In the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (a magazine I encourage you to subscribe to and read), Avraham Faust writes about evidence in the archaeological record for early Israel.
What is the big deal, some of you might ask, I thought the Bible showed us the origin of Israel and that is all we need.
I would say that finding history in stones and clay pots is important alongside the Bible for a number of reasons. Two in particular are helping people believe that the Biblical story is true and helping those who already believe in the Biblical story to understand in more depth what life was like and how the history unfolded. The Bible is a very incomplete account and the stones do help us flesh out the picture.
In recent years the world has been bombarded in mass media with skepticism. I wonder how many people are unwilling to seriously consider the Bible because of people like Israel Finkelstein or, worse, minimalists like Lemche, Davies, Thompson, and Whitelam, whose ideas make for good controversy on television documentaries about Israelite history.
Many people whose research will include only watching a special on the History Channel think that archaeology proves the Biblical story to be a legend with very little truth behind it.
A Pharaoh Writes About Israel
Avraham Faust, associate professor at Bar-Ilan University and author of Israel’s Ethnogenesis (see it here on amazon), applies a slightly different methodology than other researchers such as Finkelstein. Faust works backwards from cultural artifacts found in later layers in Israel that are widely recognized as Israelite. He looks at cultural differences that would help differentiate Israelite settlements from Canaanite and Philistine areas. Working backwards from the known, he searches out evidence in earlier layers to see if Israel was there too.
But at the beginning of his article, he starts with one strong early evidence for Israel: the Merneptah stele.
Pharaoh Shoshenq in about 1210 B.C.E. commissioned a stone record in hieroglyphics of his achievements. One of his bragging points was defeating in battle a people he calls Israel. Faust notes, as have others, that the Merneptah stele includes a marker identifying Israel as a people as opposed to a town or place.
We should expect that any theory of locating early Israelites in archaeological digs should explain how Israel could be mentioned so early in Egyptian records. We will come back to the stele as we follow Faust in his working backwards through history.
Working Backwards from the Known to the Unknown
Faust’s starting point is Iron Age II (1000 – 586 B.C.E.). Most archaeologists grant that material remains from this period have been rightly identified as Israelite. The few who don’t admit this are so politically motivated against finding any evidence of early Israel, their views can be discounted fairly easily.
Here is what Faust is looking for: material clues that identify Israel as living with different cultural norms than surrounding peoples such as Canaanites and Philistines. Using these cultural markers, Faust hopes to be able to work back through earlier layers (Iron Age I and then Late Bronze) to find evidence for Israel.
Philistines, Decorated Pottery, Circumcision, and Pork
In Iron Age II layers, it is easy to observe that some settlements used plain pottery and some used decorated pottery. Some settlements evidence extensive use of pork in the food supply and others the absence of pork. In late Iron Age I, pork made up as much as 20% of the Philistine diet. This trend decreases in Iron Age II, but differentiation is still possible. Similarly decorated pottery (see photo with this post) fades out in Iron Age II.
Faust sees a cultural trend. Israelites sought to differentiate themselves from the Philistines. Avoiding pork became quite important as a cultural marker. And the use of simple, undecorated pottery also was an Israelite distinctive.
Right around the transition from Iron Age I to II the small highland settlements which might be tentatively called Israelite started disappearing as settlements consolidated into towns. The evidence points to trouble between the Philistines and these other settlements (a picture we see in the Bible in the time of Saul and David, which is exactly at this juncture of history).
Faust’s first conclusion then is that around 1000 B.C.E., Israelite culture became distinctively un-Philistine-like. This is pretty good evidence for Israel in late Iron Age I. But Faust continues to work backwards. Can we find Israel earlier?
The Four-Room House in Iron Age I
A distinctive of Israelite settlements in Iron Age II is the four-room house (see picture at right). This style of house was suited to a culture still farming and husbanding animals.
These four-room houses are also found in the highland settlements of Iron Age I. The four-room house appears to be a cultural distinctive of Israelites and is useful for marking a settlement as truly Israelite.
But can we go back to earlier layers and still distinguish Israel?
Decorated Pottery, Burial Customs, and the Late Bronze Age
Moving back into Late Bronze (1550 – 1200 B.C.E.), Faust notes that Canaanite towns contain a fair amount of decorated pottery, imported from the Aegean and Cyprus. Yet the highland settlements thought to be Israelite used plain pottery and have virtually no decorated or imported pottery.
Also, Israelite burial customs (much more simple than Canaanite customs) indicate a difference in the material remains.
The likely reason for small highland settlements of Israelites in Late Bronze is that the Canaanite city-states, with Egyptian military support, kept the Israelites from dominating the land. Their small settlements in the hills reflect a people marginalized. Yet by the end of Late Bronze, these Israelites were no longer marginalized and Canaanite culture disappears.
Again, this agrees with the Biblical story, as by the time of Saul and David, Israel’s hold on the land was nearly complete. Israel’s rival was no longer the Canaanites by Iron Age times, but the Philistines.
Conclusion and the Merneptah Stele
When and how did Israel come into the land? We should be surprised if archaeological remains alone could answer these questions.
Israel shows up in the 1200’s in highland settlements. Depending on how you date the Exodus story (1440 or 1290 B.C.E.) and the initial conquest of the land by Israel (1400 or 1250 B.C.E.) you might expect to find Israelite settlements appearing exactly when they do. Archaeology provides some evidence that the later date of the Exodus is most accurate.
And the more certain date of the Merneptah Stele (1210 B.C.E.) confirms what cultural clues in the material remains suggest. Israel was in the land in the 1200’s B.C.E.
Contrary to the claims made in some books and on television documentaries, the case for early Israel is pretty good. And we have some idea what early Israelites were like. They kept a simple, agrarian life in their four-room houses (the outer room could hold animals) and they preferred simple pottery. They seem not to have been infected with signs of power and wealth but to have a relatively egalitarian society. They did not conquer the land all at once, but slowly, which careful readers of Joshua and Judges will find to match the Biblical story perfectly.