This series of posts has been following the most recent publication on the archaeology and history of the Old Testament — The Old Testament in Archaeology and History (OTAH) — and has now reached the point of the earliest historical evidence for the presence of Israel and her God Yahweh in Canaan.
The previous two posts:
Earliest Historical Evidence for Israel in Canaan
In 1896 W. M. Flinders Petrie, excavating a temple in Luxor, Egypt, discovered an inscription on stone that said “Israel is wasted, its seed is not.” The inscription or stele belonged to Pharaoh Merneptah and was dated 1207 BCE. That’s roughly 207 years before the time of David and Solomon. There is no biblical account of Egyptian forces destroying Israel according to the claims of the Merneptah stele. For context, here is the relevant section of that inscription. It is describing an Egyptian military campaign into Canaan.
The (foreign) chieftains lie prostrate, saying “Peace.” Not one lifts his head among the Nine Bows.
Libya is captured, while Hatti is pacified.
Canaan is plundered, Ashkelon is carried off, and Gezer is captured. Yenoam is made into non-existence; Israel is wasted, its seed is not; and Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.
All lands united themselves in peace. Those who went about are subdued by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt… Merneptah. (COS 2:41) (OTAH, p. 256)
At this point the chapter in OTAH is disappointingly lacking in citations for readers to follow up. It makes the following points:
- Some scholars (who? a few citations, please!) argue that Merneptah brought Israelites into Egypt as captives.
(It’s that word “argue” that confuses me. What are the arguments? That’s why I’d like to see some of the secondary source material identified so I could follow up the “arguments”. Or are they really only speculating that the Pharaoh at this time brought the Israelites as captives back to Egypt with him? Perhaps I will find the arguments in sources cited in other contexts in the chapter as opportunity might arise for me to dig deeper.)
- Presumably on their trek to Egypt these Israelites encountered the nomadic Shasu from Edom, the earliest known followers of the god “Yahweh”.
- About 1190 BCE (around at most 20 years later than the Egyptian campaign into Canaan) “the Semite Bey instigated a revolt and chaos reigned throughout Egypt. The revolt failed but provided the opportunity for groups of Semites including Israelites to escape and return to Canaan. . . ” (OTAH, p. 257)
- Egyptian power in the Canaan succumbed to challenges by the Philistines and others. “The Israelite believed that God had brought their people out from Egypt, as indicated in Exodus 18:1. (Though not in total agreement, see Knauf and Guillaume 2015, 36.)” (OTAH, p. 257)
That is far from being anything like a “historical reconstruction” of the biblical story in my view. But let’s continue with the chapter.
Around this time the reader is informed that “there was a dramatic population increase in the central highlands of Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age”. That’s around 1250 to 1050 BCE according to the timeline on page xvii of OTAH.
It is possible—some scholars would say highly likely—that these new settlers were the people Israel, or at least a “proto-Israel” (see the next chapter). Despite this, the common material culture of these sites—plastered cisterns, terracing, olive orchards, collar-rim jars, cooking pots, four-room houses, storage facilities like silos, and unfortified settlements—has few links to Egypt. The most common house form in these sites is known as the “four-room house,” and it is distinctive to them. (OTAH, p. 257)
A paragraph discusses the maverick claims of one scholar, Manfred Bietak, who “argues, however, that there is evidence for the four-room house in Egypt” after all. (Bietak’s chapter is found in Israel’s exodus in transdisciplinary perspective : text, archaeology, culture, and geoscience, a work that is not readily available to me.)
Where does Yahweh come from?
We return to those nomadic people known as Shasu. Egyptian records place them in the region of Edom (including Seir, the mountainous region of Edom) and the Negev. Those same Egyptian records also portray them as undesirables, “robbers and brigands”. Sometimes the Egyptians allowed the Shasu into their delta regions to water their cattle; other times we read of conflicts with the Shasu throughout Canaan, and even at one point of being spies for the Hittite enemy of Egypt.
But the most important point about the Shasu lies in their worship. A papyrus list from the time of Ramesses II mentions “the land of the Shasu of Yhw” — a clear reference to “the name of the Israelite god ‘Yahweh’ ” (Redford 1992, 273). This is our earliest evidence of the worship of Yahweh, and it is important to note that it is established outside of Canaan. (OTAH, p. 258, my bolding)