Joseph - Is there evidence that he really existed just as the Bible said?


The events narrated in the Joseph Story, Genesis 37-50, have long been a favorite topic of investigation for both Biblical scholars and those Egyptologists with an interest in the Old Testament.[1] No reference to Joseph has turned up in Egyptian sources, but given the relative paucity of information about Egyptian officials before the New Kingdom and the lack of consensus regarding Joseph's Egyptian name, this should not surprise us.


Mushroom Hairstyle

Mushroom hairstyle of the statue of an Asiatic found at Tell el-Daba, Egypt.


Any specific reference to Joseph in any recognizable form will probably not be discovered any time soon. But, if we believe in the historicity of Joseph and the accuracy of the events recorded in Genesis about his life and career, we can ask two questions with some hope of receiving an answer from the written and archeological sources: what is the best date for Joseph, and, once that has been posited, do the Biblical events fit in that period of Egyptian history?

In answer to our first question, two major positions exist regarding the date of Joseph among serious students of the Joseph Story who accept its historicity. The majority of such modern scholars date Joseph to the Second Intermediate Period of Egyptian history, ca. 1786-1570 BC (Vergote 1959; Kitchen 1962; Stigers 1976), a time when an Asiatic group called the Hyksos[2] ruled the delta of the Nile.

This view is based primarily on two assumptions: first, that the so-called Late Date of the Exodus (during the reign of Ramses II) is correct, and second, that the rise to power of an Asiatic can best be placed during a period of Egyptian history when his fellow Asiatics, the Hyksos, controlled the government. Let us briefly examine these two arguments.

If the Exodus occurred in the 13th century BC, and the Sojourn lasted approximately 400 years (430, according to Exodus 12:40), Joseph would belong in the 17th century BC. But if the Exodus took place in the 15th century BC, Joseph's career would be shifted back to the 19th century BC, during the days of the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom.

If the Biblical numbers are taken literally and at face value, the probable kings during the enslavement and subsequent rise to power of Joseph would have been Sesostris II (1897-1878 BC) and Sesostris III (1878-1843 BC). [3] This argument then rests on how one interprets 1 Kings 6:1, a verse which dates the Exodus 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon, ca. 966 BC.

There seem to be three commonly held ways to regard this verse. One may accept it at face value, thus dating the Exodus to the 15th century BC;[4] one may totally disregard the verse's historical accuracy, which allows one to date the Exodus to any period one chooses, or indeed to deny it altogether;[5] or one may interpret the numbers given in it to mean something less than a literal 480 years, thus invoking support from the verse for a late Exodus.[6] It is not our purpose here to argue these positions, although I personally hold to an early Exodus. My only point is that one's view on the date of the Exodus is a determiner of one's date for Joseph.

The second idea, that Joseph should best be thought of as serving when fellow Syro-Palestinians ruled part of Egypt seems to be unsound. It assumes that Syro-Palestinians, regardless of specific nationality, would favor one another. Our emerging knowledge of Canaan, with its political division and inter-city warfare, and indeed the rivalries between groups visible in the Biblical narrative, casts great doubt in my mind that a Canaanite group such as the Hyksos would be automatically friendly to a Hebrew.

It has long ago been observed that certain features of the Joseph Story fit well in the 12 Dynasty. A survey of some of these might be helpful.[7]

Statue of Sesostris IIISupporters of a 12th Dynasty date for the Joseph Story begin their arguments with a strict literal acceptance of the Biblical chronology of the Exodus and Sojourn. 1 Kings 6:1 is seen as dating the Exodus to ca. 1446 BC, and Exodus 12:40 is seen as placing the entrance of Jacob and his family into an Egypt where Joseph holds high office under the reign of Sesostris III, ca. 1876 BC. Joseph's career as an Egyptian governmental official would thus begin under Sesostris II and would continue into the reign of Sesostris III. (RIGHT: Sesostris III)

Specific elements of the Joseph Story are normally cited in support of such a Middle Kingdom date. A few examples will illustrate.

Potiphar, the official who first bought Joseph, is called an Egyptian and commander of the king's guard in Genesis 39:1. It is argued that if the king were a Hyksos ruler, it would not make sense for a native Egyptian to have been commander of the royal bodyguard. Further, Joseph is described several times (Gen 41, 42, and 45) as ruler over all the land of Egypt. The Hyksos controlled only the northern part of Egypt, but the 12th Dynasty ruled the entire nation. And when the king wanted to reward Joseph, he gave him the daughter of a priest of On, or Heliopolis, to be his wife. The argument there is that a Hyksos king would more probably give Joseph the daughter of the priest of another god, such as Seth, who was a more important deity to the Hyksos than were the solar deities venerated by the native Egyptians.

It should be observed, however, that the Hyksos did not in any way suppress the worship of Re, the sun god of On. Also, proponents of a 12th Dynasty date for Joseph argue that when Joseph is called from prison to meet Pharaoh in Genesis 41:14, he has to shave and put on clean clothing. This would reflect native Egyptian customs rather than those of the Syro-Palestinian Hyksos.

An argument that has been used to date Joseph to the Hyksos period is the mention of chariots in the account of Joseph's promotion and rewarding by Pharaoh. It is often pointed out that since the war chariot was probably introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos, Pharaoh's gift to Joseph would best fit in the Second Intermediate Period and not in the earlier Middle Kingdom.[8]

But need we connect this vehicle used for transportation by a high official of government with war chariots? Nothing is said in the Joseph Story about chariots being used in battle, and in fact the chariot given to Joseph is called the second chariot of Pharaoh, thus leaving the impression that there were not many of them. When a horse was found by the excavators of the fortress of Buhen, from a period well before the Egyptians began to use chariots for war, the conclusion of the archeologists was that "It is likely that, at least in the early periods, horses were owned by the most top-ranking members of society and that they were only used for drawing chariots on state occasions" (Emery, Smith and Millard 1979: 194; cf. B. Wood 1993).

Lastly, mention ought to be made of a papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum and published by William C. Hayes (1955). This late Middle Kingdom document is of great importance for study of the Joseph Story, and can only be summarized here. It contains information on Asiatic slaves in Egypt during the late Middle Kingdom, only a few generations after Joseph, assuming a 12th Dynasty date for him. The most striking thing about these Asiatic slaves is that one of the most common jobs they were assigned was household servant, just like Joseph (Hayes 1955:103). Joseph's servitude thus fits the pattern for the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history.

Our purpose here, assuming a 12th Dynasty date for Joseph to be most in accord with the Scriptural chronology, is to examine what new evidence there may be that would both support and further illustrate a career for Joseph in the Middle Kingdom. But first let us note an area for further research, involving the seven years of plenty followed by the seven years of famine so important to the Joseph Story.

About 20 years ago Barbara Bell studied the 12th Dynasty Egyptian records of Nile levels at the Middle Kingdom Nubian forts (1975). Collating this information with an analysis of statuary, and with the well-known literary work entitled The Complaint of Khahkeperre-Seneb,[9] Bell concludes that the mid-12th Dynasty suffered erratic Nile levels which caused crop failure and the resultant social disruption mirrored in the Complaint.

One might ask why an unusually high Nile would hurt crops; Bell's answer is that under such conditions it would take longer for the water to drain off the fields, and would thus impede the year's planting. As more information comes to light and as our knowledge of Nile fluctuations becomes more complete, we may be better able to consider Joseph's famine in a 12th Dynasty context.

In recent years our archeological knowledge of the Nile delta has increased significantly. Much of this advance is due to the work of the Austrians under Manfred Bietak at Tell el Daba Khatana-Qantir. This region is now the accepted location of the Biblical city of Ramses and the earlier Hyksos capital of Avaris. Our knowledge of the northeast delta and Asiatic influence in the region is much greater than it was 20 years ago. One discovery, made by Bietak's team between 1984 and 1987 and pointed out recently by John J. Bimson, is of extreme significance for the 12th Dynasty historicity of the Joseph Story (Bietak 1990).

A palace and accompanying garden dating to the 12th Dynasty were found. There is no evidence that the palace was any kind of royal residence; Bietak hypothesizes on the basis of inscriptional material that it was the headquarters of an official who supervised trade and mining expeditions across the northeastern border (Bietak 1990: 69).

But what is most interesting about this find is the cemetery located in the palace garden, and particularly one of the tombs in it. All of the other graves (there are approximately 12 altogether) seem to date to a slightly later period, perhaps the early years of Dynasty 13, and were on the basis of their orientation, definitely not part of the original palace-garden complex. But the largest and most impressive tomb of the lot, consisting of a single brick chamber with a small chapel in front of it, was oriented to the structures of stratum E (early-to-middle 12th Dynasty) (Bietak 1990: 61).

While the tomb had been robbed and badly damaged, a most interesting find was discovered in the robbers' tunnel between the tomb chamber and the chapel. A statue, almost certainly of one of the officials who lived in the palace in the late years of the 12th Dynasty, had been removed (probably from the tomb chapel) and had been smashed to pieces. All that remain are a few fragments of the head; the facial features have been very deliberately destroyed. The statue was approximately 1 1/2 times life size, and exhibits no characteristics of a royal personage. But the most interesting thing is that this official was clearly an Asiatic. This is demonstrated by the yellow coloration of the skin, which was, as Bietak observes, typical for the depiction of male Asiatics, and by another Asiatic feature, the so-called Mushroom hairstyle which the statue had (Bietak 1990: 61-64).

The significance of this find for a 12th Dynasty setting of the Joseph Story is obvious. As John Bimson has observed,[10] there is not enough evidence to claim with any degree of certainty that the tomb of Joseph has been found, or that a statue of the famed Biblical character has been found. But it is clear that this man, without doubt a Canaanite of some kind, became a very important official in the Egyptian government. He was important enough to have lived in a major palace complex and to have equipped a tomb for himself in its garden, and to have commissioned a more than life-sized statue of himself for his tomb chapel.

This demonstrates that an Asiatic could indeed rise to a position of prominence in an earlier period than the days of Hyksos rule, and allows us to accept the possibility, which I believe to be the case, that Joseph served a king of the Middle Kingdom at almost exactly the same time as did this Canaanite.

The next issues to be addressed are Joseph's titles after his rise to importance in the Egyptian court. What office or offices did he hold? And is there room for him among the known holders of these offices in Dynasty 12?

Genesis 45:8 is a key reference. I believe, as I have pointed out elsewhere (Aling 1981:47-48), that three distinct titles and/or epithets are mentioned in this verse.

"Father to Pharaoh" should be associated with the Egyptian title "God's Father," where the term "God" refers to the king. This title evidently had several usages, some of which can be quickly eliminated in the case of Joseph. He was not a priest, nor did a daughter of his enter the harim of the Pharaoh. These are meanings of this title, but neither fits Joseph. The best explanation is to view him as having been honored with this title as a sort of Elder Statesman, a common use of the title "God's Father" in the Middle and New Kingdoms.

A second title in Genesis 45:8 is "Lord of All His (the king's) Household." There is some disagreement among scholars as to the Egyptian equivalent of this phrase. Some would interpret it as some sort of palace overseer or court chamberlain. The closest Egyptian title however seems to be [imy-r pr wr, Chief Steward of the King, or more literally the Chief Overseer of the House, with the term "house" referring to the personal estates of the king.

The Egyptian title usually translated Chamberlain, [imy-r 'hnwty n pr- nsw, translates Overseer of the Interior of the King's House and does not seem to fit either the Biblical phrase or the context of the Joseph Story. Joseph had, after his interpretation of the king's dream, advised Pharaoh regarding agricultural matters relating to the future years of plenty and the following famine. It seems most natural, in light of the king's response, for Joseph to be given a post that was connected with agriculture, as that of Chief Steward of the King certainly was.

The chamberlain had no such function. The title "Chief Steward of the King" is common in the Middle Kingdom. William Ward, in his Index of Egyptian Administrative and Religious Titles of the Middle Kingdom, cites over 20 examples of the title in various publications, without attempting to enumerate all the occurrences in the major museums of the world (1982: 22, n. 141).

Franke, in his Personendaten Aus Dem Mittleren Reich, presents dossiers of 19 Chief Stewards (1984: 17). Allan Gardiner said that the office was second in importance only to that of Vizier (1947:45*-46*). The duties of the Chief Steward are known from New Kingdom texts and from the 11th Dynasty biographical text of the chief Steward Henunu preserved in his tomb at Deir el Bahri (Hayes 1949). This official was administrator of the royal estates, supervisor of royal granaries, and overseer of royal flocks and herds. Henunu was also involved in taxation, supplying certain parts of Upper Egypt with provisions, construction of the royal tomb, collection of tribute from Beduin tribes, and procuring cedar wood from Syria.

Joseph would have been very qualified to perform most of these tasks; the ones connected with agriculture and taxation would certainly fit the context of the Biblical story. It is therefore best to agree with Vergote (1959: 98ff) and Ward (1960:146-47) that Joseph was Chief Steward of the King.

The greatest debate concerning Joseph's titles centers around that of Vizier. William Ward has argued against the idea that Joseph was ever Vizier of Egypt (1960:148-50; 1957). He views several of the descriptive phrases used about Joseph in the Old Testament as Hebrew equivalents of general Egyptian platitudes that could be applied to any middle level official. The problem with this is that direct equation does not appear strong. An example is the phrase in Genesis 41:40, "Only in the throne will I be greater than you." Ward equates this with the Egyptian epithet "Favorite of the Lord of the Two Lands" (1960: 148). To me such an equation is weak.

I find a number of phrases describing Joseph and the duties performed by Joseph that would fit only the Vizier, who was in the Middle Kingdom the single most powerful man in the kingdom aside from the sovereign himself. Let us note these and a few other points:

  1. Genesis 41:40, "Only in the throne will I be greater than you." This was true of only one person, the Vizier.
  2. Genesis 41:41, "I have set you over all the land of Egypt."
  3. When Joseph's brothers came to Egypt for food during the famine, Joseph was the official they met. At least in the New Kingdom, a period about which we are far better informed, the Vizier was the official who met foreign delegations (Hayes 1966: 46). It may have been the same in the Middle Kingdom.
  4. In Genesis 47:20 ff., we have the curious story of the purchase of the land of the nobility of Egypt by the king. Joseph is the supervisor of the process. It seems most natural to view him as a powerful Vizier during this episode and not as some lower official, since ultimate responsibility over lesser governmental officials rested with the Vizier. This incident is most probably the Biblical version of the weakening of the provincial Nomarchs, which took place in about the middle of the reign of Sesostris III.

Egyptian Granary(LEFT: Model of an Egyptian granary from the Middle Kingdom being filled. Joseph supervised the filling of granaries such as this during the seven years of plenty.)

After about 1860 BC, we hear no more of them. G.P.F. van den Boorn has in his book, The Duties of the Vizier, discussed the Vizier's responsibilities during the New Kingdom as presented in Rekhmire's tomb dating to Dynasty 18 (1988). From van den Boorn's study we get the impression that the Vizier was indeed second only to the Pharaoh as ruler of Egypt.

In summary, we find that the Vizier was managing director of the king's palace complex, head of the civil administration, and the general deputy of the king. These kinds of duties fit well with the concept of Joseph as second in command of the realm, even allowing for the fact that van den Boorn's text is New Kingdom rather than Middle Kingdom.

If we accept as probable that Joseph was Vizier, we next have to ask if there is room for him in the list of Viziers of the Middle Kingdom, and if there is any evidence of his holding that post. Let it be said at the outset that we do not have all the information we would like to have regarding the Vizierate, or regarding any non-royal title, from the Middle Kingdom. Great gaps in our knowledge exist.

The most recent attempt to list all the known Viziers of Dynasty 12 was made by Detlef Franke in 1984; his list includes 13 names for the roughly 200 years the dynasty was in power. Some of the individuals in Franke's list may not have actually served; their titles may have been honorary. Furthermore, there are a number of Viziers who probably belong in the 12th Dynasty but cannot be placed with any certainty.

One final general observation should be made. It seems certain, thanks to the work of William Kelly Simpson, that Middle Kingdom Viziers could serve under more than one king (1957: 29). They were not automatically removed when the throne changed hands.

We cannot at this time discuss the Viziers of the entire 12th Dynasty, but will only examine the reigns of Sesostris II and III, 1897-1843 BC. The earliest complete study of the institution of the Vizierate in ancient Egypt was that of Arthur Weil, published in 1908. This monumental work is to a marked degree out of date today, but still remains useful. Although Weil has a number of undatable Viziers, his 12th Dynasty list has no one beyond Year 8 of Amenemhat II, ca. 1920 BC. No Vizier was known from the reigns of either Sesostris II or his son and successor Sesostris III.

In 1957, William Kelly Simpson called attention to the existence of two viziers of Sesostris III, both of whom had tombs near the pyramid of that king at Dahshur. The first, a masataba called number 17, was said by its excavator De Morgan to be the tomb of a high official of the king's court. The location of the tomb makes it certain that that king was Sesostris III.

De Morgan did not find the name or titles of the tomb owner, but fragments did exist. Simpson cites an offering table which has part of a name, [Sbk m... Another fragment preserves the last portion of the name, ...[m-h3t (1957: 26). The official was thus Sebekemhat.

Simpson also discovered that the man's titles were those of a serving Vizier, including Vizier and Overseer of the City, meaning the capital. This last is a common title for Viziers on into the New Kingdom. This Vizier of Sesostris III was totally unknown to Weil.

Simpson also cites another masataba near the pyramid of Sesostris III, number 2 (1957: 27). It is located to the northwest of tomb 17, and was also the tomb of an important official. The name is preserved; it is Khnumhotep. Weil knew of him, and knew that he was a Vizier, but wrongly dated him (with a question mark) to one of the Amenemhats. The location of Khnumhotep's tomb shows that he, like Sebekemhat, in all probability served under Sesostris III. Simpson in his paper on these two officials also states that neither was a nomarch, and that their service seems to have been actual; they did not hold the title only honorarily.

The next study of the Middle Kingdom Vizierate was that of Michel Valloggia in 1974. He lists the same two Viziers as Simpson for the reign of Sesostris III. There is another Vizier who may fit in this period, since his name is Senwosret-ankh, or "Sesostris Lives," thus incorporating the name of a 12th Dynasty king into his name. He is known from a statue found at Ugarit and now in the Louvre, and from a stele in Florence.

Could he have served in our period? It is not likely for two reasons. Valloggia (1974: 131-32; 132, n. 4), citing Vandier, states that artistically the statue fits best in the late 12th Dynasty and not the middle. Further, names are of course given at birth, so a man named after either Sesostris II or III would probably serve later than those reigns or at least later than the transition between them. It is best to date him to the later years of the dynasty.

Franke in 1984 published a compilation of dossiers of Middle Kingdom officials (Bietak 1990: 61). This has been and will continue to be a useful tool for Middle Kingdom prosopography for years to come. In his introduction Franke discusses key offices such as that of Vizier, and lists all those known to him. This is the most recent listing that has been compiled. He acknowledges Sebekemhat and Knumhotep for the reign of Sesostris III, but of course we still do not know the order in which they served.

Interestingly, he adds, with a question mark, Ameny the son of Smy-ib for the late years of Sesostris II and the early years of Sesostris III (Franke 1984:18). This is the first attempt of which I am aware to place any known Vizier in the reign of Sesostris II. Franke gives no reason, other than the existence of a gap here, for this dating, and he admits that the statue of Ameny may be from a later time. At this point there is not enough evidence to place Ameny during the transition from Sesostris II to Sesostris III with any degree of certainty.

For the 50-odd years of the reigns of Sesostris II and III we therefore have two Viziers, Sebekemhat and Khnumhotep, both of whom should be dated to the reign of the later Sesostris. We have a possible Vizier, Ameny, for the earlier part of this period, but we cannot date him here with any certainty. There is therefore plenty of room for Joseph to have served in the 12th Dynasty.

His long life span does not make his service unlikely; he need not have continued to hold this high office until his death. Before we proceed further, let me state that there is no reason to conclude that either Sebekemhat or Khnumhotep was Joseph. There appears to be no similarity between their names and the Hebrew version of Joseph's Egyptian name given in the book of Genesis. But there is one interesting thing about the titles held by one of these two Middle Kingdom Viziers.

Khnumhotep held both the titles Vizier and Chief Steward of the King (Weil 1908: 44, no. 11). He is, to my knowledge, the only person in the Middle Kingdom to have done so. Nor was this done in other periods of Egyptian history. As stated above, I do not argue that this personage was Joseph; but it seems possible that the idea of one person holding both these posts could be patterned after Joseph.

Perhaps, if Joseph was Vizier and Chief Steward in the last years of Sesostris II and the early years of Sesostris III, it is conceivable that after Joseph's retirement, Khnumhotep could have also have been granted both of these high court positions. We at the very least see that the combination is a possibility in the Middle Kingdom.

In conclusion, we have attempted to make the case that Joseph's career fits quite well in Dynasty 12 both Biblically and historically, and that there is no good reason to try to place him in the later Second Intermediate Period. He did, I believe, make a significant impact on Egyptian history, an impact which is reflected in events such as the breaking of the power of the Nomarchs and the combining of the offices of Vizier and Chief Steward of the King. As our knowledge of the Middle Kingdom increases, and as new archeological information from the delta is discovered and published, we can expect to understand both the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period better, and we can expect to expand our knowledge of the Egyptian background of the Story of Joseph.



  1. For some representative examples, see Archer 1974: 215-219; Aling 1981: 25-52; Vergote 1959; and Redford 1970.
  2. On the Hyksos period in general see Van Seters 1966.
  3. On the reigns of these kings see the Cambridge Ancient History; Gardiner 1961, Chapter 6; and, most recently, Grimal 1992, Chapter 7.
  4. This is the position held by Aling, Archer, L. Wood, and, with slight modifications, by Bimson. While a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1 is the major Scriptural support for a 15th century Exodus, it is not the only one. See for example 1 Chronicles 6:33 ff., where a geneaology of a musician is presented. Between Moses and Solomon there are 19 generations. If a generation is taken to be ca. 25 years, simple multiplication yields 475 years between Solomon and the Exodus, a figure nearly identical with the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1.
  5. For a presentation of this view with references, see Redford 1992: 263 ff.
  6. See Kitchen 1966: 72 ff., and, for a full discussion of such explanations, Bimson 1978: 81 ff.
  7. For arguments along these lines and others, see Aling, L. Wood, Archer, and Battenfield 1972: 77-85.
  8. So, for example, Kitchen 1962: 658.
  9. For a translation see Lichtheim 1975: 145 ff.
  10. This was presented in a public lecture given on a recent tour of the United States, and in personal correspondence with the author.


  • Aling, C.F. 1981 Egypt and Bible History. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
  • Archer, G.L. 1974 A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. Chicago: Moody Press.
  • Battenfield, J.R. 1972 A Consideration of the Identity of the Pharaoh of Genesis 47. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15: 77-85.
  • Bell, B. 1975 Climate and the History of Egypt: The Middle Kingdom. American Journal of Archaeology 79: 223-69.
  • Bietak, M. 1990 Der Friedhof in einem Palastgarten aus der Zeit des spaten mittleren Reiches und andere Forschungsergebnisse aus dem oestlichen Nildelta (Tell el-Dab'a 1984-1987). Aegypten und Levante 2: 47-75.
  • Bimson, J.J. 1978 Redating the Exodus and Conquest. Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament.
  • Emery, W.B.; Smith, H.S.; and Millard, A. 1979 The Fortress of Buhen, the Archaeological Report. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
  • Franke, D. 1984 Personendaten aus dem Mittleren Reich. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Gardiner, A.H. 1947 Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1961 Egypt of the Pharaohs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Grimal, N. 1992 A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Blackwells.
  • Hayes, W.C. 1949 The Career of the Great Steward Henunu Under Nebhepetre Mentuhotpe. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 35:43-49.
    1955 A Pappyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum.
    1966 Egypt: Internal Affairs from Tuthmosis I to the Death of Amenophis III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kitchen, K. 1962 Joseph. P. 290 in New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
  • Lichtheim, M. 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. I. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Redford, D.B. 1970 A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1992 Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Simpson, W.K. 1957 Sobkemhet, a Vizier of Sesostris III. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 43: 26-29.
  • Stigers, H. 1976 A Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  • Valloggia, M. 1974 Les Vizirs des XIe et Xlle Dynasties. Bulletin de I'Institut francais d'archeologie orientale 74: 123-34
  • Van Den Boom, G.P.F. 1988 The Duties of the Vizier London: Kegan Paul International.
  • Van Seters, J. 1966 The Hyksos: A New Investigation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Vergot, J. 1959 Joseph en Egypte. Louvain: Orientalia et Biblica Lovaniensia.
  • Ward, W.A. 1957 Egyptian Titles in Genesis 37-50. Bibliotheca Sacra 114:54-55
    1960 The Egyptian Office of Joseph. Journal of Semitic Studies 5:146-50.
    1982 Index of Egyptian Administrative and Religious Titles of the Middle Kingdom. Beirut: American University of Beirut.
  • Weil, A. 1908 Die Veziere des Pharaonenreiches. Strassburg: Schlesier and Schwekhaardt.
  • Wood, B.G. 1993 Oldest Statue of Domesticated Horse Found in Syria. Bible and Spade 6:58-61
  • Wood, L. 1986 A Survey of Israel's History, rev. by D. O'Brien. Grand Rapids: Academie Books


Egyptian king, Shishak - What evidence has been discovered?




Egypt. Copyrighted 1995, Jeff Sturgeon. All rights reserved.

The first Egyptian king to be mentioned by name in the bible

The name of David, Israel's second king, ca. 1010-970 BC, appears in two ninth century BC texts, the Tel Dan Inscription and the Moabite stone. [1] Shishak was the first Egyptian king to be mentioned by name in the bible and is the first foreign king in the Bible for whom we have extra-Biblical evidence.

Prior to the tenth century BC, it was customary for the kings of Egypt to be referred to simply as "Pharaoh." After the tenth century, however, a proper name was included with the title (Bible and Spade, Autumn 1993, p. 98). This practice was followed in the Bible as well. The first pharaoh to be identified with a personal name is Shishak, who ruled during the time of Solomon and his son Rehoboam. We first meet Shishak in 1 Kings 11:40. Because of Solomon's idolatry, God decreed through the prophet Ahijah that He was going to take ten tribes from Solomon and give them to Jeroboam, an official in Solomon's court (1 Kings 11:26-39). As a result, Solomon sought to kill Jeroboam. Jeroboam fled to Egypt where Shishak gave him refuge (1 Kings 11:40).

After Solomon's death, Jeroboam returned and became leader of the breakaway Northern Kingdom, while Rehoboam ruled over the Southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12:1-17). Shortly thereafter, Shishak came with his army and invaded Judah and Israel. The Biblical record is brief:

In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. He carried off the treasures of the Temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made (1 Kings 14:25-26).

The Chronicler expands on this by recording:

With 1,200 chariots and 60,000 horsemen and the innumerable troops of Libyans, Sukkites and Cushites that came with him from Egypt, he [Shishak] captured the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 12:3-4).

Jerusalem was spared destruction only because the leaders of Judah humbled themselves before the Lord (2 Chronicles 12:5-8).

In Egyptian records, Shishak's name is spelled Sheshonq. Since there were later Sheshonqs, the Biblical Shishak/Sheshonq is known as Sheshonq-I.

Shishak descended from a line of chieftains of the Libyan tribe of the Meshwesh who had settled in Egypt at the end of the New Kingdom. He rose to prominence as commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army under the last pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty, Psusennes II. Shishak gained a connection to the throne by marrying his son Osorkon to Psusennes' daughter. When Psusennes died with no son to take his place, Shishak took over the throne and ruled ca. 945-924 B.C., thus beginning 230 years of Libyan rule (the 22nd Dynasty).

There was a minor resurgence of Egyptian glory under Shishak. He inaugurated major building programs in the Delta, Memphis, Herakleopolis and Thebes.

Map of Egypt and Israel.

Shishak evidently had his eye on his northern neighbor for some time. By harboring Jeroboam, he was contributing to the division of Israel. When the split occurred, it was an opportune time for him to deal a major blow to the two now weakened kingdoms, so he launched a campaign. The underlying cause seems to have been to break Israel's commercial monopoly in the north and to obtain much needed booty, rather than to annex the area.

Shishak's campaign is documented in Egypt as well as in the Bible. Upon his return, he constructed a large festival court in front of the great Temple of Amun at Thebes in southern Egypt. The project was no doubt financed by plunder from Judah and Israel. On one of the walls of the court, Shishak commissioned a commemorative relief of his Palestinian campaign. Unfortunately, it is badly damaged. Enough remains, however, to show that he not only attacked Judah, as the Bible records, but also the northern kingdom of Israel.

The scene depicts Shishak on the right side about to club a group of foreigners, most likely Israelites given the context of the relief. The figure of Shishak is all but destroyed. On the left side is the chief Egyptian god Amun leading captive cities by means of ropes.

Each city is represented by an oval cartouche containing the name of the city, with a bound prisoner on top. The list mainly contains place names in Israel, the Judahite section being almost totally obliterated. Jerusalem does not appear in the list. One of the Israelite towns is Megiddo. At the site of Megiddo a portion of a commemorative stela of Shishak was found by the Oriental Institute excavations in 1926. His name can be clearly read and the stela is without doubt from the 925 B.C. campaign.

One footnote to the story of Shishak's campaign. When Shishak's son Osorkon-I took the throne, he gave huge amounts of gold and silver (383 tons!) to the temples of Egypt. What is more, he buried his son Sheshonq-II in a coffin made of pure silver. Where did all of this wealth come from? The only plausible explanation is that it came from the treasuries of the Temple and royal palace at Jerusalem (1 Kings 14:26), and other cities of Judah and Israel, in Shishak's campaign of 925 B.C.

Coffin of Sheshonq-II. Copyrighted. Courtesy of ABR.

Solid silver coffin of Shishak's grandson Sheshonq-II. It was discovered in 1939 by Pierre Montet at Tanis in the Egyptian delta. The silver used to make the coffin possibly came from Judah and Israel as a result of Shishak's 925 BC campaign.




  1. These texts were discussed in the pages of Bible and Spade (Autumn 1993, pp. 119-121, and Summer 1995, pp. 91-92).

For further reading

  • Further information on biblical archaeology [Go]
  • Charles F. Aling, Shishak and the Wealth of Solomon, Institute for Biblical Archaeology Newsletter, Oct.-Dec. 1993, pp. 4-5.
  • Kenneth A. Kitchen, Where Did Solomon's Wealth Go?, Bible and Spade, Autumn 1994, pp. 108-109, reprinted from Biblical Archaeology Review 15/3, May/June 1989, p. 30.
  • Kenneth A. Kitchen, Shishak's Military Campaign in Israel Confirmed, Biblical Archaeology Review 15/3, May/June 1989, pp. 32-33.


Balaam, the Prophet - Is there evidence to prove his existence?


In an unprecedented discovery, an ancient text found at Deir Alla, Jordan, in 1967 tells about the activities of a prophet named Balaam. Could this be the Balaam of the Old Testament? The text makes it clear that it is. Three times in the first four lines he is referred to as "Balaam son of Beor," exactly as in the Bible. This represents the first Old Testament prophet to be dug up in Bible lands - not his tomb or his skeleton, but a text about him. The text also represents the first prophecy of any scope from the ancient West Semitic world to be found outside the Old Testament, and the first extra-Biblical example of a prophet proclaiming doom to his own people.

Balaam was not an Israelite. He was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. They were camped on the east side of the Jordan river, about to make their historic entry into the promised land. Through God's intervention Balaam was obliged to bless the Israelites rather than curse them (Num 22-24). Afterwards, Balaam seems to have been the cause of the Israelites' sin in Numbers 25 when they took Moabite and Midianite women and worshipped the Moabite god Baal-peor (Num 31:16). Balaam was eventually killed when Moses sent the Israelites against the Midianites (Num 31). He is further condemned in Scripture in 2 Peter 2:15 (he loved the wages of unrighteousness), Jude 11 (ungodly men ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward) and Revelation 2:14 (he taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication).

The remarkable text found at Deir Alla consists of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red ink. It was among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It seems to have been one long column with at least 50 lines, displayed on a plastered wall. According to the excavators' dating, the disaster was most likely the severe earthquake which occurred in the time of King Uzziah (Azariah) and the prophet Amos in about 760 BC (Amos 1:1; Zec 14:5). The lower part of the text shows signs of wear, indicating that it had been on the wall for some time prior to the earthquake.

Written in Aramaic, the text begins with the title "Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods." It is in red ink, as are other portions of the text where emphasis is desired. The reference to the "Book of Balaam" indicates that the text was part of a pre-existing document and therefore the original date of the material is much earlier than the plaster text itself. Balaam goes on to relate a vision concerning impending judgment from the gods, and enters into a dispute with his listeners.

There are a number of similarities between the text and the account of Balaam in the book of Numbers. To begin with, the events described in Numbers 22-24 took place in the same general area where the text was found. At the time of the Numbers 22-24 incident, the Israelites were camped on the Plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho. Deir Alla is located about 25 miles north of this area, where the Jabbok river flows into the Jordan valley. Balaam was from Pethor, near "the river" (Num 22:5), in "Aram" (Num 23:7; Dt 23:4). The reference to Aram has led most scholars to conclude that Balaam was from northern Syria, in the vicinity of the Euphrates river. That does not fit well with the Biblical account, however, since Balaam's home seems to have been close to where the Israelites were camped (Num 22:1-22; 31:7-8).

In view of Balaam being revered at Deir Alla, one would expect that Deir Alla was his home. This is exactly what William Shea has proposed, based on his reading of the name Pethor in an inscribed clay tablet found at Deir Alla (1989:108-11). In this case, the river of Numbers 22:5 would be the Jabbok river and the naharaim (two rivers) of Deuteronomy 23:4 would be the Jabbok and Jordan rivers. With regard to the references to Aram, Shea suggests that the original place name was Adam, with the "d" being miscopied as "r," since the two letters are nearly identical in ancient Hebrew. Adam was a town about eight mi southwest of Deir Alla, on the east bank of the Jordan river, where the Jabbok meets the Jordan.

Balaam evidently was well known as a "cursing prophet," for Balak specifically summoned Balaam for the purpose of cursing Israel (Num 22:6). Much of the Deir Alla text was given to curses uttered by the prophet. The term "shadday-gods" is used on two occasions in the text. Shadday is one of the names for God in the Old Testament, used mainly in the book of Job. Since the account of Job is set in Transjordan (Job 1:1-3), it seems that Shadday was a name used for deity in this region. Balaam used the name twice in his blessing speeches where it is translated "Almighty" (Num 24:4, 16).

The Deir Alla text presents a problem to those who dismiss the Biblical account of the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and Conquest as legendary, as is the trend in scholarship today. It is clear that Balaam was a real person who operated on the east side of the Jordan river. He was known as a cursing prophet and continued to be revered hundreds of years after his death. His persona as revealed in the Deir Alla text precisely matches that of the Balaam of Numbers 22-24. If Balaam was a real person, what about Balak, Moses, Joshua and all of the other persons named in the Biblical narrative? They must have been real as well, and the events described authentic.

  1. Dijkstra, M. "Is Balaam Also Among the Prophets?" Journal of Biblical Literature. 1995. 114: 43-64.
  2. Shea, W.H. "The Inscribed Tablets From Tell Deir `Alla". Andrews University Seminary Studies. 1989. 27: 21-37; 97-119.
  3. Wood, B.G. "Prophecy of Balaam Found in Jordan". Bible and Spade. 1977. 6: 121-24.

Moabite Stone - What does it reveal about the revolt of Mesha?



Mesha InscriptionBackground of the Inscription

"I am Mesha, son Chemosh[it], king of Moab, the Dibonite." [1] So begins one of the most extraordinary ancient documents ever found. (For the unusual circumstances surrounding its discovery, see Archaeology and Biblical Research, Winter 1991: 2-3). Mesha was ruler of the small kingdom of Moab, east of the Dead Sea, in the mid-ninth century BC. He was a contemporary of Jehoshaphat, king of the southern kingdom of Judah (870-848 BC), and Joram, king of the northern kingdom of Israel (852-841 BC). Everything we know about Mesha from the Bible is recorded in 2 Kings 3. But we know a lot more about him from a record he left us, referred to as the Mesha Inscription, or Moabite Stone. It was discovered in Dhiban, Jordan, in 1868 by a French Anglican medical missionary by the name of F.A. Klein.

Both documents, 2 Kings 3 and the Mesha Inscription, describe the same event, the revolt of Mesha, but from entirely different perspectives. Mesha made his record of the event on a stone slab, or stela, 3 ft high and 2 ft wide. Unfortunately the stone was broken into pieces by the local Bedouin before it could be acquired by the authorities. About two-thirds of the pieces were recovered and those, along with an impression made before the stela was destroyed, allowed all but the last line to be reconstructed. There are a total of 34 lines, written in Moabite, a language almost identical to Hebrew. It is the longest monumental inscription yet found in Palestine.

The heartland of Moab was the territory east of the southern half of the Dead Sea, from the great Arnon Gorge in the north to the Zered River in the south. North of the Arnon River, to about the northern end of the Dead Sea, was a disputed area called the "land of Medeba" in the Mesha Inscription (line 8). Medeba was a major city in the region some 18 mi north of the Arnon. The area was sometimes under the control of Moab, sometimes under the control of others. At the time of the Conquest at the end of the 15th century BC, the region was occupied by the Amorites, who had earlier taken it from the Moabites (Num 21:26). The Israelites then captured the area (Num 21:24; Dt 2:24, 36; 3:8, 16), with the tribe of Reuben taking possession (Jos 13:16). The area seesawed back and forth for the next several centuries, passing to the Moabites (Jgs 3:12), Israelites (Jgs 3:30), Ammonites (Jgs 11:13, 32-33), and back to Israel (Jgs 11:32-33). In the mid-ninth century BC, Mesha was successful in throwing off the yoke of Israel and bringing the area once again under the authority of Moab (1 Kgs 3:5; Mesha Inscription).

2 Kings 3 recounts how Joram, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom combined forces to attempt to bring Moab back under Israelite control. They attacked from the south and were successful in routing the Moabite forces and destroying many towns (2 Kgs 3: 24-25). But when the coalition tried to dislodge Mesha from Kir Hareseth (modern Kerak), they were unsuccessful. After Mesha sacrificed his oldest son on the ramparts of the city, "the fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land" (2 Kgs 3: 27). The campaign must have taken place between 848 and 841 BC, the only time when Joram and Jehoshaphat were both on the throne. Although the campaign met with some success, it appears that Moab retained its independence. This is confirmed by the Mesha Inscription.

The Mesha Inscription gives us "the rest of the story." It reads, in fact, like a chapter from the Old Testament. Its language, terminology and phraseology are exactly the same as what we find in the Bible. Mesha credits his successful revolt and recapture of Moabite territory, as well as other accomplishments, to Chemosh, national god of Moab. He does not, of course, record his defeat in the south at the hands of the coalition armies. Similarly, although the Bible records Mesha's revolt, it gives no details on his successes. So each record, accurate in its own way, records events from a different perspective.

Chronology of the Revolt of Mesha

The main problem in correlating the Mesha Inscription with the Bible has to do with synchronizing the chronology of the two sources. 2 Kings 3:5(cf. 1:1) simply states, "But after Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel." Ahab, father of Joram, died in ca. 853 BC, so Mesha's revolt must have taken place some time after 853 BC. According to the Mesha Inscription,

Omri had taken possession of the land of Medeba. And he dwelt in it in his days and half [2] the days of his son [3]: 40 years; but Chemosh restored it in my days (lines 7-9).

The Mesha Inscription not only mentions Mesha, king of Moab, known in the Bible, but also Omri, one of the most powerful kings of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kgs 16:21-28), who ruled 885-873 BC.

Omri established a dynasty which lasted until his grandson Joram was assassinated by Jehu in 841 BC. The term "son" in the inscription simply means descendent, as we know from the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts. Adding the years of Omri (12, 1 Kg,16:23), the years of his son Ahab (22, 1 Kgs 16:29), the years of Ahab's son Ahaziah (2, 1 Kgs 22:52) and half the years of Joram, brother of Ahaziah, (6, 2 Kgs 3:1), we obtain a span of 42 years. Some of the reigns of these kings could be common years, making the true span 40 years, or, the 40 year figure simply could be a round number. Thiele gives absolute years for the period from the beginning of the reign of Omri to the sixth year of Joram as 885 to 846 BC, or 40 years (1983: 217). Thus, it appears that Mesha revolted in the sixth year of Joram, ca. 846 BC. The Bible indicates that the retaliation by Joram recorded in 2 Kings 3 took place immediately upon Mesha's revolt (verses 5-7), or 846 BC. This date falls within the time period of 848-841 BC when both Joram and Jehoshaphat were ruling.

The Gods of Israel and Moab

In describing his victories over Israel, Mesha tells of defeating the town of Nebo. Among the spoils he acquired were the "altar-hearths? of Yahweh" (lines 17-18). This is the earliest mention of Yahweh, God of the Israelites, outside the Bible.

The Bible records the names of many deities worshipped by the nations around Israel. One of those gods is Chemosh. He is mentioned eight times in the Old Testament (Num 21:29; Jgs 11:24; 1 Kgs 11:7, 33; 2 Kgs 23:13; Jer 48:7, 13, 46), always (with the exception of Jgs 11:24) as the national god of the Moabites. The Mesha Inscription verifies that this indeed was the case. Chemosh is mentioned some 11 times in the inscription:

  • Mesha made a high place for Chemosh, since Chemosh gave Mesha victory over his enemies (line 3)
  • Because Chemosh was angry with Moab, Omri oppressed Moab (line 5)
  • Chemosh gave Moab back her territory (line 9)
  • Mesha slew the people of Ataroth to satisfy Chemosh (lines 11-12)
  • Mesha dragged the altar-hearth(?) of Ataroth before Chemosh (lines 12-13)
  • Chemosh directed Mesha to attack the town of Nebo (line 14)
  • Mesha devoted the inhabitants of Nebo to Chemosh (line 17)
  • The altar-hearths(?) of Yahweh from Nebo were dragged before Chemosh (lines 17-18)
  • Chemosh drove the king of Israel out of Jahaz (lines 18-19)
  • Chemosh directed Mesha to fight against Horanaim (line 32)
  • Chemosh gave Mesha victory over Horanaim (line 33)

The Cities of Northern Moab

Most of the inscription is taken up with Mesha's success in regaining the land of Medeba, the disputed territory north of the Arnon Gorge. He claims to have added 100 towns to his territory by means of his faithful army from Dibon:

[And] the men of Dibon were fitted out for war because all Dibon was obedient. And I ruled [over a] hundred of towns that I added to the land (lines 28-29).

Some 12 towns in the land of Medeba are mentioned, all of them known from the Old Testament.

"I am Mesha ... the Dibonite" (line 1)

Later on in the inscription he says,

I built Qeriho: the wall of the parkland and the wall of the acropolis; and I built its gates, and I built its towers; and I built the king's house; and I made banks for the water reservoir inside the town; and there was no cistern inside the town, in Qeriho, and I said to all the people: "Make yourself each a cistern in his house"; and I dug the ditches for Qeriho with prisoners of Israel (lines 21-26).

Since Mesha erected his stela to honor Chemosh in "this high place for Chemosh in Qeriho," and since the stela was found at Dhiban, identified as ancient Dibon, most scholars believe that Qeriho was the name of the royal citadel at Dibon. Note that Israelite captives were used to cut the timber used to construct Qeriho.

Dibon was captured from the Amorites by Israel (Num 21:21-25, 31) and assigned to the tribe of Reuben (Jos 13:17). But evidently it was reassigned to the tribe of Gad, since Gad built the city (Num 32:34) and it was called "Dibon of Gad" (Num 33:45, 46). The site of Dhiban and was excavated 1950-1956 and 1965. A city wall and gateway were found, as well as a large podium which the excavators believe supported the royal quarter constructed by Mesha. In addition, a text from around the time of Mesha was found which refers to the "temple of Che[mosh]," and nearly 100 cisterns were found on the site and in the surrounding area, possibly made in response to Mesha's directive to "make yourself each a cistern in his house" (lines 24- 25).

In his prophecy against Moab, Isaiah states, "Dibon goes up to its temple, to its high places to weep" (15:2, NIV). Jeremiah predicted that the fortified cities of Dibon would be ruined (48:18; cf. 48:21-22).

"And I built Baal Meon, and made a reservoir in it" (line 9)

Baal Meon was allotted to the Reubenites (Jos 13:17, where it is called Beth Baal Meon), and built by them (Num 32:38). An eighth century BC ostracon from Samaria (no. 27) contains a reference to "Baala the Baalmeonite." Jeremiah predicted that the judgment of God would come upon the city (48:23, where it is called Beth Meon). Ezekiel said God would expose the flank of Moab, beginning with its frontier towns, including Baal Meon (25:9). It is thought to be located at Kh. Ma'in, 5 mi southwest of modern Madaba, which has not been excavated.

Toward the end of the inscription, Baal Meon is mentioned again when Mesha records,

"And I built ... the temple of Baal Meon; and I established there [...] the sheep of the land" (lines 29-31).

The reference to sheep is significant, as it reflects the main occupation of the people of Moab, in agreement with the Bible. 2 Kings 3:4 tells us,

Now Mesha king of Moab raised sheep, and he had to supply the king of Israel with 100,000 lambs and with the wool of 100,000 rams.

"And I built Kiriathaim" (lines 9-10)

Kiriathaim was another city allotted to the Reubenites and built by them (Jos 13:19; Num 32:37). Jeremiah predicted that the city would be disgraced and captured (48:1), and Ezekiel said God would expose the flank of Moab, beginning with its frontier towns, including Kiriathaim (25:9). It is pos- sibly located at al Qureiye, 6 mi northwest of Madaba.

"And the men of Gad had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old" (line 10)

Mesha devoted 3 lines of his memorial to a description of his operation against Ataroth. Although mentioned only twice in the Old Testament, the city seems to have been an important place. The name means "crowns" and was said by the Reubenites and Gadites to be a good place for livestock (Num 32:3-4). The Gadites built up Ataroth as a fortified city, and built pens there for their flocks (Num 32:34-36). This agrees with Mesha's inscription which says that the men of Gad had lived there "from of old." Ataroth is most likely located at Kh. 'Attarus, unexcavated, 8 mi northwest of Dhiban.

The entire section dealing with Ataroth reads as follows:

And the men of Gad had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old, and the king of Israel built Ataroth for himself, but I fought against the town and took it, and I slew all the people: the town belonged to Chemosh and to Moab. And I brought thence the altar-hearth of his Beloved, and I dragged it before Chemosh in Kerioth/my town. And I settled in it the men of Sharon and the men of Maharath (lines 10-14).

"And I brought thence the altar-hearth of his Beloved, and I dragged it before Chemosh in Kerioth/my town" (lines 12-13)

Kerioth was judged by God (Jer 48:24), with the town being captured and its strongholds taken (Jer 48:41). Its location is uncertain. If "my town" is the correct reading in line 13, then the text refers to Dibon, Mesha's capital.

"And Chemosh said to me: 'Go! Take Nebo against Israel'" (line 14)

Mesha's assault of Nebo is detailed in 4 lines, the most of any of the cities mentioned in the stela. Nebo is mentioned seven times in the Old Testament, being one of the cities built by the tribe of Reuben (Num 32:38). In his prophecy against Moab, Isaiah wrote that Moab would wail over Nebo (15:2, NIV). Similarly, Jeremiah said that judgment would come upon her and she would be laid waste (48:1, 22).

Mesha's nighttime foray against Nebo is reported as follows:

And Chemosh said to me: "Go! Take Nebo against Israel." And I went by night and fought against it from break of dawn till noon. And I took it and slew all: 7,000 men, boys, women, girls, and pregnant women, because I had devoted it to Ashtar-Chemosh. And I took thence the altar-hearths of YHWH and I dragged them before Chemosh (lines 14-18).

It appears that there was a worship center for Yahweh at Nebo since among the spoils were "altar hearths(?) of Yahweh." It is perhaps for this reason that Mesha devoted the inhabitants to his god(s) Ashtar-Chemosh. The word used for "devoted" is the same as the Hebrew word harem used in the Old Testa- ment for offering a city completely to Yahweh, such as Jericho (Jos 6:17, 21). Nebo is most likely Kh. al Muhaiyat, northwest of Madaba and just south of Mt. Nebo.

"And the king of Israel had built Jahaz" (lines 18-19)

Jahaz is the town where the Israelites fought and defeated Sihon and his Amorite army as they first approached the promised land (Num 21:21-31; Dt 2:31- 36; Jgs 11:19-22). It was included in the Reubenite allotment (Jos 13:18), and later transferred to the Levites (Jos 21:36; 1 Chr 6:78). Jeremiah predicted doom for the city as part of God's judgment against Moab (48:21, 34). Mesha goes on to say,

And the king of Israel had built Jahaz, and dwelt therein while he fought against me; but Chemosh drove him out from before me, and I took from Moab 200 men, all the chiefs thereof, and I established them in Jahaz; and I took it to add it to Dibon (lines 18-21).

Here, Mesha refers to a northern campaign by the king of Israel which is not recorded in the Old Testament. In order to achieve victory, Mesha had to marshal the best of his forces, 200 chiefs. Once captured, Jahaz became a daughter city of Dibon. The location of Jahaz is uncertain, although Kh. Medeineyeh 10 mi southeast of Madaba is a likely candidate.

"I built Aroer, and made the highway through the Arnon" (line 26)

The name Aroer means "crest of a mountain," and that certainly describes this site. It was a border fortress located at Kh. 'Ara'ir on the northern rim of the Arnon river gorge. Three seasons of excavation were carried out there between 1964 and 1966. Remnants of the fortress constructed by the king of Israel were found, as well as a substantial new fortress constructed by Mesha over the earlier one. In addition, a reservoir to store rainwater was built on the northwest side of the fortress.

Arnon Gorge
View south across the Arnon gorge, the "Grand Canyon" of the Middle East.

Aroer marked the southern boundary of the Transjordanian territory originally captured by the Israelites (Dt 2:36; 3:12; 4:48; Jos 12:2; 13:9, 16, 25). It was occupied and fortified by the Gadites (Nm 32:34). Later, the prophet Jeremiah said that the inhabitants of Aroer would witness fleeing refugees as God poured out His wrath on the cities of Moab (48:19-20).

"I built Beth Bamoth, for it was destroyed" (line 27)

The Beth Bamoth of the Mesha Stela is most likely the same as the Bamoth Baal of the Old Testament. It was here that God met with Balaam (Num 22:41- 23:5); the town was later given to the tribe of Reuben (Jos 13:17). The location of the place is uncertain.

"And I built Bezer, for it was in ruins" (line 27)

Under the Israelites, Bezer was a Levitical city and a city of refuge (Dt 4:43; Jos 20:8; 21:36; 1 Chr 6:78). It may be the same as Bozrah in Jer 48: 24, a Moabite city judged by God. Its location is uncertain.

"And I built [the temple of Mede]ba" (lines 29-30)

The city of Medeba was conquered and occupied by Israel (Nu 21:30; Jos 13:9, 16). It suffered under the hand of God when He poured out His judgment on Moab (Isa 15:2). The ancient site is located at modern Madaba, and remains unexcavated.

"And I built ... the temple of Diblaten" (lines 29-30)

Diblaten is mentioned in Jeremiah's oracle against Moab as Beth Diblathaim (48:22) and is possibly the same as Almon Diblathaim, a stopping place for the Israelites as they approached the promised land (Num 33:46-47). It is perhaps located at Deleitat esh-Sherqiyeh 10 mi north-northeast of Dhiban, but that location is far from certain.

The House of David and Southern Moab

"And the house [of Da]vid dwelt in Horanaim" (line 31)

Line 31 is perhaps the most significant line in the entire inscription. In 1993 a stela was discovered at Tel Dan in northern Israel mentioning the "House of David" (Bible and Spade, Autumn 1993: 119-121). This mid-ninth century BC inscription provided the first mention of David in a contemporary text outside the Bible. The find is especially significant since in recent years several scholars have questioned the existence of David. At about the same time the Dan stela was found, French scholar Andre Lemaire was working on the Mesha Inscription and determined that the same phrase appeared there in line 31 (Bible and Spade, Summer 1995: 91-92). Lemaire was able to identify a previously indistinguishable letter as a "d" in the phrase "House of David." This phrase is used a number of times in the Old Testament for the Davidic dynasty.

From this point on in Mesha's record it appears that he is describing victories south of the Arnon river, an area previously controlled by Judah. Although there are only three lines left in the surviving portion, Lemaire believes we only have about half of the original memorial (1994: 37). The missing half would have told how Mesha regained the southern half of Moab from Judah. The complete text regarding Horanaim reads as follows:

And the house [of Da]vid dwelt in Horanaim [...] and Chemosh said to me: "Go down! Fight against Horanaim." And I went down, and [I fought against the town, and I took it; and] Chemosh [resto]red it in my days (lines 31-33).

Horanaim is mentioned in Isaiah's prophecy against Moab (15:5). He says that fugitives would lament their destruction as they travelled the road to Horanaim. Jeremiah says much the same in 48:3, 5, and 47. The town is located south of the Arnon, but exactly where is a matter of conjecture.


  1. The translation used in this article is that of A. Lemaire (1994: 33).
  2. In his translation, Lemaire renders the word hsy as "sum." We have adopted the meaning "half," from classical Hebrew, which is the meaning used by most other translators.
  3. Lemaire translates bnh as "sons." It is uncertain from the consonantal text whether it should be "son" or "sons." We have chosen "son," in agreement with most other translations, since it is more consistent with the historical reconstruction proposed here.


  • Dearman, A., ed. 1989 Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
  • Lemaire, A. 1994 "House of David Restored in Moabite Inscription". Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3: 30-37.
  • Thiele, E.R. 1983 The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan.


Jericho - Is the Bible accurate concerning the destruction of its walls?



Israelites marching around Jericho. Supplied by Eden Communications.
The sinful city of Jericho was judged by God through the Israelites. The seemingly impenetrable walls were collapsed by a miracle.


In the Old Testament, in Joshua chapter 6, we have an account of the Israelites defeating the city of Jericho when they came into the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. According to the biblical account, after the Israelites marched around the city once a day for six days, on the seventh day they encircled the city seven times. On the seventh time around, the priests blew the trumpets, the people shouted and the walls fell flat.

The first major excavation of the site of Jericho, located in the southern Jordan valley in Israel, was carried out by a German team between 1907 and 1909. They found piles of mud bricks at the base of the mound the city was built on.

It was not until a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon reexcavated the site with modern methods in the 1950s that it was understood what these piles of bricks were. She determined that they were from the city wall which had collapsed when the city was destroyed!

Walls of Jericho
Cross-section of the fallen bricks from the wall of Jericho.

The story in the Bible goes on to say that when the walls collapsed, the Israelites stormed the city and set it on fire. Archaeologists found evidence for a massive destruction by fire just as the Bible relates. Kenyon wrote in her excavation report,

"The destruction was complete. Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire, and every room was filled with fallen bricks, timbers, and household utensils; in most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt."

What caused the strong walls of Jericho to collapse? The most likely explanation is an earthquake. But the nature of the earthquake was unusual. It struck in such a way as to allow a portion of the city wall on the north side of the site to remain standing, while everywhere else the wall fell.

The spies leave Rahab's house on very wide Jericho wall. Supplied by Eden Communications.
The spies leave Rahab's Jericho wall house.

Rahab's house was evidently located on the north side of the city. She was the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies who came to reconnoiter the city. The Bible states that her house was built against the city wall. Before returning to the Israelite camp, the spies told Rahab to bring her family into her house and they would be saved. According to the Bible, Rahab's house was miraculously spared while the rest of the city wall fell.

This is exactly what archaeologists found. The preserved city wall on the north side of the city had houses built against it.

The timing of the earthquake and the manner in which it selectively took down the city wall suggests something other than a natural calamity. A Divine Force was at work. In the New Testament, we read,

"By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient" (Hebrews 11:30-31).

More recent excavations

In the spring of 1997, two Italian archaeologists conducted a limited excavation on the ancient tell of Jericho. Lorenzo Nigro and Nicolo Marchetti, working under the auspices of the new Palestinian Department of Archaeology, excavated for one month on the fringes of Kathleen Kenyon’s west and south trenches. Their dig was the first foreign expedition in the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank since self-rule began in 1994.

After their excavation, Nigro and Marchetti announced they found no evidence for a destruction from the time of Joshua. While it is too soon for the academic community to see details of their discoveries, their announcement suggests their excavation was conducted to disprove the Biblical account of Joshua’s capture of the city. Is it further possible that the Palestinian Authority supported this dig for the express purpose of denouncing any Jewish connection to the site?

The walls DID come tumbling down!

As to their evidence, Dr. Bryant Wood, Director of the Associates for Biblical Research and one of the leading experts on the archaeology of Jericho, recently responded.

"It matters little what the Italian archaeologists did not find in their month-long dig. The evidence is already in. Three major expeditions to the site over the past 90 years uncovered abundant evidence to support the Biblical account."

As Wood went on to point out, John Garstang (1930-1936) and Kathleen Kenyon (1952-1958) both dug at Jericho for six seasons and a German excavation directed by Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger dug for three. All found abundant evidence of the city’s destruction by fire in a layer related to the Biblical date of 1400 BC.

Bryant Wood at Jericho excavation.

ABR's Bryant Wood standing beside a section of the collapsed wall of Jericho.

In September 1997, Dr. Wood visited Jericho and examined the results of the Italian excavation first hand. Incredibly, he found the Italians had uncovered the stone outer revetment wall at the base of the tell with part of the mudbrick wall built on top of it still intact. In the balk of the Italian excavation, at the outer base of the revetment wall, Wood noticed the remains of the collapsed mudbrick city walls which had tumbled. Not only did the Italians find the same evidence uncovered in the earlier excavations, it fits the Biblical story perfectly!

Wood reports:

"The Italian excavation actually uncovered most of the critical evidence relating to the Biblical story. But even more exciting is the fact that all the evidence from the earlier digs has disappeared over time. We only have records, drawing and photos. But the Italians uncovered a completely new section of the wall which we did not know still existed. I had my photograph taken standing next to the wall where the mudbrick collapse had just been excavated!"

Unfortunately, the Italian archaeologists, the Palestinian Authorities, the Associated Press and most of the world doesn’t realize any of this. It is a sad commentary on the state of archaeology in the Holy Land, when the purpose of an excavation at a Biblical site is to disprove the Bible and disassociate the site with any historical Jewish connection.




Has the biblical city and story of Jericho been verified?



Map of ancient Israel showing location of Jericho.

Excavations at the ancient mound of Jericho in the southern Jordan valley of Palestine have yielded extraordinary finds that verify the veracity of Biblical accounts. The only surviving written history of Jericho is that recorded in the Bible. Archaeology has demonstrated that the Biblical record is a precise eyewitness account of events that transpired there many thousands of years ago.

The most famous story about Jericho, of course, is that of the walls falling, as detailed in Joshua 6. Another less known, but nonetheless important, account is that of Eglon, king of Moab, building a palace there and extracting tribute from the Israelites for 18 years (Judges 3:12-30). Space does not allow a detailed discussion of the evidence, so I will briefly list the main finds and their correlation with the Bible.

·         At the time of the Israelite Conquest, Jericho was heavily fortified, as the Bible implies (Joshua 2:5,15).

  • Piles of mud bricks from the collapsed city wall were found at the base of the tell, verifying that "the wall fell beneath itself" (Hebrew, watippol hahomah tahteyha, Joshua 6:20).
  • An earthen embankment around the city required the fighters to go "up into the city" (Joshua 6:20).

Rahab and the spies. Artists depiction.

  • Houses were built against a portion of the city wall that did not collapse, verifying that Rahab's house was built against the city wall (Hebrew, betah be qir hahomah, Joshua 2:15), and that her house was spared (Joshua 2:14-21; 6:22-23).
  • A layer of ash 3-foot thick with burned timbers and debris demonstrates that the Israelites "burned the whole city and everything in it" (Joshua 6:24).

Artists depiction of Joshua and his army about to attack Jericho after its walls fell.

  • The destruction occurred at the end of the 15th century BC, precisely the time of the Conquest of Canaan according to the internal chronology of the Bible (I Kings 6:1; Judges 11:26; I Chronicles 6:33-37). Many large jars full of charred grain were found in the destroyed buildings. This is a very rare find since, because of its value, grain was normally plundered from a vanquished city. The large amount of grain at Jericho indicates:
    • The harvest had just been taken in (Joshua 2:6; 3:15).
    • The siege was short (seven days, Joshua 6:15).
    • The Israelites did not plunder the city (Joshua 6:18).



·         There was evidence of earthquake activity, possibly the agency God used to dam up the Jordan (Joshua 3:16) and bring the walls down.

·         [For further details, see Bryant G. Wood, Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?, Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April 1990: 44-58; and The Walls of Jericho, Bible and Spade, Spring 1999: 35-42.]

  • Following the destruction of Jericho the site lay abandoned for a number of decades. Then, an isolated palace-like structure was constructed. It was excavated by British archaeologist John Garstang in the 1930s. He called it the "Middle Building," since it was sandwiched between Iron Age structures above and the destroyed 15th century B.C. city below. The archaeological finds in this stratum match the Biblical description exactly.

§         The Middle Building dates to the second half of the 14th century BC, the time of Eglon's oppression according to Biblical chronology (ca. 1400 BC less the remainder of the life of Joshua, Judges 2:6-9; the eight-year oppression by Cushan-Rishathaim, Judges 3:8; and 40 years of peace under Othniel, Judges 3:11).

    • The plan of the building is similar to other palaces of the period and fits the description given in the Bible.
    • The Middle Building was an isolated structure, as the Bible implies. There was no evidence for a town at Jericho at this time.
    • The resident was well-to-do, as seen by a large quantity of imported Cypriot and other decorated pottery.
    • The resident was involved in administrative activities, as evidenced by a cuneiform tablet, a rare find in Palestine.
    • The building was occupied for only a short period of time and then abandoned.

[For further details, see John Garstang, The Story of Jericho: Further Light on the Biblical Narrative, American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 58 (1941), pp. 368-72; Baruch Halpern, The Assassination of Eglon: The First Locked-Room Murder Mystery, Bible Review, (December 1988), pp. 2-41.]

Samson and the Philistines - Did it really happen?

In the story of Samson it says he pulled down an entire temple. Have archaeologists uncovered any information that would relate to this account?

A major turning point in Israel's war against the Philistines was Samson's death. He had been taken captive through the deception of Delilah. The Philistines gouged out his eyes and took him to Gaza, one of their main cities. There they put him to work grinding grain in a prison. We know from archaeological findings that this type of prison was in reality a "grinding house." One of the most time-consuming tasks in antiquity was the grinding of grain. In the average home, this fell to the women of the household. The bureaucratic aristocracy, however, set up grinding houses to provide grain for the privileged elite. This was a place where slaves and prisoners were put to work. The tools were simple hand grinding stones. Samson spent his days seated on the ground grinding grain with a hand-held pestle that was rubbed back and forth on a mortar in his lap.

One day the Philistine leaders held a religious ceremony to celebrate their victory over their enemy. They brought Samson into the temple where they were assembled, so he could entertain them. Once inside the temple, Samson asked the servant who was guiding him to show him where the pillars were, so he could lean against them. "Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, `Let me die with the Philistines!' Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived" (Judges 16:29-30).

In one fell swoop, Samson eliminated the entire Philistine leadership. This was a major setback in their conflict with Israel. It was a turning point. From this time on, the Israelites started to gain the upper hand. But did it really happen? Could one man pull down an entire temple single handed? Archaeology has provided us with some amazing answers.

Philistine Temple, Israel

Two stone pillar bases in the Philistine temple at Tel Qasile, Israel

Two Philistine temples have been uncovered by archaeologists. One at Tel Qasile, in northern Tel Aviv, and one in Tel Miqne, ancient Ekron, 21 miles south of Tel Aviv. Both temples share a unique design -- the roof was supported by two central pillars! The pillars were made of wood and rested on stone support bases. With the pillars being about six feet apart, a strong man could dislodge them from their stone bases and bring the entire roof crashing down. The archaeological findings match the Biblical story perfectly and attest to the plausibility of the account.

Although Samson had his weaknesses, he was a man of God and is listed in the New Testament as one of those "who through faith conquered kingdoms, ... whose weakness was turned to strength" (Hebrews 11:32-34).

Bryant G. Wood 1974, "Samson and the House of Dagon", Bible and Spade, pp. 50-54.
(available from the Associates for Biblical Research).