In a previous article, we were introduced to the field of archaeology and its relevance for studying and interpreting the Bible.1 We noted that since archaeology is a tool of the historian, and since the Christian religion is a historical religion comprising God’s revelatory work in history, archaeology is a field that should interest Christians. We did make two important caveats, however, that prevent us from missteps in our use of archaeology. First, since Scripture is self-attesting, it does not depend upon the approval of an outside source like archaeology for its authenticity and authority. Second, since archaeology is not self-interpreting, archaeological finds are always be interpreted according to a worldview. Though Christians interpret history and archaeology via a biblical worldview, many archaeologists embrace a modern, evolutionary, and anti-supernatural worldview, interpreting archaeological finds in light of that. Thus, when critical scholars claim that a given archaeological find “disproves the Bible,” we suggested that such claims reveal more about the worldview of the critical scholar than about archaeology itself.
Following James Hoffmeier, we noted that archaeology can assist Bible reading in four primary ways:
1. Providing a context for the biblical accounts
2. Complementing the biblical accounts
3. Helping to respond to challenges to the biblical accounts
4. Confirming the biblical accounts2
Guided by these principles, this second article will consider some specific examples from the Book of Genesis. Of course space does not allow us to be exhaustive, but we will consider a few archaeological issues of note.
Creation and the Flood
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). There is a sense in which every single archaeological excavation in history supports the claim of Genesis 1:1. After all, to dig in the earth means that there is an earth in which to dig! And yet archaeologists have not found (and likely will not find) any artifacts directly tied to the creation account such as the remains of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17) or the flaming sword wielded by the cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). This is not because these are unhistorical, but because of two main factors: first, such artifacts are unlikely to have survived this long, and second, uncertainty about the precise location of Eden makes it nearly impossible to know where even to look. But though archaeology has not found artifacts from creation or the flood accounts, it has uncovered ancient tablets containing stories about these events.
Though the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing system had been known for many centuries, it was not until the mid-1800s that scholars learned how to read it. Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson cracked the code through his work translating the famous Behistun inscription, a trilingual text carved into a mountainside by the Persian king Darius I. When scholars began to translate some of the most prominent cuneiform tablets that had been uncovered in archaeological excavations, they discovered stories depicting creation and the flood differing drastically from the biblical versions.3
Because of some shared imagery and language, many scholars became convinced that the Bible was not unique but was a revision of purportedly earlier ancient Near Eastern (ANE) creation and flood stories. John Currid of Reformed Theological Seminary recounts bold assertions of critics in the early 1900s who claimed that Genesis contained “the Hebrew version of an originally Babylonian legend” or that Genesis 1–2 “was guilty of crass plagiarism.”4 (Currid rightly notes that statements like these are opposed to a high view of Scripture.)
While there are certainly echoes between Genesis and the ANE accounts, only a naïve and simplistic reading of the ANE texts could lead one to conclude that the Old Testament has simply borrowed and baptized ANE myths. Though a case can be made that the biblical writers wrote down the true story of creation and the flood in ways that challenged and condemned the pagan versions, the very fact that ANE texts contain stories with similar imagery and language demonstrates something we know all too well from Romans 1: sinful humans distort God’s truth. After the fall people sought independence from God and rewrote the revelation their fathers had taught them about creation and the flood according to their own whims and imaginations.5
Critical archaeologists will object at this point and claim that the tablets containing the creation and flood stories are older than the oldest Hebrew manuscripts; thus, they are more original. We would respond by noting that though the clay tablets themselves are older than the excavated vellum and papyrus scrolls, this does not mean that the narratives recorded in those scrolls are later than the stories recorded on the tablets. After all, Moses himself drew upon older material when he originally penned his work, yet we believe this material had been faithfully preserved down to his time. Furthermore, we believe that the true stories of God’s creating and judging work were preserved not simply to the time of Moses but to the time of our earliest Hebrew manuscripts (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and even down to today.
And so in sum, when archaeologists and scholars claim to discover a new tablet containing a more original version of the creation or flood narratives, we must remember that these data do not support their conclusions. Indeed, after the fall (and especially after the tower of Babel), we would expect to find other (pagan) versions of these world-shaping events. Just like today, our fathers in the faith, the patriarchs, lived among people who could not escape the knowledge of God but who had become futile in their thinking and darkened in their thoughts (Rom. 1:21). These texts give us a glimpse into how early men have perverted God’s revelation.
Though space does not allow us to spend more time on this, there is a more positive import from these texts. Ancient tablet finds like these help to familiarize modern readers with the literary conventions that were used regularly in the ancient world. Though our modern age causes the images, techniques, and themes found in Genesis 1–11 to feel somewhat strange and foreign, ANE stories remind us that they would not have caused surprise to any ancient readers. Ancient readers would have been very comfortable with those things in the Old Testament that modern readers feel are repetitive, redundant, and peculiar. Thus spending the time reading ANE stories—even their pagan myths—can do a great service in familiarizing us with the conventions of ancient writing.
The Tower of Babel
Though archaeologists have not uncovered the remains of the tower of Babel, they have discovered structures from the ancient world that give insight into the motives of those who built the tower. In the fifteenth century BC, the Kassite king Kurigalzu I engaged in an extensive building campaign, the highlight of which was construction of a new Babylonian capital, Dur Kurigalzu, located approximately 30 km west of Baghdad, Iraq. There the king constructed a ziggurat, a tall, stepped tower that loomed over the surrounding countryside. The base of the ziggurat’s remains is 70 x 70 meters and reaches a height of more than 50 meters, although it would have been considerably higher in its heyday. For many centuries, local nomads believed that the ziggurat at Dur Kurigalzu was the remains of the tower of Babel. While Dur Kurigalzu is a prominent ziggurat, the remains of approximately thirty ziggurats have been found by archaeologists.6 Ancient texts also describe these edifices as buildings with their “tops in the heavens” (cf. Gen. 11:4); thus, many years after that fateful day in the plains of Shinar, people continued to construct cities with towers of a similar kind.
Apart from the basics of construction out of mud bricks and the goal of “making a name” for the people so as to avoid being dispersed (Gen. 11:3–4), not much is said concerning the intended role of the tower of Babel. It is often thought that the tower was an attempt to “storm the gates of heaven” and replace God’s rule with human rule. Though ascent may have been in the people’s minds, the function of ziggurats in the ANE demonstrates that towers like these were primarily designed to encourage the gods to descend to earth.7 (Indeed, this is what God ends up doing in Genesis 11:5, 7, albeit not as the people had hoped!) At the base of ancient ziggurats, archaeologists find temples and religious precincts, indicating that the gods were thought to come down the steps of the tower and dwell with the people there.
While Genesis 11:1–9 does not make explicit that divine descent was the intended function of the tower of Babel, this view does explain the worry about being dispersed (Gen. 11:4). Building the tower was an attempt to constrain God, to anchor him to a particular locale, one chosen by the people themselves. Though Deuteronomy notes that God chooses where He will dwell (e.g., Deut. 12:5; 15:20; 16:2; 31:11), these people are dismissive of this fact. What is more, it shows a people who have adopted a faulty view of God. John H. Walton explains: “[t]he ziggurat was the most powerful representation of the Babylonian religious system, a system in which the gods were recast with human natures.”8 Believing God to be fickle like humans, a “god” who can be enticed to bless fancy building projects and stairways from heaven, the people on the plains of Shinar envision God as more like humans than unlike them. And so archaeology of ziggurats helps to complement our understanding of the tower of Babel.
The Historicity of the Patriarchs: The Mari Letters
It has become a foregone conclusion among critical scholars that the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis are fictitious, perhaps containing some scattered historical memories but not historical in any meaningful sense. It is claimed that though the stories appear to take place in the early second millennium BC, they reflect concerns and customs from a much later time in Israel’s history (mid first millennium BC). Critics have asserted that no early second millennium BC texts reveal a world like that in which the patriarchs lived, that there is no archaeological corroboration for the stories, and that the only archaeological proof that exists demonstrates the stories to be anachronistic. What shall we make of such claims?
While it is admitted that archaeology has not found anything referring to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob by name, an honest consideration of the data does indeed provide sufficient evidence for the antiquity of the patriarchal stories. And so in these final sections, we consider the discovery of ancient texts illustrating names and activities in the patriarchal narratives that cannot be coincidental, and archaeological finds that shed light on references to camels in Genesis.
In the early 1900s, archaeologists uncovered some twenty thousand cuneiform tablets from the ruins of ancient Mari, a site just west of the border between modern-day Syria and Iraq. Mari was an important city on the Euphrates River, but it also evidences a close relationship between pastoral nomadism (i.e., animal herding), tribal organization, and the royal administration of a powerful early second millennium BC kingdom with Amorite ties. These texts thereby present us with a context for the patriarchal narratives as they share some of the same themes. Daniel Fleming explains: “If there is one archival source that could provide a context for understanding the patriarchs within a biblical chronology, it is Mari.”9 Though conservative scholars formerly sought patriarchal parallels among the Nuzi tablets discovered in the early 1900s in Yorghan Tepe, Iraq, further study of those texts has shown them to be less useful than those found at Mari.10
Close study of the Mari letters reveals a number of features in the Bible’s patriarchal narratives that can only be explained as originating in the early second millennium. Fleming notes four:
Critical scholars have struggled to explain the role of Haran in the patriarchal stories according to traditional higher critical criteria. Haran does not play a prominent role in later Israelite history as either a religious site or a military ally. Since the Mari texts note that it was one of four capital cities of a group of pastoralist tribes called the Binu Yamina (more on them in a moment), patriarchal connections with both pastoral nomadism and Haran thus correspond perfectly with the portrait we find at Mari.
It is significant that the Mari tablets name a sizeable group of tribes living in western Syria Binu Yamina. This name has a direct linguistic relationship with the name Benjamin (in Hebrew = bin yamin), Jacob’s youngest son by Rachel. It is likely that the choice of the name Benjamin (Gen. 35:18) reflects Jacob’s family history and its connection with the Binu Yamina in and around Haran.
Though scholars have been puzzled to understand the linguistic background for the word Hebrews (in Hebrew = ‘ibri), the name given to Jacob and his descendants in Genesis 39:14, this word is also linguistically related to the name given to pastoral nomads in the Mari letters, ‘ibrum (notice the shared letters, ‘–b–r in both words).
Lot’s division from Abraham in terms of taking the “left hand” or the “right hand” (Gen. 13:9) reflects nearly identical Mari language which geographically distinguishes the Binu Yamina (sons of the right) from the Binu Sim’al (sons of the left).11
Even these few examples show that the Mari tablets paint a portrait of the early second millennium BC that fits well with what we find in the patriarchal narratives. Though this is still a far cry from extrabiblical proof for the existence of the patriarchs themselves, it does bolster our confidence in the historicity of the Genesis narratives.
The Historicity of the Patriarchs: Camel Domestication
For many years now, critics have claimed that the existence of domesticated camels in the patriarchal narratives contradict what we know about the dating of camel domestication in the ANE. Since archaeologists have typically tied conclusions about camel domestication to finding dateable collections of camel bones, they have generally claimed that there is no evidence for camel domestication before 1200 BC. Thus it is asserted that the camels in Genesis are anachronisms, evidence that the stories were invented after 1200 BC by writers who did not realize that camels had not been domesticated back then. How might we respond? Does archaeology truly support this picture?
First, one must always remember this important adage: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because archaeologists have not yet found large assemblages of pre-1200 BC camel bones, this does not mean they are not out there. What is more, only in recent decades have archaeologists systematically begun cataloging and studying bones in excavations. One can only speculate about how many bones were discarded over the century that preceded this shift. And yet even before this methodical shift, some camel bones were found that do seem to suggest modest domestication: several sites in Palestine (dating from 2000 to 1200 BC) and an excavated house at Mari (dated to ca. 2400 BC) have yielded finds.12
But in addition to bones, archaeologists have uncovered art dating as far back as the fourth millennium BC that depicts camels. While some of these figurines and petroglyphs are ambiguous, others clearly depict camels being led by humans, a sure sign of domestication.13 In addition to this, Babylonian scribes from ca. 2000–1700 BC included camels in their lexical lists (like early dictionaries), listing them not with wild animals but alongside domesticated ones. Other lists even contain entries for camel milk, a sure sign of domestication.14
Though critics have objected that the use of camels became widespread only after 1200 BC, that does not challenge the Book of Genesis. The role of camels in Genesis is quite modest. The most camels mentioned in one place are described in Genesis 32:15, thirty camels. Other camel references in Genesis leave the number unspecified; thus, we have no need to look for evidence of widespread camel breeding and domestication. We happily agree that camels were not the primary beast of burden for the patriarchs. What archaeology has uncovered corroborates this very well.
Though we have surveyed only a few examples, many more could be described. Nevertheless, we have begun to see some concrete samples of the intersection of archaeology and biblical studies. Again, we must remember that Scripture is self-attesting and not dependent upon archaeological proof for its trustworthiness and authority, but when we do see archaeology illustrating, contextualizing, and even supporting passages of God’s Word, it is inevitable that our confidence is boosted in a good way. In our next installment, we will move forward in history and consider how archaeology sheds light on Joseph, Moses, the exodus, and the wilderness period.
1. See R. Andrew Compton, “Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History?” The Outlook 66, no. 3 (2016): 6–9.
2. James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008), 31.
3. To read these stories in English, see Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, trans. Stephanie Dalley, rev ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
4. John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 33.
5. For several models of the relationship between ANE texts and the Bible, see G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 28–29.
6. For examples, see Michael Roaf, “Palaces and Temples in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 4 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 1:429–31.
7. Meredith Kline merges the ideas of ascent and descent in Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000), 272–78.
8. John H. Walton, Genesis, New International Version Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 376.
9. Daniel E. Fleming, “History in Genesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 65, no. 2 (2003): 254.
10. Those wishing to read more about the usefulness and limits of the Nuzi texts should consult Martin J. Selman, “Comparative Customs and the Patriarchal Age,” in Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 93–138. This chapter can be read online for free at http://tinyurl.com/hswmwgg.
11. Fleming, “History in Genesis,” 255–58.
12. See Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 79–80, available online at http://tinyurl.com/jj4grug. See too Kitchen’s more recent book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 338–39.
13. See Randall Younker, “Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai,” Associates for Biblical Research, accessed Feb. 5, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/gmnuc9j.
14. Kitchen, Ancient Orient, 79; John J. Davis, “The Camel in Biblical Narratives,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 145.
Rev. R. Andrew Compton is assistant professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a contributor to The Outlook.