An excavation in the Timna Valley. Sagi Babi/Courtesy of Erez Ben-Yosef

A Chance Discovery Changes Everything We Know About Biblical Israel

The discovery of a powerful nomad kingdom in Israel's Arava desert upends our notion of the role of archaeology in understanding Ancient Israel

Is the Bible true? Do at least some biblical narratives have a historical foundation? Can archaeology answer that question? To what degree can broken walls, fragments and stones tell the whole story? When it comes to the nomads of the biblical period, new findings show that the ability of archaeology to assist in constructing historical models has been extremely limited. This has dramatic implications for understanding the genesis of Ancient Israel, when – according to the biblical account – it was nomadic tribes that created a kingdom.

Until now, the scholarly literature has perceived non-sedentary societies of this region – peoples that did not live in permanent settlements – as Bronze and Iron Age “Bedouin”: simple societies that were ever on the margins of historical events, void of political power, and which cannot be identified with kingdoms or political entities wielding extra-regional influence. New archaeological discoveries in the Arava desert in southern Israel and in Jordan, however, show that this approach is mistaken and that nomads were able to forge complex political structures that differed substantively from the conventional “Bedouin model.”

But the Arava case is exceptional in world archaeology. Nomads almost never leave behind significant archaeological evidence. It follows that many archaeological “pronouncements” concerning the period of the entry into Canaan, the era of Judges and the incipient monarchy have no sound grounds. Now, at least with regard to historical processes involving mobile populations, it is time to acknowledge the limitations of archaeology’s contribution. The focal point of the discussion should revert to biblical criticism – the study of the text and its contexts – and research biases originating in simplistic archaeological pronouncements should be corrected.

Kingdom of nomads

In the stark deserts of southern Israel and western Jordan, ancient copper mines can be found in both sides of the Arava: in the Timna Valley near present-day Eilat, and in Wadi Faynan (biblical Punon), in Jordan.

Until studies conducted in the 1950s, the remains throughout the Arava were dated to the middle of the 10th century B.C.E. and associated with “King Solomon’s mines.” In 1969, following the discovery of an Egyptian shrine in the heart of the Timna Valley, the excavator, Beno Rothenberg, dated the remains of the mining in the valley to the period of the New Kingdom in Egypt, approximately 300 years before the period identified with King Solomon.

The dating for Wadi Faynan was also revised; in this case it was assigned a younger age, when permanent settlement in the region first appeared under the influence of the Assyrian Empire, during the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. In other words, the systematic study of the region differentiated chronologically between Timna and Faynan, and it attributed the activity in both areas to imperial rule: Egypt in the southern Arava in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E., and Assyria in the northern Arava in the 7th century B.C.E.

It’s understandable why scholars considered the remains to be evidence of imperial projects. More than 10,000 mine shafts were discovered in Timna alone, indicating an organized enterprise and an orderly, systematic search for subterranean deposits. Some of the shafts are more than 40 meters deep (in Faynan, more than 70 meters!), and many develop into complex tunnel systems. Scattered in the smelting camps, where the furnaces operated and raw copper was produced, are dozens of heaps of slag and other industrial waste, some more than six meters high.

The remains attest to production on a vast scale using advanced technological knowhow. The hypothesis, based on this evidence, was that only powerful empires could have managed a project on this scale, organized the work in the mines and at the smelting camps, and channeled the product to extra-regional trade.

Erez Ben Yosef

But whose empire was behind this vast mining endeavor? New research in the region has once again revised the picture. Dozens of high-precision radiocarbon dates from intensive excavations in Faynan and Timna showed that the mines were active at the same time in both regions, from the 11th to the 9th centuries B.C.E. – that is, after the Egyptians left Timna and withdrew from the whole of Canaan, in the mid-12th century B.C.E. This was also before the intervention of the Assyrian Empire in the area in the late 8th century B.C.E. If not the Egyptians or the Assyrians, then who?

In the absence of permanent settlements across the entire area, the necessary conclusion is that this prodigious project must be attributed to the region’s nomadic population. These nomads must have created a complex social-political organization – if not an empire (as the remains had been interpreted until now), then at least a hierarchical, centralized kingdom that dominated the Arava and adjacent areas.

This is first evidence of a strong, nomad-based kingdom. That kingdom – a tribal coalition centering around the large oases of Faynan – should be identified with biblical Edom, whose population later settled in permanent sites in southern Transjordan and in their capital, Bozrah (modern Busayra).

The new excavations at Faynan and Timna have enriched our knowledge of the Edomite society that operated the mines, providing direct evidence that the entire Arava was under a uniform leadership at least from the 11th century B.C.E.

But there is also a far broader contribution here, having to do with methodology. We know about the existence of a strong nomadic kingdom in the Arava solely because of its copper production; if the economy of the nomadic tribes of the Kingdom of Edom had been based only on commerce and agriculture, archaeologists would probably have reconstructed an “occupation gap” in the Arava region. Nomads typically do not leave behind significant archaeological remains (which is why the use of Bedouin ethnography dominates research on biblical-era nomads).

To your tents, O Israel

The basic premise in biblical archaeology – that nomads could not create complex social structures (still less an actual kingdom) – led to an absurd situation in scholarship, in which accounts in the biblical text itself that explicitly mention tent dwellings were ignored. Such accounts appear with regard to the early days of the Israelites in Canaan, but also in reference to the United Monarchy of David and Solomon and even a few generations afterward. For example, in the famous scene of the split between Judah and Israel, the northern tribes left angrily back to “their tents” (1 Kings 12:16).

So entrenched was this premise that the proposal was made, and institutionalized, that the use of the word “tent” in a text referring to events after the establishment of a kingdom was meant figuratively. But if the text is taken at face value, it is clear that in the period of the early monarchy, Israel’s population was still mixed, with some residing in fixed structures in the central cities (formerly Canaanite), and the majority dwelling in tents in the surrounding areas.

This possibility is reinforced by the fact that in the biblical accounts of later periods, use of the term “tent” was significantly reduced and its contexts were made more specific. However, the most meaningful support for the reconstruction of a central nomadic element in the Hill Country during the period of David and Solomon actually comes from archaeology.

Alex Levac

A few years ago, Joseph Livni, an independent researcher specializing in the demography of early societies, noted the existence of a substantive problem in the archaeological reconstruction of the size of the Hill Country’s population from the 10th century B.C.E., the period of David and Solomon, to the 8th century B.C.E. On the basis of a comparison to what is known about pre-industrial societies, Livni showed that the population growth between the start and end of the period could not be explained by natural increase alone. In the Judean Hills, for example, the population increased from about 5,000 to almost 40,000.

One possible solution was to attribute this improbable rate of population increase to an error in the observations and calculations regarding the first part of the period (this was also proposed as a response to the claim that “5,000 people cannot constitute a basis for any sort of kingdom”). Another solution attributed the phenomenon to new migration into the region throughout the period.

However, the simplest and most persuasive explanation is the reconstruction of a large but archaeologically invisible population that lived alongside the residents of the permanent settlements. Most of this population also shifted to a sedentary way of life, but did so gradually, in a process lasting many years.

Walls and invisibility

It’s easy to understand how conceptions that see the transition to permanent settlement as a rapid process, and the nomads of the period as a historically negligible population, took hold in biblical archaeology. After all, because nomads are archaeologically invisible, any other point of departure would have diminished archaeology’s very ability to contribute to the period’s historical reconstructions. Today, archaeology’s status as a “supreme judge” concerning the historicity of various events in the Bible's stories is almost unchallenged. One reason for this is the advancement of simplistic approaches in regard to nomads. Of course, this state of affairs is not the product of a deliberate “strategy,” but of a natural process that occurs in every institutionalized sphere of research.

In 1996, Prof. Israel Finkelstein, of Tel Aviv University, published a new observation about the dating of the archaeological layers at Tel Megiddo, and in so doing, touched off one of the fiercest controversies in the history of biblical archaeology (“the debate between high and low chronology”). The reason for this intensity of discussion comes from the ostensible implications of the new observations: if correct, instead of monumental stone structures, the period of David and Solomon turns out to be represented by quite meager remains, which in turn casts doubt on the historicity of the relevant biblical accounts.

The use of walls and of the monumentality of stone-built structures as a key to reconstruct the period of Ancient Israel, including the scale of power of the United Monarchy (or its very existence) is shared by both central schools of biblical archaeology: the “minimalist” school, which in principle does not consider the Bible as a basis for historical reconstruction, and which in Israel is identified with Tel Aviv University; and the “maximalist” school, which as a principle accepts the existence of a historical core in the Scriptures, and is identified with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In historical reconstructions, the proponents of both schools attribute crucial weight to the very existence of permanent settlements and to the form of their construction; but neither school takes into account the possibility that nomadic societies, or mixed societies consisting of a population both mobile and fixed (as was apparently the case in the period of the early monarchy), forged complex social-political structures. The absolute and simplistic reliance on the remains of stone-built structures in reconstructing the history of the biblical period can be termed the “architectural bias” in biblical archaeology.

In other words, even without the recent discoveries – such as the fortified settlement from the early 10th century B.C.E. at Khirbet Qeiyafa (which some consider a Philistine site), or the permanent sites and other construction remains that Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, from the Hebrew University, is studying in an attempt to demonstrate archaeologically the existence of the United Monarchy – there could have been a kingdom in the Hill Country during the period of David and Solomon that consisted mainly of a mobile population – and hence is archaeologically transparent. In this context it’s important to return again to the Bible itself, because, in many cases archaeological research has constructed a straw man in the form of a tremendous kingdom made up of fortified cities, stone palaces and fortifications from the Euphrates to the River of Egypt, whereas in practice the United Monarchy is described in far more modest terms (as are the neighboring kingdoms, including the Edomite). It was a tribal kingdom that was based on mechanisms that are completely different from those of city-states or empires and that are not necessarily reflected in archaeology.

For example, the description of the subjugation of Edom to Jerusalem in the period of David (2 Samuel 8:13-14) can be seen as a tax-increase agreement that was upheld with a threat of war; payment could have been collected in tents (netzivim in the Hebrew) that were erected on the trade routes. Naturally, all these elements, though they could have constituted the most important basis for Jerusalem’s economy in light of what we know today about the Edomites’ occupation with copper, are not visible in archaeology.

As opposed to the meagerness of the archaeological findings in Judah and the Hill Country in general in the period associated with the United Monarchy (10th century B.C.E.), the impressive contemporaneous remains of the Philistine sites, notably Tell es-Safi, which is identified with the biblical Gath, stand out. The excavations uncovered a vast walled city. This contrast between the Hill Country and Philistia is cited in the research literature as evidence – if not as irrefutable proof – that if a kingdom even existed in Jerusalem, it was weak and of negligible historical impact.

However, if we take into account the different social-cultural background of the two populations – in the Hill Country and in the coastal plain – together with the substantial disparity in the character of the archaeological evidence that each of them could be expected to leave, it’s obvious that there is a basic methodological flaw here. Whereas the social-political entity that developed in the hill region bore a tribal-nomadic character, the Philistines (and the Canaanites alongside them) had an urban background. The archaeological disparity reflects this difference above all, and its translation into geopolitical power and historical influence is necessarily simplistic.

The archaeological contrast between the regions is expressed not only in the existence or absence of walls and stone structures, but also in “small findings” (objects and other small remains from everyday life), which are immeasurably richer in Philistia than those found in the Hill Country. Here, too, though, the difference could be due to a divergent way of life: the preservation of findings of this sort depends on a significant accumulation of garbage, which does not occur in temporary tent camps. The understandable bias “in favor of” Philistia in preservation has implications for the reconstructions of key processes in the development of the Hill Country society.

For example, the conclusion of Finkelstein and Prof. Benjamin Sass that the appearance of writing in Judah occurred relatively late, relies principally on a comparison of the quantity of the written remains between this region and Philistia. In the light of what was noted above, it’s possible that writing was no less widespread in Judah, only that the archaeological “mirror” created a research distortion.

A European viewpoint

Even before the advent of systematic archaeological research of the “Holy Land,” and the search for traces of the Bible in the ground, Bible scholars tried to understand the significance of the tribal-nomadic existence described in the Scriptures. With no deep awareness, indeed almost uncritically, the biblical nomad was imagined in the garb of the nomadic Arab Bedouin of the deserts of the Ottoman Empire. This overlay was the work of scholars in Western Europe, primarily in late 18th-century and 19th-century Germany, where the occupation with biblical criticism developed intensively at the time. The parallel that was drawn between biblical nomads and latter-day Bedouin was based on scraps of information provided by adventurers returning from journeys to the East. (In the frontier regions, where Bedouin dwelled, acquaintance with the tribal feuds was crucial in order to navigate one’s way safely and to pay baksheesh to the right person, and the journeys were risk-filled forays into a wild, lawless land.) The impression gleaned was of a simple, diffuse society incapable of creating centralized, stable political bodies – notions that were projected directly onto the approach to the biblical accounts.

For example, the biblical description of David as heading a tribal coalition with a nomadic background led one of the greatest 19th-century biblical scholars, Julius Wellhausen, to view the king as no more than a “Bedouin sheikh.” The work produced by Wellhausen, who was also a scholar of Islam and the orient, derived from a Western world of contexts, which gave rise to ingrained biases in the representation of the oriental world in research (and in other realms, such as art). By the same token, biblical research as a whole “suffered” (and is still suffering, some would say) from orientalism, as defined by Edward Said; drawing on the Bedouin to understand the nomads of the period rooted the orientalist distortion even more deeply through the Romantic concept of the “noble Bedouin,” whose exotic way of life seemed to embody ancient traditions.

In light of this background, it is manifest that with the development of biblical archaeology, whose initial practitioners were actually theologians and biblical scholars, the parallel between nomads and Bedouin became a permanent fixture of the new discipline – and it remains unchallenged even after more than a century of research. Accordingly, in order to “decide” whether David was a “Bedouin sheikh” or the leader of a powerful kingdom, archaeologists look for walls large and small and argue over their dating. An example is the debate in the literature about whether to date the monumental stone structure (“palace”) that was found in Jerusalem a few years ago to the 10th century B.C.E. (signifying that David was a strong king) or to the 9th century B.C.E. (signifying that he was weak or that there was no kingdom in Judah at all).

But could David have ruled a population that did not build fortified cities of stone and monumental structures, and most of whom lived in tents – yet who were subjects of a strong kingdom nevertheless? Is it possible that David should be understood in dissociation from the Bedouin model and seen as a tribal-nomadic leader who more closely resembles the Nabatean kings or Genghis Khan?

Courtesy of Tom Levy

The archaeology of the Arava shows explicitly that this is possible and that a similar situation existed in the neighboring kingdom to the south in that same period. As noted, we know about the existence of this kingdom only because of its copper production, but its existence may attest to a broader phenomenon that is applicable to all the region’s nascent kingdoms, including Israel. Support for this approach comes from an examination of the characteristics of the period against the background of the country’s history over the past thousands of years (the “longue durée,” or long duration). It turns out that this exact time, when Ancient Israel and neighboring kingdoms sprang up, was unique in the history of the Land of Israel, witnessing exceptional conditions that made it possible for marginal groups, such as frontier nomads, to accumulate social-political power.

Around the middle of the 12th century B.C.E., a crisis extending across and beyond the region led to the collapse of the great empires of the Ancient Near East, together with the entire existing world order of the time. The southern Levant was liberated from centuries-long Egyptian hegemony and a political vacuum was created that could have been exploited by typically weak population groups (such as nomads) that had previously been distant from the urban power centers that enjoyed Egyptian protection. In addition, evidence from recent years indicates that the source of the crisis lay in climate change, and that the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. – the “period of “entry into Canaan” and “the Judges” – were extremely dry. This change in environmental conditions in itself could also have contributed to the rising power of the nomads, for it must have been easier for them to cope with desertification than it was for an agricultural-urban society.

The acute crisis also disrupted trade arrangements and brought about the fall of Cyprus, the region’s largest, monopolistic exporter of copper. This turn of events undoubtedly had a direct implication for social developments in the Arava, as an extraordinary opportunity arose for the tribes in the region to supplant the island and earn a fortune from the efficient exploitation of the local deposits (through unification under a centralist political structure). In the regional perspective, the very fact that the Arava became a tremendous center for the manufacture and export of copper (Arava copper has recently been found in Greece and Egypt) renders the period singular in the neighboring areas as well, for clearly all the political entities that dominated the trade routes to the north and the west profited from the commerce itself. This can explain the prosperity of Philistia with its urban centers and it is also a possible background for the accumulation of wealth and the development of a social elite in Judah.

That last point can hardly be overestimated, because until today, models that seek to reconstruct the economy of Ancient Israel have been based on calculations of the output of pasture land and agriculture, whereas the introduction of copper into the equation changes the picture radically. It goes without saying that copper that passes through the hands of merchants or tax collectors is not expected to leave behind direct archaeological evidence, even in urban societies.

Breaking the fixation

For decades, biblical archaeology has been in the forefront of the attempt to understand better the period of the Bible, and as a veteran field its research activity has become institutionalized within a set mold that dictates how archaeological evidence is to be uncovered and in what way it is amenable to interpretation. Over the course of time, in light of the perception of archaeology as an “objective science” that relies on extra-biblical observations from “the field,” its central role in the discussion of the historicity of the Bible also achieved uncontested status. To this day, scholars from abutting disciplines (biblical criticism and history, for example) turn to archaeology for answers to key questions about the period.

As the scholars from these disciplines, like the members of the general public, are not familiar with the gamut of methodological difficulties that underlie archaeological interpretation, they accept unreservedly the conclusions arrived at by the “professionals.” Although archaeologists customarily argue among themselves (frequently, and usually quite emotionally) about these conclusions, all the sides behave according to the same “rules of the game” and there is almost no discussion within the discipline, still less outside it, of the interpretive framework itself.

The chance discovery in the Arava of a strong kingdom that is not based on permanent settlements means that we are back to square one, at least with regard to periods in which there were – or could have been – societies that possessed a nomadic component. In light of this, the “Bedouin model” fixation must end and consideration be given to an interpretation of nomadic societies as multidimensional, and capable of creating strong political bodies without leaving archaeological evidence of their existence.

This may indirectly support the maximalist school, which finds in the biblical account – in which nomadic tribes play a central role – an essential historical core. But in practice, more than buttressing one school or another, the new understanding of nomads undermines archaeology’s very role as the pivotal factor in the discourse about the historical truth of the Bible. Recognition of its limitations in the study of nomads tips the scales back to the side of biblical criticism and obliges archaeologists to be more modest in their pronouncements.

Erez Ben-Yosef is associate professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University and director of the Central Timna Valley Project. This essay is based on an article he published in Vetus Testamentum, a journal devoted to Old Testament studies.

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