How Archaeologists Are Finding the Signatures of Bible Kings, Ancient Villains, and Maybe a Prophet

"Wet sifting brings us closer than ever to the world of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hezekiah." - CToday

2822 reads

There are 17 Comments

dgszweda's picture

What I have found interesting in Biblical archaeology is that very rarely does anything found contradict the Bible.  In almost all cases, there is a push by minimalist that put down the Bible as truth because nothing is found to corroborate the story.

It often reminds me of the Hittites.  Before the mid-1800's, there was nothing found of the Hittites.  This led minimalist to assert that if such a great empire existed, it would have left some kind of trace.  Even today there is very little archeological evidence of the kingdom, but it is now clear from texts across many established kingdoms that the Hittites were a vast and powerful nation and much is now known about them.

Bert Perry's picture

The way they're finding new things is essentially the same method my neighbor used to evaluate soil as a fertilizer and seed dealer.  Pretty nifty.  

Regarding the Hittites, I'm reminded of a thought that I had regarding how many archeologists had argued from silence because many of the hypothetical trappings of a civilization were not found in Israel; that of course they didn't find some of them, because the Assyrians and Babylonians destroyed them.  I'm also reminded of the fact that Sparta didn't have a city well--they took the Swedish adage "we defend our walls with men" under Gustavus Adolphus to the extreme "we don't even need a wall."

So we'd infer that a lot of the hallmarks of a civilization are going to be a lot more subtle--really in the "garbage" that people of the time didn't think were worth noting.  Hence wet screening.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dgszweda's picture

AndyE wrote:

Go to the British Museum in London and look at the Lachish relief that Sennacherib commissioned for his palace.  I don't think they want you to, but you could literally touch something from their time.  Pretty cool stuff.

Don't tell anyone, but I touched it Smile

dgszweda's picture

The one area that I struggle is the size of Israel as a nation, as it has been translated in Scripture.  The numbers don't make sense from a practical perspective and they don't make sense from a theological perspective.

From a practical perspective, the size as it is mentioned in Exodus would be about 1.6M in total population.  The entire nation of Egypt as recorded in their tax documents was only 2M.  If that population were to line up to cross the Red Sea it would have lasted for 909 miles in single file.  Just to establish tents and setup for night they would need between 25 to 50 square miles.  And on and on you can go.

From a theological perspective, if you just look at something like Jericho, which had most likely less than 10,000 people with full capacity of surrounding hamlets holed up in the city wall.  Why would an army of almost 700,000 men of war be worried about the 10,000 people.  The Egyptiam army had 100,000 men and easily took cities much larger than Jericho.  Alexander the Great's army was only about 50,000 men and it conquered the entire known world at the time.

I struggle with this one archaelogical element, as I don't see it jiving with anything at the time.  I know that the Hebrew word can be translated different ways and I wonder if the translations have translated it improperly.

Bert Perry's picture

I've also struggled with the size of Israel and how they would have made it through the desert, but we need to be fair and not put modern views in place of what might have been in place back then.  Your estimate of 50 square miles for camping assumes about 871 square feet per person, but in contrast, even with a car site and such, my family has cheerfully camped--all eight of us back then--in that area.  So perhaps instead of 50 square miles, I'd guess five square miles would be closer to the truth.  I'd further estimate that such a group would camp closely together simply to make their camp more defensible vs. roving bands of raiders.

(another point of reference; the ~10k people in Jericho lived in an area about 400 m long and 200m wide, about 8 square meters or 80 sf per person)

Regarding going single file....um, who exactly does that?  Certainly not people in the desert who have reason to fear the army of Egypt and roving raiders, and who have livestock to herd..  It would most likely stretch beyond the ~ 1.2-1.5 mile radius of the camp, but if the column was more than ten miles long, I'd be surprised.  If you look at a topological map of Sinai, it's not like there are many places like Thermopylae where there's only a narrow path to traverse.

Which gets to the issue of fortified cities; as Ahasuerus discovered at Thermopylae, well armed, motivated, and desperate men can successfully resist forces many times larger.  (also Masada, Chosin Reservoir, Agincourt, Midway, Bastogne, etc..)  This is especially the case when you consider the size of Jericho--maybe 1.2km around the walls, and if you come in with a Phalanx-style formation of about one person per meter, you're going to be pretty much like the Persians at Thermopylae, except the wall is much bigger, and the Sinai/Negev through which they'd wandered didn't have a whole lot of wood for making shields/ladders/weapons and the like.  You could end up with a siege ramp made of the dead bodies of your comrades, really.

(another point of reference; Jericho might have had allies that, given time, would have come to their defense, changing the numbers rather significantly)

So if you bring in ancient presuppositions and patterns instead of modern, it makes a lot more sense, I think.  It's still something that takes some thinking over--getting water for all those people each day is a neat trick in Sinai for starters--but it's not as preposterous as some would make it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dgszweda's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

I've also struggled with the size of Israel and how they would have made it through the desert, but we need to be fair and not put modern views in place of what might have been in place back then.  Your estimate of 50 square miles for camping assumes about 871 square feet per person, but in contrast, even with a car site and such, my family has cheerfully camped--all eight of us back then--in that area.  So perhaps instead of 50 square miles, I'd guess five square miles would be closer to the truth.  I'd further estimate that such a group would camp closely together simply to make their camp more defensible vs. roving bands of raiders.

(another point of reference; the ~10k people in Jericho lived in an area about 400 m long and 200m wide, about 8 square meters or 80 sf per person)

Regarding going single file....um, who exactly does that?  Certainly not people in the desert who have reason to fear the army of Egypt and roving raiders, and who have livestock to herd..  It would most likely stretch beyond the ~ 1.2-1.5 mile radius of the camp, but if the column was more than ten miles long, I'd be surprised.  If you look at a topological map of Sinai, it's not like there are many places like Thermopylae where there's only a narrow path to traverse.

Which gets to the issue of fortified cities; as Ahasuerus discovered at Thermopylae, well armed, motivated, and desperate men can successfully resist forces many times larger.  (also Masada, Chosin Reservoir, Agincourt, Midway, Bastogne, etc..)  This is especially the case when you consider the size of Jericho--maybe 1.2km around the walls, and if you come in with a Phalanx-style formation of about one person per meter, you're going to be pretty much like the Persians at Thermopylae, except the wall is much bigger, and the Sinai/Negev through which they'd wandered didn't have a whole lot of wood for making shields/ladders/weapons and the like.  You could end up with a siege ramp made of the dead bodies of your comrades, really.

(another point of reference; Jericho might have had allies that, given time, would have come to their defense, changing the numbers rather significantly)

So if you bring in ancient presuppositions and patterns instead of modern, it makes a lot more sense, I think.  It's still something that takes some thinking over--getting water for all those people each day is a neat trick in Sinai for starters--but it's not as preposterous as some would make it.

You are a bit off in your numbers.  For the encampment you are using how you camp.  And that works well for a small family of 5 or 6 in a large federal/state campsite.  In general, in ancient times ancient cities would have about 100 per acre.  A tightly condensed group would sometimes occupy about 200 per acre in situations such as protection.  This is what archeological evidence suggests.  For 1.6M (which is the estimate from Biblical scholars who are taking the Biblical account as accurate) you would have about 16,000 acres you would have 25 square miles.  That is a 5 mile x 5 mile stretch.  The problem is that as you get bigger you need more and more space to accommodate many things associated with this size of a population.  For example, the average human body produces about 1lb of fecal matter per day.  That would mean that 1.6M would need to remove 1.6M lbs of fecal matter.  Or 800 tons a day.  That is 292,000 tons a year.  This is extremely hard to do in today's world with very advanced technology.  

In  terms of the city, I do agree that cities can withstand much bigger forces.  But the numbers are so extreme here.  600,000 vs. 5,000.  At Thermopylae which is an extreme example as it is unlikely that the Caananites were as extreme as the Spartans that was 7,000 Spartans vs. 100,000 to 150,000 Persians.  Again with Masada it was 1,000 Jews in an almost impenatrable fortress vs. 15,000 Romans, most who were Jewish slaves.  It isn't so much that Jericho would not have been a challenge, it was that why would a force that totaled 650,000 men of arms be so scared as to want to run and hide from a group of 9,000 in Jericho.  In fact the Jewish army was greater by a substantial amount than the entire Roman Empire's army.  It wasn't until Napolean that the world saw an army as big as what the Jews had.  Even Rome struggled mightly managing an legions that were substantially smaller than the Jews, from a supply chain issue.  In fact in the Late Bronze Age it has been estimated that the population was less than 450,000 people in all of Caanan.  

I am not a big fan of trying to question things in the Bible based on outside evidence.  But given the fact that the Hebrew word has different meanings and that the numbers are so unbelievably large, I just think there is something here.  The amount of water, waste removal, material for clothes, Bronze materials, food (before mana).... needed to support 1.6M people in this time period, would have been what the Egyptian empire would have been able to do at its very peak.  On top of that, I struggle with why Israel would have been so fearful and needed to rely on God to conquer its neighbors, when it would have been the largest army and largest single population in the ancient world, by a wide margin.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Couild it be because human fear is often irrational?

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

....take a look at the size of the "Tel" for Jericho, David.  I'm going to argue that you're the one a bit off in your numbers, as we know an approximate population of Jericho, and its size.  It's about 8 hectares (20 acres) and about 10,000 population.  We also know that in our own country a little over a century ago, it was common for families of 5 or 6 to share a 325 square foot tenement.  Living in close quarters for a long time is something that our not terribly distant ancestors did quite a bit.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dgszweda's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

....take a look at the size of the "Tel" for Jericho, David.  I'm going to argue that you're the one a bit off in your numbers, as we know an approximate population of Jericho, and its size.  It's about 8 hectares (20 acres) and about 10,000 population.  We also know that in our own country a little over a century ago, it was common for families of 5 or 6 to share a 325 square foot tenement.  Living in close quarters for a long time is something that our not terribly distant ancestors did quite a bit.

Okay, we will use your numbers.  10,000 people per 20 acres, means that there are approximately 500 people per acre.  There were 1.6M Israelites exiting Egypt.  That would be 32,000 acres.  I acre is 43,560 square feet.  That means that 32,000 acres is about 50 square miles.  The island of Manhattan is only 23 square miles.  The camp would be roughly 10 miles by 5 miles.

If you were to take this and then translate into crossing the Jordan river into Cannan to attack Jericho, would mean that you would have a mass of people @1.6M moving in a 10 mile by 5 mile mass crossing the Jordan river.  With an army that was almost 50% larger than the entire Persian army at its very peak.

Theologically it doesn't make sense, as why would the Lord need to step up and reveal His glory and show the Israelites that it was God's power and not their power, when they had the largest army in the entire known world.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Just for curiosity's sake, what's the population of Manhattan?

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

1.6x 10^6/500 = 3.2*10^3 = 3200 acres, not 32000.   Five, not fifty, square miles.

For comparison, per GN's question, the population of Manhattan is about this number, and it's got 23 square miles approximately, including Central Park and a  lot of area "not used for housing".    Districts in many Asian cities are far denser.

Now we can quibble and say "but the Israelites couldn't build ten stories high", and that's true, but they also didn't have the "stuff" that Americans tend to store, the spacious living rooms, and the like.  It's not that the dynamics of such a moving camp would be simple, but rather many tend to overstate the difficulty rather significantly.  Regarding the issue of human waste, remember that Moses commanded Israel to devote a place outside the camp to empty the chamber pots as well.  

OK, on the light side, given that Sinai is a desert that can go many months without rain, would we someday find gigantic piles of waste that in that environment never rotted?  Or might we infer such from oddly placed concentrations of plant life?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

AndyE's picture

This is a fairly well-known issue, and most of my commentaries on Numbers spend time dealing with the problems David raised and others he didn't mention.  Various proposals have been suggested:

  • Numbers should be taken at face value, recognizing that we don’t understand how all this might have worked, and leave those details to God
  • Numbers are true but refer to a different time in Israel’s history, such as the Davidic monarchy
  • Numbers are symbolic in some way
  • Numbers are exaggerations
  • The word translated thousand might better be translated differently, such as clan, group, or chieftain (e.g., Jdg 6:15).  The Heb is something like 'lp and those consonants can be taken a few different ways depending on the vocalization.

None of these are without problems, some more serious than others. One commentator summed it up this way: “In short we lack the materials in the text to solve this problem. When all is said and done one must admit hat the answer is elusive.”

For my part, I tend to default towards the traditional translation because there are so many assumptions built into the objections, and those assumptions may not be accurate.  But there are some real issues with the traditional translations, such as other passages that suggest that Israel was smaller than the surrounding nations (cf., Deut 7:7). Then there is this -- if there were 22,273 first born males (Num 3:43) and 603,550 males 20 yrs and older (Num 1:46), that implies a ratio of 1 first born to 27 males (if there are no males under age 20).  Assuming there are more, say 396,450 (to make an even million males), that makes the ratio even higher 1/45, meaning the average mother had around 90 kids (half of which were male).  So there is a lot to consider and it's not an easy question.

 

 

dgszweda's picture

AndyE wrote:

This is a fairly well-known issue, and most of my commentaries on Numbers spend time dealing with the problems David raised and others he didn't mention.  Various proposals have been suggested:

So there is a lot to consider and it's not an easy question.

I agree, I don't have an answer either.  I lean toward maybe not being translated correctly and what the commented stated that you quoted.  With that said, I typically don't see pastors addressing this and I think it leads to some disconnects in some passages in Scripture and it definitely leads to some disconnects when it comes to archaeology.  Many Christians lay out this idea that David's kingdom was well established, very large, well structured with tribes that had clear boundaries....  I don't think Scripture provides that picture if you look at it correctly and I don't think archeology and common sense provides that picture either.  Some of the ambiguity is perfectly fine.   

AndyE's picture

dgszweda wrote:
I agree, I don't have an answer either.  I lean toward maybe not being translated correctly and what the commented stated that you quoted.  
The biggest difficulty I see with the translation error option is what to do with the summary verse in Numbers 1:46.  If the word translated 1000 should be translated as clan, or troop, or similar, it's hard to see how that works in this verse. The number 603,550 also shows up in Ex 38:25-26 where there is a careful accounting for the ransom price of each person (cf., Ex 30:12).  Then Paul's reference to 23,000 men falling in one day makes more sense if the traditional translation is maintained.  So there are difficulties no matter what...

dgszweda's picture

AndyE wrote:

 

So there are difficulties no matter what...

 

I agree.  I guess the translation error is a bit less problematic for me.  Of course, I am starting with the premise that 1) the Bible is wholly accurate, and 2) the number appears to be impossible.  It tends to point me to a translation error of the ancient Hebrew.  Of course, to be honest this isn't the only place where numbers are a problem in ancient literature, so from a Far East perspective there is a challenge as well.

AndyE's picture

I've spent some time looking over this issue the past couple of days.  One other thing worth mentioning is that Moses seems to acknowledge the logistical difficulty of moving such a large number through the wilderness in Numbers 11:21-23.

But Moses said, "The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, 'I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!' 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?" 23 And the LORD said to Moses, "Is the LORD's hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not."  Numbers 11:21-23 (ESV)

This verse was pretty helpful to me, because in my quest for an answer to this rather intractable problem, I started to wonder what it means if there is no solution. This verse says, regarding this very event of which I'm am wondering about, that Moses wondered about it too, and God's answer was basically -- is God able to resolve these difficulties or not? Will God's word prove true or will it not? So, yes, I may not know the answer, but I know that God is able to do what he says and that his word will prove true in the end. That is very settling for me.