Archaeology & Secular Literature
© Charles Chandler
To find the historical roots of the Torah, we should begin with archaeology. Then we can identify which aspects of the literature line up with the physical evidence.
The earliest Hebrew settlements have been dated to the beginning of the .1:35 The settlements were what we would call small towns — home to a couple hundred or a couple thousand people apiece — amounting to less than 50,000 inhabitants in all of Canaan. The only indication that they were Hebrew is simply that no pig bones have been found in the trash heaps — in all other respects, the sites are indistinguishable from Canaanite towns.2:108 Nevertheless, not eating pork is a distinctive custom that persists to this day, so something happened during this period to affect a lasting cultural change.
The absence of any other clearly identifying artifacts is not terribly surprising, since Judaism forbids idolatry.3 In the words of Tacitus,4:5
The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.
So there simply aren't going to be any religious trinkets to identify Hebrew settlements, and just because archaeology only notes the absence of pig bones doesn't mean that the inhabitants were not already practicing an early form of Judaism.
Now if we look at the contemporary literature, we see other Hebrew customs appearing for the first time during this period. For example, in Figure 1, notice the knotted fringes in the garment worn by the Canaanite in the , and that they are in clumps (left, right, front, & back, making 4 total), as prescribed in the Torah.5,6
Another example is found in a treaty between the pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite king Hattusili III, written in . This refers to the Judaean Mountains as "the land of the Habiru of the Sun".7:96,8:28 Of course, Sun worship was ubiquitous, but the dominant gods in Canaan at the time were Ba'al, Asherah, and El, while the reference here is to people defined by their worship of the Sun, which was unique to this period for Canaan. So the people who didn't eat pork (i.e., a Jewish custom), and who wore garments with four knotted fringes (i.e., a Jewish custom), were Habirus (i.e., Hebrews), who had converted to Sun worship (mentioned many times in the Torah).9,10,11
A cultural conflict between Egyptians and Sun worshipers, resulting in the expulsion of the latter, and which is recorded in the Torah, is easy to see in this period. The Treaty of Kadesh () stipulated that "in the event that Ramesses' own subjects committed another crime against him, the Hittite king would come to his aid in suppressing such a disorder."12 A crime, committed by his own subjects, which would warrant the intervention of a foreign ruler, could only have been an insurrection of some sort. Ramesses left out the details, but we know from many other sources (examined further in this paper) that the most recent upheaval that could be considered an insurrection was the Amarna heresy. Thus the crime that Ramesses feared would have been another uprising of Sun worshipers.
Just after Ramesses' time, we see the earliest mention of Israel, on the Merneptah stele (), which states that "the Israelites have been wiped out [...] their seed is no more." If that is taken to mean progeny, Merneptah must have missed a few of them, because modern DNA studies show that the Hebrews started to become genetically distinct around ,1:35 due to their enduring unwillingness to intermarry with other ethnic groups, as both Josephus and Tacitus noted.13:b1:§7,4:5
So all of the most salient archaeological, literary, and genealogical facts point to the as the period in which the Hebrews got established in the central Levant.
Next, where did the Hebrews get their name?
Since King Hattusili III called the people in that area, during that period, the "Habiru of the Sun", we should like to examine the origin of the word "Habiru". This didn't actually refer to a specific tribe, or collection of them. Rather, it was roughly synonymous with "Bedouin", meaning a nomad or migrant opportunist, anywhere in the Middle East.14:98 The earliest known use of the term was in northern Syria in , which was marked as the "year when King Irkabtum made peace with Semuma and the Habiru."15:200 These certainly weren't Hebrews (i.e., they did eat pork, and they didn't wear clothing with knotted fringes).
An inscription from near the end of the reign of Amenhotep III () tells of an incursion of "Habirus led by Yashuya" at Jericho.16:197 The date coincides with an earthquake that leveled fortifications at and around .17,18,7:129+162,19 This was probably the inspiration for the Biblical Joshua. More credence is added by the story of Jephthah, who was asked to lead a campaign against the Ammonites in , and who claimed that there had been a continuous presence of Hebrews on the other side of the Jordan from Jericho for 300 years,20 meaning that Joshua began organizing the Habirus . Note that Jericho doesn't seem to have been inhabited in the period of ,21:213-218 and some Biblical scholars believe that Joshua had to have taken the town on or before , when there was still something to take. But that assumes that the conquest was as momentous as the Biblical account — the other possibility is that Jericho was sparsely populated, and that once the earthquake knocked down the walls, there was nothing keeping a Bedouin chieftain from ransacking what was left.8:22~24 (In other words, either Jericho fell to Joshua when it was bigger, or the walls fell when archaeologists say they fell, and Joshua was smaller.) As further testament of Joshua's position on the timeline, we can note that late in his career, the Philistines had established the Pentapolis (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath), but had yet to infringe on Canaanite territory.22 Since they arrived in , this would have described them as of , after Joshua had taken Jericho and other towns in , but before they had advanced into the Judaean Mountains.
After the earthquake, there were numerous mentions in the Amarna letters of Habiru raids throughout the Levant,23 at least some of which could have been led by Joshua, adding to his notoriety. His story seems to have been further augmented by the assimilation of the Canaanite legend of King Keret,24 perhaps due to a later redaction that patronized Canaanite converts to Judaism. But the Tanakh greatly exaggerates Joshua's ruthlessness — aside from the effects of the earthquake, there is no destruction layer dating to his time. So the Habiru raids were lootings, not military offensives. We can only conclude that the carnage described in the Book of Joshua was actually Merneptah's suppression of the Sea Peoples Coalition, including the destruction of Israel, and that only much later, such as during the Deuteronomic Reform (), redactors rearranged the names & events into the story that we inherit. Joshua just happened to be the only person who conquered anything in Canaan who wasn't Egyptian, so he gets the credit for all of the conquests there. But the Habirus in Joshua's time displayed none of the telltale signs of Hebrew culture, so Joshua was a pre-Hebrew Bedouin.
Peace was not restored in the Levant until the campaign of Seti I in ,25:410 and this is when the Hebrew settlements began to appear. So while the Hebrews were originally of Habiru stock (i.e., they were Bedouins), not all Habirus converted to Judaism, and there is no cultural continuity, from the marauding Habirus of the , into the Hebrew settlers of the . In fact, the Habirus and the Hebrews couldn't have been more different, since the former were isolated bands of competing outlaws,25:409 while the latter became famous for their strict moral codes and cultural cohesiveness. Thus the Hebrews were simply those Transjordan Bedouins who converted to Judaism, settled in the Judaean Mountains early in the , and formed a distinct culture that persists to this day, which ceased to be Bedouin (economically, politically, culturally, etc.) during the settlement period. That the name "Hebrew" stuck to them is simply one of the ironies of history, and shouldn't carry the stigma of "Bedouin" in modern readings of the history.
Many authors evade the semantic issue by not using the term "Hebrew" at all, and preferring "Israelite". But the present thesis identifies a brief period in which Hebrews & Israelites were distinctly different groups, the former being Bedouins who converted to Judaism and moved into Canaan from Moab, and the latter being the already-entrenched descendants of Mitanni royalty. Eventually these groups merged, but at the time, there were distinct differences that figure significantly in a detailed treatment of the events.
With the Hebrews settling in Israelite territory early in the , thanks to Seti I's campaign in , and with Merneptah disbanding the Israelites late in the same century (i.e., ), we can say that the first Hebrew/Israelite nation stood as an organized political entity for roughly 74 years, in the range of .
Following is a map of the political boundaries in the Middle East for the . It shows Syria under the control of the Hittites (after Suppiluliuma I's campaigns ), and Mitanni already assimilated by the Assyrians (in ), while Egypt was still in control of Canaan.
Figure 3. Map showing the approximate extension of the main kingdoms of the Middle East during the , with the main cities and archaeological sites, and some regions, courtesy Zunkir.
Of course, political boundaries don't tell the whole story — just because Canaan was controlled by Egypt doesn't mean that the culture was Egyptian. The main Egyptian interest in Canaan was just that forts and trading posts were defensible and well provisioned, so that the trade routes could be protected. The pastoral nomads were unruly, and little tribute could be extracted from the small farming communities. But to the north and east were the thriving nations of Hatti, Mitanni/Assyria, and Babylonia. To get a feel for how things were, imagine rural towns along a major highway connecting two modern cities, with truck stops and highway patrol facilities along the way. The locals might be capable of self-sufficiency, but they supplement their incomes by selling goods and services to the people using the highway. As a consequence, the locals are familiar with the language and customs of the travelers, while remaining culturally distinct from them. Similarly, Canaan might have been a vassal state of Egypt during this period, but culturally, the inhabitants were a mix of indigenous farmers, pastoral nomads, and Transjordan Bedouins.
With that as the context, we can begin to evaluate which aspects of the Torah are rooted in this particular period. According to the Torah, the pivotal event was the Exodus, when Hebrews who had been enslaved in Egypt were led to the Promised Land by Moses. So is there reason to believe that there was an Exodus of some sort, beginning late in the , and ending early in the on the heels of Seti I's campaign? Indeed there is.
The most meticulous record-keepers in the region were, of course, the Hebrews themselves, who invented the idea of maintaining continuous chronicles. The Seder Olam Rabbah (a chronology of the Hebrews written in the ) states that the Exodus began in , or 7 years into the reign of Horemheb. Note that the authors of the Seder didn't have access to archaeological dating, so for them to assign a date just a couple of decades before the appearance of the physical evidence of settlements — that was 1400 years prior to them — is a testament to the high quality of Hebrew scholarship.26
The earliest Egyptian historian whose works have survived was Manetho, who wrote in the (as preserved by Eusebius) that the Exodus began in the reign of Rathotis,27:53 who most historians believe to have been Tutankhamun,28 who reigned Egypt . After Tut's 10 years as pharaoh, Ay ruled for 4 years, and then came Horemheb. Yet if the Exodus began in Tut's time, Moses didn't negotiate with the boy-king, but rather, with Horemheb, who was the commander-in-chief of the army and minister of foreign affairs under Tut. So Manetho's account agrees with the Seder to within 20 years, despite the chasm between their literary traditions.
We can draw a loose inference that Moses negotiated with Horemheb from the following passage.
Midian was east of the Sinai Peninsula, while Mt. Horeb is thought by many to be at the southern tip of the Sinai, and by some to be in Sudan near the Red Sea coast. Either way, if the shepherd had ventured that far from Midian, the sheep probably would have complained (especially about having to do all of that swimming, which they don't enjoy). The mismatched geography might be the author's hint that we are to interpret the passage loosely. One possible reading is that Horeb is short for Horemheb, and that the "mountain of God" was the pharaoh, who the Egyptians considered to be a living god.8:28
Another loose inference can be drawn from the mention of the Hebrews being put to the task of building structures out of mud-bricks.29 These would have been dwellings for the people themselves, since public buildings were all built from stone. Ordinarily, such dwellings were built by the people on their own time, so why did the pharaoh commission mud-brick construction on a scale worthy of mention in the Torah? The largest public housing project in ancient Egypt was the rapid construction of Amarna, which became home to roughly 50,000 people after just 2 years ().30 So the inference is that the oppression of Moses' people, leading directly to the Exodus shortly thereafter, was at Amarna.
Tacitus wrote early in the (based on Lysimachus) that the Exodus began in the reign of Bakenranef,4:5 who all authorities agree came much later. But the story mentions Moses, who led people out of Egypt and into a new country, where they expelled all of the inhabitants, and built a temple. So it's the right story. Interestingly, Tacitus also mentions the outbreak of a contagious disease, which he calls leprosy, but which at the time simply meant "any contagious skin disease". We now know from archaeology that there was a pandemic during or just after the reign of Akhenaten (), father of Tutankhamun.31 And of course the Torah describes plagues just before the Exodus, the 6th of which was a skin disease (perhaps bubonic plague).
Lastly (for now), one of the tribes on the Exodus was Asher,32 which settled in Galilee,33 and which is confirmed by an inscription in Seti I's time.34:236-238
More conclusive evidence will be examined in the next section, but suffice it to say for now that there is easily enough to support the working hypothesis that the Exodus began in the late , consistent with the noticeable appearance of Hebrew settlements in Canaan early in the . So let's begin a time-line (at left), calibrated by the well-known reigns of the pharaohs, and to which we can add the events in Canaan as we examine them. (Note that the present thesis maintains that there were several migrations to Canaan that contributed to the Torah, but the one related to the facts presented thus far occurred in , so hereafter this will be identified as the "1312-Exodus" to distinguish it from the other migrations. And Joshua's conquest of Jericho is shown at , before the Exodus, making him a pre-Hebrew Bedouin. The "Habirus of the Sun", as Hattusili III called them, were the Hebrews known to archaeology as having gotten established in the , and who were the ancestors of the modern Jews.)
Before we continue, we have to acknowledge the evidence that we don't have. The Torah says that 600,000 men left Egypt.35,36 Adding women and children, we would then estimate the total at something like 2 million. There were only 3 million people in all of Egypt at the time.37 This begs the question of why a religious dispute would result in the exile of the majority of the people, leaving the minority behind, instead of the other way around, and suggests that the number was greatly exaggerated. So how many people actually left?
There are several ways of constraining the estimate, and all of them require very low numbers. First, there is a noticeable absence of archaeological evidence of a mass migration in the Sinai Peninsula. If any sizable number of people left Egypt, we would expect the trail from Egypt to Canaan to be littered with the proof. Yet the finds are not more than what one would expect from the nomadic tribes known to have been there. Second, there is no new Egyptian influence in Canaan on construction techniques, pottery, tools, etc. And lastly, a mass migration invariably brings the language of its people to a new land, and the number of words that they add to a local language is roughly proportional to the percentage of the population that moved in. Yet the language of the Canaanites was already established before the Exodus, and changed little because of it.
This can only mean that if the "Exodus" was an historical event, only a very small group of Egyptians could have been involved. For such a small group to have such a profound impact on the culture in the Levant, they had to have been very influential people. We also know that the impact was not on Canaanite construction, pottery, or language, but on religious practices. Hence they were a small group of evangelists, not a large group of colonists, and they left their mark on Hebrew ideology, without leaving much in the way of artifacts for modern archaeologists to dig up. The evidence of a faith that does not concern itself with the mundane is somewhat more subtle. But the Egyptian influence is unmistakable if we look in the right places for it. For example, a number of orthodox Jewish traditions came from Egypt, such as circumcision (brit milah),38 fringed linen (talit), segregating linen from wool in a garment (shaatnez), and marking a door-post to show membership in a cult (mezzuzeh).39 The people living in Canaan remained distinctly non-Egyptian in all other respects,40:546 except when it came to their most sacred religious practices. This is not evidence of two cultures simply brushing up against each other, where a few of the customs rubbed off. Historically speaking, cultural intermingling quickly alters construction, pottery, and language, but far more slowly alters the most sacred religious practices. This can only be evidence of a small but very influential group of Egyptian evangelists.
Who were the evangelists? That question is answered in the next section. But to conclude this section, it cannot be understated that the Exodus wasn't a major demographic shift. If it was anything at all, it involved a couple hundred Egyptians at most. The rest of Moses' entourage were Bedouins who joined him while enroute to the East Bank of the Jordan. Still, all of the evidence points to the evangelists leaving Egypt late in the , and the new Hebrew nation thriving in the Judaean Mountains in the .
2. Dever, W. G. (2003): Who Were the Early Israelites, and Where Did They Come From? Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing ⇧
7. Schaeffer, C. (1956): Stratigraphie comparée et chronologie de l'Asie occidentale. ⇧ ⇧
12. Schmidt, J. D. (1973): Ramesses II. A Chronological Structure for his Reign. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Near Eastern Studies ⇧
15. Green, A. R. (1983): Social Stratification and Cultural Continuity in Alalakh. Pgs 181-204 in "The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall." ⇧
16. Olmstead, A. T. (1931): History of Palestine and Syria to the Macedonian Conquest. Baker Book House ⇧
19. Migowski, C. et al. (2004): Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea transform revealed by varve-counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 222 (1): 301-314 ⇧
21. Kenyon, K. M. (1957): Digging up Jericho: The results of the Jericho excavations, 1952-1956. Praeger/Ernest Benn ⇧
24. Braber, M. D.; Wesselius, J. (2008): The Unity of Joshua 1-8, its Relation to the Story of King Keret, and the Literary Background to the Exodus and Conquest Stories. Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 22 (2): 253-274 ⇧
25. Breasted, J. H. (1905): A history of Egypt from the earliest times to the Persian conquest. New York: C. Scribner's Sons ⇧ ⇧
28. Greenberg, G. (1999): Manetho's Eighteenth Dynasty: Putting the Pieces Back Together. Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt ⇧
37. Chandler, T. (1987): Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census. St. David's University Press ⇧
40. Dever, W. (1992): Israel, History of (Archaeology and the "Conquest"). Pgs 545-558 in "The Anchor Bible Dictionary." Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., Vol. 3 ⇧
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