Sundoulos - Fall 2008


What It Can and Can't Do for Old Testament Studies

by Kenneth C. Way

What exactly is a covenant? How could a Semite like Joseph rise to such a prominent position in Egypt? Did Bible characters like Balaam or David really exist? What are cherubim? Were there really giants in the land of Canaan? These are the types of questions, often posed by critics, that archaeology can often answer.

The term “archaeology” is here used in a broad sense. By archaeology we mean not only the study of material culture (like pottery, buildings, bones and pictorial evidence) but also the study of written evidence such as literary compositions, monumental inscriptions and archival documents. Such an inclusive definition of archaeology may be better described as “background study” with regard to the Bible.

Background studies are an essential aspect of biblical interpretation. It is no secret that God’s revelation is packaged in cultures and languages that are far removed from us in time and space—just read the book of Leviticus (in Hebrew, of course!) if you have any doubts about this! Therefore today’s Christian has a responsibility of closing the gap between himself and the ancient text by considering archaeological and textual sources that demonstrate relevance to the Bible in order more accurately to interpret the Word of God.

Of course, not all comparative evidence is of equal value. So called “parallels” between the Bible and the ancient Near East are only helpful to the degree that they share some (or all) of the following criteria: historical proximity, geographical proximity, cultural proximity, linguistic proximity, and formal/generic proximity.1 One must also examine parallels from both positive and negative directions. This means sources should be both compared and contrasted with the Bible so that similarities as well as differences may be observed.2

But what are the tangible benefits of such background study? In what ways can knowledge of archaeology enhance one’s biblical understanding? There are at least four benefits that I invite you to consider.

What Archaeology Can Do

1. Background study provides historical contexts for biblical periods.

Using archaeological nomenclature, which derives from the dominant technology of each period, one may say that the majority of Old Testament history takes place in the Bronze and Iron Ages (i.e., 3300-332 B.C.). More specifically, one may view the patriarchal period against the backdrop of the Middle Bronze Age (2300-1550 B.C.), the exodus/wandering period in the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.), the conquest/judges period in the Late Bronze II – Iron I (1400-1000 B.C.), the monarchy period in Iron II (1000-586 B.C.), and the exilic/postexilic period in Iron III (586-332 B.C.).

A specific example of how this rubric can be helpful is the case of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). The only time in Egyptian history when a Semite (as opposed to an Egyptian!) could rise to such a prominent office was in the Middle Bronze II period, which concluded with the expulsion of the Hyksos. The Hyksos (literally, “rulers of foreign lands”) were a Semitic people who took over Egypt and ruled for a century from Avaris (in the north-eastern Delta) during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (15th-16th Dynasties). Joseph most likely arrived in Egypt during the 13th Dynasty (ca. 1700 B.C.) when many “Asiatics” were arriving in significant numbers.3 This scenario also provides a helpful backdrop for the remark in Exodus 1:8 about the “new king, who did not know about Joseph.” This “king” was certainly a post-Hyksos Pharaoh from the New Kingdom who would have been ill-disposed toward Semites.

2. Background study provides illustrations of biblical places, objects and practices.

Many of the place names that are mentioned in the Bible have been securely identified. Some of these sites have been extensively excavated and may be visited today by tourists. There are a number of cases where tourists can even walk through the remains of structures which are specifically mentioned in the Old Testament. For example, one may visit the six-chambered gates at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer which date to the time of Solomon and may be the fortifications mentioned in 1 Kings 9:15. In Jerusalem one may walk through the tunnel which Hezekiah built to make fresh water available inside the walls of the City of David (see 2 Ki 20:20). Interestingly, this tunnel still functions according to Hezekiah’s design and the Gihon Spring continues to gush with fresh water! Other probable examples of excavated biblical structures may be noted at Dan (the high place described in 1 Ki 12:28-31), Mount Ebal (the altar described in Josh 8:30-35), Shechem (the temple described in Ju 9) and Jerusalem (the walls and water system mentioned in 2 Ch 32:3-5, 30; Ne 3:8; Is 22:9-11; Jer 52:7).

Background study also provides illustrations of objects such as the cherubim which decorate the Ark of the Covenant and the sanctuary of Yahweh (see Ex 25, 36, 37; 1 Ki 6, 8; 2 Ch 3, 5). Cherubim, also called sphinxes, are composite creatures (usually winged quadrupeds with human faces) which are widely attested in the ancient Near East on thrones, in temples, and at gateways. Their primary function is to serve as guardians of royal/sacred space—a function which is explicit in Gen 3:24 (compare the function of the seraphim in Is 6:2).

Archaeology not only illustrates biblical cities, structures, and objects, but more importantly, it can illustrate biblical practices such as covenant-making and the behaviors associated with it. The concept of a covenant/treaty, which is so foundational for biblical theology, is not unique to ancient Israel. Numerous treaty documents which are concentrated in the Late Bronze Age are attested in languages such as Egyptian, Hittite, Aramaic and Akkadian. These treaties are drawn up between two royal (human) parties—typically between a suzerain and a vassal (a superior and inferior respectively in a political relationship), and the generic format is highly standardized. What is unique in the biblical concept of covenant is that Yahweh is the initiator of the relationship. Yahweh thus employed a well-understood cultural rubric as a vehicle for his revelatory program. In fact the entire book of Deuteronomy, which is a renewal of the Mosaic covenant, follows the standardized format of an ancient Near Eastern treaty document.

An example of a political treaty in the Bible which pertains only to human parties may be identified in 1 Kings 22 (compare 2 Ch 18) where Jehoshaphat is allied with Ahab in a battle against the Arameans. That Jehoshaphat may have been the vassal in this relationship is suggested by the scenario in which he acted as Ahab’s substitute in battle. This is similar to a Hittite treaty from the thirteenth century B.C. in which the vassal was required to be ready to die for his suzerain.4

3. Background study provides contrasts to biblical perspectives.

As I mentioned above, it is essential to consider both similarities and differences between the Bible and ancient Near Eastern sources. An excellent example of contrast may be observed with respect to the battle of Qarqar (853 B.C.). In this battle the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III faces a coalition of Syro-Palestinian kings, and the Israelite king Ahab is listed among the most significant players of the coalition. It is even reported that Ahab supplied 2,000 chariots—more than any other king of the coalition! Although Shalmaneser III claims victory, it appears that the western kings were really the victors because Shalmaneser III did not assume control of this region until a decade or so later.

What is noteworthy about this significant battle is that it is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. This omission is likely due to the fact that biblical historiography is driven neither by political interests nor by historical interests per se. The military successes of a northern evil king such as Ahab were not of interest to the writer of Kings who was much more concerned with the Davidic covenant in the southern kingdom and with what Yahweh was doing through the prophets in the northern kingdom.

So the battle of Qarqar is a case where we can learn something about the Bible’s theological perspective based on what the Bible does not say. A similarly instructive case of omission is evident when the Mesha Stele (or “Moabite Stone”) is compared with the book of Kings. This ninth century B.C. inscription credits Omri with conquering Moab—a detail never acknowledged by the book of Kings. Again, the writer of Kings appears to be uninterested in the political successes of a northern, evil king like Omri. In fact all of the northern kings are depicted as failures on theological grounds.

4. Background study provides confirmation of biblical data.

This is the reason why many evangelicals today show an interest in archaeology. They are seeking to confirm the facts and figures of the Bible. Archaeology has certainly served to authenticate the historicity of many biblical accounts. The discoveries that fall under this category are those which typically get the most press attention and become well known. What made the Dead Sea Scrolls so exciting to the general public was the fact that the biblical texts from Qumran closely corroborated the Hebrew Masoretic tradition even though the scrolls were about a thousand years older than the oldest extant Masoretic Text.

Aside from biblical manuscripts, archaeology has supplied numerous inscriptions that authenticate the existence of individuals and people groups named in the Old Testament. The Egyptian Merneptah Stele (ca. 1207 B.C.) contains the earliest reference to “Israel” outside of the Bible. This stele specifically identifies Israel as a people rather than a city-state. Such a detail fits quite nicely with the portrayal of pre-monarchic Israel in the book of Judges. Other early people groups such as the Philistines and the Anaqim (described as giants in Nu 13:32-33; Dt 1:28; 2:10-11, 20-21; 9:2) are also mentioned in extrabiblical documents. With reference to the Anaq(im), Egyptian texts from as early as 1800 B.C. mention the place name “Anq” in the vicinity of southern Canaan.5 Another Egyptian document from ca. 1200 B.C. describes Bedouin in Canaan who were 4-5 cubits in height (i.e., 7-8½ feet!).6

Not only people groups but also a surprising number of individuals from the Old Testament are named in extrabiblical inscriptions.7 Many of the Israelite/ Judahite kings are mentioned in royal inscriptions, including Omri, Ahab, J(eh)oram, Jehu, Ahaziah, Jehoahaz, J(eh)oash, Amaziah, Jeroboam II, Uzziah, Menahem, Jotham, Ahaz, Pekah, Hoshea, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoiachin, etc. But the most famous recent inscription to come to light is the ninth century B.C. Aramaic stele from Tel Dan which mentions “the house/ dynasty of David.” In addition, there are also a number of non-royal biblical characters who are clearly attested in inscriptions, such as Balaam, Baruch, Hilkiah, Shaphan, Gemariah, Gedaliah, Jaazaniah, etc.

I’ve summarized four ways in which background study can benefit biblical studies; examples for each of these benefits could be expanded ad infinitum. But we should not set up archaeology as some kind of panacea, or as a bottomless repository of answers to all of our questions. In fact, there are also some important things that archaeology can not do for biblical studies.

What Archaeology Cannot Do

While archaeology may authenticate the historical accuracy of many biblical places, people and events, it is important to remember that the Bible is much more than history. The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and as such it has a theological message. This message is not something that archaeology is able to verify. Whereas archaeology may be used to confirm that David was in fact a king of Judah who founded a dynasty, it can never “prove” that David was God’s choice king or that God made a covenant with David. Many other examples could be used to make this same point. One might be able to verify pieces of data regarding the historicity of the exodus event, but that would not prove the most important issue—that God is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt!

For this reason, Christian apologists must be careful in their employment of archaeological arguments. Establishing the historical plausibility of the Bible merely demonstrates that the Bible may be on a par with other ancient Near Eastern historical documents in terms of its historical reliability. It does not necessarily demonstrate that the message of the biblical text is true. That takes faith, and faith is the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is also worth pointing out (in an apologetic context) that the facts and figures of the Bible can be true in their own right, without historical corroboration. That is, the three distinct fields of biblical evidence, extrabiblical written evidence and material/artifactual evidence each contain facts that can stand alone or overlap with the other fields. It is important to remember that overlap is not a requirement for authenticity.8 The Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen is often credited with the statement: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”9

Another reminder about the limits of archaeological data comes from Edwin Yamauchi. He reminds us about the “fractional” nature of archaeological evidence. He notes that (1) only a fraction of the evidence has survived; (2) only a fraction of the available sites has been surveyed; (3) only a fraction of the surveyed sites has been excavated; (4) only a fraction of any excavated site has been examined; and (5) only a fraction of the discoveries has been published.10

Yamauchi’s statements are a sobering reminder about how little we actually know at present, and yet it should be evident in the above discussion that background studies have nevertheless provided significant insights into biblical studies. While it is true that archaeology cannot be used to directly prove the theological message of Scripture, I would submit to you that the best use of archaeology for believers today is for the illumination of Scripture. Background study should be of interest to every Christian because it enables one to enter the world of the biblical text and to appreciate the nuances and poignancy of God’s authoritative message.

What You Can Do

There are at least a couple of things that you can do to bolster your archaeological acumen.

First, you can study. Study God’s word with an eye toward cultural and historical details. In conjunction with Bible study, you can build up your personal library (see side bar) with the necessary tools to answer your cultural/historical questions. Be sure to have a good atlas, an anthology of ancient Near Eastern texts, an introduction to the archaeology of Israel and a history of ancient Israel and/or a history of the ancient Near East. One of the most helpful tools you can acquire is a background commentary on the Old Testament. If you want to go the extra mile, you may also wish to subscribe to magazines or journals which can help you to stay current on recent discoveries.

The second thing you can do will take a little more time and money, but it is life-changing. You can travel. Travel to the lands of the Bible and experience the terrain and climate for yourself. There is so much to see and experience in the Holy Land today, and the experience will help to illuminate and animate the biblical text in ways that you would have never imagined. You can even work as a volunteer on an official archaeological excavation, if you are so inclined. People of all ages and levels of education and experience are welcome to serve on most excavations in Israel today. The only catch is that you will probably have to pay your own way, but I assure you that it is one of the best investments in Bible study you could ever make!


1 For these criteria se K. L. Younger, “The ‘Contextual Method’: Some West Semitic Reflections” in The Context of Scripture, Vol. 3 (Brill, 2002) p. xxxvii.

2 This is the so called “Contextual Approach” championed by W. W. Hallo (see for example, W. W. Hallo, “Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Their Relevance for Biblical Exegesis” in The Context of Scripture, Vol. 1, p. xxv.

3 See K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003) pp. 344, 359.

4 For additional discussion see K. C. Way, “Jehoshaphat” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, eds. B. T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (InterVarsity Press, 2005) pp. 531-532. For a translation of the Hittite text see The Context of Scripture, Vol. 2, text 18, p. 104 (§21).

5 For a translation of the Egyptian text see The Context of Scripture, Vol. 1, text 32, pp. 51-52.

6 For a translation of the Egyptian text see E. F. Wente, Letters from Ancient Egypt (Scholars Press, 1990) p. 108.

7 For thorough documentation on this subject see L. J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).

8 See E. Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (Baker, 1972) pp. 158-160.

9 E.g., see K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Inter-Varsity Press, 1966) pp. 30-32.

10 Adapted from The Stones and the Scriptures, pp. 146-157.

Resources for Old Testament Backgrounds

  • In the study of Old Testament backgrounds it is, first of all, essential to have an up-to-date Bible atlas. The best resource on historical geography currently available is Carta’s New Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible (Carta, 2007) by A. F. Rainey and R. S. Notley. A cheaper but less thorough alternative is Paul Lawrence, Alan Millard, John Walton, and Heinrich Von Siebenthal, eds., The IVP Atlas of Bible History (InterVarsity Press, 2006).
  • Second, an anthology of ancient Near Eastern texts is indispensable. The latest translations of Egyptian, Hittite, Northwest Semitic, Akkadian and Sumerian texts can be found in The Context of Scripture (Brill, 1997- 2002), a three-volume reference work edited by W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, now in paperback. Also helpful is Victor Matthews and John Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (Paulist, 2007)—be sure to get the 3rd edition, revised and expanded.
  • The third resource is a basic introduction to the archaeology and history of Israel-Palestine. The two-volume Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Doubleday) by A. Mazar and E. Stern (published in 1990 and 2001 respectively) are the most comprehensive introductions available. A more consistently evangelical perspective is in Alfred Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Baker, 1998).
  • Fourth, it is prudent to balance out Mazar and Stern (which are specific to Israel-Palestine) with a general history of the ancient Near East. The most concise history available which covers both Egypt and Mesopotamia is The Ancient Near East: A History (Harcourt Brace, 1998) by W. W. Hallo and W. K. Simpson.
  • Fifth, the best bang for your buck is probably a background commentary on the Old Testament. The only single-volume commentary of this nature is The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2000) by J. H. Walton, V. H. Matthews and M. W. Chavalas. John H. Walton is also currently editing the five volume Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (Zondervan, forthcoming).
  • Finally, for those junkies who want to keep up with the latest archaeological news and views related to the Bible, I would recommend a magazine subscription. The most popular magazine available is Biblical Archaeology Review. A slightly more technical option would be a subscription to Near Eastern Archaeology.

(Compiled by Dr. Ken Way)

Kenneth C. Way (Ph. D., Hebrew Union College) is Assistant Professor of Bible Exposition, specializing in Old Testament. He has toured the Holy Land extensively and has volunteered on excavations in southern Israel. He and his wife Lori and their two young children live in La Mirada. Ken sometimes wears a tie so he won’t be mistaken for a new student.

Biola University
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