Three Archaeological Finds All Christians Should Know

Of all the various subfields within Biblical studies, perhaps none changes quite like Biblical archaeology. Despite almost two hundred years of archaeological excavations in Palestine and the Ancient Near East, only a small percentage of all the sites that exist have been excavated. Thus, new discoveries are being made all the time, and new analysis of previous discoveries continue to be made, with each new report and publication contributing to our overall knowledge of archaeology and its relevance to the Bible.

When it comes to the late Bronze age (the time period that corresponds to Joshua and Judges), three archaeological finds are of particular importance to us. These finds give us a better idea of what that time period was like, and serve to corroborate the historical picture provided by the Hebrew Bible. Here, we take a dive into those three discoveries.

 

1) The Amarna Letters

In 1887, 377 cuneiform tablets were discovered in the site of Tell el-Amarna in Upper Egypt, which belonged to the royal archives of the pharaohs Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Smenkhkare. These letters were composed in Akkadian, and were written by Canaanite scribes from Egypt’s client states in Syria and Palestine during the fourteenth century BC.[1]

These letters, addressed to the king, contained various snapshots of Canaanite life during this time period. Particularly interesting, however, are references within these letters to a group of people known as the Habiru (also transliterated as ‘Apiru). For example, in letter 254, Labayu, the king of Shechem, writes to the pharaoh concerning his son’s associating with these people. The letter states:

Further, the king wrote concerning my son. I did not know that my son associates with the ‘Apiru, and I have verily delivered him into the hand of Addaya. Further, if the king should write for my wife, how could I withhold her? If the king should write to me, “Plunge a bronze dagger into thy heart and die!”, how could I refuse to carry out the command of the king?[2]

According to Gleason Archer, the etymology of this word points to the basic meaning of “one who passes over” or “one who passes through (the land),” and comes from the verb ‘abar (“to pass through”).[3] This etymology, if correct, is highly significant, as this verb is also found in Hebrew (עבר), and is regarded as the basis for the word “Hebrew,” which Brown, Driver and Briggs indicate as meaning “one from beyond, from the other side, i.e. prob. (in Heb. trad.) from beyond the Euphrates.” They then go on to make note of the Akkadian word Habiru as a probable cognate for “Hebrew.”[4]

In fact, we find a number of places in the Hebrew Bible where “Hebrew” is used as a descriptor for someone who is passing through from another land, rather than an ethnic designation, such as when Abram is referred to in Genesis 14:13 as “the Hebrew” (הָעִבְרִ֑י). Also, in 1 Samuel 14:21, we are told that some “Hebrews” who were among the Philistines left their camp to join the Israelites. This would indicate that “Hebrew” and “Israelite” were not considered synonymous even at this time.

Going back to the Amarna letters, we find many references to Habiru people, and judging from the context, not all of them are references to Israelites (we see them, for example, being employed as soldiers in Egyptian forts). However, there are at least some references to the Habiru that match the description of the Israelites. For example, we read of Habiru warriors threatening Canaanite cities, with the Canaanite rulers requesting military assistance from their Egyptian overlords, as the following letters indicate:

To the king, my lord, my pantheon, my Sun-god, say: Thus Milkilu, thy servant, the dirt (under) thy feet. At the feet of the king, my lord, my pantheon, my Sun-god, seven times, seven times, I fall. Let the king know that powerful is the hostility against me and against Shuwardata. Let the king, my lord, protect his land from the hand of the ‘Apiru. If not, (then) let the king, my lord, send chariots to fetch us, lest our servants smite us. Further, let the king, my lord, ask Yanhamu, his servant, concerning that which is done in his land.[5]

Let the king, my lord, learn that the chief of the Apiru has risen (in arms) against the lands which the god of the king, my lord, gave me; but I have smitten him. Also let the king, my lord, know that all my brethren have abandoned me, and it is I and ‘Abdu-Heba (who) fight against the chief of the ‘Apiru. And Zurata, prince of Accho, and Indaruta, prince of Achshaph, it was they (who) hastened with fifty chariots—for I had been robbed (by the ‘Apiru)—to my help; but behold, they are fighting against me, so let it be agreeable to the king, my lord, and  let him send Yanhamu, and let us make war in earnest, and let the lands of the king, my lord, be restored to their (former) limits![6]

So may it please the king to send me garrison troops in order that I may enter and see the two eyes of the king, my lord. As truly as the king, my lord, lives, when the commis [sioners] go forth I will say, “Lost are the lands of the king! Do you not hearken unto me? All the governors are lost; the king, my lord, does not have a (single) governor (left)!” Let the king turn his attention to the archers, and let the king, my lord, send out troops of archers, (for) the king has no lands (left)! The ‘Apiru plunder all the lands of the king. If there are archers (here) in this year, the lands of the king, my lord, will remain (intact); but if there are no archers (here) the lands of the king, my lord, will be lost![7]

If we take the early date (15th century BC) for the Exodus and Conquest,[8] then the timing of these letters coincides perfectly with the events of Joshua and Judges. As Archer argues (convincingly, in my opinion), there is no reason why we should not take these references to be referring to the Israelites.[9] Thus, the Amarna Letters corroborate the historical narrative that we see in the Hebrew Bible.

 

2) The Merneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele was discovered by Flinders Petrie 1896 at Thebes, in Upper Egypt. This monument was constructed by the pharaoh Merneptah to celebrate his various military campaigns and victories, which includes a campaign in Canaan which he undertook during the fifth year of his reign. The dating of this stele has traditionally been thought to be 1210 BC, but as Malcolm Wiener points out, more recent research points to the correct date being ten years earlier, at 1220 BC.[10] More conservatively, Eugene Merrill argues for an earlier date of 1231 BC for the Canaanite campaign.[11]

The last three lines of the stele describe Merneptah’s campaign, which lists a number of nations and cities along the coastal plain of Palestine. Most notably, Israel is listed among these nations and cities:

The princes are prostrate, saying, “Peace!” Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows. Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin, Hatti is pacified; The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe: Ashkelon has been overcome; Gezer has been captured; Yano’am is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.[12]

This passing reference constitutes the earliest mention of Israel as a people in any ancient text that we have outside of the Bible. Merrill points out that this reference “does not suggest a disorganized body but rather one so pervasive as to occupy the entire interior of the hill country.”[13] Therefore, it creates a terminus ad quem for the establishment of Israel as a distinct polity in the land. This corroborates evidence that we find from the material culture found in Iron Age sites around Palestine. As William Dever writes, “the archaeologically attested Israel of the Iron I period that we have presented here fits the Israel of the Merenptah inscription precisely. Moreover, this Israel fits very well with the biblical depiction of Israel that we have reconstructed from the book of Judges.”[14]

Furthermore, Merrill asserts that this reference in the Merneptah Stele “is proof against the late date for the exodus and conquest, for it is difficult to see how Israel could have been a major foe to Merneptah in Canaan if, as the evidence for a late date would require, the exodus occurred at the beginning of his reign.”[15] Based on this, we may regard this Stele as a small but significant further confirmation of the early chronology of Biblical history.

 

3) Philistine Bichrome Ware

Pottery is widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of archaeological evidence. Because of the wide variation in ceramic styles, as well as the constantly changing nature of these styles, the type of pottery found in any given site can help us to determine the date of the strata which it is found in, as well as what type of culture existed there.

One type of pottery that is especially important in Biblical archaeology is bichrome ware, found in a number of sites in Palestine during the late Bronze and early Iron age. This type of ware is characteristic of the Sea Peoples, an umbrella term for a number of seafaring raiders who originated from the Aegean Sea. Because of their origin, their ceramic style is very similar to pottery found in Cyprus and Mycenea.[16] These Sea Peoples came to the Ancient Near East during the late 13th century BC, plundering many cities and establishing their own settlements along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

One of the most famous of these Sea Peoples are the Philistines, who are well known from as one of Israel’s recurring enemies in Judges and 1 Samuel. They settled in the coastal plain along southwestern Palestine, establishing the Pentapolis of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. They left their distinct ceramic style across a number of sites in southern Palestine, which contrast sharply with the plain unadorned pottery found in Israelite sites from the same time period. They even influenced Canaanite ceramics, resulting in a Phoenician bichrome ware.[17] This is significant because the distribution of this pottery shows that Philistine, Canaanite and Israelite settlement patterns match what we find in the Hebrew Bible. As William Dever notes:

A number of sites (approximately twenty) are mentioned, however, as settings for the stories [in Judges], and most of them can now be identified. At least half of them have been excavated, and indeed, most do exhibit Israelite ethnic markers. On the other hand, more than a dozen sites are mentioned in Judges as being non-­ Israelite, and, perhaps surprisingly, nearly all of them can now be shown on the basis of the current archaeological evidence to be ethnically Canaanite, Philistine, or Phoenician.[18]

Hence, this bichrome ware provides us with a snapshot of the state of affairs during Judges and 1 Samuel, with the Philistines spreading their material culture not just in their own cities, but among the surrounding Israelites and Canaanites as well.

 

Conclusion

To summarize this archaeological dive, I would like to quote from William G. Dever, who is well known for his insightful analyses of Biblical archaeology. A secular humanist, Dever is far from what one would call a Biblical conservative. However, he is willing to recognize when the archaeological evidence confirms the Biblical record, and often pushes back against the Minimalist school that tends to interpret the evidence in more skeptical terms. Although he believes that Joshua and Judges were written many centuries after the events described, he nevertheless marvels at how the authors could portray the time period so accurately, stating: “Despite their artlessness, the biblical writers had surprisingly accurate, detailed information about early Israelite sites, even though they were writing centuries later.”[19] Later on, he writes:

The story in Judges is gripping. The places and peoples seem real enough, but are any of the larger-­ than-­ life judges real historical persons? Archaeology corroborates the general context of Judges and fills in numerous lacunae dramatically, as we shall see. While there are many details that we shall never be able to substantiate, especially those of individual lives, we can say that there is nothing of the general situation of early Israel and its socioeconomic context in the twelfth to eleventh centuries BCE, so vividly portrayed in the book of Judges, that does not fit well into the more fully fleshed-­ out picture obtained by recent archaeological evidence.[20]

With this, I conclude that the archaeological finds examined in this article paint a portrait of ancient Israel that corresponds very well with what we read in historical books of the Hebrew Bible. This points to the historical reliability of the Bible, which is often questioned in our own day. As new discoveries emerge, our knowledge base increases, but we can be confident that these new finds will only serve to bolster our faith in Scripture even more.

 

Endnotes

[1] James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 483.

[2] EA, No. 254, lines 30-46, in Pritchard, ANET, 486.

[3] Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 290.

[4] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 720. William Dever disagrees with this etymology, and asserts, “it sounds cognate with ‘Hebrew,’ but it is not.” See William G. Dever, Has Archaeology Buried the Bible? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020), 47. Given the etymology of the word “Habiru,” I do not see why they wouldn’t be cognates. Therefore, I would have to agree with Brown, Driver and Briggs, and disagree with Dever.

[5] EA, No. 271, in Pritchard, ANET, 486–487.

[6] RA, XIX, lines 11-31, in Pritchard, ANET, 487.

[7] EA, No. 286, Lines 44-60, in Pritchard, ANET, 487.

[8] For more information on the debate over when to date the Exodus and Conquest, see my article, “Late Bronze Age Settlement Patterns in Ancient Israel,” Pros Aletheian, https://prosaletheian.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/late-bronze-age-settlement-patterns-in-ancient-israel

[9] Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 290-295.

[10] Malcolm H. Wiener, “Dating the Emergence of Historical Israel in Light of Recent Developments in Egyptian Chronology,” Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University 41.1, 50–54.

[11] Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 175.

[12] Kenton L. Sparks, Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in the Hebrew Bible (Ann Arbor, MI: Eisenbrauns, 1998), 96-97.

[13] Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 175, n. 38.

[14] Dever, Has Archaeology Buried the Bible?, 63.

[15] Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 175.

[16] Dever, Has Archaeology Buried the Bible?, 48-49.

[17] Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000-586 B.C.E. (Yale University Press, 1990), 357.

[18] Dever, Has Archaeology Buried the Bible?, 52.

[19] Dever, Has Archaeology Buried the Bible?, 52.

[20] Dever, Has Archaeology Buried the Bible?, 54.

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