Dating the Pentateuch: The Book of Numbers, the Archaeological Anomalies and Anachronisms

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

21 April 2001
20 January 2002  Update at end of the Article

Please click here for this website's most important article: Why the Bible Cannot be the Word of God.

For Christians visiting this website my most important article is: The Reception of God's Holy Spirit: How the Hebrew Prophets _contradict_ Christianity's Teachings. Please click here.

The Exodus is generally dated ca. 1446 BCE by some Conservative scholars citing 1 Kings 6:1, or ca. 1240 BCE as posited by many Humanist and Liberal scholars citing other evidence of an archaeological nature. Both of these dates fall within the period known as the Late Bronze Age (1570-1200 BCE).

Numbers opens with Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Several camping stations are enumerated but none have been satisfactorily identified. There is no consensus on where Mt. Sinai lies (cf. my Leviticus article). What makes all the stations of the "Wilderness Wanderings" so difficult to identify is the absence of Late Bronze Age debris which one would expect to encounter with some two million souls (extrapolated by some scholars from biblical assertions that there were 600,000 Israelite warriors, cf. Nu 11:21 ), they needed pottery to carry water and prepare food and accidents do happen, there should be pottery debris in association with these campsites.

In one instance we are told that a number of Israelites were consumed or killed at a camping station called Kibroth-hattaavah which means "the GRAVES OF craving" ( Nu 11:34), one would expect grave tumuli to be in evidence, but there are none anywhere in the Sinai from the Late Bronze Age, which is strange when one realizes that such tumuli exist for the Early, Middle and Iron Ages.

Eventually Moses sends out scouts to explore the Negeb (Negev) near Kadesh-barnea-

"When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, Go up there into the NEGEB and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is." ( TANAKH De 13:17)

Archaeologists have failed to find any evidence of Late Bronze Age pottery debris in the Negev. What they did find was Early Bronze, Middle Bronze I, a period of abandonment, then settlement in the Iron Age.

Two sites are currently in favor as being Kadesh-barnea, Ain Kadeis or Ain el Kudeirat, both lying in the southern Negeb, but neither has Late Bronze Age pottery debris, both are no earlier than the Iron Age.

While at Kadesh, Moses requests passage via the King's Highway through Edom to Moab to enter Canaan from the East. Kadesh is described as being in or near Edom's border (Nu 20:16). MacDonald after noting Jewish and Christian traditions identifying Kadesh with Petra, on the east side of the Arabah valley,  builds the case for the site lying to the West of the Arabah (pp. 68-70, MacDonald). He further notes that archaeological surveys have concluded that Edom was not a monarchy with a king until the Iron II period, when several cities arise, most prominently Bozrah (Buseira). Surveys of the lower Negeb have revealed that in the 8th-6th centuries BCE the Edomites were establishing themselves in the Negev at several sites in the vicinity of Arad. The archaeological evidence suggests then, that for Kadesh (Ain Kadeis/Kudeirat ??) to be "near Edom's border," that a border fitting the 8th-6th centuries is being described. It appears to me, that the narrative must be later than these centuries, for the nation would know that Edomites were not in the Negeb in earlier eras. This suggests a composition of either the 5th or 4th centuries after the national memory has forgotten when Edom's border came to be established on the West side of the Arabah.


"Secondly, the text of Num 20:16 presents Kadesh as a town on the edge of Edomite territory. This would be strange for the Mosaic period [Late Bronze]since an Edomite presence in the eastern Negeb is attested to by several sites, including a shrine at Horvat Qitmit and an Edomite ostracon at Horvat `Uza only at the end of the seventh or beginning of the sixth century BC...the ostracon furnishes the first clear and direct evidence for Edomite penetration into the Negeb...There Edomite shrine at Horvat Qitmit...Edomite pottery in the Negeb at such late Iron sites as Tall Malhata, Tall `Ira, Tall `Aroer, Tall Arad and Tall Masos..." (pp. 67-8, MacDonald)

The Pentateuchal narrator understands that while the nation mourned Aaron's death at Mt. Hor (Hor ha-har) the King of Arad (Nu 21:1) launched a pre-emptive attack upon the people, fearing an invasion. Unfortunately Arad, identified with Tell Arud, possesses no Late Bronze Age debris. Archaeologists determined the site had been occupied in the Early Bronze Age, then abandoned, and resettled in the Iron Age.

Manor and Herion:

"Stratum I was a squatter's village in the late Early Bronze II, resting on the ruins of the earlier strata. The site was essentially deserted by the beginning of Early Bronze III...The excavators of the upper tell of Arad have identified seven strata spanning the Iron Age." (ABD 1.332 Dale W. Manor & Gary A. Herion, "Arad"  1992  [ABD is The Anchor Bible Dictionary edited by David Noel Freedman. Doubleday. New York, 6 vols., 1992)

Although numerous sites are enumerated from Kadesh-barnea (believed to be either Ain Kadeis or Ain Kudeirat) to the plains of Moab opposite Jericho, there is no consensus on many of these places. The absence of Late Bronze debris underlies the confusion. A general consenus however has been reached on a few cities encountered in Moab, they are Heshbon, Dibon and Madebah. These sites hae been archaeologically explored, what follows is the archaeological findings.

Heshbon (Tell Hesban):

"Other than some Late Bronze Age sherds, the excavaters uncovered no remains earlier than the Iron I period when there was probably a small, unfortified village at the site, dated to the twelfth-eleventh centuries...Although there is evidence of the site's habitation during the tenth-eighth centuries, the best-preserved Iron Age remains date to the seventh-sixth centuries. The archaeological records indicates "a general prosperity and continued growth, probably clustered around a fort (Geraty 1997: 20-21; see also Geraty 1992:182)." (p.92, MacDonald)

A problem with the location of biblical Heshbon at Tall Hisban is the apparent discrepancy between the archaeological evidence and the biblical account of the Israelite capture of the site from the Amorite king Sihon (Num 21:21-35; see also Deut 2:26-35). The site's conquest, as narrated in the Bible, would have taken place, according to traditional dating, around the end of the thirteenth and the beginning od the twelfth centuries BC. However, the archaeological evidence does not support the location of an Amorite capital city at Tall Hisban in either the Late Bronze or Early Iron Ages." (p.93, MacDonald)

As noted by MacDonald, Sihon's capital city should exhibit the features of a capital. The archaeologocal evidence suggests that the 7th-6th centuries was a time of prosperity. We have a problem though, the Pentateuchal narrative could not have been composed in this era for the inhabitants would know that it was a minor village in earlier times and hardly the place to locate a capital city. So we must allow a period of 100/200 years for memories to fade and forget just when Heshbon had obtained "her prominence," which suggests the narrative is a composition of either the 6th or 5th century BCE, the Exilic or Post-Exilic periods.

MacDonald noted some dissenting scholars opposed Hisban being Heshbon, but concludes that they err-

"Some scholars look for biblical Heshbon at another site, for example Jalul (Horn 1976; 1982: 10,11; Ibach 1978: Boling 1988: 47 [tentatively]), or understand Heshbon as more than the name of a city and primarily the name of a region (Merling 1991). Despite these dissenting voices, it appears almost certain on textual, toponymic and archaeological grounds that the biblical site of Heshbon is to be identified with Tall Hisban." (p.93, MacDonald)

"According to its excavators, the earliest occupation at Dhiban may encompass Early Bronze II-IV; there is no evidence of either Middle or Late Bronze occupation (Winnett and Reed 1964: 66; Tushingham 1992:195). Excavators also found pottery characteristic of the early Iron Age but no structures can yet be associated with it. The Iron II period is represented by two stages of a major gateway, a city wall standing to a height of 3.5 meters, many cisterns, and a necropolis east of the tell (Winnett and Reed 1964: 66-67; Tushingham 1992:195)."  (p.85, MacDonald)

Tushingham on Dibon :
"...excavations to bedrock revealed undisturbed Early Bronze Age deposits...while the duration of this early occupation may encompass Early Bronze II-IV, there is absolutely no evidence for the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze at Dhiban. Settlement begins once more in the Iron Age." (ABD 2.195 A.D. Tushingham, "Dibon" 1992)

MacDonald on Medeba:
"Regular excavations on the tall of Madaba began between 1965 and 1968 and again beginning in 1979...identifying material from as early as the Early Bronze Age (Harrison 1996b: 19). The only witness to occupation of the site from the thirteenth to the tenth centuries BC is two tombs discovered to the east and south of the tall...Madaba appears to have flourished over the course of the Iron II period (Harrison 1996a)." (pp.109-110, MacDonald)

Piccirillo on Medeba :
"On the slopes of the heights that surround Medeba to the West and South was a necropolis which existed until the middle of the 2d millenium BC. The chance discovery of two tombs in this area are until now the only witness of theoccupation of the tell of Medeba from the 13th to the 10th centuries BC. Otherwise, the tombs go back to the 1st centrury BC." (ABD 4.657, Michele Piccirillo, "Medeba," 1992)

Conclusions :

Burton MacDonald, a professional scholar and archaeologist makes the following observations from his many years of experience in surveys of sites in Transjordan, ancient Edom, Moab and Ammon (emphasis is mine)-

"My experience in the field of Near Eastern archaeology has led me to the general conclusion that the biblical stories about Transjordanian places and events best fit into the Iron II period and later. This conclusion comes from a general knowledge of the results of current archaeological work throughout Jordan and specifically from my archaeological survey work south of Wadi al-Hasa, in the Southern Ghors and Northeast `Arabah, and in the Tafila-Busayra region (beginning 1999). The findings of the above-lsted surveys indicate there are few, if any, Late Bronze Age materials and a paucity of Iron I Age materials in the areas being surveyed. On the other hand, the Iron II Age is well reprsented in all of these areas. I WAS THUS FORCED TO QUESTION THE TRADITIONALLY HELD OPINION THAT THE MOSES-LED GROUP, ON ITS WAY FROM EGYPT TO THE LAND OF CANAAN, PASSED THROUGH/AROUND EDOM (AND MOAB) DURING THE LATE BRONZE-IRON I PERIODS. On the basis of recent archaeological work, I conculded that a Moses-led group would have encountered little, if any, opposition if it had passed through the territories in question during the periods traditionally associated with this event. However, recent archaeological evidence indicates that opposition to such a passage would be understandable during the Iron II period. Thus, the narratives relative to the Exodus best fit the settlement history of the area during the Iron II rather than the previous two archaeological periods. Similarly, the narrative of Israel's defeat of Sihon and the capture of his capital city of Heshbon would fit better the archaeological history of this site during the Iron II rather than the Late Bronze-Iron I period. This does not mean that the prsent writer denies that there are older traditions behind the biblical narratives. However, THE TEXTS IN QUESTION WERE MOST PROBABLY WRITTEN IN LIGHT OF THE SETTLEMENT CONDITIONS THAT PREVAILED IN THE IRON II PERIOD AND PROBABLY TOWARDS THE END OF THAT PERIOD. Thus, the assumption here is that although the biblical writer may have used material that predates his time, he set that material into a context, namely, the Iron II AND LATER PERIODS, that would be meaningful to his readers." (pp.4-5, "Introduction." Burton MacDonald. "East of the Jordan" Territories and Sites of the Hebrew Scripture. Boston. American Schools of Oriental Research. ISBN 0-89757-031-6   pp.287 pbk)

There is no evidence of an Exodus occuring in the Late Bronze Age (1570-1200 BCE) contra the 1446 BCE (1 Kings 6:1) or the 1240 BCE dates which are so popular amongst many scholars. The archaeological evidence suggests for MacDonald that the Iron II and later, is the best setting for the Pentateuchal narratives and their description of the cities appearing in the Exodus scenario. I find myself in agreement with MacDonald. I would only add that a period of 100/200 years must have elapsed to allow the national memory to forget when many of these places came into being, suggesting a composition, for me, of the 6th-5th centuries, the Exilic or Post-Exilic eras. It is my understanding that the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) is a creation of ca. 562/561 BCE of the Exile.

20 January 2002 Update-

Further research on my part has revealed that scholars have to a degree, OVERSTATED their case that there exists virtually no presence in the Southern Sinai in the Middle Bronze or Late Bronze periods, Israel's wanderings in the Southern Sinai being portrayed as occurring ca. 1446 BCE (Cf. 1 Kings 6:1), which places the event in the Late Bronze Age.  I have discovered that a people come from Egypt, in association with native miners from Southern Canaan (Israel being led to Kadesh-Barnea by Kenite miners who settle at Arad in the Negev) are INDEED in the Southern Sinai at this period of time.   Cf. my article titled  Exodus Memories of Southern Sinai, Linking the Archaeological Evidence to the Biblical Narratives.

Main Page    Archaeology Menu   OT Menu    NT Menu    Geography Menu   

Illustrations Menu        Bibliography Menu      Links Menu