Four Major Old Testament Archeological Findings
Several years ago, I was able to be part of an archeological dig in Israel. My class and I helped excavate an area in a part of Jerusalem known as the “City of David”. The City of David is located in the valley south of Mount Moriah, where the Jewish Temple once stood.
Our job was to remove the dirt from an ancient water channel. One team would take turns using a pick-ax to loosen the dirt; another team would transfer the dirt from the drainage channel in buckets, and another team would dump the dirt in a massive pile. After this, others would painstakingly sift through the dirt and set aside any pottery or coins they found. The work was more like “Dirty Jobs” than “Indiana Jones”.
This experience left me grateful for the work of Israel’s archeologists as well as those who volunteer to help them. Bucket by bucket, they are piecing together Israel’s past. We Christians are the beneficiaries of their hard work.
In their honor and for our benefit, I want to share with you four archeological discoveries related to the Old Testament that every Christian should know about. For those who come to the Old Testament Sunday School class, some of this will be review. For others, hopefully it inspires you to join us. These discoveries support and harmonize with the biblical account in significant ways.
1. The Amarna Letters - This is a collection of 382 small clay tablets from the ancient city of Tell-Amarna in northern Egypt. The tablets contain correspondence from foreign kings to Pharoah Akhenaten, who reigned in the mid-1300s BC.
Importantly, some of the letters were from Canaanite kings. These letters indicate that, at this time, the region of Canaan was filled with independent city-states ruled by their own kings. In one letter, the king of Jerusalem (called Jebus in the 1300s) begs Pharoah to help him defend his city against the invasion of a powerful nomadic people known as the “Hapiru” or “Habiru”. This may be the first known reference to the Hebrews, as they were known in this period.
The Bible teaches that Solomon began to build God’s temple in the fourth year of his reign, which was also 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus (1 Kings 6:1). By synchronizing Solomon’s reign with the reigns of other Assyrian kings, scholars estimate his monarchy began around 970 BC. This would suggest that the Exodus happened around 1446 BC.
After 40 years of wandering through the wilderness, Israel entered the Promised Land at the turn of the 14th century. At that time, the book of Joshua indicates that each city of Canaan had its own king. For the next several decades in the 1300s, Israel attacked many Canaanite cities. Joshua 15:63 indicates that the tribes of Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh attacked (but failed to conquer) Jerusalem.
You can read more about the Habiru and the Amarna letters in more detail here: https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1280&context=jats.
2. The Merneptah Stele - This is a 10ft stone engraved in the late 1200s BC on behalf of Pharoah Merneptah. It was discovered in 1896 by the British Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie. It was found in the ancient city of Thebes, in Egypt.
As with many historical leaders, Pharoah Mernaptah had this stone engraved as a legacy of his military conquests. It may contain the earliest reference to “Israel”. While describing his campaign through Canaan, Merneptah bragged, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” This is significant because it records the existence of the people of Israel in the region of Canaan during the reign of Israel’s judges. This indicates that Israel had already established a significant presence throughout Canaan in the 1200s.
You can read more about the Merneptah Stele here: https://joyofmuseums.com/museums/africa-museums/egypt-museums/cairo-museums/egyptian-museum/merneptah-stele/
3. Sennacherib’s Prism - King Sennacherib of Assyria reigned from 709-681 BC. The prism is a record of his military campaigns in the same manner as the Merneptah Stele. It was discovered by the British Colonel Robert Taylor in 1830 in an excavation of the ruins of Ninevah.
Assyria had already conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. But Sennacherib set his sights on Judah, primarily Jerusalem. The prism gives a lengthy boast of his attack:
“As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) by means of well-stamped (earth-)ramps, and battering-rams brought (thus) near (to the walls) (combined with) the attack by foot soldiers, (using) mines, breeches as well as sapper work. I drove out (of them) 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered (them) booty. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were leaving his city’s gate.”
The reader will observe that Sennacherib doesn’t claim to have killed Hezekiah nor conquered Jerusalem. Rather, he wrote that he surrounded him “in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” This ancient propaganda conveniently omits the death of 185,000 of his soldiers at the hands of the angel of Yahweh (2 Kings 19:35). Though significantly slanted in his favor, Sennacherib’s account is harmonious with 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36-37.
You can read more about Sennacherib’s Prism here: https://www.ancient.eu/image/2469/the-taylor-prism-of-king-sennacherib-nineveh/.
4. The Ketef Hinnom Amulets - This discovery is the oldest known Biblical text. In almost microscopic letters, these two pieces of silver contain the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26, “May Yahweh bless you and keep you; May Yahweh cause his face to shine upon you and grant you peace.”
Found in an ancient burial site known as an ossuary, the amulets were intended to be a good luck charm for the deceased. The context of the ossuary in which they were found dates the amulets to at least 600 BC, if not earlier. This is significant because many secular academics insist that the five books of Moses were conceived and composed during the Babylonian exile. But the amulets provide an actual Biblical text that was commonly known and venerated before the exile. This suggests that the text of God’s law had become deeply embedded in the culture prior to the exile.
You can read more about the amulets here.
You can read archeologist Gabriel Barkay’s account of their discovery here.