From the beginnings of what we call biblical archeology, perhaps 150 years ago, scholars, mostly western scholars, have attempted to use archeological data to prove the Bible. [William Foxwell] Albright, the great father of our discipline, often spoke of the "archeological revolution." Well, the revolution has come but not in the way that Albright thought.
Archeologists can often tell you what happened and when and where and how and even why. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. We try to make the Bible something it is not, and that's doing an injustice to the biblical writers.
No archeologists can tell anyone what it means, and most of us don't try. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? They were good historians, and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that. [Yahweh is an ancient Israelite name for God.] Archeology is almost the only way that we have for reconstructing a real-life context for the world out of which the Bible came, and that does bring understanding. Some of the other names in the narratives are Egyptian, and there are genuine Egyptian elements. But those Israelites were in Canaan; they are not in Egypt, and nothing is said about them escaping from Egypt.
When you think of how little we knew about the biblical world even 100 years ago and what we know today, it's astonishing. Does it matter exactly how Abraham and his clan left, and when they arrived in Canaan, or where they settled? This is the dawn of written history or prehistory, when the archeological evidence can't easily be correlated with any external evidence, textual evidence—even if we did have it. But no one has found a text or an artifact in Egypt itself or even in the Sinai that has any direct connection. But I think it does mean what happened was rather more modest. [For more on Moses and the Exodus, see Carol Meyer's interview.] No Egyptian text mentions the Israelites except the famous inscription of Merneptah dated to about 1206 B. It's the earliest reference we have to the Israelites.
One of the first efforts of biblical archeology in the last century was to prove the historicity of the patriarchs, to locate them in a particular period in the archeological history. Are we to become unbelievers if we can't prove that Abraham ever lived? What really matters is that Abraham is seen later by Jews and Christians as the father of the faithful. The victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, mentions a list of peoples and city-states in Canaan, and among them are the Israelites. E., know of a group of people somewhere in the central highlands—a loosely affiliated tribal confederation, if you will—called "Israelites." These are our Israelites. We know today, from archeological investigation, that there were more than 300 early villages of the 13th and 12th century in the area. Forty years ago it would have been impossible to identify the earliest Israelites archeologically. And then, in a series of regional surveys, Israeli archeologists in the 1970s began to find small hilltop villages in the central hill country north and south of Jerusalem and in lower Galilee. The settlements were founded not on the ruins of destroyed Canaanite towns but rather on bedrock or on virgin soil.
We are talking about a journey of several hundred miles around the fringes of the desert. It disturbs some people that, for the very early periods such as the so-called patriarchal period, we archeologists haven't much to say. So gradually the old conquest model [based on the accounts of Joshua's conquests in the Bible] began to lose favor amongst scholars.
The later we come in time, the firmer the ground we stand on—we have better sources. Many scholars now think that most of the early Israelites were originally Canaanites, displaced Canaanites, displaced from the lowlands, from the river valleys, displaced geographically and then displaced ideologically.So what we are dealing with is a movement of peoples but not an invasion of an armed corps from the outside.Today I think most archeologists would argue that there is no direct archeological proof that Abraham, for instance, ever lived. Abraham moves out on faith to a land he has never seen. And it's interesting that the other entities, the other ethnic groups, are described as nascent states, but the Israelites are described as "a people." They have not yet reached a level of state organization. There was no evidence of armed conflict in most of these sites.We do know a lot about pastoral nomads, we know about the Amorites' migrations from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and it's possible to see in that an Abraham-like figure somewhere around 1800 B. You have to think of how perilous the journey would have been had it really taken place. It is profoundly true, but it's not the kind of truth that archeology can directly illuminate. Archeologists also have discovered that most of the large Canaanite towns that were supposedly destroyed by invading Israelites were either not destroyed at all or destroyed by "Sea People"—Philistines, or others.William Dever, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, has investigated the archeology of the ancient Near East for more than 30 years and authored almost as many books on the subject.In the following interview, Dever describes some of the most significant archeological finds related to the Hebrew Bible, including his own hot-button discovery that the Israelites' God was linked to a female goddess called Asherah.