Missing testimony of the spade
I'm working on a book about the fulfillment of Jeremiah's amazing oracles foretelling the downfall of many nations at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jeremiah 25 and later). Dealing with the topic properly requires some attention to the archaeological record which in turn requires some serious study of what the trowel, brush and spade can tell us. Oh to have the time to complete a full tertiary course in archaeology and to indulge in some serious field work! Too late for that, unfortunately. I will have to rest content with some quiet online and library time.
Even a nodding acquaintance with archaeology will make you aware of the deep skepticism most modern archaeologists have towards the historicity of the Bible, ranging from outright rejection of every word of Scripture as orally-transmitted mythology at best or a shallow hoax at worst to an acceptance of some biblical stories as having a foundation in real events. Those few archaeologists who believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture are regarded with bemusement by the secular archaeologists, and dismissed as ignorant fundamentalists.
William Dever is a well-known moderate voice among professional archaeologists. Though not a theist, he does believe that Scripture sheds some light on events in ancient times - but not much. Like the vast majority of today's archaeologists and historians, he rejects the biblically-revealed fifteenth century dating for the Exodus of Israel from Egypt (based on 1 Kings 6) and plumps for a middle to late 13 th century Exodus. Speaking of the scripturally-supported date of around 1446 for the Exodus, he says,
But such a high date does not accord at all with the archaeological record in Palestine; today only a handful of diehard fundamentalists would argue in its favor.1
I hate to suspect any disingenuousness on the part of anybody, but he then goes on to show that since the archaeological record for the later date (that he and others argue for) doesn't provide any evidence of the conquest under Joshua then it must never have happened. Hang on. If the archaeological record gives no comfort for a conquest at either time, why insist that the Exodus that never happened must have not happened hundreds of years after the Bible says it happened? (That sentence was deliberately absurd.) I repeat, Dever is a moderate. You should see what others say!
Concerning the biblical account of the Israelite passage through the nations of Edom and Moab while Moses was still alive (Num. 20-21), Dever says that the entire account is erroneous. Why, for instance, the Bible says that the king of Edom refused to allow the Israelites passage through his territory (Num. 20:18), but today's archaeologists know (they think they do) that ". there cannot have been a king of Edom to have denied the Israelites access, since Edom did not achieve any kind of statehood until the 7 th century B.C. (p. 28). They know that because they haven't found any serious evidence of Late Bronze Age (the period in which the Israelites would have passed through the area by their reckoning - had they actually ever done so) settlements in the region.
In short, the Israelites never were in Egypt, they did not camp at Kadesh-Barnea in the Sinai wilderness for thirty some years, they did not pass through Edom and Moab on the way to the Holy Land, which latter they never conquered. Archaeologists know all this because they can't find the archaeological evidence. Lots of amazing sites have been found over the years proving that tells do tell tales. But where is the evidence the Israelites lived in Egypt, of the wilderness wanderings in the desert, of the violent conquest of the Canaanites at the time the archaeologists say they would have happened if only they had happened?
Well, obviously, this is a topic for a book - and hundreds have already been written. I would say just a few things, noting at the outset that believers should be as skeptical about the conclusions of skeptics as skeptics are about Scripture. First, concerning the Israelites in Egypt, for instance, what evidence do you expect to find?
A second, more likely explanation is that we have had unrealistic expectations as to what archaeology can deliver. After all, what evidence, short of an inscription in a Proto-Canaanite script stating "bricks made by Hebrew slaves" would be considered proof that the Israelites were in Egypt?2
Second, how iron-clad are archaeological dating schemes? Concerning the archaeological evidence for a violent destruction of Canaanite settlements, John Bimson argues persuasively that, if, first, you look for evidence closer to the biblically-revealed dating scheme and, second, are willing to question the accuracy of GADs (Generally Accepted Dates) when warranted, then you can indeed find the evidence for such a conquest:
When we look at the archaeological history of Palestine as conventionally understood [the fifteenth century date], we find no evidence of a wave of destruction. which could be interpreted as Israel's conquest of Canaan. However, about a century earlier in the archaeological record we do find such a wave of destruction. I have argued in detail elsewhere that these destructions are the missing evidence for Israel's arrival in Canaan, and that they should be redated accordingly.3
Third, and most importantly, many settlements have vanished without a trace for any number of reasons. Anti-biblical archaeologists just don't want to admit that absence of evidence should not be taken as evidence of absence. Were it not for the written records, we would have no idea what the temple in Jerusalem looked like. Or even that one ever stood on the Temple Mount!
Who can prove that there were no urban settlements in Edom - as Dever asserts - when the Israelites sought to pass through? The ancients could be a pretty savage lot, and were sometimes given to completely removing every vestige of conquered enemy fortifications. When Jerusalem was threatened by the Babylonians, the Edomites stood on the sidelines urging the Babylonians to,
Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation! (Ps. 137:7).
And they did — at least as far as the temple is concerned. When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity and built a new temple where the first had stood they even had to lay new foundations (Ezra 3:6). Was that a common practice? Was it applied to entire cities? The Edomites had to take some of their own medicine shortly afterwards:
Edom also shall be an astonishment; everyone who goes by it will be astonished and will hiss at all its plagues (Jer. 49:17).
Jeremiah had also prophesied concerning Edom and other nations that Nebuchadnezzar would "utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations" (25:9). What did he mean? Total destruction? That some ruins have been found doesn't negate that possibility. Cities that capitulated without putting up resistance were undoubtedly spared. Throw into the mix the simple thought that even the ancients recycled building materials; "the original foundation-walls were used by later builders who needed the stones elsewhere".4
The wonder lies not in the absence of archaeological evidence for many biblically-mentioned places and events but in the number of the remains and artifacts that have been preserved and uncovered.
1Who Were the Early Israelites, and Where did They Come From?, p. 8
2 J. K. Hoffmeier, Out of Egypt: The Archaeological Context of the Exodus, Biblical Archaeology Review, 33:01, Jan/Feb 2007
3John Bimson, Exodus and Conquest — Myth or Reality? (pdf)
4 Cornelis de Geus, The Profile of an Israelite City, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 224-227