THE STONES CRY OUT
From the book by the same name
More Digs that Made a Difference
Pictures from the Past
If is todoy a truism to say that archaeological investigation in Palestine and in surrounding lands, which since the end of the First World War has been conducted on an unprecedented scale, has transformed our attitude towards, and our understanding of, ancient Israel and the Old Testament. 1
—D. Winton Thomas
In the previous chapter we took a look at excavations that have represented the writing of new chapters in the annals of archaeology. These digs made a difference because they affected our perception of the Bible and the world in which its major events unfolded. In this chapter we will take a look at digs that have improved our understanding of the past by both preserving it in photographic fashion and changing current beliefs about it historically.
Digs That Photographed the Past
Before archaeological excavations opened up the world of the Bible, no one had any idea what the people who appeared on its pages really looked like. However, when discoveries began to be revealed, among them were statues, relief drawings, and paintings that gave us "snapshots" of the kind of people who lived during Bible times. Even more incredible was that archaeologists found "pictures" of the very people mentioned in the Bible. Among these were statues of pharaohs who met Moses, enemies who threatened Israel or conquered much of Israel, and Roman rulers mentioned in the New Testament, some of whom talked with Jesus and the apostle Paul.
The details included in these scenes depicting ancient daily life have made it possible for artists to correctly depict biblical scenes and filmmakers to accurately portray biblical dramas on television and in movies. From the archaeological "photo album" let's consider three famous "prints" that have offered us a rare glimpse into the unseen past.
The Beni-Hasan Mural—Picture Parade from the Time of the Patriarchs
Throughout the biblical period the Israelites continued political and economic contact with Egypt, one of the superpowers of that time. Israel's contact with Egypt spans the early period from the Patriarchs (Genesis 12,37-50) to Moses (book of Exodus), and the monarchy from King Solomon (1 Kings 9:16) to King Josiah (2 Kings 23:29-35) to the time of Jesus (Matthew 2:13-15). Since Jewish law (Exodus 20:4) forbids the making of human images (because man is created in-the image of God), we should not expect any pictures made by the Israelis. However, on the Egyptian side, where the making of images was mandated, plenty of portraits have been discovered.
One famous example came from a small village known as Beni-Hasan, located south of Cairo on the east bank of the Nile. There, carved into the surrounding cliffs, is a large necropolis (city of the dead). As was often the custom inside Egyptian tombs, the walls were decorated in vivid colors with scenes depicting daily life. In one of these tombs, dating from about 1890 B.C., archaeologists found a splendid mural 8 feet long by lfi feet high depicting a parade of foreigners: eight men, four
The Beni-Hasan Mural, which pictures a group of people from Canaan entering Egypt, similar to the biblical Patriarchs.
women, three children, and assorted animals, all being led by Egyptian officials. The hieroglyphic text at the top of the painting gave a description of the procession and its purpose. The text stated that these people were part of a group of 37 Asiatics from the region of Shut (which includes the area of Sinai and southern Canaan). They were being led by their chief, named Abishai, to trade with the Egyptians. Details such as physical features, hairstyles, clothing, shoes, weapons, and musical instruments are all clearly shown.
While it is still not known exactly who these people were or even why they were caravaning so far from the normal trade centers, the importance of the painting lies in its visual depiction of what people looked like in the time of the patriarchs. When we look at these images we can imagine Abram and Sarai's trip to Egypt (Genesis 12:10), and later, Jacob and his sojourney to Egypt (Genesis 42:5; 43:11; 46:5-7). Some people have even suggested that the colorful patterns on the tunics of the Asiatics in the mural are like Joseph's "coat of many colors" (see Genesis 37:3). Even if, as other scholars have thought, a better translation is "a robe with long sleeves," an example of this kind of garment is also attested elsewhere in the archaeological "photo album."
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser HI— Portrait of an Israelite King
One of the most exciting discoveries ever made in biblical archaeology was of a large black stone extracted from a pit dug at the ancient Assyrian city of Calah (modern Nimrud) in 1945. This stone, however, almost wasn't unearthed. The British archaeologist Henry Layard had been told by his workmen to give up searching and close down the dig. It was winter, the ground was extremely cold and hard, and the difficult job of digging trenches to uncover artifacts had proved futile. Layard didn't want to quit, but compromised and asked the men to work for just one more day. They didn't have to wait that long! Almost as soon as the men resumed their work they struck a huge stone that we now know as one of the most important Assyrian documents relating to the Old Testament.
The stone was a four-sided polished block (obelisk) of black limestone 6fi feet high. On each side panel of the obelisk were carved five registers of relief sculptures depicting various scenes of tribute brought to the Assyrian court. In addition, above and below the panels on all sides were almost 200 lines of cuneiform text. Once the cuneiform text was translated it was found that they catalogued 31 military campaigns by the Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser III. The detailed relief sculptures of tribute and tribute-bearers beautifully picture many different styles of clothing, costly articles, and even exotic animals for the Assyrian zoo. However, the big surprise came when the lines above one register showing a figure kneeling before the Assyrian king were translated:
Tribute of Jehu, son of Omri.3 Silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden beaker, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, tin, staves for the hand of the king [and] javelins, [Shalmaneser] received from him.
Israelite King Jehu (on left side) as depicted on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.
Here, for the first time on any archaeological artifact, was a portrait of one of the kings of Israel!4 According to the Bible (2 Kings 9-10; 2 Chronicles 22:7-9), Jehu, a commander in King Joram's army, was "appointed by the Lord" to succeed to the Israelite throne. Instructed by the prophet Elisha to kill Joram, he became the ruler of Israel from 841-814 B.C. He served as God's final instrument of judgment against the house of the wicked King Ahab (including the infamous Queen Jezebel), and eradicated the idolatrous worship of Baal from the Land.
In the biblical account, however, there is no mention of King Jehu paying tribute to Assyria as depicted on the obelisk. The Bible does tell us that Jehu, toward the end of his 28-year reign, lapsed in his kingly responsibility to maintain the law of God (2 Kings 10:31) and instead followed again the henotheistic worship instituted by Jeroboam (see 1 Kings 12:28-29). Because of this the Lord removed Israel's protection and foreign enemies began to invade and conquer parts of the Land (2 Kings 10:32-33). Israel's weakness at this point may have influenced Jehu to seek protection from Assyria. Once Assyrian hegemony was imposed, Israel would have been liable to pay tribute (cf. 2 Kings 17:3). If this was the case, the obelisk fills in a missing part of history not included in the biblical text.
The Siege of Lachish Reliefs—Panorama of Israel's Judgment
Finding the picture of an Israelite king mentioned in the Bible was indeed a surprise, but finding pictures of hundreds of Israelites in an ancient photo of an actual biblical event was no less than storming! The "photo" was of Lachish, one of the most important Israelite cities in Judah during the biblical period. Lachish today is an excavated tel located about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Though now silent and desolate, the ancient snapshot shows a very different picture. It not only depicts Lachish at the height of its glory, occupied and strongly fortified, but also vividly records what happened on the fateful day of its demise.
The "photo" itself did not come from Israel but from the far-off land of Assyria. It originated as a 90-foot-long mural decorating a ceremonial suite in the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib at Nineveh. The palace was excavated by Henry Layard, and the mural, made of panels of relief sculptures, is today housed in the British Museum. On the reliefs are accurate and realistic depictions of the battle between the Assyrians and the people of Lachish, which occurred during the Assyrian conquest of Judah in 701 B.C. (see 2 Kings 17:5-6; 2 Chronicles 32:1). The scene shows (from left to right) the Assyrian camp, their siege and conquest of the city with Assyrian troops storming the walls, the torture of some of the city's inhabitants, and finally the exile of the prisoners and their presentation before Sennacherib, who was seated on this throne in front of his camp. The Bible records this very event in the book of 2 Chronicles: "After this Sennacherib king of Assyria sent his servants to Jerusalem while he was besieging Lachish with all his forces with him" (2 Chronicles 32:9, see also 2 Kings 18:13-14,17; 19:8; Isaiah 36:1-2; 37:8). While neither the Bible nor any Assyrian annals provide the details of this conquest, both do describe the brutality of the Assyrians and the horrible conditions of a siege—which we see pictured on the reliefs.
Excavations at Lachish have also confirmed the accuracy of various details found on the reliefs. From the charred layers of destruction at this site the fortifications of the city have been revealed—exactly as shown on the Assyrian reliefs.5 The siege ramp pictured on the relief, up which the Assyrian soldiers took their battering rams and archers, has also been uncovered at Lachish. In addition, sling stones and arrowheads, unearthed in abundance, testify to the ferocity of the battle, just as shown in the reliefs. Once again, archaeology has made it possible to actually view one of the great historical events mentioned in the Bible.
Digs That Changed History
Many people today believe that by now, our knowledge of history is generally complete. They accept that some details are still missing, but they assume we know almost all there is to know about the great civilizations that ruled the past. The impressive coverage we see in history textbooks and on The History Channel seems to confirm this. Yet historians will admit that our present knowledge of the past is sorely limited. What we do know has come with major gaps and often with unanticipated revisions. This has also been true with respect to the history of the Bible. Even though Scripture presents historical information, that information is selective and incomplete. This fits with the theological purpose of the Bible, for it was not written to be a textbook of history. For this reason, historians have sometimes doubted certain historical facts in the Bible. This is not only because they suspect a religious view of history has altered the facts, but because some historical details in the Bible have no material evidence to support them.
However, archaeological surprises have now and then revealed historical peoples and places known in the Bible though unknown in any other source. Such discoveries not only give us a new perspective on what was already known, but also serve to affirm the historical integrity of the biblical narratives. Sometimes, too, excavations surface new facts, never known before, which shed light on both the Bible and ancient history. There are two archaeological digs that have done just that, expanding our appreciation for the accuracy of the Bible while forcing historians to rewrite chapters in their textbooks. These digs confirmed the former existence of the Hittites and the empire of Ebla.
The Hittites—Proof of a People of the Past
The Bible makes mention 47 times of a people called "the Hittites." They were listed among the nations inhabiting ancient Canaan when Abraham entered the land (Genesis 15:20). They were considered significant enough to have purchased chariots and horses from King Solomon (1 King 10:29). And they maintained such a powerful army that the king of Israel hired them to fight and put to flight the formidable army of the Arameans (2 Kings 7:6-7). Two Hittites particularly gained notoriety in the biblical account. One was Ephron the Hittite, who sold to Abraham his field and its cave of Mechpelah in Kiriath-arba (Hebron) to bury his wife Sarah (Genesis 23:10-20). It has since been known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The other was Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in King David's army. Though a foreigner, Uriah is portrayed in Scripture as a loyal servant in contrast to Israel's own son, King David. The book of 2 Samuel tells how David had an adulterous affair with Uriah's wife Bathsheba. The king's sin was compounded when Bathsheba was found to be pregnant and he had Uriah put to death to cover-up his crime (2 Samuel 11). And later, when the prophet Ezekiel denounced sinful Jerusalem, God declared that Jerusalem's moral mother was a Hittite (Ezekiel 16:3).
Yet despite the prominence of the Hittites in the biblical text, just over 100 years ago critical scholars doubted they ever existed. At that time no historical evidence of such a people had ever been found. They were simply part of the religious history of the Bible. However, this historical verdict was about to change. In 1876, the British scholar A. H. Sayce suspected that an undeciphered script discovered carved on rocks in Turkey and Syria might be evidence of the heretofore unknown Hittites. Then clay tablets were discovered from the ruins of an ancient city in Turkey called Boghaz-Koy. The locals were selling these tablets, and some got into the hands of experts. This prompted a German cuneiform expert, Hugo Winckler, to go to the site and excavate. There he uncovered five temples, a fortified citadel, and many monumental sculptures. Also, in one burnt storeroom he found more than 10,000 clay tablets. Once they were finally deciphered it was announced to the world that the Hittites had been found! Boghaz-Koy had in fact been the ancient capital of the Hittite empire (known as Hattusha). Other surprises followed, such as the revelation that the Hittite language should be classed with the Indo-European languages (of which English is a part), and that the form of their law codes was very helpful in understanding those described in the Bible. The rediscovery of this lost people,6 one of the most outstanding achievements in Near Eastern archaeology, now serves as a caution to those who doubt the historicity of particular biblical accounts. Just because archaeology has not produced corroborating evidence today does not mean it could not tomorrow. The Hittites are just one example in which the Bible has been shown to be historically reliable. Thus it should be respected despite the present lack of material support for certain events or the chronological problems that remain unresolved.
Ebla—A Lost Civilization Discovered
Prior to 1968, scholars had known from their study of ancient Mesopotamian texts that there had once been an ancient Syrian empire called Ebla. The early Babylonian kings had claimed to have conquered this vast kingdom around 2300 B.C., but no one knew where it had been located. Then one day in 1968 an inscription was found at a prominent tel in Syria known as Tel Mardikh; this inscription appeared to identify the site as Ebla. But the greater discovery was yet to come. In 1975, as archaeologists were excavating underneath the city's temple, they found a small room that had served as a royal archive. There, some 17,000 clay tablets lay in piles! The shelves that had once held them had long ago been destroyed in a fire, but this same fire had also baked the clay tablets, hardening and preserving them against the ravages of time. These tablets confirmed the name of the place as Ebla and had introduced scholars to the empire's previously unknown language-—Eblaite.
Decipherment of some of these texts revealed that Ebla had been a flourishing empire 4,500 years ago, centuries before the time of the biblical Patriarchs. Its citizens had traded for ages with Mari, another ancient Syrian city that had laws and customs that helped to clarify similar ones associated with the biblical Patriarchs. The sheer volume of the tablets recovered at Ebla (four times greater than all the previous texts from this period put together), made the discovery immensely important to those involved in ancient Near Eastern studies. But how important were the tablets for biblical studies? Early on during the interpretation of these texts, political disputes between Syria and Israel may have forced a retraction of connections that one translator had made with Israelite history. Even so, it appears that many of the initial claims of similarity to biblical names, the appearance of names of biblical sites (such as Sodom and Gomorrah), and affinities to the Hebrew language were premature assessments. The real significance of Ebla, for the Bible, may be one of comparing the Eblaite text with Hebrew poetic style and learning the traditions and religious background of a people who may have influenced subsequent civilizations including ancient Israel. It was in just this way that the texts from Ugarit helped scholars to understand biblical poetry and answer questions about biblical Hebrew word meanings and grammar. Whatever the case, Ebla has written a new chapter in the history of the Near East during the third millennium B.C. 7
Drawing Closer to the Past
Digs have made a difference! They have recovered the knowledge of long-lost civilizations and long-dead languages. They have revealed the images of the past, not just in outline, but in many cases the very form of those whose names occupy space in the sacred text. There are a great many more examples that could have been cited, but the selections we've reviewed are sufficient to reveal how significant a contribution archaeology has made in drawing each of us closer to that world which was home to our fathers in the faith.
In the next dozen chapters, we will journey into this world of the Patriarchs to the prophets to explore how new discoveries in archaeology continue to inform our faith today and enrich our understanding of the beginnings of Bible history.
TO BE CONTINUED