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What Does Archaeology Tell Us about the Hebrew Bible?

Scholars have used archaeology in different ways to understand the history of ancient Israel.


What Does Archaeology Tell Us about the Hebrew Bible?

For those interested in the historical and cultural backgrounds of biblical texts, it is difficult to avoid headlines such as “Who Was the Real Pharaoh of the Exodus?” or “Discovered! King David’s Palace.” The stories behind these sorts of headlines rely heavily on information gleaned from archaeological excavations. Although the relationship is more complex than is often presented, archaeology has been indispensable in helping scholars understand the world of the Hebrew Bible.

Archaeology is an investigation of past lives. In contrast to other studies of the past such as history (which relies primarily on written documents) or paleontology (the study of fossils), archaeology explores human life through physical, material remains. Our clothes, technology, food, dishes, houses, city plans, art, trash, and even our own bodies and impact on the natural world together represent the types of evidence archaeologists use to understand human experiences.

The prospect that archaeology could supply proof of what the Hebrew Bible recounts guided archaeologists and explorers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Countless expeditions sought evidence that would confirm stories from the Bible. For early researchers, biblical events and icons served as historical reference points as well as objects of scholarly pursuit. Commonly, archaeologists’ research agendas were plainly or implicitly tied to biblical accounts. In fact, “biblical archaeology” developed into its own academic specialization in the twentieth century. Although many scholars have shifted away from this terminology in the twenty-first century, its currency remains, especially for broader audiences.

Excavation of many important sites related to the Bible’s history have revealed the physical settings of key stories. Archaeologists at Tel Dan (Tell el-Qadi), for example, exposed a large city with well-preserved remains, including gate complexes and a religious center from the Iron Age, the period of the biblical monarchies. When reading about or touring the site, one cannot help but think of biblical texts, especially related to Jeroboam’s sanctuaries that rivaled the Jerusalem temple (1Kgs 12:25-30). While the site does indeed illustrate the nature of the Iron Age city, it does not contribute evidence about Jeroboam’s life or reign. In fact, overwhelmingly archaeology tells us more about cultural and historical contexts than biblical individuals or events. The exceptions are extraordinary and tend to involve corroborating evidence from inscriptions. Again, Tel Dan provides a useful example. Excavators of the site discovered fragments from a monumental inscription that describes the demise of Israelite and Judahite kings at the hands of an Aramean contemporary. The artifact appears to have been Hazael’s commemoration stele celebrating events recounted in 2Kgs 9.

Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah at the end of the eighth century is perhaps the most striking example of extraordinary connections among different types of evidence. Sennacherib’s inscriptions, wall reliefs from his palace, archaeological evidence, and biblical accounts (2Kgs 18-19; 2Chr 32) show remarkable agreement. The biblical and Assyrian sources emphasize their respective kings’ and gods’ strengths while at the same time corroborating the basic elements of the event. The wall reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh depict the Assyrian victory at Lachish and portray Judahite captives deported from the area. Archaeological evidence across the southern Levant attests to the severity of the Assyrian campaigns. The siege ramp used against Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir) is still a distinctive part of the ruins of the Judahite city and serves as a unique illustration of Iron Age military tactics. Although all of these sources may be invoked in examinations of Hezekiah’s confrontation with the Assyrians, archaeology has the potential to provide evidence from outside of the dominant historical viewpoints of royal records.

Archaeology’s contribution to our understanding of the Hebrew Bible may be even more significant in areas less obviously connected to specific, dramatic events. The predominant views contained in the Hebrew Bible are from an elite, Jerusalemite perspective. Archaeology brings to light the everyday experiences and diversity of the region, especially in terms of status and culture. From desert pastoralist to village farmer to city dweller, there is extensive evidence of various ways of life in many chronological periods. Archaeologists survey large areas, observing artifacts found on the ground and incorporating past excavation evidence to understand population density, which in turn conveys information about times of societal growth or transition. For example in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE, previously urban areas saw a decline in population, and new settlements emerged. While archaeology typically cannot identify the individual inhabitants of these sites, it does provide evidence of great demographic and cultural change.

Researchers reconstruct daily life through the excavation of specific sites (e.g., houses, workshops, and urban areas) and examination of land use and artifacts. Archaeologists collect and analyze pottery, stone tools, animal bones, and in some cases rare goods. From all of this information, scholars learn about how people farmed and herded; how their homes, villages, and cities were organized; what they ate and drank; how they worshiped; how they exhibited their status and identity; and so on. The vast majority of people in the Iron Age lived in rural settings and were occupied with agricultural and herding activities, but there is also evidence of larger, complex sites that played important roles in regional and interregional affairs. In cities and towns, archaeologists look for patterns to identify where public areas were separated from private life and where elite areas such as palaces and temples were concentrated. They also analyze how people shaped the landscape to maximize agricultural efforts and look at the relationships between human dwellings and how and where livestock were housed. Among some of the rarer finds, archaeologists have discovered a large apiary at Tel Rehov, elaborate ivory carvings from Samaria, and massive copper industries in southern Israel and Jordan. These extraordinary discoveries are notable for adding context to well-known biblical passages (e.g., inspiration for the iconic phrase “a land of milk and honey” or lavish decorations in palaces and temples). For archaeologists, such evidence is especially informative for evaluating craft specialization, trade, and wealth disparity.

Archaeology has also been incredibly valuable in shedding light on ancient religion. From the most elaborate temples to the household shrine, excavators have documented architecture and artifacts related to ritual activities across the ancient Near East. In some cases, similarities to biblical descriptions have enhanced an understanding of the Bible. Architectural parallels in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey provide guidance for what the Jerusalem temple might have looked like before the Babylonian destruction of the city. In other cases, apparent contradictions to the Bible have challenged scholars’ assumptions. Alternative sanctuaries, such as the Iron Age temple at Arad, or figurines and inscriptions (notably two that refer to YHWH and Asherah) reveal diverse approaches to the worship of YHWH at the same time that the Bible claims there was exclusive worship at the Jerusalem temple. Such unexpected finds have been instrumental in helping scholars better understand the broader cultural setting from which ancient Israelite religious ideas emerged and how Jerusalem’s religious elite conceived of a particular interpretation of service to YHWH. 

  • malena-sarah

    Sarah Malena is an assistant professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She specializes in intercultural relations in the eastern Mediterranean and how interactions impacted social and ideological change. Sarah is the author of Fertile Crossroads: Elites and Exchange in the Southern Levant’s Early Iron Age (Equinox, forthcoming) and “Influential Inscriptions,” in Writing and Scribalism: Authors, Audiences and Text in Social Context, edited by Mark Leuchter (T&T Clark, 2020).