By Dr. Dan Olinger
“I besieged and conquered Samaria and led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants of it.” These are the words of the Assyrian emperor Sargon II, the man who sent his general, Sennacherib, to bring God’s judgment on the backslidden Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. But these words are not from the Bible; they emerged from the Near Eastern sands centuries later as a silent but eloquent witness to the truth of the Biblical account.
Nearly all Christians realize that a large portion of the Old Testament is history. They also believe that this history is true. What they may not know is that secular historical records confirm much of the history that God has given us. Though we would believe God’s Word even if every “scholar” in the world scoffed at it, it is interesting nonetheless to see God’s Word confirmed by those who would rather not believe it.
Biblical archaeology has undergone a major shift in emphasis in the last few decades. in its early years, the main goal of many Biblical archaeologists was to shed light on the Biblical accounts, for two reasons. First, they wanted to show that the Bible is a. unique book, a supernatural one; they wanted to convince unbelievers of the inspiration of Scripture. Second, they wanted to fulfill a devotional mission for those who already recognized the Bible’s divine origin; they wanted to help believers learn more about the Book that was the focus of their life.
That is no longer the case. A great many, if not most, archaeologists working in the Near East do not recognize the Scripture as anything more than a record of one people’s faith. Their goal is to uncover texts and cultural artifacts that shed light on the history and culture of the Near Eastern peoples and to help modern students understand them. They particularly want to demonstrate the cultural evolution of the peoples they study—where did their ideas come from? how did those ideas develop?
In short, Biblical archaeology has gone from being an essentially religious activity, with spiritual goals, to being just another field of scholarship. Most liberal Bible scholars, of course, see this as a great step forward and hope that this “maturation” will bring their field greater recognition from more secular scholarly fields, such as history, linguistics and anthropology. Many who spend their days painstakingly brushing dirt away from excavation sites would bristle at the suggestion that the Bible is a supernatural book. They have little use for what used to be called Biblical archaeology, and very little of the old form of that discipline is practiced anymore.
All of this makes it only more remarkable that the discoveries of these scholars still show the Bible in a unique light. The history recorded in Scripture is still being confirmed even though few if any archaeologists expend any effort in that direction. What follows are some of the leading examples of archaeological finds that confirm the Scripture’s historical accounts. Two major finds appear first; the rest are roughly in chronological order.
The Nuzi Tablets
In 1925 on a site near the Tigris River in northern Iraq (about 145 miles north of Baghdad), archaeologists discovered the ancient city of Nuzi. With it they found a wealth of social records that tell us much about the customs prevailing during the time of Abraham and before.
For example, one tablet describes the adoption of a man named Wullu by someone named Nashwi, who needed an heir. Wullu would be the legal heir unless Nashwi later had a natural son. This record explains perfectly why Abraham adopted his slave, Eliezer of Damascus, as a sort of “conditional heir” (Gen. 15:2-4). Another tablet records a court decision obligating a barren wife, Kelim-ninu, to provide a substitute to bear children to her husband, Shennima. This is exactly what Sarah (Gen. 16:1, 2) and Rachel (30:1-3) did. The same tablet also says that if the barren wife later bore children, the offspring of the substitute could not be sent away. This may well be the reason that Abraham needed divine reassurance before he would allow Sarah to expel Ishmael (21:9-14).
Finally, another tablet points out that the family idols were the symbols of inheritance rights and that natural sons would receive these idols before adopted sons would. Rachel’s theft of her father’s idols (31: 19) was an attempt to steal the inheritance from her brothers. That is why Laban and the boys made such an extensive search for them (vv. 22, 23).
This is not to say, of course, that the Patriarchs lived under Nuzi’s laws. The Nuzi tablets reveal to us, however, that certain family and community practices described in Genesis were likely common throughout the Middle East.
The Ebla Tablets
One of the most interesting recent finds is the city of Ebla (Tell Mardikh), about 180 miles north of Damascus, Syria. This city was apparently a major commercial center about 2500 BC, 600 years before Abraham A fire in its library baked hundreds of clay tablets and preserved them for modern students. There is considerable controversy over the translation of much of this material and little can be said for certain. Some scholars have even suggested that nothing in Ebla has any relevance to the Bible and the early work of some conservative scholars is being viewed with suspicion. One of the most controversial issues is the reading of some passages that may mention the name of Sodom—if so, it is the first known mention of Sodom outside the Scripture.
The scribes at Ebla kept careful records of tribute received from the kings of neighboring cities These records indicate, for example, that Ebla received from Mari more than 1,000 talents of silver and gold in one year. This figure has Biblical significance because Solomon is said to have received 666 talents of gold annually from his entire kingdom (1 Kings 10:14). Liberal scholars had scoffed at the idea of gold in such quantities. (This would amount to several tons per year.) Yet the Eblaite scribes wrote matter-of-factly that their city received half again as much in silver and gold from a single tribute city. And since this was a scribal activity—an act of bookkeeping—it is unlikely that the number was inflated for political purposes. (For more about Ebla, see National Geographic, 12/78.)
Other finds with biblical significance
Several Old Testament passages mention “Shishak, king of Egypt”: he gave sanctuary to Jeroboam when the latter fled from Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:40), and he later attacked Jerusalem, taking booty but unable to conquer it completely (2 Chron. 12:2-4, 9, 12). The victory stela (monument) of “Shishonq” at Karnak, Egypt, records his campaign into Palestine and lists the cities he conquered. Conspicuous by its absence is Jerusalem: he never claimed to have conquered it. Jeroboam’s later construction projects at Shechem and Penuel (1 Kings 12:25) were probably reconstructions after Shishak’s campaign; both cities are listed on the stela as conquered.
The Moabite Stone, dating from about 830 BC, mentions Moabite battles with Omri and his son (the Biblical Ahab) and claims a victory at Nebo, after which Mesha, the king of Moab, “took from there the [. . .] of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh.” (The ellipsis indicates a missing fragment in the stone.) This mention of Yahweh by a foreign king is extremely significant.
Many of the kings of Israel and Judah are recorded in Assyrian inscriptions. Ahab’s name appears on a bull statue in Calah, near Nineveh; Shalmaneser III’s famous Black Obelisk pictures Jehu paying tribute to the Assyrian monarch; Tiglath-Pileser III (called “Pul” in 2 Kings 15:19) claims to have collected tribute from Menahem of Samaria, as 2 Kings 15:19 and 20 record. The same annals of Tiglath-Pileser say, “[The Samarians] overthrew their king Pekah and I placed Hoshea as king over them.” This event is recorded in 2 Kings 15:29 and 30.
Deir Alla lies just across the Jordan River from Israel, near the site of Penuel, where Jacob wrestled with the angel the night before entering the land to meet his brother Esau. Inscriptions there clearly mention Balaam the son of Beor, the man who was a seer of the gods [elohin] (cf. Num. 22:5ff.) and record some of his pagan prophecies; though only in fragments. Evidence from the site also demonstrates that the site was destroyed by an earthquake, which may well be the one referred to in Amos 1:1 and Zechanah 14:5. That earthquake occurred during Uzziah’s reign in the eighth century BC, during which this site was active (Biblical Archaeology Review [BAR], 9/85).
In Scriptural genealogies, generations are often omitted: a man will be called the son of his grandfather or great-grandfather. For example, Jehu is called the son of Nimshi (1 Kings 19:16; 2 Kings 9:20), when he was actually the son of Jehoshaphat, the son of Nimshi (2 Kings 9:2). For years liberals cited such occurrences as classic examples of historical errors in Scripture. But ancient Near Eastern genealogies routinely do this; the omissions were considered acceptable, and the reader was expected to recognize them as a literary technique for the purpose of the writer. For example, an inscription at the temple of Taharqa names Sesostris III, who lived in 1880 BC, as the father of Taharqa, who lived in 680 BC.
Archaeologists have recently purchased from local artifact dealers several extremely significant bullae. (Bullae were the little lumps of clay used to fasten strings that were tied around small scrolls or other rolled documents. The clay was usually impressed with a seal and used to ensure privacy) Several of these bullae mention Baruch, the son of Neriah, who was Jeremiah’s scribe (Jer. 364) Interestingly, he is also called Berachiah, or “blessed by Yahweh,” which was apparently a longer form of his name. Other bullae carry the seal of Jerahmeel, son of “the king”—clearly King Jehoiakim. Jerahmeel was sent from Jehoiakim to arrest Jeremiah (v. 26). These “˜bullae’ might well have sealed that very arrest warrant, and those bearing Baruch’s seal might have accompanied the very manuscripts that the king had earlier shredded and thrown on the fire (v. 23), or perhaps the property deed for the purchase Jeremiah had made at the Lord’s command, for we know that this document bore a seal (32: 10-15) (BAR 9/87).
Arad lies in southern Israel, in the Negev or wilderness Among tablets found there, dated about 600 BC, is one containing an almost desperate plea for reinforcements to be sent from Arad to a nearby city. They were needed immediately to repel invaders from Edom, farther to the south. We know that Edom took delight in Israel’s suffering under Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion and would not help the fleeing Israelites escape (Ps. 137:7; Obad. 1,10-14). These documents show the Edomites actually attacking Israel’s soft underbelly as Nebuchadnezzar kept the dying kingdom focused on self-preservation (BAR 3/87).
About the same time, a military outpost in Lachish engaged in repeated correspondence with headquarters at another (unknown) site. These “Lachish Letters” describe the worsening situation as the Babylonian invasion proceeded. They record that only Lachish and Jerusalem were yet unconquered. Thus they must have been written just after Jeremiah 34:7, which states that a third town, Azekiah, had not yet fallen In the Lachish Letters, the signature from Azekah is no longer visible (BAR 3/84).
Nehemiah speaks of an Arabian named Geshem, or Gashmu (219, 6:1-6) His name has been found inscribed on a silver bowl discovered in the Nile Delta He is identified there as the king of Qedar, now northern Saudi Arabia. Since this land held the main trading route from Asia to Egypt, Geshem was a powerful figure in his day. This fact explains why his words carried so much weight in Nehemiah 6: 6.
Perhaps the most interesting account in the Assyrian records is that of Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem, cited at the beginning of this article (2 Kings 18:9ff.; 2 Chron. 32:1ff.; Isa. 36:1ff.). The Bible tells us that in response to Hezekiah’s prayer, the Angel of the Lord killed 185, 000 Assyrian soldiers, forcing Sennacherib to return home. Of course Sargon, the Assyrian ruler, would not wish to record such a stunning defeat. He wrote, “I made [Hezekiah] a prisoner in Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage” But he did not claim to have defeated him and he did not say why his general was unable to do so.
The Bible says that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We do not need secular history to tell us that we can trust the record of the Scriptures. But it should come as no surprise to us that since that record is true, it is frequently backed by secular history. The examples listed here are just a smattering of the scores of parallels between secular ancient Near Eastern and Biblical history. As time goes on and more discoveries are made, we can expect more and more confirmation of the truth of the Scriptures, as well as the disproving of supposed “historical facts” that contradict the Biblical record.
We have every reason to trust our lives and our souls to the Author of this remarkable Book.
Dan Olinger is a faculty member in the School of Religion at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, USA. Article reprinted by permission from FrontLine magazine. Originally published in Faith for the Family, Oct./Nov. 1982. Copyright 1982, 1996 by Bob Jones University.