The Quantum Thomist

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Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 17: The early Monarchy


Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 18: The fall of the Israelite Kingdoms
Last modified on Mon Feb 21 08:50:55 2022


Introduction

This is the eighteenth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation, Professor Stenger made a brief mention of Biblical archaeology, making the (rather common) claim that not only is there is no evidence for most of the Old Testament, but some parts of the Old Testament are directly contradicted by the archaeological evidence. My intention is to answer this criticism, or at least give hints as to how it might be answered.

The first post in this mini-series gave a general introduction to the topic of Old Testament archaeology as a whole. The subsequent posts discuss individual periods and topics. This post will (finally) conclude my presentation. It has been a lot more work than I thought it would be when I decided to review Professor Stenger's book. A lesson in why you shouldn't jump to a different speciality, particularly a technical field such as ancient history or archaeology. But, in defence, I am critiquing a book whose author was even less knowledgeable about these topics involved than I am.

This time, I will discuss a period where all but the most hardened of minimalists will admit that the Biblical account agrees well with the external evidence, namely the later period of the Israelite monarchy, from King Omri to the exile in Babylon. This period is described in the books of 1 Kings, 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. It also coincides with the prophetic writings. There are lot more relevant extra-biblical writings than has been the case for the time periods of the previous posts. No longer are we scraping around fragments, getting excited over every letter inscribed on a piece of pottery. The records we possess are still incomplete -- as is invariably the case when discussing ancient history -- but they are considerably less incomplete than for other periods. We actually have a substantial quantity of records discussing the situation in Israel and its neighbours, for pretty much the first time since the Amarna letters. In other words, to piece together an extra-Biblical history of the region. we no longer have to do the best we can from hints from reconstructed shards of pottery: it is all there in writing.

The Biblical authors are, of course, biased. The message they want to convey is the simple one that under good Kings the country prospers, while under bad Kings the country suffers. This doesn't necessarily mean that the texts are inaccurate, but it does affect their selection of material to include and how they present it. Equally, the extra-biblical texts are also biased. They were usually commissioned by some ruler of the ancient world, and were intended to tell the message "I'm great and so are my gods." As such, they are also selective in their materials. We thus don't expect everything in the Biblical account to appear in the extra-Biblical records, nor everything in the extra-Biblical records to appear in the Bible. We do, however, expect a correlation between the two accounts. A lack of correlation would be evidence of the falsity of the Bible.

Inscriptions

We have little substantial inscriptional evidence from ancient Israel. The people who lived in that land did not use clay tablets as their primary writing medium as in ancient Mesopotamia, nor did they carve records of their victories on the walls of their temples as the Egyptians did. Nor did their temples survive to our day, except for the foundations and lower parts of the walls as uncovered by archaeology. Mostly they would have used Papyrus scrolls, which have long since rotted away. We do have the occasional example of writing inked onto a pottery fragment. These are enough for us to know that there was literacy in the society, and to understand the ancient script, but doesn't reveal much about history.

But there are a few exceptions, and the most prominent of them belong to this period.

The Mesha stele was set up by the King of Moab mentioned in 2 Kings 3:4. That passage in the Bible tells how Mesha, King of Moab, was originally in tribute to the King of Israel in the times of Ahab. On the death of Ahab, he rebelled. The Kings of Israel and Judah allied to put down the rebellion, and, despite an initial success (involving a victory in the open field and destruction of some towns), ultimately the Israelites failed and were forced to withdraw. The Mesha stele tells the other side of the story. It describes how Omri (Ahab's father) was determined to oppress Moab, and then how Omri's son (which could mean descendent) desired to continue the oppression. The oppression lasted for about 40 years. Mesha attacked cities held by the men of Gad, killed many people, and devoted their worship vessels to his God. The King of Israel responded, but Mesha defeated him. Mesha then rebuilt numerous cities, and started to expand to the South (in this section he mentions the house of David). At that point, the text becomes damaged, and the conclusion is missing.

There are differences between the two accounts, but none of them surprising. The Biblical author, after a long passage describing the early victories, summarises the eventual defeat of Israel and Judah in a single verse. The Moab stele gives a single line to the King of Israel fighting back, but concentrates on Mesha's victories. But this sort of selective bias is to be expected in an ancient text. Mesha's descriptions of his rebuilding cities is not inconsistent with those cities having just been destroyed. There also is a slight mismatch in the chronology. According to the Mesha stele, Omri began the oppression which lasted for 40 years. Omri reigned for 12 years, Ahab for 22 years; Jehoram for 12 years; the rebellion occurred early in Jehoram's reign. However, 40 years was often used in ancient texts (including the Bible) as a generic round number, and Omri was an Israelite general before he became King, so there is enough flexibility to cover the discrepancy.

The next inscription is the Tell Dan stele. This is again fragmentary, and harder to precisely date. It was set up by the King of Aram, and tells the story of a war between the King of Aram and the Kings of Israel and Judah. In the days of the King's predecessor, Israel and Aram had fought, with Israel occupying the land. Then the King, by the grace of his god, came to power, and started to reverse the situation. Despite sending a large force against him, the Israelite Kings were defeated. He names his adversaries, but the text is damaged at this point and the names are difficult to read and have been disputed. The most likely reading is Joram King of Israel, and Ahaziah son of Jehoram of the house of David. The King of Aram claimed to have killed them both. After this battle, the King of Aram continued to wage war against Israel, although from here the inscription is severely damaged and we cannot read any more than a few isolated words. The closest Biblical parallel is 2 Kings 8:28, where Joram and Ahaziah waged war together against Hazael of Aram at Ramoth-gilead. The Aramites won the battle. In the Biblical account, Joram and Ahaziah both survived the battle, although Joram was severely wounded. However, while Joram was recovering, both Joram and Ahaziah were assassinated by Jehu, who claimed the throne of Israel. Hazael continued to take land from Israel during Jehu's reign. The territories East of the Jordan were lost during this time, and Hazael even threatened Jerusalem.

As well as in the Biblical text, Hazael is named in Assyrian inscriptions, and he was one of the most powerful rulers of the time. The Assyrians fought against Aram under Shalmaneser III and Adadnirari III, and it was likely these attacks which eventually brought relief to Israel and Judah (2 Kings 13:5). Any joy that the Israelites experienced would be brief: the new bully on the scene would prove to be worse than the old one.

The obvious difference between the two accounts is that in the Tell Dan stele, the King of Aram claimed to have killed the Kings of Israel and Judah, while in the Biblical text the two Kings were assassinated by an Israelite in the aftermath of their defeat in battle. This is, however, the sort of discrepancy that is seen in comparing ancient accounts of the same event. Possible explanations are that the King of Aram was claiming someone else's deeds as his own; or he was using hyperbole and exaggerating. Both of these are well attested in ancient inscriptions. An alternative is that he was misinformed and believed the two Kings to have died from their wounds (the King of Israel at least retreated from the battle severely wounded and both Kings died soon afterwards: it would not be an unreasonable conclusion to draw, or to want to claim), and either didn't know or disbelieved the story of their assassination. Otherwise, the account on the Tell Dan stele fits the Biblical description well.

2 Chronicles 32:3 and 23:30 describes a tunnel built by King Hezekiah of Judah, diverting the waters of the Gihon spring to within the walls of Jerusalem. This was presumably part of his preparations for the Assyrian assault on Jerusalem. This tunnel was discovered in the 19th century. The workers built from each end. They left an inscription in Hebrew, dated to the time of Hezekiah by the writing style, commemorating the moment they met up and the water flowed into the city.

People in ancient Israel made heavy use of seals. When sending a scroll, they would tie it up, place some wet clay over the edge of the scroll, and stamp it with their seal, so it could not be opened without breaking or tearing off the clay. This both authenticated the document, and gave a guarantee that it had not been read in transit. Seal impressions have also been found on jars, to claim ownership of the contents of the jars. The seal impressions are known as bullae. They might contain an image, and usually -- not always -- also gave the name of the sender.

While the documents themselves have long since rotted away, numerous bullae have been found in ancient Israel, particularly in Jerusalem. Other names are inscribed on ossaries or in tombs. We have clear attestation for (and there are others I have omitted):

  1. Abiyaw and Shebanyaw, servants of King Uzziah. The two officials are unattested in the Biblical text; but the King also mentioned on the seals was one of Judah's most powerful rules. For example see 2 Chronicles 26.
  2. Hezekiah, son of Ahaz (2 Chronicles 29, etc.) Attested on several seal impressions.
  3. High priest Azariah, son of Hilkiah (2 Chronicles 34:9; Ezra 7:1)
  4. Eliakim, son of Hilkiah (2 Kings 18:18)
  5. The scribe Shaphan (2 Chronicles 34:8)
  6. Gemariah son of Saphan (Jeremiah 36:12)
  7. Jucal, son of Shelemiah (Jeremiah 38:1)
  8. Gedaliah, son of Pashur (Jeremiah 38:1)
  9. Shema, servant of Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23)
  10. Abdi, servant of Hoshea (2 Kings 17:1)
  11. Amariah, son of the King (Zephaniah 1:1)
Probable links to Biblical characters include (we can't be completely sure that the inscription refers to the same individual named in the Biblical text, or someone else of the same name):
  1. Nathan-Melech, servant of the king (2 Kings 23:11)
  2. Hezir the priest (1 Chronicles 24:15)
  3. Jakim the priest (1 Chronicles 24:12)
  4. Shebnah, official (2 Kings 18:18)
  5. Hananiah, son of Azaryahu (Jeremiah 28:1)
  6. the scribe Baruch, son of Neriah (Jeremiah 36:4). This is attested on two Bullae, but both were found on the common market rather than in an excavation, and thus it is unclear whether they are genuine or forgeries.
  7. Isaiah the Prophet (2 Kings 19:2). This bulla, discovered in the royal archives in Jerusalem close to a Hezekiah bulla, is damaged, and the reading is controversial. The name Isaiah is clearly attested. The remaining legible letters spell out the word for "prophet", but some question whether there were additional letters in the damaged section which would change this word to the name of the man's father or hometown.

This list is not comprehensive (and, no doubt, even less comprehensive if you are reading it some years after I have written this), but it gives a good selection of the individuals named in various inscriptions found in and around Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. Many of these have only been found in recent years. There are, of course, additionally plenty of Bullae and other inscriptions which record names not found in the Biblical text. Some of the people named in the list above are major figures who contribute greatly to Biblical history; others are minor court officials mentioned in passing in the text. Most of them date from the last part of the divided monarchy through to the early Babylonian control of the land. They attest that the Biblical writers got the little details concerning the names of officials correct, and thus were likely to be working from contemporary accounts. The smaller details, such as personal names of minor officials soon forgotten by history, are rarely found in fictional or forged accounts.

The Assyrian invasion of Israel

The Assyrians, based on the bend of the Tigris in what is now Northern Iraq, were one of the superpowers of the ancient world. The Tigris and Euphrates provided a reliable water resource, allowing for stable agriculture and a strong civilisation. Like most ancient civilisations, their kingdom had periods when it was strong, which would continue for a while before a collapse, and then later a rebuilding. For most of their periods of strength, the Assyrians were prevented from expanding too far to the West by strong neighbours, such as the kingdoms of Mari, Mitanni and the Hittites. By the 10th century BC, all those civilisations had collapsed. The remaining regional powers, such as Aram, Phoenicia and Israel, were not powerful enough to challenge the Assyrians. The Assyrians also provided us with some of the best-preserved records from the ancient world, both on clay tablets and in reliefs in palaces and temples. We are probably more confident in our knowledge of Assyrian history than we are about any other ancient nation.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Assyrian Kingdom was in a period of internal decline during the 11th and early part of the 10th century. That changed with the ascension of Adad-nirari II in 911 BC. Adad-nirari and his son mainly concentrated on seizing land to the South, from Babylon, although they also spread along the Euphrates. Under Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC), The Assyrians expanded in Mesopotamia and parts of Iran, and burst through to the Mediterranean coast. At this point they became the dominant power in the Middle East. Under Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC), their rule expanded further into Babylonia, and also into Aram. This marked the first encounter with Israel and its neighbours; although the Assyrian expansion into Assyria was briefly halted at this time as they needed to focus on Babylonia and Urartu (around the modern Iran/Turkey border). This period of consolidation continued until the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC). Tiglath-Pileser conquered Babylon, Damascus, and took tribute from Israel and Judah. He seemed to have begun the Assyrian practice of deportation conquered people and scatter them around the Empire. The deportations focused on the most able and high ranking members of the society. This tactic was intended to destroy any sense of national identity, and reduce the risk of rebellion. For the most part, it seems to have worked. Many Israelites were carried out of the land at this time. Shalmaneser V (727–722 BC) left few surviving records, but the Biblical text indicates that he completed the conquest of Israel. Sargon II (722–705 BC) consolidated the Empire, and was followed by Sennacherib (705–681 BC), who expanded the Empire into Judah and Elam. There was also a brief rebellion in Babylon at this time, which for a few years gained independence before the Assyrians again crushed them. Esarhaddon (681–669 BC) attacked Egypt, and Ashurbanipal (669–631 BC) completed the job and forced Egypt into vassal a status. By Ashurbanipal's death, the Assyrians controlled almost the entire Middle East, except perhaps the surviving remnants of the Kingdom of Judah (although King Manasseh at least gave tribute to the Assyrians as the price of this independence). However, Ashurbanipal's reign marked the high point of the Assyrian Empire. Divisions over the succession gave Elam and Babylon a window to rebel, and gradually Elam, Babylon and Media would capture Mesopotamia from the Assyrians. The final defeat came at the Battle of Carchemesh, where a Babylonian army defeated the last Assyrian King and his Egyptian ally.

The Assyrians were absolutely brutal to their conquered subjects, and ruled through fear.

The first Biblical mention of the Assyrians is either in 2 Kings 15:19 or Hoshea 5:13; it is not clear precisely Hoshea uttered his prophecy since he was active both before and after Menahem. These two passages might be referring to the same incident. Hoshea chapter 10 possibly references Shalmaneser III's campaigns in Aram. King Pul of Assyria (Tigalth-Pileser; his name before taking the throne was Pulu) attacked the land, and Menahem gave him a thousand talents of silver in tribute. Menahem's successor, Pekah, fared worse. This time the Assyrians absorbed Israel's Northern and trans-Jordan territories into its empire, and took their people into exile. The next reference to the Assyrians in 2 Kings records King Ahaz of Judah's dealings with Tigalth-Pileser. The King of Judah bribed the Assyrians to attack Aram and Israel who had been assaulting Jerusalem. King Hoshea of Israel was attacked by Shalmaneser V, and initially paid him tribute. However, Hoshea tried to switch sides to Egypt, which caused Assyria to invade the land. Samaria was captured, and the Northern Israelite tribes were carried away and settled in distant corners of the empire. They were at this point lost to history.

The first mention of Israel and Judah in Assyrian records is a little bit earlier than Assyria is mentioned in the Bible. In 853BC the Kingdoms of Aram and Israel briefly allied themselves to counter the growing Assyrian threat. They fought against Shalmeneser III shortly after he had destroyed the city of Qarqar in Aram. Shalmaneser described the forces arrayed against him, which included Ahab and his Biblical foe Hadad-ezer of Damascus. Ahab of Israel contributed one of the largest military forces to the coalition, including 2000 chariots. Shalmaneser claimed a magnificent victory, although Assyrian Kings always did so it is hard to discern how much to read into this.

The Next Biblical King mentioned in Assyrian documents was Jehu of Israel, a few years later. Shalmaneser III continued his attack, and assaulted Damascus. The record of this campaign is in the Black Obelisk, currently in the British Museum, which lists Jehu as giving tribute to the Assyrian King, amongst other local rulers, and even has a picture of the Israelite King bowing down to the Assyrians as he offered tribute.

Adad-Nirari III left a record of a campaign he conducted against Damascus, and again he took tribute from the local powers, including Jehoash of Samaria and the rulers of Tyre and Sidon.

Next we have the records of Tigalth-Pilesar. These are a little more fragmentary than some of the other Assyrian Kings. However, Tigalth-Pilesar boasts how Menahem was overwhelmed like a snowstorm, and bowed at his feet. Menahem is recorded as one of 17 Kings giving tribute to the Assyrian King. A later annual of Tigalth-Pilesar records how King Jeohahaz of Judah gave tribute to him; a longer form of the name of the King known in the Bible as Ahaz. Tigalth-Pilesar also mentioned how he took the people of Omri's land captive into Assyria, referring to the capture of the Galilean towns and trans-Jordan.

The last days of the Israelite Kingdom are also recorded in the Mesopotamian records. Tigalth-Pilesar records how he placed Hoshea as ruler in place of Pekah (in the Biblical account, Hoshea assassinated Pekah and took his place). The Assyrian records are damaged for the relevant years, but there is a reference in the Babylonian Chronicle to Shalmaneser's capture of Samaria. Shalmaneser died around the time the city was captured, and it was left to his successor Sargon II to finish the work and deport the people. Sargon claimed credit for the victory in Israel, and records that he deported 27000 Israelites.

The destruction of the Northern Kingdom is well attested in the archaeological record. The population of Galilee decreased dramatically following Tigalth-Pileser's campaign, and numerous cities show thick destruction layers.

The Assyrian invasion of Judah

With the fall of the Northern Kingdom, and the deportation of its people and their absorption into Assyrian society, Judah stood alone; the last remnant of Israel. Against it was the might of the Assyrian Empire; and Judah was next in line. King Hezekiah had come to the throne shortly before Samaria fell. The Biblical account records that Hezekiah was the King of Jerusalem most devoted to Yahweh since David, and (given the Biblical writer's bias of good Kings prosper and bad Kings fail) he needed to be. In less than a decade after the fall of Samaria, the Assyrians began their assault on Judah. By now Sennacherib was on the throne. Hezekiah had used the time well; to repair fortifications, and dig the tunnel that diverted Jerusalem's water supply into the walls.

The Biblical text, recorded in Kings, Chronicles and Isaiah, focuses on the siege of Jerusalem. Hezekiah first of all attempted to bribe the Assyrians not to attack. The Assyrians took the gold and carried on. The Assyrian armies surrounded Jerusalem, and taunted Hezekiah and Israel's God. The siege began. There seems to be a brief respite when the Egyptian Pharoah Taharqa joined the fray in support of the Canaanite powers still resisting the Assyrians, but any break was short-lived. The Assyrians were soon back.

And then, Isaiah's miracle happened. The angel of the Lord struck down 180000 Assyrian soldiers (possibly an epidemic taking out a large portion of the army), and Sennacherib was forced to withdraw to his own land. Sennacherib would shortly afterwards be assassinated, and succeeded by his son Esarhaddon. Esarhaddon would continue the wars, eventually overcoming the big prize of Egypt. The book of Chronicles chapter 33 records another Assyrian attack on Judah during which the most evil King Manasseh, Hezekiah's successor, was briefly held captive. It seems that the Kingdom of Judah subsequently remained subservient to the Assyrians, but it would not be absorbed into the Empire.

So the note of the Biblical text is an optimistic one. Assyria had been defeated. Judah survived as an independent Kingdom.

However, the Old Testament still doesn't hide that this came at a huge cost. It specifically mentions that the cities of Libnah and Lachish, Judah's most important city outside Jerusalem, were taken by the Assyrians, alongside other fortified cities. Many of the people of Judah would have been exiled at the time. What was left was a small rump around Jerusalem. Judah might have survived, but it was seriously weakened. It did seem to recover, to an extent. While the Biblical text is not complementary about Manasseh, but during the long reigns of Manasseh and Josiah, Judah did seem to return to something like its previous state.

As with the Kings of Israel, the Kings of Judah are mentioned in Assyrian records.

The Assyrian attack on Judah is recorded in numerous inscriptions. In particular, I will mention a set of panels found in his palace in Ninevah which depict the siege of Lachish. The relief is now in the British Museum, and even with the paint long since worn away is still impressive. The relief shows that vastly outnumbered and outclassed Judean forces fought bravely, the Assyrians built a siege ramp to take the city. Archaeologists at Lachish have discovered this ramp, and the subsequent destruction of the city.

Sennacherib's campaign is recorded in his annals. Today we possess three copies of this; I am most familiar with the one in the British museum. The prism claims that 46 Judean cities and many smaller towns were taken by Sennacherib, with over 200 000 people deported, along with much plunder. The territory was given to the Philistines. Hezekiah is shut up in his city, and attempts to buy off the Assyrians. However, no mention is made of the capture of Jerusalem. The Assyrian failure against Jerusalem is also recorded by the (much later) Greek historian Herodotus (admittedly not the most reliable source).

Further Assyrian records mention that King Manasseh was forced to contribute to the building of Esarhaddon's place, and to fight as part of Ashurbanipal's army in the campaign against Egypt.

The Assyrian assault on Judah is well attested in the archaeological record, with destruction layers indicating the extent of the Assyrian invasion.

The Babylonian invasion

Judah survived the Assyrians, but that wasn't the end of it. The Babylonians are first introduced as a threat during the reign of Hezekiah, where ambassadors from the Babylonian King Merodach-Baladan (or Marduk-apal-iddina) were received. This event coincided with a Babylonian revolt against Assyria during the last years of Sennacherib's reign. That revolt did not go well for the Babylonians, but they would recover.

Judah was given space to recover. Hezekiah was succeeded by the evil Manasseh, who ruled for over 50 years. Unlike his father, Manasseh was not pious, and tried to suppress worship of Yahweh, even setting up idols in Solomon's temple. This angered Yahweh, who withdrew his protection from the final Israelite tribes. In the Mosaic covenant, it was recorded that if the Israelites disobeyed then a series of increasingly severe curses would come against them until they repented. After threats of disease, famine and madness, it was promised that a ruler from a distant land would first of all oppress the land, and then take the people into exile. This had already happened to Israel, who had persisted in unfaithfulness and idolatry. The land of Judah had already been oppressed under the Assyrians. The sins of Manasseh (according to the book of Kings) was sufficient to trigger that final punishment and exile.

However, there was a reprieve. Manasseh's grandson, Josiah, was a righteous King. He repaired, cleansed and restored the temple, rediscovered the scrolls of the Torah, and re-established the religion of Yahweh. With Assyria now weakened by the Babylonian revolt, Josiah was able to expand his influence as far as Bethel. For a short time, with Assyrian power weakening, Judah was able to prosper.

Josiah had a small part to play in the final days of the Assyrian Empire. When Necho II marched out of Egypt to support the Assyrian remnant at would would turn out to be the decisive battle of Carchemesh, he had to march past Judah's land. Rather unwisely, Josiah decided to lead his army out to oppose the Egyptians. Judah's forces were defeated. The Egyptians came to Jerusalem and installed the evil King Jehoiakim in his place as their puppet. The Egyptians then continued to Carchemesh, where they were overcome by the Babylonians. The Babylonians then turned their attention to capturing Assyria's former Empire. For three years Jehoiakim was forced to pay tribute to them. Then he rebelled. For the remaining years of Jehoiakim's rule the land was terrorised first by Judah's neighbours, and then by the Babylonians. Jehoiakim died shortly before the Babylonian recapture of Jerusalem, leaving his son Jehoiachin with three months to face the inevitable retribution. By this time, the Babylonians had forced the Egyptians back into their own country, and there would be no help from Africa. Jehoiachin was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, who installed Zedekiah in his place, and forced a heavy tribute. At this time many of the leading men of Judah, including Daniel and Ezekiel, were taken into captivity. It would not be long until Zedekiah rebelled. The Babylonians returned in Zedekiah's ninth year, and after a two year long siege, captured and destroyed Jerusalem including Solomon's temple, and took the rest of the leading people into exile. A remnant left in the land, but these soon fled to Egypt fearing reprisals after the Babylonian governor was assassinated. Thus ended the Kingdom of Judah.

Babylon is also mentioned extensively in the later prophets, starting from Isaiah chapter 13 (written before the Assyrian invasion), but particularly in Jeremiah, which unfolds as the Babylonians were taking over the land, and Ezekiel and Daniel which give the viewpoint of those in exile.

We have decent but not complete records about this the early part of this period from Babylon. The Babylonian chronicles offer a brief year by year description of the Babylonian campaigns against the Levant. Following his victory at Carchemesh, Nebuchadnezzar chased the Egyptian forces to the South, claiming all of the land. Over the next three years he took a great deal of tribute, but in the fourth year was forced to withdraw to regroup following a battle against Egypt. This sets the scene for Jehoiakim's rebellion. The Babylonians remained in their own lands for a few years to recover from their battle. Then they returned in force. In Nebuchadnezzar's seventh year, he resumed his attack on the Levant, besieged the city of Judah, and captured its King (Jehoiachin). The chronicle records that Nebuchadnezzar appointed his own King, and received a heavy tribute. Nebuchadnezzar returned to receive tribute regular tribute from the people of the Levant.

At this point, shortly before Zedekiah's rebellion (as recorded in the Old Testament), the Babylonian chronicle becomes too fragmentary to continue the story. We do, however, possess some tablets recording the rations provided to various people in Babylon, which name Jehoiachin of Judah, alongside other rulers from the region.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is well attested archaeologically, with large quantities of ash present and dating from the early sixth century in all areas of the city that have been excavated. The city was then abandoned for a short time, in agreement with the Biblical account.

The return from exile

Of course, the destruction of the first temple wasn't the end of Jewish history. The Jews maintained their identity during their exile, and gradually returned to Israel after the Persians had come to rule over the Babylonian empire. The temple was rebuilt. Worship of Yahweh was restored, this time without the continual temptation to convert to the Canaanite religions. It is likely that the final redaction of the Hebrew Old Testament, including its transcription into the modern Hebrew script, occurred at around this time, and the Canon of the Hebrew Bible was established (albeit that books continued to be added to the Greek translation of the Old Testament). There would be more adventures, not least during the Greek invasion of Persia under Alexander, subsequent Selucid domination of Israel, and then the Roman alliance which turned into Roman domination, but I will leave the story here. There is no dispute that I am aware of about this period of Jewish history.

Conclusions

I am going to end this review of Old Testament history here. There are still a few questions I have not addressed, for example concerning the books of Jonah, Daniel and Esther. There are questions raised for those books, but I have already spent too much time. The history of Israel from the Persian period onwards is reasonably well known and established, and I don't think that any historian seriously doubts the accounts in (for example) the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Josephus and 1 Maccabees.

The Old Testament account of the last years of Israel and Judah is in as good an agreement with the external histories as we have any right to expect. There are a few minor discrepancies between the Biblical records and the other accounts, but no more than is usual when comparing accounts of the same event recorded by two competing ancient civilisations.

Across all these posts, my goal has been to try to find points of inconsistency between the Biblical and archaeological accounts. It is complicated because there are at least two chronologies of the Biblical events which proposed, and even within those two chronologies some minor variations. The bests supported Biblical chronologies, and the two which I have considered are the late chronology (13th century BC Exodus, 18th century BC Abraham) and the early chronology (15th century BC Exodus, 21st century BC Abraham). Both views have their advocates and their critics. It is interesting to note that the primary modern day advocates of the late view tend to be Egyptologists (such as Kitchen, Millard, and Hoffmeier). There are also plenty of archaeologists of ancient Israel who believe that evidence for the Exodus and conquest, and emergence of ancient Israel, should be searched for in the the 13th and 12th century BC, but these are mainly the minimalists who deny the historicity of the Biblical text. The maximalist archaeologists of Israel or specialists in the Old Testament (such as Wood, Stripling, and Merrill) tend to favour the 15th century conquest date. This, I think, that the evidence correlating the Torah with Egypt best fits the 19th dynasty, while the archaeology of Israel which most closely matches the conquest accounts (and, perhaps equally importantly, the accounts from Judges) is from the LB1 period (i.e. mid-18th dynasty). In particular, I think there are particular problems in reconciling the archaeology of the Judges period with a LB2 conquest (where the Judges period would have to be squeezed into IA1), while it fits very nicely with a LB1 conquest (where the judges period spans LB2 and IA1). This is particularly with respects to the findings at Hazor, Jericho, Schechem and Shiloh, and the emergence of hill country fortresses at the time of Gideon. Primarily for this reason I think that the early chronology gives the best match between the biblical account and the archaeology, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise if new evidence emerges.

In practice, the evidence isn't perfect for either the early or late chronologies. There are a number of clear anomalies in both cases between the biblical account and the archaeology. In particular, the early chronology also seems to require a non-standard reconstruction of the pottery stratigraphy of the LB1 period at various sites in the Negev, trans-Jordan and Jericho (redating occupation levels conventionally dated to early LB1 or even late MB III to the end of LB1), which is not widely accepted by experts in the field. So the maximalists of both camps still have work to do. The minimalists, on the other hand, have also overstated their case. I don't think that any of the anomalies are irresolvable. This is partly due to the limited nature of archaeological evidence (only a small fraction survived to our age, and a small fraction of that has been excavated) and the uncertainties in interpreting the data and inherent to the archaeological method. There are also anachronisms in the Biblical text, and descriptions of culture and places which tie the text of the first six books to the Late Bronze Age, which are difficult to reconcile with the minimalist claim that the books were works of fiction composed centuries after the events. These provide evidence of the Bible's reliability. Minimalists also often fail in their interpretation of the Biblical text; failing to consider whether a particular passage could have different readings, or to look at the wider context, or to question whether the evidence they expect to find is what we would truly expect from the text. Minimalists rely too much on a fallacious argument from silence. The Biblical account should only be considered disproved if there is positive evidence against it (i.e. something that explicitly contradicts the Biblical account). An argument from silence relies on a lack of evidence, and tries to draw conclusions from that. That an event didn't happen would certainly explain a lack of evidence, but there are invariably also plenty of other reasons why the evidence might not be there; not least that so little data has survived from ancient times, and much of that which has survived (such as Egyptian temple inscriptions) is heavily biased.

In other words, we need more evidence. The data we have right now is insufficient to come to a firm conclusion about the reliability of the Biblical text. The evidence supporting the Biblical account has increased substantially in the past twenty or thirty years, answering a number of problems. There are still more problems to answer. There are still places where we have to question the standard dating of a strata, or where we have to suppose that an occupation layer was destroyed by later activity on the site and is thus less evidenced than we might like, or question the standard location of a site, or where a evidential silence is particularly uncomfortable. But in my survey in these blog posts I have not uncovered anything which definitely disproves the Biblical account. There are many points of tension, which I have highlighted as I have encountered them, but no disproof. There is also a great deal of evidence which correlates well with the Old Testament history. The case for Biblical accuracy is as strong as it has been since the 1930s when archaeological investigations began in earnest. It has been growing stronger as more evidence has been uncovered, and I see no reason why that trend should not continue.



Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 19: Revelation, Genesis and Jesus


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