Israel’s Past Without the Bible

It may come as a surprise to some that there are texts from ancient Israel, Judah, and its environs that are not found in the Bible. There are also a number of texts from (especially) ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia that make reference to Biblical persons, places, and events. Such epigraphic texts are important for many reasons. I want to discuss some aspects of why these texts are important in what follows, and to give some basic information with respect to some of the more prominent epigraphic discoveries that date to the period before Judah’s fall in 586/7 B.C.E. This latter task will be spread out over several posts, and I will proceed in roughly chronological order in my presentation of the material.

One reason such ancient epigraphic remains are important is that they potentially offer valuable information to the modern historian who seeks to reconstruct history and to describe the past with respect to ancient Israel and Judah. Literary-critical analyses of the Bible by modern scholars, although often of great value, not infrequently disagree — sometimes radically — both as to the dates of composition of the Biblical texts, and their value for historical reconstruction. Moreover, in recent years, there has been an ever growing tendency among modern Biblical scholars to lower the dates for the composition of many Biblical texts and narratives, including what were once thought to be very old, i.e., pre-monarchic/Iron I, Hebrew poems (e.g., Gen 49; Exod 15; Num 23–24; Deut 32–33; Judg 5; 1 Sam 2; 2 Sam 1; Pss 29, 68; Hab 3). There appears to be little contemporary material in the Bible available to the modern historian for the formative periods of Israel’s and Judah’s emergence in the Levant during the 13th–9th centuries B.C.E.[1]

The value of the ancient epigraphic remains also is connected to the fact that they offer the earliest (fairly) securely dateable evidence for the Hebrew language, and, in the cases of such languages as Moabite, Ammonite, or Edomite (all of which, along with Hebrew, fall under the rubric of the so-called “Canaanite” languages), the only potential available evidence whatsoever. Other relevant languages from the region and time period under consideration include Phoenician (also a “Canaanite” language) and Aramaic. These languages, along with Ugaritic, “Sam’alian,” and the language of the Deir ‘Alla inscription (all to be discussed later), belong to Northwest Semitic (a sub-branch of the Semitic language family), and so are genetically related to each other.[2]

Thus these epigraphic texts are important for the reconstruction of historical Hebrew grammar (as well as for the theoretical reconstruction of Semitic proto-languages, such as Proto-Northwest Semitic and, ultimately, Proto-Semitic). I will pursue the value of the early epigraphic finds (including the texts from Ugarit and the Amarna letters, also to be discussed later) for understanding the development of the Hebrew language, as well as some of the potential implications of such linguistic analysis for Biblical Studies.

I now turn to the task of describing briefly some of the more prominent epigraphic remains pertaining to the early history of Israel and Judah, beginning with the Merenptah Stele.

Merenptah Stele

The earliest historical reference to a group called “Israel” is in a late 13th century B.C.E. royal inscription from Egypt, known as the Merenptah Stele.[3] This stele demonstrates that some kind of social or political entity in the approximate area that later would be associated with the kingdom of Israel in the Bible could be identified by outsiders (the Egyptians) under the rubric “Israel” by at least the end of the Bronze Age, just prior to the Iron 1 transition and the growth in settlement in the highlands west of the Jordan in the 12th century B.C.E. The exact relationship of Merenptah’s “Israel” to the later kingdom of Israel and its monarchy is not entirely clear, since too little information is given in the inscription, although some historical connection should be maintained. The text is written in Egyptian, and it boasts of its defeat of “Israel” (along with several other enemies), “whose seed [= descendants? grain?] is not.”

[1] This is not to say that the Biblical authors did not draw ever upon earlier traditions, prior oral and/or written compositions, outside sources, etc., that contained genuine historical information, or that there are no contemporary written remains whatsoever in the Bible from these times. However, virtually all of the Biblical texts have gone through multiple stages of composition and editing, much/most of which occurred some centuries after the formative events of Israel’s and Judah’s past. Moreover, accurately determining which Biblical texts or traditions can be dated to this early period — not to mention when and where in more specific historical terms — is very problematic and hotly contested among modern Biblical scholars.
[2] For a solid introduction to the relevant Semitic languages, see A. Rubin and J. Huehnergard, “Phyla and Waves: Models of Classification of the Semitic Languages,” in The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook (ed. Stefan Weninger, et al.; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 259–78; and A. Rubin, “The Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages,” Language and Linguistics Compass 2/1 (2008): 61–84.
[3] For additional discussion and bibliography, see D. Fleming, The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Tradition (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 241–3.

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