Archaeology Reveals Old Testament History: Digging for the Truth


The Holy Land is wonderfully rich in archaeological remains. A recent estimate places the number of sites in this area at no less than 5,000.

While it is true that no great golden treasure has ever been found in Palestinian soil, such as the tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen at Thebes or the “golden hoard of Priam” at Troy, the land nevertheless abounds in treasure of a different sort: the light that archaeological excavation sheds upon the holy scriptures.

The Bible is no ordinary book of scripture. It is not primarily a collection of liturgical formulas and moral precepts. Its framework is historical: it tells the story of a people who lived at specified times and places. The ancient Israelites learned to teach their religion by telling the story of their faithful forebears and of God’s dealings with them. In other words, they bore their testimony in narrative form. Thus, for the Bible to be understood, its historical framework has to be taken seriously.

Archaeology is the science that explains and verifies the pages of past history. What archaeologists call the “Iron Age”—roughly from the time of Joshua to that of Malachi (approximately 1250 to 450 B.C.)—abounds in evidence that helps us understand the story of God’s people in the Holy Land. Let us look at some examples: some from the time of the Israelite conquest, some from the “golden age” of David and Solomon, and some from the so-called Period of the Divided Kingdoms.

Entry into Canaan

Moses gazed upon the Holy Land from the heights of Mount Nebo, then yielded his leadership over Israel to Joshua. (See Deut. 34.)

After the fall of Jericho and Ai and the alliance with the Gibeonites, Joshua turned his forces southward in the first of two great campaigns and conquered the land of Canaan.

One after another of the captured cities show an abrupt break in the archaeological record—signs of violent destruction and the intense heat of their burning.

Excavations at Bethel, one of the captured cities, have unearthed the remains of a prosperous Canaanite city with fine homes featuring paved floors and drains. Evidence of a great destruction follows. The level above this one is of much poorer quality. The contrast between the two levels is so obvious that there can hardly be any doubt that this helps prove the conquest of the Israelites.

Joshua next moved swiftly to the north toward Hazor, the focus of the second of his major campaigns. This metropolis, 14 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, was evidently the capital of a coalition of kingdoms.

Hazor has now been excavated. Dr. Yigael Yadin, one of Israel’s best-known archaeologists, recently completed four seasons of work at Hazor. The oldest of its 21 layers dates back to 2700 B.C. Then, around 1750 B.C., about the time of Jacob and Joseph, a great wall was built at a lower elevation around an area vastly larger than the original city, such as would be suitable for a city that was to become “the head of all those kingdoms.” (Josh. 11:10.)

For the next five hundred years the Canaanite civilization is fully and beautifully documented as a result of Dr. Yadin’s diggings. All this comes to a sudden end in the late thirteenth century B.C. with Joshua’s conquest. The excavations show that the entire city was destroyed by fire, just as the record says (see Josh. 11:11), and the vast lower part of the city was never again occupied.

An interesting aspect concerning the biblical account of Joshua’s conquest is that nothing is said of any fighting in the central part of Canaan. Once again archaeology bears out the Bible: there is no sign of any military destruction in this area at this time.

Golden Age

The struggles of Saul against his enemies were followed by the brilliant victories of David and the peaceful reign of Solomon.

SAUL. Israel was first united under Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. His royal residence, Gibeah, was excavated by William F. Albright at a point some three miles north of Jerusalem. A sort of palace-fortress, it was strong but plain and simple to the point of austerity, with double walls fashioned of rough-hewn stones chinked with smaller stones. The structure was at least two stories high, with the main living quarters probably on the upper floor, typical of most of the better homes of the day. Each corner of the house had a tower for defense.

Inside, the artifacts bore further witness of the simplicity of life of the royal household: slingstones and bronze arrowheads; pottery, almost entirely utilitarian and very little of it decorated; stones for grinding flour; spinning wheels; a whetstone; and an iron plow point.

DAVID. After Saul’s death at Mount Gilboa, David hastened to secure the kingship to which he had been anointed. It was David who made Israel great in the eyes of the world, for the Lord placed all his enemies beneath his feet. He made great conquests by land, such as the subduing of the Canaanite cities of Beth-shan and Jerusalem and the conquering of the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites. Success followed David in every direction, and he was able to extend the territory of Israel from the borders of Egypt to perhaps as far as the Euphrates River.

Most remarkable of all was David’s conquest of the Aramaean (Syrian) kingdoms of Damascus and Zobah. Assyrian inscriptions tell us that during the time of his reign over Israel, Zobah captured Assyrian territory along the upper Euphrates River that had been part of the latter empire for a hundred years. Then, according to the biblical record, David in turn defeated and subjugated the Aramaean kingdoms. (See 2 Sam. 8:3–8.) This may mean that Israel incorporated within its boundaries lands that had only shortly before belonged to the Assyrian empire.

As well as his conquests by land, David also made his power felt westward across the waters of the Mediterranean.

At least three of the tribes of northern Israel—Zebulon, Dan, and Asher—had already long before taken to the sea and were no doubt able to give much aid to their king.

These three tribes were all close neighbors to the Phoenicians, living on the coast to the north of Israel and famed as the greatest mariners of the ancient world. Hiram of Tyre, a good friend of David of Israel, was ruler of the leading kingdom of the Phoenicians. The two of them appear to have laid the foundation for the joint Phoenician-Israelite commercial enterprises in the Mediterranean that were to thrive in later years.

Such evidence is found, for instance, at Jerba, a little island off the southern coast of Tunisia. The colony of Jews who presently live there claim their ancestors settled on that island in the great days of David and Solomon. There is a tradition among them that there was once a stone on the island on which were inscribed the words, “As far as this point came Joab, the son of Zeruia, in his pursuit of the Philistines.” Joab was David’s general, who exercised authority “over all the host of Israel.” (See 2 Sam. 8:16; 2 Sam. 20:23.) The whereabouts of the stone, unfortunately, is unknown to modern archaeology.

SOLOMON. If it was David who gave ancient Israel its might, it was Solomon who gave it its glamour. Sophisticated, learned, and wealthy, he was involved in many activities of the sort that archaeology can illuminate. We could tell of his joint maritime commercial ventures with the Phoenicians in the Red Sea, of his caravan trade with the spice kingdoms of South Arabia, of his middlemen dealings in horses and chariots coming out of Cilicia and Egypt, and of his metal industry in the Arabah south of the Dead Sea.

We could also tell of his heavy taxation and forced labor, two policies that eventually brought his empire to an end.

All of these seem to have been contrived to finance the one activity that may have been dearest to Solomon’s heart: building. Despite the overlay of many subsequent civilizations, enough of his buildings have now been revealed by excavation to give some clear notions as to what they were like.

Of all the ancient cities Solomon built up, perhaps the most fascinating to us is his own capital, Jerusalem, with its archaeological focal point, the site of the Holy Temple.

Present-day Jerusalem is built over the accumulated remains of many destructions and re-buildings through the ages. Some parts of it, in fact, are estimated to lie over as many as 150 vertical feet of cultural debris. If archaeologists could have a free hand and unlimited budget to excavate, the resulting increase in knowledge would be enormous.

But unfortunately, the city is densely populated. One wall often serves two houses, and many of the streets are so narrow that pedestrians have to stand in doorways to permit an automobile to pass. Moreover, it is a holy city to Jews, Christians, and Moslems alike, and fortunate is the archaeologist who is granted one small spot for excavation.

The approximate site of Solomon’s temple is known. Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah (2 Chr. 3:1) over the spot where it is believed that Abraham was about to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen. 22:2). That spot is now covered by the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most sacred shrines.

When the city of Jerusalem was reunited at the close of hostilities in June 1967, worship was once again permitted at the “Wailing Wall.” This towering structure is actually only a small portion of the western side of a high and massive retaining wall built by Herod the Great shortly before the time of Jesus. This wall supported and surrounded an enormous raised platform of earth upon which stood Herod’s enlarged and beautified temple. This huge compound, which includes about one-fifth of the total area of the present Old Jerusalem, is known as the Haram esh-Sherif, or the Temple Mount. Somewhere beneath it, no doubt under the Dome of the Rock, lie whatever stumps of walls of the temples of Solomon and Herod that may still exist. But no portion of either temple is now known to archaeology, and unfortunately, because of political and religious restrictions, there is no present possibility of excavating in search of them.

However, it is possible to excavate outside the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and this in fact is what has been happening during the past five years. Dr. Benjamin Mazar of the Hebrew University, with his staff of archaeologists, architects, engineers, and volunteer workers, has been working outside the south wall of the sacred enclosure. Much broken pottery and other artifacts from the time of Solomon’s temple are reported among the finds.

OTHER TEMPLES. There may have been more than just one temple in ancient Israel. If it has not been possible for archaeology to find any part of the Temple in the Holy City itself, this need not be the case in outlying areas. Indeed, some scholars have come to believe that a whole system of temples might have existed outside Jerusalem at key locations near the border. Some authorities believe that such temples functioned until late in the seventh century B.C., when Josiah, as monarch, prohibited sacrifice and temple ritual outside Jerusalem itself.

In a lonely desert location south of Hebron and west of Masada is a mound known as Tel ’Arad. Sometime in the eleventh century B.C., a city was built there on the ruins of a Bronze Age settlement. During the reign of Solomon a wall was added. For most of the next 2,000 years the site continued as a small but important fortress, defending the southern border of Judah.

A startling discovery at Tel ’Arad during excavations of the past decade is the ruin of a small Israelite temple. It was first built at the time of Solomon as an integral part of the fortress. The temple then continued in use, with some remodeling, down to the seventh century B.C., when, as a result of Josiah’s decree that temple ritual outside Jerusalem cease, the city wall was rebuilt and was deliberately placed so as to cut right through the little temple.

Divided Kingdoms

Solomon died about 926 B.C., “… and Rehoboam his son reigned in his stead.” (1 Kgs. 11:43.) At that time Shechem seems still to have been a sort of spiritual capital over the house of Jacob, for there “all Israel were come … to make him king.” (1 Kgs. 12:1.)

The people of Israel were still a liberty-loving people and still knew the “principle of common consent.” It was felt that in order for Rehoboam to be properly authorized to reign, the people must first sustain him in this manner. However, because of grievances held against him, the people refused to sustain Rehoboam. Rehoboam fled back to Jerusalem, where he continued to reign over Judah and Benjamin only, the empire crumbled, and the golden age of a united Israel came to an end.

Up to this time (926 B.C.) only three kings had reigned over the United Monarchy. Between the rebellion in 926 B.C. and the Assyrian captivity of the Ten Tribes in 721 B.C., 19 others ruled over the Northern Kingdom. Between that rebellion and the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom in 587 B.C., 19 more kings sat upon the throne in Jerusalem.

Of the total of 41 kings, a portrait of only one of them has ever been found: that of Jehu, who ruled over the Northern Kingdom from 845 to 818 B.C. in the days of the prophet Elisha. It appears in the middle of a bas-relief panel of what is called the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. It is a portrait, but not one made with any friendly intent, for the sculptor shows Jehu kneeling and kissing the ground before the proud, erect figure of the Assyrian emperor. Behind their humiliated leader, in the three more panels sculptured around the remaining sides of the obelisk, is a line of Israelite servants bearing a variety of tribute. Already Israel had fallen within the power of the brutal and bloody kings of Nineveh.

TARSHISH. In the days of Jeroboam II, who ruled over northern Israel from about 787 to 747 B.C., there lived a prophet by the name of Jonah, the son of Amattai.

Jonah received a call from the Lord to preach repentance to “that great city,” Nineveh. But Nineveh! Those people were nothing but pagans. He refused the call. Instead, he “rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa, and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3.)

We know that Joppa (modern Jaffa) was a port located in approximately the center of Israel’s Mediterranean coast. But where was Tarshish?

We know Tarshish was a Phoenician possession involved in the mining and processing of tin and other metals. The name Tarshish seems to be a Phoenician word meaning refinery or smelter. An old Assyrian inscription tells us it was located somewhere at the far western end of the Mediterranean. Many have thought it was in Spain, and this is clearly a possibility, as that land is known to have been exploited by Phoenician miners. But the discovery of a stone covered with large Phoenician letters has presented a more likely answer.

The Nora inscription, found at a ruin of that name in southern Sardinia, an island west of mainland Italy, and now housed in a museum in the nearby city of Cagliari, stands about three feet tall. Of reddish local stone, it bears eight lines in the Phoenician alphabet common to the ninth century B.C.

Scholars have disagreed widely over its exact translation. But whatever the case, the first line plainly reads “b-T-r-sh-sh,” which translates to read “in Tarshish,” while the third line contains the word “b-Sh-r-d-n,” which must mean “in Sardinia” or something similar.

HEZEKIAH’S TUNNEL. About a generation after Jonah—in 721 B.C.—the armies of Assyria took Samaria, capital of the Northern Kingdom, destroyed it, and carried its citizens off to northern lands as state slaves. (2 Kgs. 17:6.) The Northern Kingdom of Israel was no more. Only Judah remained, as a small independent kingdom under Hezekiah, a descendant of David.

But even Judah was not to be left alone by the greedy and relentless kings of Assyria. Some two decades later Sennacherib, a heartless and cruel man, sat upon the throne at Nineveh. The Jews were filled with terror when they learned of his plans for the conquest of Jerusalem. Hezekiah hastened to strengthen Jerusalem against Sennacherib’s forces.

In his hasty preparations for Sennacherib’s arrival he perceived a serious weakness in the city’s defenses: the Gihon spring, a vital water supply, lay outside the wall of the city.

So Hezekiah built a new reservoir, the pool of Siloam, in the southern part of Jerusalem within the wall, carved out a tunnel underneath the city connecting the reservoir with the Gihon spring, and then covered the spring so that it could not be found from the outside. Thus the precious water would benefit the city’s defenders, and not their enemies. (2 Chr. 32:3–4; 2 Kgs. 20:20.)

To cut the tunnel, workmen started simultaneously from both ends and chiseled through nearly 1800 feet of solid rock. At one point the tunnel was 150 feet below the city. The water supply of the city thus was preserved for its inhabitants and the enemy did not conquer Jerusalem.

Today, nearly 2,700 years later, the water still flows from Gihon to Siloam along Hezekiah’s tunnel and still supplies modern Jerusalem with much of its water. In 1880 some boys playing at the pool found the inscription that was carved to commemorate the finishing of the tunnel. While the two crews were still some five feet apart, the inscription reports, they could hear each other’s voices, which guided them to complete the union of the two halves of the tunnel. The inscription, carved in letters of the Old Hebrew alphabet, is now in the Imperial Ottoman Museum at Istanbul.

The tense years around 600 B.C., so critical in setting the stage for the Book of Mormon, are illustrated by a number of discoveries in the Holy Land: the Israelite temple at Tel ’Arad, for instance. Quite a different sort of discovery, but perhaps equally as startling, has been made at the same site: some ostraca (pieces of broken pottery bearing messages), which seem to throw light on the “reformed Egyptian” writing of the Book of Mormon.

More than 200 ostraca were discovered at Tel ’Arad during the five seasons of its excavation. Most of those unearthed in 1965 were written in Hebrew and appear to date to the period between about 598 and 587 B.C., the time between the departures from the Holy Land of Lehi and Mulek.

During the 1967 season one ostracon of unusual interest was uncovered: one that exhibits a combination of the Hebrew alphabet with Egyptian hieratic, that is, that contains letters taken from both these scripts. It dates to a little before 600 B.C.

A careful study of this “combination ostracon” has been made by John A. Tvedtnes, a trained linguist. His conclusions are twofold: (1) that “there were close ties between Judah and Egypt” in the century before Lehi’s departure, and (2) that in the Holy Land at that time there were persons who were skilled in the use of both the Hebrew and the hieratic scripts. These findings are intriguing against the background of the Book of Mormon claim to have been written in “reformed Egyptian.”

LEHI. Most Latter-day Saints probably think that Lehi is a man’s name. So it is in the Book of Mormon, but in earlier biblical times it was in fact a place name. In Judges 15 it is an important locality in the story of Samson. It was a place—perhaps a town—in the land of Judah close to the Philistine border.

Modern archaeologists may have found the place Lehi. Khirbet Beit Lei, which may be translated “Ruin of the House of Lehi,” is a hill located some 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem, not far from Mareshah (Marissa). Twelve years ago, while building a road on the eastern slope, workmen discovered an ancient tomb carved out of the soft limestone. Writing and various pictures had been scratched on its walls. The written messages themselves were removed from the tomb walls and exhibited in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem.

The three main inscriptions are written in the Old Hebrew script of the sixth century B.C. One of them is a prayer for rescue: “Deliver us, O Lord.” Another is a plea for forgiveness: “Absolve us, O merciful God.” The third is a prophetic utterance in poetic form: “I am Jehovah thy God: I will accept the cities of Judah and will redeem Jerusalem.” In no instance, however, is the exact wording found in the Bible. It is suggested that they may have been written by some nonbiblical prophet who was fleeing the Holy City in the early sixth century B.C., perhaps at the time of the Babylonian conquest.

In addition to the writings, pictures of three human figures are cut into the tomb walls, one holding what looks like a lyre, one with hands upraised as if in prayer, and one wearing dress and headgear suggesting a priest or Levite. Also on the walls are two ships with sails and two figures that may be tents.

What connection does the tomb at Khirbet Beit Lei have with the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi and his family? “The land of our father’s inheritance” (1 Ne. 3:16, 22) was apparently some sort of family estate. Was it the same as the “House of Lehi” now discovered by archaeology? The ruin is located approximately where we might expect to find the biblical place Lehi. This family estate figures prominently in the story of Lehi’s departure from the Holy Land in 600 B.C. It appears to have been somewhat removed from Jerusalem itself (“let us go down to the land of our father’s inheritance”). Perhaps it lay in a southerly direction from the city, since the four sons on their way from there back to their encampment beside the Red Sea hid for a time in “the cavity of a rock” (1 Ne. 3:27), perhaps to them a familiar spot on their father’s estate.

Bibliography

For the reader who desires additional information on this subject, three good textbooks on biblical archaeology are William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine; J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology; and G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology. On the archaeology of the Holy City, see Kathleen Kenyon, Jerusalem.

The Society for Early Historic Archaeology publishes many brief studies of scriptural archaeology, especially papers read before the Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures. These are usually obtainable by membership in the society: 140 Maeser Building, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602. The following recent issues of its Newsletter and Proceedings are pertinent to the above discussion: No. 119 (Donald W. Forsyth, “Sennacherib’s Invasion of Judah”); No. 127 (John A. Tvedtnes, “Linguistic Implications of the Tel ’Arad Ostraca”); No. 129 (Joseph Ginat, “The Cave at Khirbet Beit Lei”); and No. 131 (Ross T. and Ruth R. Christensen, on Israelites in the Mediterranean).

See also Yohanan Aharoni, “Arad: Its Inscriptions and Temple,” Biblical Archaeologist, February 1968; Frank Moore Cross, Jr., “The Cave Inscriptions from Khirbet Beit Lei,” in James A. Sanders (ed.), Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century; Ariel L. Crowley, “The Anthon Transcript,” Improvement Era, January, February, and March 1942, and September 1944; Doyle L. Green, “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” Improvement Era, August 1967; and John A. Tvedtnes, “The Language of My Father,” New Era, May 1971.

[photo] Steps leading to the water system in Hazor, Israel, a system similar to the one at Megiddo. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] Hissan Sahli, a ten-year-old Arab girl, examines stone inscriptions at a synagogue in Bethel. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] Three members of the Brigham Young University faculty pause at the entrance to the water tunnel at Hazor. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] Storage jars housed in the Hazor Museum provide a graphic illustration of the past.

[photo] Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, believed to be where Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] An Orthodox Jew at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] Diggings at Tel ’Arad, where the remains of a small Israelite temple have been uncovered. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] A view of one possible site of Tarshish, where Jonah may have traveled after his missionary efforts in Nineveh failed. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[photo] Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a passageway dug through 600 yards of solid rock. (Photo by Doyle L. Green.)

[photo] Black stone obelisk picturing King Jehu is the only remaining picture of an Israelite king.

[photos] A portion of an inscription from a cavern wall, reading from right to left, “I will redeem Jerusalem.”

Human figures incised on the wall of a cave.

Ships carved in the rock of a cavern wall.

Brother Christensen is a professor of archaeology at Brigham Young University, where his wife is a graduate student in the same field. The couple spent a recent sabbatical leave of absence surveying the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean.