Biblical archaeology: the echo of God’s voice
Scientists and scholars have learned a great deal about the history of the early times of which the Bible speaks. This method of study, now known as archaeology, is quite useful.
In giving thought to this branch of study, I have come up with a metaphor that appropriately places archaeology where it really belong. I consider it as the echo of God’s voice. If men will not praise God as they ought, then even the stones will cry out in praise. When people, through pride and ignorance, fail to give God’s Word the honour that it should have, then God Himself will defend His Word by showing us the evidence that the Bible is true.
The stones of the earth will collaborate the truth of the Bible. In speaking originally, God is to be believed; but if in man’s rebellion he will not hear, then the echo of what has already taken place will doubly convict him. But the fact remains that if sinful man is not willing to hear God’s voice he is not likely to appreciate the validity of the echo.
I will start by concentrating on just a couple of questions that archaeological research has come it handy with its discoveries:
What has archaeology taught us about the origins of Israel?
Undoubtedly, the most important mention of Israel outside the Bible is that in the Merneptah, or "Israel," Stela. Discovered in 1896 in Merneptah's mortuary temple in Thebes by Flinders Petrie, the stela is a poetic eulogy to pharaoh Merneptah, who ruled Egypt after Rameses the Great, ca. 1212-1202 BC. Of significance to Biblical studies is a short section at the end of the poem describing a campaign to Canaan by Merneptah in the first few years of his reign, ca. 1210 BC. One line mentions Israel: "Israel is laid waste, its seed is not." Here we have the earliest mention of Israel outside the Bible and the only mention of Israel in Egyptian records.
Since the date of the reference to Israel in the Merneptah Stela is during the time of the judges, prior to the establishment of the monarchy, it is of crucial importance to understanding Israel's formative period. For example, a popular theory among Biblical scholars today is that Israel emerged from peoples indigenous to Canaan in the mid 12th century BC. If this is true, then Biblical history and chronology prior to ca. 1150 BC would have to be jettisoned.
Proponents of the "12th century emergence theory" maintain that the Israelites did not come into Canaan from outside to conquer the land around 1400 BC, as the Bible indicates. The emergence scenario would also reject the historicity of the Wilderness Wanderings, Exodus, Egyptian Sojourn and the Patriarchal narratives. However, if Israel were an established entity in Canaan already in 1210 BC, as the Merneptah Stela implies, then the 12th century emergence theory would be refuted (Bimson 1991). If Israel was well established by the end of the 13th century, it could not have come into being in the middle of the next century.
As a result, the Merneptah Stela has been meticulously scrutinized and analyzed by scholars, perhaps more so than any text outside the Bible. They are out to determine what it "really" says, not that they would want to force any preconceived notions on the text! Michael G. Hasel, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, has recently reviewed the various interpretations concerning the reference to Israel in the stela. Furthermore, he has done an in-depth linguistic study to determine as far as possible the intended meaning of text.
The discussion of the significance of Israel in the Merneptah stela revolves around the meaning of two words: "Israel" and "seed." A number of possibilities have been suggested, as summarized by Hasel. Scholars have implied that the name Israel could be interpreted as Iezreel or Jezreal, the valley to the north of the country. Another idea is that the name has a descriptive meaning ("the wearers of the side lock") and applies to the Libyans. Or, in the time of Merneptah, the name Israel was a geographic term referring to a territory corresponding to Canaan. Hasel discusses the problems associated with each of these interpretations and concludes,
Israel, identified by the determinative for people, is a socioethnic unity powerful enough to be mentioned along with major city-states that were also neutralized (1994: 51).
Turning to the meaning of the Egyptian word prt, "seed," there are only two possibilities, "grain" or "offspring." Based on the use of prt in other Egyptian texts, Hasel deduces that it refers to grain. Thus, the phrase "its seed is not" indicates that Israel's food supply was no longer in existence. Hasel observes,
We may perceive Israel within the context and information of the Merneptah stela to be a rural sedentary group of agriculturalists without its own urban city-state support system (1994:54).
This is exactly the picture we have of Israel from the Old Testament. Gideon lived close to the time of the Merneptah Stela and he was a farmer living in a small village (Judges 6).
Archaeological evidence supports the fact that the Israelites were agriculturalists in the late 13th century BC. Grain storage pits were a common feature of hill country sites of this period. Teeth from a tomb dating to ca. 1200 BC excavated by the Associates for Biblical Research at Kh. Nisya indicate that the inhabitants of the site ate grain.
Hasel's study of the Merneptah Stela is extremely important. It clears up a number of misconceptions and focuses attention on the true significance of the stela. It indicates that Israel was well established in Canaan in the late 13th century BC and was a significant political force to be reckoned with. Hasel concludes,
Israel functioned as an agriculturally-based/sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century B.C., one that is significant enough to be included in the military campaign against political powers in Canaan. ... While the Merneptah stela does not give any indication of the actual social structure of the people of Israel, it does indicate that Israel was a significant socioethnic entity that needed to be reckoned with (1994: 54; 56, n. 12).
Scholars need to come to grips with these facts, which are entirely consistent with the Bible's description of Israel's origins.
Is the Bible accurate concerning the destruction of the walls of Jericho?
In Joshua 6 we have an account of the Israelites defeating the city of Jericho when they came into the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. According to the Biblical account, after the Israelites marched around the city once a day for six days, on the seventh day they encircled the city seven times. On the seventh time around, the priests blew the trumpets, the people shouted and the walls fell flat.
The first major excavation of the site of Jericho, located in the southern Jordan valley in Israel, was carried out by a German team between 1907 and 1909. They found piles of mud bricks at the base of the mound the city was built on. It was not until a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon reexcavated the site with modern methods in the 1950s that it was understood what these piles of bricks were. She determined that they were from the city wall which had collapsed when the city was destroyed!
The story in the Bible goes on to say that when the walls collapsed, the Israelites stormed the city and set it on fire. Archaeologists found evidence for a massive destruction by fire just as the Bible relates. Kenyon wrote in her excavation report, "The destruction was complete. Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire, and every room was filled with fallen bricks, timbers, and household utensils; in most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt."
What caused the strong walls of Jericho to collapse? The most likely explanation is an earthquake. But the nature of the earthquake was unusual. It struck in such a way as to allow a portion of the city wall on the north side of the site to remain standing, while everywhere else the wall fell. Rahab's house was evidently located on the north side of the city. She was the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies who came to reconnoiter the city. The Bible states that her house was built against the city wall. Before returning to the Israelite camp, the spies told Rahab to bring her family into her house and they would be saved. According to the Bible, Rahab's house was miraculously spared while the rest of the city wall fell. This is exactly what archaeologists found. The preserved city wall on the north side of the city had houses built against it.
The timing of the earthquake and the manner in which it selectively took down the city wall suggests something other than a natural calamity. A Divine Force was at work. In the New Testament we read "By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient" (Hebrews 11:30-31).
I have attempted to contact the American archeologist, Mr. Ron Wyatt, after reading the assigned article written by him. It makes for fascinating reading, being a first-hand report of a Christian who is keen is bringing to light the remains of events that happened so long ago when God spoke from Mount Sinai (today known as Jebel el Lawz in NW Saudi Arabia).
Archeology in Arabia is still at a very early stage, although the archeological information to be found in the reports of many travelers and especially the results of the few limited excavations portend a wealth of data still hidden under the sand.
Wyatt writes: “It gives us great and wonderful evidences of the precise accuracy and validity of the biblical account. For those who want the truth, these wonderful things will silence the voices from the seminaries and pulpits which proclaim the events at Sinai to be “legends.” He has given us the chance to see the very place where His Presence charred the very mountain, the place where He spoke to mankind with His own lips.”
Wyatt is simply one of so many workers who have contributed so that the church today enjoys a wealth of information because of their labours. In addition to Wyatt’s information, I have culled other aspects that are just as feasible and fascinating.
In what ways have the discoveries of archaeology verified the reliability of the Bible?
Over the years there have been many criticisms levelled against the Bible concerning its historical reliability. These criticisms are usually based on a lack of evidence from outside sources to confirm the Biblical record. Since the Bible is a religious book, many scholars take the position that it is biased and cannot be trusted unless we have corroborating evidence from extra-Biblical sources. In other words, the Bible is guilty until proven innocent, and a lack of outside evidence places the Biblical account in doubt.
This standard is far different from that applied to other ancient documents, even though many, if not most, have a religious element. They are considered to be accurate, unless there is evidence to show that they are not. Although it is not possible to verify every incident in the Bible, the discoveries of archaeology since the mid 1800s have demonstrated the reliability and plausibility of the Bible narrative. Here are some examples.
A sampling of evidence
1. Could Moses have written the first books of the Bible? In fact, was writing advanced enough in Moses’ day to give us such details as are recorded in the Pentateuch? During the last century, some amazing discoveries have been made in such places as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Mesopotamia which have changed our understanding of writing in early days. Some of the discoveries still have not been deciphered, but many have been read and understood. Moses lived around 1450 B.C. Since “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” he would certainly have been able to read and write pictographs.
2. Very important discoveries have been made at Nuzi (in northern Iraq), Mari (in Mesopotamia) and Ebla (in Syria). In the light of these we now know there are many similarities in the customs of those days and those referred to in the Bible. For instance, Genesis 15 tells us that, because Abraham had no children, he adopted his slave, Eliezer, as his son. The Nuzi tablets indicate that this was a common occurrence.
3. Other patriarchal accounts also find parallels in the non-biblical documents. We read of Laban arranging his sister’s marriage. There are three such cases in the Babylonian records.
4. Laban imposed a restriction on Jacob, preventing him from taking any more wives (Genesis 31:50). Such a practice is found also in some of the cuneiform contracts of marriage.
5. The ancient names of Abram, Serug, Eber, Ishmael, Israel and Benjamin reappear in non-biblical records.
6. Political alliances, such as the one mentioned in Genesis 14, were quite common in those days, as the Mari letters indicate.
7. Is there any evidence for the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction by fire and brimstone (sulphur)?
The ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah have been discovered Southeast of the Dead Sea. The modern names are Bab edh-Dhra, thought to be Sodom, and Numeira, thought to be Gomorrah. Both places were destroyed at the same time by an enormous conflagration. The destruction debris was about three feet thick. What brought about this awful calamity? Startling discoveries in the cemetery at Bab edh-Dhra revealed the cause. Archaeologists found that buildings used to bury the dead were burned by a fire that started on the roof.
What would cause every structure in the cemetery to be destroyed in this way? The answer to the mystery is found in the Bible. "Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah -- from the Lord out of the heavens" (Genesis 19:24). The only conceivable explanation for this unique discovery in the annals of archaeology is that burning debris fell on the buildings from the air. But how could such a thing happen?
There is ample evidence of subterranean deposits of a petroleum-based substance called bitumen, similar to asphalt, in the region south of the Dead Sea. Such material normally contains a high percentage of sulfur. It has been postulated by geologist Frederick Clapp that pressure from an earthquake could have caused the bitumen deposits to be forced out of the earth through a fault line. As it gushed out of the earth it could have been ignited by a spark or surface fire. It would then fall to earth as a burning, fiery mass.
It was only after Clapp formulated this theory that Sodom and Gomorrah were found. It turns out that the sites are located exactly on a fault line along the eastern side of a plain south of the Dead Sea, so Clapp's theory is entirely plausible. There is some evidence for this scenario from the Bible itself. Abraham viewed the destruction from a vantage point west of the Dead Sea. The Bible records what Abraham saw: "He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace" (Genesis 19:28). Dense smoke suggests smoke from a petroleum-based fire. Smoke rising like smoke from a furnace indicates a forced draft, such as would be expected from subterranean deposits being forced out of the ground under pressure.
8. The discovery of the Ebla archive in northern Syria in the 1970s has shown the Biblical writings concerning the Patriarchs to be viable. Documents written on clay tablets from around 2300 B.C. demonstrate that personal and place names in the Patriarchal accounts are genuine. The name "Canaan" was in use in Ebla, a name critics once said was not used at that time and was used incorrectly in the early chapters of the Bible. The word "tehom" ("the deep") in Genesis 1:2 was said to be a late word demonstrating the late writing of the creation story. "Tehom" was part of the vocabulary at Ebla, in use some 800 years before Moses. Ancient customs reflected in the stories of the Patriarchs have also been found in clay tablets from Nuzi and Mari.
9. The Hittites were once thought to be a Biblical legend, until their capital and records were discovered at Bogazkoy, Turkey. Many thought the Biblical references to Solomon's wealth were greatly exaggerated. Recovered records from the past show that wealth in antiquity was concentrated with the king and Solomon's prosperity was entirely feasible. It was once claimed there was no Assyrian king named Sargon as recorded in Isaiah 20:1 because this name was not known in any other record. Then, Sargon's palace was discovered in Khorsabad, Iraq. The very event mentioned in Isaiah 20 his capture of Ashdod, was recorded on the palace walls. What is more, fragments of a stela memorializing the victory were found at Ashdod itself.
10. A silver scroll dating to 600 B.C. quotes Numbers 6:22-27, showing that this Scripture existed before the date admitted by unbelieving critics.
11. An inscription found in 1967 refers to “Balaam son of Beor” and records a prophecy similar to that found in Numbers 22 to 24.
12. Egyptian maps found at Karnak confirm the geography of the exodus route taken by Israel as recorded in Numbers 33.
13. An inscription refers to “the house of Yahweh,” referring to Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 6).
14. An inscription found at Tel Dan in 1993 refers to “the house of David” and thus shows that David is a real historical character (1 Kings 12:19,20).
15. Solomon was a great builder. We read that he used the help of Hiram, king of Phoenicia, in the construction of his cities and buildings (1 Kings 5). In the excavations of Megiddo (1 Kings 9:15) the Phoenician influence in building style was apparent. Also, Phoenician letters were found carved in the stones.
16. Solomon also used cedars from Lebanon in his buildings (1 Kings 7:2-12). This is illustrated, too, in the remains of Megiddo, the ashes of which were shown to be of cedar.
17. Solomon used much brass (1 Kings 7:13-47), or bronze as we should call it. Bronze is based on copper. At Ezion Geber, at the north end of the Red Sea, a copper refinery of those days has been discovered. That the bronze was cast in the Jordan Valley (1 Kings 7:46) is confirmed by the discovery of foundry works in this area.
18. Solomon covered the stone walls of the Temple with cedar wood and covered this with gold (1 Kings 6:18-35; 10:14-23). He even used gold nails! This extravagance seems incredible to the modern mind. However, we know that the Assyrian and Babylonian kings boast of plating walls of their shrines with gold “like plaster,” so that they “shone like the sun.” Similar descriptions can be found in Egypt. One Egyptian temple still stands at Karnak, built by Thutmoses II. While the gold disappeared some years ago, the massive stone pillars still display the narrow slits used to fix the gold sheets in position.
19. Solomon imported gold from Ophir (1 Kings 10:11). We do not know the location of Ophir, but a piece of broken pottery was found in Tel Aviv on which a clerk had recorded: “Ophir gold for Beth-Horon: 30 shekels.”
20. The “ivory and apes and peacocks” that Solomon imported (1 Kings 10:22) are described by Hebrew letters spelling old Tamil words, so providing evidence of contact between Solomon and South India.
21A seal bearing the inscription “Shema servant of Jereboam” is but one confirmation of this king’s existence in history (1 Kings 12:20).
22|Jereboam’s high place was discovered at Dan in 1979 (see 1 Kings 12:28-31).
23. The royal buildings of Omri and Ahab were found in 1933 (see 1 Kings 16:23,24; 22:39).
24. The black basalt “Moabite Stone” discovered in 1868 describes the battle between Mesha king of Moab and Ahab son of Omri (2 Kings 3:4,5).
25. An Assyrian “Black Obelisk” discovered in 1846 depicts king Jehu (see 2 Kings 10:31,32).
26 A Hebrew seal found bearing the inscription: “belonging to Jehoahaz son of the king” (2 Kings 10:35).
27 Cuneiform text discovered in approximately 1850 shows the records of Tiglath Pilesar and mentions, among others, king Pekah (2 Kings 15:29,30; 16:7-9).
28 An inscription of Shalmanezer II, known as “the Kurkh Monolith” mentions “Ahab the Israelite” (2 Kings 17:3).
29 An inscription discovered in 1880 describes the construction of “Hezekiah’s tunnel” (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:3-4,30).
30. 1955 a tablet was deciphered which records the captivity of king Jehoiachin and the appointment of Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:10,15,17).
31. A Babylonian tablet describes the capture of Jerusalem by king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:10-17; 2 Chronicles 36:9-10).
32. The “Lachish Letters” discovered in the 1930’s mention several biblical characters, including Mattaniah (Zedekiah). See 2 Kings 24:17.
33. The “Yaukin Tablet” found at Babylon (1932/3) mentions king Jehoiachin and the rations allowed to him (2 Kings 25:27-30).
34. A Relief discovered at Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh (about 1850) depicts the siege of Lachish (2 Chronicles 32:9). A contemporary snapshot of a Bible event!
35. The famous “Cyrus Cylinder,” a clay cylinder of king Cyrus decribes the return of captives after the “liberation” of Babylon (Ezra 1:1-4).
36. A reference to Sanballat, the governor of Jerusalem has been found (Nehemiah 4:1,2).
37. In about 1850 the records of Sargon were discovered (mentioned in Isaiah 20:1).
38. In 1947 the now famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves. They demonstrate the accuracy and reliability of the biblical text (Isaiah 30:8).
39. The Lachish Letters also mention Gemariah the scribe, Jaazeniah, and speak of a prophet who demoralised the people and urged surrender to the Babylonians (whom we know to be Jeremiah). See Jeremiah 35:3; 36:10; 38:1-4.
40. In 1986 a seal was found dating to 587 B.C. It was inscribed: “Belonging to Baruch the son of Neriah,” undoubtedly Jeremiah’s scribe.
41. Bullae found at Jerusalem (1982/3) bears the inscription: “Belonging to Gemariah son of Shaphan” (Jeremiah 36:9-12).
42. Excavations in 1881-1891 by Flinders Petrie uncovered the actual pavement mentioned in Jeremiah 43:9-11; 44:13.
43. Bricks discovered at Babylon (1880) bear the name of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:30).
44. Another king who was in doubt was Belshazzar, king of Babylon, named in Daniel 5. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus according to recorded history. Tablets were found showing that Belshazzar was Nabonidus' son who served as coregent in Babylon. Thus, Belshazzar could offer to make Daniel "third highest ruler in the kingdom" (Daniel 5:16) for reading the handwriting on the wall, the highest available position. Here we see the "eye-witness" nature of the Biblical record, as is so often brought out by the discoveries of archaeology.
45. Reliefs found at Nineveh in the 1850’s, and which can be viewed in the British Museum, are burnt black by the fires of destruction, as recorded in Nahum 3:7,15.
46. The tomb of the Caiaphas family was discovered in Jerusalem in 1990. Scholars believe that the tomb of Caiaphas himself is among them (Matthew 26:5,7).
47. Two separate inscriptions have been found mentioning the name of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:2).
48. The foundations of Jesus’ synagogue at Capernaum were identified in 1983 (Mark 1:210. They lay underneath a later construction built by Jews around the third century.
49. The four gospels and the book of the Acts refer to a number of historical events. This is particularly true of the writings of Luke, which have been the subject of archaeological investigation, especially by Sir William Ramsay. As a result of his research and travels, he came to the conclusion that “Acts was written by a great historian, a writer who set himself to record the facts as they occurred.”
50. A small piece of papyrus known as the “John Ryland Fragment” was discovered in 1934. This fragment is the earliest known New Testament document and has demonstrated that it was in circulation by 100 A.D. The words on the fragment are significant. They are from John 18 and include the question, “What is truth?”
The science of archaeology is a huge and involved study. What I have given is just a sample of discoveries that throw light upon the utter veracity of Scripture. There is so much more evidence to be examined than I have mentioned.
My conclusion is twofold:
1. The evidence of archaeology repeatedly affirms the truthfulness and historicity of Bible records. Thus the Bible is distinguished from the “sacred” books of world religions. The Bible tells us of God’s dealings with people in the history of the world. It records facts of history. And archaeology, as the echo of God’s voice, never destroys but always confirms that the sacred record is true.
2. Evidence of archaeology does not finally prove that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. Christians certainly believe that the Bible is God speaking to them but they do not believe that because of any archaeological evidence. Christians accept the authority of the Bible because of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The faith of the church is not based on archaeology. Her faith is based on the objective record of the Scriptures, the Book that speaks for itself. It we call ourselves Christians simply because we are persuaded by archaeological science that the Bible is true, we are only deceiving ourselves. When God speaks to us through the prophetical Word, we shall not need the help of archaeology - we know that the Bible is true. The Bible does not need props and crutches.
The amazing fact is that so much evidence to support the truth of the Bible has been discovered. One archaeologist estimated that only two per cent of the known sites in Palestine have been excavated to any significant extent. Even in those sites investigated, only portions have been uncovered. And most of the materials, of course, have perished. But an enormous amount of evidence is now available: the echo of God’s voice!
In spite of all this overwhelming evidence, so-called scholars continue in their persistent attacks upon the Bible. This issue - the truth of the Bible - is of vital importance to all of us, and it is therefore a matter of great concern as to just how the evidence is presented to the public.
This issue is of importance in at least two areas of consideration.
1. First, there is the personal aspect: the Bible places before us matters affecting life and death. Belief and obedience, says Scripture, will bring us life, whereas unbelief and sin will result in death (Deuteronomy 30:19; Mark 16:15,16; Romans 6:23; John 5:28,29). In asking whether or not the Bible is true, we are at the same time asking whether or not its promise of life is trustworthy.
2. Secondly, there is a social aspect: acceptance or the non-acceptance of Biblical principles and values will necessarily have its impact upon the philosophy and behaviour of a nation or society. This, says the Bible, will have its consequences for people and nations (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 9:17-20; Jeremiah 18:7-10). The nation that turns its back upon the Word of God and His teaching cannot expect His protection or blessing; that is the essence of the Bible’s message to society in general. There is a thus a weighty responsibility resting upon those who present evidence one way of the other to the public.
The question before us also concerns the integrity of those who wrote the Scriptures, as well as of those who later endorsed them. This of course includes the recorded statement of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. His words were: “...Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” (John 5:46,47). So the question arises as to whether even the words of Christ as to be believed.
1. The stones cry out (H.J. Appleby, Grace Baptist Mission, 1961).
2. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (G.W. Bromiley, Eerdmands, 1988).
3. Various articles by Bryant Wood of Associates for Biblical Research.
4. Other sites on the Internet.
5. The Bible Almanac (Packer, Tenney, White).