Is there any reference to the confusion of languages at Babel in early Mesopotamian literature?




Artists's impression of the Tower of Babel (illustration copyrighted).
Read the story of the Tower of Babel. Go...

Some have suggested that such a reference does exist in the Sumerian epic entitled "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta." There, in a speech of Enmerkar, an incantation is pronounced that has a mythical introduction. Kramer's transla-tion is as follows:

Once upon a time there was no snake, there was no scorpion,
There was no hyena, there was no lion,
There was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.
In those days, the lands of Subur (and) Hamazi,
Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the decrees of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,
The land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison
To Enlil in one tongue [spoke].
(Then) Enki, the lord of abundance (whose) commands are trustworthy,
The lord of wisdom, who understands the land,
The leader of the gods,
Endowed with wisdom, the lord of Eridu
Changed the speech in their mouths, [brought] contention into it,
Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one

It is of interest that Enki, the god of Eridu, is related to this myth, which may well represent the memory of an actual event from the late fourth millennium BC.


  • Kramer, S.N. 1968 The "Babel of Tongues": A Sumerian Version. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88: 109, 111.



Tower of Babel - Is there archaeological evidence for it?




Base of Tower of Babel
The base of the Tower of Babel.

The familiar story of the building of the Tower and City of Babel is found in Genesis 11:1-9. From the initial setting given for the account, on the plain of Shinar, to the final lines where the city is identified with Babel, it is clear that the events recorded took place in southern Mesopotamia.<1>

Ziggurat at Babylon.
Artist reconstruction of a ziggurat (pyramid) in Babylon. Illustration by Paul S. Taylor. Copyrighted, all rights reserved.

Read the story of the Tower of Babel...

It is this southern Mesopotamian backdrop that provides the basis for studying the account in light of what is known of the culture and history of Mesopotamia. One of the immediate results of that perspective is firm conviction that the tower that figures predominantly in the narrative is to be identified as a ziggurat. This is easily concluded from the importance that the ziggurat had in the civilizations of southern Mesopotamia from the earliest development of urbanized life to the high political reaches of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It is common for the ziggurat to be of central importance in city planning.

The frequent objection that the Hebrew term migdal is used primarily in military contexts or as a watch tower, but never used of a ziggurat, is easily addressed on three fronts.

  1. We do not expect to see the term migdal used of ziggurats [stepped pyramids] in Hebrew because the Israelites did not have ziggurats.
  2. We do not expect the Israelites to have a ready term for ziggurats because ziggurats were not a part of the Israelite culture.
  3. Given the absence of a term in Hebrew, we would expect them to either borrow the word if they had to talk about them, use a suitable existing term, or devise a word. To call the ziggurat a tower is not inaccurate, and as a matter of fact, the term they used is derived from the Hebrew term gdl (to be large), which is somewhat parallel to the etymological root of the Akkadian word, ziqqurat (zaqaru, to be high). Despite the fact then that the Hebrew term is used primarily in military senses or as watch towers, the context here and the known background of the narrative prevent us from being limited to that semantic range. A possible nonmilitary function of a mgd may occur in Ugaritic as a place of sacrifice (Keret IV: 166-72).


Nearly 30 ziggurats in the area of Mesopotamia have been discovered by archaeologists.<2> In location, they stretch from Mari and Tell-Brak in the northwest and Dur-Sharrukin in the north, to Ur and Eridu in the south, and to Susa and Choga Zambil in the east. In time, the span begins perhaps as early as the Ubaid temples at Eridu (end of the 5th millennium BC) and extends through the restorations and additions made even in Seleucid times (third century BC). Architectural styles feature stairs in some, ramps in others, and combinations of the two in still others. Ziggurats are of varying sizes with bases ranging from 20 meters on a side to over 90 meters on a side. Frequently the ziggurat is dedicated to the city's patron god or goddess, but cities were not limited to one ziggurat (Kish had three).

The issues most likely to be of importance in the study of Genesis 11 are the origin and function of ziggurats. We may expect that by the study of these we may be able, to some degree, to delineate the role and significance of the ziggurat in Genesis 11.


The structure at Eridu, the earliest structure that some designate a ziggurat, is dated in its earliest level to the Ubaid period (4300-3500). There are 16 levels of temples beneath the Ur III period ziggurat constructed by Amar-Sin (2046-2038) that crowns the mound. At which of these levels the structure may be first designated a ziggurat is a matter of uncertainty. Oates comments,

Convention clearly demanded that the ruins of one shrine should be preserved beneath the foundations of its successor, a practice that probably explains the appearance of the high terraces on which some of the latest prehistoric temples stood, and which may be forerunners of later times (1976: 132).<3>

This same phenomenon occurs with the so-called White Temple of Uruk dated to the Jamdet Nasr period (3100-2900). M. Mallowan remarks,

The so-called ziggurat or temple tower on which it [the white temple] was set had risen gradually in the course of more than a millennium, for in fact beneath the white Temple the tower incorporated within it a series of much earlier sanctuaries which after serving their time had been filled solid with brickwork and became terraces for later constructions (1965: 41).

It is difficult to determine what should be called a ziggurat and what should not. The criteria used by the ancients is unknown to us. For our purposes, we will define a ziggurat as a staged tower for which the stages were consciously constructed. That seems to be what is taking place in Genesis 11. Therefore, even though the temples on accumulated ruins were probably the forerunners of the staged towers, the "stages" (made up of accumulated ruins) were not constructed for the tower. It is only when builders construct stages (possibly modeled after the piled up ruins) that we will acknowledge the designation ziggurat. This also rules out the oval terraces.

The Early Dynastic period (2900-2350) is the most likely candidate for the origin of the ziggurat so defined. H. Crawford concedes that...

...there can now be little doubt that some sort of staged tower does go back to the Early Dynastic period, although there is no evidence for an earlier occurrence (1977: 27).

The clearest evidence of this is at Ur. There...

...the Early Dynastic ziggurat is completely engulfed by that of Ur-Nammu, but its existence can be safely deduced from the remains of the period in the surrounding courtyard area (Crawford 1977: 27).

Mari also has a firmly established Early Dynastic ziggurat. At Nippur, superimposed ziggurats built by Ur-Nammu (2112-2095) and Naram-Sin (2254-2218) have been confirmed, and it seems likely that a pre-Sargonic ziggurat serves as a foundation (Perrot 1955: 154).


There have been many different suggestions concerning the function of a ziggurat, and the issue is far from settled. Brevard S. Childs presents a brief summary of some of the major opinions:

The older view that the ziggurat was a representation of a mountain, brought from the mountainous homeland of the Sumerians to Babylon, has been shown as only a secondary motif by recent investigation. Busink has demonstrated from Eridu that the original ziggurat had nothing to do with a mountain. However, in that the Babylonians later on compared the ziggurat to a mountain, this may well be at the best a secondary motif acquired during its later development. Then again, Dombart's attempt to find in the ziggurat a throne concept has found little acceptance. Andrae advanced in 1928 the view that the temple-tower must be seen as a unity, the former being the dwelling place of the god, the latter his place of appearing.

But in 1939 he retracted this view in favor of one in which the temple-tower provided the holy place for the resting of the divine spirit. Both Schott and Vincent have defended the idea that the tower was the entrance door through which the god passed to the lower temple. Lenzen, however, has attacked this theory, defending that the primary significance is that of an altar. Finally, Busink concludes that a development must have taken place in the long history of the ziggurat as to its meaning. He feels that originally perhaps the practical necessity of protecting the temple against flood and plunder was primary, but admits also that religious motives must have played an important role in its development (1955: 99-100).<4>

One of the earliest interpretations understood the ziggurat as the tomb of a king or a god (Hilprecht 1903: 469), although this was not necessarily considered the sole function. There were two major supporting arguments for this view. The first was the obvious similarity in shape to the early Egyptian pyramids. The second is connection in the inscriptional literature between the term ziggurat and gigunu, which was rendered "tomb" by Hilprecht (1903:462).

In regard to the former, the earliest pyramid, the so-called step-pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, bears the closest resemblance to the ziggurat form. It has been demonstrated that the architectural form of the Egyptian pyramids began as a simple mastaba and was built up in several stages (Edwards 1946: 46ff). The step-pyramid was a product of the third dynasty in Egypt (mid-third millennium BC), which was contemporaneous with the Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia. Although the extant evidence seems to indicate that the architectural form of the ziggurat became fully developed by that period, the development had begun perhaps a millennium earlier. Thus the ziggurat form can in no way be seen as dependent on the pyramids. Furthermore, no literary or artifactual evidence has produced any indication that the ziggurat functioned as a tomb.

With regard to the latter argument, the gigunu is no longer understood as a tomb, but rather as a sanctuary at the top of the ziggurat (CAD G: 67-70), though the precise meaning of the word remains uncertain.

One approach to examining the function of a ziggurat -- and in my opinion, the only approach that can give objective data, given our present state of knowledge -- is to analyze the names given to the ziggurats in the various cities where they were built. Rather than attempting to use our own standard to judge what is a ziggurat and what is not, we will use a list of designated ziggurats from a Neo-Babylonian bilingual geographical list of 23 entries (Rawlinson 1861: 50: 1-23 a, b). Following is my translation of the list:

  1. Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth (Babylon)
  2. Temple of the Wielder of the 7 Decrees of Heaven and Earth<5> (Borsippa)
  3. [...] gigir (Nippur)
  4. Temple of the Mountain Breeze (Nippur)
  5. Temple of Mystery (Nippur)
  6. ? (Kurigalzu)
  7. Temple of the Stairway to Pure Heaven<6> (Sippar)
  8. Temple of the god Dadia (Akkad)
  9. ? (Dumuzi - ?)
  10. Temple of the Admirable Throne/Sanctuary (Dumuzi - ?)
  11. Temple of the Ziggurat, Exalted Dwelling Place (Kish)
  12. Temple of the Exalted Mountain (Ehursagkalamma)
  13. Temple of Exalted Splendor (Enlil - at Kish?)
  14. Temple of the god Nanna (Kutha)
  15. Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth<7> (Dilbat)
  16. ? (Marad)
  17. ? (Ur)
  18. Temple which Links Heaven and Earth (Larsa)
  19. Temple of the Giparu (Uruk)
  20. Temple of the Ziggurat (Eridu)
  21. ? (Enegi)
  22. ? (Enegi)

We may now attempt to categorize the names with the hope of finding some clues about the function of ziggurats.

  1. Two of the ziggurats are named for the god (8, 14; probably also 2).
  2. Three names seem to involve general praise (13, 21, 22).<8>
  3. Two names make reference to the structure or parts of the structure (19, 20).
  4. Two names feature mountain terminology (4, 12).
  5. Six names seem to address the role or function of the ziggurat (1, 7, 10, 11, 15, 18).

Of the six names that seem to address the function of the ziggurat, two indicate a cultic function, that is, that the ziggurat in some way housed the deity (10, 11; this, of course may also be conveyed by the names in category 1).

The other four may indicate a cosmological function, that is, they may indicate that the ziggurat symbolized the connecting link between heaven and earth, or between heaven and the netherworld. The ziggurat at Sippar, temple of the stairway (simmiltu) to pure heaven, is particularly indicative of such a function because of the occurrence of the simmiltu in the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal (Gurney 1960: 123:13-14; 125:42-43).

In this tale, the stairway is used by Namtar, the messenger of Ereshkigal, to journey from the netherworld to the gate of the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea.<9> It serves as the link between the netherworld and heaven.<10> That the simmiltu occurs in the name of one ziggurat and that another means the "Temple which links heaven and earth" (18) may indicate that the ziggurat was intended to supply a connection between heaven and earth--not for mortal use, but for divine use. This is supported to some degree by the total absence of the ziggurats in the cultic rituals. S. Pallis remarks...

Anyone who has perused the whole of the material is struck by the remarkable fact that Etemenanki [the fabulous ziggurat of Babylon] is nowhere mentioned in the description of the course of the [akitu] festival though numerous other sacred localities in Babylon are referred to. Nor do we meet with any reference to ceremonies performed here. Indeed, I believe I may add that beyond the constant reference to the building of Etemenanki or "its head" in the inscriptions of the Neo-Babylonian kings, and the frequent mention of it in hymns where it is referred to or invoked in conjunction with Esagila, Ekur and other temples, we find nothing about Etemenanki or its religious uses in the entire Assyro-Babylonian literature (1926: 103-104).<11>

It cannot, of course, be concluded that the ziggurat was not used in the rituals. We can only say that whatever its use may have been, if it had one, it is unknown to us. While Pallis is addressing the situation with regard to the ziggurat of Babylon, we would add that the same is true of all of the ziggurats known from the ancient Near East. If the known literature were our only guide, we would have to conclude that people did not use the ziggurat for any purpose.<12>

The mountain terminology used in some of the names is also of interest. In ancient mythologies certain mountains were often considered to be the place where deity descended or dwelt. The Bible likewise implies such a connection. YHWH comes down on a mountain (Sinai, Ex. 19) and sacrifice is made on a mountain (Moriah, Gen 22; Carmel, 1 Kings 18). Moses, Aaron, and Elijah, three of the most central figures in Israelite religion, all go up into a mountain for the meeting with YHWH at the end of their lives. In the Ugaritic Baal-Anat cycle, the temple of Baal is built on the summit of Mount Zaphon. The motif is likewise present in Greek mythology, Mount Olympus being the home of the gods.

Although the function of the ziggurat cannot be identified with certainty, our study of the names, the use of the simmiltu in mythology, the use of mountain terminology, and the lack of reference to a function in the cultic practice of the people, leads us to put forth tentatively, as a working hypothesis, the following suggested function:

The ziggurat was a structure that was built to support the stairway simmiltu), which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to the other. It was solely for the convenience of the gods and was maintained in order to provide the deity with the amenities that would refresh him along the way (food, a place to lie and rest, etc.). The stairway led at the top to the gate of the gods, the entrance to the divine abode.

Before we move on to consider the implications of this function of the ziggurat for the narrative of Genesis 11, we need to look at a few more elements that can be further explained in light of the narrative's Mesopotamian background.


Discussion of the building materials occupies the whole of Genesis 11:3. The first half of the verse indicates that burnt bricks are being used and the second half the verse contains an explanation by the author to those who might be unaware of the details of this "foreign" practice.

Our current knowledge of ancient architecture and industry confirms the statement made by the author. In Palestine, mud bricks (sun-dried) are first found in levels designated pre-pottery Neolithic A (8th-9th millennium BC) (Kenyon 1979: 26). This is the only type of brick found in Palestine. Kiln-fired brick is unattested. The practice was rather to use stone for the foundations and sun-dried brick for the superstructure (Kenyon 1979: 46, 87, 91, 164, etc.).

Sun-dried bricks first appear in Mesopotamia at Samarran sites Sawwan and Choga Mami (mid-6th millennium BC) (D. and J. Oates 1976: 104). Kiln-fired bricks are first noted during the late Uruk period and become more common in the Jamdet Nasr period toward the end of the fourth millennium (Finegan 1979: 8; Singer 1954: 462; cf. Salonen 1972: 72ff). Bitumen is the usual mortar used with kiln-fired bricks (cf. Woolley 1939: 99). The building technology of Palestine used a mud mortar (as indicated in our narrative). Bitumen of any grade was an expensive item (Forbes 1955: 4-22), as Singer notes:

Being expensive, it was seldom used for walls of sun-dried bricks ... except to make the walls and floors of such buildings impervious to water. ... It was, however, widely used in baked brick buildings. These, again because of the cost of fuel, were expensive, and were normally used only for palaces, temples, and other official buildings. The low firing temperature of the bricks (550-600 degrees C.) resulted in a high porosity; thus the mastic was freely absorbed and gave such strength that the walls made of it are stronger than rock and any kind of iron (1954: 250-54).

Not only is the description of the building materials an accurate reflection of a true distinction between Israelite and Mesopotamian building methods, but it also gives us some important information. Whole cities were not generally built of these materials. Even ziggurats themselves only used burnt brick and bitumen for the outer layers while using regular sun-dried mud brick for the inner layers. The core was then filled with dirt.<13> The mention of the expensive building materials would thus suggest that the discussion is focusing on public buildings.

Public buildings were frequently of either religious or administrative importance and were often grouped together in one section of the settlement. They became the focal point for the centralization of wealth and for the preservation of many aspects of the individual culture. It was the public sector of the city that was fortified and contained the stores of grain. Thus Hilprecht notes...

The temple complex of Nippur, with the dwellings of numerous officials, embraced the whole eastern half of the city, an area of almost 80 acres. The so-called inner and outer walls of Nippur cannot refer to the whole city, as one would have supposed from the inscriptions, but in accordance with the topographical evidence must be limited to the Temple of Bel (even to the exclusion of the temple library) (1904: 14-15).

Although it is possible that the author wants to make the point that this endeavor was attempting to build an entire city of the most expensive materials, I find it more plausible that the public sector of the city is intended. In the end, this is probably a difference without a distinction, for the earliest "cities" were simply the administrative buildings.

Thus, when the people in Genesis 11 speak of building a city, they are most likely not referring to building of a residential settlement, but would have in mind the building of public buildings, which in ancient Mesopotamia would be largely represented by the temple complex. C.J. Gadd, writing of Early Dynastic times, observes that "the distinction of city and temple becomes dim, for one was only an agglomeration of the other" (CAH3 I, 2: 128). The focus of any major temple complex would have been the ziggurat, which leads us into the next section.


We cannot say that the building project described in Genesis 11 was exclusively a temple complex, but a temple complex certainly was included and is the focus of the story. This is confirmed by the nature of the building materials, the nature of the ancient city, and the role of the ziggurat in the narrative. This ziggurat was the dominant building of the complex, so we are not surprised that that draws the attention of the narrator. Although we have already examined the function of the ziggurat, the role of the temple complex as a whole in Mesopotamian society may now be of some significance to our study.

Reference has been frequently made in the past to the administration of the so-called temple economy, which was deduced by Deimel and Falkenstein mainly from the Early Dynastic texts from Lagash and Shuruppak.<14> The main feature of the temple economy was purported to be the exclusive or almost exclusive temple ownership of land. Falkenstein added that the temple had at its disposal not only the labor resources of the temple personnel, but the labor force of the entire city-state for tasks concerning the temple (1974: 19-20). Although this theory has been largely overturned in more recent analyses (Foster 1981), the temple complex was likely the center of the earliest efforts of urbanization, a process that is characterized by public buildings, specialized labor, and some publicly owned land. Jacobsen comments:

The centralization of authority which this new political pattern made possible may have been responsible, along with other factors, for the emergence of a truly monumental architecture in Mesopotamia. Imposing temples now began to rise in the plain, often built on gigantic artificial mountains of sun-dried bricks, the famous ziggurats. Works of such proportions clearly presuppose a high degree of organization and direction in the community which achieved them (1946: 141).

So we find that the development of ziggurats and the urbanization process go hand in hand.<15> The ziggurat was the architectural focus of the temple complex, which in turn functioned as the central organ in the economic, political, and cultural spheres of early communities in Mesopotamia. The interrelationship of architecture, city planning, and religion has been observed in the interpretation of the finds in ancient Uruk. Hans Nissen says,

We can deduce from the completely different layout of the two shrines in the Late Uruk period that there must have been greater differences here than can be expressed merely by the assumption that we are dealing with different divinities. While in the western area, a terrace that was a good ten meters high, on which stood a high building visible from afar, the precinct of Eanna was completely differently organized. All the buildings were erected upon flat ground without the slightest elevation. Whereas in the western area it was already impossible, from the point of view of the building, for there to be more than one cult building, the layout of Eanna does not exclude the possibility that several such cult buildings were in use simultaneously. This difference in external organization can definitely be traced back to differences in the organization of the cult and can thus also clearly be traced back to different basic religious concepts (1988: 101; cf. also pp. 102-103).

The connections between Genesis 11 and the early stages of urbanization in Mesopotamia are further confirmed by the statement of the builders in Genesis 11:4 that they desired not to be scattered abroad. Although this statement has often been interpreted as an indication of disobedience on the part of the builders, such a view cannot be warranted.<16> First, the disobedience that is attributed to the builders is generally explained by reference to the blessings of Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1, 7 where God says to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But a correlation here cannot be sustained. The passages that speak of being fruitful and multiplying are better read as blessings granting permission, rather than commands; privileges, rather than obligations.<17> Further, it is clear that even if filling was seen as an obligation, it would be carried out by reproducing, not by putting geographical distance between oneself and one's family. Scattering is not to be equated with filling.

The second point against the disobedience interpretation is the existence of a much more plausible alternative for understanding the statement. If the builders desired to prevent scattering, then we must assume that something was forcing them to scatter. The Old Testament does witness to a pressure to scatter that arises from internal conditions. Genesis 13:6-9 records a situation that arose between Abraham and Lot in which they would no longer remain together because of conflict between their men.

This would have involved competition for prime grazing land and for campsites nearer to water sources. The constant need for the patriarchs to travel to Egypt in time of famine (i.e., when there is not enough food to meet subsistence level requirements) likewise demonstrates what to them was a fact of life: the number of people that can reside in any given area is directly related to the climatic conditions and land fertility. Cooperation among residents (as initially practiced by Abraham and Lot) can increase the ratio, but eventually the growth in numbers will necessitate dispersion.

Perhaps more frequently, the cooperative effort will fail. Both reasons are mentioned in Genesis 13 -- their possessions became too great, and their men fought.<18>

Scattering, then, is not being avoided by disobedience. It is rather a fact of life in nomadic and seminomadic societies that is counterproductive to cultural continuity. It is natural that the builders would want to counteract the need to scatter. The solution to this is the development of a cooperative society, which by pooling their efforts and working together can greatly increase production. In a word -- the solution is urbanization.

Living together in such close quarters meant that conflicts had, rather, to be actively controlled, leading to the setting up of rules for resolving conflicts. As we have already seen, situations where people lived together in close proximity could only arise in the intensively cultivated irrigation areas. Thus it was also the inhabitants of these areas -- that is, especially of Babylonia -- who found themselves confronted by these challenges and had to find answers to them. The need to establish rules enabling people or communities to live together is far more important in encouraging the higher development of civilizations than the need to create purely administrative structures (Nissen 1988: 60-61).

From every angle, then, the narrative, taken against its historical and cultural background, continually points us to the early period of urbanization in southern Mesopotamia. But how does this relate to YHWH's response to the builders' efforts? Are we to conclude that urbanization is somehow contrary to YHWH's plan? While some have taken this route, it seems a difficult one to maintain given YHWH's choice of a city, Jerusalem, for the dwelling place of his presence. It is more likely that there would be something that was characteristic of the urbanization process within Mesopotamia that would be identifiable as the problem. Again, our knowledge of Mesopotamian backgrounds can provide some possible explanations.

The administration of the early cities was in the hands of a general assembly.<19> This form of government lasted only briefly as the need for decisive action led to the evolution of the institution of kingship. Although its period of operation was relatively brief, the general assembly format of government left a permanent impression on Mesopotamian society in that this was the form of government that mythology depicted as used by the gods. As the urbanized state began to function, the universe came to be considered a state ruled by the gods (Jacobsen 1946: 142). Details concerning the pantheon and its operation prior to this shift are few and often obscure. Jacobsen has presented the view that the earlier picture of the gods was one in which each god, or numinous power, was seen as bound up by a particular natural phenomenon through which he was made manifest. The god was seen to be the power behind the phenomenon, and the phenomenon circumscribed the power of the god and was the god's only form (Moran 1970: 2).

As the situation developed, however, a change took place. Rather than continuing to emphasize the powerful uncontrolled manifestation of deity in natural phenomena, the view of the cosmos as a state emerged, with the now humanized gods as citizens and rulers. Mesopotamian theology that is reflected in most of the mythology of Babylon and Assyria has an urbanized society as its foundation. This theological perspective arose sometime early in the urbanization process, for even the Early Dynastic literature reflects that point of view. One indicator of this shift is the sudden popularity of the practice of setting up statues in temples that were intended to pray for the life of the benefactor. Nissen observes,

We can assume that it is highly probable that the custom of setting up statues in temples with this intention began in the Early Dynastic Period. This observation is of interest insofar as it certainly reflects a change in religious ideas. A notion of a god that makes it conceivable that the god can be influenced in this way differs fundamentally from the one that sees in the god only what is spiritually elevated. It is a humanization of the divine image such as we have already seen as a precondition for the theological speculations about a pantheon in which the ranking order of the gods among themselves was expressed in the form of family relationships (1988: 155).

The ziggurat and the temple complex provide the link between urbanization, of which they are the central organ, and Mesopotamian religion which they typify. The ziggurat and the temple complex were representative of the very nature of Mesopotamian religion as it developed its characteristic forms. The essence of this new perspective, represented by the ziggurat and temple complex, is highlighted by Lambert.

The theology of the Sumerians as reflected in what seem to be the older myths presents an accurate reflection of the world from which they spring. The forces of nature can be brutal and indiscriminate; so were the gods. Nature knows no modesty; nor did the gods. ...In contrast the Babylonians grappled with facts and tried to reduce the conflicting elements in the universe to parts of a harmonious whole. No longer using the analogy of natural forces, they imagined the gods in their own image (1960: 7).

Jacobsen further comments:

Particularly powerful and concrete in the new anthropomorphic view was the symbol of the temple, the god's house. Towering over the flat roofs of the surrounding town, it gave the townsmen visible assurance that the god was present among them (in Moran 1970: 13).

The development in Mesopotamian religion that took place with the development of urbanization, was that men began to envision their gods in conformity with the image of man. Man was no longer attempting to be like God, but more insidiously, was trying to bring deity down to the level of man. The gods of the Babylonians were not only understood to interact with each other and operate their affairs as humans do, but they also behaved like humans, or worse. Finkelstein observes,

The Babylonian gods ...although not themselves BOUND by moral or ethical principles, nevertheless appreciated them and expected man to live by them. The Babylonians, it would seem, fashioned their gods in their own image more faithfully than the Israelites did theirs (1958: 440).

This is what is represented by the ziggurat. The function of the ziggurat that was suggested earlier as a result of our study of the names further supports this. The needs and nature of the deities who would make use of such a stairway reflect the weakness of deity brought about by the Babylonian anthropomorphization of the gods. It is this system of religion that was an outgrowth of the urbanization process as it unfolded in Mesopotamia, and it was this system that had as its chief symbol the towering ziggurat.

The danger of the action of the builders then has nothing to do with architecture or with urbanization. Nothing was wrong with towers or with cities. The danger is found in what this building project stood for in the minds of the builders. To the Israelites, this would be considered the ultimate act of religious hubris, making God in the image of man. This goes beyond mere idolatry; it degrades the nature of god.

One could perhaps object to this interpretation on the grounds that it requires the ziggurat or the temple complex in Genesis 11 to be a "silent" symbol of the Mesopotamian religious system. In fact, it is no more silent a symbol than the courtyard of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican Square. The editor's own presentation of the material demonstrates their understanding of the symbol. In Genesis 11:6, YHWH says this is only the beginning of what men will do. What is the end result? The editor's answer to that question is given by means of a rhetorical device: "Therefore its name was called Babel" (Gn 11:9). It was the Babylonians who eventually committed the offense.<20> This offense lay not in the building of buildings, nor in the architectural structure itself, nor in the effort that achieved it. In the eyes of the editor the intentions of the builders were innocent enough, but now, behold what their ziggurat had come to represent! The hubris was committed by those who carried on from that innocent yet auspicious beginning and brought to fruition the very evil that YHWH had foreseen -- the degradation of deity. As the modern poet has voiced it:

The more the gods become like men, the easier it is for men to believe the gods. When both have only human appetites, then rogues may worship rogues (Miller 1977: 32).<21>

Unlike the modern interpretations, which suggest that there was no offense and that YHWH, acting in grace, prevented offense from occurring, we would suggest that the offense was not prevented, but rather delayed and isolated by YHWH's action. By confusing the languages, God made cooperation impossible; therefore, scattering could no longer be prevented. Thus the urbanization process was delayed.

We cannot deny the possibility that this account was understood by the Israelites as being pregnant with political implications. Its main intent, though, we would argue, would seem to be not political polemic, nor even the account of yet another offense. Rather, the account demonstrates the need for God to reveal himself to the world. The concept of God had been corrupted and distorted; this would require an extensive program of reeducation to correct. So it was that God chose Abraham and his family and made a covenant with them. The covenant would serve as the mechanism by which God would reveal himself to the world through Israel.


As is evident from the above, I believe that the account of Genesis 11 has a solid historical foundation in early Mesopotamia. The details are authentic and realistic. The identification of the urbanization process and the accompanying development of the ziggurat with fundamental changes in the religious perspectives of the people demonstrates the keen analytical insight of the Biblical author. Is it possible to suggest a particular historical period as the background of the event recounted in this narrative? First, a review of the pertinent information:

  1. Development of baked brick technology: Jamdet Nasr, ca. 3100 BC
  2. Development of Ziggurat: Early Dynastic Period, ca. 2500 BC (earlier prototypes go back to the Late Uruk phase, ca. 3200 BC)
  3. Development of Urbanization: Early Dynastic Period, ca. 2800 BC
  4. Government by Ruling Assembly: Early Dynastic I, ca. 2900 BC

When considering the impact of this information, two caveats must be identified.

First, in the Biblical account the tower of Babel is presented as a failed prototype. The result of God's action against the builders was to delay the development of urbanization in Mesopotamia. Consequently, it would be logical to infer that the event recorded in Genesis 11 occurred perhaps centuries prior to the actual development of urbanization as attested by archaeological records.

Second, development of institutions may have taken place prior to the Early Dynastic period, but written records are not available to inform us of those developments. Writing developed in the Late Uruk period, but is limited to basic economical use for some time.

Besides the archaeological information that has been discussed, we must also consider that the account must have support from our understanding of the history of linguistic development and from settlement patterns in Mesopotamia. Taking all of this information into account, the Ubaid period (5000-3500) is most intriguing. Ubaid is a site in southern Mesopotamia just northwest of Ur. The Ubaid period witnesses the first settlements in southern Mesopotamia, with many of the sites being built on virgin soil (Finegan 1979: 8). The sites in the northern section of Mesopotamia that attest the earlier settlements (e.g., Jarmo, Hassuna, Samarra, Halaf) appear not to continue into this period, though Ubaid cultures are attested in the north as well as the south. This pattern suggests that the Ubaid period witnessed the initial migration from the north into southern Mesopotamia, in notable agreement with Genesis 11:2. Nissen has described the developments of this period in southern Mesopotamia and suggested a cause for the events:

A prolonged period in which only very scattered individual settlements existed was suddenly followed by a phase in which the land was clearly so densely settled that nothing like it had been seen even in the Susiana of the previous period. With the help of information from the Meteor research project, an explanation for this development in Babylonia is now possible. The land, which had been unsuitable for settlement owing to the high sea level in the Gulf or the large amount of water in the rivers, had at first supported only a few island sites, but from the moment the waters began to recede it was open to much more extensive habitation (1988: 56).

And again:

The results of studies of the ancient climate and of the changes in the amount of water in the Mesopotamian river system and in the Gulf... now present us with a clearer picture of the developments in southern Babylonia. The climatic changes documented for the middle of the fourth millennium seem, within a space of two to three hundred years, to have stemmed the floods that regularly covered large tracts of land and to have drained such large areas that in a relatively short period of time large parts of Babylonia, particularly throughout the south, became attractive for new permanent settlements (1988: 67).

Both architecture and pottery of the period show similarity to that found at earlier northern sites (CAH3 I, 1: 337, 340, 365). Archaeologists have observed that the most striking characteristic of the Ubaid period is its uniformity. Mellaart comments:

Never before had a single culture been able to influence such a vast area, if only superficially. The pottery distribution, in spite of minor variations, is fairly uniform (1965: 130).

The principal site of the Ubaid period is Eridu. One of the Babylonian creation accounts says: "All lands were sea, then Eridu was made" (Heidel 1951: 62, 10-12). It appears to have had a town wall even in its earliest periods (CAH3 I, 1: 332). Levels 18-6 feature temples, though none approach very closely the ziggurat architectural development. The patron deity of Eridu in the Sumerian periods was Enki, the crafty god, known for his association with the arts of civilization and for his many sexual encounters (cf. Kramer and Maier 1989).

The mention of baked brick technology directs our primary attention to the periods coming after the Ubaid period, but Genesis 11 may span these periods. In Genesis 11:2 a group of people is identified as having traveled to the plain of Shinar to settle. The traveling group is not necessarily "all the earth" from v. 1, but perhaps just the descendants of Shem, since the genealogy of all of the sons of Noah has already been treated in chapter 10.<22> We would expect here a narrowing of focus to Shem's line. In this scenario, a large group of Semites migrated southeast and settled in Sumer. The text would not demand that even all the Semites were there. The span of time that the text covers is not mentioned.

It is possible that the migration should be understood as having taken place in the Ubaid period, during which southern Mesopotamia began to be settled. Then the decision to undertake the project may have come toward the end of the fourth millennium, perhaps during the Late Uruk period, or perhaps as late as the Jamdet Nasr period, when we actually have the beginning of baked brick technology. The project would then result in different (Semitic?) languages being created, or perhaps would represent the differentiation of the Semitic languages from Sumerian. Whatever the case may be, it resulted in the people being scattered throughout the fertile crescent.

This scenario would not require that all language groups were formed at this time or that all the languages were represented there. But from that beginning, urbanization in southern Mesopotamia was initiated, including the development of ziggurat architecture and the full development of the Mesopotamian religious system that it represented.

It is interesting to note that archaeological evidence shows a clear dissemination of Babylonian culture throughout the ancient Near East at the end of the Late Uruk period and into the Jamdet Nasr period. This is particularly evident in the Zagros area and in Syria. Nissen says,

...in the Syrian area, we now encounter yet another variant. In a completely independent local development, individual settlements were founded that are absolutely identical with what we know from Babylonia and Susiana, down to the last pottery sherd in the inventory. ...There does not seem to have been any traffic in the opposite direction. If, in addition, we consider that these alien types of settlement were all either directly on the Euphrates or on its tributaries, there seems to be a relatively simple explanation for the whole situation. We are most probably dealing here with settlements of people who came there directly from the southern lowland plains (1988: 120; cf. 113-15).

Furthermore, it is evident that this influence did not last for long but quickly was subsumed by the local cultures. The Habuba settlement in Syria, for instance, hardly survived more than 50 years (Nissen 1988: 115, 122).

It is difficult to bring archaeological or historical information to bear on the question of whether the city Babylon was actually the site of this occurrence or whether it was the outstanding example of that system. Excavation at Babylon cannot inform us of its history prior to the second millennium, because the shifting water table of the Euphrates has obliterated the strata (Saggs 1967: 41-42). Historical records do not mention Babylon prior to meager references in the Ur III period, and a year date formula of Sarkalisarri during the dynasty of Akkad (Gelb 1955). If it was the site of the event recorded in Genesis 11, it seems to have been abandoned for over a millennium before it was again occupied.


  1. Whether Shinar = Sumer is now open to question in light of the analysis of Ran Zadok (1984), but there is no doubt that it refers to southern Mesopotamia.
  2. For the best analysis of these, see Parrot 1955.
  3. We would suggest that "convention" is less responsible for this practice than the belief that the location and orientation of the temple had been ordained by the gods and was therefore not to be abandoned. It may also be overstatement to say that the previous shrine was preserved. While not totally demolished, it was filled with brick or rubble so as to serve as a suitable foundation for its successor.
  4. The assertion that Busink demonstrated that the ziggurat had nothing to do with a mountain is perhaps overzealous. While Busink's evidence suggested other formative elements as more likely, the mountain motif cannot be entirely discarded.
  5. This name is reconstructed, although there is little doubt of the reading. The transliteration is presented as [E.UR4.ME].IMIN.AN.KI. The name of the ziggurat of Nabu in Borsippa is well-known. ME is a variable in the name, so it may or may not have occurred in this tablet. The meaning traditionally suggested is "Temple of the seven masters of heaven and earth." This would be logical, it is argued, if each of the seven levels of the ziggurat were (as Rawlinson postulated) dedicated to one of the seven major heavenly bodies (cf. Ebeling and Meissner 1932: 422). This view, however, does not enjoy a consensus and fails to give adequate explanation of the ME variant. I have posited the present translation based on the role ascribed to Inanna in Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld (cf. Falkenstein 1942: 115:14-15; Hallo and van Dijk 1968: lines 5-8).
  6. This reading follows the generally accepted emendation. Cf. SL 2:2, 568 #84 and CAD Z, 130-31.
  7. The signs on this as they stand would be read E.DU.BA.AN.KI and this is retained by Deimel. I have read SUHUS(!) (=isdu) which appears as a combination of DU + BA. The meaning of DU.BA is obscure, although DU alone is a variant of SUHUS for isdu.
  8. In #21 the name is restored as E.U6.DI.GAL.[AN.NA], where U6.DI + tabratu, "praise." #22 is read E.ARATTA2.KI.KI.SAR.RA. If ARATTA = Akk. kabtu, "honorable" (cf. SL 3:1, 19, though somewhat dubious) praise would be intended. KI.SAR.RA = kissatu and expresses totality.
  9. Akkadian simmiltu has cognates in many Semitic languages. B. Landsberger (1933: 230-31) lists the following: "neusyr. simelta; mand. sumbilta; altsyr. sebbelta; Hebrew., jud.-aram, arab. mit Metathese, sullam." Cf. von Soden 1965-1981: 1045. The Hebrew sullam is used only in the story known as "Jacob's Ladder" in Genesis 28:12. In Jacob's dream the sullam is set up with its head reaching toward the heavens. Messengers of God (cf. Namtar in Nergal and Ereshkigal) were going up and down it. This certainly does not indicate a procession, but rather indicates that messengers to earth were using this stairway/ladder to set out on and return from their missions. Upon awaking, Jacob comments concerning the house of God as well as the "gate of the heavens" -- thereby conforming quite closely to general ancient Near Eastern perceptions. For discussion of this see Millard 1966: 86-87; Houtman 1977; and Cohen 1978: 34.
  10. The ziggurat name ending AN.KI could be translated "heaven and netherworld" rather that "heaven and earth" in that ersetim can refer to either (CAD E). The Hittite texts which speak of a ritual ladder being lowered into pits for the spirits of the dead also use the symbol KUN(5) for the ladder. See Hoffner 1967.
  11. A survey of occurrences of ziqquratu in CAD further confirms the lack of references to the cultic use of the ziggurat.
  12. By this I mean in general worship. Certainly the fertility rituals where a high-priestess cohabited with deity would have taken place in the deity's chamber on top of the ziggurat. It has also been thought that astrological observation was made from the top of the ziggurat, though I have been unable to confirm any such references to this sort of use prior to the Neo-Babylonian period.
  13. I am grateful to Prof. D.J. Wiseman for this information.
  14. For the limitations of the evidence, see CAH3 I, 2: 126.
  15. Cf. Falkenstein, "The development of civilization is most closely connected with the temples of the country" (1974: 5).
  16. This interpretation is as early as Josephus (Ant. 1.4) and persists in many commentaries today.
  17. On the permissive function of the imperative see Kautzsch 1910: 110.b.
  18. Cf. Genesis 36:7.
  19. Jacobsen refers to this system of government as "Primitive Democracy." The aptness of this designation is disputed, but the role of the assembly is not. Edzard views the process less a democracy and more a "public sounding board" (cf. Bottero, Cassin, and Vercoutter 1967: 80). Jacobsen suggests that the structure can be seen on a larger scale in the role of Nippur and Enlil in Early Dynastic I. He refers to this as the Kengir League (in Moran 1970: 137-41; 157-72).
  20. Though it is possible that this building project was attempted at Babylon, current evidence suggests that the city is not that ancient. I would allow that the name Babel is used here as identification of the contemporary example of what was wrought in that initial incident.
  21. Cf. C.S. Lewis,

On the one hand the man who does not regard God as other than himself cannot be said to have a religion at all. On the other hand, if I think God other than myself in the same way in which my fellowmen, and objects in general, are other than myself, I am beginning to make Him an idol. l am daring to treat His existence as somehow parallel to my own (1964: 68).

  1. For the use of implied antecedents of pronouns in Biblical Hebrew see Waltke and O'Connor 1990: 16.4-5; 16.3.5c. There are no other occurrences of "all the earth" functioning metonymically as a reference to people and serving as subject of a verb, so it is not easy to determine whether a singular or plural verb would be used. Cf. independently, Hamilton 1990: 351.


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  • CAH Cambridge Ancient History
  • Childs, B.S. 1955 A Study of Myth in Genesis I-XI. Unpublished dissertation, Heidelberg.
  • Cohen, H.R. 1978 Biblical Hapax Legomena in the Light of Akkadian and Ugaritic. Missoula: Scholars Press.
  • Crawford, H. 1977 The Architecture of Iraq in the Third Millennium B.C. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.
  • Ebeling, E., and Meissner, B. 1932 Reallexikon der Assyriologie, v. 1. Berlin: W. de Gruyter.
  • Edwards, I.E.S. 1946 The Pyramids of Egypt. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Falkenstein 1942 Archiv für Orientforschung 14.
    1974 The Sumerian Temple City. Los Angeles: Undena.
  • Finegan, J. 1979 Archaeological History of the Ancient Near East. Boulder CO: Westview.
  • Finkelstein, J.J. 1958 Bible and Babel, in Commentary 26.
  • Forbes, R.J. 1955 Studies in Ancient Technology, v. 1. Leiden: Brill.
  • Foster, B. 1981 A New Look at the Sumerian Temple State. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 24: 225-41.
  • Gelb, I.J. 1955 The Name of Babylon. Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies 1: 25-28.
  • Gurney, O. 1960 The Sultantepe Tablets: The Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal. Anatolian Studies 10.
  • Hamilton, V. 1990 The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Heidel, A. 1951 The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hilprecht, H. 1903 Exploration in Bible Lands. Philadelphia: Holman.
    1904 In the Temple of Bel at Nippur. Philadelphia: Holman.
  • Hoffner, H. 1967 Second Millennium Antecedents to the Hebrew 'ob. Journal of Biblical Literature 86: 385-401.
  • Hallo, W.W.; and van Dijk, J. 1968 The Exaltation of Inanna. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Houtman, C. 1977 What Did Jacob See in His Dream at Bethel? Vetus Testamentum 27: 337-51.
  • Jacobsen, T. 1946 Before Philosophy. Baltimore: Penguin.
  • Kautzsch, E., ed. 1910 Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, 28th ed. Trans. A.E. Cowley. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Kenyon, K. 1979 Archaeology in the Holy Land, 4th ed. New York: Norton.
  • Kramer, S.N. 1968 The "Babel of Tongues": A Sumerian Version. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88: 108-11.
  • Kramer, S.N., and Maier, J. 1989 Myths of Enki, the Crafty God. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lambert, W. 1960 Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Landsberger, B. 1933 Lexicalisches Archiv. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 41.
  • Lewis, C.S. 1964 Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Macmillan.
  • Mallowan, M. 1965 Early Mesopotamia and Iran. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Mellaart, J. 1965 Earliest Civilizations of the Near East. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Millard, A.R. 1966 The Celestial Ladder and the Gate of Heaven. Expository Times 78.
  • Miller, C. 1977 The Song. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity.
  • Moran, W., ed. 1970 Toward the Image of Tammuz. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Nissen, H. 1988 The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 BC. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Oats, D. and J. 1976 The Rise of Civilization. New York: Elsevier Phaidon.
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  • Parrot, A. 1955 Ziggurats et Tour de Babel. London: SCM.
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  • Singer, C. 1954 The History of Technology, v 1. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • von Soden, W. 1965-1981 Akkadisches Handwörterbuch, 3 vv. Wiesbaden: Harassowitz.
  • Waltke, B.K., and O'Connor, M. 1990 An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
  • Woolley, L. 1939 Ur Excavations: The Ziggurat and Its Surroundings. New York: British Museum and University of Pennsylvania.
  • Zadok, R. 1984 The Origin of the Name Shinar. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 74: 240-44.



   Dead Sea Scrolls - What is their importance?




What archaeological discovery has had the all-time greatest Biblical impact?

"Probably the Dead Sea Scrolls have had the greatest Biblical impact. they have provided Old Testament manuscripts approximately 1,000 years older than our previous oldest manuscript. The Dead Sea Scrolls have demonstrated that the Old Testament was accurately transmitted during this interval. In addition, they provide a wealth of information on the times leading up to, and during, the life of Christ.
--Dr. Bryant Wood, archaeologist, Associates for Biblical Research

Discovery of the Scrolls

Men of Qumran and the Messiah

Juma was beginning to get nervous. Some of his goats were climbing too high up the cliffs. He decided to climb the face of the cliff himself to bring them back. Little did Juma realize as he began his climb on that January day in 1947 that those straying goats would eventually involve him in "the greatest archaeological discovery in the twentieth century." Such thoughts were far from his mind when he saw two small openings to one of the thousands of caves that dot those barren cliffs overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. He threw a rock into one of the openings. The unexpected cracking sound surprised him; what else could be in those remote caves but treasure? He called to his cousins, Khalil and Muhammed, who climbed up and heard the exciting tale. But it was getting late, and the goats had to be gathered. Tomorrow they would return -- perhaps their days of following goats would come to an end once the treasure was uncovered!


Cave 4 containing Scrolls

Cave 4 at Qumran where approximately 15,000 fragments from some 574 manuscripts were found.

The youngest of the three, Muhammed, rose the next day before his two fellow "treasure-seekers" and made his way to the cave. The cave floor was covered with debris, including broken pottery. Along the wall stood a number of narrow jars, some with their bowl-shaped covers still in place. Frantically Muhammed began to explore the inside of each jar, but no treasure of gold was to be found... only a few bundles wrapped in cloth and greenish with age. Returning to his cousins, he related the sad news -- no treasure.

No treasure indeed! The scrolls those Bedouin boys removed from that dark cave that day and the days following would come to be recognized as the greatest manuscript treasure ever found -- the first seven manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Such was the discovery of a group of manuscripts which were a thousand years older than the then-oldest-known Hebrew texts of the Bible (manuscripts, many of which were written more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus). These manuscripts would excite the archaeological world and provide a team of translators with a gigantic task that even to this day has not been completed.

The story of how those scrolls traveled from the hands of young Bedouin goatherders to be under the scrutinous eyes of international scholars is stranger than fiction. Although all the details of the next few years will probably never be known for sure, this much is clear. After hanging from a pole in a Bedouin tent for a period of time, the seven original scrolls were sold to two separate Arab antiquities dealers in Bethlehem. From there, four were sold (for a small amount) to Athanasius Samuel, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan at St. Mark's Monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem. Scholars at the American School of Oriental Research, who examined them, were the first to realize their antiquity. John Trever photographed them in detail, and the great archaeologist William F. Albright soon announced that the scrolls were from the period between 200 BC and AD 200. The initial announcements were then made that the oldest manuscripts ever discovered had been found in the Judean desert!

Clay Jar

Clay jar of the type the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in. From Qumran, now in the Citadel Museum, Jordan.

Three of the other original scrolls found by the Bedouin boys were sold to E. L. Sukenik, archaeologist at Hebrew University and father of Yigal Yadin (a general in the Israeli army who later became a famous archaeologist and excavator of Masada and Hazor). It should be noted that the drama of these events was heightened because these were the last days of the British Mandate period in Palestine, and tensions between the Arab and Jewish population were great. This made examination of the scrolls by scholars extremely dangerous.

All of the scrolls finally came together at Hebrew University under another strange set of circumstances. After touring the U.S. with his four scrolls and not being able to find an interested buyer, Metropolitan Samuel placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal. By coincidence (or divine providence?) Yigal Yadin happened to be lecturing in New York and saw the advertisement. Through intermediaries, he was able to purchase these priceless scrolls for around $250,000. In February of 1955, the Prime Minister of Israel announced that the State of Israel had purchased the scrolls, and all seven (including the three purchased earlier by Professor Sukenik) were to be housed in a special museum at Hebrew University named the Shrine of the Book, where they can be seen today.

Needless to say, the initial announcement about the scrolls prompted feverish searches in the area of the original discoveries. An official archaeological expedition was begun in 1949 which eventually resulted in the discovery of ten additional caves in the surrounding area also containing scrolls. The archaeologists then directed their attention to a small ruin nearby called "Khirbet (ruins of) Qumran," which had been thought of as the remains of an old Roman fortress. After six seasons of intensive excavation, the scholars were sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the scrolls found their origin in this community which flourished between 125 BC and AD 68. The scrolls had been stored in haste in the caves as the community fled the encroaching Roman army, which was in Judea to put down the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70.

The ruins of Qumran, which can be visited today, revealed that a substantial group of Jewish ascetics inhabited this community. Storehouses, aqueducts, ritual baths and an assembly hall were all uncovered. One of the most interesting rooms uncovered was a scriptorium, identified by two inkwells discovered there along with some benches for scribes. It was in this room that many, if not all, of the discovered manuscripts were copied.

Description of the Scrolls
As soon as the announcement of the scrolls' discovery was made, the scholarly debates about their origin and significance began. The debates increased when the amazing contents of the scrolls were successively revealed.

The seven original scrolls, from what came to be called "Cave One," comprised the following: 1) a well-preserved copy of the entire prophecy of Isaiah -- the oldest copy of an Old Testament book ever to be discovered; 2) another fragmentary scroll of Isaiah; 3) a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk -- the commentator explained the book allegorically in terms of the Qumran brotherhood; 4) the "Manual of Discipline" or "Community Rule" -- the most important source of information about the religious sect at Qumran -- it described the requirements for those aspiring to join the brotherhood; 5) the "Thanksgiving Hymns," a collection of devotional "psalms" of thanksgiving and praise to God; 6) an Aramaic paraphrase of the Book of Genesis; and 7) the "Rule of War" which dealt with the battle between the "Sons of Light" (the men of Qumran) and the "Sons of Darkness" (the Romans?) yet to take place in the "last days," which days the men of Qumran believed were about to arrive.

Those seven original scrolls were just the beginning. Over six hundred scrolls and thousands of fragments have been discovered in the 11 caves of the Qumran area. Fragments of every Biblical book except Esther have been found, as well as many other non-Biblical texts.

One of the most fascinating of the finds was a copper scroll which had to be cut in strips to be opened and which contained a list of 60 treasures located in various parts of Judea (none of which have been found)! Another scroll, which Israeli archaeologists recovered in 1967 underneath the floor of a Bethlehem antiquities dealer, describes in detail the community's view of an elaborate Temple ritual. This has been appropriately called the "Temple Scroll."

The contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that their authors were a group of priests and laymen pursuing a communal life of strict dedication to God. Their leader was called the "Righteous Teacher." They viewed themselves as the only true elect of Israel -- they alone were faithful to the Law.

They opposed the "Wicked Priest" -- the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem who represented the establishment and who had persecuted them in some way. This wicked priest was probably one of the Maccabean rulers who had illegitimately assumed the high priesthood between 150-140 BC. Most scholars have identified the Qumran brotherhood with the Essenes, a Jewish sect of Jesus' day described by Josephus and Philo.

Whoever the men of Qumran were, their writings provide us with a marvelous background picture of one aspect of the religious world into which Jesus came. Some have sought to draw parallels between figures in the scrolls and John the Baptist or Jesus, but an objective examination of such parallels reveals that the differences are greater than the similarities. Any contact of Jesus with Qumran is entirely speculative and most improbable. The suggestion that John the Baptist may have spent some time with the Qumran community is possible since the Gospels tell us that he spent considerable time in the wilderness near the area where the Qumran community is located (Mt 3:1-3; Mk 1:4; Lk 1:80; 3:2-3). John's message, however, differed markedly from that of the Qumran brotherhood. The only real common point was that they both taught that the "kingdom of God" was coming.

One of the most important contributions of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the numerous Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered. Until those discoveries at Qumran, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were copies from the 9th and 10th centuries AD by a group of Jewish scribes called the Massoretes. Now we have manuscripts around a thousand years older than those. The amazing truth is that these manuscripts are almost identical! Here is a strong example of the tender care which the Jewish scribes down through the centuries took in an effort to accurately copy the sacred Scriptures. We can have confidence that our Old Testament Scriptures faithfully represent the words given to Moses, David and the prophets.

Doctrine of the Scrolls
The men of Qumran fervently believed in a doctrine of "last things." They had fled to the desert and were readying themselves for the imminent judgment when their enemies would be vanquished and they, God's elect, would be given final victory in accordance with the predictions of the prophets. It was in connection with these end-time events that one of the most fascinating teachings of the sect emerges. The messianic hope loomed large in the thought of the brotherhood. As a matter of fact, evidence shows that they actually believed in three messiahs -- one a prophet, another a priest and the third a king or prince.

In the document mentioned earlier called the "Manual of Discipline" or the "Rule of the Community," it is laid down that the faithful should continue to live under the rule "until the coming of a prophet and the anointed ones [messiahs] of Aaron and Israel" (column 9, line 11). These three figures would appear to usher in the age for which the community was making preparation.

In another document found in Cave Four and referred to as the "Testimonia," a number of Old Testament passages are brought together which formed the basis for their messianic expectations. The first is the citation from Deuteronomy 18:18-19 where God says to Moses: "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee." Next comes a quotation from Numbers 24:15-17, where Balaam foresees the rise of a princely conqueror: "a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab," etc. The third passage is the blessing pronounced by Moses upon the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) in Deuteronomy 33:8-11. The way in which these three quotations are brought together suggests that the writer looked forward to the advent of a great prophet, a great prince and a great priest.

There were three individuals in the Old Testament writings that were referred to as "my anointed ones" -- the prophet, the priest and the king (refer to Ex 29:29; 1 Sam 16:13, 24:6; 1 Kg 19:16; Ps 105:15). Each of these was consecrated to his work by an anointing with oil. The Hebrew word for "anointed" is meshiach, from which we get the word Messiah.

The marvelous truth of the New Testament doctrine of the Messiah is that each of these three offices found fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth! The people were amazed at His feeding of the multitude and said, "This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world" (Jn 6:14; also Jn 7:40; Acts 3:22, 7:37). Jesus also was a priest, not from the order of Levi but from the order of Melchizedek(Ps 110:4; Heb 7), who offered Himself as a sacrifice and appears for us in the presence of His Father (Heb 9:24-26; 10:11-12). Also, Jesus was announced as the One who will receive "the throne of his father, David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Lk 1:32-33). He will be acclaimed "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS" (Rev 19:16).

Thus, we have found an interesting point of contact between Qumran and Christianity -- a point of contact which is also a point of cleavage. The Qumran community and the early Christians agreed that in the days of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies there would arise a great prophet, a great priest and a great king. But these three figures remained distinct in Qumran expectation whereas the New Testament saw them unified in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

One more manuscript that has come to light in recent years provides a fascinating background to the New Testament messianic hope. It has been reconstructed from twelve small fragments, furnishing less than two columns of writing; but this much can be ascertained from its brief contents. It is a prediction of the birth of a Wonderful Child, possibly drawing on Isaiah 9:6-7: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given... and his name shall be called Wonderful." This child will bear special marks on His body and will be distinguished by wisdom and intelligence. He will be able to probe the secrets of all living creatures, and He will inaugurate the new age for which the faithful fervently awaited.

Is it not striking that soon after this manuscript was composed, a child was born who fulfilled the hopes of Israel and inaugurated a new age? Although the men of Qumran were mistaken in the details of their messiah, they did expect one whose general characteristics were strikingly illustrated by Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Messiah. It is not known if some early Christian brought the message of Jesus to this wilderness community. We are left only to speculate on how they would have responded to the Wonderful Child born in Bethlehem who was the Prophet, Priest and King of Israel.

Ark of the Covenant, lost or found?


Ark of the Covenant. Provided by Eden Communications.

An artist's impression of the biblical Ark of the Covenant


Long pondered by the community of Biblical scholarship, the rest of the world began considering this question with the release of the hit motion picture Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today there are no lack of possibilities.

Based on ancient Jewish writings, some have suggested the Ark is hidden on Mount Nebo on the Jordan River's east bank. This site is presently in the modern nation of Jordan with no hint of the Ark's presence.

Others suggest the Ark is hidden somewhere near the Dead Sea, on the Jordan's west bank. This location is usually considered in association with the ancient site of Qumran and the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here, the Ark and other artifacts are believed buried in one of the region's caves, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Another view suggests the Ark is located beneath Jerusalem, in a stone-carved tunnel. Some say it is beneath the suggested site of the Crucifixion, Gordon's Calvary. The Temple Institute in Jerusalem's Old City, an Ultra-Orthodox organization dedicated to rebuilding the Jewish Temple, says the Ark is under the temple mount and will be revealed at the proper time - when the temple is rebuilt.

Interestingly, the thesis of the Raiders of the Lost Ark, that the Ark was taken from the Temple by Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak is not a popular view today. This may be due to the lack of traditions suggesting the Ark's presence at the mouth of the Nile, in Lower Egypt.

A view which has received little attention until the past decade has now been popularized by a recent book. The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, by British journalist Graham Hancock, has almost reached best-seller status and captured the imagination of the general public. According to this view, the Ark of the Covenant was taken from ancient Jerusalem in the days of King Solomon. While there are numerous variations of the story, the common thread centers on a son fathered by Israelite King Solomon and born to the Queen of Sheba. While this union is not mentioned in the Biblical account of the meeting between these two monarchs (1 Kings 10), it has a long tradition in Ethiopia, a suggested location of ancient Sheba.

This son, named Menelik, is said to have brought the Ark to his country for safe keeping, according to an account preserved in the Ethiopian royal chronicles. This story has also been boosted by the now famous Black Jews of Ethiopia, the Falashas. These black Africans, practicing a very ancient form of Judaism, received international attention when an Israeli military action airlifted them to freedom from political persecution in 1976.


The Associates for Biblical Research have not been involved in any efforts to retrieve the Ark. Obviously, it would be one of the greatest artifacts of all time. But archaeology is not a treasure hunt and the Bible does not need the recovered Ark to be proved accurate.


Fisher, Milton C. 1995. "The Ark of the Covenant: Alive and Well in Ethiopia?" Bible and Spade 8/3, pp. 65-72.
Hancock, Graham. 1992. The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. New York: Crown Books.


Ark of the Covenant - Where has it been? Ol



Beneath the Muslem Dome of the RockLEFT: Looking down on es-Sakhra, the Rock, beneath the Muslim Dome of the Rock Shrine on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer believes that Solomon's Temple was built here, and that the Ark of the Covenant rested in the rectangular cut-out seen in the upper right area of the Rock.

Where is the lost Ark of the Covenant? There are numerous theories and, occasionally, even claims. Unfortunately, nothing substantial has ever been produced demonstrating the Ark's present whereabouts. Yet, while we still do not know where it is today, a scholar has now pinpointed the exact spot where it once stood.

A popular topic since release of the box office hit movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, scholars continue to provide new insights into the history of this ancient relic. In the January/February 1996 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Leen Ritmeyer marshalled textual, historical and archaeological evidence to suggest the exact spot where the Ark of the Covenant rested in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem.

Few are better qualified to make such a claim. The most recognized archaeological architect in Biblical archaeology, Ritmeyer's reconstructions of Herod's Jerusalem are widely accepted as the most authoritative. He has worked with a number of excavations in Jerusalem and written numerous articles on archaeological remains in the Holy City.

Three years ago, in the March/April 1992 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ritmeyer presented evidence demonstrating three stages in the development of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount. He reconstructed the original Temple Mount of Solomon and the Second Temple Mount's Hasmonean addition and Herodian expansion.


Although the Temple Mount came under Israeli control in 1967, Israeli government officials returned authority to the Wakf, the Supreme Moslem Council. The Wakf, while constantly making renovations on the Mount, has been unwilling to allow any archaeological excavations. This is at least partially due to their desire to keep any evidence of an ancient Jewish Temple from being found on their holy site.

Consequently, absolute proof of Ritmeyer's proposal is not available. However, his utilization of the available historical resources and his numerous personal examinations of the site offer the most authoritative proposal of the evidence.

Now, after clarifying the historical Temple Mount, Ritmeyer turned his efforts to determining the exact location of the First and Second Temple structures on the Mount. His research confirmed the traditional view that the ancient Jewish Temple once sat directly above the famous Rock (es-Sakhra; Arabic for "rock") beneath the Moslem shrine, the Dome of the Rock.

In addition to reconstructing the precise wall line of the Temple's Holy of Holies, Ritmeyer also believes he has identified the exact location where the Ark once sat inside the Holy of Holies, on es-Sakhra. While no one is allowed to do any direct examinations of the Rock, or even take measurements, historical data from those who have in the past, supplemented by modern photographs, provided Ritmeyer all the evidence he needed.


Precisely in the center of the Holy of Holies as laid out by Ritmeyer, is a rectangular cutout in the bedrock measuring 4 ft 4 in x 2 ft 7 in. Based on his measurement of the Biblical "cubit," Ritmeyer suggests the Ark was exactly this size. Thus, according to Ritmeyer, the Ark once sat at the exact center of the Holy of Holies -- in this very indentation on es-Sakhra beneath the Dome of the Rock!

While scholars and archaeologists are slow to agree that Ritmeyer is correct, all acknowledge he made an innovative and plausible proposal. Unfortunately, only the opportunity to excavate and do precise measurements will provide absolute confirmation of his research. Sadly, such excavations are very doubtful in the foreseeable future.

So that is where the Ark has been, but where is it now? Most scholars agree the Ark was never placed in the Second Temple (the Temple of Zerubabel and Herod). It disappeared from the Biblical story during the First Temple period and cannot be clearly traced afterward.

One of the most prominent theories today suggests the Ark is within a church in Axum, Ethiopia. While there are different theories of how and when it got there, the Ark was supposedly spirited out of the Jerusalem Temple by godly priests. Their motive was protecting it from the apostasy of Jewish leaders. (See the article by ABR Board member Milton Fisher in the Summer 1995 issue of Bible and Spade.)

Another theory suggests the Ark, along with other temple treasures, is hidden in a cave somewhere near the Dead Sea. While the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees seems to place this cave on the Jordan River's east bank (Biblical Mt Nebo), many today think the Ark is presently hidden in a cave on the Jordan's West Bank. In recent decades, numerous caves in this region have been excavated, including some which contained the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. While many interesting artifacts were recovered, no evidence of the Ark has surfaced.

Probably the most popular theory of the Lost Ark's present location is a secret chamber carved deep within the rock mountain under Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The rock (es-Sakhra) beneath the Dome of the Rock is virtually the only section of the limestone mountain which can be presently observed on the surface of the Temple Mount compound.

The alleged secret chamber is generally attributed to either King Solomon, who built the First Temple, or King Josiah, one of the final kings of Judah. Purported to be carved out of bedrock and reached by a carved tunnel, it is not to be confused with the cave beneath es-Sakhra inside the Dome of the Rock, which can be entered today. The Ark's presence in this secret hiding place is widely believed by most of the Orthodox Jewish groups actively involved today in preparations for rebuilding the Third Jewish Temple.

In fact, a secret excavation by some of Israel's leading rabbis in 1981, supposedly cleared some rock-carved tunnels and chambers beneath the Temple Mount. Working in secret for some 18 months, they were convinced another 18 months would take them to the chamber with the Ark. However, when their efforts became known, the Israeli government discontinued their activities due to religious and political pressure from the Moslem/Arab world.

Is the Ark really there? No one knows. Is it even intact and recoverable? We really cannot say. Yet, recovery of the lost Ark would be the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. Its discovery would also lead to significant pressure to rebuild the Third Temple. While Moslem and Arab reaction would not make it a simple task, the Bible does say it will eventually happen. Whenever it does take place, Leen Ritmeyer has done his part to make sure it is done right! Interested persons can find out more about Dr. Ritmeyer's work by checking out his home page at "http://dialspace.dial.pipex.com/ritmeyer/."



  • Ritmeyer, L., 1992 "Locating the Original Temple Mount". Biblical Archaeology Review 18/2: 24-45, 64-65.
  • Ritmeyer, L., 1996 "The Ark of the Covenant: Where it Stood in Solomon's Temple". Biblical Archaeology Review 22/1: 46-55, 70-73.


Sodom and Gomorrah - Is there any evidence to suggest that the Biblical story of the destruction by fire and brimstone (sulfur) actually took place?



Sodom Ruins
View east along the southern wall of the destroyed city of Sodom (Bab edh-Dhra) southeast of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan.


The ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah have been discovered southeast of the Dead Sea. The modern names are Bab edh-Dhra, thought to be Sodom, and Numeira, thought to be Gomorrah. Both places were destroyed at the same time by an enormous conflagration. The destruction debris was about three feet thick. What brought about this awful calamity? Startling discoveries in the cemetery at Bab edh-Dhra revealed the cause. Archaeologists found that buildings used to bury the dead were burned by a fire that started on the roof.

What would cause every structure in the cemetery to be destroyed in this way? The answer to the mystery is found in the Bible. "Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah -- from the Lord out of the heavens" (Genesis 19:24). The only conceivable explanation for this unique discovery in the annals of archaeology is that burning debris fell on the buildings from the air. But how could such a thing happen?

There is ample evidence of subterranean deposits of a petroleum-based substance called bitumen, similar to asphalt, in the region south of the Dead Sea. Such material normally contains a high percentage of sulfur. It has been postulated by geologist Frederick Clapp that pressure from an earthquake could have caused the bitumen deposits to be forced out of the earth through a fault line. As it gushed out of the earth it could have been ignited by a spark or surface fire. It would then fall to earth as a burning, fiery mass.

It was only after Clapp formulated this theory that Sodom and Gomorrah were found. It turns out that the sites are located exactly on a fault line along the eastern side of a plain south of the Dead Sea, so Clapp's theory is entirely plausible. There is some evidence for this scenario from the Bible itself. Abraham viewed the destruction from a vantage point west of the Dead Sea. The Bible records what Abraham saw: "He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace" (Genesis 19:28). Dense smoke suggests smoke from a petroleum-based fire. Smoke rising like smoke from a furnace indicates a forced draft, such as would be expected from subterranean deposits being forced out of the ground under pressure.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah became an example in the Bible of how God judges sin. "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before Me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen" (Ezekiel 16:49-50).


"The Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah," by Bryant G. Wood, Bible and Spade, Summer 1999, pp. 67-80.


The Sons of Jacob - Is there archaeological evidence for these tribal leaders?


Map copyrighted, 1998, Eden Communications.


Tribes of Israel.

Various archaeological discoveries support the Biblical record concerning Jacob, his 12 sons, and the later tribes of Israel.

Dan - Will Provide Justice for His People (Genesis 49:16)

Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first son of Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid (Genesis 30:1-6). During the period of Judges, the tribe of Dan migrated from their original allotment on the Mediterranean coast to the city of Laish, renamed Dan (Judges 18).[1] The site of Laish/Dan has been under excavation since 1966, directed by Avraham Biran on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The city of Dan is most famous for being the site of one of the high-places set up by Jeroboam, first king of the breakaway northern kingdom, in order to worship the golden calf.

Therefore the king asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!" And he set up one in Bethel, and the other he put in DAN.
      -1 Kings 12:28-29

That high place has been found and excavated by Biran (Biran 1976). The Dan high place was not only used during Israelite times, but continued as a religious center down to the Roman period.

In 1977, a very important discovery from the Hellenistic period (3rd-2nd centuries BC) was made. A dedicatory inscription mentioning Dan was found some 17 meters south of the high place (Biran 1981). For the first time, the Biblical name of the site was found in an ancient inscription and, by association, the name of one of Jacob's sons.

Gad - Will be Attacked by a Band of Raiders
(Genesis 49:19)

Gad was Jacob's seventh son, the first son of Zilpah, Leah's handmaid. The tribe of Gad occupied the central area of Transjordan (Joshua 13:24-28).

In the famous Mesha Inscription found at Dhibon in Jordan, dating from the 9th century BC, the tribe of Gad is mentioned.[2] The Moabite king Mesha states, "And the men of GAD had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old" (Lemaire 1994: 33, line 10).[3]

Asher - His Food Will be Rich
(Genesis 49:20)

A number of scholars have maintained that that the name 'Isr appearing in Egyptian texts is the Israelite tribal name Asher (e.g., Aharoni 1979: 179, 183; Hadley 1992: 482). That appears not to be the case, however. So we present the following in the way of a correction to information that might appear in other sources.

The earliest mention of the name 'Isr is in a list of conquered peoples from the time of Seti I, early 13th century BC (Simons 1937:147, List XVII, no. 4).

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Eden Communications.



Pharoah Rameses II.


The name also appears several times in the inscriptions of Rameses II (1279-1212 BC), again in lists of conquered peoples (Gauthier 1925:105; Kitchen 1993:39-40; Simons 1937: 162, List XXV, no. 8).

Perhaps the most interesting of these references is in Papyrus Anastasi I from the end of the 13th century BC. Here, the wise scribe Hori chides the novice scribe Amen-em-Opet concerning his knowledge of Canaan. He warned that his reputation could become as low as that of "Qazardi, ruler of Asru ('Isr), when the hyena caught him up a tree" (Kitchen 1993: 40).

Noted Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen lists four reasons why the Egyptian name "Isr" cannot be the Israelite tribe of Asher (1993: 40-41; cf. Kitchen 1966: 70-71):

    • The texts indicate that 'Isr is a territory or place-name, not a tribe.
    • The final Egyptian r can stand for l as well as r.
    • It is not known where 'Isr was located, so it is not possible to make a geographical link between 'Isr and the tribal area of Asher.
    • The Egyptian letter s corresponds to th not sh, as in Asher.

Judah - Holder of the Royal Scepter and Ruler's Staff
(Genesis 49:10)

Judah is perhaps the best known of Jacob's sons. He was the fourth son of Jacob and the fourth son born to Leah (Genesis 29:35). It was Judah who talked his brothers out of killing Joseph at Dothan and selling him to the Ishmaelite traders (Genesis 37:26-27). Judah acted as spokesman for the brothers on their second journey to Egypt to face Joseph during the famine (Genesis 43:3; 44:14-34). Since his three older brothers were passed over,[4] Judah inherited the position of firstborn of Jacob's sons and received the kingly blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:8-12).

The tribe established by Judah became the greatest of the Israelite tribes. It received the largest allotment in the promised land (Joshua 15), and it was from Judah that the Messiah descended (Genesis 49:10-12; Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). When the kingdom divided, the southern kingdom was known simply as Judah. After the return of the exiles from Babylon, the ancient tribal area continued to be known as Yehud/Judah/Judea until the suppression of the Bar Khokba revolt by Hadrian in AD 135. After that, the name passed out of use.

Because of the political importance of the area of Judah through the centuries, the name has turned up in many ancient inscriptions.

The oldest of these are two references to Ahaz King of Judah from the eighth century BC. One is on a bulla (clay sealing) which reads "Ahaz (son of) Jotham King of JUDAH" (Shanks 1997). The other is in a building inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III from Calah (Nimrud), Iraq. It simply states that king "Jehoahaz (Ahaz) of JUDAH" paid tribute to the Assyrian king (Oppenheim 1969:282).

Additional references to Judah occur throughout the Assyrian period (Oppenheim 1969: 287, 288, 291, 294, 301). The Babylonians recorded the fall of the "city of JUDAH" to Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC (Oppenheim 1969: 564) and the issuing of rations to Judean captives, including Jehoiachin (Oppenheim 1969: 308). In addition, we have a 407 BC letter from Elephantine to Bagoas, governor of JUDAH (Ginsburg 1969: 492), Yehud (Judah) coins from the 4th century BC, and Yehud seals from the 4th-2nd centuries BC (Stern 1982: 224-27; 202-13).

All of these data support the historicity of the Biblical record concerning Jacob, his 12 sons, and the later tribes of Israel. There is even evidence of their sojourn in Eqypt.


  1. For archaeological evidence for the migration of the Danites, see Wood 1991:107-109.
  2. For more information on the Mesha Inscription, see Wood 1996.
  3. Ataroth is thought to be located at ‘Atarus 13 km northwest of Dhiban.
  4. Reuben sleeping with his father's concubine Bilhah (Gn 35:22), and Simeon and Levi massacring the men of Shechem (Genesis 34).


  • Aharoni, Y. 1979 The Land of the Bible, rev. ed., trans. and ed. A.F. Rainey. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
  • Aling, C.F. 1996 The Historicity of the Joseph Story. Bible and Spade 9: 17-28.
  • Bietak, M. 1986 Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta. London: The British Academy. 1991a Der Friedhof in einem Palastgarten aus der Zeit des späten Mittleren Riches und andere Forschungsergebnisse aus dem östlichen Nildelta (Tell el-Dab‘a 1984-1987). Agypten und Levante 2:47-109. 1991b Egypt and Canaan During the Middle Bronze Age. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 281: 27-72. 1996 Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos. London: British Museum Press.
  • Biran, A. 1976 City of the Golden Calf. Bible and Spade 5:22-27. 1981 To the God Who is in Dan. Pp. 142-51 in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, ed. A. Biran. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College.
  • Chambon, A. 1984 Tell el-Far'ah I: L'Âge du Fer. Mémoire 31. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations.
  • Finkelstein, I. 1986 ‘Izbet Sartah: An Early Iron Age Site Near Rosh Ha‘ayin, Israel. BAR International Series 299. Oxford: B.A.R.
  • Fritz, V., and Kempinski, A. 1983 Ergebnisse der Ausgrabunden auf der Hiebet el-Msas (Tel Masos) 1972-1975. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Gardiner, A. 1961 Egypt of the Pharaohs. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Gauthier, H. 1925 Dictionnaire des noms géoraphiques contenus dans les textes hiéroglyphiques, vol. 1. Cairo: L'Institute Français d'Archéologie Orientale.
  • Ginsberg, H.L. 1969 Aramaic Letters. Pp. 491-92 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hadley, D.V. 1992 Asher. Pp. 482-83 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
  • Holladay, J.S., Jr. 1992a House, Israelite. Pp. 308-18 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday. 1992b Maskhuta, Tell el-. Pp. 588-92 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday. 1997 Maskhuta, Tell el-. Pp. 432-37 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 3, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kitchen, K.A. 1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity. 1993 Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Notes and Comments, vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lemaire, A. 1994 House of David Restored in Moabite Inscription. Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3: 30-37.
  • McCown, C.C. 1947 Tell en-Nasbeh I. Berkeley: The Palestine Institute of Pacific School of Religion.
  • Oppenheim, A.L. 1969 Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts. Pp. 265-317 and 556-67 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Redford, D.B. 1992 Hyksos: History. Pp. 341-44 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed, D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
  • Rohl, D.M. 1995 Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. New York: Crown.
  • Shanks, H. 1997 Strata. Biblical Archaeology Review 23/2: 8.
  • Shea, W.H. 1990 Leaving Egypt. Archaeology and Biblical Research 3: 99-111.
  • Stern, E. 1982 Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
  • Ward, W.A. 1984 Royal-Name Scarabs. Pp. 151-192 in Studies on Scarab Seals, vol. 2, by Olga Tufnell. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
  • Wente, E., and Van Siclen III, C. 1977 A Chronology of the New Kingdom. Pp. 217-61 in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes January 12, 1977, ed. J.H. Johnson and E.F. Wente. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 39. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.
  • Wood, B.G. 1991 Recent Discoveries and Research on the Conquest. Archaeology and Biblical Research 4: 104-110. 1996 Mesha, King of Moab. Bible and Spade 9: 55-64.
  • Wright, G.E. 1965 Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City. London: Gerald Duckworth.


Israelites in Egypt - What evidence is there? And has Joseph's original tomb been found?


Khufu Pyramid - Giza Plateau, Cairo. Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Eden Communications.

The Bible tells us that when Jacob and his family migrated from Asia to Egypt, they were settled in "the land of Rameses" and that they became property owners there (Genesis 47:11, 27). Eventually, the Israelites were used as slave laborers to build the city of Rameses (Exodus 1:11), and when they left after 430 years (Exodus 12:40), they departed from Rameses (Exodus 12:37). From these references, we can conclude that the Israelites spent the years of the Egyptian Sojourn in and around Rameses.

"We not only know where Rameses was located, but we know much about the history of the ancient site."

The name Rameses actually comes from a later period than the Israelite Sojourn. It was the name given to a city built by Rameses the Great (Rameses II) in the eastern Nile Delta in the 13th century BC. This more familiar name was then used retrospectively by later scribes when copying the Biblical texts. Although the location of Rameses was in dispute for some years, that dispute has now been settled. We not only know where Rameses was located, but we know much about the history of the ancient site.

Since 1966, extensive excavations have been undertaken there under the direction of Manfred Bietak of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo (for previous reports, see Shea 1990: 100-103; Wood 1991: 104-106; Aling 1996: 20-21). It is possible that Prof. Bietak may have, for the first time, found physical evidence for the presence of the Israelites in Egypt.


Archaeology uncovers the history of the land of Rameses

Ancient Rameses is located at Tell el-Dab‘a in the eastern Delta, approximately 100 km northeast of Cairo. In antiquity, the Pelusiac branch of the Nile flowed past the site, giving access to the Mediterranean. In addition, the town lay on the land route to Canaan, the famous Horus Road. Thus, it was an important commercial and military center.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
     -Exodus 1:8

The Land of Ramses-timeline

We can divide the history of the site into three periods: pre-Hyksos, Hyksos and post-Hyksos. The Hyksos were a Semitic people from Syria-Palestine, who took up residence in the eastern Nile Delta and eventually ruled northern Egypt for some 108 years, ca. 1663-1555 BC (15th Dynasty).[1] Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt around 1880 BC, based on an Exodus date of ca. 1450 BC. That was in the pre-Hyksos period when the name of the town was Rowaty, "the door of the two roads" (Bietak 1996: 9,19). [2]

Could this be the Israelites?

Bietak may have, for the first time, found physical evidence for the presence of the Israelites in Egypt. It is the right culture in the right place at the right time.

The earliest evidence for Asiatics at Rowaty (the city that later named Rameses) occurs in the late 12th Dynasty (mid 19th century BC). [3] At that time a rural settlement was founded. It was unfortified, although there were many enclosure walls, most likely for keeping animals. The living quarters consisted of rectangular huts built of sand bricks (Bietak 1986: 237; 1991b: 32). It is highly possible that this is the first material evidence of Israelites in Egypt. It is the right culture in the right place at the right time.

Not all residents of the first Asiatic settlement at Tell el-Dab‘a lived in huts. One of them, evidently an important official, lived in a small villa. The Bible tells us that Joseph became a high official after he correctly interpreted pharaoh's dreams (Genesis 41:39-45). We are not told where Joseph lived while serving in the Egyptian bureaucracy. It seems logical to assume, however, that after discharging his duties associated with the famine, he would have moved to Rameses to be near his father and brothers.

Could this villa have been Joseph's house? [4]

The villa was 10 x 12 meters in size, situated on one side of an enclosure measuring 12 x 19 meters. It consisted of six rooms laid out in horseshoe fashion around an open courtyard. The most striking aspect of the house is that the floor plan is identical to the Israelite "four-room house" of the later Iron Age in Palestine (Holladay 1992a). In this type of house two side rooms and a back room were arranged around a central space, or courtyard. [5]

Nearby, arranged in a semi-circle around the villa, were poorer two-roomed homes, approximately 6 x 8 meters in size. If the villa was the home of Joseph, then the surrounding huts might have been those of Joseph's father and brothers. Approximately 20% of the pottery found in the settlement debris was of Palestinian Middle Bronze Age type (Bietak 1996: 10). In the open spaces southwest of the villa was the cemetery of the settlement. Here, some of the most startling evidence was found.

Hebrew Tombs?

The tombs were constructed of mud bricks in Egyptian fashion, but the contents were strictly Asiatic. Although they had been thoroughly plundered, 50% of the male burials still had weapons of Palestinian type in them. Typically, the deceased males were equipped with two javelins, battle-axes and daggers. Tomb 8 contained a fine example of a duckbill-ax and an embossed belt of bronze (Bietak 1996: 14). One of the tombs, however, was totally unique and unlike anything ever found in Egypt...

Joseph's tomb?

At the southwest end of the burial area, some 83 meters from the villa compound, was a monumental tomb, Tomb 1. It was composed of a nearly square superstructure containing the main burial chamber, and a chapel annex. In a robbers' pit sunk into the chapel, excavators found fragments of a colossal statue depicting an Asiatic dignitary. The likeness was of a seated official 1½ times life size. It was made of limestone and exhibited excellent workmanship. The skin was yellow, the traditional color of Asiatics in Egyptian art. It had a mushroom-shaped hairstyle, painted red, typical of that shown in Egyptian artwork for Asiatics. A throwstick, the Egyptian hieroglyph for a foreigner, was held against the right shoulder. The statue had been intentionally smashed and defaced (Bietak 1996: 20-21).

In his book Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest, David Rohl suggests that this is the tomb of Joseph himself (1995: 360-67).[6] The evidence seems to support this hypothesis. We must assume that Tomb 1 was that of the occupant of the villa, and thus possibly of Joseph himself. The Bible is very specific as to what became of Joseph's body.

"So Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt."
     -Genesis 50:26

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him during the Exodus because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath.

Joseph had said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with your from this place."
     -Exodus 13:19; cf. Genesis 50:25

Inside the burial chamber excavators found fragments of an inscribed limestone sarcophagus and a few bone fragments, but no intact skeleton as in the other tombs in the cemetery (Bietak 1991a: 61). Sometime after the burial, a pit was dug at the end of the chapel and a tunnel dug into the burial chamber. The "coffin" (sarcophagus) was then broken and the remains of the deceased removed by these "tomb robbers" (Rohl 1995: 363). It was common for tombs to be broken into in antiquity and the valuables removed, but to have the body taken is highly unusual.

Was the statue broken at the time the bones were removed, or was that done at another time? Archaeology cannot tell us the answer; we can only speculate.

It is likely that the statue was broken during a time of political turmoil (Bietak 1996: 21), possibly when the Hyksos took over rule of the region. It appears most likely that the "new king, who did not know about Joseph" (Exodus 1:8) was the first Hyksos king who came to power ca. 1663 BC.[7] At that time, the Israelites came under intense oppression (Exodus 1:9-11). Perhaps the Hyksos destroyed the statue when they overthrew local Egyptian authority. Since the remains in the tomb would also have been in danger, faithful Israelites may have removed them for safekeeping at this time.

Evidence that the Hyksos took control

In the next phase of occupation, [8] the humble dwellings of were covered over and a huge palace complex constructed. It is obvious that the newcomers, although Asiatic, were different from those in the previous period. [9]

The palace complex comprised several large buildings, purely Egyptian in style. It included upper stories, porticos, courtyards, pools, gardens and cemeteries (Bietak 1996: 21-30). The rich finds of this phase suggest that the occupants were high officials engaged in foreign trade. It appears that this was the initial phase of Hyksos settlement at the site. [10] With the coming of these peoples, the fortunes of the families of Jacob's sons declined (Exodus 1:8-12a).

Without identifying inscriptions, we will never know for sure if the earlier people were Israelites. [11] Contemporary references to Jacob's 12 sons have not been found. Since the sons of Jacob were humble shepherds, we should not expect to find such records, except possibly for Joseph.[12] However, there are ancient references to several of the tribes of Israel which, of course, were named after the sons of Jacob. So, in an indirect way, we do have inscriptional references to the sons of Jacob, albeit from a later time.

This much we can say about the discoveries in Rameses. The finds represent exactly what we would expect to find from Israelite occupation in Egypt.


  1. The Egyptian word Hyksos means "foreign rulers." In common usage, however, the term is used to refer in general to the Asiatics who settled in the eastern Delta of Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period. The dates for Hyksos rule are not known precisely. Those used here are based on the following:

A. Expulsion of the Hyksos in approximately the 15th year of Ahmose (Bietak 1991b: 48)

B. A total of 108 years for the rule of the Hyksos according to the Turin papyrus (Bietak 1991b: 48)

C. The chronology of Wente and Van Siclen for the 18th Dynasty (Wente and Van Siclen 1977: 218). This chronology gives a death date for Tuthmosis III of 1450 BC, which correlates with the Biblical date for the Exodus. According to Scripture, the Pharaoh of the Exodus perished in the Yam Suph (Exodus 14:5-9,18,28; 15:4,7; Psalm 106:9-11; 136:15), therefore, we correlate the date of the Exodus with the death date of the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The chronology of Wente and Van Siclen also incorporates the low date of 1279 BC for the accession of Rameses II accepted by most scholars today.

  1. In the 14th Dynasty, toward the end of the 18th century BC, the name of the town was changed to Avaris, "the (royal) foundation of the district" (Bietak 1996:40). When the Hyksos later established their capital there, they retained the name Avaris. It was probably the Hyksos rulers who forced the Israelites to build the store cities of Pithom (= Tell el-Maskhuta) and Rameses (= Tell el-Dab‘a = Avaris) (Exodus 1:11). When Rameses II rebuilt the city in the 13th century in the post-Hyksos period, and long after the Israelites had left Egypt, the name was changed to Rameses.

The location of Pithom has also been a matter of some debate. Now, however, it seems quite certain that it should be located at Tell el-Maskhuta at the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat, 15 km west of Ismailiya. Asiatic remains similar to those found at Tell el-Dab‘a have been found there and attributed to the Hyksos (Holladay 1992b: 588-89; 1997:332-34). According to Holladay, the Hyksos occupation at Tell el-Maskhuta took place ca. 1750-1625 BC. It would have been sometime during this time period, then, that the Israelites built the store city of Pithom.

  1. Area F/I, Str. d/2, and Area A/II, Str H
  2. Str. d/2 at Tell el-Dab‘a
  3. In Palestine, the side rooms were usually delineated by stone columns. With the scarcity of stone in Egypt, this feature would not be expected. Holladay suggests that the ground floor of such a house was primarily utilized for the economic aspects of family life such as the storage of food, tools and supplies, and the housing of animals. The family living space, on the other hand, was most likely on the second floor.
  4. As a result of his nontraditional chronology of ancient Egypt, however, British historian David Rohl dates Tomb 1 to the late 17th century BC (1995: 339), rather than the mid-nineteenth century as determined by the excavators. Since Rohl believes the Sojourn to be only 215 years based on the Septuagint (1995: 329-32), Joseph and Tomb 1 end up being approximately contemporary by his chronology. The present author, however, disagrees with both of these views and holds to conventional Egyptian chronology and a Sojourn of 430 years (Ex 12:40) as recorded in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, Rohl places Joseph and Tomb 1 in Str. d/1, while the present author accepts the excavators' dating of Tomb 1 to Str. d/2, and believes Str. d/2 to be a more compatible context for Joseph and the Israelites.
  5. We are not certain of the name of the first Hyksos king. Redford suggests Salitis/Saites based on literary references (1992: 342), while Ward suggests Khyan based on inscriptional evidence (1984:162-72).
  6. Str. d/1 dating to the early 13th Dynasty (early 18th century BC)
  7. Str. d/2
  8. Str. d/1
  9. Str. d/2
  10. There is a canal connecting the Nile with the Faiyum in the western desert named Bahr Yusuf, the "canal of Joseph." Development of the Faiyum is associated with Dynasty 12, the time when Joseph was in Egypt carrying out land reforms (Genesis 41:46-49; Gardiner 1961: 35-36). Whether the name of the canal is ancient or from a relatively modern tradition is not known. Otherwise, the name of Joseph has not turned up in Egypt (see Aling 1996).


  • Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible, revised edition, translated and edited by A.F. Rainey (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1979).
  • C.F. Aling, "The Historicity of the Joseph Story," Bible and Spade 9 (1996), pp. 17-28.
  • M. Bietak, Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta, (London: The British Academy, 1986); "Der Friedhof in einem Palastgarten aus der Zeit des späten Mittleren Riches und andere Forschungsergebnisse aus dem östlichen Nildelta (Tell el-Dab‘a 1984-1987)," Agypten und Levante 2 (1991a), pp. 47-109; "Egypt and Canaan During the Middle Bronze Age," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 281 (1991b), pp. 27-72; Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos, (London: British Museum Press, 1996).
  • A. Biran, "City of the Golden Calf," Bible and Spade, 5 (1976), pp. 22-27; "To the God Who is in Dan," in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, A. Biran, editor, (Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College, 1981), pp. 142-51.
  • A. Chambon, "Tell el-Far'ah I: L'Âge du Fer," Mémoire 31 (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1984).
  • I. Finkelstein, "‘Izbet Sartah: An Early Iron Age Site Near Rosh Ha‘ayin, Israel," BAR International Series 299 (Oxford: B.A.R., 1986).
  • V. Fritz and A. Kempinski, Ergebnisse der Ausgrabunden auf der Hiebet el-Msas (Tel Masos) 1972-1975 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983).
  • A. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).
  • H. Gauthier, Dictionnaire des noms géoraphiques contenus dans les textes hiéroglyphiques, Volume 1 (Cairo: L'Institute Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1925).
  • H.L. Ginsberg, "Aramaic Letters," in J.B. Pritchard, editor, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 491-492.
  • D.V. Hadley, "Asher," in D.N. Freedman, editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 482-483.
  • J.S. Holladay, Jr. "House, Israelite," in D.N. Freedman, editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992a), pp. 308-18; "Maskhuta, Tell el-," in D.N. Freedman, editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1992b), pp. 588-92; "Maskhuta, Tell el-," in E.M. Meyers, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Volume 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 432-437.
  • K.A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity, 1966); Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Notes and Comments, Volume 1 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
  • A. Lemaire, "House of David Restored in Moabite Inscription," Biblical Archaeology Review, 20/3 (1994), pp. 30-37.
  • C.C. McCown, Tell en-Nasbeh I (Berkeley: The Palestine Institute of Pacific School of Religion, 1947).
  • A.L. Oppenheim, "Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts," in J.B. Pritchard, editor, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 265-317, 556-567.
  • D.B. Redford, "Hyksos: History," in D.N. Freedman, editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 341-344.
  • D.M. Rohl, Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest (New York: Crown, 1995).
  • H. Shanks, "Strata," Biblical Archaeology Review, 23/2 (1997), p. 8.
  • W.H. Shea, "Leaving Egypt," Archaeology and Biblical Research, 3 (1990), pp. 99-111.
  • E. Stern, Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1982).
  • W.A. Ward, "Royal-Name Scarabs," in Olga Tufnell, Studies on Scarab Seals, Volume 2 (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1984), pp. 151-192.
  • E. Wente and C. Van Siclen III, "A Chronology of the New Kingdom," in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes January 12, 1977, J.H. Johnson and E.F. Wente, editors, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 39 (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1977), pp. 217-261.
  • B.G. Wood, "Recent Discoveries and Research on the Conquest," Archaeology and Biblical Research, 4 (1991), pp. 104-110; "Mesha, King of Moab," Bible and Spade, 9 (1996), pp. 55-64.
  • G.E. Wright, Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1965).




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