Ha'aretz.com Friday, October 29, 1999
Deconstructing the walls of Jericho
By Ze'ev Herzog
Following 70 years of intensive excavations in the Land of Israel, archaeologists have found
out: The patriarchs' acts are legendary, the Israelites did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, they did not
conquer the land. Neither is there any mention of the empire of David and Solomon, nor of the source of belief in
the God of Israel. These facts have been known for years, but Israel is a stubborn people and nobody wants to hear
This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the
Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and
did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy
of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And
it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the
early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most
of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history
of the Jewish people - and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story - now
agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people's emergence are radically different from
what that story tells.
What follows is a short account of the brief history of archaeology, with the emphasis on the
crises and the big bang, so to speak, of the past decade. The critical question of this archaeological revolution
has not yet trickled down into public consciousness, but it cannot be ignored.
Inventing the Bible stories
The archaeology of Palestine developed as a science at a relatively late date, in the late 19th
and early 20th century, in tandem with the archaeology of the imperial cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and
Rome. Those resource-intensive powers were the first target of the researchers, who were looking for impressive
evidence from the past, usually in the service of the big museums in London, Paris and Berlin. That stage
effectively passed over Palestine, with its fragmented geographical diversity. The conditions in ancient Palestine
were inhospitable for the development of an extensive kingdom, and certainly no showcase projects such as the
Egyptian shrines or the Mesopotamian palaces could have been established there. In fact, the archaeology of
Palestine was not engendered at the initiative of museums but sprang from religious motives.
The main push behind archaeological research in Palestine was the country's relationship with
the Holy Scriptures. The first excavators in Jericho and Shechem (Nablus) were biblical researchers who were
looking for the remains of the cities cited in the Bible. Archaeology assumed momentum with the activity of William
Foxwell Albright, who mastered the archeology, history and linguistics of the Land of Israel and the ancient Near
East. Albright, an American whose father was a priest of Chilean descent, began excavating in Palestine in the
1920s. His declared approach was that archaeology was the principal scientific means to refute the critical claims
against the historical veracity of the Bible stories, particularly those of the Wellhausen school in Germany.
The school of biblical criticism that developed in Germany beginning in the second half of the
19th century, of which Julian Wellhausen was a leading figure, challenged the historicity of the Bible stories and
claimed that biblical historiography was formulated, and in large measure actually "invented," during the
Babylonian exile. Bible scholars, the Germans in particular, claimed that the history of the Hebrews, as a
consecutive series of events beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and proceeding through the move to Egypt, the
enslavement and the exodus, and ending with the conquest of the land and the settlement of the tribes of Israel,
was no more than a later reconstruction of events with a theological purpose.
Albright believed that the Bible is a historical document, which, although it had gone through
several editing stages, nevertheless basically reflected the ancient reality. He was convinced that if the ancient
remains of Palestine were uncovered, they would furnish unequivocal proof of the historical truth of the events
relating to the Jewish people in its land.
The biblical archaeology that developed from Albright and his pupils brought about a series of
extensive digs at the important biblical tells: Megiddo, Lachish, Gezer, Shechem (Nablus), Jericho, Jerusalem, Ai,
Giveon, Beit She'an, Beit Shemesh, Hazor, Ta'anach and others. The way was straight and clear: every finding that
was uncovered would contribute to the building of a harmonious picture of the past. The archaeologists, who
enthusiastically adopted the biblical approach, set out on a quest to unearth the "biblical period": the period of
the patriarchs, the Canaanite cities that were destroyed by the Israelites as they conquered the land, the
boundaries of the 12 tribes, the sites of the settlement period, characterized by "settlement pottery," the "gates
of Solomon" at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, "Solomon's stables" (or Ahab's), "King Solomon's mines" at Timna - and
there are some who are still hard at work and have found Mount Sinai (at Mount Karkoum in the Negev) or Joshua's
altar at Mount Ebal.
Slowly, cracks began to appear in the picture. Paradoxically, a situation was created in which
the glut of findings began to undermine the historical credibility of the biblical descriptions instead of
reinforcing them. A crisis stage is reached when the theories within the framework of the general thesis are unable
to solve an increasingly large number of anomalies. The explanations become ponderous and inelegant, and the pieces
do not lock together smoothly. Here are a few examples of how the harmonious picture collapsed.
Patriarchal Age: The researchers found it difficult to reach agreement on which archaeological
period matched the Patriarchal Age. When did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live? When was the Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of
the Patriarchs in Hebron) bought in order to serve as the burial place for the patriarchs and the matriarchs?
According to the biblical chronology, Solomon built the Temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt (1 Kings 6:1).
To that we have to add 430 years of the stay in Egypt (Exodus 12:40) and the vast lifetimes of the patriarchs,
producing a date in the 21th century BCE for Abraham's move to Canaan.
However, no evidence has been unearthed that can sustain this chronology. Albright argued in the
early 1960s in favor of assigning the wanderings of Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age (22nd-20th centuries BCE).
However, Benjamin Mazar, the father of the Israeli branch of biblical archaeology, proposed identifying the
historic background of the Patriarchal Age a thousand years later, in the 11th century BCE - which would place it
in the "settlement period." Others rejected the historicity of the stories and viewed them as ancestral legends
that were told in the period of the Kingdom of Judea. In any event, the consensus began to break down.
The exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the desert and Mount Sinai: The many Egyptian documents
that we have make no mention of the Israelites' presence in Egypt and are also silent about the events of the
exodus. Many documents do mention the custom of nomadic shepherds to enter Egypt during periods of drought and
hunger and to camp at the edges of the Nile Delta. However, this was not a solitary phenomenon: such events
occurred frequently across thousands of years and were hardly exceptional.
Generations of researchers tried to locate Mount Sinai and the stations of the tribes in the
desert. Despite these intensive efforts, not even one site has been found that can match the biblical account.
The potency of tradition has now led some researchers to "discover" Mount Sinai in the northern
Hijaz or, as already mentioned, at Mount Karkoum in the Negev. These central events in the history of the
Israelites are not corroborated in documents external to the Bible or in archaeological findings. Most historians
today agree that at best, the stay in Egypt and the exodous occurred in a few families and that their private story
was expanded and "nationalized" to fit the needs of theological ideology.
The conquest: One of the shaping events of the people of Israel in biblical historiography is
the story of how the land was conquered from the Canaanites. Yet extremely serious difficulties have cropped up
precisely in the attempts to locate the archaeological evidence for this story.
Repeated excavations by various expeditions at Jericho and Ai, the two cities whose conquest is
described in the greatest detail in the Book of Joshua, have proved very disappointing. Despite the excavators'
efforts, it emerged that in the late part of the 13th century BCE, at the end of the Late Bronze Age, which is the
agreed period for the conquest, there were no cities in either tell, and of course no walls that could have been
toppled. Naturally, explanations were offered for these anomalies. Some claimed that the walls around Jericho were
washed away by rain, while others suggested that earlier walls had been used; and, as for Ai, it was claimed that
the original story actually referred to the conquest of nearby Beit El and was transferred to Ai by later
Biblical scholars suggested a quarter of a century ago that the conquest stories be viewed as
etiological legends and no more. But as more and more sites were uncovered and it emerged that the places in
question died out or were simply abandoned at different times, the conclusion was bolstered that there is no
factual basis for the biblical story about the conquest by Israelite tribes in a military campaign led by
The Canaanite cities: The Bible magnifies the strength and the fortifications of the Canaanite
cities that were conquered by the Israelites: "great cities with walls sky-high" (Deuteronomy 9:1). In practice,
all the sites that have been uncovered turned up remains of unfortified settlements, which in most cases consisted
of a few structures or the ruler's palace rather than a genuine city. The urban culture of Palestine in the Late
Bronze Age disintegrated in a process that lasted hundreds of years and did not stem from military conquest.
Moreover, the biblical description is inconsistent with the geopolitical reality in Palestine. Palestine was under
Egyptian rule until the middle of the 12th century BCE. The Egyptians' administrative centers were located in Gaza,
Yaffo and Beit She'an. Egyptian findings have also been discovered in many locations on both sides of the Jordan
River. This striking presence is not mentioned in the biblical account, and it is clear that it was unknown to the
author and his editors.
The archaeological findings blatantly contradict the biblical picture: the Canaanite cities were
not "great," were not fortified and did not have "sky-high walls." The heroism of the conquerors, the few versus
the many and the assistance of the God who fought for his people are a theological reconstruction lacking any
Origin of the Israelites: The fusion of the conclusions drawn from the episodes relating to the
stages in which the people of Israel emerged gave rise to a discussion of the bedrock question: the identity of the
Israelites. If there is no evidence for the exodus from Egypt and the desert journey, and if the story of the
military conquest of fortified cities has been refuted by archaeology, who, then, were these Israelites? The
archaeological findings did corroborate one important fact: in the early Iron Age (beginning some time after 1200
BCE), the stage that is identified with the "settlement period," hundreds of small settlements were established in
the area of the central hill region of the Land of Israel, inhabited by farmers who worked the land or raised
sheep. If they did not come from Egypt, what is the origin of these settlers? Israel Finkelstein, professor of
archaeology at Tel Aviv University, has proposed that these settlers were the pastoral shepherds who wandered in
this hill area throughout the Late Bronze Age (graves of these people have been found, without settlements).
According to his reconstruction, in the Late Bronze Age (which preceded the Iron Age) the shepherds maintained a
barter economy of meat in exchange for grains with the inhabitants of the valleys. With the disintegration of the
urban and agricultural system in the lowland, the nomads were forced to produce their own grains, and hence the
incentive for fixed settlements arose.
The name "Israel" is mentioned in a single Egyptian document from the period of Merneptah, king
of Egypt, dating from 1208 BCE: "Plundered is Canaan with every evil, Ascalon is taken, Gezer is seized, Yenoam has
become as though it never was, Israel is desolated, its seed is not." Merneptah refers to the country by its
Canaanite name and mentions several cities of the kingdom, along with a non-urban ethnic group. According to this
evidence, the term "Israel" was given to one of the population groups that resided in Canaan toward the end of the
Late Bronze Age, apparently in the central hill region, in the area where the Kingdom of Israel would later be
A kingdom with no name
The united monarchy: Archaeology was also the source that brought about the shift regarding the
reconstruction of the reality in the period known as the "united monarchy" of David and Solomon. The Bible
describes this period as the zenith of the political, military and economic power of the people of Israel in
ancient times. In the wake of David's conquests, the empire of David and Solomon stretched from the Euphrates River
to Gaza ("For he controlled the whole region west of the Euphrates, from Tiphsah to Gaza, all the kings west of the
Euphrates," 1 Kings 5:4). The archaeological findings at many sites show that the construction projects attributed
to this period were meager in scope and power.
The three cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, which are mentioned among Solomon's construction
enterprises, have been excavated extensively at the appropriate layers. Only about half of Hazor's upper section
was fortified, covering an area of only 30 dunams (7.5 acres), out of a total area of 700 dunams which was settled
in the Bronze Age. At Gezer there was apparently only a citadel surrounded by a casematewall covering a small area,
while Megiddo was not fortified with a wall.
The picture becomes even more complicated in the light of the excavations conducted in
Jerusalem, the capital of the united monarchy. Large sections of the city have been excavated over the past 150
years. The digs have turned up impressive remnants of the cities from the Middle Bronze Age and from Iron Age II
(the period of the Kingdom of Judea). No remains of buildings have been found from the period of the united
monarchy (even according to the agreed chronology), only a few pottery shards. Given the preservation of the
remains from earlier and later periods, it is clear that Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon was a small
city, perhaps with a small citadel for the king, but in any event it was not the capital of an empire as described
in the Bible. This small chiefdom is the source of the "Beth David" title mentioned in later Aramean and Moabite
inscriptions. The authors of the biblical account knew Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, with its wall and the rich
culture of which remains have been found in various parts of the city, and projected this picture back to the age
of the united monarchy. Presumably Jerusalem acquired its central status after the destruction of Samaria, its
northern rival, in 722 BCE.
The archaeological findings dovetail well with the conclusions of the critical school of
biblical scholarship. David and Solomon were the rulers of tribal kingdoms that controlled small areas: the former
in Hebron and the latter in Jerusalem. Concurrently, a separate kingdom began to form in the Samaria hills, which
finds expression in the stories about Saul's kingdom. Israel and Judea were from the outset two separate,
independent kingdoms, and at times were in an adversarial relationship. Thus, the great united monarchy is an
imaginary historiosophic creation, which was composed during the period of the Kingdom of Judea at the earliest.
Perhaps the most decisive proof of this is the fact that we do not know the name of this kingdom.
Jehovah and his consort: How many gods, exactly, did Israel have? Together with the historical
and political aspects, there are also doubts as to the credibility of the information about belief and worship. The
question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the
discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah. At two sites,
Kuntiliet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet el-Kom in the Judea piedmont,
Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention "Jehovah and his Asherah," "Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah,
"Jehovah Teman and his Asherah." The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his consort Asherah,
and send blessings in the couple's name. These inscriptions, from the 8th century BCE, raise the possibility that
monotheism, as a state religion, is actually an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the
destruction of the Kingdom of Israel.
The archaeology of the Land of Israel is completing a process that amounts to a scientific
revolution in its field. It is ready to confront the findings of biblical scholarship and of ancient history. But
at the same time, we are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon in which all this is simply ignored by the Israeli
public. Many of the findings mentioned here have been known for decades. The professional literature in the spheres
of archaeology, Bible and the history of the Jewish people has addressed them in dozens of books and hundreds of
articles. Even if not all the scholars accept the individual arguments that inform the examples I cited, the
majority have adopted their main points.
Nevertheless, these revolutionary views are not penetrating the public consciousness. About a
year ago, my colleague, the historian Prof. Nadav Ne'eman, published an article in the Culture and Literature
section of Ha'aretz entitled "To Remove the Bible from the Jewish Bookshelf," but there was no public outcry. Any
attempt to question the reliability of the biblical descriptions is perceived as an attempt to undermine "our
historic right to the land" and as shattering the myth of the nation that is renewing the ancient Kingdom of
Israel. These symbolic elements constitute such a critical component of the construction of the Israeli identity
that any attempt to call their veracity into question encounters hostility or silence. It is of some interest that
such tendencies within the Israeli secular society go hand-in-hand with the outlook among educated Christian
groups. I have found a similar hostility in reaction to lectures I have delivered abroad to groups of Christian
bible lovers, though what upset them was the challenge to the foundations of their fundamentalist religious
It turns out that part of Israeli society is ready to recognize the injustice that was done to
the Arab inhabitants of the country and is willing to accept the principle of equal rights for women - but is not
up to adopting the archaeological facts that shatter the biblical myth. The blow to the mythical foundations of the
Israeli identity is apparently too threatening, and it is more convenient to turn a blind eye.
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