Life-Grounding, Universalizing and De-Mystifying the “Tribal” GOD of the Ancient Israelites

A Startling New Conclusion by Archeologists About the Origins of the Ancient Israelites

Clipped from: The Bible’s Buried Secrets from 23m:21s – 49m:50s

Excerpted from transcript:

NARRATOR: This convergence between archaeology and the Bible provides a timeframe for the Exodus. It could not have happened before Ramesses became king, around 1275 B.C., and it could not have happened after 1208 B.C., when the stele of pharaoh Merneptah, Ramesses the Second’s son, specifically locates the Israelites in Canaan.

The Bible says the Israelites leave Egypt in a mass migration, 600,000 men and their families, and then wander in the desert for 40 years. But even assuming the Bible is exaggerating, in a hundred years of searching, archaeologists have not yet found evidence of migration that can be linked to the Exodus.

WILLIAM DEVER: No excavated site gives us any information about the route of the wandering through the wilderness. And Exodus is simply not attested anywhere.

NARRATOR: Any historical or archaeological confirmation of the Exodus remains elusive. Yet scholars have discovered that all four groups of biblical writers contributed to some part of the Exodus story.

Perhaps it is for the same reason its message remains powerful to this day: its inspiring theme of freedom.

CAROL MEYERS: Freedom is a compelling notion, and that is one of the ways that we can understand the story of the Exodus: from being controlled by others to controlling oneself, the idea of a change from domination to autonomy. These are very powerful ideas that resonate in the human spirit, and the exodus gives narrative reality to those ideas.

NARRATOR: Following the Exodus, the Bible says God finally delivers the Israelites to the Promised Land, Canaan. Archaeology and sources outside the Bible reveal that Canaan consisted of well-fortified city-states, each with its own king, who in turn served Egypt and its pharaoh.

The Canaanites, a thriving Near Eastern culture for thousands of years, worshipped many gods in the form of idols.

The Bible describes how a new leader, Joshua, takes the Israelites into Canaan in a blitzkrieg military campaign.

VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible “Revised Standard Version,” Joshua 6:20): So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat.

NARRATOR: But what does archaeology say? In the 1930s, British archaeologist John Garstang excavated at Jericho, the first Canaanite city in Joshua’s campaign. Garstang uncovered dramatic evidence of destruction and declared he had found the very walls that Joshua had brought tumbling down.

And at what the Bible describes as the greatest of all Canaanite cities, Hazor, there is more evidence of destruction.

Today, Hazor is being excavated by one of the leading Israeli archaeologists, Amnon Ben-Tor, and his protégé and co-director, Sharon Zuckerman.

AMNON BEN-TOR: I’m walking through a passage between two of the rooms of the Canaanite palace of the kings of Hazor. Signs of the destruction you can still see almost everywhere. You can see the dark stones here and, most important, you can see how they cracked into a million pieces. It takes tremendous heat to cause such damage. The fire here was, how should I say, the mother of all fires.

NARRATOR: Among the ashes, Ben-Tor discovered a desecrated statue, most likely the king or patron god of Hazor. Its head and hands are cut off, apparently by the city’s conquerors.

This marked the end of Canaanite Hazor.

AMNON BEN-TOR: Question number one: Who did it? Who was around, who is a possible candidate?

So, number one: the Egyptians. They don’t mention having done anything at Hazor. In any of the inscriptions at the time, we don’t see Hazor.

Another Canaanite city-state could have done it, maybe. But who was strong enough to do it?

Who are we left with? The Israelites. The only ones about whom there is a tradition that they did it. So, let’s say they should be considered guilty of destruction of Hazor until proven innocent.

NARRATOR: And there’s another Canaanite city-state that Joshua and his army of Israelites are credited with laying waste. It’s called Ai, and has been discovered in what is now the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

Here, archaeologist Hani Nur el-Din and his team are finding evidence of a rich Canaanite culture.

HANI NUR EL-DIN (Al-Quds University): The village first appears and developed into a city, and then there was a kind of fortification surrounding this settlement.

NARRATOR: These heaps of stones were once a magnificent palace and temples, which were eventually destroyed. But when archaeologists date the destruction, they discover it occurred about 2200 B.C. They date the destruction of Jericho to 1500 B.C., and Hazor’s to about 1250 B.C. Clearly, these city-states were not destroyed at the same time; they range over nearly a thousand years. In fact, of the 31 sites the Bible says that Joshua conquered, few showed any signs of war.

WILLIAM DEVER: There was no evidence of armed conflict in most of these sites. At the same time, it was discovered that most of the large Canaanite towns that were supposed to have been destroyed by these Israelites were either not destroyed at all or destroyed by others.

NARRATOR: A single sweeping military invasion led by Joshua cannot account for how the Israelites arrived in Canaan. But the destruction of Hazor does coincide with the time that the Merneptah Stele locates the Israelites in Canaan.

So who destroyed Hazor?

Amnon Ben-Tor still believes it was the Israelites who destroyed the city. But his co-director, Sharon Zuckerman, has a different idea.

SHARON ZUCKERMAN (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): The final destruction itself consisted of the mutilation of statues of kings and gods. It did not consist of signs of war or of any kind of fighting. We don’t see weapons in the street like we see in other sites that were destroyed by foreigners.

NARRATOR: So if there was no invasion, what happened? Excavations reveal that Hazor had a lower city of commoners, serfs and slaves, and an upper city with a king and wealthy elites.

Zuckerman finds, within the grand palaces of elite Hazor, areas of disrepair and abandonment, to archaeologists, signs of a culture in decline and rebellion from within.

SHARON ZUCKERMAN: I would not rule out the possibility of an internal revolt of Canaanites living at Hazor and revolting against the elites that ruled the city.

NARRATOR: In fact, the entire Canaanite city-state system, including Hazor and Jericho, breaks down. Archaeology and ancient texts clearly show that it is the result of a long period of decline and upheaval that sweeps through Mesopotamia, the Aegean region and the Egyptian empire around 1200 B.C.

PETER MACHINIST: And when the dust, as it were, settles, when we can begin to see what takes the place of these…of this great states system, we find a number of new peoples suddenly coming into focus in a kind of void that is created with the dissolution of the great state system.

NARRATOR: Can archaeologists find the Israelites among these new people?

NARRATOR: In the 1970s, archaeologists started wide-ranging surveys throughout the central hill country of Canaan, today, primarily, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN (Tel Aviv University): I was teaching at that time. We used to take students and go twice a week to the highlands, and every day we used to cover between two and three square kilometers. And this accumulates, very slowly, into the coverage of the entire area.

NARRATOR: Israel Finkelstein and teams of archaeologists walked out grids over large areas, collecting every fragment of ancient pottery lying on the surface. Over seven years he covered nearly 400 square miles, sorting pottery and marking the locations of where it was found, on a map.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: In the beginning, the spots were there on the map and they meant nothing to me. But later, slowly, slowly, I started seeing sort of a phenomena and processes.

NARRATOR: By dating the pottery, Finkelstein discovered that before 1200 B.C., there were approximately 25 settlements. He estimated the total population of those settlements to be 3,- to 5,000 inhabitants. But just 200 years later, there’s a very sharp increase in settlements and people.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: Then you get this boom of population growing and growing. Then we are speaking about 250 sites. And the population grows, also, 10 times, from a few thousand to 45,000 or so. Now this is very dramatic and cannot be explained as natural growth. This rate is impossible in ancient times.

NARRATOR: If not natural growth, perhaps these are the waves of dispersed people settling down following the collapse of the great state systems.

Then, more evidence of a new culture is discovered, a new type of simple dwelling, never seen before. And it’s in the exact location where both the Merneptah Stele and the Bible place the Israelites.

AMNON BEN-TOR: The sites in which this type of house appears, throughout the country, this is where Israelites lived. And they are sometimes even called the Israelite house or Israelite-type house.

The people who lived in those villages seemed to be arranged, more or less, in a kind of egalitarian society because there are no major architectural installations. If you look at the finds, the finds are relatively poor. Pottery is more or less mundane—I don’t want to offend the early settlers or the early Israelites—very little art.

NARRATOR: Curiously, the mundane pottery found at these new Israelite villages is very similar to the everyday pottery found at the older Canaanite cities like Hazor. In fact, the Israelite house is practically the only thing that is different. This broad similarity is leading archaeologists to a startling new conclusion about the origins of the ancient Israelites.

WILLIAM DEVER: The notion is that most of the early Israelites were originally Canaanites, displaced Canaanites.

PETER MACHINIST: The Israelites were always in the land of Israel. They were natives, but they were different kinds of groups. They were basically the have-nots.

WILLIAM DEVER: So what we’re dealing with is a movement of peoples, but not an invasion of armed hordes from outside, but rather a social and economic revolution.

NARRATOR: Ancient texts describe how the Egyptian rulers and their Canaanite vassal kings burden the lower classes of Canaan with taxes and even slavery.

A radical new theory based on archaeology suggests what happens next. As that oppressive social system declines, families and tribes of serfs, slaves and common Canaanites seize the opportunity. In search of a better way of life, they abandon the old city-states, and head for the hills. Free from the oppression of their past, they eventually emerge in a new place as a new people, the Israelites.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: In the text, you have the story of the Israelites coming from outside, and then besieging the Canaanite cities, destroying them and then becoming a nation in the land of Canaan, whereas archaeology tells us something which is the opposite. According to archaeology, the rise of early Israel is an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite society, not the reason for that collapse.

NARRATOR: Archaeology reveals that the Israelites were themselves originally Canaanites. So why does the Bible consistently cast the Israelites as outsiders in Canaan: Abraham’s wanderings from Mesopotamia; Moses leading slaves out of Egypt and into the Promised Land; and Joshua conquering Canaan from outside?

The answer may lie in their desire to forge a distinctly new identity.

PETER MACHINIST: Identity is created, as psychologists tell us, by talking about what you are not, by talking about another. In order to figure out who I am, I have to figure out who I am not.

NARRATOR: Conspicuously absent from Israelite villages are the grand palaces and the extravagant pottery associated with the kings and rich elites of Canaan.

AVRAHAM FAUST (Archaeologist, Bar-Ilan University): The Israelites did not like the Canaanite system, and they defined themselves in contrast to that system. By not using decorated pottery, by not using imported pottery, they developed an ideology of simplicity which marked the difference between them and the Egyptian Canaanite system.

NARRATOR: If the Israelites wanted to distinguish themselves from their Canaanite past, what better way than to create a story about destroying them?

But the stories of Abraham, Exodus and the Conquest serve another purpose. They celebrate the power of what the Bible says is the foremost distinction between the Israelites and all other people, their God.

In later Judaism, the name of God is considered so sacred it is never to be spoken.

MICHAEL COOGAN: We don’t know exactly what it means and we don’t know how it was pronounced, but it seems to have been the personal name of the God of Israel, so his title, in a sense, was “God,” and his name was these four letters, which in English is “YHWH,” which we think were probably pronounced something like Yahweh.

NARRATOR: But Yahweh only appears in the Hebrew Bible. His name is nowhere to be found in Canaanite texts or stories. So where do the Israelites find their God?

NARRATOR: The search for the origins of Yahweh leads scholars back to ancient Egypt. Here in the royal city of Karnak, for over a thousand years, Pharaohs celebrated their power with statues, obelisks and carved murals on temple walls.

DONALD REDFORD: Here on the north wall of Karnak, we have scenes depicting the victories and battles of Seti the First, the father of Ramesses the Great.

Seti, here, commemorates one of his greatest victories over the Shasu.

NARRATOR: The Shasu were a people who lived in the deserts of southern Canaan, now Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, around the same time as the Israelites emerged.

Egyptian texts say one of the places where the Shasu lived is called “Y.H.W.,” probably pronounced Yahu, likely the name of their patron god. That name Yahu is strangely similar to Yahweh, the name of the Israelite god.

In the Bible, the place where the Shasu lived is referred to as Midian. It is here, before the Exodus, the Bible tells us, Moses first encounters Yahweh, in the form of a burning bush.

VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible “Revised Standard Version,” Exodus 3:5 and 15): Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, YHWH the God of your ancestors… has sent me to you: This is My name forever, and this My title for all generations.”

MICHAEL COOGAN: So we have, in Egyptian sources, something that appears to be a name like Yahweh in the vicinity of Midian. Here is Moses in Midian, and there a deity appears to him and reveals his name to Moses as Yahweh.

NARRATOR: These tantalizing connections are leading biblical scholars to re-examine the Exodus story. While there is no evidence to support a mass migration, some now believe that a small group did escape from Egypt; however, they were not Israelites but, rather, Canaanite slaves. On their journey back to Canaan they pass through Midian, where they are inspired by stories of the Shasu’s god, Yahu.

AVRAHAM FAUST: There was probably a group of people who fled from Egypt and had some divine experience. It was probably small, a small group demographically, but it was important at least in ideology.

NARRATOR: They find their way to the central hill country, where they encounter the tribes who had fled the Canaanite city-states. Their story of deliverance resonates in this emerging egalitarian society. The liberated slaves attribute their freedom to the god they met in Midian, who they now call Yahweh.

CAROL MEYERS: They spread the word to the highlanders, who themselves, perhaps, had escaped from the tyranny of the Canaanite city-states. They spread the idea of a god who represented freedom, freedom for people to keep the fruits of their own labor. This was a message that was so powerful that it brought people together and gave them a new kind of identity.

NARRATOR: The identity of “Israelites.” They are a combination of disenfranchised Canaanites, runaway slaves from Egypt and even nomads, settling down. The Bible calls them a “mixed multitude.”

WILLIAM DEVER: According to the Hebrew Bible, early Israel is a motley crew. And we know that’s the case, now. But these people are bound together by a new vision, and I think the revolutionary spirit is probably there from the beginning.

NARRATOR: The chosen people may actually be people who chose to be free. Their story of escape, first told by word of mouth and poetry, helps forge a collective identity among the tribes. Later, when written down, it will become a central theme of the Bible: Exodus and divine deliverance, deliverance by a God who comes from Midian—exactly where the Bible says—adopted by the Israelites to represent their exodus from slavery to freedom.

Deuteronomy 30:11-20

New International Version (NIV)

The Offer of Life or Death

11Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Responsibility and Choice: An Exegesis of Deuteronomy 30:11-20

By Thomas Horrocks

Amos 5:4-15

New International Version (NIV)

This is what the Lord says to Israel:

“Seek me and live;
5do not seek Bethel,
do not go to Gilgal,
    do not journey to Beersheba.
For Gilgal will surely go into exile,
    and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.1
Seek the Lord and live,
    or he will sweep through the tribes of Joseph like a fire;
it will devour them,
    and Bethel will have no one to quench it.

There are those who turn justice into bitterness
    and cast righteousness to the ground.

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    who turns midnight into dawn
    and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out over the face of the land—
    the Lord is his name.
With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
    and brings the fortified city to ruin.

10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
    and detest the one who tells the truth.

11 You levy a straw tax on the poor
    and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
    for the times are evil.

14 Seek good, not evil,
    that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
    just as you say he is.
15 Hate evil, love good;
    maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
    on the remnant of Joseph.

Seek God and Live: An Exegesis of Amos 5:4-15

By Thomas Horrocks


  1. Amos 5:5 Hebrew aven, a reference to Beth Aven (a derogatory name for Bethel); see Hosea 4:15.

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