Science and Faith

In Deuteronomy 31, Moses tells Israel to put their faith in God, that God will help them conquer the land of Canaan. “The Lord your God Himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will dispossess them. Joshua will cross ahead of you, as the Lord has said. And the Lord will do to them as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, when He destroyed them along with their land. The Lord will deliver them over to you, and you must do to them exactly as I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or terrified of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”

The evidence unearthed in Egypt and in the southern Levant can support a limited Israelite exodus and entry in Canaan. The earliest mention of Israel in the 13th century BCE, coinciding with the population spike in the central highlands of Canaan, provide a framework within which one can argue that a group left Egypt and settled in Canaan.

Ultimately though, what scientists understand about the geography in Egypt and the Levant, the availability of water, food supplies, towns, use of slaves, population and the archaeological evidence do not support the literal biblical version of the Exodus account. The size and scope of the story are too large for historians to accept. The limitations of science explain why this is the case.

Science is the systematic study of the physical world, through observation and experimentation. The scientific method begins with an observation. From an observation, one would form a hypothesis to explain the observed phenomenon. The hypothesis is then tested. If the test fails, a new hypothesis is required. If the test succeeds enough times and can be replicated, the hypothesis can rise to the level of theory.

Historians attempt to use the scientific method when analyzing the past. However, with history, nothing can be fully proven. There is no way to truly test what happened in the past if it is not in front of us to be tested. There is no way to prove or disprove if Martians built the pyramids in Egypt or if giants build Stonehenge. Instead, historians make judgments about the physical world today and apply them to the past. If Martians do not interfere in human affairs today, it is assumed Martians did not involve themselves in human affairs over 3,000 years ago. If open miracles cannot be observed today, then historians will assume that open miracles could not be observed in the past. Science will discount the miraculous, the divine, the otherworld and any and all unobservable claims.

Still, history is limited in its ability to explain events from the past. And despite it’s discounting, history cannot rise past the level of theory to become an unassailable scientific law.

By contrast, religion makes claims about the metaphysical, beyond the observable physical world. Religious claims about God, divine beings, immortality of the soul and miracles in the past can neither be proven nor disproven. Therefore, they are beyond scientific analysis.

At the end of the Yom Kippur prayers, when the Ne’ilah prayer reaches its crescendo, the cantor and then congregation announce:

“Hear Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH is one.”

“Blessed is the name of the glory of his kingdom for eternity.”

“YHWH is God.”

These are all statements of faith. They cannot be proven scientifically. They cannot be tested. They cannot be proven, and they cannot be disproven. They are simply statements of faith. One either believes or does not believe.

This can provide an approach for the biblical account. Science cannot allow for miracles and for divine intervention. There can be no miraculous plagues, or a splitting of the sea or millions wandering in the desert and being sustained by God. To believe these stories requires more. A literal reading requires a leap of faith, similar to the leap of faith taken with the prayers at the end of Yom Kippur.

“You Yourselves Know How We Lived in Egypt”

In Deuteronomy 29, towards the end of their journey, Moses reminds Israel of their experience in Egypt and wandering in the desert. “You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.” The upcoming close of the Jewish New Year and completion of a Torah reading cycle is an opportune time to review the archaeological evidence for the Israelite experience and exodus from Egypt.

Egypt’s Middle Kingdom lasted from the 21st century BCE through the 17th century BCE, and was a prosperous time for Egypt. In Genesis, Joseph is given a multi-colored coat by his father. The Beni Hasan Tomb painting shows Semitic traders from the Levant wearing multi-colored clothing, a marked contrast to the white linen clothing worn by native Egyptians. The Brooklyn Papyrus contains a list of slaves, many of whom have Semitic names, attesting to the use of slaves from the Levant in Egypt. Egypt experienced periods of turmoil, even during the Middle Kingdom, and the Ipuwer Papyrus contains imagery that is similar to the language used later in the Bible’s story of the Ten Plagues.

The collapse of the Middle Kingdom’s central authority ushered in the Second Intermediate Period and the rise of Semitic kings. A scarab with the name of a king Jacob-Baal that dates to this period was found in the area of Canaan. Egypt’s New Kingdom kings eventually expelled the Hyksos from Egypt and extended their reign into Canaan. The Egyptian king Amenhotep II recorded taking many slaves from Canaan back to Egypt. Amenhotep III defeated the Shasu of YHW, a location that may be the origin of Israel’s God, in the region of northern Arabia and southern Jordan, an area Moses was said to have crossed before he met God at the burning bush.

In the 14th century, the pharaoh Akhenaten launched a religious revolution in Egypt, restricting worship to the sun disc Aten, similar to the Bible’s idea of worshipping only one God. Akhenaten moved the Egyptian capital to Akhetaten, between Memphis and Thebes, in today’s Tel el-Amarna. The Amarna Letters found there are tablets that contain correspondences with rulers and Egyptian subjects outside of Egypt. A number of tablets contain pleas for assistance from the ruler of a town Urusalim, who was being attacked by the nomadic Habiru raiders, whose name retains a linguistic affinity to the Bible’s Hebrews.

In the 13th century, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II did battle with the Hittites at Kadesh, in the region of Syria. Records of the battle show Ramesses II’s encampment. At the center of the encampment was a traveling temple, and the shrine features winged figures within its enclosure, similar to the description of Israel’s traveling tabernacle and winged cherubs. Potential sites of Ramesses II’s cities of Pithom and Ramesses were unearthed in the northeastern delta region of Egypt.

The 14th century fragmentary Berlin Pedestal contains a possible mention of a group or nation called Israel. But the late 13th century Merneptah Stele contains the earliest uncontested mention of Israel outside of the Bible. This monument seems to place Israel in the central highland of Canaan, during the reign of Merneptah and after Ramesses II’s reign.

In the transition from the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age I, a sharp population increase begins to take root in the central highlands of Canaan. These new settlers are thought to be the proto-Israelites, the early groups that came to be known as the nation Israel. These villages contain a number of unique cultural markers.

In the 13th and into the 12th century, villages with unique ‘four-room’ houses appear in the Transjordan and in the central highlands of Israel. These homes contain narrow rooms divided by pillars and a broad room running along the width of the other rooms. In the coastal regions of southwestern Canaan inhabited by the Philistines, pig bone remains demonstrate that pig was a major part of the Philistine diet. In contrast, in the central highlands and some of the Canaanite areas pig bones are not found, indicating that these new villagers did not eat pigs, a cultural trait that aligns with the biblical prohibition on eating pigs.

The pottery in these areas was unique. Whereas Philistine pottery was highly ornate, the highland settlers used pottery that was simple and undecorated. They feature a high percentage of large ‘collared rim jars,’ and few examples of imported pottery. The burial patters of these early proto-Israelites was simple, which would change over time to dedicated family burial sites.

The Manasseh Hill Country Survey undertaken by Adam Zertal indicates that the early settlers of the hill country moved in an east to west direction, the direction which the Bible indicates the Israelites traveled from Jordan into Canaan. Zertal identified a structure on Mount Ebal that he identified as Joshua’s altar, but most archaeologists would argue against assigning this structure to a specific individual.

Ultimately, what does all this mean?

There are archaeologists who argue for an exodus of Israel from Egypt, but there are disagreements about the date of this event. Some place the exodus during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, but this requires a revision of the generally accepted dating system. Some point to the Thera Eruption as a trigger for a tsunami that coincided with the splitting of the Reed Sea, but the odds of these two events coinciding are highly improbable. Christian biblical literalists like to place the exodus in the 15th century BCE. The problem with this view is that Egypt maintained tight control over Canaan in the 15th century, and the biblical books of Joshua and Judges that tell the story of Israel’s early years in Canaan are entirely unaware of an Egyptian presence when Israel is said to have conquered the land.

For these reasons, along with evidence mentioned above, many scholars who argue for an exodus place it in the 13th century BCE. The Merneptah Stele provides an anchor date by which Israel is already inhabiting the land in the late 13th century BCE. The sharp increase in the number of villages along with unique cultural markers argue for this being the proto-Israelites, the earliest Israelite settlers who would later come to represent the kingdom of Israel. And if the 13th century is the date of an exodus, it would likely have occurred either during the reign of Merneptah or Ramesses II, shown in the image above.

The Problem of Hydrating a Nation

In Deuteronomy 26, the Israelites are commanded to bring their first fruits to the temple in Jerusalem. Upon presenting the fruits the donor proclaims that  “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”

Deuteronomy continues: “You have declared this day that the Lord is your God and that you will walk in obedience to him, that you will keep his decrees, commands and laws, that you will listen to him.” While the pilgrim declares that his ancestors were slaves in Egypt, archaeologists are less certain about the nature of these events.

The first question about the veracity of a literal biblical account is the lack of direct evidence for a large-scale exodus in Egypt. There are no monuments or records outside of the Bible that record similar events. This can perhaps be explained away because the ancients were not in the habit of recording their losses. Ramesses II’s stalemate against the Hittites at Kadesh was presented in Egypt as a great triumph. Defeats were not recorded.

There is no direct evidence in the Sinai or in the Transjordan for a large scale wandering. In the Bible, the Israelites are said to be nomadic, wandering across locations, not setting up permanent roots, so they would be less likely to leave traces in the archaeological record. The Sinai Desert is hot and sandy, and artifacts would likely to degrade in the sun or be covered with sand. Outside the Bible there is no evidence for Moses, Aaron or Joshua, though the odds of finding traces of a nomadic individual is always unlikely. Egypt ruled over Canaan for centuries, and as their control waned new settlers appeared in the Central Highlands of Canaan. But these new settlers show no clear connections to Egypt or Egyptian influence, which one might expect of escapees from Egypt.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites attack and burn Jericho, Ai and Hazor. Hazor has a significant destruction layer that dates to the 13th century BCE, and the iconoclastic behavior has led some to suggest this was done by the Israelites, destroying the images of other gods. But the timing and identification of the other two cities is problematic.

Tell es-Sultan, in the Jordan Valley, just north of the Dead Sea, has been identified as the site of ancient Jericho, but a destruction layer there has been dated either to the mid-16th century or late 15th century, a distance away in time from the destruction at Hazor. The site of Khirbet et-Tell best fits the geographical location of Ai, but its destruction layer was from the 24th century BCE, and it was uninhabited until the 13th century BCE. Some have posited that Ai must be an as yet undiscovered site, but there are few other options.

The biggest challenge for archaeologists trying to match a literal version of the Bible’s account is the magnitude of the exodus. The Bible says that 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60 left Egypt. If an equal number of women, plus those under 20 were counted, they would number at least 1.8 million individuals. The Bible itself would seem to suggest that this number is high. Exodus 6 lists four generations from Levi until Moses. If only 70 of Jacob’s descendants went down to Egypt, it would be hard for those 70 to grow into nearly 2 million people in that short a period. It is for this reason the medieval commentator Rashi explained that the Jewish women gave birth to six babies with every pregnancy. 

In the midrash of Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 13:18, it says only one out five of the Israelites left Egypt, which would have meant there were 8 million plus Israelites in Egypt prior to the exodus. At the beginning of the 1st millennium CE, Egypt was estimated to have a population of only 7 million. The midrash’s estimate alone would exceed that number, and even a number of 1.8 million slaves ruled by the remainder would be hard to support. The logistics of moving 1.8 million people through a desert would be daunting. A 1915 survey of the population of Palestine counted roughly 700,000 inhabitants, and the estimated carrying capacity of the land prior to modernization was roughly 1 million people. This is well short of the number the Bible says would have entered the land.

A Christian reading places the exodus in the 15th century BCE. The Jewish Seder Olam Rabbah places it in the 14th century BCE. Archaeological evidence shows signs of an early Israel appearing in Canaan in the 13th century BCE, but different readings of the evidence have led to differing theses over where these Israelites came from. Some claim there was an Israelite conquest from east to west. Others claim it was a gradual, peaceful infiltration from the east. Yet others claim it was a peasant revolt in Canaan, a west to east population shift from the coast into the highlands.

As to the source of the exodus story, those who argue against the idea of slaves exiting Egypt and making their way to Canaan claim that it is an invented history, possibly an imagined history from the period of Egypt’s rule over Canaan, or a glorified story of the Semitic Hyksos being expelled from Egypt in the 16th century.

To archaeologists, these are all more plausible scenarios than trying to hydrate a nation of millions at a desert oasis. 

The Cross-Dressing Bridge Pharaoh

Deuteronomy 22 warns that “a woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.”

In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs were generally depicted wearing a fixed range of clothing. On his head, the pharaoh might wear the tall white crown of Upper Egypt, the stouter red crown of Lower Egypt or a combination of the two. Another option was the nemes, a striped cloth worn on the head that draped over the shoulders. On the headgear, resting in the area of the forehead, there might be the upright head of a cobra, to symbolize the pharaoh’s royalty and divinity.

Lice was a problem in ancient Egypt, so the Egyptians would shave the hair on their heads and bodies to reduce the available real estate available for these bugs. In its place, people might have wigs, and for the pharaohs, false beards that were worn with the traditional attire.

The pharaohs were shown to be broad shouldered and resolute, to symbolize their power and stability. It was the pharaoh who represented order against the forces of chaos, and they were represented as being capable of that role.

Hatshepsut was the rare female pharaoh in ancient Egypt. Thutmose II was pharaoh of Egypt in the early 15th century, part of the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty. Thutmose II’s wife Hatshepsut had given him a daughter, and a lesser wife bore him a son, Thutmose III, before Thutmose II died young. The infant Thutmose III was the rightful heir to the throne, but Hatshepsut acted as a bridge leader, ruling Egypt while Thutmose III was groomed for the role.

After Thutmose III became the sole ruler of Egypt, he began to destroy and remove all mentions of Hatshepsut. This may have been done to remove any doubt about the royal succession from Thutmose I to Thutmose II to Thutmose III. But it complicated the job for archaeologists later.

One of Hatshepsut’s key achievements was the construction of a funerary temple in western Thebes, opposite today’s Luxor. Early on in Hatshepsut’s rule, she was depicted as a female in Egyptian art. But as she solidified her rule, she increasingly came to be depicted as male. She was shown wearing the typical headdress of a pharaoh, then with the false beard, and then entirely with a male body. It was only through inscriptions that that archaeologists were able to determine that Egypt indeed had a female ruler during the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.

The image above is from Hatshepsut’s funerary temple in Thebes, where Hatshepsut is shown wearing the false beard that is typically worn by the male pharaoh. Deuteronomy 22 would not approve.

It’s Good to Be the Non-Israelite King

In Deuteronomy 17, the nation of Israel is given instructions regarding appointing a king: When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

In the Bible, after the exodus, it would still be some time before the Israelites anointed a king to lead them. But for a few hundred years in the Late Bronze Age, the de facto ruler of Canaan was the Egyptian king.

In Exodus 13 “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.” One rationale for the nation to turn away from Canaan could have been to avoid the Egyptian military garrisons along the coast, garrisons that were ultimately under the control of Egypt’s New Kingdom rulers.

Egypt’s New Kingdom had a major impact on events in Canaan. At the end of Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, the Egyptian kings expelled the Asiatic Hyksos rulers, sending them fleeing out of Egypt and into Canaan. The New Kingdom kings Ahmose I, Thutmose I and Thutmose III took control of Canaan and expanded Egyptian control of the Levant, with the greatest reach occurring under Thutmose III. Thutmose III’s son Amenhotep II asserted his control over the area. The Memphis Stela of Amenhotep II records that he captured 89,600 men, including 3,600 Apiru and 15,200 Shasu in his campaigns in Canaan and the Levant.

Under the religious reformer Akhenaten, the Egyptians appear to have neglected Canaan. The Amarna Letters unearthed at Akhenaten’s new capital show increasingly desperate Egyptian vassals appealing for help from the Egyptians against raiders such as the Habiru. But Horemheb undid Akhenaten’s reforms and represented a return to an assertive Egyptian foreign policy.

Ramesses II campaigned in the Levant and fought the Hittites to a draw, but while not a defeat, it marked a point from which Egyptian control of Canaan began to recede. After Ramesses III in the 12th century BCE, Egyptian control of Canaan waned, so that by the end of the 12th century BCE, Egypt was no longer in direct control of Canaan. By the 11th century BCE, Egyptian kings no longer ruled Canaan, setting the stage for the Israelites to consider appointing their own king.

In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel warned Israel against appointing a king. But for the Egyptian rulers whose garrisons controlled trade in Canaan, captured slaves to be taken back to Egpyt, and ruled without the Bible’s limitations, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, it was good to be the king.

The image above is of Amenhotep II, who claimed to have captured vast amount of slaves in Canaan. It is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A Structure on Mount Ebal

In Deuteronomy 11, Moses tells Israel that once in Canaan, their fate will be tied to their choices. “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today, the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.”

Later, in Deuteronomy 27, Moses gives further instructions. “And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal, as I command you today, and coat them with plaster. Build there an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not use any iron tool on them. Build the altar of the Lord your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God.”

In Joshua 8, this is exactly what they do. “Then Joshua built an altar in Mount Ebal to the Lord, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man has lifted an iron tool”

In an archaeological survey, a team walks across an area and records finds that sit on the surface. Archaeologist Adam Zertal led a survey of the Manasseh Hill Country, the areas traditionally associated with the tribe of Manasseh. This area included parts of the northern West Bank, including Shechem and the area traditionally believed to be Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.

Mt. Ebal is a large mountain and the highest mountain in northern Samaria. On the northern eastern side, about 200 feet from the summit, Zertal unearthed a large stone structure. The pottery in the layers on site dated to the early Iron Age I, from the mid 13th century to the mid 12th century. A large percentage of the pottery was collared rim jars, which can be indicative of the early Israelites. There did not appear to be a settlement nearby, and a short wall surrounded the area.

Excavations revealed a stone structure that was roughly 24 feet x 30 feet and roughly 10 feet tall. The stones that were used in its construction were uncut field stones. Inside it was filled with stone, ash and charred animal bones. The animal bones at the site and in the fill dirt were from young male bulls, sheep, goats and fallow deer. The structure did not appear to have an entryway at the ground level, but appeared to have a long ramp that was 4 feet wide and 23 feet long that led to the top of the structure. The structure also had a shorter ledge around three of its sides.  Zertal claimed that this was a cultic site and that the structure was an altar.

The lack of a settlement, the walled off area, the large number of pots and animal remains, a structure without an entry way all point to this being a cultic site. But Zertal took the additional step of claiming this was none other than the altar Joshua was said to have built in the Book of Joshua.

Zertal built his claim on a number of factors. The young bull, sheep and goat animal bones are either those listed in Leviticus 1 or the fallow deer, which is considered a kosher animal. The uncut stones and ramp instead of steps are reminiscent of Exodus 20. “Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.” The thin ledge around the altar corresponds to a Second Temple era Mishnah, in tractate Middot. The site appears to be abandoned abruptly in the mid 12th century, just as the Bible says that Shilo became the premier Israelite cultic site.

Zertal’s claim has been hotly disputed. The explanation of the ledge based on a Mishnaic source that is 1,000 years older could invalidate that as proof. Others claim that the site is not an altar, but is a farmhouse or a watchtower, and the ramp simply a collapsed wall. These suggestions are not ironclad. The lack of bones from pack animals question its identification as a farmhouse. The suggestion that it is a watchtower is problematic, as it would be more sensible for a watchtower to be set closer to the mountaintop or opposite a prominent road.

For many, his suggestion that it is specifically Joshua’s altar puts his claim beyond the pale. If Joshua’s altar, it would have made more sense for it to be visible from the site that is assumed to be Mt. Gerizim. And for others, it is too much to claim it belongs to a figure for whom there is no scientific proof yet.

The image above is of Mt. Ebal, taken from Mt. Gerizim, with Shechem, modern day Nablus, in the valley between the two.

For a visual of the structure, see this link: 


Long Range and Long Odds

In Deuteronomy 9, Moses reminds Israel how he has intervened on Israel’s behalf to plead for mercy from God. Moses reminded God that “they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm.” In Exodus 6 Moses had told the Israelites that God “will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, will free you from being slaves to them, and will redeem you with an outstretched arm.” In Exodus 15, after God split the sea, Israel acknowledged that God’s outstretched arm had saved them. “Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.”

Santorini is an island in the Aegean Sea. It lies north of Crete, Greece’s largest island. Santorini is also known as Thera, and is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded human history.

In the early 2nd millennium, Santorini was a large island. When the volcano exploded, it left three islands, Therasia, Aspronisi, and the largest island Thera, and a massive crater in the center that was filled in by the waters of Aegean Sea. The image above shows the edges of the islands and a body of water where a mountain once stood.

The volcanic eruption deposited thick layers of ash across the surrounding islands. Ash landed as far away as Egypt and Canaan. The tsunami in its wake toppled walls of buildings in surrounding islands, causing especially significant damage on the northern coast of Crete.

The Thera Eruption is important for archaeologists as it established a relative chronology across the region. It could be determined that the level immediately beneath the ash that was demonstrated to have been active at the time, across the affected area, all were of the same time period.

If the ash layer helped establish a relative chronology, establishing a set date for the eruption has been more challenging. Studies based on pottery styles place the date of the eruption in the mid 16th century BCE. Radiocarbon dating of an olive tree found beneath the lava would place the event in the last quarter of the 17th century BCE, though the chemistry may have been disturbed by the extreme conditions of the volcanic eruption. Radiocarbon dates from other sites in the Aegean range from the mid 17th to late 17th century BCE. Studies of ice layers in Greenland proved inconclusive. But tree ring studies in the US and Europe show interference in growth in 1629-1628 BCE, possibly the result of ash in the atmosphere obscuring the sun.

The Thera Eruption has been offered as a rational explanation of the splitting of the sea story in the Bible. The suggestion is that as the Israelite slaves were escaping Egypt, the tsunami triggered a retreat of the waters followed by a massive wall of seawater. A similar pattern was seen in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 200,000 people, when the waters retreated at the beaches and then returned with the tsunami wave.

The problems with this suggestion are manifold. The logistics of how and where this would have happened are hard to work out. The odds that the Israelite slaves escaped at this exact moment and time would make it truly fortuitous. And that is before addressing this issue on the timeline relative to findings of the proto-Israelites in Canaan.

With that it mind, enjoy a short clip about this volcano:

A Different One God

In Deuteronomy 5, Moses recounts the Ten Commandments that were given to Israel. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The commandment “You shall have no other gods before me,” has led to a debate amongst scholars about whether it is a monotheistic or monolatristic statement. Is it monotheistic, and therefore means that there are no other gods, or is it monolatristic, meaning one may only worship one God but that other gods do exist?

Regardless of which it is, it marks a departure from traditional religion of the 2nd and 1st millennia. People in the ancient Near East at the time were polytheistic, and believed in the presence of many gods, each of whom served a unique role or location in the pantheon of gods.

Just as the Bible has a revolutionary idea about God for its time, the Egyptians also experienced a similar revolution, albeit for a brief period.

In the mid-14th century BCE, the Egyptian king Amenhotep IV ascended to the throne. In the fifth year of his reign, he undertook a religious revolution. At the time, Amen-Ra was a chief god in the Egyptian pantheon, and his name appears in the name Amenhotep IV. Amenhotep IV made the Aten, the sun disk, the only object of veneration. He changed his own name to Akhenaten, translated variously as ‘Living spirit of the Aten’ or ‘Effective for the Aten.’ He moved his capital to an area between the southern capital of Thebes and the northern capital of Memphis and named this new capital Akhetaten, meaning ‘Horizon of the Aten.’ This capital at modern day Tell el-Amarna is the location where the Amarna Letters, which mention the Habiru attacking Urusalim, were discovered.

Akhenaten elevated Aten to be the only god who could be worshipped, and the Aten could only be worshipped through Akhenaten himself. Across Egypt, the name of the god Amen-Re was defaced and references to ‘gods’ were erased. Temples to other gods across Egypt were shut down, and Akhenaten built open air temples that were exposed to the sun disk god Aten.

Akhenaten is believed to have composed the ‘Great Hymn of the Aten.’ A portion of it reads as follows: “How numerous are your works, though hidden from sight. Unique god, there is none beside him. You mold the earth to your wish, you and you alone. All people, herds and flocks, all on earth that walk on legs, all on high that fly with their wings. And on the foreign lands of Khar and Kush, the land of Egypt, you place every man in his place, you make what they need, so that everyone has his food, his lifespan counted.”

Akhenaten also launched a revolution in art. Egyptian art typically had a formal method of presentation. Pharaohs were tasked with maintaining order against the forces of chaos, and they were depicted in reserved poses. A king would be represented sitting on his throne, broad shouldered, with his feet perhaps resting on nine bows, representing Egypt’s nine enemies. Under Akhenaten’s direction, he and his family were featured in more emotional scenes, with exaggerated features that are perhaps indicative of a medical condition.

There is an expression in Hebrew, “Yemach shemo vezichro,” meaning ‘may his name and memory be erased,’ that is reserved for Israel’s greatest enemies. And for the most part, this is exactly what happened to Akhenaten after this death. His son Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun, the name ‘Aten’ being replaced by ‘Amun,’ of Amen-Ra. This is the same Tutankhamun of ‘King Tut’ fame, whose tomb was found in the 1920s. Akhenaten’s name was removed from lists of Egypt’s kings, his temples were dismantled and their blocks reused elsewhere, and Egypt’s worship of the many gods reverted back to form. Where Akhenaten of great Egypt failed, the God of small Israel succeeded in carrying monotheism forward.

The image above is a fragment showing the sun disk and the sun’s rays emanating from it. The rays terminate in small hands before Akhenaten. It is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

With the one God in mind, enjoy this tune:

God’s Original Home

In Deuteronomy 1, Moses recounts Israel’s setting out from Horeb, or Mt. Sinai, on its way to the promised land. But when the spies toured the land and reported that it was unconquerable and the nation complained, God punished them by not allowing them to enter the land. Instead, in Deuteronomy 2, they set out for the hill country of Seir, towards the area of southern Jordan today.

In the biblical story, this was a region that Moses had traversed before. In Exodus 2, after killing an Egyptian, Moses fled to Midian, the area of northern Arabia, adjacent to southern Jordan. The exact site of Mt. Sinai is unknown, but following Moses’ travels, it would lie somewhere between northern Arabia and Egypt.

In ancient polytheism, there were many gods. These gods served a wide array of functions and regions. Some gods could be more global in nature, perhaps creating the world, others could be responsible for weather, some for an afterlife, while others could be a local gods. The Assyrian Empire took its name from its ancient capital Ashur, which was the name of the dominant local god in that city.

In Exodus 3, Moses sets out from Midian and encountered a burning bush that was not being consumed by the fire. Moses asked God for his name. God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you…this is my name forever, the name you shall call me, from generation to generation.”

The tradition that God was from this region between Arabia and Egypt is known elsewhere in the Bible. In Judges 5, the Song of Deborah, it writes “When you, Lord, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water.” In Habbakuk 3, “God came from Teman,” Teman being a tribe of Edom, again in the vicinity of southern Jordan and northern Arabia.

The idea that the God of the Bible originated from the area of northeast Sinai, southern Jordan and northern Arabia, may be indicated from the archaeological record.

The Temple of Amenhotep III at Soleb in Nubia is located about 300 miles south of Aswan in Egypt, in modern day Sudan. A cataract in a river is a site where the water is interrupted by heights that can produce waterfalls or by stones that disrupt the smooth flow of water and Soleb sits south of the Third Cataract of the Nile River. The temple represents the southern reach of the 14th century BCE pharaoh Amenhotep III.

The large stone columns that lined the temple recorded Amenhotep III’s conquests and people under his authority. One of the tribes on the list are the Shasu of YHW, an apparent reference to a nomadic people and a location. The Shasu of YHW are mentioned near Seir in the same list, suggesting they were in close proximity to each other.

The name YHW bears a close similarity to the letters of God’s name in the Bible. As towns could be named for the local god, it raises the possibility that the God of the Bible was known in the region of Seir, roughly in the vicinity of southern Jordan, pictured above, as the Bible indicates.

The Rest Are Going to the West

In the Bible, the Israelites left the Sinai and headed into the area of the Transjordan, east of the Jordan River. Numbers 32 continues: The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, the land the Lord subdued before the people of Israel, are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.”

Moses and the tribes agreed on a land apportionment in the Transjordan. “Then Moses gave to the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the whole land with its cities and the territory around them.

The Bible’s version of events is that the tribes of Gad, Reuben and half of Menasseh set up towns for themselves in the Transjordan before the rest of the Israelites headed west across the Jordan River to conquer Canaan.

Tall al-‘Umayri is an archaeological site in Jordan roughly 10 miles south of Amman, Jordan. Archaeologists have discovered two settlements in the mound that that date to the transitional period of the Late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age. The earlier settlement appears to have been destroyed by an earthquake. An earthquake would result in collapsed walls and homes, without the telltale signs of destruction in war, which would be more likely to show destruction by fire. The later site on top of the earthquake was a fortified site with well preserved homes.

The later site features a well preserved ‘four-room house,’ with three narrow rooms divided by pillars running against a broad room in the back. This style home in the early Iron Age I in the central hill country of Canaan is typically indicative of the early Israelites. In this ‘four room house,’ many collared rim jars, roughly three feet tall, were found. Again, if not unique to early Israel, they are common to Israelite sites.

Tall al-‘Umayri appears along with a cluster of nearby sites, indicating that these settlers are likely to have been connected to a larger group. This includes the areas at nearby archaeological sites of Tall Hisban, Tall Jalul, Tall Jawa and Tall Madaba, These sites have settlements that date to the late 13th or early 12th century, a bit earlier to roughly contemporaneous with the early new villages in the central hill country. The image above is from nearby Madaba, the site of a church and famous tile mosaic.

It cannot be definitively stated that these represent the earliest Israelites settling before heading into Canaan. The possibility exists that they are early Ammonites or Moabites. But the possibility exists that the settlement pattern from east to west reflects the one the Bible describes.

So while if Israel went west, some in the group stayed behind. Told in song, as follows: