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:


Passover Acts at the Cataract

Numbers 28 lists the laws of the Passover. “On the fourteenth day of the first month the Lord’s Passover is to be held. On the fifteenth day of this month there is to be a festival; for seven days eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. Present to the Lord a food offering consisting of a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect. With each bull offer a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with oil; with the ram, two-tenths; and with each of the seven lambs, one-tenth. Include one male goat as a sin offering to make atonement for you. Offer these in addition to the regular morning burnt offering. In this way present the food offering every day for seven days as an aroma pleasing to the Lord; it is to be offered in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering. On the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.”

Elephantine is a small island in the Nile in southern, or Upper Egypt, off of Aswan. The island may have been given its name due to its long narrow shape resembling an elephant tusk.

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. Elephantine is just downstream from the First Cataract of the Nile River. Cataracts could not be navigated by boat, so any traders or invaders from the south would be forced to disembark and interrupt their travel before they could continue their journey down the river. This made Elephantine a strategically important site.

In the 5th century BCE, Egypt was under Persian control. Elephantine was a fort that protected this gateway to Egypt. Amongst those in service to the Persians were Jewish mercenaries protecting the Egyptian frontier.

At Elephantine, archaeologists unearthed collections of documents and letters written in Aramaic on papyrus, known as the Elephantine Papyri. A significant number belonged to its Jewish community. These letters deal with issues of divorce, slaves, business and matters of religion.

One notable papyrus in this collection is the ‘Elephantine Passover Letter,’ which dates to 419 BCE. Only a fragment of this letter remains. Nowhere does it mention the word Passover, but it seems clear that that is its intent. The letter was sent to the Jewish community in Elephantine about how to celebrate the Passover. A reconstruction of the letter, with a suggested reading shown in brackets for missing or illegible writing is as follows: 

“[To my brothers, Je]daniah and his colleagues the [J]ew[ish] ga[rrison,] your brother Hanan[iah]. May God (the gods?) [seek after] the welfare of my brothers [at all times.]

And now, this year, year 5 of King Darius, it has been sent from the king to Arsa[mes] […]

Now, do you count [fourteen days in Nisan and on the 14th at twilight observe the Passover] and from the 15th day until the 21st day of [Nisan the festival of Unleavened Bread observe. Seven days eat unleavened bread. Now,] be pure and take heed.

[Do] n[ot do] work [on the 15th day and on the 21st day. And] do [n]ot drink [anything of leaven. And do] n[ot eat] anything of leaven [nor let it be seen in your houses from the 14th day of Nisan at] sunset until the 21st day of Nisa[n at sunset. And b]ring into your chambers [any leaven which you have in your houses] and seal (it) up during [these] day[s]. […]

[To] my brothers Jedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananiah s[on of …].”

This ‘Elephantine Passover Letter’ papyrus is kept at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. It can be seen via the link below:


Early Israel’s King

In Numbers 22, Balak, the king of Moab, summoned Balaam son of Beor, to curse the nation of Israel that was on his country’s doorstep. In Numbers 23, when Balaam tried to curse Israel, his words came out as a blessing:

“No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, the shout of the King is among them. God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. There is no divination against Jacob, no evil omens against Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, see what God has done. The people rise like a lioness, they rouse themselves like a lion that does not rest till it devours its prey and drinks the blood of its victims.”

Part of Balaam’s blessing of Israel is that “The Lord their God is with them, the shout of the King is among them.” The king in this instance appears to be God, not a human king of Israel. In the Torah, Israel is led by Moses, but not by a formal king.

In Deuteronomy 17, it notes that Israel did not have a king, but would only desire one after they entered Canaan and conquered it: 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.”

The early Israelite settlers in the hill country of Canaan appear to have lived in an egalitarian society, where they were all equally poor. Their “four-room” houses were similar. Their pottery was local, unadorned and utilitarian. There is no sign of ornate burials. And they do not appear to have had a king.

No royal inscriptions have been found in hill country Iron Age I. Outside of Canaan, there is no mention of an Israelite or Judahite king in Iron Age I, as there is during Iron Age II, after 1000 BCE. The hill country Iron I villages have no large scale buildings or monumental architecture which would indicate the presence of royalty. By contrast, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Israel at Samaria, modern day Sebastiya roughly 10 miles northwest of Nablus, or Shechem, contains the remains of the Israelite king’s palace during Iron Age II.

The image above is of the palatial building at Megiddo that dates to Iron Age II. This building had a monumental entrance with a roof supported by large columns and a large ceremonial hall, something that is not found in the earlier villages of the central hill country.

For early Israel in the Bible, God was king. Over 3,000 years later, even the King himself knew who the king of kings was:  


Trading on the King’s Highway

In Numbers 20, Moses asked for permission from the king of Edom to pass through his territory. “Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” The Edomite king rejected Moses’ request, so the Israelites had to bypass the area.

In Numbers 21, Israel requested passage through the land of the Amorites. “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” The Amorites refused and in a battle, Israel conquered the Amorite territory.

In the Bible, the road Israel wanted to traverse is written literally as “Derech HaMelech,” the “Way of the King,” but it is commonly translated as the King’s Highway. The path that the Bible says Israel traveled was along an important trade route. This trade route connected Egypt to Aramean Damascus and on to Mesopotamia. The route crossed the Sinai, and then headed into Transjordan, passing through the kingdoms of Edom, Moab, Ammon, and the Aramean states.

The exact route of the King’s Highway mentioned in the Bible is not known. Ancient roads were often unpaved, so it can be difficult to determine the exact path. Assumptions can be made based on proximity to existing cities and towns, access to water, and level ground as to where a road might have passed. Satellite images can be used to find ancient paths. Other ancient roads such as the Roman via nova Traiana may have been built over a pre-existing portion of the ancient road.

Regardless of its exact location, it was an important route for trade. The settlers in the central hill country of Canaan, encompassing the Samarian and Judean hills, would have taken advantage of trade along this route. These settlers engaged in trade and were part of the larger regional economy.

However, one exception to this is pottery. The Iron Age Israelites exhibit a lack of imported pottery. Iron Age I, from roughly 1200-1000 BCE is a period of diminished trade in the ancient Near East, but trade increases in Iron Age II, from 1000-587 BCE. During this period, the absence of non-Israelite pottery in the hill country becomes even more pronounced. This may be a cultural marker, either related to an ethic of simplicity, an aversion to imagery or a function of purity law. There is no way to know this, but the absence makes it notable. Trade occurred, but for Israel, the pottery kept on riding on the King’s Highway.


The image above is from near Petra, along the route of the King’s Highway.

What a Skeleton Can Tell Us

In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan, Abiram and On plus 250 others challenged Moses’ leadership. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

Moses announced that “if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”

“As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.”

In this story, Korah was buried alive, but burials form a unique aspect of the Iron Age I settlers in the hill country of Canaan.

Burials can be a window into ancient cultures. It can be a sign of hierarchies, as richer individuals or families can afford a more lavish burial. Family burials can demonstrate the importance of close family links in a society. An example of this in the Bible could be in 1 Kings 2 “then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.” Grave goods, items that are found within a burial plot, can shed light on beliefs in an afterlife, because they can indicate that the culture believed that the deceased would need those items after death in this life. Rituals to bring goods or food to the deceased after their passing might indicate the belief in a continued relationship on earth after death.

In Late Bronze Age Canaan, tombs can be found both in the hill country and in the coastal plain. But in Iron Age I, with the influx of new proto-Israelite settlers, there is a distinct absence of burial sites. With few formal burial sites, it is believed people would have been buried in simple graves without any unique identifiers. In Iron Age II, rock-cut tombs, with square openings and benches for the deceased, along with funerary gifts, that housed the bones of multiple family members, once again appear in the central hill country.

The lack of Iron Age I graves could be a mark of these early settlers living in a flat society, without hierarchies, and their relative simplicity. It may also be a cultural marker of the early Israelites.

Dancing and talking skeletons may be in the realm of cartoons, Halloween and Jeff Dunham’s Ahmed the Terrorist comedic bit, but for archaeologists, skeletons can tell us a lot.

The image above is of a skeleton with ‘grave goods,’ once buried adorned with jewelry around its head, and now on display at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem.

Israelites as Iconoclasts

In Numbers 13, at God’s behest Moses sent spies to explore the land of Canaan, which the Israelites were set to conquer. “So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived.” The spies figured out where the different groups lived. “The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”

Three of the largest Canaanite cities in the region were Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. The Bible recognizes their significance, and in 1 Kings 9 it notes, “the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.”

In Joshua 11, Joshua conquered Hazor. “Joshua turned back and captured Hazor and put its king to the sword. Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms. Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed, and he burned Hazor itself. Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. Yet Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds, except Hazor, which Joshua burned.”

Tel Hazor, the site of ancient Hazor, is roughly 10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Historically it was important because it was along the trade route that connected the coastal roads that ran down to Egypt and the interior routes that traveled into Syria and down to Mesopotamia. Archaeology has shown that it had a long period of habitation, from the Early Bronze Age until the period of Greek rule in the latter part of the 1st millennium BCE. It reached a peak in the Late Bronze Age, and Hazor’s king features in Egypt’s Amarna Letters.

Notably in the Bible account, Joshua burned Hazor, but not the other cities.

Destruction layers are one of the most identifiable features in archaeology. A site that experienced destruction and fire might feature collapsed walls, layers of ash, burnt wood, stone that cracked in the intense heat, melted limestone and/or destroyed statues. Because a destruction layer can so clearly delineate a break in periods and explain the reason for the end of a settlement, it would not be unusual to hear an archaeologists talk about “beautiful, beautiful destruction.”

Hazor reached a peak in the Late Bronze Age, before the Egyptians seized control of Canaan. The city appears to have to have been attacked at the end of the 14th century BCE and again in the mid-to-late 13th century BCE. In the 13th century BCE layer, on the lower plateau to the north, large public structures were destroyed, as were statues of gods and kings, but small domestic structures were not destroyed. Similarly, on the tel, or mound, the large public buildings including palatial and cultic sites were destroyed.

The party responsible for the destruction in the 13th century BCE is debated. Suggestions include the Egyptians, the Sea Peoples, fighting amongst Canaanite groups, a local rebellion or the Israelite conquest. One accepted opinion is that the destruction was a local rebellion against the elites, which resulted in the destruction of the important administrative, royal and cultic sites associated with the elites.

Amnon Ben-Tor, the lead archaeologist on the site, is of the opinion that the destruction was caused by invading Israelites. To him, the decapitations of the statues of gods and kings, the destruction of cultic sites and cultic paraphernalia on both the upper and lower sites are indicative of Israelite destruction.

Polytheists were traditionally respectful of local gods, and would have traditionally been expected to respect cultic sites. In the Bible, the Israelites are prohibited from forming graven images and of worshipping other gods. Therefore, Amnon Ben-Tor and others point to the destruction as the result of deliberate actions by Israelite attackers. To Ben-Tor, the Israelites are the iconoclasts, the deliberate destroyers of images used in worship, much as the much later bust in the image above was deliberately mutilated.

Rolling East to West

This week’s parshah, Behaalotecha, covering Numbers chapters 8-12, discusses aspects of Israel’s travels. Numbers 9 tells of the cloud above the tabernacle that directed Israel’s travel itinerary. Numbers 10 contains instructions to make trumpets that will be used to signal when Israel will be traveling. The Israelites then began their journey from the Sinai Desert to the Desert of Paran. In Numbers 11 the Israelites traveled from Kibroth Hattaavah to Hazeroth, and in Numbers 12 they went from Hazeroth to the Desert of Paran.

In the Bible, the nation of Israel left Egypt and headed into the Sinai Desert. From there they went east and crossed into the area of southern Jordan. They moved north through the lands of Edom, Moab and Ammon. From there they would move from east to west and enter into Canaan.

A debate exists between archaeologists about the origins of the settlers who in the early Iron Age occupied the hill country of Samaria and Judea, the group who are believed to be the early Israelites. Some are of the belief that they were Canaanites who migrated from west to east, from the coastal plain to the hill country. On the other side of the debate are those who believe these early settlers came from the other side of the Jordan River, and migrated from east to west.

Adam Zertal was an Israeli archaeologist who undertook a survey of the land of Manasseh west of the Jordan River. The land of Manasseh encompassed the area reaching from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and reaching from roughly Beth She’an as a northern boundary to Shechem as a southern boundary.

Based on pottery types and their popularity by century, he found that these early settlers began to appear first in the Jordan Valley and along the eastern rivers in the 13th century BCE. They lived a seminomadic life, moving to better pasture by season. In the 12th century BCE, these early settlers moved to the eastern part of the hill country and into the inner valleys and engaged in farming activities. By the end 12th/early 11th BCE they had expanded to the western edge of the hills surrounding the valleys and were engaging in more complex and more settled terraced agriculture.

In sum, the result of Zertal’s Manasseh Hill Country Survey points to the early Israelites arriving in the Samarian and Judahite Hill Country, moving in an east to west direction, the direction described in the Bible.

The photo above is of the Jordan River Valley, the type of terrain the 13th century BCE settlers would have lived in. 

The direction they went, song courtesy of Disney: