The Genesis of a New Middle East

In Genesis 2, God created a garden in Eden. This garden is described as a source for four rivers. “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”

Cush is traditionally identified with Ethiopia, which happens to be one of the main sources for the Nile River. The Euphrates and Tigris begin in Anatolia and run through the area of modern day Iraq. Between these two regions, in the southwestern corner of Asia, is the Levant, encompassing today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Israel.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse saw the demise of the large empires and kingdoms in the ancient Near East. Central authority collapsed in Egypt, leading to the Third Intermediate Period. The Hittite Kingdom in Anatolia collapsed, as did the Kassite Babylonian Kingdom in Mesopotamia. Assyria was significantly reduced in size. The collapse of the kingdoms surrounding the Levant allowed for the rise of city states within the Levant.

After a slow start, by the Iron Age IIA, beginning roughly in 1000 BCE, new city states developed across the Levant. In the Cisjordan of the southern Levant, in the central hill country a new kingdom would begin to establish itself. Along the coast, the Philistines established themselves in the Philistine Pentapolis and along the edges of the Shephela, the foothills that led east to the hill country. In the northern coastal plain, in the Galilee and running north to modern day Lebanon, the Canaanites, also referred to as the Phoenicians, played a key role in regional trade. Further inland in the northern Levant, the Arameans, and the kingdom of Aram Damascus held sway.

East of the Jordan River Valley, in the Transjordan, running from south to north were the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites. The Edomites were situated south of the Dead Sea, extending west into the valley. Moab was in the area east of the Dead Sea, bisected by the Arnon River. Ammon was mainly between the Arnon and Jabbok Rivers. In the Iron IIA, these entities appear to have been at varying stages of development of their kingdoms.

In the Bible, these nations would be the chief rivals to the united kingdom of David and later the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And they would all play a role in the events of the books of 1 Samuel – 2 Kings 15.

For some excitement in the other Moab, in Utah, a driving adventure.

The New Residents of Iron I and Judges

In the 12th century, a new group settled in the southern Levantine coast. This group featured a culture different from the Canaanites in the northern coastal plain and the Galilee, and different from the early Israelites in the central hill country. Theirs was a culture that mirrored the culture in the Aegean. Their temples were supported by two central pillars, similar to others found in the Aegean, and different from Canaanite and later Israelite temple forms. Their pottery was of a high quality and featured a wide variety of shapes, adorned with impressive designs, more typical of pottery found in Cyprus and the Aegean. Their figurines and gods were similar to Mycenaean Greek figurines. Pig represented a high percentage of their diet. Studies of pig DNA in the Levant shows today’s pigs in Israel descend from European pigs, where prior to these invaders’ arrival local pigs predominated, indicating that these invaders brought the pigs that formed their diet from the Aegean. These new arrivals even differed in clothing production, with loom weight designs that differed from the looms found in Canaanite and Israelite areas, and more similar to loom weights found on Cyprus.

These invaders settled the five major cities in the southwestern Levant: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath; the former three cities along the coast and the latter two further inland. They extended their reign further north, reaching the area of modern day Tel Aviv. The foothills between the coastal plain then became the border region between themselves and the early Israelites who controlled the mountainous hill country region.

While the archaeological evidence does not fully support a literal reading of Bible’s account, it contains many parallels with the situation described in the biblical book of Judges.

In the Book of Judges, the Israelite tribes exist as tribal groups, without a king, consistent with the lack of royal monuments and architecture in the archaeological record of the Iron I period. The Egyptians do not figure significantly in Judges, matching the end of Egyptian control of the southern Levant in the 12th century BCE. The Israelites contend with a new adversary, in Hebrew the Pelishtim, in English translation the Philistines, terms with clear linguistic similarity to the Sea Peoples group the Peleset. The Peleset are not mentioned as one of the settled tribes at the time of the exodus account in the Bible, but rather are new to the scene.

Archaeological artifacts from Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tell es-Safi/Gath and Tel Miqne/Ekron show these to have been large Philistine cities, the ones identified as the major Philistine cities in Judges. The clean borders between these cities and the Israelite areas agrees with the biblical description of the two groups as enemies and rivals.

In the Book of Judges story of Samson and Delilah, Samson was tied to the two central pillars of the Philistine temple, and the Philistine temple unearthed in Tel Aviv demonstrates that a Philistine temple was supported by two central pillars. In the 1 Samuel story of David and Goliath, Goliath’s armor matches the armor displayed on the Mycenean Warrior Vase. A name similar to that of Goliath found on an inscription shows the name to belong to a language group different from the native Levantine Semitic language.

In sum, the scenario described in the Book of Judges fits comfortably with the archaeological finds of the Iron Age I period, before conditions change in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings, and in the Iron II period. 

In the photo above is the Athens Acropolis, with a large Aegean temple supported by pillars. 

And in the Southwestern Corner

Around the time of Israel’s appearance in Canaan in the late 13th century, the eastern Mediterranean region experience a change in climate, to a dry period that may have last for over 150 years. The drier climate is evidenced through studies of ice cores, isotopes in stalactites, pollen samples taken from mud cores and changes in cow DNA from European breeds to breeds better able to survive dry conditions.

Inscriptions from the period indicate an increasing desperation for food. This desperation emerges from Hittite and Ugaritic records, and is a likely culprit in the collapse of these entities.

The drier climatic conditions ushered in the Late Bronze Age Collapse. During the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the ancient Near East experienced a breakdown of the major kingdoms and empires in the region. The Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece disappeared. Egypt would eventually suffer a collapse of centralized rule and the end of the New Kingdom. The Hittite Empire broke apart into smaller statelets. The Assyrian kingdom survived, but as a rump state. The Kassite dynasty in Babylonia ended. With the demise of these kingdoms, the international trade system collapsed. This archaeological dark period would last into the late 10th century BCE, before new large kingdoms were able to reformulate.

Beginning in the 16th century BCE, Egypt gained control over Canaan. Its control can be seen in the presence of strategically located Egyptian military garrisons, containing evidence of Egyptian material culture, placed along strategic trade routes. Locals in Canaan adopted some Egyptian practices, including anthropomorphic coffins and the worship of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

Egyptian domination came at a cost to the locals in Canaan. Egyptian kings boast of taking large numbers of slaves from the region to Egypt. The region saw a decline in walled cities, population and material wealth from the Middle Bronze Age through the Late Bronze Age under Egyptian control.

As the Late Bronze Age Collapse intensified, Egypt faced local dissension. Internal stresses in Egypt weakened Egypt abroad, and the Egyptians began to pull back from Canaan, eventually losing control entirely.

During this period, in the late 13th and early 12th centuries, Egypt came under attack along its northern coast from groups of ‘Sea Peoples’. These invaders appear to have originated from the Aegean or the Anatolian coast in the Mediterranean. The map shown above, on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem points to an Aegean origin. These groups may have established beachheads in Canaan in the late 13th century. One of the groups amongst these invaders is known in Egyptian records as the Peleset. This group appeared to settle along the coast in the southern Levant in the early 12th century.

Thus, in the early 12th century, two new rivals appeared on the Canaanite scene. The Peleset, or Philistines, in the southwestern corner. And the early Israelites in their corner of the central hill country. Cue the music:

New Settlers on the Block

Near the end of Moses’ tenure as leader of the Israelites, in Deuteronomy 29, Moses reminds the Israelites of their experiences over the previous forty years: These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb. Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. Yet the Lord says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the Lord your God.” When you reached this place, Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan came out to fight against us, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

With the end of the Jewish calendar year approaching, now would seem to be a logical time to recall the archaeological findings of the Iron Age I Levant that relate to the stories in the Hebrew Bible.

In the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th century BCE, the Egyptians and the Hittites of Anatolia clashed over control of the Levant, the region approximating today’s Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. Even after a near defeat at the Battle of Kadesh, the largest chariot battle in world history, the Egyptians succeeded in maintaining control over Canaan.

During this period, a new culturally distinct group began to itself in the central hill country region of Canaan, between the coastal plain and the Jordan River Valley. These new settlers lived in homes built in a unique home design. Their pottery was simple, of poor quality, unadorned and notably bereft of imagery. Concomitant with their appearance, there began a near total cessation of pig consumption in the central hill country, based on the lack of pig bones found in settlement refuse dumps. This group appears to have had an egalitarian culture, with no king, no royal monuments or royal architecture. There is a lack of imagery or carved images that might ordinarily be connected to cultic activity.

The Amarna Letters in Egypt from the middle of the 14th century record a group known as the Habiru, a name with linguistic similarity to the Hebrews, attacking a city named Urusalim. But who these raiders were and if they had any connection to the Israelites is unclear. However, in the late 13th century, the Merneptah Stele in Egypt identified a new population group in Canaan as Israel. The appearance of this name, at this time, in this region, has helped connect this new population group in the central hill country with early Israel.

The image above is of a jar adorned with a cartouche, containing the pharaoh Merneptah’s name. 

In recognition of the Israelites as a new group in the region, settling in rough terrain:

A Looming Divide

In Deuteronomy 22, the Bible issues a series of rules that relate to clothing: 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…Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together. Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear.

In the Iron Age I, women would typically have the responsibility for tasks in the home. These tasks would include child rearing, grinding wheat into flour, cooking, baking, and sewing clothing.

The basic method for weaving clothing is by setting threads in tension along the warp, and then passing the weft over and under the warp. The pick is passed between the warp, over and under, until eventually the fabric is formed. An easy way to see this process is in the short video in the link below.

In the Iron Age in the Levant, this process was done with loom weights. The thread would be tied to a loom weight and then passed between the warp.

The Philistines and early Israelites lived in close proximity to each other, the Philistines along the coast of the southern Levant and the Israelites in the central hill country. The two groups differed in their languages, religion, pottery, home design, diet, and also in weaving clothes.

Both the Israelites and Philistines used loom weights in the clothes making process. At the Israelite sites, the loom weights that were unearthed are short and round, with a hole in the center where the thread would be tied to be passed through the warp. In the Philistine sites, the loom weights are tall and narrow, and even narrower in the center, where the thread would be tied around the loom weight. The Philistine loom weights resemble loom weights found in Cyprus, yet another hint that the Philistines originated further west in the Mediterranean basin.

As mentioned above, for a quick primer on weaving clothing, see this video:

Goliath’s Aegean Armor

Deuteronomy 20 lists the biblical rules of war: procedures for heading into battle, who is exempt from the fighting, offers of peace, treatment of trees, and exemptions to these rules in the case of the conquest of Canaan.

In 1 Samuel 17, the Israelite tribes and the Philistines squared off for battle in Canaan: “Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.”

From the Philistine camp, Goliath emerged to challenge a lone Israelite. The Bible describes Goliath as follows: His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.

The Philistines were listed among the Sea Peoples, and another piece of archaeological evidence points their having originated in the Aegean.

In the Late Bronze Age, Mycenae was a site in the Peloponnese Region of Greece, southwest of Athens. Mycenaean Greece became the term used to refer to this period, before Greece entered a decline period with the Late Bronze Age collapse.

On the Mycenaean Acropolis on the island of Paros, Greece, archaeologists discovered the “Warrior Vase.” The Warrior Vase is a large bowl, or a krater. Kraters were typically used for mixing water and wine before serving. The Warrior Vase’s design features a row of soldiers in armor. The soldiers wear bronze helmets. They have scale armor on their torsos. Their shins are protected with bronze greaves. And each one carries a javelin.

The similarity between the soldiers’ armor on the Warrior Vase and the description of Goliath’s armor in 1 Samuel 17 is yet another sign that points the Philistines’ Aegean origins.

The Warrior Vase is on display at Greece’s National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The vase can be seen at the bottom of the page using the link below.

Pigs as Philistine Protein Factories

In Deuteronomy 14, Israel is given a set of dietary restrictions. “Do not eat any detestable thing. These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep. You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud. However, of those that chew the cud or that have a divided hoof you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the hyrax. Although they chew the cud, they do not have a divided hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you. The pig is also unclean; although it has a divided hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.”

One of the factors that archaeologists study in analyzing a habited site is the makeup of the diet. The types of animals consumed can be seen through animal bone remains, and human bite marks in animal bones.

During the Late Bronze Age, pigs formed part of the Canaanite diet in the southern Levant. But in the subsequent Iron I period, during 12th and 11th centuries, Israelite sites in the central hill country of Canaan are notable for their lack of pig bones, indicating that pig was not part of these settlers’ diets. This practice of pig avoidance extends into Canaanite and Aramean sites. The reason for the pig taboo is unclear. Some have argued that the pig taboo could relate a biblical prohibition of eating pork, but that would not entirely explain why the practice appears in non-Israelite sites.

The lack of pig in the Israelite diet stands in sharp contrast to the Philistine cities along the southwest coast of the Levant during the Iron I period. In the major Philistine population centers, pigs made up a larger portion of the local diet than the sheep, goats and cattle that were more typical of the region.

There may be a number of reasons for this. The Philistines are believed to have migrated to the southern coastal Levant during the Late Bronze Age collapse. Pigs are a good source of protein. They reproduce quickly, are omnivorous and gain weight quickly. Pigs have robust digestive systems and can eat foods not fit for human consumption. These factors allow pigs to survive a sea voyage and make them ideal for traveling with and settling in a new region.

Studies of DNA extracted from pig bones demonstrate the Philistines’ foreign origins. In the Late Bronze Age, pig DNA in the Levant demonstrate that the pigs were of local origin. But in the Iron Age, European pigs came to dominate the landscape, a feature consistent with modern day wild pigs in Israel. This shift is likely a remnant of the Philistine migration and diet choices.

A modern day example of pigs’ usefulness in converting food waste into protein can be seen just outside of Las Vegas:

Philistine Idol

In Deuteronomy 7, Israel is commanded on how to the treat the nations they will conquer in Canaan. “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations, the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”

While the Philistines are not listed in Deuteronomy, they were a nation that Israel contended with in Canaan, and they too had their own gods. Judges 16 is specific about one Philistine god: Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”

There are different theories as to the nature of the Philistine god Dagon. Some have suggested that Dagon is related to the Hebrew word for fish, and is connected to a ‘fish-god’ figure. Others claim it is connected to Dagan, the word for grain, a West Semitic god of crops. A temple to Dagan was unearthed at Ras Shamra in Syria.

Other figures have been unearthed in Iron I Philistine territory that point to their Aegean roots. “Psi-type” figures are standing figures with their arms out to the side. They are called “Psi-type” for their resemblance to the Greek letter “Ψ,” or Psi. Their purpose is unclear, and they are thought to either be toys or represent a goddess.

Another figure discovered in Philistine context is the “Ashdoda.” It was given this name for where it was first discovered in Ashdod. The image above is of “Ashdoda,” on display at The Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod.

Ashdoda is a seated goddess. It has a number of elements to point to an Aegean or Cypriot connection, including the long neck, its head shape and lack of a mouth. The painted design is similar to the designs found on Philistine bichrome ware. It has small breasts, unlike the more full figured Judean Pillar Figurines later found in the central hill country in Judean territory.

While Israel was commanded to destroy idols, here are some examples of Simon Cowell destroying American Idols:

Trading Places

After striking the rock, God punished Moses by not allowing him to enter Canaan. In Deuteronomy 3, Moses requested the opportunity to see the land that lay beyond the Jordan River. God told Moses to “Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan.”

Later, in Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells the nation that God will drive out the nations residing in Canaan before them, the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.

Judges 3 explains that the Israelites did not expel all the nations. The Israelites instead lived amongst the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, along with the five rulers of the Philistines, and the Canaanites, Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath.

Archaeology demonstrates that the early Israelites settled in the Samarian and Judean hills along the central hill country of Canaan. The Israelites of the period are generally identifiable in the archaeological record by the presence of features such as four-room houses, collared rim-jars, a lack of pig bones, a lack of iconography, simple pottery design, an egalitarian society lacking royal architecture and simple burials.

In the southwest corner of the southern Levant, the Philistines established themselves in cities such as Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The pottery unearthed at these sites remains a standout feature of these settlers. Beyond the “Philistine Pentapolis,” the Philistines managed to extend their control further north.

 A Philistine city was discovered at the archaeological site of Tell Qasile, on the northern side of the Yarkon River. The location is roughly a mile away from the mouth of the Yarkon River, where it spills into the Mediterranean Sea. It would have served as a port city.

This city was active in the 12th and 11th centuries. At the site, archaeologists unearthed three temples, built one on top of the other. The last temple, built on top of the others, contained cultic vessels and animal bones, signs of ritual activity. It had plastered benches along the walls, and a raised platform, a ‘bamah’ in the main hall. It also had two central pillars to support a roof.

Across from the temple building were the Philistines’ square homes, with just over 1000 square feet in floor space.

The greatest irony is the location of the site. Today, the Samarian and Judean hills represent the Palestinian Arab heartland, while the Yarkon River runs through Tel Aviv, which with its suburbs is the largest concentration of Jews in the world. In the late 2nd millennium, Israel’s heartland was in Samaria and Judea, and it was the Philistines who were settled along the coast in Tel Aviv. It was not just Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy who traded places.

Where Did I Wander?

In Deuteronomy 1 Moses begins to recount the nation of Israel’s travails and travels. The account of Israel’s travels starts in Deuteronomy 1 and continues through chapters 2 and 3.

The actual route of the exodus in the Bible is unknown. The locations of the places named are not known. Nomadic wanderers are hard to find in archaeology. And the Sinai Desert has not been dug up to the degree that Israel has.

In Deuteronomy 1, Israel’s travelogue begins with the nation setting out from Horeb, where God made a covenant with his nation, and going to Kadesh Barnea. One possible suggestion for Kadesh Barnea is in the northeastern Sinai Desert, in the vicinity of ‘Ain Qudeirat and ‘Ain Qadis. Names tend to be sticky and continue in use throughout history, and the name Qadis bears a similarity to Kadesh.

But complicating any attempt to retrace the biblical route is that the account in Deuteronomy reads very differently than the account of Israel’s travels listed in Numbers 33.

Whereas Deuteronomy’s path begins at Horeb, Numbers 33 begins with Israel exiting Egypt. Israel set out from Ramesses and traveled to Sukkoth, then Etham at the edge of the desert. From there they went to Pi Hahiroth, Marah, Elim and into the Desert of Sin. Then it was on to Dophkah, Alush, Rephidim and into the Desert of Sinai. From there it was off to Kibroth Hattaavah, Hazeroth, Rithmah, Rimmon Perez, Libnah, Rissah, Kehelathah, Mount Shepher, Haradah, Makheloth, Tahath, Terah, Mithkah, Hashmonah, Moseroth, Bene Jaakan, Hor Haggidgad, Jotbathah, Abronah, Ezion Geber, then Kadesh in the Desert of Zin.

The listing in Numbers notes that at Elim there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and at Rephidim there was no water for the people to drink, but surprisingly, Numbers neglects to mention anything about Israel receiving the Ten Commandments or entering into the covenant with God during this part of the journey.

In Numbers 33, from Kadesh the nation went to Mount Hor, bordering Edom, where Aaron ascended the mountain and died, in the 40th year after Israel exited Egypt. However, in Deuteronomy 10, Aaron died at Moserah, which in the Numbers list is seven stops before Mount Hor. Further, in Numbers, Israel traveled from Moserah to Bene Jaakan. In Deuteronomy, Israel traveled from Bene Jaakan to Moserah and then on to Gudgodah before Jotbathah.

In Numbers 33 the nation departed from Mount Hor to Zalmonah, then Punon, Oboth and Iye Abarim on the Moab border. In Deuteronomy, from Kadesh Barnea, they went back toward the wilderness, around the hill country of Seir, then along the desert road of Moab, and crossed the Zered Valley, which is just south and east of the Dead Sea.

In Numbers 33, from the Moab border they traveled to Dibon Gad, Almon Diblathaim, and into the mountains of Abarim, near Nebo, then camped on the plains of Moab, from Beth Jeshimoth to Abel Shittim. In Deuteronomy, Israel passed by the region of Moab at Ar.

Further confusing matters, in Deuteronomy 9, Israel angered God at Taberah, Massah and Kibroth Hattaavah, but only Kibroth Hattaavah is listed in Numbers.

The photo above is of Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan desert, heading into Edomite territory. For the rest of Israel’s travels, it is still a question that could be taken from this Ozzy Osbourne song: Where did I wander?