“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them” (Exodus 14). According archaeologist Prof. Ze’ev Herzog, this epic biblical event never happened.
An acclaimed Israeli archaeologist, Herzog is the Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. He suggests that the biblical history of the Jewish people is probably fiction. Writing in Ha’aretz, in 1999, he claimed that the Exodus from Egypt never happened, the Ten Commandments were not given on Mount Sinai. He also claimed Joshua never conquered the land of Israel, if there was a King David, he probably was no more than a tribal chieftain, as was King Solomon.
“It will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai,” Herzog wrote.
“This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander the desert, did not conquer the land, and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes.”
Here are more extracts from his intriguing article:
“Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells.
Researchers found it difficult to reach agreement on which archaeological period matched the Patriarchal Age. When did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live? When was the Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron) bought in order to serve as the burial place for the patriarchs and the matriarchs? According to the biblical chronology, Solomon built the Temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt (1 Kings 6:1). To that we have to add 430 years of the stay in Egypt (Exodus 12:40) and the vast lifetimes of the patriarchs, producing a date in the 21th century BCE for Abraham’s move to Canaan.
However, no evidence has been unearthed that can sustain this chronology.
“The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish.” (Exodus 19)
Generations of researchers tried to locate Mount Sinai and the stations of the tribes in the desert. Despite these intensive efforts, not even one site has been found that can match the biblical account.
One of the shaping events of the people of Israel in biblical historiography is the story of how the land was conquered from the Canaanites. Yet extremely serious difficulties have cropped up precisely in the attempts to locate the archaeological evidence for this story.
Repeated excavations by various expeditions at Jericho and Ai, the two cities whose conquest is described in the greatest detail in the Book of Joshua, have proved very disappointing. Despite the excavators’ efforts, it emerged that in the late part of the 13th century BCE, at the end of the Late Bronze Age, which is the agreed period for the conquest, there were no cities in either tell, and of course no walls that could have been toppled.
The Bible magnifies the strength and the fortifications of the Canaanite cities that were conquered by the Israelites: “great cities with walls sky-high” (Deuteronomy 9:1). In practice, all the sites that have been uncovered turned up remains of unfortified settlements, which in most cases consisted of a few structures or the ruler’s palace rather than a genuine city. The urban culture of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age disintegrated in a process that lasted hundreds of years and did not stem from military conquest.
The archaeological findings blatantly contradict the biblical picture: the Canaanite cities were not “great,” were not fortified and did not have “sky-high walls.” The heroism of the conquerors, the few versus the many and the assistance of the God who fought for his people are a theological reconstruction lacking any factual basis.
If there is no evidence for the exodus from Egypt and the desert journey, and if the story of the military conquest of fortified cities has been refuted by archaeology, who, then, were these Israelites?
The archaeological findings did corroborate one important fact: in the early Iron Age (beginning some time after 1200 BCE), the stage that is identified with the “settlement period,” hundreds of small settlements were established in the area of the central hill region of the Land of Israel, inhabited by farmers who worked the land or raised sheep. If they did not come from Egypt, what is the origin of these settlers?
Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, has proposed that these settlers were the pastoral shepherds who wandered in this hill area throughout the Late Bronze Age (graves of these people have been found, without settlements).
The name “Israel” is mentioned in a single Egyptian document from the period of Merneptah, king of Egypt, dating from 1208 BCE: “Plundered is Canaan with every evil, Ascalon is taken, Gezer is seized, Yenoam has become as though it never was, Israel is desolated, its seed is not.” Merneptah refers to the country by its Canaanite name and mentions several cities of the kingdom, along with a non-urban ethnic group.
According to this evidence, the term “Israel” was given to one of the population groups that resided in Canaan toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, apparently in the central hill region, in the area where the Kingdom of Israel would later be established.
Archaeology was also the source that brought about the shift regarding the reconstruction of the reality in the period known as the “united monarchy” of David and Solomon. The Bible describes this period as the zenith of the political, military and economic power of the people of Israel in ancient times. In the wake of David’s conquests, the empire of David and Solomon stretched from the Euphrates River to Gaza (“For he controlled the whole region west of the Euphrates, from Tiphsah to Gaza, all the kings west of the Euphrates,” 1 Kings 5:4). The archaeological findings at many sites show that the construction projects attributed to this period were meager in scope and power.
No remains of buildings have been found (in Jerusalem) from the period of the united monarchy (even according to the agreed chronology), only a few pottery shards. Given the preservation of the remains from earlier and later periods, it is clear that Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon was a small city, perhaps with a small citadel for the king, but in any event it was not the capital of an empire as described in the Bible.
How many gods, exactly, did Israel have? Together with the historical and political aspects, there are also doubts as to the credibility of the information about belief and worship. The question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah.
At two sites, Kuntiliet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet el-Kom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention “Jehovah and his Asherah,” “Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah, “Jehovah Teman and his Asherah.” The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple’s name. These inscriptions, from the 8th century BCE, raise the possibility that monotheism, as a state religion, is actually an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel.”
In his book “Ha-Shem: The Secret Numbers of the Hebrew Bible and the Mystery of the Exodus from Egypt,” Prof. Israel Knohl, also challenges the Mount Sinai event as it is described in the Torah, and maintains that the Exodus from Egypt did not happen.
Shlomo Sand, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, also supports Herzog’s claims about Egypt. In his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” (which was a best-seller in Israel), he writes: “According to the biblical narrative, the people he (Moses) led through the wilderness for fourty years included six hundred thousand warriors; they would be traveling with their wives and children implying a party of around three million in total.
“Aside for the fact that it was utterly impossible for a population that size to wander through the desert for so long – the ancient Egyptians kept meticulous records of every event, and there is a great deal of documentation about the kingdom’s political and military life. Yet there is not a single mention of any “Children of Israel” who lived in Egypt, or rebelled against it, or emigrated from it at any time.”
In an interview with Ha’aretz, Sand notes: “Researchers such as Thomas Thompson view the Bible as theological fiction: In the same way that Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is not informative in regard to the ancient period of imperial Rome, the Bible cannot teach us historical facts. The stories in the Bible are the basis of Western civilization and also the basis for the New Testament and the Koran. They are astonishing literary texts, but the last thing they are is history books − which is why I, as a historian, ignore them.”