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Was King David a Nomad? New Theory Sparks Storm Among Israeli Archaeologists

Por Ariel David. Haaretz, julio 26, 2021.

The reason we haven’t found traces of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon is because they ruled over a kingdom of nomads, top researcher posits. But many of his colleagues balk.

A top Israeli archaeologist has sparked bitter debate with a controversial theory suggesting that there really was a great Israelite monarchy ruled by the kings David and Solomon, after all. The new hypothesis contrasts with the prevailing theory in mainstream scholarship, that even if such rulers existed, they were monarchs of a tiny backwater.

The proposed new paradigm adds to the ceaseless discussion on how much of the Bible is a true story, much of which has focused on the fabled “United Monarchy” and its semi-mythological rulers in the early Iron Age (or early First Temple period, if one prefers a refence to the biblical chronology).

Erez Ben-Yosef, a professor at Tel Aviv University, charges that his fellow archaeologists suffer from an “architectural bias,” which leads them to recognize the existence of ancient states only when they leave behind majestic ruins.

This has been one of the cornerstones for the “No United Monarchy” camp, which points to the paucity of prominent remains from the time.

However, Ben-Yosef now suggests that what we do have is evidence that around 3,000 years ago, in the time of King David, much of the Levant was occupied by powerful and sophisticated political entities created by nomadic tribes. David and Solomon could have ruled over vast territories and populations that were still overwhelmingly non-sedentary. These would have left few stone buildings behind, meaning that the absence of archeological remains cannot be used to disprove the biblical narrative of the United Monarchy, Ben-Yosef argues.

O Solomon, where art thou?

Many scholars are not welcoming the idea. Critics accuse Ben-Yosef of charging into a loaded topic like a bull in a china shop and dismissing decades of painstaking research in archaeology and biblical scholarship without having the appropriate background in either field.

There have been screaming matches at conferences and now, in the academic equivalent of pistols at dawn, volleys of arguments are being exchanged in scholarly journals, with the latest article by Ben-Yosef being published earlier in July.

Chief among Ben-Yosef’s detractors is Israel Finkelstein, one of the world’s top biblical archaeologists, who has been at the forefront of a more critical approach to the historicity of the holy text.

The debate on how much of the Bible is a true story has been raging for centuries, but in recent decades it has narrowed mostly on the story of David’s alleged United Monarchy, which, based on the biblical chronology, would have been in its heyday in the 10th century B.C.E.

So the big remaining question is whether these two kingdoms were once unified in the great monarchy of David and Solomon described in the Bible. Scholars thought it was so, until, in the 1990s, research largely spearheaded by Finkelstein showed that impressive remains at sites across the Levant, which had once been attributed to Solomon’s building prowess, actually date to the ninth century B.C.E. or later, to the time of the breakaway Kingdom of Israel.

There was, in short, no sign in the archaeological record in Jerusalem or elsewhere of the United Monarchy, Finkelstein and his fellow skeptics argued. If David and Solomon did exist as kings of Judah, they only ruled over a small, marginal kingdom, which was aggrandized by later biblical authors.

Since then, more conservative archaeologists have been scrambling to prove this paradigm wrong by unearthing architecture that could be dated to the time of David and Solomon. And while they have met with some success, those finds are still highly contested, and do not a great empire make.

Ignoring nomads

This is the highly charged context into which Ben-Yosef has chosen to throw his theory, which he has been publicizing over the last few years, including with an article in Haaretz.

“Both critical and conservative archaeologists think the same way: if we find a big wall David’s kingdom was big and if we don’t find a big wall David’s kingdom was very small,” he says. “Everyone is following the same misconception, based on a huge preconception about nomads in the region, who are usually compared to modern Bedouins and are seen as incapable of creating sophisticated states without settling down and building large cities.”

Ben-Yosef’s theory is based not on the direct study of the ancient Israelites, but on his years of research in the copper mines at Timna and at other desert sites in the Aravah Valley, which runs along Israel and Jordan’s southern border. In this vast desert landscape, Ben-Yosef and his colleagues have uncovered signs of a technologically advanced operation that extracted and smelted thousands of tons of copper in the early Iron Age (12th-9th centuries B.C.E.), exporting the metal as far as Egypt and Greece.

These were no ragtag scavengers. Those who ran the mines were apparently well fed, with succulent foods brought in from afar, and clothed in expensively dyed fabric.

All this prosperity, which occurred right at the supposed time of King David, was not accompanied by the construction of impressive settlements in the Aravah Valley: the only architecture that archaeologists have found there are some fortifications protecting the copper production sites.

This has led Ben-Yosef to speculate that, during the Early Iron Age, the southern deserts of the Levant, and their precious resources, were controlled by a largely nomadic kingdom, a nation of tribes and tent-dwellers who nonetheless managed to unite and control a vast territory.

So far so good, as most scholars, including Finkelstein, agree that Ben-Yosef’s work has revolutionized our knowledge of the southern Levant in the early Iron Age and that there was indeed some kind of desert polity running things in the Aravah Valley at that time.

But discussions arise with how Ben-Yosef identifies this polity and his attempt to apply his findings to biblical interpretation and other peoples in the region, particularly the ancient Israelites.

Ben-Yosef identifies the desert polity of the Aravah Valley as a tribal confederation of the biblical Edomites, thus indirectly confirming the biblical assertion that there were “kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the children of Israel.” (Genesis 36:31)

Now, just as for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, there is firm evidence of the existence of an Edomite kingdom from the 8th century B.C.E. onwards, whose people inhabited settlements in the highlands of today’s southern Jordan. But there is no such evidence for the early Iron Age, when the copper mines in the Aravah were active, notes Finkelstein.

“It is not impossible that Edom already existed before, but there is no evidence for it and the Bible uses many toponyms to describe regions somewhere in the southern deserts, like Midian, Amalek, Paran and Teman, so what about these other options?” he asks.

For Ben-Yosef, the idea that the Edomite kingdom only arose at a time when settlements appear in the archaeological record is another manifestation of what he calls the “architectural bias.” He also notes that Egyptian papyri in the Late Bronze Age, at the turn of the 13th century B.C.E., already identified a group of nomads from the desert of the southern Levant with the name “Edom” – so calling the polity operating in the region by this name is simply the most parsimonious solution, even if we ignore the Bible, he says.

To your tents, Israel!

Whatever the name of the “proto-Edomite” state, the real question is whether Ben-Yosef’s conclusions can be generalized.

“If these nomads had not engaged in mining, creating smelting camps, mine shafts and thousands of tons of industrial waste, we wouldn’t know anything about them,” he says. “Maybe with a specialized survey we would be able to find a few tent remains, but at best we would still just be able to say that there were a few nomads there, we would know nothing of the sophisticated polity and society they created.”

Ben-Yosef then raises the question as to whether other people, like the Israelites, who lived further north at this time and did not engage in mining, may have created a strong political entity like the Edomites, which however left very little behind because it was formed by non-settled populations, largely invisible to archaeologists.

So, David and Solomon may have reigned over a kingdom with a substantial nomadic population, or, at the very least, archaeology cannot be used to disprove the existence of such a kingdom, he argues.

After all, Ben-Yosef says, the nomadic origin of the Israelites is accepted by the vast majority of scholars, and nomadic culture permeates the Bible. Even during the United Monarchy the early Israelites are described as being mostly nomadic tent-dwellers, for example when the northern tribes rebel against Rehoboam, Solomon’s heir, and form the breakaway Kingdom of Israel.

“So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, what portion have we in David? Neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents.” (1 Kings 12:16)

(Though it should be noted that many scholars consider the reference to tents as figurative). Equally, there might be some truth to the stories of David conquering the Edomites and other neighboring people.

“And David gat him a name when he returned from smiting of the Syrians in the valley of salt, being eighteen thousand men. And he put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom put he garrisons, and all they of Edom became David’s servants.” (2 Samuel 8: 13-14)

The Israelite king didn’t necessarily take control of other territories but may have imposed tributes and made alliances, through war and marriage, as tribal kings are wont to do, Ben-Yosef says.

To make a more recent comparison, no one argues about the historicity of Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire, but there is almost no archaeological evidence on the early, nomadic, days of that empire.

“The lesson here is not that David was like Genghis Khan – but that archaeology is not the adequate tool for studying nomadic polities, and we have to rely mostly on textual evidence,” Ben-Yosef concludes. And of course, when it comes to the early history of the Israelites, the only real text available to us is the Bible.

“Bringing a comparison from Mongolia borders on a farce,” Finkelstein counters. “How can a process related to Mongolia in the Middle Ages be relevant to the Levant in the early Iron Age?”

The senior Israeli archaeologist agrees that the region was home to multiple political entities in this period and that nomads were an important component of those societies. In fact, Finkelstein himself argued multiple times back in the 1990s that nomads may have played a key role in the early history of ancient Israel even as they remained archaeologically difficult to trace.

But unlike Ben-Yosef, Finkelstein argues that once nomads created significant political entities they did, at least partially, settle down and can be identified in the archaeological record.

For example, in the case of the early Edomite state – or whatever it was really called – there are significant early Iron Age remains of a settlement at Tel Masos, in the Be’er Sheva valley, which may have functioned as a capital for this entity, Finkelstein suggests. (Of course, Ben-Yosef disagrees that the Tel Masos settlement belonged to the nomadic kingdom of Edom.)

Equal opportunity offense

Finkelstein also takes issue with what he sees as Ben Yosef’s uncritical reading of the biblical text.

“You cannot sit in 2021 and read a biblical chapter about King David putting a garrison at Edom and take it as a historical description,” he tells Haaretz. “From where I come from, which is critical biblical research, that is unacceptable.”

Decades of research, in which Finkelstein has also taken a key part, have shown that scribal activity and literacy only became relatively widespread in Jerusalem and Judah at the end of the Iron Age (or at the end of the First Temple period), in the eighth-seventh centuries B.C.E. That means that the earliest texts in the Bible could only have been written down hundreds of years after David and Solomon lived – and likely went through further bouts of editing in following centuries, Finkelstein says.

So it is very unlikely that the Bible accurately reflects memories from the early Iron Age, particularly when it comes to areas like Edom which were remote and far removed from Jerusalem and Judah, he concludes.

“Ben-Yosef’s work in the Aravah has no relevance for the study of ancient Israel,” Finkelstein wrote in an article published in the journal Antiguo Oriente. “Dealing with this issue necessitates a different set of analytical approaches from those needed for deciphering archaeological remains in the desert, including biblical exegesis and intimate knowledge of the archaeology of the settled parts of the Levant.”

The argument between these two top researchers is all the more fascinating because it comes from within Tel Aviv University, the bastion of the more critical approach to biblical archaeology in Israel, as opposed to the more conservative school based at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There is also a generational clash at work, with the much younger Ben-Yosef clearly gunning for the role of disruptor in which the more senior Finkelstein has revelled for most of his career.

While his proposed new paradigm looks like a push for a more conservative reading of the Bible, Ben-Yosef insists he is an equal opportunity offender.

“I meet many conservative scholars who are also insulted at my suggestion that King David may have been of ‘lowly’ nomadic origin,” he says. Rethinking the role of people who are often marginalized, both in the present and in our historical outlook, means taking the critical approach one step further, “targeting the archaeological methodology itself, which has stagnated for more than 100 years in everything to do with nomads,” he explains.

He adds he is not trying to establish the historicity of the United Monarchy from an absence of evidence, but is simply calling for a more “humble” approach in using archaeology to decide what happened or didn’t happen.

“It is very frustrating to some, but we as archaeologists cannot really contribute to the discussion on the historicity of the early phases of the Israelite kingdom,” he tells Haaretz. “The sooner we accept that the better.”

Architectural bias

Some colleagues think Ben Yosef’s argument is well-made and refreshing.

Because the biblical texts are so rich and have been written at different times they often represent the same reality – the United Monarchy, the Edomites and so on – in varying ways, notes Noam Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew University. And Ben-Yosef’s theory does fit well with some of the passages that describe these early polities as nomadic kingdoms, which may be historically accurate.

“I think he demonstrated quite convincingly that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean there was nothing there,” Mizrahi says. And this is also valid for the evidence on the spread of writing: “The fact that we don’t have a lot of inscriptions from the 11th or 10th or ninth centuries B.C.E. doesn’t mean that memories could not be transmitted orally.”

For other researchers, Ben-Yosef’s accusation of an architectural bias in archaeology is overstated and cannot be generalized.

“The desert is a very different environment from the Mediterranean one farther to the north, so it’s quite a leap to say that because a polity in one area didn’t have architecture then also the United Monarchy didn’t have it,” notes Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.

“Besides, yes or no on architecture doesn’t make or break the United Monarchy,” Maeir says. There are many other factors that can help us determine the existence of a centralized state: scribal activity; other signs of an administration; mentions of the kingdom in the records of neighboring polities; indications of trade such as imported pottery, he says. And so far, when it comes to Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon, none of this has been found.

Ultimately, you can expect this debate to go on for a long time. On one hand, as Ben-Yosef notes, without the accumulation of waste and the layers of destruction typical of sedentary settlements we can’t expect such evidence to withstand the test of time. But on the other hand, without any concrete proof of an Israelite nomadic kingdom we may be left with a tantalizing theory that is difficult to confirm.

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