I have recently come across this review of the ever-famous book by Finkelstein and Silberman, that is The Bible Unearthed (TBU). It is written by Richard Hess, a moderately famous maximalist and Christian.

The review starts immediately off the wrong foot by claiming

Of all periods of biblical history, that of the patriarchs is the most controversial.

-If he means “most contradictory to the fundamentalist position”, I would agree. If he means “controversial” in the scholarly sense, I strongly disagree with his claim, as it is unanimously accepted in the secular academic world that the Patriarchal stories did not literally happen.

The rest of Hess’s paragraph on the Patriarchs is fully correct, except for

As for the Philistines, it may be that this name (like the Aramaeans) was applied to people living in the regions where the Philistines would later settle. Thus it is an updating of the account to make it understandable to readers of a later period.

-There is no evidence the Genesis account was written (or, at least, developed) long ago enough to render the mentions of the Philistines and Arameans as later updatings. Gerar was an over-30 acre city-state in the Middle Bronze; it was also a fairly notable Middle Iron IIc town.

On the Exodus, Hess makes some legitimate points, but messes up again, stating

No one has ever proven the renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen wrong when he affirmed that the sale price for a slave such as Joseph was twenty shekels of silver according to Gen. 37:28. This amount for a slave was customary in the first half of the second millennium B.C. but unknown at later periods, including the era of the seventh century.

-Needless to say, all of Kitchen’s data for slave prices comes from rich cuneiform-using lands such as Ugarit and Mesopotamia. Judah was a poor land with far less silver per person than in Assyria, Mari, or Ugarit. Perhaps slave prices in 8th-7th C BC Egypt and Judah were lower than in Mesopotamia.

Again, only in the thirteenth century B.C. was it known for the pharaoh of Egypt to have his capital in the eastern Delta region, the only region in Egypt that would allow for Moses and Aaron to visit pharaoh and return on the same day to the oppressed Israelites working on the cities of Pithom and Ramesses.

-A falsehood. How does one spell צֹ֫עַן?*

These are just two illustrations of customs that are unique to the traditional periods assigned to these narratives. The absence of any attempt to identify and address contrary evidence is a symptom problemmatic (sic) to the type of scholarship that pervades this book (sic)

-The lack of critical thinking, correct punctuation, and correct spelling, are symptoms which are problematic of the type of scholarship that pervades this review.

Even if the number of Israelites was considerably smaller than 600, 000 warriors, it would be impossible for the Israelites to pass through the desert without a trace (pp. 62-63). However, that is exactly what many tribes have done for millennia.

-The moment an archaeologist finds archaeological evidence of modern armies passing through the central Sinai, this statement is quickly rendered irrelevant and misleading. If only a thousand people somehow managed to more than double the population of Sinai in under a few weeks, all while traveling in an organized group, evidence of this should be readily apparent in the form of mass graveyards. While it is not deniable that nomads are archaeologically invisible, to expect hundreds not to die due to dehydration a few weeks after moving from Egypt to western Sinai with hardly any preparation for such a journey as described in Exodus is to believe something very bizarre, indeed.

In fact, contrary to the implications of the authors, Late Bronze Age, 13th century B.C. sites do remain in the Negev. These include, above all, the “Hathor Temple” in the Timna Valley of the southern Negev. The Egyptianization of this site, that has been identified as “Midianite” included inscriptions that allow for the possible identification of it with the copper mining site of Atiqa mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus. And the evidence for the “tent” nature of the shrine, covered in cloth, parallels what would have been the contemporary tent shrine of ancient Israel, the Tabernacle.

Timna was not identified with Papyrus Harris’s “Atika” by any inscriptions found at Timna. F&S are certainly wrong that “not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II predecessors and successors has been identified in Sinai”, they do correctly mention that “Turquoise and copper mines in Sinai and the Negev were exploited by Egyptian expeditions” on page 83.

The fact that neither Tell Hisban nor Tell Dhiban have revealed evidence of occupation at this time, does not mean that the sites did not exist. The names could have moved to other sites in the region, a phenomenon known elsewhere.

It is plausible that Dibon existed on the hill just to the West of the modern tell. It is not plausible that Heshbon magically moved from Tell Jalul or Tell ‘Umayri, which are not near Heshbon at all. Indeed, Heshbon is not even confused with Elealeh (el-Al), less than two miles from Heshbon, in the Biblical text.

The chapter on Joshua and the issues surrounding the conquest of Canaan continues a one-sided presentation of the evidence in which the authors attempt to pit the archaeological evidence against the biblical account.

-Translation from the Christianese: “The chapter on Joshua and the issues surrounding the conquest of Canaan continues an evidence-based presentation of the relevant archaeology in which the discrepancies between the archaeological evidence and the biblical account are recognized.”

However, the reuse of Middle Bronze and Late Bronze fortifications at both sites as (perhaps temporary) fortified outposts at the time of Israel’s entrance into Canaan is never considered.

-If Hess wishes to demonstrate Jericho was occupied as a city in the 15th-13th centuries BC, let him show the as-of-yet-missing 15-13th Cs BC radiocarbon dates.

Nor is the fact noted that sites such as Megiddo, whose Late Bronze Age wall has yet to be identified, are described by the pharaoh of Egypt as having such fortifications in the Late Bronze Age.

-The Egyptian texts claim a months-long siege at Megiddo, not a city wall at Megiddo.

Could it be that the work of archaeology is fragmentary and not a compelling argument that can overturn all textual evidence?

-The smoke of this man of straw is like that of tobacco-addictive from close up, vile from a distance.

Not only is the occupation that follows this destruction different (Canaanite urbant(sic) to Israelite village?), but the defacement of the cultic images suggests a people intolerant of the gods of the Canaanites.

-I still consider allied invasion or urban revolution to be more plausible hypotheses. Also, the Israelite village is mid-11th C.

Third, the movement of the Sea Peoples could be seen as paralleling that of the Israelites. The thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C. were times of upheaval and geopolitical alteration throughout the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean worlds. It would be a good time of Israel to be on the move.

-Two things ended the Egyptian Empire-Libyan invasions and a rising high priesthood of Amun in Thebes. Neither of these were especially hurtful to Egypt before the time of Ramesses IV. The Merenptah stele is over a half century before Ramesses IV.

Further, the destruction of Ugarit is not necessarily related to an invasion by the Sea Peoples. This reconstruction, on the basis of the existing textual evidence, has been called into question and is by no means certain. Indeed, there is no certain contemporary evidence for the presence of the Sea Peoples conquering nations except in Egypt.

-Much like the destruction of Beersheba II was not necessarily related to the 701 BC campaign of Sennacherib. The Sea Peoples are by far the most plausible candidates for the destruction of Ugarit-see, for example, the monochrome pottery found at Ras Ibn Hani. Also, Hess curiously does not discuss the settlement of the Philistines in Philistia at this point-does he seem to believe Philistia is a part of Egypt? If Hess is merely referring to textual “evidence”, he would be correct in his last sentence of the above quote. If he meant to include archaeological evidence in his last sentence of the above quote, he knows practically nothing of the 12th C BC Levant.

Finally, the power of Egypt was on the wane in the 12th century. The pharaoh Merneptah mentions Israel in Palestine on a stele describing his conquests, c. 1207 B.C. Events such as those in Johsua could have occurred in the 13th century when there is little certain evidence of Egyptian hold, either in the hill country between the Jezreel Valley and Jerusalem or in the region later identified as southern Judah. Further, it is not clear that sites such as Gezer and perhaps Jerusalem, as mentioned in the southern campaign of Joshua 10, were not Egyptian bases or strongholds. Particularly places such as Gaza, Bethshan, Megiddo, and Gezer do seem to have been influenced or controlled by Egypt at the time.

The 12th C BC and the 13th C BC are two different centuries. Also, was the seeming contradiction between the third and fourth sentences of the above quote intentional and meant to give indications of uncertainty regarding the extent of Egyptian control over Canaan? I suspect so. If so, the contrast between the third and fourth sentences of the above quote should have been expressed more clearly.

First, the date of 1200 B.C. is not as certain as the authors would like it to be. In fact, they date the appearance of signficant(sic) village life to the decline in Egyptian control of the region in the mid-twelfth century. However, the field archaeologist for the northern region of the hill country, Adam Zertal, has dated some of his early settlements into the twelfth century B.C. This would be when Israel might have first begun to settle in the region and well before the collapse of Egyptian control throughout Palestine.

-The date of the first Israelite settlement is one of the Great Mysteries of modern Israeli archaeology, with the discrepancy Hess points out being discussed by Todd Bolen in 2010 and John Bimson in 1991. To hedge my bets, I view Merenptah’s Israel as a nomadic tribe something like the tribes of Arabia. Hess also correctly points out that fortified villages do appear in Israel, though only late in the Iron I.

This concurs both with Israel entering Palestine from east of the Jordan and with the settlement of the two and a half tribes east of the Jordan. Third, as has been argued by other archaeologists who specialized in this period, there are too many people represented in the village settlements to explain as all originating as highland nomads.

-The first statement of the above quote is banal; the settlement in the East may have occurred first because the East was good grazing land. Palestine was very suited for a large Bedouin population, as clearly shown by the travel books of the English and Americans visiting Palestine in the Late Ottoman period. Certainly not “all” the Israelites originated as highland nomads, but many of them did originate as such.

Some, at least, must have come from outside and settled in the region.

-A statement made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. There is no good evidence that even part of the early Israelite population came from outside Canaan.

First, Jerusalem has been continuously inhabited since the time of David. There has been much building and rebuilding. On the site where David and Solomon would have had their palace and government buildings, there was extensive mining and destruction during the Roman period to allow for the building of luxury homes. Furthermore, the presence of Middle Bronze and Iron Age II walls, but not any from the tenth century, proves little.

-First, Jerusalem has not been continuously inhabited since the time of David. 586 BC and 70 AD, anyone? Secondly, the presence of MB and Late Iron walls but not from the tenth century proves Jerusalem was more sparsely inhabited in the tenth century than in the MB or Late Iron periods. That should be obvious.

The question of the dating of the gates and other architecture at Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor continues to be debated. Finkelstein’s carbon dating on some wooden beams from Megiddo cannot be considered conclusive until the evidence is published and adequate evaluation is made. Furthermore, the most recent excavators of Gezer (William Dever) and Hazor (Amnon Ben-Tor) continue to confirm a tenth century Solomonic dating for these gate structures.

-The weight of the evidence is quite conclusive.

However, no amount of environmental determinism can change the fact that at times before (e.g., Egypt’s New Kingdom) and after (e.g., the Hellenistic period) the tenth century, this land was united under a single sovereignty.

-Egyptian domination of Canaan was a result of environmental determinism-the cities of Egypt were far richer, more populous, and more necessarily unified than those of the Canaanites, which contributed to the easy subjugation of Canaan by Egypt. The Hasmonean period was a result of religious factors which were not present in the tenth century (i.e., militant Judaism).

Thus they never explain the widespread presence of alphabetic writing that is attested in every major area of Palestine in every century from the 13th through to the time of Josiah.

“Widespread”? “Every major”? It’s fairly obvious Hess is making stuff up here: widespread writing is not present in Benjamin until the late 8th century BC, in the Shephelah until the 10th-9th century BC, in Galilee and Samaria in the early to mid-8th century BC, in Philistia until the 10th century BC, in the Negev and Judah’s highlands until the late 8th century BC, and in the Wilderness until the 7th century BC.

They also ignore the presence of an abecedary discovered in the 12th or 11th century Israelite village of Izbet Sartah, which demonstrates how even in small towns writing and reading were being studied and learned.

-It could be as late as the late tenth.

However, Assyria preserved important literary compositions from earlier centuries, as did Egypt, and the same may be true of Palestine located between these two superpowers.

-Here’s the major difference: Assyria and Egypt were sedentary powers with obvious evidence of literacy throughout their existence. Not so for Moses’s and Phinehas’s Israel.

However, they overlook one of the most important facts. During Hezekiah’s reign, his main city (Jerusalem) did not fall. This was true despite its endurance of the full force of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib. No other city is known to have resisted and not fallen from Samaria to Babylon.

-Samaria did not fall when Tiglath-Pileser campaigned in Galilee in 732 BC. Its king, Pekah, did exactly as Hezekiah did: pay tribute to appease the Assyrian emperor. Assyrian policy was not always “take the capital first”. Sometimes, as in 732 and 701 BC, Assyrian policy was to leave a kingdom a shadow of its former self by destroying its productive border regions. If Sennacherib or Tiglath-Pileser III wanted to concentrate on Samaria or Jerusalem, they would have.

This book must be used with caution because it pretends to describe what we now really know about archaeology and how it contradicts various biblical claims; however, it does so in a biased and non-objective manner. Contrary opinions in interpreting the new evidence are not discussed, much less given a fair hearing. The book is ideologically driven and should be treated that way by any one who reads it.

-So should anyone who reads Hess’s review of The Bible Unearthed.
*For the ignorant, Zoan is San el-Hagar, a city at 30°58’35″N, 31°52’60″E. It was also the capital city of the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt. An analysis of the Exodus narrative demonstrates Zoan/Tanis must have been the capital city of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, a problem for the fundamentalists as Tanis only became a capital city after the fall of Pi-Ramesse.