The battle of Jericho is one of the more popular events that take place in the Old Testament. In the Book of Joshua, it also takes place within a series of events which culminate into the complete entrance and settlement of the Israelites within the land of Canaan, also known as “the Promised Land.” If the Israelites indeed enter the land from Transjordan, they would have come into contact with the inhabitants of this major city/fort residing in the oasis of the Jordan River valley.
Geographically, Jericho falls along a major ancient road in the valley. The imposing mound, Tel Es-Sultan has been identified as ancient “Jericho” even though there has been other identifications of a “Jericho” at Tell Abu el’ Alayiq which contains a large Hasmonean palace, Tell El-Hassan in the byzantine period, and one of Herod the Great’s Roman Period palaces discovered at Khirbet en-Nitla. It is not uncommon for sites to move over time which can make some identification of ancient towns and cities difficult.
For the purpose of this article we will focus on Tel Es-Sultan and assume its location, since it is the largest tel (the Hebrew for “ruin; manmade mound created from centuries of occupations built on top of each other) in the area. It also has evidence of occupations from the Epipaleolithic Period approximately 9000 BC to the Late Bronze II age, using standard archaeological dating methods (not focusing on biblical chronology).* According to this dating, it would make Jericho the oldest city discovered in the archaeological record! One of the more impressive structures from the excavations are a round stone tower from the Neolithic Period (8.5m in diameter and stands to this day, preserved 7.75m tall) built against the inner-city wall. The society living there suggests a transition from hunter-gathers to one of the first, budding sedentary civilizations.
The city flourished in the Early and Middle Bronze ages (3250-1550 BC) as there was monumental architecture (palaces, buildings and wall fortifications) built on the site as well as several cave burials and family graves on and around the tel.
Now, to answer the question: “What about Joshua and the Israelites, is there any evidence of them or a battle at Jericho?” There is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: it’s complicated. The reason of this complication lies in methodology and interpretation. Which results in my long answer. For those of you still with me and would like an explanation, here it is:
When referring the Biblical time period, the emergence of the ancient Israelites would have taken place during the Late Bronze Age (1550 – 1200 BC). Whichever way you look at biblical chronology (which usually has something to do with where you date the Exodus: 15th Century or 13th Century BC), the emergence of Israel into Canaan has to take place shortly after this episode, i.e. one generation after the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt.
Jericho was one of the first sites excavated when scholars rushed to the Holy Land in order to excavate and find the hidden secrets of an ancient Israelite culture to battle skeptics of the Bible. The first excavations took place between 1907-1909 in which an Austro-German team under the direction of E. Sellin and C. Watzinger. Before scientific methodology and modern methods of excavation became standardized, someone thought it would be a good idea to dig a series of trenches into these delicate tels in order to evaluate the stratigraphy. This accomplished the goal of reading the occupations, but at what cost? Archaeology is already destruction of that which has been buried by time. Once it is uncovered, it cannot be put back again. It was discovered later in the discipline’s infancy, that this tactic was not sustainable and the loss of data was incalculable. Even so, the data collected during this work for subsequent excavations, was and is useless to this day.
Methodology improved with the excavations of J. Garstang in 1930-1936 who excavated the Late Bronze portion of the tel. He believed his findings were the remains of the Canaanite fortress in which was destroyed by Joshua and the Israelites. However, when an up-and-coming archaeologist by the name of Kathleen Kenyon later excavated the site in 1952 and 1958, she declared Garstang’s pottery chronology wrong and instead claimed that the city was destroyed much earlier in the Middle Bronze Age. Therefore, according to Kenyon, Joshua and the Israelites would have come upon an already empty town; leaving the event of Joshua at Jericho, fictitious.
There are archaeologist and historians who still feel this way concerning the absence of a Late Bronze civilization and destruction at Jericho. But there is also a considerable number of archaeologists who view who Kenyon to be wrong in her evaluation of the site and the destruction of the outer walls and subsequent destruction by fire. They would believe that Garstang’s assumption does indeed fall correctly in line with biblical chronology and the Late Bronze Age II (13th Century BC). There is also a period of little to no occupation of the Iron Ages and Persian Periods which is also verified by the Biblical Text after Joshua places a curse upon anyone who rebuilds Jericho (Josh 6:26).
There is a battle being fought when it comes Ancient Jericho and it is not the one fought in Joshua 6. Ultimately because of these two things, methodology and interpretation, that the battle rages onward between Biblicists and secular archaeologists. The fact remains that it is probably futile to make any claims as to an Israelite presence at Jericho because there was barely any presence if there ever was one. The text claims that the Israelites were in and out in 7 days and on account of extensive erosion and poor excavation methods, it is a miracle anything survives at the site at all.
In the Bible, the destruction Jericho is yet another sign from God that he fights the battles for His people. In this God’s desire for his people is their faith, rather than their military prowess. The salvation of Rehab and her family (Josh 6:25) is also telling as to the extension of Yahweh’s promise to the Israelites and also to the Canaanites if they were willing to accept it. It is an important story, yet the main points of the narrative are not driven by archaeology (although supplemented), but by are implied theologically and exegetically.
Let me know what you think in the comments!
For further reading on Jericho excavations please see the following:
The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Jericho. Pg 674-697.
On the Reliability of the Old Testament. K. A. Kitchen. pg 187-188.
*One day I will do a post concerning numbers and dating in the Bible compared to modern dating systems, absolute/relative chronology. For the moment I am using the standard dating systems we have available to us based on ceramic typology and radiocarbon dating.
Merry Christmas Eve! Christmas Day is tomorrow and we are down to number one. The greatest archaeological discovery that is related to the discipline of biblical studies are the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In 1946, along the hilly West Bank of the Dead Sea, a Bedouin shepherd boy was throwing rocks into random caves, as no doubt any child would do at that age, passing the time while his sheep grazed in a nearby field. He did this until he heard one of the rocks collide with something (perhaps ceramic) in one of the caves. Afterwards, the shepherd boy alerted his family and they inspected the cave, discovering seven scrolls and fragments in jars near the site of Qumran. As fantastic of a story this is, one would be surprised to know that most great archaeological finds begin in a similar fashion. This is the story of the discovery of Cave I. Since then eleven caves have been located in which the scribal community at Qumran hid their precious documents during the time of the Jewish Revolt in 68/69 CE.
Some would like to compare the transmission of the Bible to a game of "Telephone," an entertaining children's game where one child whispers a word or phrase and waits as it is whispered around the room, waiting to see the product of the transmission. Usually the end result is nothing compared to the word or phrase which began the game. In the same way, questions were raised concerning the continuous copying of the biblical text and over time, one would expect what we have in our Bibles to be different to what was originally written.
After the discovery of the scrolls, the biblical texts found in the caves date as early as the 2nd Century BCE, almost a thousand years older than the MT! Scholars jumped at the possibility to examine the text to see if there were discrepancies and were baffled at the unusual accuracy of the texts compared to the Old Testament text we have today. One of the pioneers of Biblical Archaeology, William F. Arbright stated "We may rest assured that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, though not infallible has been preserved with an accuracy perhaps unparalleled in any other Ancient Near Eastern literature."
Of the scrolls, over 225 Biblical texts were found in the caves of Qumran. Other deuterocanical books recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox faiths were discovered such as the books of Tobit, Ben Sirach, Baruch 6 and Psalm 151. An entire Isaiah scroll (known as the Great Isaiah Scroll) was among the first seven scrolls discovered in Cave 1 and remains the only complete Biblical text and is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (shown above). This however is only the tip of the iceberg as this great discovery is still making waves today in Biblical Studies.
One of the great DSS scholars, James VanderKamm spoke at Andrews University last year. To see what new developments are made by DSS research and to learn more about the Qumran community who lived there, see the lecture in the button below.
Thats it for this list! Ever year more exciting things are discovered that reveal the world of the Bible. Thank you for keeping up with our countdown and don’t forget to leave a message in the comments below. Let me know what you think.
Take care and Merry Christmas!
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve which means we have two more posts to go. Today is perhaps my favorite archaeological discovery that illuminates the context of the Bible, the Merneptah Stele.
Discovered in Thebes by Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of Egyptology, the Merneptah Stele is a large stone monument describing the campaigns and victories of the Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh during his reign between 1213 – 1204 BCE.
Among his exploits against the Libyans, the stele mentions several Canaanite nations which Merneptah claimed to subdue. The way that Egyptian Hieroglyphics designates these nations is with something called a “determinative.” We use these all of the time in English, for example: if I am writing something and I want to let the reader know that I want to convey an amount of currency I use the “$” determinative. This way the reader knows that they number following the “$” is a currency. Egyptian Hieroglyphics does the same thing just more frequently in its language.
In line 27 of the stele, along with a list of Canaanite nations, it mentions the name “Israel.” The full line says “and Israel is laid to waste, its seed is not.” If there were any doubt that this "Israel" was anything other than a people group, the determinative for ethnic group is used after the word, “Israel” spelled out in hieroglyphics.
This is the earliest reference to the Israelites in the archaeological record and it is written during the time of an Egyptian Pharaoh, Merneptah, who was the successor to Rameses the Great, one of the assumed Pharaohs of the Exodus. This also dates to the time of the emergence of the Israelites in the land.
The Conquest of the Promise Land has been debated by archaeologists for decades. However, there has to be some historicity to the emergence of Israel into the land of Canaan based on this evidence. Because of what this discovery brings to the Origins of Israel debate, I give this number two in our countdown.
See you tomorrow for Christmas Even and number 1 in our countdown of most significant archaeological discoveries in biblical studies.
3 days until Christmas and we are down to our last 3 discoveries. Today’s archaeological discovery is the Tel Dan Stele.
The Tel Dan Stele was discovered in the 1993 at the site of Tel Dan during Avraham Biran’s excavation. It was written in Aramaic and in an ancient Phoenician Script closely related to an early Hebrew.
The stele dates to the 9th Century BCE and is said to be authored by Hazael of Aram-Damascus. He discuses how he took the city of Dan and killed the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s kings Joram and later Ahaziah from the Omride Dynasty. However, in this stele, it does not designate these kings as the Omride dynasty, instead he says they were kings from the “House of David.”
This is a quite significant discovery considering that before this event, scholarship had not yet found any real historical confirmation of the biblical King David. It was assumed that he was a legendary figure like King Arthur. However, when this stele was discovered it changed everything we knew about the history of Israel.
It is interesting that that the king of Aram, from outside of Israel, mentions by name the House of David and designates it to the Northern Kingdom which separated itself from the Southern Kingdom of Judah after the reign of King Solomon. This shows that there was, at the very least, a tradition of both kingdoms once being united and the kingship was called the “House of David.” Also, kingdoms would call nations typically by the name of their ruler or most powerful ruler when they refer to them in monumental inscriptions.
This stele shows there is some historicity to the human figure of King David. It was obviously debated as to its authenticity after its initial discovery but now there is not too much debate on the subject. The Tel Dan Stele remains one of the most important archaeological discovery in the realm of biblical scholarship.
Tune in tomorrow as we will be two days away from Christmas!
Number four are the Ketef Hinnom amulets. Found near Jerusalem, these miniatures, silver scrolls were found in a series of burial chambers. They were excavated by Gabriel Barkay in 1979.
Much can be said about these scrolls but for an attempt to be brief I will give a summary of the debate regarding these scrolls. The assumption among biblical scholars is these texts from the priestly source (labeled P) are typically dated, to the 4th Century BCE, after the Judean Exile and during or after the Persian occupation.
This assumption was challenged after the discovery of these scrolls because, after analysis of the Hebrew writing on the silver, it was revealed to be inscribed with Numbers 6:24-26 which is known as the “Priestly Blessing.”
Num. 6:24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
Num. 6:25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
Num. 6:26 the LORD lift up his countenance3 upon you and give you peace.
This passage which is usually considered a P source, dating to the 4th Century BCE was found in a burial context from the 7th Century BCE. This shows that at the very least, the Priestly Blessing, and the tradition of this blessing dates much early rather than the assumed later date from Source Critics of the Bible
This is another perfect example of how archaeology is constantly changing the way we think and know things concerning the Bible.
Tune in tomorrow as we are only 3 days away from Christmas!
At this point in the list any of these objects can be anyone’s favorite discovery which connect archaeology and the Bible. However, I am ranking this list by what I think is most significant for biblical studies.
Next in our countdown is the Mesha Stele or also known as the Moabite Stone. It is a stone monument authored by a Moabite king by the name of Mesha. The inscription is written an ancient Phoenician alphabet which scholars believe to be an Old Hebrew Script. Discovered in 1868 by Fredrick Augustus Klein, in the ancient Moabite city of Dibon, located in modern day Jordan.
It is the longest Iron Age inscription ever found and contains 34 lines of text. It describes how king Mesha falls back into the grace of his god Chemosh, the god of Moabites. It mentions their subjugation under the nation of Israel and how he, Mesha restored the land of Moab and dates to the context of the 9th Century BCE Iron Age Transjordan.
The reason it is significant is because it mentions an event that takes place in 2 Kings 3:4-8 which is a significant for Israel and Judah against the Moabites. The inscription is one of the earliest epigraphical evidences for “Israel,” “House of Omri,” the Divine Name (YHWH), and perhaps the name “House of David.”
Tune in tomorrow for Day 4!
Rollston, Chris A. (2010). Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. Society of Biblical Lit. p. 54.
The next archaeological discovery goes hand in hand with the our number 7 from yesterday. In fact the object in question concerns the very same king who battled Ahab at Qarqar. Found in the ancient city of Nimrud, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is another monument describing the Assyrian king’s reign in the Ancient Near East. It contains four registers which each scene continues around the object, 360 degrees. The contain scenes of hunts, wild and exotic animals, and two foreign kings bringing tribute to the Shalmaneser III in his throne room.
This object is important for biblical studies because it is the only pictorial representation of an Israelite king, Jehu. In my last post I mentioned how the Kurhk Monoliths show the conflict between the West Semitic kings and Shalmaneser III in Assyria. Jehu, formed a coup d'etat against the house of Ahab and had his queen, Jezebel killed. The very next event is not mentioned in the Bible but it assumed to have happened, in that Jehu pledges allegiance to Shalmaneser III, the very king in which Ahab was at war with during his reign.
Jehu is in the second register in which he is shown, surrounded by Assyrian officials and bowing down to Shalmaneser III. Below this scene is written in Akkadian, “Jehu of the House of Omri.” It is interesting that in the identification of King Jehu of Israel, he is not in fact from the Omride Dynasty. This is most likely an example of foreign empires addressing the nation according to its most powerful or famous dynasty.
Further along the second register going 360 degrees also shows what appear to be other Israelites forming a procession and carrying tributes to the king. This was a common practice in the ANE where a smaller kingdom would pay tribute or taxes to a major empire in hopes of reaping the benefits of said empire. In this case the Israelites were allowed their independence but were under the protection of the Assyrian Empire from the looming threat of the growing Arameans to the north. Obviously this treaty formed between the two kingdoms only went well for Assyria since Israel was later exiled in 722 BCE in which the alliance put the southern Kingdom of Judah in danger as well as we saw with the Annals of Sennacherib.
Tune in tomorrow for number 5 as we are 5 days away from Christmas!
Perhaps one of the more interesting takeaways from the objects on this list are that most of these discoveries are from outside of Israel Palestine and they are in reference to people and events which take place in the Bible. Not only is the extra-biblical evidence (outside of the Bible) but also it is "extra-Israel/Palestine" (outside of the region of modern day Israel/Palestine). The Kurkh Monolith is among these discoveries which actually mention an Israelite king and while also providing information concerning the strength of his empire.
These monoliths were found in Turkey by a British archaeologist by the name of John George Taylor. They are monuments with Akkadian writing describing a famous battle known as the Battle of Qarqar which was between the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, and the other West Semitic kings in 854 - 846 BCE.
Among these West Semitic kings listed is one “ "A-ha-ab-bu Sir-ila-a-a" which is generally accepted among scholars as “Ahab of Israel,” assumed to be the very same biblical Ahab of the house of Omri mentioned in the 2 Kings chapters 18 – 22. The inscription mentions each West Semitic king by name and by the military might which they brought to the fight. Ahab was said to have brought “2,000 chariots, 10,000 soldiers” which is a massive military force, second in strength by numbers only the Hadad-ezer of the Arameans. This shows the might of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as their significance in the Ancient Near East.
The picture being painted here is one that shows the background of the impending exile of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. Ahab is trying to show his military might against the Assyrians, which the Bible says the prophets have been warning them since the beginning. Ahab is clearly unsuccessful and his war with the Assyrians ends with later Israelite kings forming an alliance with them.
The stele is also one of the few archaeological discoveries which also mentions, by name, the nation of Israel rather than "House of _____" (ex. House of Omri, House of David, etc.) in an ancient context.
See you tomorrow for number 6 in our countdown to Christmas!
Today’s archaeological discovery that illuminates the world of the Bible are the Annuls of Sennacherib found on a series of objects known as prisms. These clay prisms were inscribed in cuneiform and contain the same text, the annuls of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.
It was discovered in 1830 by Colonel Robert Taylor in the ancient city of Nineveh. The account dates to the early 7th Century BCE and discusses Sennacherib’s exploits and campaigns across his vast empire. It is also important for biblical studies because it mentions the siege of a certain Judahite king named Hezekiah and his royal city, Jerusalem.
This event is also recorded in the Bible in the books of Isaiah (chapters 36 and 37), 2 Kings (ch. 18), and 2 Chronicles (32). In this account, Sennacherib takes siege of the city only to be decimated by the army by and angel of the Lord, forcing Assyrian King to retreat.
The account on the prisms are different however, as it mentioned “Hezekiah of Judah” by name and states that Sennacherib had him “caged like a bird in his own royal city.” His annuals do not mention his defeat at the hands of an angel or heavenly host, nor does it say that he conquered the city, however, it does say that Hezekiah paid tribute to him in the end implying that the siege was successful
Perhaps the most interesting point to take away from this study (I have written about in a previous post), is that Sennacherib did not conquer the city of Jerusalem. It is implied that he took the city for himself as Hezekiah is forced to pay tribute. But this victory is only mentioned in these annuls.
My previous post on the Lachish Relief (#9), discovered in the very same palace in Nineveh, shows Sennacherib’s army winning a glorious battle against a major city in Judah. The question then is: where is the relief for the siege of Jerusalem? If Jerusalem is such a royal city, as mentioned in his annuls, why not explicitly say that he took the city, and carried off slaves and gold from the treasury by force?
Assyrians were masters of psychological terrorism and intimidation (look at some of the images from the Lachish Relief). Though the taking of Jerusalem, the royal city of the Hezekiah of Judah, seems like an aside. A relief or boasting of an event such as this would be expected to be plastered in many palaces throughout the Assyrian Empire. Sennacherib only mentions the destruction and battles of smaller cities and towns (46 in all), but Jerusalem remains standing.
Thank you for tuning in this week! I hope you have enjoyed the list so far. Be sure to check in tomorrow for number 7 in our countdown.
Number 9 in our countdown for archaeological discoveries that help provide context to the Bible are the Lachish reliefs found in the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. It was carved sometime between 700 and 681 BCE and located in the Palace of Sennacherib, whom was mentioned prior in our number 10, the Siloam Inscription post.
The reliefs were discovered in 1853 and first assumed to be to be an another city conquered by the Assyrians proposed by Henry Rawlinson. However Yigael Yadin, a famous Israeli archeologist, points to the excavations at Tel Lachish and show that the excavations match precisely the events shown on the relief.
The Bible also describes siege of Lachish in 2 Chronicles 32:9 “"Later, when Sennacherib king of Assyria and all his forces were laying siege to Lachish, he sent his officers to Jerusalem with this message for Hezekiah king of Judah and for all the people of Judah who were there.” The reliefs depicts a major battle of a walled city showing archers firing, the building of a siege ramp to breach the wall, soldiers being impaled on stakes, and prisoners being marched away bound.
The excavations at Lachish discovered a major destruction layer, many Assyrian arrow heads and a massive siege ramp made which is still in view today (see image above). There is little doubt among scholars that this Lachish is the same mentioned in the Reliefs in Nineveh that Sennacherib is claiming as his prize.
I have a previous post in which I discuss the site of Lachish further in relation to (spoilers) number 8 in our countdown for tomorrow, the Annals of Sennacherib.
See you tomorrow!