Back to In Search of Israel

Notes from Philip R. Davies: In Search of 'Ancient Israel', 1992 --


The earliest record of the name "Israel" ^

The name "Israel" first appears in a text at Ugarit (on the coast just south of modern Turkey, in modern Syria) and dates around 1500 BCE. It is the name of a chariot warrior! Probably no connection with our ancient Israel!

The next find of "Israel" -- but is it a People? a Place? .....? ^

The name "Israel" next appears around 1200 BCE on an Egyptian stone monument (known as the Merneptah stele) commemorating victories of Egypt's Pharaoh Merneptah in Palestine. However it is not clear from this monument whether Israel refers to a group of people who do not live in cities or to a city-less area in Palestine. The name may also refer to a people living in a highland area of Palestine but there is no way of knowing if they are named after the name of the place they inhabit. But we cannot simply assume that this will be our starting point for an extra-biblical history of Israel. We have no way of knowing whether these people called themselves "Israel" or if they were the ancestors of those who later formed the state of Israel.

If you think this is being picky, consider:

The same can be said of many other peoples. Populations in the Middle East, even today as in ancient times, also change a lot. Compare the peoples of Palestine and Israel today: The modern Israel occupies mostly the area once known as the land of the Philistines, while the centre of ancient Israel (the West Bank) is currently populated mostly by Arabs. It is most doubtful that any modern Israeli - actually ethnically descended from Asian and European races -- can trace an ancestry back to the ancient land of Israel. So we need a bit more information than this ambiguous reference in an Egyptian monument before we can be confident we are looking at Israel in any sense that the Bible knows it.

What archaeology does NOT find ^

There is no evidence for a Joshua-style Israelite invasion of Canaan. Generations of archaeologists have sought extensively, yet in vain, among ruins of Palesitinian cities to find evidence of such a conquest of the land by non-Canaanite groups. (Palestine has become probably one of the most extensively excavated areas in the world, so it is not a strong argument to say that we only have to wait a little longer till "one day" they find what we know must be there.)

Finding the Slow Long Birth of Israel ^

More recently large-scale surveys have been made of ancient settlement patterns in the West Bank of modern Israel. These show the basically peaceful emergence of new village settlements among Palestinian highlands clearings -- these settlers "perhaps correspond to Merneptah's Israel." But it is clear that there was no political entity named "Israel" at this time, indeed not at least until about 1000 BCE.

The people moving into this area were from various ethnic backgrounds. They came from the following:

Thus Israel appears to have begun as: But they did not become a political entity known as "Israel" till at least after 1000 BCE.

First evidence for a Kingdom of Israel? ... ^

An Assyrian inscription (the Kurkh stele) 350 years later (ca.853 BCE) refers to King Ahab of "sir-il-la-a-a" (presumably = "Israel")

350 years is a very long time. How can we assume any continuity of population from the time of the Mereneptah stele above to the Kurkh stele of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III? We cannot answer by saying 'the Bible tells us so' because we are searching for the history of Palestine independently of the Bible.

The Kingdom of Israel found in 8 monuments ^

Monument 1
The earliest evidence for the Kingdom of Israel: Shalmaneser III's Kurkh stele (above) lists King Ahab the Israelite.

Monument 2
A short time later his Black Obilisk mentions King Jehu the son of Omri.

Monument 3
... and from a Moabite inscription from about 840 BCE.
Mesha the King of Moab set up this monument
speaking of Israel and its king Omri,
and an unnamed son of Omri.

Monument 4
Philip R. Davies wrote his book before the discovery of the Tel Dan inscription. This monument was immediately jumped on by many as proof that Israel was ruled by a House of David. It does speak of a "king of Israel", and also mentions a "Bethdawd" (read by many as "House of David"). But careful studies have since shown that it's "Bethdawd" reference is in fact the name of a small village. (Compare Bethel, Bethlehem, Bethsaida...) It has no reference to a dynasty or a David at all. Tel Dan / Beth David Inscription

Monument 5
Adad-nirari III's Nimrud slab tells of his 803 BCE expedition to Palestine. He lists:

  • Hatti-land
  • Amurru-land
  • Tyre
  • Sidon
  • Land of Omri (the regular Assyrian name for the Kingdom of Israel)
  • Edom
  • Philistia (Palestine?)
  • Aram (not Judah)
Monument 6
Then his Rimah stele mentions King Joash of Samaria.

Monument 7
Tiglath-pileser III lists King Menahem of Samaria in a list of other conquered north Palestinian and Syrian kingdoms.

Monument 8 -- the last record of the Kingdom of Israel
Sargon II records his conquest of Samaria and the 'whole house of Omri'. After this Assyrian conquest there was no more state called "Israel". This land of Omri around the city of Samaria became a province of Assyria, and that was the end of the Kingdom of Israel.

What the 8 Monuments tell us
Not a lot, except that from about 853 BCE to about 722 BCE we have clear evidence of a small kingdom of Israel around the city of Samaria. The regular Assyrian name for this kingdom was Land of Omri or House of Omri (c.f. I Kings 16:16-23). The only capital mentioned is Samaria. Without the Bible would historians have even called this Kingdom "Israel" at all? It would more likely be known as "Omri".

The Kingdom of Judah -- the archaeological record ^

Part 1. The Missing Kingdom

Archaeological evidence of the settlement of the Judaean highlands (a separate process from northern settlement above) "makes it extremely difficult to conceive of the formation of a state until ... 900-800 BCE" (Davies, p.64). The evidence points to sparse population and scarce material resources. This is evidence against the possibility of there being any sizeable empire or kingdom until that time.

According to the archaeological evidence Jerusalem did not exist before 900 or 800 BCE.

There was no conquering kingdom of David or great and wealthy empire of Solomon. Even if a David or Solomon did exist they would have known nothing of a city of Jerusalem, and certainly had no way to wield power beyond a few hills.

Old claims by biblical archaeologists that Solomon was responsible for the major building activity at Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor at this time are inspired by the Bible story. They have no basis in the archaeological evidence alone.

The Great Karnak Relief in Egypt lists the many places plundered by Pharaoh Sheshonq I (I Ki 14 = Shishak). Although his campaign was in areas in or bordering Israel and Judah, his monument contains not a single mention of Israel or Judah.

There is no evidence for the limits of Israel's kingdom, and no evidence of any united kingdom of Israel and Judah. The archaeological evidence tells us that the northern and southern highlands were settled and developed independently. There was no link between them. It is implausible to suggest Israel (which did evolve into a small kingdom) broke away from Judah (which was nothing more than very sparse and insignificant settlements.)

Part 2. Found At Last

The evidence suggests the likelihood that Judah was formed as a state in the 800's BCE, possibly by the Assyrians: Evidence accumulated by Jamieson-Drake establishes the impossibility of a Davidic empire based in Jerusalem. Judah became a state and Jerusalem a major administrative centre only in the 700's BCE at the earliest! Assyrian and Babylonian records first refer to Judah (King Ahaz, ca 734 BCE) just prior to the fall of Samaria.

There is no evidence that this kingdom of Judah was ever thought of as Israel. (It is possible that the northern kingdom of Israel, and perhaps this late kingdom of Judah, saw themselves as part of a 'greater Israel', but there is no archaeological evidence for this. Another possibility is that the idea that Judah was somehow linked with Israel may have been a consequence of Israelites fleeing south from invading Assyrians. But the idea of a link between the two kingdoms may also have been a later fictional invention. We have no way of knowing from the surviving evidence.)

The Religion of Israel and Judah -- the archaeological evidence ^

Each kingdom no doubt had city cults, dynastic cults and popular cults. These three religious forms were the standard fare in all Middle Eastern cultures at the time.

The Moabite Mesha stele [monument 3 above] from 840 BCE tells us Yahweh (YHWH) was an Israelite deity worshipped in the disputed territory at Nebo. He was dragged off (presumably a statue from his sanctuary) before the Moabite god Chemosh.

The Kuntileet "Ajrud" inscriptions (ca. 800 BCE) refer to "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" and "Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah". The Khirbet el-Qom inscription (ca. 700 BCE) further suggests that this worship of Yahweh and his female companion was widespread.

Countless female figurines are the most common archaeological artefact dug up during this period.

The Assyrians sent inhabitants from this region to found a military colony at Elephantine in Egypt. Much later, during Persian times, the descendants of these "Israelite" colonists left papyri texts mentioning the god Yahu (probably=Yahweh) alongside the gods Bethel and Anath.

The names of Israelite kings and other individuals suggest that the god Yahweh was at least as popular as other gods. The inscriptions show an equal mix of Yahwistic and non-Yahwistic names in Samaria (e.g. Shemaryahu, Gaddijahu, Yehau-el; Elisha, Ba'lah, Meribaal).

Several sanctuaries have been found in Israel -- at Dan, Hazor, Bethshean and elsewhere.

There are mostly Yahwistic royal and non-royal names in the archaeological record, but the evidence is meagre.

Remains of temples have been found at Lachish, Beersheba, Ta'anek, Deir 'Alla, and elsewhere. Perhaps all of these are Yahweh shrines, but no there is no evidence to confirm this.

Thus Yahweh appears to be a major deity in Israel and Judah, but he was also a deity well-known in Syria and Cisjordan: --

-- The Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser's Zinjirli inscription refers to a ruler, Azariah (AzarYAH = a Yahwistic name), of a kingdom of Y'di in northern Syria;
-- Sargon's annals mention King Iaubidi (YAHubidi) of Hamath in Syria;
-- Letters from Arad (ca. 600 BCE) contain overwhelmingly Yahwistic names. (One of the letters reads: "The king of Judah should know..." suggesting Arad was not ruled by a Judaean king.)
Some archaeologists think Yah, like El, may be a generic term meaning 'god'.

The Yahwistic names of the kings of Jerusalem may reflect Jerusalem's dependence on Samaria and a need to adopt the same deity. It should not be forgotten that Jerusalem was named after the god Shalem. Nor was Samaria named after Yahweh, nor its kings Omri and Ahab. All this may indicate that the god Yahweh was adopted as a latecomer.

Summing up the Evidence ^

Historical Israel versus Literary (Biblical) Israel

From the above we can know the following:
  1. The name "Israel" existed in Palestine from beginning of Iron Age, but it is impossible to be sure if it referred to a people or some area.
  2. The society of the northern Palestinian highlands took its name from this source, at least during the monarchy.
  3. This political state lasted till 722 BCE.
  4. It had no distinctive ethnic identity and no religious unity. (This should not surprise us. In a monarchic state there is no reason for an ethnic identification process or religious unity. The power of the monarchy is enough to create the social identity needed; and there is no need for a religious cult to extend beyond the ruling classes.)
The Israel of biblical literature is a kingdom as well as an ethnic and religious identity. Historical Israel, on the other hand, is a kingdom but not an ethnic or religious identity.

Is it possible that the creators of the biblical Israel drew on historical Israel for their ideas?

The archaeological data gives no clues to:

  • the biblical idea of the Canaanites (non-Israelites);
  • the monotheistic ideal;
  • the idea of ethnic exclusivism;
  • a cult obsessed with purity;
  • the idea of a settlement or invasion from outside;
  • the hatred of the Canaanites.
There are no clues in historical Israel for where any of these ideas emerged from, or whose interest they would benefit. The conditions and need for such ideas are not present in historical Israel.

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