Dating the Book of Judges via Archaeological Anomalies and Anachronisms

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

28 April 2001

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The book of Judges suggests that Jericho was a settlement occupied by Eglon, king of Moab who evidently lived there and from it ruled over and oppressed Israel for a period of some 18 years (Judges 3:12-30), but no archeological remains exist of structures from this period  (Iron I )..

Kelso's observations on Jericho's archaeological anomalies (Emphasis is mine in all the citations) :

"Furthermore, not only is the city which Joshua conquered largely missing, but the next two cities that succeeded it, according to scripture, do not appear anywhere on the mound ! The city of palm trees which Eglon captured and where he received tribute from Israel (Judg. 3:13) must have been Jericho, but no signs of this city have yet been found in the excavations. David's ambasadors, who had been insulted by the king of the Ammonites, stopped at Jericho until their beards were grown (2 Samuel 10:5); but again the mound furnishes no remains of this town." (Vol.2, p.837, J.L. Kelso, "Jericho," George Arthur Buttrick, et al., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1962, ISBN 0-687-19271-4)


"With regard to a Late Bronze Age fortification system at Jericho, there is no archaeological data to support the presence of a walled town...After Jericho was abandoned during the early part of Late Bronze Age IIb [ca. 1350-1275 BCE), it was not thought to be reoccupied to any great extent until the 7th century BC."

Holland noted that a later restudy of some of the pottery excavated by the Germans at the turn of the century, as well as Garstang's and Kenyon's expeditions, revealed some Iron I and II forms suggesting some kind of a presence. But, to date, identifiable building structures and walls are still unattested until the 7th century BCE


"It is striking that most of the remaining Old Testament references imputing some kind of sedentary life at Jericho (cf. Judg. 3:13, 2 Sam 10:5; 1 Ki 16:34; 2 Ki 2:5, 15, 1; Ezra 2:34, Neh 3:2, 7:36) are likewise without archaeological support. After the 14th century, occupation at Jericho is not substantially attested again until the 8th, but principally the 7th century BC...It may well be that this occupation continued until the coming of Nebuchadrezzar's army in the early 6th century BC (cf. 2 Kings 25:5; Jer. 39:5; 52:8)."
(Supplementary Vol., p.473, G.M. Landes, "Jericho," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 1976)

Excavations have failed to substantiate the biblical claim that the city was in existence during the time of the Judges or 1 and 2 Samuel in David's days, nor was it rebuilt in the 9th century BCE by Hiel the Bethelite-


"Hiel the Bethelite was responsible for the first re-occupation, occurring in the time of Ahab (early ninth century B.C.). No trace of an Iron Age occupation as early as this has so far been observed, but it may have been a small-scale affair. In the seventh century B.C., however, there was an extensive occupation of the ancient site. Evidence of this does not survive on the summit of the mound, but is found as a thick deposit, with several successive building levels, on its flanks. On the western slope, a massive building of this period was found, with a tripartite plan common in the Iron II. The pottery suggests that this stage in the history of the site goes down to the period of the Babylonian Exile. Thereafter, the site by `Ein es-Sultan was abandoned, and later periods are represented only by some Roman graves and a hut of the early Arab period. Kathleen M. Kenyon" (Vol.2, p.564, Kathleen M. Kenyon, "Jericho," in Michael Avi-Yonah, Editor, Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976, ISBN 0-13-275123-2)

"F. Iron Age. There is no evidence of a walled Iron Age city of Jericho. A number of buildings datable to the eighth-seventh centuries B.C. were excavated by the Austro-German expedition and seventh century B.C. structures were found in the latest excavations." (p. 307, "Jericho, Old Testament," Charles F. Pfeiffer, Editor, The Biblical World, A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, Nashville, Broadman Press, 1966, ISBN 0-8054-1130-5)

While the fact that an Iron I city is archaeologically unsubtantiated at Jericho calls into question the historicity of some of the events being portrayed in the book of Judges, it doesn't help in establishing the date for its composition. Comments attributed to Jephtah the Gileadite, however, do help in establishing the book's date.

Jephtah the Gileadite is portrayed as alluding to traditions preserved in the Pentateuch to the effect that the kings of Edom and Moab denied access to Israel, not allowing them to cross their territories enroute to Canaan. Mention is also made of Sihon the Amorite of Heshbon denying Israel the right to cross his land, and his consequent defeat and loss of his kingdom at Jahaz (cf. Nu 21:23; De 2:30; Judges 11:19-22).  MacDonald has observed on the basis of many years of research in Transjordan, that the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages are poorly represented and has concluded that Iron II (8th-6th centuries BCE) is the most likely period for Edom and Moab to be portrayed as mighty kingdoms with fortresses, settlements and a dense population, that can withstand some 600,000 Israelite warriors (Ex 12:37) and prevent their intrusion into their borders.

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)

MacDonald on 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)

In order to portray Heshbon as the capital, the city ought to bear some kind archaeological evidence of having attained some degree of prosperity and prominence. According to MacDonald the 7th-6th centuries BCE are the best preserved levels at Tell Hesban, revealing a prosperous era. Earlier time periods, as far back as Iron I are attested, but not much remains to suggest prominence and prosperity. These archaeological anomalies suggest then that for Jephtah to allude to the Pentateuchal portrayal of Heshbon being a capital of the Amorite kingdom, that the book of Judges was written subsequent to the Pentateuch. If Heshbon (Tell Hesban) did not attain prominence and prosperity till the 7th-6th centuries BCE, this story certainly would be objected to by the contemporary audience who would know the city to have been an inconsequential village in earlier times. We must posit a period of 100 to 200 years for the national memory to fade and forget just when Heshbon rose to prominence, suggesting Judges is a composition of either the 6th or 5th century BCE. I have posited that the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) was written ca. 562-561 BCE in the Exile.

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