all Israel, and administered judgment and justice to all his people" (1 Chronicles 18:3,14).
After centuries of Israelite struggle against the Canaanites and Philistines, it was David who finally triumphed decisively over Israel's enemies. The ensuing peace freed the Israelites to make full use of the formidable natural resources of the area. This liberty produced great prosperity. From their humble beginning as a slave people, then as pastoral tribes, they ascended to great heights. David transformed Israel into a highly organized state that would later leave a lasting mark on Western civilization.
"The reign of David," comments one authority, "marks—politically speaking—Israel's golden age. A power vacuum in both Egypt and Mesopotamia made it possible for the tribes that had entered Canaan under Joshua a few centuries earlier to become a mighty nation . . . David was king of an area extending from the Red Sea to the Euphrates" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1982, Vol. II, p. 915).
With the flourishing of the material culture of Israel comes enough physical evidence of Israelit-ish presence to be confirmed by archaeology.
"The purpose of Biblical archaeology," explains archaeologist Bryant Wood, "is to enhance our comprehension of the Bible, and so its greatest achievement, in my view, has been the extraordinary illumination of ... the time of the Israelite monarchy, c. 1000-586 B.C.E [whereas] exploring that prehistory [the pre-monarchic age] is challenging: It requires tracing the archaeological record of a pastoral community, rather than an agrarian-based political entity
Was this article helpful?