Unraveling the Mystery of Early Israel's Origins:
Archaeology, Abraham and the Philistines

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

14 October 2000 (Revisions through 01 October 2010)

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In the past 20 years the findings from intense archaeological surveys within the modern state of Israel have challenged the biblical portrayal of Early Israel's origins. This article briefly explores and presents these findings, why they challenge the biblical account, and, finally, an attempt is made on my part to synthesize the biblical portrayal of Abraham as the founder of the nation with these findings. 

Note: B.C.E, Before the Common Era is an alternate scholarly designation for B.C., "Before Christ," while C.E., the "Common Era" is used in lieu of A.D., Latin: Anno Domini, "Year of our Lord [Jesus Christ]."

The Problem:

The archaeological data does not support the biblical presentation of Israel's origins as portrayed in Genesis through Joshua. The current situation is that most Humanist scholars are of the understanding that there never was an Exodus as portrayed in the Pentateuch. Nor was there a military conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua- the archaeological evidence simply doesn't support the biblical claims.

The Exodus and its problems:

Scholars have noted that 1 Kings 6:1 states that 480 years elapsed from the Exodus to the fourth year of Solomon's reign and the building of the Temple. Some Conservative scholars date Solomon's fourth year to circa 966 BC, by adding 480 years to this date they come up with an Exodus circa 1446 BC. Many Liberal Humanist scholars prefer to date the Exodus to ca. 1290 BCE, noting the mention of  a city called Ramses (Exodus 1:11) which couldn't have existed before the days of Pharaoh Ramses II (ca. 1290-1224 BC), while a victory stela by Pharaoh Merneptah (created ca. 1207 BC) mentions a victory over Israel in Canaan by Egyptian forces. These scholars reason that if there is any truthfulness to the biblical account, then the Exodus had to have happened between ca. 1290 and 1207 BC. 

However, scholars have determined that several cities mentioned in the Exodus accounts (1446 BCE or 1290 BC) were not in existence according to the archaeological findings, suggesting the account contains anomalies and fictions. Ai (modern et-Tell) and Arad (tell Arud) were abandoned at the time of Joshua's invasion (Late Bronze Age) while Heshbon (tell Hesban)wasn't founded until ca. 1200 BC, and then, only as a tiny inconsequential un-walled village.

Egyptian records reveal no Exodus of Asiatics at any time during New Kingdom Times (18th through 20th dynasties) and archaeolgical surveys of the Sinai failed to turn up any archaeological evidence of the 600,000 Israelite warriors and their families at Mt. Sinai/Horeb in the time frame of the Late Bronze Age when the Exodus is believed to have occured. No graves were found of the thousands who perished over the worship of the Golden calf. Archaeological surveys of the Negeb failed to turn up any Late Bronze Age cities or settlements that a Late Bronze Age Joshua would have conquered and destroyed. All they found was Middle Bronze I (ca. 2200-2000), a period of abandonment of the region, then resettlement in Iron I (ca. 1200-1100 BC) with farmsteads.

The recent archaeological evidence from extensive on site surveys within modern Israel suggests for some scholars that Iron Age I (ca. 1200-1100 BC) is the origin period of a "proto-Israelite" agrarian small farmstead culture that becomes urban in the Iron Age II (ca. 1100-587 BC) and definitely Israelite, with cities and towns.

The American bible scholar and archaeologist, Dr. William G. Dever, has ably presented the archaeological findings of these recent surveys and their impact on biblical studies. I find myself in agreement with most of his interpretations of the archaeological data.

He noted 300 Iron Age I settlements were found in the hill-country stretching from Lower Gailee to the Negeb, most were new, not being built upon destoyed Late Bronze Age sites. Their locations agreed with the biblical presentation of the settlement of the land (pp. 26-27, Dever)

That these settlers were Canaanites and not invaders was inferred from the following observations:

"The pottery of these early Iron I highland villages- always one of our most sensitive media for perceiving cultural continuity or change- is strongly in the older Late Bronze Age Canaanite tradition...The most significant aspect of the pottery, however, which biblical scholars have been slow to appreciate, is its _striking continuity_ with the local Late Bronze Age ceramic repertoire. This pottery displays no 'foreign' elements, no Egyptian reminiscences, and it is certainly not anything that one could connect with a 'nomadic lifestyle' (we have such distinctive pottery from later in the Iron Age, the 'Negebite ware'). This is standard, domestic Canaanite-style pottery, long at home in western Palestine. The ceramic arguments _alone_ would clinch the question of indigenous origins for the settlers of the new highland villages; they came from elsewhere in Canaan." (pp. 29-30, Dever)

"I have argued, mainly along with other scholars like Gottwald, that a proper interpretation of the biblical texts, extra-biblical literature such as the Late Bronze Age Amarna letters from Palestine and a few Egyptian texts, and the new archaeological data all conspire to suggest that the early Israelite community was a motley group. It probably consisted of some sympathetic Late Bronze Age Habiru who became 'Israelites' for ideological reasons; many other dispossessed folk, refugees from the Canaanite city-states that we know were disintegrating, as well as impoverished peasant farmers from the countryside and refugees, drop-outs, entreprenuers and adventurers of many sorts; all victims of the wholesale systemic collapse of Palestine at the end of the Bronze Age. Among these groups there may also have been a few pastoral nomads settling or resettling now, as always happens in times of crisis. These may have included some of the shasu-beduin from southern Transjordan known from contemporary Egyptian texts, who seem to be connected with a Yahweh-cult there. There may even have been some escapees from Egypt who had been nomads in transit for some time and who eventually arrived in Palestine.

But in my judgement, _most_ of those who came to call themselves 'Israelites' by the early Iron Age were in fact 'displaced Canaanites'- displaced geographically, then culturally, and eventually ideologically. As Ezekiel has God say to his people Israel (not altogether as a compliment): 'Your origin and birth are of the land of the Canaanites, your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite (Ezek 16:2,3). It was these people, still close to Canaanite language, customs and culture, who were the 'colonists' settling a new highland frontier around 1200 BCE. They were survivors of a period of cataclysmic upheaval and unprecedented chaos at the end of the Bronze Age, 'pioneers' in the true sense, seeking a new life and a new identity. Thus in the light of the newer evidence, early Israel may be best described as a newly emerged agrarian community..." 

(pp. 40-41, William G. Dever, "Archaeology and the Emergence of Early Israel," in John R. Bartlett, Editor, Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation. London & New York. Routledge, 1997)

If the archaeological evidence doesn't support the biblical portrayal of Early Israel's origins, how did the notion that Abraham was Israel's founder arise? There can be no Israel without Abraham, he is the key to the story of how the land came to be promised to his descendants:

"Abram settled in the land of Canaan...Yahweh said to Abram...Look all around where you are, to north and south, to east and west, for all the land within sight I shall give to you and your descendants for ever." 

(Genesis 13:12-14, The New Jerusalem Bible, 1990)

Humanist scholars are aware that anachronisms exist in the story of Abraham. He is portrayed in the biblical account as having lived sometime between ca. 2400-2000 BC, depending on which authority one wants to follow. The bible portrays him feuding with the Philistine king of Gerar and notes how Abraham came to be the founder of Beersheba in that he creates its well and establishes via a covenant with the Philistines, his descendant's rights to the land (Genesis 21:22-32).

From the war annals of Pharaoh Ramesses III (ca.1198-1166 BC) scholars have determined that the Philistines arrived in Canaan as invaders, called "The Sea Peoples" by the Egyptians. Ramesses defeated these peoples and "allowed them" to settle in Philista and serve him. He states that their origins were beyond the sea; the pottery forms they brought have been traced to Helladic motifs near Cyprus and the Anatolian littoral (coasts of modern Turkey), so they were of an Aegean culture. According to Ramesses these peoples were invincible, they destroyed every nation in their path, only Egypt was powerful enough to defeat them. Archaeology bears testimony to the ferociousness of these peoples in the destroyed towns along the Mediterranean coastline from Ugarit (modern Ras Shamras in Syria) to Gaza. They, in part, brought about the end of the Late Bronze Age, ushering in the Iron Age. They arrived and were defeated in Egypt ca. 1175 BC in the 8th year of Ramesses III (cf. p.260, "Chronological Table," Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan, People of the Sea, The Search for the Philistines. New York. Macmillan Pub. Co., 1992).

Excavations at two sites, modern Beersheba (Bir es-Seba) and Tell es-Seba, a few kilometers to the east, have revealed that these sites are no older than the Iron Age period. The earliest pottery found at Tell es-Seba, believed to be the bible's city of Beersheba, was found to possess Philistine assemblages mixed amongst the "proto-Israelite" shards. Gerar, identified with tell Haror, was destroyed in the late Bronze Age and settled by the Philistines, its Iron Age levels containing their distinctive pottery. 

I am of the persuasion that the Abrahamic narratives could not have been composed until hundreds of years had elapsed after the arrival of the Philistines, ca. 1175 BC, such that the nation had no memory of just when the Philistines had arrived in Canaan, making it possible for the Pentateuchal author to spin a story about Abraham engaging Philistines in disputes over Beersheba ca. 2400-2000 BC.

Yet the Pentateuchal narrator did preserve a 'historical kernel of truth" in this fantasy story, he correctly identified Beersheba as being an Israelite foundation, at a period of time when Philistines were in the  area. The presence of the Philistine pottery in the earliest levels of  ancient Beersheba is testimony to this.

In ancient Beersheba (tell es-Seba) a well was found and partially excavated, but the excavators gave up digging all the way to its base due to time constraits. Yet, they posited that the well from its position and relation to nearby buildings, was probably made at the time the city was founded in the Iron Age period. They found no evidence of an occupation on the site from the days of Abraham, ca. 2400-2000 BC:

Beersheba's Well:

"It is not possible to determine when the well was dug, although it appears from the building that surrounded the well in stratum VII, and the fact that the well stood almost exactly in the center of the courtyard of this building, that the well existed during stratum VII. Because the stratigraphy of the well area has been disrupted in antiquity (due to the collapse of the upper walls of the shaft), it is impossible to determine stratigraphically the date of the well. The only possibility available to determine its date is to excavate to the bottom of the well, but after excavating through 28 m of accumulation without reaching bottom, it was deemed necessary to abort the operation. On the basis of the orientation of nearby stratum IX architectural features, the excavators suggest that the well was dug in stratum IX (Herzog 1984:4-6). There is, however, no evidence to attribute any part of this well to the patriarchal period."

(David Noel Freeman, Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1.642 , Dale W. Manor, "Beersheba." 1992)

My Conclusions:

The excavators did not dig down to the base of the well found at Tell es-Seba, they concluded that based on the earliest surrounding strata (level IX, of the late 12th century BC), that the well was probably no earlier. Thus this well does not date from the Patriarchal era, the 3rd millenium BCE and Abraham's world. I conclude that the Pentateuchal story of Abraham excavating a well at Beersheba in the 3rd millenium BC is fantasy.

De Vries understands that Abraham was born ca. 2167 BC. According to the Bible's chronology, he died at the age of 175 yrs.(Ge.25:7), making his date of death ca. 1992 BC 
(Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1.582 "Chronology Old Testament," S. J. De Vries. 1992). This approximate date places Abraham in the period known to archaeologists as Middle Bronze I, ca. 2200-2000 BC (cf. p. 931. Vol. 3. "Chronological Tables," Michael Avi-Yonah & Ephraim Stern. Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall. 1977).

We are told that Abraham had dealings with Abimelech, the king of Gerar, who happened to be a Philistine (Ge.20:1-18; 21:22-34). Later Abimelech's men attempt to claim the well of Beer-sheba, which we are given to believe was a creation of Abraham and his sons.

Gerar is currently identified with Tel Haror. Excavations reveal that it was founded during  Middle Bronze II-III, ca. 18th-16th centuries BC. There is no evidence suggesting that it existed in the Middle Bronze I, understood to be Abraham's world (Anchor Bible Dictionary. 2.988. Eliezer D. Oren. "Gerar." 1992).

Oren noted that the Late Bronze Age town was destroyed and re-settled early in the Iron Age and that great quantities of Philistine ceramics appear in this strata, suggesting it is a Philistine town in the Early Iron period:

"Earlier occupational strata in the 12th-11th centuries BCE included...MASSES OF early and late types of beautifully decorated PHILISTINE POTTERY...The rich Iron Age settlement at Tel Haror testifies to the dynamic eastward expansion of Philistine culture from the South Coast into the Judean Shephelah." (Anchor Bible Dictionary. 2.990 "Gerar")

As noted by May, Beersheba was excavated and found not to have existed in the Patriarch's time:

"The Patriarchs...Excavations at Beersheba show no city there in their time." 

(p. 108. "Archaeology and the Bible-Patriarchs." Herbert G. May. Editor. The Oxford Bible Atlas 2nd edition. Oxford University Press. New York. [1962], 1983)

Manor noted that the earliest occupational levels at two different sites, Bir es-Seba and Tell es-Seba (further to the east) were no older than the Iron Age. He also noted the presence of Philistine pottery in the earliest levels at Tell es-Seba:

"Tell es-Seba. Stratum IX. The earliest strata...The ceramic collection associated with this level (including some shards of PHILISTINE POTTERY, and red-slipped and hand-burnished wares) implies a date at then end of the 12th century or early 11th century BCE." 

(Anchor Bible Dictionary.1.642, Dale W. Manor, "Beer-Sheba")

It would appear that the archaeological evidence contradicts the notion that Gerar and Beer-Sheba existed in Abraham's time, the Middle Bronze I (ca. 2200-2000 BCE). I am of the opinion based on the archaeological findings that Abraham's feuds with the king of Gerar, ca. 21st century BCE, are fairy-tales or myths created centuries after the arrival of the Philistines (who arrived ca. 1175 BCE).  

I understand that behind all myths there are probably "kernels of truth or historicity" that can be teased out of these stories. The "kernels of truth/historicity" underlying Abraham and the king of Gerar are as follows:

The Israelite notion that Beersheba was founded by one of their founding fathers (Abraham), who had to contend with Philistines, is based on the archaeological fact that Beer-Sheba is in fact an Israelite creation of the Early Iron Age I period. The existence of Philistine pottery at Gerar and Beer-sheba in the earliest Iron Age levels attests to some kind of a Philistine presence in the area just when Beer-sheba was founded. So it appears that "a real historical event is being remembered" in the Patriarchal narrative, i.e., the presence of Philistines at Gerar and Beer-Sheba when the latter city was founded. The Pentateuchal narrator, evidently, transformed this "12th century BC historical reality" into a make-believe confrontation in the 21st century BC and the world of Abraham. 

I thus understand that the Abraham narratives are a creation hundreds of years after the 12th century BC arrival of the Philistines. As Abraham is known to the pre-exilic prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the traditions are not later than the 8th-6th centuries BC, but probably arose even earlier, perhaps the Solomonic period. So, the stories about Abraham and the king of Gerar are fiction, but they are a pre-exilic fiction.

As pointed out earlier, archaeologists have established the sudden appearance of hundreds of new farmsteads in the central hills of Canaan, exactly where the bible portrays Israel as settling in Joshua's days and the period of the Judges. But these are settlements of the Iron Age, not 1446 BC or 1290 BC the presumed dates of Israel's conquest and settlement of the land.

Dever has correctly, in my opinion, more or less, correctly analyzed the situation. Israel's earliest origins are that the displaced Late Bronze Age peoples, fleeing for their lives from the Philistine invasion and occupation by force of Canaan, settled in the hill country where it was safe and temporarily out of reach of their enemies. Here evolved Dever's "proto-Israelites," and their farmsteads in the course of Iron I that became urban Israel in Iron II.

Genesis, then, correctly identified Abraham's world as being a Philistine world, but erred in dating it to ca 2400-2000BC, it was in reality, the 12th century BC.  So, Abraham is a mythical figure arising out of the historical developments of the Philistine world, summoned up to explain hundreds of years later, how Israel came to justify her claims to the Promised Land, God having given it to Abraham and his descendants.

Professor Aharoni on his excavations at Beersheba (Tell es-Seba), and his conclusion that Abraham was of the Conquest Period, the 13th/12th centuries BCE and NOT of the Middle Bronze Age:

"In the entire northern Negeb no remains were found of the Middle Bronze I (also known as the Intermediate Bronze Age). This is in direct contrast to the assumption of certain scholars who would date Abraham to that period and picture him the leader of the donkey caravan trade...The biblical tradition places Abraham in the more northernly Biblical Negeb and especially at Beersheba, and here there are no traces of the Middle Bronze Age I culture. As a result of the Beersheba excavations another interpretation of the Patririarchal stories is mandatory. Both on the tel itself and in its immediate vicinity there are no remains earlier than the conquest period, and the nearest site that yielded remains of the Middle Bronze Age is Tel Masos, twelve kilometers to the east...it is to Beersheba that the Patriarchal tradition attributes a cult site and a well, and it is now possible to identify this well with considerable certainty. Since the digging of this well did not antedate the settlement period, it therefore seems certain that neither can the Patriarchal narratives associated with Beersheba refer to an earlier period. We cannot enter into the question of the antiquity and historical background of the Patriarchal stories, nor do we wish to claim that they do not contain earlier elements, but it would seem that these traditions are not made up of a single fabric, but are a compilation of traditions originating in different periods. The excavations at Beersheba have now proven they include references to events that could not possibly have occurred prior to the 13th or 12th centuries BCE. Naturally, this also explains the anachronisms in these stories, such as the designation of Abimelech, king of Gerar, as king of the Philistines. We should look upon the Biblical narratives relating to the Patriarchs...as a collection of traditions covering a long period and different groups whose chronological position cannot be established according to their literary sequence in the Bible, only on the basis of external criteria, particularly the archaeological evidence. In the present case, the Patriarchal narratives relating to Beersheba belong to the settlement period.

Once we had established that the well belonged to the earliest Israelite settlement, we were able to deduce with reasonable certainty that this was the well attributed to the Patriarchs (Gen. 21:25; 26:25); One of the major problems with which we were involved at Beersheba throughout the excavations was the location of the cult site and temple mentioned repeatedly in the Bible. In the fifth season, a large horned altar was discovered which had been dismantled, evidently following the religious reforms of Hezekiah. However, if the sanctuary were on the tel, and undoubtedly associated with an earlier sanctified site, how did the Biblical tradition become attached to the well dug there by Abraham and Isaac, the tamarisk tree and the altar? Since wells are usually dug alongside a river bed, is it conceivable that the site of worship would be remote from the well? As soon as we had discovered the ancient well on the heights of the tel, and moreover, located beside substantial buildings of the earliest Israelite settlement, the problem was easily solved. The tremendous efforts involved in digging this well were made in connection with a place of worship that by its nature required a continuous supply of water; one can therefore understand the great impression this well made upon the ancients." 

(Yohanan Aharoni, "Nothing Early and Nothing Late: Rewriting Israel's Conquest." Biblical Archaeologist. May 1976. Vol. 39. No. 2. quoted on pp. 144-145 in Ada Feyerick et al. Genesis, World of Myths and Patriarchs. New York & London. New York University Press. 1996)

The Israeli scholar Mazar also argued Abraham's interactions with Philistines placed him in an Iron Age I context, as noted by the Israeli scholar Finkelstein:

"...Benjamin Mazar took a different path, utilizing archaeological data to suggest that the description of the age of the patriarchs should be studied on the background of the early Iron Age. Mazar pointed mainly to the anachronisms in the text, such as the mention of a Philistine king (of Gerar) and of the Arameans. Needless to say, there were no Philistines in Canaan in either the Middle or Late Bronze Ages. Both Egyptian texts and archaeology have proved beyond doubt that they settled on the southern coast of Palestine in the twelfth century BCE. Instead of seeing there appearance here as a late insertion (in the time of the compilation) into an earlier tradition, Mazar argued that the text reflects an intimate knowledge of the Philistine kingdoms in a period just prior to the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. The Arameans also figure prominently in the patriarchal stories, but they too did not appear on the ancient Near Eastern stage before the early Iron Age, and their kingdoms emerged even later, mainly in the ninth century BCE. Mazar thought that the description of the Arameans as pastoral people reflects an early phase in their history, before they organized their first states. Thus he concluded that the wandering of the patriarchs in the central hill country between Shechem and Hebron fits the geographical framework of the early Israelite settlement in the Iron Age I. Some of these traditions...such as the centrality of Hebron, fit the early days of the monarchy, under David...Kyle McCarter...took a point of view similar to the one suggested by Mazar. He argued that the prominence of Hebron in the patriarchal stories can best be understood against the establishment of the monarchy under David.

Mazar was right in his claim that the reality behind the stories in the book of Genesis cannot be understood on the background of the Middle Bronze Age but should rather be tracked along the realities of the Iron Age. Yet he was wrong because his preferred date in the Iron Age was much too early. Modern archaeological research has shown that Judah, where the important J source was apparently written, was very sparsely inhabited until the late eighth century BCE. Likewise, a century of archaeological excavations in Jerusalem has indicated that the capital of Judah grew to become a significant city about the same time; in the tenth century BCE, Jerusalem was no more than a small village. And the results of decades of excavations have shown that Judah did not reach a significant level of literacy before the late eight century BCE. Finally, and no less important, the patriarchal narratives are filled with references to late monarchic realities, mainly from the seventh century BCE."

(pp. 323-325. "Theories of the Historicity of the Patriarchal Age: The Patriarchs in the Early Iron Age." Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed, Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York. The Free Press. 2001)

When was this story created about Abraham? What are the tell-tale clues? My research into the origins of the Pentateuch based on anomalies and anachronisms preserved within the texts and exposed by the findings of archaeology, reveals that Genesis was composed ca. 562-560 BC, (the reign of Evil-Merodach of Babylon, cf. 2 Kings 25:27) some 600 years after the arrival of the Philistines. Finkelstein prefers that the account was composed in the 7th century BC under the reign of King Josiah, but he understands Ezra redacted this work in the post-exilic period (cf. pp. 312-313):

"Archaeology has helped us to reconstruct the history behind the Bible, both on the level of great kings and kingdoms...as we will explain in the following chapters, we now know that the early books of the Bible and their famous stories of early Israelite history were first codified (and in key respects composed) at an identifiable place and time: Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE."

(p. 5. "Introduction: Archaeology and the Bible." Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed, Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York. The Free Press. 2001)

"In short, the post-exilic stage of the editing of the Bible recapitulated many of the key themes of the earlier seventh century styage that we have discussed in this book."

(p. 313. Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed, Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York. The Free Press. 2001)

I understand Israel's origins to be the world of the Philistines as attested by archaeology and Genesis' portrayal of Abraham's dealings with these peoples is an important "historical kernel of truth" providing a valuable "Key" to the placement of the story within a historical context. Abraham and the promises made to him are "post-Philistine," (post 1174 BC) and most likely a fiction created in the Exilic world (ca. 562-560 BC) that sought to explain how the nation came to lose its land and how it might keep this land in the future by honoring God according to laws presented in the Pentateuch. 

Please click here for my arguments as to why I understand that Genesis-2 Kings is Exilic and not Pre- or Post-Exilic.

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