The quest for the origins of ancient Israel’s god in the 21st Century: From Biblical archaeology to digital humanities
“In March 2022, a group of scholars announced to the world the decipherment of an inscription –found in the West Bank – allegedly containing the earliest reference to ancient Israel’s god, Yahweh, igniting a fierce scholarly debate that is still reverberating. This announcement takes us to one of the most important questions of the history of religions: Where did Yahweh come from?” said Juan Manuel Tebes of the Catholic University and the National Research Council of Argentina.
Tebes explained that the researchers found what they think is a curse tablet at Mount Ebal – also called the ’Joshua’s Altar’ – which was originally excavated in the 1980s. The tablet would contain an inscription in ancient Hebrew believed to date to the late Bronze Age (15th century BCE) which would make it the oldest Hebrew inscription found to date and hinting to a much earlier existence of followers of the Hebrew god Yahweh than previously believed, thus constituting a ’game changer’ according to the scholars involved in its decipherment.
The oldest, and most favoured, theory about Yahweh’s origins – the Midianite Hypothesis – proposes that Yahweh was originally a Midianite deity and that the origins of Yahwism are not in Canaan, but instead in the area south of the Levant and the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula.
“Despite its possible merits, this hypothesis is still based on nineteenth-century scholarship, with interpretation and dating of biblical texts that are now heavily contested. It also relies on outdated diffusionist ideas as the only explanation of cultural change, while providing no socio-historical contextualisation for the emergence of Yahwism in the arid south.”
Other non-biblical sources for Yahweh’s existence include those from the New Kingdom Egyptian temples of Amara West and Soleb in modern Sudan and Kuntillet Ajrud – a site dating to the late 9th/early 8th centuries BCE in the northeast Sinai Peninsula.
Tebes explained that the golden period of biblical archaeology was the 1920s to 1940s under the British colonial mandate. “It is still suspected of following the tenets of that period – including the strong attachment to biblical texts.”
“Biblical archaeology is full of sensational claims that rewrite history,” he added, “not always supported by evidence.”
Tebes believes that these deadlocks can only be resolved via a radical re-focus. “Instead of seeing the genesis of Yahwism as a special case in the history of the southern desert religions, we have to centre our attention on the latter as an independent subject of research, (re)incorporating Yahweh into his original sociocultural context.”
“The emergence of Yahwism has been studied in a socio-cultural vacuum,” he said.
The desert origins of God
Tebes has therefore initiated the ‘Desert Cults Mapping Project’ (DCMP) which studies the sacred landscapes of the southern arid margins of the Levant (southern Jordan/Israel) through an interdisciplinary approach at the intersection between digital humanities and archaeological research. Drawing from archaeological surveys, geospatial technology and historical sources, the project looks at the distribution and material culture of cultic and burial sites of the mostly semi-pastoral peoples that lived in the area from the Neolithic to the Early Islamic period (10 000 BCE-1000 CE).
Tebes is asking questions like: What was the social context in which Yahweh’s cult emerged? How were the religious experiences shaped by the interactions between the local cults and the religions that penetrated from the outside?
He explained that the idea is to study how cultic and mortuary traditions grew and developed, and to explore how sacred landscapes correlated with shifting relations of power and cultural influence. This region is one of the most studied areas of the Near East, encompasses thousands of archaeological sites in pristine condition, and is a key area for the history of Yahwism, Christianity and early Islam.
“This research problem needs studying now, correcting the bias towards the textual and pictorial evidence of the small literate circles that are peripheral to these areas,” he said.
The spatial and archaeological data and maps will be available through an on-line, open-access digital repository. The database has been built since 2019 and already includes 5000 known sites offering digital representation of open-court shrines, rock-cut shrines, standing stones and tumuli or cairns (which at 53% form the bulk).
Sweat and dust
Tebes has also been involved directly in excavation work in southern Jordan since 2013. This, along with a field school, is undertaken in collaboration with Waterloo University in Canada, and Tebes described it as hard work involving “sweat, dust and lack of sleep”.
“It’s a hot, arid world with lots of sand in which the landscape can become transformed by sand dunes which are removed with tractors,” he said. “We then use pole aerial photography to record the sites before the next dune develops.”
He added that excavation is often based on guesswork. “It’s trial and error. We may start digging, find nothing and leave. Ground-penetrating radar has been used sometimes but only once you know there is something there – it’s too expensive and time-consuming otherwise.”
“I’m a historian but I do lots of archaeology,” he said, “trying to find evidence of what is in texts.”
The images emerging from the local rock-art include human figures and ritual hunting, similar to those found in ’Midianite’ pottery, as well as depictions of the importance of animals and nature.
Tebes highlighted the increased openness of Saudi Arabia to archaeological excavations in areas previously off limits. “They have been very cautious because of previous experiences of amateur researchers entering illegally – so called ‘crackpot archaeology’.”
“Saudi Arabia is also boosting tourism to reduce its oil dependency making it possible to do tours of some of these areas.”
But some sites are in danger due to developments – like the so-called ‘The Line’, a smart, linear city development in Northwest Saudi Arabia; the redrawing of the boundaries of the Dana Biosphere Reserve in southern Jordan to allow for copper and other mining; and, the Dead Sea-Red Sea pipeline project between Israel and Jordan. “These kinds of developments have the potential to destroy thousands of sites,” said Tebes.
At this early stage the project has more questions than answers, but Tebes believes it has the potential to transform the way scholars think about the peoples of the arid southern Levant.
“Multiple communities will benefit from the research: Middle Eastern archaeologists and historians studying the social milieu of the ancient religions, but, more broadly, social historians, religious studies scholars and anthropologists will find the project of interest especially for comparative purposes.”
In discussion he pointed to possible similarities with the interpretation of the San rock-art in South Africa, but noted: “It’s possible to see general trends and also some of the same problems in interpretation – we have to be careful not to impose modern conceptions.”
He also pointed to the challenging politics of archaeological sites. “In this case the direct descendants do not live in the area. The current population are Bedouins who came there from about the 18th century and have no long-lasting attachment to the sites.” He added though that “the locals sometimes plunder excavations because they believe you are looking for gold. We try to involve young, local archaeologists to enhance understanding about the work.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan