Heshbon: Why the Archaeological Findings Do Not Support the Bible's Account of Israel's Conquest

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

13 June 2010

Excavations at Tell Hesban, believed by many to be Heshbon, failed to confirm buildings in existence of Sihon's "capital" from the time of Israel's conquest of the area under Moses.

Some Catholic scholars understand the Exodus was circa 1519 BC, some Protestant scholars opt for an Exodus circa 1446 BC, Some Jews prefer an Exodus circa  1311 BC (Seder Olam Rabbah). Subtracting 40 years of wandering in the wilderness before the conquest of Sihon the Amorite's kingdom would give us the following conquest dates: 1519 BC less 40= 1479 BC, 1446 BC less 40= 1406 BC, and 1311 BC less 40= 1271 BC.

According to a Tell Hesban 1976 report the "earliest" remains of buildings on the site are of the Roman era. That a settlement of some sort existed earlier is surmised by pottery dumped in fills dating from circa the 7-6th centuries BC:

"The earliest building remains so far discovered date from the Early Roman period, which in all four excavated areas rested on bedrock. However, evidence of an earlier occupation going back to the sixth and seventh centuries BC was found in the form of fills and pottery in areas B, C, and D. In area B, square 1, a 5-meter thick fill was encountered that contained large amounts of seventh-sixth century BC Ammonite pottery...An ostracon found in 1968 in the late Iron Age fill of area B and dated to about 500 BC contains a list of five names...indicating sixth-century Heshbon had a mixed population. Another ostracon found in 1971 in the same fill can be dated to about 525 BC...The Roman period is represented by foundation walls in all excavated areas...Although the excavations at Tell Hesban have not yet been completed, it seems that the mound covers only the remains of the city from the seventh century BC to the fifteenth century AD. In spite of some searching around Ein Hesban, no other candidate for the Heshbon of King Sihon has been found so far."

(pp. 513-514. Vol. 2. S. H. Horn. "Heshbon." Michael Avi-Yonah. Editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Englewood Cliffs. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1976)

The 1993 report on Heshbon reveals it dates no earlier than circa the twelfth century BC, too late to be Sihon the Amorite's Heshbon, assuming Israel's conquest of his capital is circa 1479 BC (some Catholic scholars), 1406 BC (some Protestant scholars) or 1271 BC (some Jewish scholars) or 1220 BC ( some Liberal scholars).

"The excavations at Tell Hesban have so far produced no evidence for an occupation earlier than the twelfth century BCE. This poses a problem for locating Sihon's capital (see below) here. It may not have been found because it is elsewhere on the site, which is unlikely, or, which is more likely, because its seminomadic (impermanent) nature left no trace to be discovered. More extreme options are to consider the biblical account unhistorical or at least anachronistic (now favored by such scholars as J. M. Miller, H. O. Thompson, and others) or to seek the Amorite capital at another location -for example, Jalul (an identification favored by S. H. Horn) or 'Umeiri ( a view favored by R. D. Ibach). Most, at least, would identify Tell Hesban with Greco-Roman Hesbus, based on numismatic and milestone evidence coupled with the geographical specifications as provided by Ptolemy and Eusebius. If F. M. Cross's reading of the Ammonite ostracon (A. 3) , found at the site in 1978, is accepted, it would support such an identification for Iron Age Heshbon, as well."

(p. 626. Vol. 2. Lawrence T. Geraty. "Heshbon." Ephraim Stern. Editor. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. New York. Simon & Schuster. 1993)

How do Bible Apologists deal with this anomaly posed by the archaeological findings?

Several approaches are possible:

(1) The site has been misidentified, it is obviously somewhere else ("obviously" because the Bible is the word of God and never makes a mistake).

(2) The earlier city's fills simply haven't been found yet, more thorough digging is needed (the Bible can't be wrong if this is Heshbon).

(3) Maybe Sihon's "capital" was a nomadic tent encampment that left no evidence of building remains (maybe the Hebrew word used for "city" didn't mean buildings, maybe it was used for tent encampments too); maybe they used waterskins; maybe they avoided the use of pottery that could break as they migrated about with their herds, hence the reason no pottery has been found of the 16th-13th centuries BC.

(4) We don't need any archaeological proof the Bible's account is true, we have our faith: "To Hell with the archaeologists and their findings impugning the word of the living God!"

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