Very few times does archaeology harmonize to what is mentioned in text. Yet, both text and archaeology are lenses by which we view the world and neither one usually give the whole picture. It is the interpretation of this picture, which is what we call “history.”
There is a passage in the book of 1 Kings in 9:15 that says “And this is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon drafted to build the house of the YWHW, his house, the Millo, the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor, and Megiddo and Gezer.”
The passage refers to the reinforcement and building projects King Solomon implemented on the temple, his own palace, the walls of Jerusalem, and the walls of some major cities within his kingdom -- at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. There is not evidence of his building projects on the Temple since it was destroyed in 586 BCE and later built over by Herod the Great in the 1st Century BCE. What may remain from Solomon’s palace is under centuries of occupations in Jerusalem which is also not to mention a living, thriving city. However, the building projects for rebuilding walls of these other cities in interesting may provide a clue to King Solomon himself.
In gate structures during this period, we have what are called “chambered gates.” This is a particular architectural gate style which emerges in the Iron Age II period (10th – 9th Centuries BCE). There are two chamber gates, four chamber gates and six chamber gates reflecting the amount of chambers each gate has (see schematic image above). The purpose of these chambers was span from their use in cultic shrines for travelers to offer sacrifices, to watering areas for animals and livestock.
Around this time period we have only three examples of what are known as the 6 Chamber Gates, which are the largest and more significant of the three types. The sites which contain this mysterious architectural feature are only found at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, the three cities where Solomon supposedly reinforced the city walls mentioned in 1 Kings 9.
Do the discoveries of these three gates exhibit the building projects implemented by Solomon during his reign in Israel? The topic of David and Solomon’s historicity is another hotly debated subject and many have used this architectural feature to champion for Solomon’s relevancy.
See you tomorrow with number 10 of our countdown!
First on our list are a group of artifacts known as the Tel El-Amarna letters. These letters were found in Egypt and date the Late Bronze Age New Kingdom of Egypt 1360-1322 BCE. They are a collection of over 300 clay tablets which are correspondence between the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, and the major kingdoms of the Ancient Near East.
These tablets were inscribed in cuneiform (wedge writing) and written in a language known as Akkadian which was the lingua franca, or common language of the ancient world in this time period. Most of the correspondence contain devotion and praise to the pharaoh as well as providing details as to the culture and events of these distant kingdoms.
This information provides biblical scholars with a wealth of knowledge since majority of these tablets are written from kings living in the areas of modern day Syria, Lebanon, and Canaan. Evaluation of these texts can help quite literally “set the stage” and provide the historical and geographic context for the emergence of the Israelites in Late Bronze/Early Iron Age in Canaan.
Some of these texts also mention the troubles the Canaanite kings have had with two people groups known as the Hapiru and the Shasu. Both of these groups have been linked with the “Hebrew” people. Some prominent scholars have suggested that these are in fact the emerging ethnic group of the Israelites infiltrating the land of Canaan however this is heavily debated.
Tune in tomorrow for Day 11 in the 12 Days of Archaeology and the Bible!
Sources and for further Reading.
Dever, William G. (1997). "Archaeology and the Emergence of Early Israel" . In John R. Bartlett (Ed.), Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 20–50. Routledge.
Hoffmeier, James K. (2005). Ancient Israel in Sinai, New York: Oxford University Press, 240–45.
Rainey, Anson F. (1995). "Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society". In Wright, David Pearson; Freedman, David Noel; Hurvitz, Avi (eds.). Pomegranates and Golden Bells. Eisenbrauns.
Stager, Lawrence E. (2001). "Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel". In Michael Coogan (Ed.), The Oxford History of the Biblical World, pp. 90–129. New York: Oxford University Press.
El-Amarna Tablets, article at West Semitic Research Project, website of University of Southern California accessed 12/12/19.
Christmas is the month of giving. Among the lights, gifts and Mariah Carey music, we like to use this time to be with family. This is a welcome break for most academics because we are taking a break from classes and research until the new year.
I am often asked questions about archaeology and more specifically “Biblical Archaeology” concerning discoveries, interpretations, and of the latest documentary on the History Channel. Usually the questions center around three subjects: Dinosaurs, the Ark of the Covenant, and Noah’s Ark. All of which are very interesting topics but unfortunately true academic archaeology does not provide many answers for these subjects. Since there is so much debate over these subjects, is there any archaeological evidence that I can hang my hat on? What is agreed upon amongst most scholars and archaeologist that can help introduce us to the world of the Bible?
So, for this Holiday Season I thought I would do something slightly different from my traditional monthly blog post. We have no doubt heard of the “12 days of Christmas” that begin with twelve drummers drumming and ends with a partridge in a pear tree. Traditionally the 12 Days of Christmas begin December 25th and end on January 5th. However, I will be counting down this month from the 13th to the 24th, Christmas Eve, with my favorite 12 archaeological discoveries for biblical studies that give insight into the world of the Bible.
We will begin with number 12 tomorrow!
BTW, if anyone wants to make a song of my list, feel free to submit it and I will play it on my website.
This year I had the opportunity to attend two conferences in San Diego (where I am writing this). One being the American Schools of Oriental Research (or ASOR, which I attend every year) and the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL, first time). These conferences can seem intimidating to some, especially if you are new to the field of archaeology and considering it for a career. It is important however, to stay up to date on excavations, new finds and new interpretations discussed in the ever growing field of archaeology in the Middle East. On top of this, you may even get to rub shoulders with some of the “rockstars” of archaeology, pun intended.
I believe this is the perfect time to start a dialogue with those who may be interested in a career in archaeology. I have received questions on how one would get into this gig, so I will briefly tell my own story of how I got involved in archaeology as well perhaps give some advice to those who are considering this as a vocation.
In the Beginning
There was something romantic about archaeology when I was younger. Naturally, anyone would be enticed by the life of adventure brought on by Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. However, the reality of our craft comes crashing down upon you in your first anthropology/archaeology 101 class. From what I observed most people had trouble staying awake in these classes. I was a lost freshman at the University of North Florida, trying to find my way amongst the thousands of other students taking their Gen Eds. Finding myself was harder than it should have been considering that I was not even a great student in my own right, as I rarely went to class or even prepared for exams. I simply floated by. Nothing interested me. All I knew is that I did not want pursue a generic degree, and I did not aspire to making a lot of money to live comfortably. I wanted to do something that was different.
I also grew up in a conservative Christian background and I had a desire to investigate the Bible on a deeper level. I felt that if I were to understand this book, that was the source for my faith, then how best to investigate it then to study the periods and people in which it was about? After almost two full years of floating, I did something that was very uncharacteristic of me. I wanted to try out this archaeology thing, so I picked up a phone and called the University of Chicago. Why the University of Chicago? Because that was where Indiana Jones taught in his movies of course! I called and I asked the admissions councilor what it took for me to do my PhD in archaeology there. They were very helpful in telling me exactly what I needed to know. They gave me a list of things to keep in mind and I want to share that list with you.
I will be upfront with this however, to be a professional archaeologist, it will require a considerable amount to schooling, almost 10+ years. But there are other ways to be involved in archaeology without all of that and I will address career choices at the end of this post for those that may still want to be involved indirectly in archaeology. For those interested in becoming a professional archaeologist, take note and read below.
I. Learn the Languages
I wanted to investigate that people and places of the Bible. In order to do that I had to put myself in a position where I could learn the language(s) of the book and ancient people. That meant going to a school where I could learn Hebrew and Greek. The reason for this should be simple: how can one claim to know the culture or people in question if one cannot bother to learn the language? Language reveals much about a particular culture and it should be the first step to really understanding other people. What we read in a book such as the English Bible or even in a history textbook about a culture that is not from our western world is an interpretation of the actual thing.
Based on this revelation I found a school, Harding University, which met my needs and offered a major in Biblical Languages. I studied Greek and Hebrew as well as doing some advance study in backgrounds of the Biblical text. These are good starting points to build off of if you are interested specifically in the world of the Bible. If your interest is in another part of the world, then go to a school that offers that. For example, if you are interested in archaeology in Central America, you can find a school that will prepare you for that. If you are interested in Japanese archaeology, you can find a school in that. All it really takes is a quick Google search. If you need help finding a school I would be happy to give assistance. Messaging me in the comments section below.
2. Go on a Dig
Perhaps this should be number one, but this also should be a no-brainer. How will you know if you like archaeology if you have never been on a dig? Here’s the good news, you can go on a dig and not be an archaeologist. There are excavations going on all over the world and at all different times of the year. Most excavations offer “field schools” in which they will actually teach you the methods and practices of an on-going excavation.
My very first dig was during my undergrad was with Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations (2013) in Israel. I was simply just happy to be there. I had no experience and had only been told what life on an excavation was like. The first week was hard only because I had no idea what to expect. It was actually quite laborious for me and I did not enjoy waking up at 4am in order to go do physical labor. The question always comes to mind to every beginner-- "Did I actually pay for this?"
However, it became all worth it the first time I uncovered pieces of a storage jar from the 10th Century Iron Age. The longer I stayed with it, the more I began to wrap my mind around the methods and cadence of a dig. It was rewarding and not only did I enjoy it, I realized I was good at it. Since then, I excavated other sites such as Abel Beth Ma’acah (2015) while I was working on my MA, and am currently at Khribet Safra (2018, 2019) while on my PhD. I have even done some CRM (cultural resource management) work with the military cataloging Post Civil War cemeteries and surface surveys at major military bases.
So naturally I would recommend you go on a dig. However, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you don’t even have to consider being a professional archaeologist in order to be involved in a dig. I know scores of people who simply love to do field work, and they also have other jobs they do back home. For them, it becomes a hobby and they have found out that you can still be involved in archaeology without all of the school.
But, here’s the crux, going on a dig is typically not cheap, especially if it is overseas. Most digs will offer packages that include room and board, food and weekend tours. Take advantage of these because nothing beats traveling in a foreign land with an archaeologist who has been excavating there 20+ years. At Safra we do something similar in which we travel to exotic sites in Jordan on the weekends and will cap off the remainder of the trip in Israel the final week. To see what the daily life of an archaeologist in the Middle East looks like, see my Youtube video here.
3. Consider your career options
Jobs in archaeology are few and far between. It is no secret that everyone wants the cushy teaching job, teaching in the Fall and Spring while excavating in the summers. However, this is not realistic for most. Consider all of the schools in the United States, then think about all of the schools that have archaeology programs. I will go ahead and tell you that there are not many. At the conferences I attend, there are many young PhDs looking for a teaching jobs and the sad part is that most of them will never find one. They will have to learn to contribute to our craft in another way.
Luckily we are in a day-in-age where our government is becoming conscious of its ecological footprint as well as its culture footprint. I have mentioned before my experience with CRM, in that there has developed this entire industry that seeks to help private landowners and even the government navigate preserving America’s culturally sensitive heritage. I have done quite a bit of work in this area and there is a real need for archaeologists to commit themselves to preserving America’s intellectual history.
As I mentioned before there are many ways one can be involved with archaeology and not be a professional archaeologist. Gone are the days where the archaeologist needs to be a jack-of-all-trades in educating themselves in every facet of ancient culture. We need ceramic experts, biologists, chemists, linguists, historians, economists, metallurgists, zoologists, botanists, geologists, medical professionals, database analysts, coders, GIS specialists, cartographers, fund raisers, and the list goes on. All of these disciplines and specialists can be archaeologists in their own right and help in the ultimate goal for uncovering and preserving the past.
4. Stay humble
I did not end up at the University of Chicago, but I found an institution that met my needs and is willing to support me and my research. Every day, I learn something new about myself and about history that adds another puzzle piece into my ever-growing view of the world we live in. At ASOR this year, I met with the great William G. Dever, a world renown archaeologist and was incidentally the professor to two of my professors (guess that would make him my grand-professor). He had this advice to say to me. He told me to always be willing to learn and do not ever think that you know everything. When you get to the point where you stop learning then you have failed as an academic. I understood what he was saying, and I was grateful for his wisdom. I have seen how fluid our discipline can be in that new finds and new methods are being discovered every day that can be applied to how we view the ancient world. Humility play a large role with every academic because when you have stopped learning, then you cease to be a scholar.
Archaeology is an immensely rewarding discipline that can take you to places you never dreamed you would go. Understanding the past has immediate relevance to our own issues in the present. Find your niche and get involved.
Thanks for reading! If archaeology is something you are interested in, feel free to reach out. I can recommend some schools for you and of course help you in your search to find a dig.
For some, the summer means school is out for students. Growing up in Florida, it meant going to the beach daily, barbecues, bon-fires and fishing. When one is in academic discipline of archaeology, summer means: “dig season.”
It is true that there are other excavations, which operate outside of the months of May – July, but in the Middle East, summer is the most convenient for students. Field schools are in full swing and archaeological projects either begin or pick right up where they left off last year.
In this case, Khirbet Safra kicked off its second season in Jordan for 6 weeks (end of may to mid-July). Andrews University has been involved with excavating major sites in Jordan since 1968 led by the renowned archaeologist Sigfried H. Horn. In fact, Tall Hesban Excavations just celebrated its 50th year anniversary of continuous work as apart of the Madaba Plains Project. Two additional excavations at Tall El-Umayri (1984) and Tall Jalul (1992) have also been excavated by Andrews.
:::Warning::: Technical, but not too technical, archaeology jargon coming henceforth. All pictures I use in this post are my own (unless specified) and are, by no means, publishable quality. I do this intentionally to protect the integrity of the publications.
To answer more questions regarding the Iron Age in Transjordan (the politically correct term for the land in modern-day, Jordan) excavators moved their focus southwest to Khirbet Safra. Some sites in archaeology are called Tells/Talls or Khirbets. A Tell is a mound created over time with layers of ruins and occupations beginning with the most recent occupation on the top and the earliest material culture at the lowest levels. (For a better description of Tell structures check out my blog post here.)
A khirbet is the designation for a site where its ruins or architecture are exposed prior to any excavation or disturbance to the site. From aerial photographs, the khirbet has a clear outer-wall surrounding the circumference along with an inner wall also running along the interior forming what is known as a “casemate” – a double reinforced wall structure commonly seen in the Levant.
Initial surveys of the site found several different time periods of pottery on the surface ranging from Iron IIA (10th-8th Century BC) to the Byzantine periods (AD 3rd century). Four fields were opened on the four areas of the city -- A, B, C, and D. These fields were strategically placed in order to 1) delineate the casemate (in all fields); 2) expose any remaining gate structure in the north and east on site (fields C and D); and 3) expose any large, assumed administrative structures in logical locations (Fields A and B).
The first season (2018) yielded fine results of pottery and helped establish a better chronology of the site. Two squares were opened in each Field and majority of the squares were finished and closed by the end of the season on account of bedrock laying a meter to a meter and a half under the surface. In most areas, upon the exposed bedrock was a sealed locus of Iron I pottery dating to the 13th Century BC, which was earlier than what the excavators expected since Iron II pottery sherds were collected in the initial 2017 ground survey.
The second season in 2019 was focused primarily on Fields B and D respectively. Field B opened four new squares where a monumental building was discovered abutting the casemate wall to the south. Field D also opened four more squares and discovered several rooms connected to a 13th century BC gate complex to the city, complete with a threshold stone and stone benches. The gate finding is significant for several reasons since it is a high traffic area for entrancing and exiting the city. Many administrative and legislative processes occur at city gates. For ancient and biblical parallels, see texts dealing with events where the elders meet at the city gates to make judgements and form contracts. (Gen 19:1, 34:20; Exod 32:26; Deut 25:7; Josh 20:4; Ruth 4:1, 4:11; Prov 31:23; etc. ).
A better picture of phasing is appearing and tells us that the first settlers to Khirbet Safra built a walled town/city upon bedrock, filling in holes and depressions in the bedrock with a red-bricky material in order to make it flat. The site was most likely destroyed at one time as there is a thin ash layer in Fields A and B most likely caused by an earthquake on account of tectonic/seismic activity frequent along the Jordan River Valley which is a known fault line. There is also a possiblity that that destruction could have occured by the growing Moabite presence in the Iron Age II seen at other sites in the surrounding areas like Dibon and Ataruz. Some settlers during the Byzantine period reused the abandoned/destroyed walls in Fields A and B but only had a short period of occupation.
For copyright and publication reasons, I will leave any more details about the findings of Khirbet Safra for now. It is a fascinating site which will help answer questions we may have concerning the Transjordan in the Iron Age I. For those interested in biblical chronology and archaeology, this is most likely the time period of the books of Joshua and Judges. If geographic information and boundaries in the Bible are accurate then the city of Khirbet Safra lies within ancient Reubenite territory.
Next Season we hope to reopen all 4 fields and continue with excavation. Although some questions were answered, more questions are raised. We have yet to find any inscriptional evidence or material culture which shows what kind of people lived at Khirbet Safra, whether they were Moabite, Ammonite or -- dare we say, Israelite? Only time will tell as we press onwards and downwards. Consider joining us next year as we dig into history and uncover the secrets of Khirbet Safra.
I realize a lot of this text can appear as technical, archaeology “mombo-jumbo.” However, these are valuable results that we uncover which help us understand the world that came before us and ultimately tell us something about ourselves. Archaeology is about discovering our intellectual heritage. It is not all working in the hot sun every day. You can see my video in what a typical day in the life of an archaeologist looks like here. When we are not working, we tour exotic sites, eat wonderful Jordanian cuisine and more importantly, form relationships with people who are not much more different that ourselves. Archaeology is an opportunity for building a bond between people of different cultures. It brings together people from all walks of life in different age, ethnicity, language, religion and politics. We coexist and work towards a better understanding of humanity. See my video of our wonderful volunteers and students from last year here. Come join in on the adventure with us next year. You will not regret it.
Summer Excavations are in the books, a new semester has started and publications are being written. In the meantime, I figured I’d answer one of my “frequently asked questions" with my next post. A question I am often asked is: “how does one choose a site to dig?”
Archaeology as a discipline began in the 17th and 18th centuries. The methodology used today was developed in mid 1800’s by a famous Egyptologist, William Flinders Petrie also known as the “Father of Archaeology.” He developed a dating technique known as Ceramic Typology (for an explanation of this, see video “A Day in the Life of an Archaeologist”). This began what was known as the “Golden Age” of archaeology in which people began seriously considering this discipline as a profession. Other methodological techniques such as the Wheeler-Kenyon method came out of this age (setting up sites in a grid system and excavating stratigraphically based on the architecture and material culture), which we still implement today and even still might be the preferred method of excavation. This introduction to archaeology as a scientific/academic discipline helped shape the way we understand the evolution of human civilization in an even bigger picture within anthropology.
The Wheeler-Kenyon Method maps the site out into a grid of 5x5 meter squares for excavating. A one-meter buffer or "balk" in between each square are used to keep track of the changes in layers in order to have complete, three dimensional control of the area. Assigned to each square is a supervisor tasked with taking meticulous notes of not only artifacts which may pop up, but also architecture, soil color and consistency, measurements, and other miscellaneous data.
Implementing the Wheeler-Kenyon methods to Khribet Safra
Within this understanding of anthropology, in which one chooses to excavate a site, there are many factors that come into play before one even puts spade to dirt. Text and oral tradition play a role in choosing a site, however before one attributes these indicators to a site one has to consult the basic needs of any human culture. I will name four which are, including, but not limited to:
Aside from Wifi (which would no doubt be a necessity for most in this day in age) these four factors must be present when a site is in consideration. This can all be determined by viewing aerial images and maps (both modern and ancient). If one of these factors are not present, then an explanation is needed in order to show how this factor is compensated. For example: if there is no clear water system such as a river, lake or spring nearby, then how did the ancient people living at the site gain access to water? Now, there are clearly exceptions to this rule for not every site is easily explainable. However, majority of the time, these factors are available and they are somewhat universally applied to sites all over the world.
The ancient fortress of Masada. Archaeologist are still perplexed as to how the ancient peoples had access to water on a mountain in the middle of the Judean Desert.
Conveniently enough, in the Near East, this is one more factor that helps in identifying a site for excavation, this is a structure known as a “Tel” (Arabic: “Tall”). The word Tel means, “ruin” and it is a man-made mound with layers and layers of human settlements created over centuries. You may have heard some sites referred to as “tels” such as Tel Abel Beth-Ma’acah, Tel Miggiddo, Tel Hazor, or Tel Azekah. These are in reference to the site as an ancient city or town with multiple occupations over the course of human history. This is of course compared to what is also known as a “khirbet,” which is a site where there are exposed ruins on the surface. The excavation I am currently involved with is known as Khirbet Safra, which is not a tel structure.
Before adequate techniques of archaeology were put into practice, trench archaeology was applied to some sites, which it was precisely as it sounds. Past archaeologists would dig a large trench in the middle of the tel, like slicing off a piece of cake, in order to see the layers in relationship to the site. As one can imagine this was a horrible method as it destroys a considerable percentage of the site. When the Wheeler-Kenyon method was adapted and applied, it was a slower process, but much more controlled and yielded better results.
After the basics of human needs are addressed comes the fun part of choosing a site. This is where one will look at textual evidence and oral traditions in order to determine if a site is worth excavating and also helps judge the importance of a site. Countless surveys done by explorers and cartographers have identified sites that are yet to be excavated today. The modern names of some sites are typically given by local neighbors and settlers. This is what is referred to as an “oral tradition” of the site. Sometimes even the modern name of a site will contain traces of the ancient name in it such as Tall Heshbon in Jordan (ancient Hesban in the biblical text). Other sites like Tel es-Sultan have been identified as the ancient biblical city of Jericho based off of geographic information from textual sources such as the Hebrew Bible and ancient maps, as well as the oral tradition of the surrounding settlements of the site in question.
Choosing a site is a process and should not be taken lightly. It is as much of a science as the method of excavation applied to a site. A lot of care is taken into choosing a site because once one has put spade-to-dirt, the site will never be the same way again. Archaeology as a discipline is destructive by nature. Excavators have the ethical responsibility of man’s intellectual heritage to uncover what lies beneath one layer at a time.
Let me know what you think in the comments! If there are other questions you may want to ask and archaeologist leave it in the comments below.
Have you ever wondered what an Archaeologist does during the summer?
Let me know what you thought of the video in the comments! Also feel free to ask questions that I can can answer in the next video. Stay tuned for more updates later this month!
Since I am in the field this summer I will have to put my Genesis project on hold until the Fall. In the meantime, you will be able to follow me on my travels to Jordan. I am excavating with Andrews University at Khirbet Safra and I will use the resources at my disposal to document our efforts and show you what it looks like to be an archaeologist in the Middle East. I will also vlog from some key sites in Jordan that are referenced in the biblical text or subject to "Biblical Archaeology" such as Mt. Nebo, Jerash, Tel Dhiban, the Dead Sea and others. Stay tuned all of the month of June as I will attempt to put out as many videos as I can.
There will also be a portion of the vlog where I will answer questions from you guys! So, be sure to either comment below or ask questions to my twitter handle accessed by the button below. This is a great opportunity to ask an archaeologist your questions!
Additionally, while you are waiting for more content, enjoy my blog and subscribe to my YouTube channel in order to get updates for when I post new videos. I hope this may be a rewarding experience for myself and for you as you get an inside look into the Bible and Archaeology.
A section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling featuring Adam and scenes throughout Genesis and the Bible.
When someone, whether a believer or passive reader of ancient literature, picks up a Bible to read its contents, they will naturally turn to the first page being that it is the beginning of the story. They may be very interested in the first three chapters as it introduces God, characters such as Adam, Eve, the serpent, and their sons, Cain and Abel. But shortly after these brief stories the reader is thrust into a lengthy genealogy beginning with Adam, and his descendants of hard to pronounce and exotic names. This list continues through the course of Genesis, pausing only for key players in the list.
One is therefore tempted (like I often was) to skim (or skip) over majority of this list of names to get back to the action. However, could this list of names, years and descendants contain meaning, give life to the text, and provide lessons to the reader? Can this genealogy give any insight to those of us, removed by time and space and perhaps supply a glimpse into the world of Genesis? Can it actually be a valuable part of the narrative involving YHWH and his people? This post will focus on the Generations of Adam throughout Genesis and use a text discovered by archaeology in order to glean a better understanding of this mysterious genre.
Genesis and the Sumerian Kings List
There are many genealogical lists discovered by archaeology but most fall along the category of a “Kings List.” These lists are used in identifying each king within a dynasty and its purpose is usually to authenticate a particular king in power as the true successor to the throne. We have them from the Levant, Anatolia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. In fact, the kings list, which is often compared with the genealogy in Genesis, is the Sumerian Kings list.
WB 444 (Weld-Blundell Prism)
This ancient cuneiform tablet was discovered during excavations at Nippur (modern day Iraq) in the early 1900s by a scholar named Herman Hilprecht. Since then, more kings lists from the Sumerian empire have been discovered but the Weld-Blundell prism in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is the most complete version. It contains a list of rulers from the antediluvian period (pre-flood era) to the fourteenth rule of the Isin dynasty 1763 – 1754 BC.
Several items are of interest about this list:
Lists such as these help historians, archaeologist and scholars to identify dynastic periods and compare these periods with other civilizations to establish a “chronology.” However the problem lies with fragmentary lists, and issues such as those mentioned before with inflated, (and assumed estimated) lengthy reigns of the earliest rulers.
When compared to Genesis, the lengthy life spans of Adam and his descendants stand out as a parallel to the Sumerian Kings List as well as the mention of a flood and pre-flood era. It also is important to note that Genesis is also establishing a claim of legitimacy in that the Children of Abraham are direct descendants of Adam and Noah. The term “God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is, in a sense, a mini-genealogy establishing a divine claim for the Children of Israel.
A final note before discussing the genealogy as narrative. This list shows that the style and form of the genealogy of Genesis has its roots in Mesopotamia (Sumer is one of the oldest known civilizations by archaeology circa 4500-1900 BC) and this fact alone can provide legitimacy as to the “ancientness” of the Genesis text.
Genealogy as Narrative
After the events of Creation and The Fall, the author of Genesis focuses on giving an extensive list of generations and their families. The formula that is portrayed is thus:
“_(Father Name)_ lived _#_ of years, he fathered _(Son Name)_. _(Father Name)_ lived after he had fathered _(Son Name)_ _#_ of years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that _(Father Name)_ lived were _#_ years, and he died.”
The formula stays mostly consistent with the exception of a few names worth mentioning. Narratively speaking, the authors of the Bible often times use repetition as well as grammar and syntax in order to emphasize a particular person or theological point trying to be made.
As readers of the Bible it is important to note that these techniques beg the question as to their purpose for such a change or repetition. The authors not only convey a message through the actual words on the page but by the form of the text and arrangement of those words. The genealogies in Genesis are a good example of this.
In Genesis we are given a list of names describing a lengthy lifespan for those in the pre-flood period along with mention of the amount of children they have at a particular year. The reason for the information of each man concerning the amount of years one had lived until they began to father children, pertains to the command made earlier to Adam and Even to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28. The author is letting the audience know that this particular person is mentioned in the genealogy because they obeyed the command to have children. In this case, the repetition was to be noted and this common denominator can be found amongst all mentioned.
More importantly, of those mentioned in this list of names are those of whom do not fit the formula. The first name on this list that strays from the formula is of a man named Enoch. Gen 5:21-23 says,
“When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years.”
"God took Enoch" illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries
Majority of these words fit the patterned formula however, verse 23 does not end with “and he died.” Instead, we are given a pause and are told in verse 24, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” This may seem like a minor divergence from the formula but it is one that should be noted, especially since the list continues right back into its formula in verse 25 with Methuselah. This should beg the question from the reader as to what happened to Enoch and why the abrupt change?
Shortly after mention of Enoch, the author decides to give a side story describing the events of a man named Noah and of a great Flood, which covers the whole earth (more on Flood literature in the ANE next month). The story of Noah describes his life and faithfulness in God as he was, the Bible claims, the only righteous man in the world. God is essentially going to start again with humanity from Noah’s family rather than letting the wickedness of man continue on the earth (Gen 6:5-8). The preparation for this event, the event itself and its aftermath take up the bulk of the story. When the story is over, the genealogical formula continues in Genesis 9:28 “All the days of Noah were 950 years and he died.”
Immediately following this statement, the text picks right back up with another genealogy following the lineage of Noah however, the author becomes less concerned with mentioning the number of years each man lived and seems more concerned with the territory in which they inhabited. This continues until the mention of the Tower of Babel. After the author directs the attention of the tower and its creation, he shifts back to the original pattern as the beginning of the genealogy saying in 11:10 “These are the generations of…” A similar formula appears:
“When _(Father Name)_ lived _#_ of years he fathered _(Son Name)_. And _(Father Name)_ lived after he fathered _(Son Name)_ _#_ years and had other sons and daughters.”
The rest of Genesis then follow the events of Abraham and his descendants, Isaac, Jacob/Israel and Joseph.
A portion of Dead Sea Scroll which mentions Noah.
It is intriguing to see whom the text focuses on as opposed to who the text glosses over. The book of Genesis can been view as one large genealogy beginning with Adam ending until Joseph before the events of the Exodus. Purely looking at these genealogies in a narrative light, one can see that the author is clearly emphasizing certain people within the list on account of their faithfulness to YHWH.
Enoch is singled out and his story is different from the others because in verse 1:24 he was said to have “walked with God” therefore he was taken, and the author does not inform the reader of his death. A similar break occurs with Noah and his “walk with God.” The text is careful to mention Noah’s faithfulness and that he is the only righteous man on the earth.
However, the reader is given an abrupt ending to Noah's story immediately after the incident involving his drunkenness and his son’s sin (Gen 9:20-25). The very next thing that happens to Noah is the end of the genealogical formula “All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.” The text then dives back in to the genealogy until mention of another man who walks by faith, called Abram.
After a careful reading one can see that names that stray from the formula, were meant to be emphasized and a simple theological deduction arises:
This seems like a simple concept but the logic is played out beautifully within the pages of Genesis. Therefore, there are lessons and valuable insights to be gained among these lists of names, which are placed carefully within the text for a reason. As mentioned before, the author(s) skillfully weaved this text together and not only teach its reader using the words on the page but with the form and arrangement of the text itself.
Next month my post will focus on the Flood in Genesis compared to other flood literature in the ANE.
For further reading:
Hallow, W. W. 1963 The Sumerian King List. AS 11. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Sailhamer, John. The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1992).
The Ancient of Days (William Blake 1794)
Genesis 1 begins with creation ex nihilo or creation “out of nothing.” YHWH from no frame of reference appears to manifest all matter in the universe simply by speaking and thus his words become the physical reality for his presence to dwell. In the creation narrative, Chapter 1 gives a day by day creation account of the 6 days of God’s work followed by chapter 2:1-3 of a seventh day of completion where God rests to admire his work. 2:4 picks back up on the 6th day giving a detailed account of the creation of man, God’s favorite work amongst his creation. This section begins with the formula “these are the generations,” signifying that the book is taking a different direction. Instead of solely focusing on a macro-level of Creation, the author wants to focus on a particular aspect of creation and the relationship of God with mankind. This will eventually lead to the lineage of a specific family through its patriarch, Abraham, from whom will father a great nation that will bless the world. This is common way of story telling in which one begins very general to very specific.
The Creation narrative literally is “setting the stage” for God to act in order for the grand drama to unfold. Shortly after, in chapter three, the conflict is introduced and the first antagonist, the serpent, appears to tempt God’s perfect creation. His goal: to change order into chaos. The event of creation takes place within six days (Heb yom). They are outlined as this:
Day 1: Creation of Light, Night and Day
Day 2: Creation of the Heavens (expanse, Hebrew: raqia)
Day 3: Creation of Land and Vegetation
Day 4: Stars, Sun and Moon.
Day 5: Sea Creatures and Birds
Day 6: Land Animals and Mankind
Day 7: Sabbath, God finished his Work and Rested
Chapter 2 verse 5 gives exposition as to the creation of Man which happened on the sixth day. Critics of the Bible have often said that the Bible is contradicting itself or using two separate sources because of the discontinuity of these two chapters. However, the very same thing happens in Genesis chapter 1:1-2. The author says God created the Heavens and the Earth however, the text later informs the reader that the heavens and the earth was not created until Day 2 and Day 3. This means the author gives a summery statement “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” then in verse 3 informs the reader of how God accomplished this in the day-by-day formula finishing each day with the proclamation "and it was so" or “and God saw that it was good.”
Now, this passage along with other passages within the Bible has been juxtaposed with other ancient literary works such as texts from Mesopotamia, the Levant (Modern Day Israel/Palestine Syria and Lebanon) and Egypt. For the essence of time and length, I will focus on one specific creation myth, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, by giving a brief summery and showing where the two texts are similar and how they are different. I have focused on this one text because it is the one, which scholars assume, share the most themes, words and style with the Bible amongst other ancient Near Eastern epics.
Marduk and the Dragon
Enuma Elish also known as the “Babylonian Creation Myth” focuses on the Babylonian god, Marduk and his ascension to prominence in Mesopotamian society. Although Tablets I-VII were recorded relatively late (circa 7th Century BCE discovered at the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh along with another famous work, the Epic of Gilgamesh) it supplies traditions of the older creation myths. Therefore, Enuma Elish is not the only Mesopotamia creation myth as there are many creation texts have been discovered. This one in particular is of the most complete and best used for comparative study. The outline of this epic is as follows:
Tablet I: Apsu (god of fresh water) and Tiamat (goddess of salt water) were the primordial gods whom created the lesser gods. Apsu became annoyed with the noise of his children and planned to kill them. Tiamat, however put a stop to the plan. The younger gods heard about the plan, slew Apsu and angered Tiamat. Tiamat in response created eleven creatures (monsters) to do battle with the gods. Lesser gods Ea and Damika then created Marduk as a hero god to do battle with the eleven monsters and defeat Tiamat.
Tablet 2: Marduk receives his mission to do battle with Tiamat under the condition that if he succeeds, he will become the supreme god of the world.
Tablet 3: Marduk travels to the other gods in order to contract them into his supremacy if he wins his battle with Tiamat.
Tablet 4: Marduk does battle with Tiamat and uses his power of controlling the four winds to trap her. He uses his net, which was a gift from the god Anu, and sends an arrow through her heart, killing Tiamat. He captures the remaining monsters in his net, and then smashes Tiamat’s head with a mace. He splits her body in half, and one of the halves he makes a sky which will be the home for the gods, Anu, Enlil and Ea.
Tablet 5: Marduk makes the stars in the skies (which are supposed to be likeness of the gods), created night and day, and the moon. He also created clouds to send rain to the earth and collect on the ground forming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Tablet 6: Marduk uses mud of the earth and the blood of the god Qingu to create mankind to serve the gods in order that the gods may rest. Marduk then creates a hierarchy for the gods with Marduk at the top of the pantheon and they construct the city of Babylon along with its temple, Esagila as a Temple for Marduk.
Tablet 7: This is a list of Marduk’ s fifty names and titles announcing his supremacy.
After reading the story, and in the brief outline I have given, it is perhaps a wonder why the two texts are compared at all. Naturally, there are similar themes shared in both Enuma Elish and the Bible, but what is more striking is the differences one encounters in the two texts. Most notably are the story and clear purpose of both texts. The Biblical Text, as mentioned above focuses a very brief creation account elevating Yahweh as the sole maker of the heavens and the earth by a process of step by step development in order to set the stage for the drama to occur. On the other hand, Enuma Elish seeks to elevate Marduk and the creation account is a mere afterthought after the divine drama has already taken place.
The similarities are present and they should not be avoided. These similarities are as follows:
1. Primeval chaos
2. Number of days in creation (seven)
3. Creation of light
4. The firmament (similar Akkadian word to the Hebrew, raqia)
5. Dry land
6. A creation of man
7. God(s) resting
Cylinder seal impression depicting Marduk (middle figure) and Tiamat as the Serpent (dragon)
Years ago, scholars used the Enuma Elish account to state the direct influence and adaptation of the myth by the author(s) of the book of Genesis. Today this idea is still somewhat shared by majority of scholars however, they are quick to note the differences such as polytheism versus monotheism, as well as a lack of the monsters and battles in the Genesis text as opposed to the Babylonian creation myth. These similarities are now seen mostly as “common ancient Near Eastern religious parallels” rather than influences. This idea (of cultural parallels) is a very different concept as opposed to direct influence of one text upon another. John Oswalt describes it in a very relatable way:
“The same thing is true in the case of many other supposed identical parallels. If one merely lists the characteristics of a human being and a dog, for instance (one nose, two eyes, two ears, hair, circulatory system, etc.) one will certainly conclude the two are essentially identical. However, if you actually put the two side by side, you will reach a very different conclusion.” (Oswalt 2009: 100)
In this way, there does appear to be some themes and conflicts that are shared amongst the contemporaneous cultures which speak to their current reality. No doubt we have the same thing happening today in various mediums such as television, movies, music in which artists address a specific political, environmental or geographical climate. However, the way in which they perceive and express these ideals are various.
If we attempt what Oswalt states, by putting the two myths side by side, we can appreciate the world of the ancient Near East and gain a better grasp as to the themes that are revealed through these types of literature. Simply let the myths be what they are and glean the ethical, political and historical information of each text. They both tell us something about the ancient world as well as ourselves. Arguments about influence based off of our own presuppositions take away the power and relevancy from both texts.
The Bible had it own agenda, in declaring Yahweh as the creator of universe. It does so in its own way clearly separating itself from the other religions and cultures. Next month I will address the Flood epic and the other literature(s) with similar mythologies involving a deluge.
Please let me know what you think in the comments and supply your own insights and of course, feel free to ask questions!
Bibliography for further reading.
The full text of the Babylonian Epic of Creation can be found here.
Ehrilich, Carl. From an Ancient Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Roman and Littlefield Publishers. Lanham, MD. 2009.
Hays, Christopher. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2014.
Oswalt, John The Bible Among the Myths. Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2009.