The Bible Unearthed

Dr. Richard Hess' review of, "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts," by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.

by Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman on January 01, 2001

Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: The Free Press. Hardback, 2001. x + 385 pp. ISBN 0-684-86912-8.

This book is written by a member of the "new generation" of Israeli archaeologists who holds a professorship at the University of Tel Aviv, and by a journalist who has published critical analyses of the history of archaeology of the Holy Land. Together, their stated purpose is to present how the new discoveries of the discipline of archaeology have overturned long held assumptions about the essential reliability of the Old Testament as a historical record. The book is arranged so as to move chronologically from what is traditionally regarded as earliest (the patriarchs) to what is the latest testimony of the biblical historical record (the post-exilic period).

For each chapter, the authors present a summary of the biblical account and then discuss the ways in which archaeology has controverted this traditional understanding. The authors always present their interpretation of the archaeological data but do not mention or interact with contemporary alternative approaches. Thus the book is ideologically driven and controlled.

The following represents a selection of the arguments presented and some possible reponses to various claims. Due to the popular nature of the book it was felt useful to provide greater detail in the form of a review article, than is customary with reviews in the Denver Journal.


Of all periods of biblical history, that of the patriarchs is the most controversial. The authors use a variety of specific examples of items mentioned in the Genesis account that are not attested outside the biblical record until much later, centuries after any dating of the patriarchs that would do justice to the Bible's claims of their living in the early second millennium B.C. These include the presence of camels, Arabian goods and South Arab tribes, and Philistines. Domesticated camels are not clearly attested before the first millennium B.C., although camels are. However, their association with desert groups and the fact that Arabia has no written records prior to the first millennium B.C. make proof regarding historicity (or lack thereof) difficult. As for the Philistines, it may be that this name (like the Aramaeans) was applied to people living in the regions where the Philistines would later settle. Thus it is an updating of the account to make it understandable to readers of a later period.


According to the authors, the account of Ahmose's expulsion of the Hyksos provides a parallel for the biblical account of the exodus. This took place c. 1570 B.C. and that conflicts with a c. 1440 B.C. exodus date based on 1 Kings 6:1. However, it may be noted that the 480 years mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1 may be symbolic and not refer to a specific date (cf. Gen 15:13 and 16 where "four centuries" become "four generations"). Nevertheless, the name of Ramesses puts the exodus into the 13th century according to "most scholars".

Pp. 59-60 assert that Egypt makes no mention of the exodus and that no entity known as Israel existed in any specific place. Only migrant workers were known who came from multiple places of origin. However, it is not possible to determine , in a city as large as Tell ed-Daba, that there was no homogeneous W. Semitic element. So many of the finds demonstrate W. Semitic cultural influence. Interestingly, this city was rebuilt and inhabited by W. Semitic peoples at exactly the time of the oppression, in the generation or two before the Exodus. Egypt did not record major defeats and that is exactly how the exodus is portrayed in the Bible. Nor do we have a complete set of records from the Egyptian borders. Finally, it was a "mixed multitude" that left Egypt; not a single self-conscious entity. After all, the Bible records that it was the covenant at Sinai, after the exodus, that established this group as a distinct national entity.

On pp. 65-71 the authors assert that many of the cultural phenomena mentioned in the biblical accounts of Joseph and the exodus, while present in the second millennium B.C., re-emerged in the seventh century B.C. This is the time that the authors would like to date all these events. They assert that distinctive events such as the Egyptian expulsion of the Hyksos in the 16th century B.C. remained in Israelite consciousness a millennium later and formed part of the amalgam of traditions that were rewritten into the account of Israelite origins in Egypt. While it is true that a number of elements in the ancient Near East were shared by second millennium and 7th century B.C. inhabitants, it is not true to claim that the seventh century is a better period for the origin of the biblical material. No one has ever proven the renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen wrong when he affirmed that the sale price for a slave such as Joseph was twenty shekels of silver according to Gen. 37:28. This amount for a slave was customary in the first half of the second millennium B.C. but unknown at later periods, including the era of the seventh century. Again, only in the thirteenth century B.C. was it known for the pharaoh of Egypt to have his capital in the eastern Delta region, the only region in Egypt that would allow for Moses and Aaron to visit pharaoh and return on the same day to the oppressed Israelites working on the cities of Pithom and Ramesses. These are just two illustrations of customs that are unique to the traditional periods assigned to these narratives. The absence of any attempt to identify and address contrary evidence is a symptom problemmatic to the type of scholarship that pervades this book

Wilderness Wanderings

Even if the number of Israelites was considerably smaller than 600, 000 warriors, it would be impossible for the Israelites to pass through the desert without a trace (pp. 62-63). However, that is exactly what many tribes have done for millennia. The only traces of purely nomadic peoples are group burial sites, religious memorials, and written inscriptions. Of the many written inscriptions identified in the Sinai, I know of none that pre-date the first millennium B.C., other than at Serabit el-Khadem, where Semitic inscriptions have been found. The religious memorials would be erected by pilgrims who worshipped various desert deities. However, the commands of Exodus forbid the erection of any sort of images of the God of Israel. Finally, corporate burial sites would only be used by nomadic groups who remained in a particular region and would periodically visit the site of the burials. This is explicitly not true of Israel, according to the biblical text.

On p. 63 the authors make a remarkable demand. They state that even the smallest group of Israelites should be expected to leave identifiable traces in the desert. Further, they maintain that there is no evidence for pastoral (nomadic?) activity at the time of the exodus, presumably the 13th century B.C. This means that there is no evidence for the pastoral groups from Edom and elsewhere that the border stations of Egypt on the edge of the Sinai record as visiting their land at the same time as the exodus (i.e., 13th century). The authors cite examples of this on p. 59 for another purpose. There are many more textual examples of pastoral groups and individuals moving back and forth betweenEgypt and the Sinai at this time. Although they may not be known to archaeologists insofar as they left no remains in the Sinai, they clearly are known to contemporary Egyptian border guards. As in other instances, the authors of this book trust the archaeological evidence far more than they do written sources, even eyewitness accounts.

On pp. 63-64 claims are made that various places and peoples mentioned in the biblical accounts of the wilderness wanderings did not exist in the Late Bronze Age. First of all, it is important to repeat that it is not at all clear what remains one should expect to find of a wandering people who remained in no single region for more than a relatively short period of time. Even if sites such as Kadesh Barnea are correctly identified, and we do not know that they are, the storage houses, domestic dwellings, and cult sites of occupants of the Negev, would not have been built, used, or left by Israel. Otherwise, artifacts left by inhabitants of the Negev more than three thousand years ago are few and by no means reflective of the population there at any one time. In fact, contrary to the implications of the authors, Late Bronze Age, 13th century B.C. sites do remain in the Negev. These include, above all, the "Hathor Temple" in the Timna Valley of the southern Negev. The Egyptianization of this site, that has been identified as "Midianite" included inscriptions that allow for the possible identification of it with the copper mining site of Atiqa mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus. And the evidence for the "tent" nature of the shrine, covered in cloth, parallels what would have been the contemporary tent shrine of ancient Israel, the Tabernacle.

While surveys from the first half of the twentieth century yielded little evidence for occupation in the Late Bronze Age regions of Edom, Ammon, or Moab; this has changed in recent years. Although small in comparison with later demographic evidence, the population of Jordan was of some significance in the Late Bronze Age. Egyptian scribes of the Late Bronze Age knew of and named sites in this area, such as Dibon. Dibon is also mentioned in the Israelite sojourn, along with Heshbon. The fact that neither Tell Hisban nor Tell Dhiban have revealed evidence of occupation at this time, does not mean that the sites did not exist. The names could have moved to other sites in the region, a phenomenon known elsewhere. Whatever the explanation, the contemporary scribes of Egypt, like the Israelite recorders of these events, clearly knew of population centers such as Dibon and others in the Ammonite/Moabite regions.


The chapter on Joshua and the issues surrounding the conquest of Canaan continues a one-sided presentation of the evidence in which the authors attempt to pit the archaeological evidence against the biblical account. In this case there can have been no entrance into Canaan from outside by a group of people known as Israel. First, there is no evidence of burn layers at most sites mentioned as conquered by Joshua. Second, the exceptions such as Bethel, Lachish, Hazor, and others are either too late (12th century B.C.) or were conquered by other people than Israel. Third, the movement of Sea Peoples and their wars and Egypt as well as destruction of the coastal city of Ugarit remain evidence that these intruded into Palestine, rather than Israel. Finally, the powerful hold that the empire of Egypt had on Palestine at this time would not have permitted the rise of a significant entity such as Israel in the hill country.

These all reflect particular interpretations of the archaeological evidence, minimally informed by contemporary textual evidence. First, Josh. 11:13 states that only Hazor, among all the cities that Israel conquered (in chs. 10-11) was burned by Israel. Therefore, it is not surprising that contemporary burn layers do not exist elsewhere. Jericho and Ai present special problems. However, the reuse of Middle Bronze and Late Bronze fortifications at both sites as (perhaps temporary) fortified outposts at the time of Israel's entrance into Canaan is never considered. Nor is the fact noted that sites such as Megiddo, whose Late Bronze Age wall has yet to be identified, are described by the pharaoh of Egypt as having such fortifications in the Late Bronze Age. Could it be that the work of archaeology is fragmentary and not a compelling argument that can overturn all textual evidence? Second, assuming a 13th century date for the exodus and entrance into Canaan, it is indeed likely that sites such as Lachish and Bethel, whose burn layers date to the 12th century, may have fallen to groups other than Israel. Joshua nowhere suggests that Bethel was destroyed by Israel nor that Lachish was burned. As to Hazor, its 13th century destruction level, as dated by the present excavator Amnon Ben Tor (following the same conclusions as the previous excavator, Y. Yadin), remains an interesting and plausible connection with the destruction by Israel as recorded in Joshua. Not only is the occupation that follows this destruction different (Canaanite urbant to Israelite village?), but the defacement of the cultic images suggests a people intolerant of the gods of the Canaanites.

Third, the movement of the Sea Peoples could be seen as paralleling that of the Israelites. The thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C. were times of upheaval and geopolitical alteration throughout the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean worlds. It would be a good time of Israel to be on the move. Further, the destruction of Ugarit is not necessarily related to an invasion by the Sea Peoples. This reconstruction, on the basis of the existing textual evidence, has been called into question and is by no means certain. Indeed, there is no certain contemporary evidence for the presence of the Sea Peoples conquering nations except in Egypt. Finally, the power of Egypt was on the wane in the 12th century. The pharaoh Merneptah mentions Israel in Palestine on a stele describing his conquests, c. 1207 B.C. Events such as those in Johsua could have occurred in the 13th century when there is little certain evidence of Egyptian hold, either in the hill country between the Jezreel Valley and Jerusalem or in the region later identified as southern Judah. Further, it is not clear that sites such as Gezer and perhaps Jerusalem, as mentioned in the southern campaign of Joshua 10, were not Egyptian bases or strongholds. Particularly places such as Gaza, Bethshan, Megiddo, and Gezer do seem to have been influenced or controlled by Egypt at the time. It is interesting to note, however, that the biblical text does not suggest the occupation of any of these towns by Israel.


The appearance of hundreds of village settlements in the highland region of Palestine is noted by the authors. Indeed, Israel Finkelstein was a major figure in the identification of the emergence of this phenomenon c. 1200 B.C. Archaeologically, however, this chapter is concerned with demonstrating two points. First, the settlements are unwalled and betray no evidence of a people either moving from outside of Palestine or of a violent conquest. Second, the villages, especially in their oval configurations, resemble the pastoral nomad tent settlements They thus demonstrate that these new settlements were composed of former pastoral nomads in the highlands of Canaan who settled at this time. Here is further proof that the Israelites were not foreigners but indigenous to the highland areas. Several points should be made in response. First, the date of 1200 B.C. is not as certain as the authors would like it to be. In fact, they date the appearance of signficant village life to the decline in Egyptian control of the region in the mid-twelfth century. However, the field archaeologist for the northern region of the hill country, Adam Zertal, has dated some of his early settlements into the twelfth century B.C. This would be when Israel might have first begun to settle in the region and well before the collapse of Egyptian control throughout Palestine. Second, the unwalled village life presented in this archaeological picture is in precise agreement with the picture of village life found in Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel. This is Israelite life before the rise of the monarchy and the Bible reflects the sociology of this period accurately. The issue of whether these people, when they first came to Palestine, engaged in warfare primarily with the Canaanites of adjacent lowland regions, is not relevant to their settled life. Further, the picture is more complex than this as recent studies summarized by E. Bloch-Smith and B. A. Nakhai ("A Landscape Comes to Life: The Iron Age I," Near East Archaeology 62 [1999] 101-127) have demonstrated. Fortified villages do appear, often at the perimeter of the village settlement clusters, i.e., at the entrances to valleys and on the fringes of the desert. Compare the site of Tell ed-Dawwara, southeast of Bethel. This Iron Age 1 (1200-1000 B.C.) site was fortified in a way that could be used for a refuge in times of crises, such as occurred in the book of Judges. Finally, the question of whether or not the early Israelites used tent settlement plans for their villages says nothing about their origins. The problems with assuming that all the people who appear in the villages of Iron Age 1 highland Canaan were from nomadic groups in the same region are manifold. First, it assumes an insularity in the region that never existed. Neither 19th and early 20th century A.D. ethnographic observations of the nomadic movements back and forth across the Jordan River, nor the far-ranging biblical and extrabiblical textual and archaeological evidence from the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages support this interpretation. Whether considering the bull from the cult site east of Dothan or the personal names from the Amarna and other contemporary texts from this region, the evidence indicates widespread influence and exchange with groups from outside Palestine. Second, there is the contemporary similarity in pottery forms and architecture, as well as the increase in villages, in the areas east of the Jordan River. Thus the people east of the Jordan River were like those west of the Jordan in the late 13th and 12th centuries. This concurs both with Israel entering Palestine from east of the Jordan and with the settlement of the two and a half tribes east of the Jordan. Third, as has been argued by other archaeologists who specialized in this period, there are too many people represented in the village settlements to explain as all originating as highland nomads. Some, at least, must have come from outside and settled in the region. Finally, we should not be surprised to find that the Israelites were not distinguishable culturally from other occupants of the highland regions. This is the very point that Judges 2:9-12 makes.

United Monarchy

The authors contend that, while David and Solomon existed, they ruled over a small village and a tiny kingdom; completely unlike that suggested in the descriptions of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. They focus on two reasons for this argument: the absence of tenth century B.C. (the time of the United Monarchy) evidence from Jerusalem, and the belief that the monumental gates at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer should now be dated a century later, along with other monumental buildings that might characterize the age of Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 9:15, which names these three sites). However, these objections are not as strong as they appear. First, Jerusalem has been continuously inhabited since the time of David. There has been much building and rebuilding. On the site where David and Solomon would have had their palace and government buildings, there was extensive mining and destruction during the Roman period to allow for the building of luxury homes. Furthermore, the presence of Middle Bronze and Iron Age II walls, but not any from the tenth century, proves little. The occupation by David of a small Jebusite stronghold such as Jerusalem would have left him with a fortified area that was small. Little might have been left from that period. The same is true for the Late Bronze Age. Archaeological discoveries have revealed very little from that period, as well. Nevertheless, the Amarna correspondence bears witness to a population center that had interests and influence throughout Palestine. Again, the absence of archaeological evidence is not conclusive regarding what can be deduced, even from contemporary written sources. The question of the dating of the gates and other architecture at Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor continues to be debated. Finkelstein's carbon dating on some wooden beams from Megiddo cannot be considered conclusive until the evidence is published and adequate evaluation is made. Furthermore, the most recent excavators of Gezer (William Dever) and Hazor (Amnon Ben-Tor) continue to confirm a tenth century Solomonic dating for these gate structures.

Early Divided Monarchy

The authors devote a great deal of this chapter to arguing the cyclical view of the settlement patterns in the region and the manner in which that demonstrates both the lack of historicity to a tenth century United Monarchy and the origins of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah in two completely separate periods and places. The argument that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah occupy distinct ecological and geo-political contexts is well made. Not only the history of settlement in the region, but the entire history of the Divided Monarchy and subsequent experiences confirm this. However, none of this demonstrates anything about the origins of the two states nor does it prove that the United Monarchy could not have existed. Everything in the books of Samuel and Kings suggests that the formation and maintenance of the union of the twelve tribes was a difficult task involving the investment of much political and military energy. However, no amount of environmental determinism can change the fact that at times before (e.g., Egypt's New Kingdom) and after (e.g., the Hellenistic period) the tenth century, this land was united under a single sovereignty.

Later Divided Monarchy and Exile

The final chapters of the book reflect a closer agreement with the claims of the biblical texts for the respective periods under consideration. This is because the authors wish to locate the writing of the biblical text in the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C. However, several points deserve attention. First, in order to argue for these dates for the composition of the first materials that would form the Old Testament, the authors contend against literacy much before the time of Josiah. Thus they never explain the widespread presence of alphabetic writing that is attested in every major area of Palestine in every century from the 13th through to the time of Josiah. They also ignore the presence of an abecedary discovered in the 12th or 11th century Israelite village of Izbet Sartah, which demonstrates how even in small towns writing and reading were being studied and learned. Nor do the authors note that similarities with Assyria in that there and in Palestine the administrative beaurocracy of the 8th century resulted in a massive increase in the number of preserved documents. However, Assyria preserved important literary compositions from earlier centuries, as did Egypt, and the same may be true of Palestine located between these two superpowers.

A second point has to do with the authors' tendency to emphasize the massive destruction of most of Judea as a result of the invasion of Sennacherib. However, the historians writing Kings and Chronicles do not emphasize this. Instead, they focus on the miraculous preservation of Jerusalem and praise Hezekiah for his great demonstrations of faith. The authors belittle the accomplishment of Hezekiah and contend that the pragmatic acceptance of non-Yahweh worship and Assyrian control by Manasseh was more successful in the following century. However, they overlook one of the most important facts. During Hezekiah's reign, his main city (Jerusalem) did not fall. This was true despite its endurance of the full force of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib. No other city is known to have resisted and not fallen from Samaria to Babylon. If a miracle did not actually happen, surely Jerusalemites of the time must have believed that one did.

The third matter has to do with the number of people deported to Babylon. The authors do not carefully distinguish between what is certainly a long held view, that there was no one left in Jerusalem but they were all deported, and the actual statements of the Bible which may list numbers but are never clear as to the percentage of those deported.

Appendices follow in which specific arguments are made regarding ancient various points of scholarly debate. The same conclusions are argued as already presented in the main text.

This book must be used with caution because it pretends to describe what we now really know about archaeology and how it contradicts various biblical claims; however, it does so in a biased and non-objective manner. Contrary opinions in interpreting the new evidence are not discussed, much less given a fair hearing. The book is ideologically driven and should be treated that way by any one who reads it.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
March 2001

Tags: ricahrd, hess, bible, unearthed, archaeology, vision, ancient, israel, origin, sacred, texts, finkelstein, neil, silberman

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