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Archeologist Unearths Biblical Controversy

Artifacts From Iron Age Fortress Confirm Old Testament Dates of Edomite Kingdom


Tuesday, January 25, 2005 -

The "Treasury", Petra. Click
and drag photo to resize.

Canadian archeologist Russell Adams's interest is in Bronze Age and Iron Age copper production. He never intended to walk into archeology's vicious debate over the historical accuracy of the Old Testament -- a conflict likened by one historian to a pack of feral canines at each other's throats.

Yet by coincidence, Prof. Adams of Hamilton's McMaster University says, he and an international team of colleagues fit into place a significant piece of the puzzle of human history in the Middle East -- unearthing information that points to the existence of the Bible's vilified Kingdom of Edom at precisely the time the Bible says it existed, and contradicting widespread academic belief that it did not come into being until 200 years later.

Their findings mean that those scholars convinced that the Hebrew Old Testament is at best a compendium of revisionist, fragmented history, mixed with folklore and theology, and at worst a piece of outright propaganda, likely will have to apply the brakes to their thinking.

Because, if the little bit of the Old Testament's narrative that Prof. Adams and his colleagues have looked at is true, other bits could be true as well.

References to the Kingdom of Edom -- almost none of them complimentary -- are woven through the Old Testament. It existed in what is today southern Jordan, next door to Israel, and the relationship between the biblical Edomites and Israelites was one of unrelenting hostility and warfare.

The team led by Prof. Adams, Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego and Mohammad Najjar of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities was investigating copper mining and smelting at a site called Khirbat en-Nahas, by far the largest copper-production site in the region.

They applied high-precision radiocarbon-dating methods to some of their finds, and as they say in the British journal Antiquities, "The results were spectacular." They firmly established that occupation of the site began in the 11th century BC and a monumental fortress was built in the 10th century BC, supporting the argument for existence of an Edomite state at least 200 years earlier than had been assumed.

El Siq
The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East Petra

by Don Jaques

The ancient city of Petra is located about halfway between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqabah. The city was first established sometime around the 6th century B.C. by a nomadic tribe who settled in the area and laid the foundations of a commercial empire that extended into Syria.

Because of its remoteness in the Jordanian wilderness, the ruins of the rock-city of Petra were unknown to the western world for centuries...

The main approach to the city of Petra is through a narrow passage known as the Siq. This passage, between two rock faces which tower between 150 and 250 feet above the rocky floor, is around a mile and a half long, and is at many places only 15-20 feet wide. The entrance to the Siq, and therefore to Petra, could be easily defended by as little as a dozen men because of the narrowness of its opening.

At the end of the siq, one experiences a thrill that is as dramatic today as it was two millennia ago: suddenly, turning the corner and passing beneath two overhanging cliffs, one comes face-to-face with the Khazneh (or "The Treasury"), the baroque Greek temple-style royal tomb that is Petra's most famous and impressive monument.

What is particularly exciting about their find is that it implies the existence of an Edomite state at the time the Bible says King David and his son Solomon ruled over a powerful united kingdom of Israel and Judah.

It is the historical accuracy -- the very existence of this united kingdom and the might and splendour of David and Solomon, as well as the existence of surrounding kingdoms -- that lies at the heart of the archeological dispute.

Those scholars known as minimalists argue that what is known as "state formation" -- the emergence of regional governments and kings -- did not take place in the area until the imperialistic expansion of the Assyrian empire in the 8th century BC, so David and Solomon, rather than being mighty monarchs, were mere petty chieftains.

And because everything that takes place in the Middle East inevitably is political, the minimalist argument is seen as weakening modern Israel's claim to Palestine.

In the biblical narrative, the Edomites are the descendents of Esau, whose blessing from his father, Isaac, was stolen by his younger brother, Jacob, ancestor of the Israelites. (Fans of the British satirical-comedy group Beyond the Fringe will recall how Jacob pulled off the theft by presenting himself as the hirsute Esau to their blind father, saying in an aside: "My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.")

The Edomites are lambasted in the Bible for refusing to let the Israelites rest on their land as they flee Egypt. God declares obscurely: "Over Edom will I cast out my shoe."

The Israelites grumble enviously that there were kings of Edom before there were kings of Israel -- a highly significant passage because it implies that state formation occurred in Edom before it happened in Israel.

Finally, there is the biblical account of David's war against the Edomites, in which David and his general, Joab, kill 18,000 Edomites and establish military control over them by "putting garrisons throughout all Edom."

Irish scholar John Bartlett, one of the world's great experts on the Edomites, dates the battle at 990 to 980 BC, precisely when Prof. Adams and his colleagues date the fortress.

Says Prof. Adams: "This battle between the Israelites and the Edomites, although not possible to document, is typical of the sort of border conflicts between Iron Age states. And the evidence of our new dates at least proves that it may, in fact, be possible to place the Edomites in the 10th century [BC] or earlier, which now supports the chronology of the biblical accounts.

"It is intriguing that at Khirbat en-Nahas, our large Iron Age fort is dated to just this period, suggesting conflict as a central concern even at a remote copper-production site."

He concludes: "We're not out to prove the Bible right or wrong. We're not trying to be controversial. We're just trying to be good anthropologists and scientists, and tell the story of our archeological site."

Second Article

Carbon Dating Backs Bible On Edom

Associated Press Writer

Evidence of biblical kingdom of Edom Some archaeologists are convinced that pottery remains and radiocarbon work in Jordan were from a site that was part of the Edomite state.

The Mideast's latest archaeological sensation is all about Edom.

The Bible says Edom's kings interacted with ancient Israel, but some scholars have confidently declared that no Edomite state could have existed that early.

The latest archaeological work indicates the Bible got it right, those experts got it wrong and some write-ups need rewriting. The findings also could buttress disputed biblical reports about kings David and Solomon.

Edom was a rugged land south and east of the Dead Sea in present-day southern Jordan. The Bible reports that Edom had kings before Israel (Genesis 36:31, 1 Chronicles 1:43) and that they barred Moses' throng after the Exodus (Numbers 20:14-21) and later warred with David (2 Samuel 8:13-14, 1 Kings 11:15-16).

Traditional dating puts David's rule from 1012 B.C. to 972 B.C., followed by son Solomon through 932 B.C. By looser reckoning, their monarchy emerged around 1000 B.C. (The exodus came long before.)

The doubters figured the Bible erred because the earliest discovered remains from Edom and nonbiblical references dated back only to the eighth century B.C. Such thinking ignored the old archaeological warning that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Sample skepticism:

The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) says "Edom was probably not a political unity" in Moses' time, and for three or four centuries afterward, which also rule out war with David.

Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University contends in "The Bible Unearthed" (2001, co-authored with Neil Asher Silberman) that archaeology made it "clear" there were "no real kings and no state in Edom" before the eighth century because earlier large settlements and fortresses were lacking.

University of Arizona archaeologist William G. Dever states in "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" (2003) that the Edom region "remained largely nomadic" until perhaps the seventh century B.C. when a "semi-sedentary tribal state emerged."

Dever, for one, acknowledges that the chronology has been thrown centuries earlier and thinks the "revolutionary" findings support the Bible's credibility concerning Edom and the kingdom of David and Solomon.

(Dever remains dubious about the biblical history of the earlier Exodus, dismissing conservatives who cite the towns on Moses' route named in Egyptian records.)

The Edom dig is described in Antiquity, a British archaeological quarterly, by Russell Adams of Canada's McMaster University; Thomas Levy of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues in Britain, Israel, Germany and Jordan.

They report that pottery and radiocarbon dating of organic materials from a major copper mill in Jordan show settlement in the 11th century B.C. and perhaps earlier. An impressive fortress site, 80 yards square, dates to the 10th-century era of David and Solomon.

This doesn't explicitly support the Bible's references to Edom, Adams says, but does prove that the Edomites thrived in the 10th century, and that lends credibility to the biblical chronology. Dever has examined pottery from the site and is convinced that some is Israelite, indicating David's kingdom engaged in international trading.

In addition, Adams says, early settlement in Edom corroborates archaeological work at the major Tel Rehov site in northern Israel by Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University and others.

This team reported in Science magazine in 2003 that radiocarbon dating of olive pits and charred grain from the site dates between 940 B.C. and 900 B.C. That fits snugly with Solomon's biblical kingdom and the Pharaoh Shishak's invasion five years after Solomon died (1 Kings 14:25-6).

Most senior archaeologists' dating relates various remains with Solomon's kingdom, but they have recently been challenged by Finkelstein's "low chronology," which seeks to shift dates downward by as much as a century. That would undercut the Bible on David and Solomon and support "minimalist" skeptics.

Apparently, science cannot conclusively settle this dispute. At a radiocarbon summit in England last year, both sides stuck to their chronological schemes.