An Introduction to Archaeology and Tanakh

May 29, 2018

There have been extensive archaeological excavations conducted in the Middle East during the past two hundred years. There are some who seek to marshal evidence from these discoveries to disprove the authenticity of the Tanakh.  Orthodox scholars, such as Rabbi Amnon Bazak, have presented a cogent response to such criticism.

Many of the stunning discoveries made in that time corroborate the narrative of the Tanakh, such as the discovery of the tunnel dug by Hezekiah to bring water to Jerusalem,[1] which is now an enormously popular site visited each year by thousands.

Another example is the Sennacherib Prism displayed at the British Museum.  It is a chronicle of many of Sennacherib’s military victories, including his campaign in Judah, as is recorded in Kings.[2]

Interestingly, Sennacherib boasts only that he set siege to Jerusalem and that he trapped Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage”[3].  In this case – unlike other recordings of his military campaigns – Sennacherib does not specifically mention that he conquered Jerusalem.  This fits with the Tanakh record of Sennacherib setting siege to Jerusalem, but failing to conquer it.[4]  Sennarcherib’s failure to record the miracle of the great plague in which 185,000 Assyrian soldiers were smitten by an angel – which is recorded in Tanakh[5] – is not surprising since in the ancient world, it was unusual for kings to record their defeats and failures.  Sennacherib, following this pattern, would record only that he surrounded Jerusalem, but would not record his miraculous defeat.[6]

Excavations of Tanakh sites in Israel are an exciting and ongoing enterprise.  For example, in the summer of 2015, an archaeological team from Bar Ilan University discovered the enormous gate to the city of Gath.[7]   In the fall of 2015, a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem unearthed the seal of King Hezekiah,[8] in 2016 an artifact was unearthed which corroborates the Biblical account[9] of King Hezekiah’s campaign to eliminate idolatry[10] and a 3,000-year-old King David era seal was discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project.[11]

Critics, however, draw conclusions negating the veracity of the Tanakh text based on the lack of archaeological evidence for certain events.  A first response to such assertions is to note the highly precarious approach of drawing conclusions from absence of evidence.  This is particularly true in archaeology where little from the ancient world has been preserved and precious little of what has been preserved has been excavated.

Many situations validate the peril of drawing conclusions from the absence of archaeological evidence.  The December 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine featured an article entitled “Kings of Controversy” by Richard Draper noting that until the 1993 discovery of an ancient stele[12] inscribed with “House of David”, there was no non-biblical evidence that David actually existed.  Similarly, the Temple Mount Sifting Project has revealed evidence of a time period whose “historical credibility” archaeologists had questioned for years.  With these findings, however, “the existence of the House of David came to be accepted as historical fact by the vast majority of scholars.”[13]  Rabbi Amnon Bazak cites Ben Gurion University archaeologist Dr. Zipora Talshir who describes the intellectually dishonest reaction of militant secularists to the discovered evidence of King David’s existence:

The appearance of the House of David as a consolidated political concept represented a real problem for deniers of Ancient Israel. They went to great lengths to try to rid themselves of this most inconvenient evidence. Davis proposed impossible alternative readings, which no self-respecting scholar would dare to mention; Lemke, despairing of any other solution, decided that the inscription was a forgery. No other scholar in the academic world has cast the slightest doubt on the reliability of the inscription, the circumstances of its discovery, or its epigraphic identity. There is nothing problematic about this inscription, other than the fact that it deals a mortal blow to a priori claims against the history of the House of David. [14]

Another instance of a faulty conclusion that “undermined” the authenticity of the Torah was made regarding the domestication of camels in the ancient Near East.  Militantly secular archaeologists had argued that the absence of evidence of domesticated camels in the Near East prior to the twelfth century BCE “proved” the inaccuracy of the book of Genesis, which describes the use of camels during the time of the Patriarchs (approximately seventeenth century BCE).  However, later archaeological findings demonstrate that camels were domesticated as early as the end of the third millennium B.C.E., but that widespread domestication did not occur until the twelfth century B.C.E.  Rabbi Bazak writes:

This finding sits well with the biblical account, in which camels did not play a central role, and their numbers were relatively small, until the time of the Judges. In the story of Avraham’s servant and Rivka, the Torah mentions ‘ten of his master’s camels’ (Bereishit 24:10); in the gifts that Yaakov offers Esav, we find ‘thirty milk camels with their young’ (ibid. 32:16); and in the account of the sale of Yosef we find a “caravan of Yishme’elim came from the Gil’ad, with their camels carrying gum balm and ladanum” (ibid. 37:25). We may therefore conclude that camels were not common, and were used mainly to carry expensive merchandise. The camels that Avraham’s servant brought with him apparently represented a factor in the estimation of the avaricious Lavan (ibid., 30-31). In other narratives in the Torah, camels are absent: in the descent of Yosef’s brothers to Egypt we find only donkeys (ibid. 42:26-27, and elsewhere); in the spoils seized from Midian we find ‘sixty-one thousand asses’ (Bamidbar 31:34), but no mention of any camels. In contrast, from the period of the Judges onwards we find a great many camels. In the war of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven against the Hagri’im, we find: ‘And they captured their cattle, [and] of their camels fifty thousand’ (Divrei Ha-yamim I, 21). Iyov, at the end of his life, had six thousand camels (Iyov 42:12). [15]

Thus, findings that seemed at first to conflict with the Tanakh account end by confirming it.

Rabbi Amnon Bazak offers a fairly comprehensive review of the archaeological record in regard to Tanakh.[16]  He states that there is no archaeological evidence that contradicts the Torah.[17]  In turn, he writes there are “many findings that do conform to the biblical narratives from the time of the Avot (forefathers), and indicate that these narratives were indeed written with a profound familiarity with the period.”  He notes the same regarding the era of enslavement and subsequent exodus from Egypt.[18]

In regards to excavations that appear, on a superficial level, to contradict Tanakh texts, the conflicts emerge from either insufficient or inaccurate archaeology or from a flawed understanding of Tanakh.  An example of the first variety of error is the conclusion of some archaeologists that the battle of Ai described in the book of Joshua did not occur, a conclusion based on excavations at Ai showing that the city was not inhabited at the time of Joshua’s entry into the land of Yisrael.[19]   Others, however, argue that the wrong area had been excavated.  They claim to have found the correct location of Ai, which, when subsequently excavated, yielded evidence that it was in fact inhabited during the time of Yehoshua’s conquest.[20]

Rabbi Bazak deals persuasively with the sensitive issues regarding the periods of Joshua, the Judges, King David and King Solomon.  He combines his trademark, superior analysis of Tanakh with extensive knowledge of archaeology to provide an extraordinary treatment of the conflict.  Rabbi Bazak concludes his discussions by noting:

Our review has also revealed the transience of some central theories in the world of archaeology.  The Merneptah Stele is a proof of utmost significance as to the existence at that time of an entity known as ‘Israel’, and “had it not been discovered, quite coincidentally, the research on this subject would be in a completely different situation to what it is today.”[21]

Had the Dan Stele inscription not been discovered some twenty years ago, many scholars today would probably still deny the existence of David and Shlomo, arguing that “no findings to concretely confirm their existence have yet been discovered.”  The amount of material that has been excavated and studied is extremely small, relative to what remains, and we must also take into consideration the fact that in the most important regions, such as the City of David and the Temple Mount, excavations are highly problematic if not altogether impossible.

However, archaeology has contributed, and will continue to contribute greatly to our understanding and appreciation of Tanakh.  A walk through the sites where the stories of the Tanakh took place, or standing before archaeological findings from that period, is a powerful and moving experience.  Archaeological research also influences and deepens our understanding of different parts of Tanakh.  Without the discoveries on the ground, it is doubtful whether we would make the proper differentiation, for instance, between the descriptions of settlement in Sefer Yehoshua and those in Sefer Shoftim.  In addition, archaeological findings have shed light on the events described in the text, such as the campaign of Shishak and the war against Mesha, king of Moav.  It seems reasonable to assume that further discoveries with ramifications for this sphere of research still await us, and will continue to interest all those who hold the Tanakh dear.[22]

Excerpted from Rabbi Jachter’s book Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith


[1] II Kings 20:20.

[2] II Kings18:13.

[3] The discovery of Sennacherib’s words sheds light on Isaiah’s words, “As flying birds, so will Hashem protect Jerusalem; He will deliver it as He protects it, He will rescue it as He passes over” (Is. 31:5).

[4] II Kings 19.

[5] II Kings19:35.

[6] Also on display at the British Museum are very large bas-reliefs of Sennacherib’s conquest of Lakhish found on a palace wall of Sennacherib (Sennacherib’s conquest of Lakhish is mentioned in II Kings 18:13-14).  The fact that Sennacherib set up an eight foot by eighty foot depiction of his conquest of Lakhish and did not set up a mural of a conquest of Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah and seat of the Jewish Temple, also indicates that he did not conquer Jerusalem.

[7] http://www.timesofisrael.com/archaeologists-unearth-the-gate-to-goliaths-hometown/.  This report also mentions that evidence was found of a massive earthquake in the eighth century B.C.E., which might be the earthquake described in Amos 1:1.

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/03/middleeast/king-hezekiah-royal-seal/.

[9] Kings II 18:3-4.

[10] http://www.timesofisrael.com/iron-age-toilet-is-evidence-judean-king-dumped-on-the-gods/.

[11] http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Rare-3000-year-old-King-David-era-seal-discovered-by-Temple-Mount-Sifting-Project-419024.

[12] A stele is an ancient monument; this stele is commonly referred to as the Tel Dan Stele. This artifact of monumental importance is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  There is a possible contradiction, though, between the Tel Dan Stele and the Tanakh.  The Stele indicates that the Aramean king killed both the Israelite king Jehoram son of Ahab and the Judean king, Ahaziah son of Jehoram. II Kings 9:14-27 records that the Aramean king only wounded Jehoram and that Jehu subsequently killed Jehoram and Ahaziah.  However, one could explain that since the wounding of Jehoram by the king of Aram drew Ahaziah to visit him ( II Kings 8:29) creating the opportunity for Jehu to kill both Jehoram and Ahaziah, the king of Aram took the credit for killing them.

[13] http://etzion.org.il/en/shiur-6b-tanakh-and-archaeology.

[14] Ibid.

[15] http://etzion.org.il/en/shiur-6c-tanakh-and-archaeologyIn the same lecture, Rabbi Bazak further notes that the militant secularists of the “minimalist school” of archaeology continued to write that the reference to camels in Genesis is anachronistic.  In response he cites Kenneth Kitchen, a well-respected scholar of biblical archaeology and Professor Emeritus at Liverpool University, to the effect that “camels are not anachronistic in the early second millennium (Middle Bronze Age).”

[16] Shiurim 6a through 6i on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s virtual Beit Midrash (www.etzion.org/vbm).

[17] Regarding geological evidence for the Flood Dr. Gerald Schroeder (Genesis and the Big Bang 28) writes: “Any ’proof’ for or against the occurrence of the biblical Flood of Noah’s time is weak.  In Genesis we are told that the downpour lasted only forty days and the resulting flood persisted for only 150 days.  Sediments from so brief a period would probably not be extensive and, therefore, firm archaeological evidence may never be found.”

[18] Shiurim 6d and 6e on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s virtual Beit Midrash (www.etzion.org/vbm).

[19] Encyclopedia Judaica II, 471-472.

[20] For further discussion of Ai and the archaeological record see Rabbi Amnon Bazak’s Ad HaYom haZeh, available in English at http://etzion.org.il/en/shiur-6ftanakh-and-archaeology-continued-%D6%A0yehoshua-and-conquest-land.

[21]This quote is from J. Hoffman, “Historia, Mythos v’Politika,” in Y.L. Levine and A. Mazar, HaPulmus al HaEmet veHistoria BeMikra, Jerusalem, 5761, 31-32.

[22] http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/archive/tanakh/06i-tanakh.htm.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.