How archaeology brings the Bible to life

February 12, 2024 | Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States | Constance Clark Gane, Andrews University

The window shades were drawn and the room dark. It was my final year of college. I had done my share of classroom survival, but this was a different class: “Archaeology and the Bible,” taught by Professor Paul Bork at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California. While others slept, I was wide awake and mesmerized by the graphic connections between historical finds and the biblical narratives.

I became so enthusiastic about the class and topic that Bork finally suggested I might consider going into archaeology myself. That notion was ridiculous to me, and I laughed out loud—I thought it was for older men with whiskery beards.

[Photo: Russ McCabe / Unsplash]

About this time, I heard Siegfried Horn, the “Father of Seventh-day Adventist Archaeology,” give a talk at chapel on correlations between archaeology and the Bible. I was thrilled with every detail that connected history with the Bible. I took out a loan and traveled to Israel to try out field excavation at the Solomonic harbor site at Tell Dor on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, working under Professor David Stronach from the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor Ephraim Stern of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. There were several others who were exploring archaeology as a future career, but at the end of the summer season I was the only one who declared, “This is where I belong!” The combination of my hands in the dirt, disciplined physical work, recording the findings, and correlating the rich finds with the biblical events, not to mention the daily refreshing swim in the salty sea, gave me an enthusiasm and passion for life in the archaeological world that I have never lost.

Bringing the Bible to Life

The Bible gives us an account of God’s interactions with our physical world and with a specific segment of humanity. It gives us a theological perspective that is couched in historical events, but it is not a complete history of any culture or civilization. The field of biblical archaeology provides fascinating details that substantiate and validate the historicity of the biblical setting. In other words, archaeological finds may be correlated with many of the physical, cultural, and religious details described in the Bible.

Archaeology, however, has limitations that have to be acknowledged. Ancient sites relevant to the biblical narrative were often destroyed in antiquity. Fires, wars, famines, and abandonment have left the sites in ruins. The material remains found through excavations are fragmentary, and only a fraction of any given site has been excavated. When my husband, Roy, and I were traveling across Iraq in the late 1980s, we were amazed to see numerous high mounds, or ancient sites, dotting the open landscape. Some had been partially explored, but many more had never been touched.

Our knowledge, though great, is so very limited. When there are apparent discrepancies between archaeological finds and the biblical record, one cannot be forced to agree with the other. It is crucial to keep both the biblical and the archaeological data separate for the integrity of the disciplines.

Extrabiblical Information and the Bible

Finding points of commonality between archaeological finds and the biblical narrative is an exciting and rewarding experience. There are many finds from which our rich collections of ever-expanding illustrated Bible commentaries and study Bibles draw. The cuneiform texts found at the ancient site of Nuzi (modern Yorghan Tepe), located in northern Iraq, provide a fascinating window into the everyday world of ancient Near Eastern patriarchal life (Early and Middle Bronze periods, c. 2000–1500 B.C.).1

For example, Abram determined that since God had not blessed him with an heir, his servant Eliezer would be his heir (Gen. 15:2). This practice is also seen in accounts from Nuzi in which a childless man could adopt his servant to become an heir.2

A marriage contract from Nuzi makes allowance for a barren wife to acquire a slave girl as a concubine for her husband. If the slave girl has a child by the husband, the wife is to have authority over that child.3 This reminds us of what Sarai asked of Abram when she requested that her maid Hagar be taken by Abram to fulfill God’s promise of a child (Gen. 16). These are only two of the numerous similarities found between the biblical patriarchal narratives and the ancient culture and society revealed at Nuzi.

Ancient Near Eastern backgrounds have also enhanced the study of the private and public lives of biblical women. The book of Esther refers to the gathering of beautiful women from across the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. While we have no extrabiblical evidence (yet) for Esther the queen or for this particular gathering, we do have evidence of other gatherings. The Babylonian Chronicle from Babylon in Iraq, of the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes III (359/358–338 B.C.), describes the taking of Sidonian women to the king’s palace after the king defeated Sidon. The relevant portions of the text read: “The fourteenth [year] of . . . Artaxerxes (III): . . . On the sixteenth day the . . . women prisoners from Sidon, which the king sent to Babylon—on that day they entered the palace of the king.”4

Though we do not know how these Sidonian women would have been groomed for their future positions, we know something about the possible process from the story of Esther. The biblical account tells us that the young women went through 12 months of preparations, with six months dedicated to treatments with perfumes. Fragrant oils and spices were exported from Persia, India, and Arabia.5 Cuboid spice burners, like those found at the Israelite city of Lachish (in modern Israel) and the Babylonian city of Nippur (in modern Iraq), were most likely used as cosmetic burners for this type of aromatic treatment.6 This type of incense burner has a long history in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula and continues to be used today.7 The spices burned on them would have been “chosen for the combination of scents, insect repellents, and therapeutic purposes.”8 A woman stood over the burning incense, thus perfuming her bare skin beneath her clothing.9 Other forms of incense burners come in the form of stands often placed near important individuals. These can be seen on the Persepolis relief depicting the seated Darius the Great (now in the Archaeological Museum, Tehran) and the cylinder seal of a seated woman with attendants (on display at the Louvre Museum).10

Biblical People in Extrabiblical Sources

Confirmation of biblical individuals not otherwise mentioned in extrabiblical sources continues to exercise our patience and faith. Outside of the Bible, there is no ancient Near Eastern verification of several prominent individuals such as Zaphnath-Paaneah (Joseph), Belteshazzar (Daniel), and Esther (Hadassah).

This was once true for the Assyrian king Sargon II, who is mentioned only once, in Isaiah 20:1, and was believed to be an example of the biblical author’s ignorance. An entire city, Dur-Sharrukin (literally translated as “Fortress of Sargon,” modern Khorsabad), however, was discovered north of Nineveh by the French consul general at Mosul, Paul-Émile Botta.11 Not only did the entire city bear the name of the hitherto-unknown Assyrian king, but his name appeared repeatedly on inscriptions, which also recorded his attack on Israel.

Similarly, mention of Belshazzar as the last king of Babylon in the book of Daniel (Dan. 5, 7, and 8), was used as proof that the author was unfamiliar with Babylonian history. Eventually, four identical Late Babylonian cylinders engraved with cuneiform were found on top of the Sin ziggurat at the site of Ur on which were written a prayer to the moon god, Sin, for the protection of Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar.12 Eventually other cuneiform tablets, such as the “Verse Account of Nabonidus,” were found which mention Nabonidus’ journey to Teima and that he left his firstborn (Belshazzar) in charge of Babylon.13

A tablet housed in the British Museum and analyzed by Assyriologist Michael Jursa has a rare correlation with a nonroyal individual mentioned in Jeremiah 39. The royal administrative tablet from the Babylonian city of Sippar dates to 595 B.C., the ninth year of Nebuchadnezzar II. One of the highest officials in the Babylonian court, the “chief eunuch” of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebo-Sarsekim, is recorded as giving an offering of gold at the Ésagila, the temple of Marduk, in Babylon. This official is the same Nebo-Sarsekim mentioned by name in Jeremiah 39, whom Nebuchadnezzar orders to guard and protect the prophet Jeremiah in 587 B.C., when King Zedekiah was taken captive.14

Such extraordinary discoveries make the stories in the Bible become even more alive. Thousands of other cuneiform tablets in numerous museums remain to be deciphered. Who knows what else we might discover?

Conclusion

As a biblical archaeologist, I am passionate about making connections between the dusty remains found in the dirt of excavations and the biblical narrative. Archaeology adds to our growing knowledge of the biblical world in new and exciting ways. We know and understand details, issues, conflicts, and relationships as never before in the history of biblical studies. We take much of this knowledge for granted, not realizing that just 25 years ago our understanding of the biblical world was much more limited. Exegesis of the biblical text, the study of biblically relevant ancient languages and texts, archaeological excavations of historical remains—each of these areas of study enrich our reading of the Bible. As exciting as these finds are, it is not these fine details but the knowledge that we can have a deep and abiding relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that gives us confidence in the validity of Scripture. It is the love for Scripture and the world of the Bible that drives me forward to continue exploring, learning, and broadening my horizons.

1 Maynard Paul Maidman, Nuzi Texts and Their Uses as Historical Evidence, ed. Ann Guinan (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), p. 4.

2 James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 219; John H. Walton, “Genesis,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), vol. 1, pp. 84, 85 (citing note 343).

3 Walton, pp. 86, 87; see also Pritchard, p. 220.

4 Translation of ABC 9 in A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2000), p. 114.

5 Joyce G. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), p. 68.

6 The Nippur Incense Burner (B15521) is at the Penn Museum.

7 William G. Zimmerle, “From History to Heritage: The Arabian Incense Burner,” in Gulf in World History: Arabian, Persian and Global Connections, ed. Allen James Fromherz (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), ebook.

8 William F. Albright, “The Lachish Cosmetic Burner and Esther 2:12,” in A Light Unto My Path: Old Testament Studies in Honor of Jacob Meyers, ed. H. N. Bream, R. D. Heim, and C. A. Moore (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), p. 28.

9 Ibid., pp. 28, 29.

10 The Darius I Relief is in the Archaeological Museum at Tehran, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Darius-I. Cylinder seal: https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010147091.

11 Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1849), vol. 1, pp. 1-10.

12 One of the cylinders is located at the British Museum (BM 91125).

13 Pritchard, pp. 312, 313; “Verse Account of Nabonidus” (BM 38299).

14 Jonathan Taylor, “The Babylonian Captivity,” in Babylon, ed. I. L. Finkel and M. J. Seymour (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 145, fig. 128. The tablet is in the British Museum (BM 114789).


Constance Clark Gane is associate research professor of archaeology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

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