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Post Info TOPIC: Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele”


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Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele”


Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele”

I have just purchased Philip R. Davies’ Memories of Ancient Israel and got a bit of a shock when I read this about the Merneptah Stele:

After mentioning Canaan, and three Canaanite cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam, it runs, “Israel (?) is wasted, its seed is not.” Assuming we have Merneptah’s dates correctly as 1213-1203, and that the reading “Israel” is correct, the reference places an Israel in Palestine in the thirteenth century. The word read (probably correctly) as “Israel” also has a sign indicating a people and not a place. That makes the alternative reading “Jezreel” less likely — though Hebrew “s” and “z” could both be represented by the same Egyptian letter; also, since “Jezreel” is partly made up of the word for “seed,” the inscription could be a pun by a Semitic speaking scribe. It might also be considered that Merneptah would find it easier to fight in the plain of Jezreel than in the highlands. (pp. 90-91)

Why, after so many years of interest in the bible and archaeology, did I not know till now that there was an alternative possible reading to Israel in the Merneptah stele? Other questions have been raised commonly enough, but not that particular one — at least not widely in readily accessible public literature.

Here is one translation with, as per Davies, “Israel (?)” in context:

Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Khor is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued.

So well known and “secure” is this monument’s reference to “Israel” that it is even widely known as, simply, the “Israel stele”. The wikipedia article will cast not a shred of doubt on this reading. A cited webpage from that article with a full text and translation is just as dogmatic in its assurance of this reading.

Merenptah Stele (Israel Stele): the photograph...

Image via Wikipedia

This possibility of an alternative reading, even if the majority of scholars and others take the translation “Israel” for granted, is significant and worth drawing to everyone’s attention given the other anomalies associated with the stele and that are well known:

  1. If the monument speaks the truth, that Israel is annihilated, then biblical Israel never got started as a nation. But, of course, exaggeration is common enough in political propaganda — in any age. Alternatively, another people may have taken the name Israel after the demise of those mentioned by Mernepteh.
  2. There is little indication in the stele to inform us about the nature of the reference “Israel”, or the location to which it refers. See my notes on the Mernepteh Stele from Davies’ earlier book, In Search of Ancient Israel.
  3. There is no biblical reference to any event involving a clash between Israel and Pharaoh Mernepteh (or any Pharaoh of Egypt) in the thirteenth century. This is, presumably, the time of the biblical “Judges”, or even of the period of Joshua’s conquest.
Paris - Musée du Louvre: Stèle de Mesha

Image by wallyg via Flickr

I have seen so many references to this Mernepteh stele over the years and not once, till this week, did any of them give me the slightest indication that there was simply no room for debate about its reference to “Israel”.

I don’t think I would be the only one who is attracted to the possibility of the original reference being Jezreel, with a pun on the “without seed” beside it — and would be open to suggestions that such a personification in the pun could explain its reference to being a people, not a place.

But this is not the only stele with “issues”. Davies also surfaces many questions over the Shalmaneser (Kurkh) stele, the Sennacherib insriptions, and even the Hezekiah “Siloam” tunnel supposed-inscription — and others. Will discuss one by one in future posts.

Is it valid to be reminded of religious scholars continuing a proud tradition, that can be traced back to the middle ages, of keeping the lay masses in ignorance?



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A (Near) Bible Text Discovered in the Ancient Kingdom of David?

They’re coming thick and fast now. Having just been hit with the discovery of Jesus’ house in Nazareth, or maybe his neighbour’s, we now have another Israeli archaeologist telling the media that a text on a pottery shard dated — and located — in King David’s jurisdiction, testifies to a Bible-like text that is unique to the prophetic and compassionate culture of ancient Israel. (Thanks to Sabio Lantz for alerting me to this piece of news.)

The claims come from Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa. He is not an archaeologist, but an historian and interpreter of archaeological finds. This is interesting because one of the loudest complaints against so-called “minimalists” like Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson is that they are not archaeologists, but historians who interpret the archaeological reports. But moving on, and not to get sidetracked with inconsistencies like this, here is Professor Galil’s claims as reported in what appears to be a University of Haifa press release.

“This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah (“did”) and avad (“worked”), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (“widow”) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages.The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs,” Prof. Galil explains. . . . .

He adds that the complexity of the text discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa, along with the impressive fortifications revealed at the site, refute the claims denying the existence of the Kingdom of Israel at that time.

Impressive fortifications refuting the claims denying the Kingdom of Israel?

A few months ago I discussed what the evidence of the fortifications found in Judea around this period. It is surely fanciful to link them with a centralized kingdom of Israel!

The University of Haifa press release continues:

The contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.

John Loftus on Debunking Christianity has already published a fine piece raising awareness of translation and dating controversies.

I repeat here the translation comparisons, and then cite a few ancient nonbiblical texts that ought to give pause to anyone taking Galil’s claims of the uniqueness of the society of ancient Judah.

The University of Haifa translation:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

Compare a translation by John Hobbins, “based on the judgments of Misgav, Yardeni, Ahituv, and Schniedewind”:

1          Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]
2          ruler of [geographical name?] . . . ruler . . .
3          [geographical names?] . . .
4          [unclear] and wreak judgment on YSD king of Gath . . .
5          seren of G[aza? . . .] [unclear] . . .

The reader might be forgiven for questioning the certainty of either translation.

But assume the former is the truer. Here is a small sampling of similar Middle Eastern texts, from an appendix in The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson. To assign a uniqueness to Israel’s culture on the basis of a few lines of this sort of poetry is patriotic arrogance in the extreme.

Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom (Messiah Myth, p. 328)

To your opponent, do no evil. Recompense your evildoer with good. To your enemy, let justice [be done] . . . . Give food to eat; give date wine to drink; honor, clothe the one begging for alms. Over this, his god rejoices This is pleasing to the god Shamash; he rewards it with good. Be helpful. A maid in the house, do not . . .

Hittite Hymn to Telepinus (Messiah Myth, p. 328)

Whatever you say, O Telepinus, the gods bow down to you. Of the oppressed, the orphan and the widow you are father and mother; the cause of the orphan and the oppressed you, Telepinus, take to heart.

Compare Psalm 65:5

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy habitation.

Middle Assyrian Hymn to Marduk (Messiah Myth, p. 329)

Each day you give justice to the oppressed and abused; you administer the destitute, the widow, the wretched and the anxious . . .

I think there is much more public familiarity with the similar texts from Egypt which I won’t repeat here.

There is hardly anything remarkable or unique about the content of the text.

What might be a bit unusual is that the content is not about trade administrivia, nor, apparently, is it a few lines of praise for a deity. Or maybe it is a few lines about a deity. Or maybe . . . . Let’s wait and see.



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Ideological Archaeology in Israel, Greek beauty, Coffee and the Paranormal

Some articles I’ve found interesting this past week:

The Connection Between Archaeology and Ideology in the Middle East in Counterpunch (h/t Otagosh)

Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a speech/article by Uri Avnery. In the desperation to find confirmation of the Biblical stories after the 1967 war Moshe Dayan and others swept away all the top layers of Ottomans, Arab/Crusader, Byzantine, Roman, Greek and Persian eras and found nothing. They had very likely pushed aside their real history. Excerpt:

Even if one would like to believe that the Bible only exaggerates real events, the fact is that not even a tiny mention of the exodus, the conquest of Canaan or King David has been found.

They just did not happen.

IS THIS important? Yes and no.

The Bible is not real history. It is a monumental religious and literary document, that has inspired untold millions throughout the centuries. It has formed the minds of many generation of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

But history is something else. History tells us what really happened. Archeology is a tool of history, an invaluable tool for the understanding of what took place.

These are two different disciplines, and never the twain shall meet. For the religious, the Bible is a matter of belief. For non-believers, the Hebrew Bible is a great work of art, perhaps the greatest of all. Archeology is something entirely different: a matter of sober, proven facts.

Israeli schools teach the Bible as real history. This means that Israeli children learn only its chapters, true or fictitious. When I once complained about this in a Knesset speech, demanding that the full history of the country throughout the ages be taught, including the chapters of the Crusades and the Mamelukes, the then minister of education started to call me “the Mameluke”.

If that’s too political for you you might prefer more philosophical reading. has an extract from David Konstan’s book, “Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea” :

The secret history of beauty: How the Greeks invented Western civilization’s biggest idea — (People think of beauty as universal to the human experience. But the truth is actually much more complicated)

Conclusion — some interesting openings into understanding the breadth of human experience:

If beauty turns out to be a problematic concept for us, it may be less surprising to discover that some cultures may make do perfectly well without it or—if they do have such a notion (as I believe the ancient Greeks did)—may define and understand it in ways sufficiently different from ours to shed some light on our own difficulties and possibly on ways to resolve or circumvent them.

Regarding the Greeks in particular, we may be able to see how the modern conception of beauty, with whatever baggage of contradictions and tensions it carries, emerged in the first place, since Greek works of art and Greek ideas about art had a massive influence on the Western tradition, even if they were sometimes misunderstood (not that this is necessarily a terrible thing: misunderstanding is one of the great sources of creativity).

A cup of Turkish coffee served on a terrace in...

A cup of Turkish coffee served on a terrace in Istanbul. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) had another most encouraging article, a reprint of an article by Tori Rodriguez first published in the Scientific American —

Coffee and tea may protect the brain

We coffee addicts have lower rates of depression and cognitive decline!

And if you needed a refresher on some classic paranormal hoaxes Cheryl Eddy has posted a convenient summary:

The 10 Most Notorious Paranormal Hoaxes in History  (h/t Mano Singham)



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The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

Biblical history and biblical archaeology have fought back to a new ascendancy after surviving the double-edged scrutiny of opponents they disparaged as “minimalists”.

For a moment it looked like genuine historical inquiry into ancient Palestine had the potential to displace the paraphrasing the Bible and the tendency to interpret nearly every archaeological artefact through the Bible. “Biblical History” and “Biblical Archaeology” blanket the archaeological remains of Palestine with the tapestry of the Bible’s story of Israel. Naturally this means that the tapestry’s tale appears distorted in places but the primary structure remains clear:

  • Israel emerged in Canaan as a distinctly religious and ethnic identity in the early part of the first millennium
  • After a period of some kind of unity culminating in David’s rule, Israel split into two political entities, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and continued to dominate the region up until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities
  • The Jews returned after the Persians “liberated” them from their Babylonian exile and continued as a distinctly “Jewish” civilization up until the time the Romans dispersed them; the religions of Judaism and Christianity emerged from the religious thought and writings of this Second Temple era.

Other groups who make an appearance in this biblical history for most part do so as external conquerors to be overcome or as indigenous corrupters to be left behind.

This kind of history begins with the Bible and archaeological discoveries are significant insofar as they can add some colour or modification to that biblical narrative.

Is this comparable to beginning with the tales of King Arthur’s Camelot and using those to recreate the history of early Britain?

Doubling the excitement

Valid historical investigation should always ensure the horse is positioned in front of the cart.

Start with the “hard” evidence like the carved stones, baked clay and forged metal found in the ground. What can be reconstructed from these? After having done that we can compare the results with literature that first appeared in considerably later strata.

If we find that the literature describes just what we have found and calls it Camelot then that’s exciting. On the other hand, if the literature’s narrative of Camelot is significantly at odds with what we have found then we have double excitement: before us lie two quests — the quest to learn more about the real world history found through the hard evidence in the ground; another quest to understand the origin of the Camelot narrative.

A Fight for history

Twenty to thirty years ago a few scholars opened up the first challenges to the dominance of “Biblical history” in Biblical studies. Here is how one of those scholars, Keith Whitelam, looking back described what happened in the wake of the publication in 1987 of The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective by Robert Coote and himself:

Little did we realize at the time of writing of our own work that we stood on the edge of a fight for history in biblical studies. In

arguing for the priority of archaeological data over the biblical text,

raising questions about the location of the historian or the politics of history,

arguing that the material culture of the highland villages was indigenous,

and advocating a regional history of Palestine,

we were unaware that these would become some of the most contested issues to engulf the discipline for a quarter of a century or more. (p. viii of the Preface to the 2010 edition of The Emergence of Early Israel — formatting in all quotations mine)

Not that all of those questions exploded on the scene the moment the book was released. (I understand it was the 1992 publication of In Search of Ancient Israel by Philip R. Davies that prised open the debate more widely. See for some of the details.) The primary theme of the Coote’s and Whitelam’s book was to examine the rise of Israel in a much wider historical perspective and Whitelam points out that the first readers appeared most interested in the arguments for the third point listed above: that the highland villagers from which the political “state” of Israel emerged were in fact indigenous to Palestine and not a recently arrived “foreign” people at all.

Emergence of Early Israel argues that historians need to take stock of what archaeologists have uncovered in its own right and make sense of it on its own terms without selectively interpreting data to fit the Bible’s narrative. This more comprehensive approach leads the researcher to identify continuities in Palestinian history and not, as per the Bible, to a time when one population was subjugated by an outsider people who brought with them the worship of a new deity according to Emergence.

The Two views

What the evidence reveals are shifting patterns of populations and settlements from the Bronze Age (prior to the time of the biblical Kingdom of Israel) right through to the present day.

Whitelam further argues in his Preface that it was not only an interest in the Bible that distorted the selections and interpretations of archaeological remains but also our modern perception of ethnic and national identity. National identities and histories are so ingrained in us that it is difficult to think of alternative ways of understanding other peoples very distant from our time and culture. It comes naturally to us to interpret even ancient history in national and ethnic terms.

Scholars and archaeologists interested in the Bible and Israel’s history interpreted discoveries of villages emerging in the central hill region around 1000 BCE (the early Iron Age) through what they were most interested in: the later history of the kingdom of biblical Israel and the eventual kingdom of Judah. So these hill people were assigned an interesting label as a means of identification: “proto-Israelites”. The future, and especially modern beliefs, myths and identities, were the means of interpreting the past and identifying the inhabitants.

Whitelam and Coote, on the other hand, viewed that same highland culture in the context of the archaeological evidence for preceding, contemporary and subsequent eras and saw something different: the people were an indigenous population (not infiltrators from beyond Jordan) responding to a general recession.

So rather than accept the continuities and indigenous evidence or because of the ambiguities in the evidence, Whitelam writes that historians are still obsessed with the identity of these highland villagers and invent another label to control the past and make it what they want to find. They began with the Bible and the later monarchy and used that as the starting point. This led to seeing the highland villagers at beginning of the Iron Age as progenitors of the monarchy.

Scholarship has considered alternative views on how the monarchy emerged; it has questioned the nature of the presumed united monarchy of the Bible; it has debated the monarchy’s timing — was it the tenth, ninth or eighth centuries? Scholarship has acknowledged the priority of Israel over Judah according to the fit of the archaeological evidence. Yet in all of these debates

the conceptual lock remains, since the underlying assumption is that some form of Israelite/Judean ‘state’ is the axis on which the history of the region turns.

Are national histories forever?

I said above that Whitelam identifies the modern paradigm of “national histories” as a primary reason for the distortion of the history of ancient Palestine. He continues to explain:

Such histories stir strong emotions in us and perpetuate the assumption — we might say myth — that ethnic groups have a right to political and sovereign control over their historic territory, regardless of who may now live in it.

These sorts of nationalistic and ethnically based histories are imposed on the past and serve the present. In reality, however, such histories are founded upon contested ideologies and constructs. They assume that essentialist forms of identity are objective realities; they assume that those identities and cultures have remained constant throughout the ages. The reality is, of course, that these sorts of ethnic and cultural identities are constantly in flux. They are contested concepts, not rock solid realities. The modern clashes between cultures are projected back on to the ancient world.

And the consequence of this?

This obsession with ethnic labels has meant that historians have seldom, if ever, considered what are the most crucial questions faced by the villagers themselves: the struggle to survive, the harsh realities of everyday life, and the constant worry of whether or not there will be enough food to eat. The modern obsession with labels — the attempts to impose ethnic differences — is not appropriate for the ancient past and misses the significance of the growing body of evidence revealed in the long-term settlement patterns for our understanding of the history of the region. (p. xii)

Realities on the ground; ideologies and myths in the academy

Whitelam wants us to realize that there must have been countless movements of populations over the generations, with groups coming together and dividing and constantly changing their mix of shared identities — if only in recognition of shared problems of survival — that are lost from view to us today.

What is important for understanding the history of the region, according to Whitelam, is the movement and connectivity of the peoples, not some sense of ethnic identity imposed by us.

For those with a more philosophical interest in historiography the type of history Coote and Whitelam are undertaking is the “long term” and “deep trend” view of history pioneered by Braudel and known among historians as the Annales School. One might summarize this approach to the past as a study of the larger wood itself as opposed to individual trees; as a grasping of the big picture and long-term trends instead of exclusive attention upon particular wars and individual careers.

Whitelam’s concluding sentence in the Preface sends, I think, a most depressing message:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was back then.

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