Is there any reference to the confusion of languages at Babel in early Mesopotamian literature?
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:
upon a time there was no snake, there was no scorpion,
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
Tower of Babel - Is there archaeological evidence for it?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
phenomenon occurs with the so-called White Temple of Uruk dated to the
Jamdet Nasr period (3100-2900). M. Mallowan remarks,
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
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...
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).
evidence of this is at Ur. There...
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:
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.
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
We may now attempt
to categorize the names with the hope of finding some clues about the
function of ziggurats.
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;
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...
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:
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
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
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,
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:
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
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
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
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.
IMPORTANCE OF THE CITY AND THE TOWER
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:
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
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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,
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:
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.
HISTORICAL SETTING OF THE TOWER OF BABEL
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:
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
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:
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).
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).
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:
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,
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.
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).
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 the Scrolls
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!
4 at Qumran where approximately 15,000 fragments from some 574 manuscripts
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
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!
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
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
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.
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"
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?
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Sodom and Gomorrah - Is there any evidence to suggest that
the Biblical story of the destruction by fire and brimstone (sulfur) actually
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
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
FOR FURTHER :
"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?
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). The site of Laish/Dan has been under excavation since
1966, directed by Avraham Biran on behalf of the Israel Antiquities
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.
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 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. 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).
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.
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,
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).
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).
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):
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, 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:
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.
Israelites in Egypt - What evidence
is there? And has Joseph's original tomb been found?
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.
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.
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.
this be the Israelites?
The earliest evidence for Asiatics at
Rowaty (the city that later named Rameses) occurs in the late 12th
Dynasty (mid 19th century BC).  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
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? 
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
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.
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...
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). 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."
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."
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. 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
that the Hyksos took control
In the next phase of occupation, 
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. 
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.  With the coming of
these peoples, the fortunes of the families of Jacob's sons declined
Without identifying inscriptions, we
will never know for sure if the earlier people were Israelites. 
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. 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.
Expulsion of the Hyksos in approximately the 15th year of Ahmose (Bietak
A total of 108 years for the rule of the Hyksos according to the Turin
papyrus (Bietak 1991b: 48)
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
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.
Testament Israel...ld Testament Israel...
Old Testament Israel...