The Oldest City
Even if the Bible had never told us that Joshua and his Israelites had come here,
Jericho would still be one of the most famous cities on Earth. To start with it's the
oldest city on Earth, dating back as a large, walled settlement to around 9,000 BC, and it
was built at the lowest point on Earth.
A stone tower that still survives has been dated
to around 10,000 years old, and is the oldest surviving man-made structure in the world.
When it was built it stood on a plain. The huge mounds of earth around it, archaeological
strata, represent various cities that were built up though the ages. It's an incredible
time chart of Man's progress on Earth. Somewhere in there may be the dust of ancient
Israel. Perhaps even the Bible's characters.
The archaeologists who dug out the tower continued their trench right to the outskirts
of the city. As they cut through the mound, they cut through the city walls, walls of
various ages. One of the walls they uncovered was rather an unusual one dated to about
1600 BC. It was found to have a smooth, shiny plaster surface. It's the sort of wall that
came into existence just after chariots came into the area. What they were for was
stopping charging chariots, the shiny plaster would cause the chariots to skid and run off
their path to be picked off by the city defenders.
Archaeologists were digging up this type of wall all over the place, but everybody was
giving their discoveries different names. To some people this was called a Hyksos wall,
after the people who probably attacked it. Most others gave biblical names, because the
people on those expeditions seemed to like that sort of thing. In 1922 the British decided
to put it on a scientific foundation. The man in charge of the archaeological mandate of
British Palestine, John Garstang, decided to name all the strata in archaeological
excavations after the scientific terms used in European museums. That is; Stone Age,
Bronze Age, and Iron Age. So that everyone after that date had to specify to which of
those three categories their work belonged.
The specifically interesting point was where the Bronze Age met the Iron Age, because
that was about 1200 BC, the date around which the ancient Israelites were supposed to have
A layer of Jericho wall was uncovered and dated incorrectly by Garstang to the time of
the Israelite invasion, citing a providential earthquake as its cause of collapse. Years
later, another archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyan, proved with much-improved techniques that
the wall was a thousand years older than previously thought, so that it bore absolutely no
relation to Joshua's supposed attack on the city. What was also proved was that at the
time the Bronze Age and Iron Age met, the time at which everybody agreed the Israelites
had arrived, there was nobody at all living at Jericho. The city was completely deserted,
and had been that way for hundreds of years.
So often has this happened, that an archaeologist has made a find that has later been
discredited, that scholars now realise that the Bible can not been taking as a completely
literal account of events in that ancient world. The problem is not whether the Bible is
accurate, but how the Bible is accurate. The Bible is not an economic or political history
of the ancient world. What it is, is a history of belief, and of how that belief led this
conglomeration of twelve tribes in their faith to conquer for themselves a new homeland.
Modern archaeology is now managing to dig up the evidence of the circumstances of that
In the dark recesses of the Cary Museum is a great grey granite stela (pr. steel-er),
or block, that holds in its inscription the first known mention of Israel, in the year
1207 BC. The stela has a victory hymn on it, telling of a war the Pharaoh Menepatah's army
fought in Canaan. "The fortress city of Askelon is taken," it says. "The
fortress city of Giza is captured," it boasts. "The fortress city of Yanohem is
disappeared," it announces. Then it continues, "The People of Israel lie
desolate. There seed is no more." It is especially interesting that Israel is not
called a fortress city but a People.
The Temple of Carnak
In the great Temple of Carnak in upper Egypt, by the Nile, there's something that bears
that out exactly. An unlikely looking ruined wall carries another stela upon which there
is a very important historical inscription. There are scenes on either side of it that had
always been thought were the ordinary trappings of the architecture of a victorious
Pharaoh. But on closer examination it was found that the scenes were from the reign of
Menepatah, the Pharaoh of the Israel stela. The scenes show the Pharaoh attacking various
fortresses, with his chariot grinding the dead beneath its wheels. Some of the scenes are
not too clear after all this time, but there are still decipherable.
One of the scenes is
recognisable as being the attack on the fortress of Askelon, with one figure hacking down
a door, and a defender lowering a dead boy, arrow sticking from his body, to the
inhabitants of the fortress who are praying for the attack to stop. At the top of the
stela, being crushed by the Pharaoh's chariots and the Egyptian cavalry, was a Bedouin
tribe which was also mentioned on the Israel stela. In fact, they are the oldest known
pictures of the ancient Israelites.
Unfortunately, at the ancient city of Meggido, according to the Bible one of the first
Canaanite cities to be captured by the invading Israelites, archaeologists working there
have not found a single trace of them. But one thing is certain, whether the Israelites
were ever here or not, these Canaanite cities had a powerful influence on the people who
wrote the Bible. The cities can be found right through modern Israel and Syria. They are usually found on trade
routes, often amid fields of corn, and sometimes by the sea. It was the rich land all
around these small city states that kept the local courts in a fair degree of luxury.
There is a fine, lively picture of one of these Canaanite courts, found cut onto a slip of
ivory from the tusk of a Syrian elephant. It shows the ruler, proudly sitting on his
recently imported Egyptian throne, all feathers and skinned leopard's legs, and in front
of him is all his court, a musician with lyre, a spear carrying guard, a captain of the
chariots that they loved so much they used to race in them. It is a descriptive drawing,
but it is not great art, the Canaanites were never great artists. They still made a great
influence on posterity through their literature and their religion. Through those two
things they influenced the Old Testament and Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible.
At the centre of all ancient cities stood the gods. The Canaanite cities were no
exception. In fact they were built around even more ancient and high places, that is,
hills that from time immemorial had been regarded as sacred spots. One, well known to
modern scholars, is the ancient sanctuary of Meggido, the High Place of Meggido, or as the
Bible calls it, Armageddon.
There was another of these Canaanite high places in Jerusalem. That was the seat of a
god called Baal-Zethon. That became the Christian's Mount Zion. Diggings there uncovered
the top of the high alter, and found it to be covered in burnt bones. Animals were
sacrificed on the alter in great quantity, and then burnt. The offering was called Olah.
It's where the Bible's holocaust comes from - a burnt offering. The alter was built around
3000 BC, and before long, Meggido became quite a rich town, so its people built the Great
Temple behind the alter for more elaborate rituals for the gods.
With the temple and its place for burnt offerings, a place inside for washing, and the
holy of holies, the high alter, comes a certain familiarity. These are exactly the same
elements that are found in King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, two thousand years later.
That too had its burnt offering, its brazen bowl, and its alter. King Solomon's name
itself contains the name of a Canaanite god, the god Solom, the god of the evening star.
Although there is not much remaining intact on the site, in its day the temple at
Jerusalem was a great black building with tiny little slits for windows. Shafts of light
would fall inside on two great columns in the centre. There were beautiful little incense
alters along the front decorated with tiny little figures of musicians, something at which
the Canaanites were very good. They adored music, and they decorated these alters with all
sorts of various instrument players using drums, pipes and so on. They would use all these
instruments as a sort of in-house band to play for their god during ceremonies. Something
of this can still be found in the Bible.
Look at the Psalms in an old Bible and you will find strange words set between the
verses, sometimes after the title of a Psalm. They are old musical instructions. Their
meaning is unknown today, and they have been left out of modern Bibles, but they are
something to do with the wonderful music that was made in the ancient Canaanite temples
that are now so silent.
There are yet more connections with the Canaanites. Think of Psalm 137, and of the
verse "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning." That
is a very clever English adaptation of a very difficult Old Hebrew line that nobody really
understood before. As we now have Canaanite originals which point the way, the verse
should read "...may my right hand whither," which, although not quite so poetic,
is much more accurate.
Tribes from the North
Traditions of Canaanite literature are very strong in the Old Testament. Just as the
Bible says ancient Canaan was destroyed, archaeologists have found all these cities burnt
and ruined. They have also found that this wasn't done by the Israelites, but by a lot of
other people, a great mass of tribes coming down from the north. And once again, at Thebes
in Egypt, pictures of them can be seen. After they destroyed Canaan, these same tribes
went on to attack Egypt.
In the end, only the Egyptian armies were strong enough to stop them. After their
defeat, one of these tribes went back to Canaan, and settled down along the coast. The
Egyptians have called them the Pelyset. The Bible knows them as Philistines, the mortal enemies of
About a century after the Egyptians had repulsed the terrible invasion of the tribes a
priest set out from Thebes to go to Lebanon, sailing right up the Mediterranean coast to
buy some cedarwood for his temple. In the course of his journey he stopped on the coast at
Dor. By this time the Canaanites were no more. The land was no longer called Canaan. The
coastal area was called Philistia, modern Palestine, and the Philistines
lived there. Those same people who had attacked Egypt and had been swept
back had settled right along the coastal plain and built big, strong cities.
They found that the long coastline was made of petrified sand banks, and
they were able to cut into it quite easily and make all sorts of harbours.
Some of the oldest slipways in the world are still in evidence there.
The Philistines had brought with them a completely new culture and a new
religion. When they moved about they had only mobile things, things they
cold carry; splendid swords, fine helmets, all the paraphernalia of mobile
peoples. When they settled down they started to make all sorts of things.
They made especially fine pottery, and were respectable metalworkers, being
able to fashion quite fine necklaces in gold. On the whole, their
civilisation was quite refined, they were not Philistines at all. They have
been given rather a bad press, wholly by their enemies, the Israelites of
the Old Testament, who even took most of their victories over the Canaanites
and attributed them to Israel.
And where were the Israelites at this time? They were not on the coast, nothing of them
has been found there. In fact, nothing to do with them has been found for miles around the
coastal area, nor on the plains behind it. If you take the Bible's word for it, however,
you can assume that they were up there in the mountains, because that is where the Bible
stories of early Israel are set. King David was once a shepherd boy in these hills. When
he fought Goliath in Philistine he collected the pebbles for his sling from the bed of a
Most of the combats in the early history of Israel take place in a small area, in the
zone between the green fields of the Philistines and the uplands of the Israelites. In
David's stories much of the landscape is clearly laid out; chalky mountains with caves for
hideaway kings, traditional crops - olives, grapes - abound. The Bible has painted such an
accurate description of exactly what was going on in Israel at that time in history. What
can archaeology tell us about what was happening up in the mountains at the same time?
The poor people who had moved into the mountains were obsessed with storing food. It
was a very hard life. They were even obsessed with water. This fits. Most of the big rooms
of the houses in the mountains were used to store rainwater. When the archaeologists came
to dig them out, they found old pits under the house ruins. These pits were absolutely
enormous, big enough to stand up in, and big enough to hold enough water to see the
inhabitants through the entire summer. The pits were cut out of the ground before the
houses were built around them. Realising as they arrived in the inhospitable region that
this was where they had to live, the people built their elaborate cisterns, then put the
houses on top.
These people, the historical Israelites, could also read. Tiny fragments of Canaanite
texts were found, so small they could not be read, but big enough to see that some of the
people in this region were literate. Then a tiny limestone tablet was found, covered in
scratches and looking pretty miserable. The scratches turned out to be what is now called
Paleo-Hebrew, because it was an alphabet that would later develop into Hebrew. Hebrew
itself was a language which came from Canaan, the home of the original form of the Hebrew
The dwellers of this mountain region were intelligent people, living as settlers with
an imported technology. Where did this people come from? All the archaeological evidence
says that they were refugees from the old Canaanite cities. Refugees from invasions that
were coming down the coast. From invasion by people who were the Philistines. So, up in
the hills, looking for the Biblical Israelites, one finds a picture of little groups of
refugees, coming up to the mountains to live in small, open settlements. Modern
archaeology has begun to reconstruct the lives of these ancient people. In doing that an
amazing coincidence begins to come to light between scientific theory and the words of the
Supposing, for a moment, that these people had had to fight off a
Philistine invasion. Supposing they wanted to go down to the plain and fight
for better land. They would obviously have needed to have formed themselves
into a coalition. So who would run the coalition? These people were too poor
to pay taxes to support any central authority, and the Bible says that they
weren't too keen on kings. In the ancient world abstract ideas were very few
and far between. The word 'coalition' for example is a concept that an
ancient person could not have understood. But he would have comprehended the
concept of 'king' or of 'god'.
So it is possible that the coalition was
formed by belief in the same god, and that the priests of this god preached
that everybody had to join together under the rule of this god so that they
would be strong, with a powerful army and some prosperity. But if anybody
dropped out of the holy coalition then there would be disaster and defeat.
They bound themselves together with an oath of fealty to their single
god. So there would be travelling priests, and they would go around the
separate groups holding the identity of their god. Their religion would be
based upon the idea of oneness, of joint identity shared, of an idea that
they were different from their new, conquering, neighbours. It would have
been an identity that was very strong.
This, then, is the situation in the
earliest parts of the Old Testament and the history of Israel. The
travelling priests are the Biblical prophets, and the god of the coalition
is Jehovah, whose Arc of the Covenant, the rules of the coalition, the
twelve tribes carried into battle.
Slowly, the Israelites start to emerge. It seems that that their tribes were the
descendants, the survivors of the Canaanites who were pushed out of their land by the
invading Philistines. They struggled to survive in the hills and mountains to the east for
a while, until they were strong enough to band together in a coalition. Then they moved
westwards and began the re-conquest of their lands. By this time though, their Canaanite
identity had been changed by time and circumstance, and they became Israelites. Despite
the change of name, they still held on to many of their ancient customs.
The fortress of Arrad, on the desert edge of southern Israel, was continually inhabited
from around 1000 BC, about the time of King David. The ruins also contain a temple from
about the same time. Ancient Hebrew texts tell of an Israelite garrison there a few
centuries later. Thousands of years after the huge Canaanite temple of Meggido, Israelites
have made their little temple to precisely the same design. There is still, at the middle
of the longest side of the temple, the actual alter of the sanctuary.
At Meggido the
incense tables are gone, but in the Israelite temple two were found, incense marks still
in place where great winds of smoke would have wafted to the high ceiling. Behind that the
high shrine would have sat. All in all, even outside the sanctuary, in the courtyard of
the temple, the resemblance to the Biblical Temple of Jehovah, Solomon's Temple, and to
the ancient Canaanite temples of two thousand years before, is very strong.
This new god himself was quite a different kind of god from those that had been
worshipped in the past. Other ancient gods were often gods of parts of things; gods of
medicine, and of mathematics, gods of life and of death. Jehovah was a god of everything,
a god of gods.
Arrad's temple is contrary to Jehovah's law, which says that Israel must have but one
temple, and that in Jerusalem. The Bible says that David took Jerusalem for Israel and
named it the City of David. It also tells us that David's son Solomon built a temple
there. A home for Jehovah to hold the Arc of the Covenant. Yet outside of the pages of the
Bible there is no evidence whatsoever that the kings, David and Solomon, ever lived. No
record from the early days of Israel has ever been found that mentions even their names.
There is the Bible, and there are myths, but nothing else.
Sad to say, it is not only David and Solomon who don't seem to exist, at least in
scientific history, it's really all of ancient Israel up until about 900 BC. On the site
of ancient Jerusalem there is nothing to suggest that walls and pottery found were not
made by Bronze Age people, the culture is continuous, with no breaks found to allow for a
conquering flood of invaders. There was nothing to suggest that the Biblical conquest of
Jerusalem had ever occurred.
Until a few years ago the written Hebrew word from the time of ancient Israel was very
thin on the ground. There were just a few ancient seals, inscribed with the name of the
scribe who used them. Then in 1980, in Jerusalem, somebody actually discovered a Bible
text, digging it up. It turned out to be a very important text, being written just as the
Prophet Jeremiah said, on sheets of silver inscribed with a pen of iron. It was a tiny
little plaque, but it was also a fragment of the oldest Bible text in the world. It had to
be very carefully unrolled, because originally it had been written on, then rolled up very
tightly with string passed through it, and it was probably worn on a child's neck.
the deciphering of the almost unreadable text began, the very first word to be translated
was Jehovah. The name was discovered two further times on the plaque before anything else
could be read. That in itself was exciting enough, because it was the oldest occurrence of
the name Jehovah in Jerusalem. In about the 6th or 7th century BC Jehovah had come back to
his own city. The plaque is part of the Book of Numbers, and is the priestly benediction,
the words that Jehovah gave to Moses to give to the priest Aaron and his sons, the
blessing of the children of Israel. It is a well known benediction that is recited in a
great number of Christian and Jewish churches and school assemblies right up to the modern
The Bible tells us that the Israelites were in deep trouble when that silver plaque was
made. It tells that the nation was stumbling ever deeper into sin. Jehovah's inexorable
judgement was falling on those who broke his law. After Solomon's death, the Bible tells
us, David's great kingdom was split into two halves. There was a southern kingdom called
Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, and a northern kingdom called Israel, with its
capital at the hilltop palace of Samaria.
Bible history and Israelite archaeology finally
join together at Samaria. On the site was found an Iron Age palace. On the same site, the
Bible says that King Omri built a palace. That palace is also mentioned in contemporary
records from outside ancient Israel, where it is referred to as Bayt-Omri, the House of
At last there is undeniable proof of the existence of an Israelite king. It is Omri's son who is the more famous, the King Ahab who refused to follow the basic doctrines
of belief. What the Bible doesn't say is what an excellent soldier Ahab was. In the 9th
century he built up a coalition of lots of the smaller local kingdoms, and together, under
his overall leadership, they went out and defeated the mighty Assyrian army in battle,
beating what was then a superpower which used to send out large raiding forces from its
central kingdom in Mesopotamia to the coasts of the Mediterranean practically every year.
The Assyrian Conquest
King Ahab and his smallish Coalition Army had managed to stop the Assyrians from doing
that for a couple of years. Unfortunately, the Assyrians were not stopped for good.
recovered rapidly from their defeat, and kept on coming down into Israel year after year,
taking tribute and prisoners, destroying cities. That, in the year of 701 BC, was the
sorry fate of the city of Lakkish, of the south of Jerusalem. Lakkish must have been a
hard nut for the Assyrian army to crack. Pictures describing the victory were taken from
the throne room of an Assyrian palace, a place to show off only the greater victories. The
pictures show all the classic ingredients of close-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting,
complete with the claustrophobic sense of fear such combat must have induced.
ramps against the city walls, and siege engines sitting in the sandy ground, looking like
ancient tanks. There were archers, and sappers, and the hard-pressed Lakkishites up on the
battlements, fighting for their lives. In the Bible the prophets bewail its fall. As the
people leave their city for the last time, they pass the elders of their town, impaled and
stretched out, flayed, upon the ground.
The families of Lakkish, with their loaded carts,
their women and their children and what few pots and bundles they could gather, are led
off to become eternal refugees, parted from their own land forever. This is the first time
such a scene has been noted in history, although it must have been a common enough sight
at that time, on the roads that led eastward, from the cities of Israel and Judah to the
lands of Assyria, and beyond.
These were turbulent times. About a hundred years after the Kingdom of Israel was
destroyed by the Assyrians, Assyria itself was destroyed by a group of cities it had
earlier conquered, led by that most ancient of cities, Babylon. Of course, this didn't
make much of a difference to the peoples who lived on the edge of such events. They were
now attacked and led of in chains by the Babylonians instead of the Assyrians, who built
their own empire on much the same bloody basis.
In 586 BC Jerusalem itself finally fell. The Old Testament tells that its king,
Zedekiah, was dragged from the city, his sons were killed, and then he was blinded. Then
he was put in chains, along with his courtiers, and his priests of the Temple of
Jerusalem, and they were dragged away.
The people were taken into captivity en masse. They were dragged through the gates of
Babylon, the gates that swallowed up what was left of ancient Israel. The Great Whore is
how the prophets call the city in their curses, because it was here that Hebrew was almost
forgotten as a spoken language. Here it was that some of the Judaens took up worshipping
foreign gods. It must have seemed to the other Judaens in their small ghetto inside the
city that their history, the history of ancient Israel, had come to a full stop.
That history now seemed to be finite. It had a beginning, a middle, and now an end.
They must have looked back over that history and seen that when they actually kept to the
Covenant they did okay, and their god Jehovah smiled on them. But when they started to
break the Covenant and follow sinful ways their kings died and finally their country was
smashed and they were led into exile. It seemed too that they needed to write this history
down, all of it, in the light of this new experience.
Most of Babylon's captured princes had been told, when they were led into their exile,
to bring their local gods with them. Usually these took the form of small idols or
statues. The Judaens couldn't exactly do that with their more ethereal god so they brought
the temple treasures from Jerusalem, which the Babylonians put in their treasury, and they
must have brought some sacred writings too, because the Old Testament actually mentions
all the writings that were around at the time of ancient Israel. There were lists of laws,
and talk of sacred books, there were histories and hymn books, and much else besides. It
was this that they would use to make their history, the history of their country which had
now come to an end.
They didn't want to write an archaeological history, nor did they want to write a
scientific history. This was to be a summation of a nation, its apotheosis. And it started
with a revelation on the wondrous beginning of their world.