An enormous amount of information in the Bible has been borne out by archeology.

By Rabbi Ken Spiro
It’s generally assumed that people have always recorded and studied history, but that’s not true. As a matter of fact, if you go back more than a couple of thousand years, you’ll find people had no interest in history. The first historian in the Western World is usually considered to be Herodotus, a Greek who lived in the 5th century BCE, who has been given the title, “Father of History.” Columbia University historian, Joseph Yerushalmi, author of an excellent, highly-praised book called Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, says that “If Herodotus was the father of history, the fathers of meaning in history were the Jews.” This is a profound idea. In reality Jews were recording history long before Herodotus, but while Herodotus might have recorded events, the Jews looked at the deeper
meaning behind the events, and that deeper meaning can be found most importantly and most significantly within the stories of the Bible itself. The first of these stories that we will examine in this course pre-dates Herodotus by about 1,300 years. It is the story of Abraham, and it is takes place some 3,700 years ago.

Now don’t make the mistake of thinking the Bible is a history book even though it does contain history within it. As noted in the previous class, when Abraham first appears in the Book of Genesis, he is already 75 years old. He’s one of the most significant figures in Jewish history, and yet the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about him as a child or as a young adult – we pick up his story when he is already an old man.2 This is because the Bible is not concerned with giving us all the details of Abraham’s life. It is interested only in history as a means of teaching us the
1 Yerushalmi,

Joseph, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982, p. 8.

the great figures of the Bible 2 We do get details of Abraham’s life as a young man in another Jewish text known as the Midrash. passed down orally for generations and eventually written down at a later point in history. It took a while to unearth any evidence. According to this view. the subjectivity of the archaeologist can play a huge role in the conclusion he or she draws. it focuses on the basic information that we need to know to understand reality. In archaeology. the Five Books of Moses (Genesis. the one source of possible hard evidence could come from comparing the biblical text to the archaeological remains of the period. Enlightenment scholars created what they claimed was a more “rational” approach to the issue of authorship of the Bible.3 Although the topic of authorship of the Bible is beyond the scope of this course. a philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment attacked this traditional view. According to this view. Numbers and Deuteronomy) were dictated by God to Moses during the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert after their flight from Egyptian bondage. Archeology is not a hard science. and it sets forth the Jewish worldview first and foremost.” How one archeologist interprets the meaning of a particular find can be very different from how another archeologist interprets the meaning of the same find. If the traditional view was correct. it is definitely worth a little time to discuss the historical accuracy of the text. and the events described in the text were at best folklore and at worst complete fantasy. Of course. So what does archaeology have to say about the accuracy of the Bible? The definition of archeology is “the discovery and interpretation of the physical remains of previous civilizations and peoples. It is not like math where one plus one clearly equals two. While the Enlightenment’s theories of authorship were largely based on debatable textual analysis and speculation.” Note that within the very definition of archeology is the word “interpretation. The basic theme of this modern theory (called Higher Biblical Criticism) was that the Five Books of Moses were primarily a collection of myths and folklore.important lessons of life – it’s a book of theology. Therefore. When archeologists find a chiseled stone. (Abraham. Isaac. Jacob and Moses) were folk heroes who probably never existed. then it should be supported by archaeological finds. How Accurate is the Bible? For thousands of years humanity accepted the traditional Jewish view as to the authorship of the Bible. a shard of a vessel. or a chunk of . However. Leviticus. in the 18th century archeology was in its infancy. and the archeological quest continues. Exodus. during the 18th century.

written records of other empires. Free. 5 Speaking of camels. there are no documents that specifically mention Abraham. unless it’s a written document. yet it contains quite a bit of information about ancient history and culture. July 1944. there is little direct archeological evidence for the characters described there.a building. Megiddo. etc. 3 It is a quest steeped in vociferous debate. In fact. That is as far as the early books of the Bible are concerned. but it certainly doesn’t discredit it. because the Bible relates that Abraham owned camels. marriage contracts. Keep in mind that the same thing that applies in a court of law applies to archeology: Lack of evidence is no evidence of lack. you have to be very careful. however. because the archeologists’ bias affects how they interpret the information. Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence. and politics have now also entered the fray. dozens and dozens of sites remain totally unexplored and even the sites which have been excavated (for example. As far as the early books of the Bible are concerned. and www. also in an archeological vacuum. migratory patterns.. Amihai. have only been partially excavated. for years skeptics have confidently asserted that the Bible’s origins could not be as Judaism has maintained. and it is the ideal way to learn the patterns of history. figurines and even camel-hair rope – that camels were clearly domesticated long before Abraham. Another point to consider is how little has actually been excavated to date. The fact that we haven’t found Abraham’s camel saddle doesn’t mean Abraham didn’t have a camel or a saddle. Randall W. or manuscripts that describe the events recorded in the Book of Genesis. though there is quite a bit of evidence when we get to the time of King David and the other kings of Israel. 1992. Archeology doesn’t definitively prove the Bible. it has since been archeologically proven – through finds of drawings.4 There is. But the early events exist more or less in a historical vacuum and.apologeticspress. “Abraham’s Camels. the more we see that there’s a tremendous amount of historicity in the text. Hazor. first and foremost. See Younker. Until today. However.6 4 That is. a huge amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence – names. and Frerichs. and even written documents are open to interpretation. It is safe to say that at least 90% remains to be unearthed. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. But this is not the case. Lesko. The Bible is. while camels were not domesticated until much later.” Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 42:47-54 1997. Gezer. like the Book of Kings. places. “Late Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib. And if we . for example. 3:187-193.. from south to north and found no evidence to support the Bible.” Middle East Archaeological Society Bulletin. New York: Doubleday. Ernest (editors). unfortunately. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns Pulishing. for example. So when people make definitive statements about what archeology does or doesn’t say. but once we get to later books. there is excellent direct evidence. Archaeological support for the traditional view point would clearly strengthen the Jewish people’s ancient historical claim to the Land of Israel while the opposite evidence would clearly weaken their 6 For further reading see: Mazar. and this information is more or less borne out by archeology. the Bible is not a book of history. Had archaeologists excavated the entire Land of Israel. a book of teachings. business contracts. the more we find. Joseph P. Sinai. Lachish and even Jerusalem). The find has no label on it. 1997 5 In summary. they try to decide what it means – often they disagree. then we could make a more definitive statement about what the archaeological record supports. Leonard.

the "proto-Jew. “By understanding the character of Abraham. Sept/Oct. “Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian Evidence” by Charles Krahmalkov. “The Exodus: Egyptian Analogies” and the essay by Frank Yurco. Nov/Dec. “Save us from Postmodern Malarky” by William Dever. waiting to be unearthed and exposed by archaeological fieldwork and critical mindwork. But. Abraham appears at a period of time commonly known as the middle period . summed it up thus: After years of research. Professor Adam Zartal. chairman of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. “Merneptah’s Cananite Campaigns and Israel’s Origins”). again and again. Also see the following articles in the journal Biblical Archeology Review: “The House of David and the House of the Deconstructionists” by Anson Rainey. 7 Biblical Archeology Review .” By Rabbi Ken Spiro Jewish history doesn’t happen in a vacuum. March/April 2000. September/October 1991.understand that the reason why we’re learning history is to discover these patterns – so that we won’t repeat them – then we have to pay extra special attention to what is going on in the Bible. we have seen that an accurate memory has been preserved in its transmuted narratives. I believe it is impossible to explore Israel’s origins without the Bible. the research should be as objective as possible. 1994. No people’s history happens in a vacuum. So before we take a closer look at the first Jew – Abraham – we must first zoom out and get a little understanding of where Abraham fits in the world of his time. 7 (including the essay by Abraham Malamat. one can understand what Jews are all about. At the same time. Again and again. The Bible should be used cautiously and critically. we have seen the historical value of the Bible. 1994.

700 years ago in the Middle East. literature. which led to population growth. and extends through the Levant (the middle section where Israel is located). When we say civilization. and to plow the land to grow crops. which is Greek for “in the middle of two rivers. That. began in the Middle East. and this is where Abraham was born when it was already well underway. The earliest civilizations in the world. 3% of Egypt was arable land. led to the creation of cities and to social and political development. we are talking about sophisticated arrangements of people living together. according to most opinions. Without the Nile. Early civilizations are characterized by the metals they predominantly used and the middle period of the Bronze Age in the Middle East covers the period of time from 2200 BCE until 1550 BCE (from about 4200 to 3550 years ago). they run from Turkey into Iraq. People had time to do more than constantly search for food. but we can be fairly sure that the first hallmark of civilization . Once this occurred. In ancient times. 97% was desert. in an area called the Fertile Crescent. The Nile is an incredible river. About 5. of this area. Also the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers are mighty rivers. They started specializing in different types of labor – you had craftsmen. and the area between them historians have dubbed Mesopotamia. the largest river in the world. This meant they could raise animals to eat them or to use them for their milk and their hides. Egypt would be a desert. It is in the Middle East that civilization began. then to the creation of art.of the Bronze Age. priests and warriors. not hunter/gatherers or simple agrarian settlements. there occurred a dramatic evolution of humanity from mostly nomadic hunter/gatherers – people who spend their whole day looking for food – to people who were able to domesticate livestock and crops. not just a few people living in a few huts. in turn. science and the like. The Fertile Crescent The Fertile Crescent encompasses the area that starts in the south at the Nile Delta in Egypt. there was a surplus of food. scholars. up to the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in today’s Iraq. The three great rivers contribute mightily to the fertility.” There is some debate among scholars whether the first civilization sprang up in Egypt or in Mesopotamia (specifically in the section of Mesopotamia called Sumer). around the 18th century BCE. and consequent desirability.

000 years. you drew an oval and that stood for “eye. which now comes so fast we can’t keep up with it. 1 Genesis 2:7. Why did Egypt survive for so long? Because of its isolation. Hebrew is based on a three-consonant root system. you drew a square and that stood for “house”. You drew a stick figure and that stood for “man”. and then it became a Greek colony. From the Jewish perspective the ability to express oneself – whether through writing or speech – personifies what human beings are all about. “living soul. It took the Greeks – specifically Alexander the Great – to finish Egypt off. the creation of Adam coincides with the development of civilization. Writing was a tremendous invention though we take it for granted today.” can also be translated as “a speaking soul. according to the Western calendar. (To this day. Crossroads of Civilization Of the two earliest civilizations that developed in the Middle East. This is an incredibly long period of time for a civilization to survive.” Later those pictures evolved into more abstract symbols which stood for phonetic sounds.” The Hebrew phrase l’nefesh chayah. . it was very difficult to invade. All the technology and knowledge of today depends on the collective accumulation of accurately transmitted information. Also see Targum Okelos.) Writing was the single greatest human invention and is the hallmark of civilization. until eventually there came about a system of three “letters. Egypt is unusual because it is surrounded by desert and so it is virtually unapproachable.” each representing a sound and combining together to make a word that conveyed an idea. Egypt as a civilization lasted close to 3. The Book of Genesis states that when God created the first human being – Adam – He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” It is interesting to note that. It began with pictographs.– writing – originated in the Fertile Crescent.

If he were born an Eskimo or a Native American.000 year history of ancient Egypt. And it was also a logical place for Abraham to appear. . where Abraham’s journey also began. because if Abraham’s destiny was to change the world. the Assyrians and finally the Greeks. he had to be at the center of civilization. which has been conquered and destroyed dozens of times. of course. the Muslims. So our story begins in Ancient Mesopotamia. Greeks. all of human history would have been different. no deserts – and it was a very desirable fertile land. It was a giant flood plain sitting in the middle of the great migration route of many ancient peoples. Persians.Mesopotamia had no such natural defenses – no mountains. This was the logical place for civilization to begin in terms of the development of agriculture and culture. Any conqueror who came out of Asia or out of Europe usually set foot there. Romans and then. 2 In the 3. Compare that to the Land of Israel. in the cradle of civilization. we see this land changing hands many times as it was conquered by each new rising civilization – the Assyrians. it was conquered only three times: by the Hyksos. Thus. This tumultuous place is where Jewish history begins – at the bottom of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Babylonians.

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