Saturday, February 7, 2015

Using Historical Information to Answer Old Testament Questions

What use is history in the study of the Old Testament?

A friend asks the following question about Joshua 1:3-4 ("Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast."):
What do you make of the fact that Israel never attained the borders described here? 1 Kings 5:1 describes Solomon as ruling this entire land, but rather than rule directly, he ruled through vassal states that owed him tribute. The people of Israel did not occupy that land even when Solomon controlled it.
It is hard to know where to start with a question like this. As phrased the question reflects a profound ignorance of both the ancient world and the Bible. My friend has unfortunately only read the scriptural text and has had a little second-hand exposure to literary-critical scholarship, but never really delved into history or archaeology. The description of the lands that Solomon ruled over is in 1 Kings 4:21-24, not 1 Kings 5:1:
And Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the river unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt: they brought presents, and served Solomon all the days of his life. . . . For he had dominion over all the region on this side the river, from Tiphsah even to Azzah, over all the kings on this side the river: and he had peace on all sides round about him. (1 Kings 4:21, 24)
So the biblical text actually says that in the days of Solomon Israel did attain the borders described in Joshua. (Azzah is modern Gaza; Tiphsah is on the Euphrates). But what about the rule through vassal states?
It was actually typical to rule over this territory through vassal states as we know from Hittite inscriptions, the El-Amarna tablets, the Idrimi inscription, the Azitiwada inscription from Karatepe, and the Assyrian inscriptions. The Hittites, Egyptians, and Assyrians all had empires covering this area that were ruled through vassal states. Judah and Israel themselves became, at times, vassal states. Even the book of Judges describes the typical functioning of vassal states. It is not clear why Solomon should be an exception.

Here the inscriptional evidence discovered by archaeology can help.

The following maps show where monumental Neo-Hittite inscriptions (mostly royal inscriptions) left by various kingdoms north of Israel. Monumental inscriptions attest independent kingdoms.

These are the locations of inscriptions that date to the tenth century. This is the time of Solomon.

Neo-Hittite States in the Tenth Century B.C.
At this time, the kingdoms of Karkamesh and Melid (known from the eleventh century) are joined by the kingdoms of Kummuh, Gurgum, Masuwari and Halab. Halab is the furthest south that an independent kingdom exists.

In this map we see inscriptions dating to the ninth century. This is the time of Elijah:
Neo-Hittite States in the Ninth Century B.C.
At this time, kingdoms of Unqi, Hamath, Que, and those of the region of Tabal join the list (although Melid is not attested at this time).The Tabal region needs a special note as this is a region populated by individual independent kingdoms on a smaller scale than the larger kingdoms in the south east. So while the colored dots represent parts of larger states, the grey ones are independent.

The kingdom of Hamath, which is mentioned in the Bible as being immediately north of Israel, appears as an independent entity at this time.

To the east of Hamath was the Aramaean state of Aram-Damascus. But
It is only towards the end of the 10th century B.C. that Damascus becomes a significant political entity in the Levant as capital of an Aramaean state.
(Edward Lipinski, The Aramaeans: Their Ancient History, Culture, Religion [Leuven: Peeters, 2000], 367.)
In fact:
With the death of Solomon and the division of his kingdom into two small rival states of Israel and Judah began the political ascendancy of Damascus in southern Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan.
(Lipinski, The Aramaeans, 370.)
So Aram-Damascus mainly comes into play in the ninth century.

In the last map, we see inscriptions dating to the eighth century. This is the century of the Assyrian conquests:
Neo-Hittite States in the Eighth Century B.C.
During this time, the Assyrian empire swallowed up many of these kingdoms. The inscriptions come from the earlier part of the century.

So looking at these maps, one of the things that we can notice is precisely at the time period of Solomon, we do not have independent kingdoms in the area of Solomon's empire while we do have them later. This is not proof that Solomon controlled all this area but is evidence consistent with that hypothesis.

Thus the archaeological and epigraphic evidence supports the biblical account of Solomon controlling the area up to the Euphrates. If Israel controlled that territory, this would mean, in turn, that Israel did obtain the borders that the Lord described in Joshua even if they did not hold the territory long. Unfortunately, the basis of my friend's question is thoroughly wrong. From a historical background, the question does not even make sense.

This example illustrates why it might be useful to know something about the history, archaeology, and epigraphy of the ancient world and not limit ourselves to literary, theological, or philosophical approaches to scripture.