archeology & ancient Israel

I watched NOVA:The Bible’s Buried Secrets last night. Among the remarkable archeological finds that shed light on the history of Israel, I found three particularly interesting.

First, near the banks of the Nile, in southern Egypt, in 1896, British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, led an excavation in Thebes, the ancient city of the dead. There, he unearthed a royal monument, carved in stone, dedicated in honor of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses the Great, it became known as the Merneptah Stele. Today it is in the Cairo Museum. This stele is what the ancient Egyptians would have called a triumph stele, a victory stele, commemorating victory over foreign peoples. Most of the hieroglyphic inscription celebrates Merneptah’s triumph over Libya, his enemy to the West, but almost as an afterthought, he mentions his conquest of people to the East, in just two lines. The text reads, “Ashkelon has been brought captive. Gezer has been taken captive. Yanoam in the north Jordan Valley has been seized, Israel has been shorn. Its seed no longer exists.” This is evidence for the presence of an ethnical group called Israel in the central highlands of southern Canaan. The well-established Egyptian chronology gives the date as 1208 B.C. Merneptah’s Stele is powerful evidence that a people called the Israelites are living in Canaan, in what today includes Israel and Palestine, over 3,000 years ago.

Second is the Tel Zayit abecedary which is the earliest Hebrew alphabet ever discovered. It dates to about 1000 B.C., making it possible that writing the Hebrew Bible could have already started by this time. The Hebrew Bible is a collection of literature that was likely written over about a thousand years.

Third is the discovery of a fragment of a victory stele, written in Aramaic, an ancient language very similar to Hebrew. Dedicated by the king of Damascus or one of his generals, it celebrates the conquest of Israel, boasting, “I slew mighty kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen. I killed the king of the House of David.” The words, “the House of David,” make this a critical discovery. They are strong evidence that David really lived. Unlike Genesis, the stories of Israel’s kings move the biblical narrative out of the realm of legend and into the light of history. When the biblical chronology of Israel’s kings can be cross-referenced with historical inscriptions, like the Tel Dan Stele, they can provide scholars with fairly reliable dates. King David is the earliest biblical figure confirmed by archaeology to be historical. And most scholars agree he lived around 1000 B.C., the 10th century.

Source: excerpted and edited from transcript of NOVA:The Bible’s Buried Secrets on website

Was this the same Ramesses that had a run in with Moses? If it is, would this Merneptah be a son after the first one of the Ramesses who died as one of the first born curse he brought on himself?

They aren’t sure if Rameses The Great (II) is the pharaoh of Exodus, or even that there was a mass exodus from Egypt, or even that the Israelites were ever a significant presence in Egypt. But the reference to Israel is widely accepted. Wiki: “Mernepthah was the thirteenth son of Ramesses II and only came to power because all his older brothers, including his full brother Khaemwaset or Khaemwase, had predeceased him, by which time he was almost sixty years old”–though he still ruled for almost 10 years.

As the Wiki article also points out, “This sign (modifying the word Israel) is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic tribes without a fixed city-state, thus implying that ysrỉꜣr “Israel” was the demonym for a seminomadic or rural population at the time the stele was created.” This also tends to undermine the story of Exodus where a people are transplanted whole as a nation from elsewhere.

The stele is magnificent and in excellent condition. I saw it once in the late 80’s, and even touched the word in question which had been touched by so many that it was shiny. I don’t know if you can still do that or why it was ever allowed in the first place, but judging by the photos on Google, it still is.

BTW, if anyone is interested, Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Biblical studies and UNC and a Biblical scholar/consultant on many digs in Israel, will be leading a comprehensive 10 day tour of Israel in late Oct. They will be visiting every site that I had on my list to visit I ever went (I signed up). Dr. Tabor has some notoriety having participated in a documentary produced by James Cameron’s on the Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus”), and was involved when a tomb from which the “James the brother of Jesus” ossuary may have been taken. Anyone interested in Biblical archeology should definitely read his book, “The Jesus Dynasty”. He’s also in the process of writing a book I’m anxiously awaiting on Paul. (We don’t see quite eye to eye on Paul but close).

In any case, if you have considered going to Israel in the near future, this would be the time, and they’re only taking a busload (45 people).

According to NOVA: “Scholars agree that the biblical city Ramesses is the ancient Egyptian city Pi-Ramesse. Its ruins are here in present-day Tanis. Most of the Egyptologists identified Pi-Ramesse, the Ramesses town, with Tanis, because here you have an abundance of Ramesside monuments. This convergence between archaeology and the Bible provides a timeframe for the Exodus. It could not have happened before Ramesses became king, around 1275 B.C., and it could not have happened after 1208 B.C., when the stele of pharaoh Merneptah, Ramesses the Second’s son, specifically locates the Israelites in Canaan.”

So, there is that chance then? If indeed it was Ramesses, then the actions that God took possibly did not stop his advancement of his dynasty.

Right, pharaoh Merneptah would be Biblical pharoah’s son. But, after a century of searching, archaeologists have not found evidence of a mass migration of Israelites from Egypt that can be linked to the Exodus.

It is possible that Ramesses may have covered up the fact that Moses took the Jews out of his captivity due to humiliation. After all, what great ruler of that time would admit to being usurped by a half-brother from Jewish heritage with the help of an Almighty God?

It’s a bit more complicated than just a lack of Egyptian accounting.
When it is said that there is a massive lack of evidence for a mass exodus, it is due to a lacking of finding any geological disturbance of a population larger than other exoduses which have geological disturbance left behind.
If it did take place, then either the route cited is terribly wrong by remarkably large ranges, or we simply do not grasp the methods of geological dependence and migration that was employed.

The documentary raised other questions about the Torah’s account:

Following the Exodus, the Bible says God finally delivers the Israelites to the Promised Land, Canaan. Archaeology and sources outside the Bible reveal that Canaan consisted of well-fortified city-states, each with its own king, who in turn served Egypt and its pharaoh. The Canaanites, a thriving Near Eastern culture for thousands of years, worshipped many gods in the form of idols. The Bible describes how a new leader, Joshua, took the Israelites into Canaan in a rapid scorched earth, genocidal military campaign.

Ai was a Canaanite city-state that Joshua and his army of Israelites are credited with laying waste. Ai has been discovered in what is now the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Archaeologists found evidence of a rich Canaanite culture. A village first appeared and developed into a city, and then there was a kind of fortification surrounding this settlement. Heaps of stones uncovered there were once a magnificent palace and temples, which were eventually destroyed.

But when archaeologists date the destruction, they discover it occurred about 2200 B.C. They date the destruction of Jericho to 1500 B.C., and Hazor’s to about 1250 B.C. The evidence suggests these city-states were not destroyed at the same time; they range over nearly a thousand years. In fact, of the 31 sites the Bible says that Joshua conquered, few showed any signs of war.