Archaeology and the Bible


Jericho 31 52 13.49N
35 26 28.22E
The much-excavated tel is barely reconisable, it has been so cut up by trenches and pits. Kenyon's famous trench with the Neolithic tower at the bottom runs horizontally half-way across the tel half-way up, while Garstang's equally notable pit is visible above and to the right cutting into the other side of the tel.
Adam Bridge 32 06 09.40N
35 32 06.15E
The reference is for Adam Bridge, but the place where the cliffs have repeatedly collapsed is half a mile directly north, where the soft marl cliffs can be clearly seen. Tel Adam is 1,210 yards east of the bridge, a mound between the two east-west dirt roads. I am not aware of any excavations here.
Gezer 31 51 35.80N
34 55 15.93E
The pale rectangle is where the high place is located. The picture is not clear enough to show either the standing stones or the deep pit where the water tunnel is located.
Gibeon 31 50 50.02N
35 11 06.20E
Eroded rock gives the impression of a contour map around the hill on which ancient Gibeon stood.

With Joshua we come to the great puzzle of Biblical archaeology: the missing Exodus.

John Garstang at 80
Professor John Garstang at the age of 80.

Between 1930 and 1936 Professor John Garstang undertook excavations at Tel es-Sultan, the site of Biblical Jericho. There are, in fact, four Jerichos: there is the modern Palestinian city, there is the Hisham Palace of the Umayyid period, there is Roman Jericho and there is the ancient tel. The identity of Tel es-Sultan with Biblical Jericho is virtually fixed by the presence of a copious spring, the only one in the area, known today as "Elisha's Fountain" after the story of how that prophet purified the water when it had turned salty.

Among other work, Garstang dug a large pit on the east side of the tel, mainly to uncover the history and stratigraphy of the site. As the excavation proceeded he noticed that at a certain level, which he called "City IV", there was quite distinctive signs of earthquake damage, for the walls of the city had fallen outwards down the side of the tel. Based on the pottery he found near the wall, Garstang dated this wall to the end of the Late Bronze Age and concluded that this was the city and the wall which had been destroyed by the Israelites. The earthquake damage he believed was evidence to support the Biblical story of how the Israelites had marched seven times around the city and then the walls had been overthrown by Divine intervention.

Diagram of a wall
Diagram of the stratigraphy around a typical wall.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to date a wall, because walls are rarely built on ground level. Usually there is a trench for the foundations of the wall and when the wall has been built, the trench is filled again with the earth that was dug from it. That earth will include pottery from the layers through which the trench was dug and possibly also pottery from the period of the wall. Thus, in the diagram opposite, the wall was built during Level III but the foundation trench was dug through Levels II and I. The fill around the wall will consist of mixed pottery from Levels I and II and possibly some from Level III. It will not, however, contain any from Level IV.

By the time Kathleen Kenyon (later Dame Kathleen Kenyon) came to excavate at Jericho, not only was she aware of the problem but it was now customary for the archaeologists to supervise their workers more closely and to keep better records. The result is that she was able to date walls more accurately - and she discovered that the walls Garstang had placed at the end of Late Bronze were, in fact, at the end of Early Bronze or the beginning of Middle Bronze.

These walls had an interesting history. At the end of Early Bronze the city walls were destroyed, possibly by an earthquake, but were rebuilt in great haste. Before the rebuilding was complete, however, the entire city was destroyed by a massive fire which left thick layers of ash throughout the city but particularly in one place outside the walls.

However, to the dismay of Bible students, Kenyon found that at the time of the Late Bronze Age, Jericho was an abandoned ruin and had been for over a century. There were no Late Bronze walls and only one Late Bronze house, high on the tel remained. In other words, the Bible story of a mighty fortress subdued with Divine help was nothing more than a fable.

It is a sad fact that of the town walls of the Late Bronze Age, within which period the attack by the Israelites must fall by any dating, not a trace remains. ... As concerns the date of the destruction of Jericho by the Israelites, all that can be said is that the latest Bronze Age occupation should, in my view, be dated to the third quarter of the fourteenth century B.C. This is a date which suits neither the school of scholars which would date the entry of the Israelites into Palestine to c. 1400 B.C. nor the school which prefers a date of c. 1260 B.C.
Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up Jericho (London, 1957) p. 261, 262

Various theories were advanced to account for this conflict between the Bible and archaeology. Some suggested that during the time that the city was abandoned due to Joshua's curse, all the remains were eroded away. Unfortunately if that were the case - and it was certainly plausible - then those remains, including the Late Bronze Age pottery, should have been found at the foot of the tel, but that was not the case. There was simply no trace of the Late Bronze Age apart from that one small house.

If Jericho was the only Palestinian site where there were problems we might be able to dismiss it. We have the wrong site, there was another Jericho in Joshua's day, the archaeologists have made a mistake, or something. However the uncomfortable fact is that in site after site, there is no evidence for an Iron Age Exodus and Conquest. The result is that archaeologists and Jews alike are resigned to the conclusion that the Exodus never happened. At most a few small groups of escaped slaves slipped into Palestine without causing any disturbance and gradually built up a collection of myths to bolster their group identity, a natural process of national pride once they had achieved dominance in the land.

Nearly all these problem are solved - or at least become easier of solution - if the Exodus is placed at the end of Early Bronze. The solution is discussed in greater length elsewhere on this website and once a Middle Bronze Exodus is accepted so much falls into place. Jericho is destroyed in a catastophic fire, the prosperous cities of Palestine are replaced by a nomad culture which gradually develops into rich and power kingdoms, and so on.

Damming the Jordan

Turn off to Adam
The sign pointing off the main road to Adam Bridge, a security area closed to visitors.
The Bible records that when Joshua and the Israelites came to the Jordan, it was in flood and was impossible to cross. However a few days later the river suddenly ceased to flow, long enough for the Israelites to cross in safety. During this time, the water of the Jordan "piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan" (Joshua 3:16).

On July 11, 1927, an earthquake of magnitude 6.5 struck near Jericho, causing extensive damage in the town. Eighteen miles north of Jericho, near Adam, there was a mud slide which dammed the river, causing it to run dry for a short time. Historical records tell us that larger mud slides have occurred in 1160, 1267, 1534, 1546, 1834 and 1906 and the average length of time during which the river was blocked was two days - ample time for all the Israelites to cross from one side to the other.

View of the cliffs at Adam
View of the marl cliffs that overhang the Jordan river at Adam.

Is it possible that this earthquake which brought down the cliffs at Adam was the one which damaged the walls of Jericho and that while the Israelites were walking over the bed of the Jordan river and setting up camp on the other side, the inhabitants of Jericho were swarming over their damaged walls, frantically trying to repair them before the anticipated attack by the invaders? A few days later, either as a result of a second earthquake or the aftershocks of the first one, or in response to the tramping feet and sudden shout of two and a half million people, the already damaged walls collapsed, leaving the stunned and traumatised citizens of Jericho defenseless before the onrush of the Israelites.

Why massacre?
Modern people express horror at the command given to the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan. Curiosly, archaeology has something to say on this point.

Gezer High Place
The standing stones of the Gezer High Place.
1902-1907 R.A.S. Macalister excavated at Gezer and found the High Place consisting of a row of ten standing stones, the tallest of which is 10' 9" high. None of them were standing when found, but have been re-erected by the archaeologists. There was also a square block of stone into which a rectangular hole had ben cut. It may have held a stele or image, but no trace of this remains. Alternatively, it may have been an altar. Some of the stones are thought to represent male fertility symbols and this is confirmed by the discovery of large numbers of much smaller phallic images in the area around the stones, together with plaques of Astarte with her sexual organs exaggerated.

Astarte figurine
A gold figurine of Astarte from Gezer.

It would appear that this High Place was the site of some form of fertility cult in which sex was celebrated if not actually enacted. Sex, of course, results in babies and what better way to show your gratitude to a fertility god than by sacrificing the firstborn of those babies? Buried in the earth in front of the pillars were small jars containing the burned bones of babies less than eight days old.

Such a religion might be excusable if its priests truly believed what they were doing, but at Gezer there is evidence of dishonesty. Nearby there was the entrance to a double-chambered cave that led under the High Place. As the cave was being cleared the archaeologists noticed a tiny hole in the roof of the inner room and when they traced it upwards, they found that it came out near the altar. What was more, those standing at the altar could hear the voice of anyone in the cave, distorted by the echo. The conclusion was that a priest hiding in the cave could speak and a worshipper above ground would hear a thin, ghostly voice issuing from the earth. Almost certainly this was some form of divination whereby worshippers could enquire of spirits in the underworld and, to their astonishment and no doubt terror, receive answers!

Tammuz, a Canaanite fertility god, was believed to descend into the Underworld for the winter months and life only returned in the spring when he came out of the Underworld. Although we have no way of knowing for certain, it is possible that Tammuz or a similar god was worshipped here and devotees communicated with him - so they thought - via this secret opening. Whether the priests excused themselves by claiming that they were inspired by the god, the fact remains that it was humans hiding in the secret cave that responded to the prayers of the worshippers - and that is dishonest.

The first pillars of this High Place were erected in Middle Bronze IIC and further pillars were added over the next couple of centuries. This is well before the Israelites by conventional chronology or well within the Israelite period - probably during the judges - by the Revised Chronology. Although Gezer was captured by the Israelites under Joshua, they quickly lost it again and Joshua 16:10 specifically mentions the Canaanites of Gezer as outside Israelite control. The city remained under Canaanite rule until Pharaoh captured it in the time of Solomon as a dowry for his daughter.

The implications of all this are obvious: today the issue of child abuse has a high profile. We are apalled at the mindless cruelty shown by some parents towards their children and society agrees that those guilty of child abuse deserve the severest punishments. At Gezer we have a Canaanite culture where young babies were regularly murdered - and murdered as part of the worship of god. This was no hidden abuse taking place behind closed doors: this was open and blatent abuse carried out in public and with the approval of the whole community.

I have no hesitation in saying that such a society was inherently evil and deserved to be exterminated - and, of course, "society" means people. If we agree that the adults deserved to die, what about the children and babies? Studies have been conducted on identical twins separated soon after birth and adopted by non-relatives (Tehrani and Mednick, 2000) and these appear to show that criminal behaviour is inherited. Obviously environment does play a part and children with a bad inheritance brought up in a good environment are less likely to become criminals than the same children in a bad environment. Given the extreme evil involved in cultures like Gezer, is it surprising that God did not wish to take the risk?

The Bible explicitly tells us that God delayed destroying the Canaanites until they were completely corrupt (Genesis 15:16) and, unfortunately, that corruption included the children. You can see a film I made a few years ago about this High Place on NWTV Ltd.

However even if the Canaanites deserved to be exterminated root and branch, it may be asked what the Israelites had done to deserve having to execute the Divine judgement on them? Even trained soldiers exhibit psychological distress when they have killed other soldiers and that distress is exacerbated when, whether by accident or otherwise, they have killed women or children. Surely the wholesale and deliberate destruction of entire populations must have damaged the Israelites who carried it out?

The answer is that the Israelites did not normally do the exterminating. In Deuteronomy 7:20 God promised to send hornets to drive the Canaanites out and in Joshua 24:12 we are told that this actually happened. There were battles and fighting in which soldiers were killed - though even there God often intervened to destroy the enemy by storms and other means - and I do not deny that there were almost certainly incidents of what we today would consider atrocities, but they were on a much smaller scale than a superficial reading of the Bible might indicate. On the whole, the hunting down of fleeing survivors was carried out by swarms of insects.

Ai and et-Tel
Following the destruction of Jericho the Israelites move to attack the smaller city of Ai. This has been identified with a site called et-Tel, a name which, like the Hebrew "Ai", means "ruin". Excavations at et-Tel in the 1930s and between 1964-1970 revealed that the city had been destroyed in Early Bronze III, after which it was abandoned until Iron Age I. This means that by the conventional chronology the city was an abandoned ruin at the time of Joshua, but the situation is only marginally better for the Revised Chronology, as EBIII is too early. Another problem is that et-Tel is nearly double the size of Jericho whereas the Bible account indicates that Ai was smaller that Jericho, indeed, almost insignificant compared with its neighbour.

Khirbet el-Maqatir
Aerial view of Khirbet el-Maqatir from the north. On the west (the right) is the deep Wadi Sheban where Joshua laid his ambush.

This has led some scholars to identify a nearby site called Khirbet el-Maqatir as Ai. This is not much help for the conventional chronology, for the city was destroyed in Late Bronze I, much too early for Joshua. Pottery has been found for both Early and Middle Bronze Ages, but so far the evidence would appear to indicate that there was only a small settlement on the south-east side of the slope. Until further excavations are done we do not know the size of that settlement or whether it was destroyed by fire. The lack of obvious defences are not a problem, as such a small place might have been little more than a village with the outer walls of the houses forming the fortifications. The name "Ai" - "ruin" - also points to a small and not very prosperous location.

In favour of Khirbet el-Maqatir is the fact that the topography of the area fits the Biblical account, for there is a deep valley on the west which would have provided a perfect hiding place for Joshua's ambush, particularly if the area was heavily wooded at the time. The main Israelite army approached from the north then feigned retreat towards the east and the desert country towards the Rift Valley. The men of Ai followed them, giving the ambush its opportunity to swarm up out of Wadi Sheban and walk into the undefended city.

Cursing and Blessing
Following the destruction of Ai Joshua followed Moses' command and assembled the Israelites at Shechem, where they divided into two groups. Six tribes stood on Mt Ebal and six on Mt Gerizim. Those on Mt Gerizim repeated blessings on those who were obedient to the laws of God while those on Mt Ebal recited curses on the disobedient. Joshua 8:30 reports that Joshua built an altar on Mt Ebal on which burnt offerings and peace offerings were sacrificed.

Altar on Mt Ebal
The picture shows the alleged altar with the access ramp to the right.

There was considerable excitement when, in 1980, a former Israeli soldier named Adam Zertal discovered a strange stone structure near the summit of what is believed to be Mt Ebal. It appeared to be a rectangular wall that had been filled with stones, ashes and dirt, with a ramp leading to the top of the structure. Amongst the ashes were the burned bones of many animals. Pottery associated with the structure dated it to 1250 BC (conventional chronology). He concluded that this was the altar erected by Joshua.

Subsequent excavations at the site have revealed that the rectangular structure was built over a much smaller circular structure, which also had ashes and bones associated with it, but which was dated to 1400 BC (conventional chronology). Some now believe that this circular structure is the altar erected by Joshua and the rectangular structure is a later altar.

If true, this would support the conventional chronology rather than the Revised Chronology, but there are some problems with such an interpretation. The animal bones, although certainly burned, belong to goats, bullocks and fallow deer! Deer were never mentioned as sacrificial animals and although it might be argued that they were the "peace offerings" mentioned in the text, peace offerings were not burned but cooked and eaten!

The fact that the ashes and bones were found as part of the fill would seem to indicate that sacrifices were offered here well before the altar was built. In addition, this altar faces south-west, whereas Jewish sanctuaries were orientated towards the east. Finally, the altar stands on the north side of Mt Ebal whereas the Biblical story would seem to indicate that it should be on the south side, opposite Mt Gerizim. Anyone camped in the valley between the two mountains would not be able to see the altar and the sacrifices being offered on it.

Some of the websites that discuss this site appear to allow enthusiasm to override the facts. The archaeological consensus would appear to be against identifying the structure as Joshua's altar and I think it advisable to await mature consideration before reaching any definite conclusion one way or the other.

One of the more dramatic stories in the book of Joshua is the tale of how the Israelites were taken in by ambassadors from Gibeon who pretended to have come from a great distance and therefore to be exempt from the command to exterminate. The impression one gets from the Bible story is that if only the people had consulted with God they wouldn't have made this mistake and entered into a treaty with the Gibeonites.

Certainly the people should have consulted God, but I am pretty sure the answer would have been in the positive. Rahab, a citizen of the devoted city of Jericho, was accepted when she turned to God, however imperfectly, and when Saul later tried to gain popularity by discriminating against the Gibeonites (in which he was enthusiastically seconded by the Israelites) God sent a famine to punish the nation for breaking its treaty.

However here we are concerned with the archaeology of Gibeon, which has been identified with the Arab village of el-Jib, an identification confirmed by the name, "Gibeon", written on wine jars excavated from a huge water system that matches the Biblical description of a significant pool in Gibeon. The site was excavated by James B. Pritchard of the University of Pennsylvania between 1956 and 1962.

The water system at Gibeon
The circular shaft that forms the upper part of the Gibeon water system was dug in the Iron Age.

Pritchard found that the site was first occupied in the Early Bronze Age, but there were few remains from this period, though the excavators believed that the settlement was larger and probably fortified, but if so the fortifications were outside the area of their dig. During Middle Bronze I the site appears to have been inhabited by nomads, but in MBII the city was substantial and the pottery discovered was the finest ever produced in Gibeon. The archaeologists remarked that some pieces were so thin that they could be mistaken for ostrich egg shells!. However during the Late Bronze the city declined again and was almost uninhabited. However during the Iron Age a massive wall was built and a huge water system consisting of a deep shaft 37' in diameter and 84' deep leading to a tunnel that reached water 78' below the bottom of the shaft! This, however, proved unsatisfactory as later on a second tunnel was cut in the side of the tel leading by 93 steps to a better water source - and there is still water at the bottom of this tunnel.

The conventional chronology, which would place Late Bronze as the time of the Conquest, must be puzzled by these findings, for the Bible states that Gibeon was a great city, larger than Ai and "as one of the royal cities", which sounds more significant than the scanty remains that have been found so far. The Revised Chronology provides a better fit, for the excavators believed that the Early Bronze city was surrounded by a wall, although they did not find it in their excavation. The Gibeonites were taken as "hewers of wood and drawers of water" to the Tabernacle, so it would seem that the population was sent to wherever the Sanctuary was, which later in this period was Shiloh. The site was then occupied by the invading Israelites, who had a nomadic lifestyle.

Late Bronze Age The Bronze Age lasted from 3300 BC to 1200 BC by conventional chronology. It is divided into Early, Middle and Late periods and each period is further divided. There is, however, little agreement about these subdivisions. MBI, for example, is also known as LBIV or as Transitional Middle Bronze (LBIV/MBI or just LB/MB). Late Bronze has been divided into four periods and MBIIB and MBIIC are also known as MBIII and MBIV. The fact is that at one site there will be a dramatic difference between MBI and MBII, justifying the different names, whereas at another site one period will gradually change into the other while at a third it will be EBIII that appears to morph into MBI.

In addition the dates given are based on correlations with Egypt, first worked out by Sir Flinders Petrie in his excavations of Tel el-Hesi and since refined and improved by other archaeologists. If, however, the chronology of Egypt is incorrect then these figures will require correction as well.

Bronze Age (33001200 BC)
Early Bronze Age Early Bronze Age I 33003000 BC
Early Bronze Age II 30002700 BC
Early Bronze Age III 27002200 BC
Middle Bronze Age Middle Bronze Age I 22002000 BC
Middle Bronze Age II A 20001750 BC
Middle Bronze Age II B 17501650 BC
Middle Bronze Age II C 16501550 BC
Late Bronze Age Late Bronze Age I 15501400 BC
Late Bronze Age II A 14001300 BC
Late Bronze Age II B 13001200 BC

(Figures taken from Wikipedia) Return

exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan Deuteronomy 20 lays down rules for war under which the Israelites were commanded to summon their enemies to surrender. If they complied, then their lives were spared, though they were to be "tributary" or "forced labour" for the Israelites. If they refused, then men of military age were to be killed, but women and children spared.

It was only seven named nations or clans that were to be completely exterminated, to prevent them leading the Israelites astray. Ironically, when the Israelites failed to carry out the command to exterminte they ended up following Canaanite practices and sacrificing their own children - even Solomon the Wise was led astray in this way. Return

heavily wooded When Kenyon excavated at Jericho she found that the Late Bronze tombs were filled with silt. Her conclusion was that during the Middle Bronze there had been extensive deforestation, leading to a sudden and dramatic increase in erosion from the hills. Joshua 17:15-18 reports that when the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanites from the fertile valleys, they retreated to the hills and cleared the forest. I have no doubt that Kenyon's discovery is confirmation of the statement in Joshua - provided the Revised Chronology is accepted. Return