What was King David’s Israel like? The answer is not set in stone

How was an ancient kingdom supposed to be to qualify as rich and powerful?

An Israeli scholar argues that for too long, the answer to this question has been suffering from an inherent, sometimes even unconscious bias: the need to find evidence for palaces, large cities, and all those elements that in a Western world mindset would suggest prosperity and prosperity. influence.

“The biblical story is about nomads,” said Professor Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University. “Almost everyone agrees that ancient Israel grew out of a nomadic society, and so do neighboring kingdoms, the Moabites, the Edomites, the Amorites, who were established by coalitions of nomadic tribes.”

As Ben-Yosef pointed out in a recent article published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archeology, until now, the consensus among scholars has been that before a society became sedentary, it could not be considered complex or evolved. For this reason, many have dismissed the idea that ancient Israel could be as powerful as described in the Bible.

However, to understand the Israel of King David and King Solomon, a new approach is required, one that leaves behind the need for remains of magnificent buildings but is able to ask the right questions and put the archaeological and historical records into the picture. correct perspective. .

The excavation of the royal estate discovered in Jerusalem. In the background is the City of David and the Temple Mount. (credit: YOLI SCHWARTZ / IAA)

“The problem is that when we think of nomads, we immediately think of modern Bedouins and we find ourselves trapped in a certain mental box,” Ben-Yosef noted. “Time to put this box down.”

According to the scholar, the error is understandable.

“Normally archeology does not offer us the possibility to study nomadic societies and their material culture, so we base our conclusion on assumptions,” he said.

Tents, in fact, leave no remains for millennia.

“At the same time, archaeologists have wanted to be important players in the discussion about the historicity of the Bible and have claimed that they could see more than they could,” argued Ben-Yosef. “However, we now have very strong evidence that this approach was wrong and that what we thought about nomads in the ancient Land of Israel was wrong.”

FOR THE LAST eight years, the archaeologist has been excavating in Timna, where he is currently the director of excavation.

Located in the Arava in southern Israel, the site was traditionally associated with King Solomon and his kingdom dating back some 3,000 years, until some archaeological remains discovered in the late 1960s suggested that its ancient copper mines were operated by the Egyptian Empire for two centuries. earlier.

However, in recent years, radiocarbon dating of organic material found at Timna showed that the site’s most intense activity occurred around 1000 BC. C., the time of David and Solomon.

According to Ben-Yosef, the site was part of the nomadic Edomite Kingdom, but could have been under the control of nomadic Israel as the Bible suggests. Crucially, Timna presents ample evidence that societies did not need to be sedentary or leave large palaces to be rich and influential.

“In the past there was a consensus that only one empire could be responsible for such a huge operation, requiring thousands of workers, but at the time the mines were active, there was no empire in the region, but only these tribes and coalition of tribes that functioned as kingdoms, without building cities, “he said.

Only the fact that this specific nomadic political organization dedicated to copper production allowed evidence of its complexity to survive: the mining activity left tons of copper slab at the site and, since their occupation lasted a long time, they were also unearthed other finds, including pottery. and organic remains that were preserved thanks to the dry climate.

The remains include refined foods such as almonds and fish and even fabrics dyed with the purple argaman, the most expensive pigment of the time and a status symbol of the elites in the ancient societies of the southern Levant.

So what were the contemporary kingdoms of David and Solomon like?

According to Ben-Yosef, a significant part of the population still lived in tents.

“As was common at the time, it was a mixed society with some people living in tents and others in buildings,” he said. “As the biblical author tells us, over time more people settled, but many continued to live in tents until the destruction of the First Temple.”

In addition, at that time, also ruling or controlling another population did not depend on the fortresses built to supervise them, it could be based on the collection of taxes or agreements, as also described in the Bible, for example, regarding the relationship between Israel . and Edom.

“The biblical text is complex and contains some prejudices and exaggerations, but I think it contains much more truth than many suppose,” said Ben-Yosef.

“We cannot use archeology in the way it has been used until today to study the historicity of the Bible, we need to recognize reality,” he concluded. “We can’t just keep looking for walls, our rules must change.”


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