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Where Is the Tenth Century BCE?: The ASOR and SBL Conferences

David by Michelangelo (Wkipedia)

Where is the tenth century BCE? Not when is tenth century BCE but where is it in the scholarship presented at the recent ASOR and SBL conferences. I cannot claim to have attended every relevant session on this topic. In some instances I am forced to rely on the abstracts provided by the presenters for my information. While it is possible to differentiate between archaeological and literary or textual presentations, the division does not necessarily neatly align with the two conferences. There are occasional literature papers at ASOR and there definitely are archaeological sessions at SBL.

However, as a general observation, never the twain shall meet. The proliferation of sessions into ever smaller niches minimizes the actual dialog or discussion between the literary and archaeology presenters. In general terms, the actual presentations tend to belong to either one niche or the other with nary any contact. Please keep in mind that I am referring to the presentations at the conferences and not necessarily referring to the larger world of biblical scholarship. Nonetheless, it is worth noting how easy it is in two overlapping conferences over six days with thousands of registrants, never to leave one’s comfort zone. The shouting match between Bill Dever and Israel Finkelstein at ASOR last year occurred in the hallway after a session and not within a session dedicated to discussing issues such as where is the tenth century BCE.

The very first session at ASOR included the following presentation:

Shirly Ben Dor Evian (Israel Museum), “Sheshonq at Megiddo: A New Interpretation”

The limestone fragment carved with the royal names of Sheshonq I at Megiddo was found among the excavation dumps on the tell during the season of 1926. Since its discovery, the piece was recognized as part of a large royal stela, erected by the monarch at the site as a sign of Egyptian patrimony. A recent reexamination of the original fragment by the author reveals several anomalies in comparison to the known corpus of Egyptian stelae. Among these is the fragment’s unusual thickness, more than 50 cm wide, and the absence of any smoothed edges on either of its sides. A comparison to contemporary (early 22nd Dynasty) material from both Egypt and the Levant suggests that the fragment was part of an architectural element rather than a stela. The significance of such an interpretation relates directly to Egypt’s involvement in the Northern Valleys. Erecting a stela in a faraway land may have had little or no effect on the local population and cannot attest to continual Egyptian claims on the site. However, a royal inscription on local architecture reflects, at the very least, aspirations of hegemony. Establishing core/periphery relations through the implementation of royal Egyptian institutions was a well-known strategy of the previous Egyptian empire in the Levant, an empire that Sheshonq’s regime was eager to recreate. The role of Egyptian monuments in the early Iron Age Levant will therefore be examined through similar models of core/periphery and imperial influence.

I was unable to attend this session as my own paper presentation was in the same time slot. What is important from this abstract for the subject of this post are:

1. The return of Egyptian hegemony in the land of Canaan (or the Levant) at Megiddo roughly two centuries after its cessation under Ramses VI – a punctuated equilibrium (see the previous post Lessons from the ASOR Conference: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Writing of the Hebrew Bible)
2. Or the imposition of Egyptian hegemony on the kingdom of Israel for the first time ever and nearly three centuries after Merneptah claimed to have destroyed its seed.

How did the divided polities of Israel and Judah respond to this event according to the biblical texts? How does that relate to the archaeology? One sees here the possibility for a session combining archaeology and text on a specific and narrowly defined topic.

At approximately the same time this paper was given another also was presented related to the tenth century BCE.

Yosef Garfinkel (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), “Lachish and Khirbet al-Ra’i in the Tenth Century B.C.E.”

This paper will discuss the new data relating to the tenth century B.C.E. uncovered at the recent excavations at Tel Lachish and Khirbet al-Ra’i. Both sites are located in the Judean Shephelah, 3 km apart. The excavations at Lachish took place between the years 2013 to 2017. The site of Khirbet al-Ra’i has been under excavated since 2015 and so far four excavation seasons have taken place there.

Unfortunately this presentation was in the same session as mine. I say unfortunately because I tend to zone out just before and after my own presentation so it takes time before I can concentrate on what someone else is saying. Still, imagine if two papers on tenth century BCE Megiddo and Lachish had been in the same session. At least then there would have been an opportunity to raise the issue of Lachish and Sheshonq and that meaning for the biblical text and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

Another archaeological site presented at the ASOR conference was Tel Moza.

Shua Kisilevitz (Israel Antiquities Authorities; Tel Aviv University), “Considerations on the Study of Cult near Jerusalem: A View from Tel Moẓa”

Tel Moẓa is located 7 km northwest of the Old City of Jerusalem. The recent discovery of an Iron Age IIA temple at the site provides the unique opportunity to study the cult of ancient Judah from the archaeological perspective. Moẓa’s significance within the Judahite kingdom, serving as part of Jerusalem’s administrative and economic system, is attested by extensive excavations that identified the site as a central granary of the region.

The study of the temple at Moẓa and its associated finds allows us to apply current methodologies on the study of cult places, paraphernalia, and behavior to new materials for the first time since the excavation of the Judahite temple at Arad over half a century ago.

The current research is focused on a number of specific and broad subjects: identification of the cult practices carried out at Moẓa; cultural influences and transmission of religious motifs exhibited at the site; and its raison ďêtre. Especially intriguing is the relationship between the construction of the temple and the worship conducted therein to the broader regional economy, in which the site and its temple played a key role. Taken together, the evidence from Moẓa provides important insights into socio-economic and religious aspects associated with state formation in the region of Judah during the Iron Age IIA.

Previously Tel Moza has been linked to the Ark Narrative. The ark’s journey from Kiriath-jearim  to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, and from there to Jerusalem would have passed Tel Moza, possibly the site of the temple/house of Obed-edom itself. That linkage drew me to this session. However, that aspect was not part of the presentation. Who built it and why was left unanswered by the speaker except to claim that the small settlement itself was not the builder.

There was one archaeology session devoted solely to the tenth century BCE including with references to Sheshonq.

The Tenth Century B.C.E. Borderlands of the Greater Hesi Region: Implications

Theme: The Greater Hesi Region was a borderland in the tenth century B.C.E. This session explores implications based on the archaeology of the region and theoretical issues such as military activities including war and non-war functions as well as how this region might be seen in the context of state formation processes.

Jeffrey A. Blakely (University of Wisconsin–Madison), “Introduction to the Greater Hesi Region in the Tenth Century B.C.E.: The Archaeological Background”

Archaeological research in the greater Hesi region began with the excavations of Petrie and Bliss on behalf the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1890, continued with the Joint Archaeological Expedition starting in 1970, and now continues with the Hesi Regional Project through both survey and excavation. Each project encountered the 10th century B.C.E. in one or more ways. This paper will present a wide-ranging overview of the archaeological record of the greater Hesi region as it relates to the 10th century. The goal is to provide a sufficient background that can be utilized by the other papers in the session and allow them to focus on their more narrowly defined subject matter.

About 1130 B.C.E. Egyptian presence in the greater Hesi region ended with destruction and abandonment. No discernible occupation has been found from that point until about 1000 B.C.E. other than a few random sherds that might suggest only a transient population. About 1000, Khirbet Summeily, a governmental outpost, was built, as was Tell el-Hesi, seemingly a Judahite military site. At about the same time a few farmsteads, or hazerim, were built. Each of these sites went through various phases and some accompanying destructions before all were destroyed or abandoned in the final quarter of the 10th century B.C.E. Of these sites, only Tell el-Hesi was rebuilt immediately but it was conceived of as something entirely different, a fort.

This tenth-century emphasis extended throughout the presentations in this session. I will not include those abstracts here. They are all available on the ASOR website. The following relevant points were made in the papers.

1. A political entity typically referred to as Judahite was responsible for the establishment in the Hesi region of an organized administrative unit with a defensive and communication infrastructure in the tenth century BCE.
2. Sheshonq was responsible for its destruction.

Several questions automatically should come to mind based on these presentations.

1. Why did the presenters refer to the pre-Sheshonq responsible tenth century BCE polity as Judah? I did ask this question but did not get a satisfactory answer. No one wanted to say Israel was the “complex political body needed for this regional strategy” or that David was driving force behind it.
2. How would one differentiate between what David initiated as king of Judah versus what was completed or he initiated as king of Israel?
3. It seems unlikely that these activities were initiated in anticipation of Sheshonq’s invasion. Therefore what was its purpose? The earlier in the tenth century BCE this activity occurred, the more likely it may have begun as a Judahite king action against the Philistines and not Egypt. Who was that Judahite king? What does all this mean for the stories involving the Philistines set in that time period? In other words, there was an opportunity here to develop a geo-political narrative in a fluid situation of fluctuating boundaries and new kingdoms….but this was an archaeology session.

This observation provides a segue into a paper presented earlier in the conference and by a non-archaeologist.

Mahri Leonard-Fleckman (Providence College), “A Fresh Biblical Lens on the Iron Age Shephelah: Social Ambiguity versus Order in Judges-Samuel”

Textual studies of the Shephelah have yet to catch up with the archaeological portrait of identity ambiguity or “entanglement” in this Iron Age landscape of ancient Israel (Maeir and Hitchcock 2017). [bold added][What sessions need to be created to facilitate such dialog?] Biblical studies continue to view the Shephelah’s social landscape simplistically from the categories presented in the final form of the Bible’s narratives. Such categories (Philistine, Israelite, Judahite) are particularly apparent in the Shephelah wanderings of Samson (Judges 13–16) and David (1 Samuel 21–29, echoing into the surrounding material of 1–2 Samuel). Through a combined literary-historical and anthropological investigation of the textual evidence, this paper proposes that while the narratives’ final forms conceptualize clear boundaries in social geography, earlier traditions within these texts present a social landscape that is ambiguous and hazy to the contemporary interpreter. Such haziness comes alive specifically through relationships, including Samson and his lady friends (Judges 14–16); and David and certain men of Gath: Achish (1 Samuel 27, 29); Obed-edom (2 Sam 6:9–15) and Ittai (2 Sam 15:18–22; 18:2). These relationships present a landscape without clear geographical boundaries or language barriers, in which people intermarry, create political alliances, and protect each other’s most sacred religious objects. This evidence invites us to reexamine our own sense of classifications in the landscape of ancient Israel, to recognize that the biblical evidence itself demonstrates a desire to organize, classify, and border people that develops over time, and to take seriously the ramifications of the archaeological evidence as it helps to illuminate the multi-layered biblical portrait.

The ASOR session was on Friday afternoon the day before the SBL conference started. Its theme was ambiguity and covered many peoples in the ancient Near East and not just Israel. This paper was presented in one of the time slots where I attended papers in three different sessions, still possible at ASOR. Leonard-Fleckman represents the rare occurrence of an SBL person attending (briefly) the ASOR conference to present a text-based paper.

In her paper, Leonard-Fleckman correctly noted the divergence between textual studies and archaeology. She referred to a fluid and ill-defined context without clear boundaries. She did not date these “earlier traditions.” She mentioned she would be speaking at SBL. Her SBL paper in the Historiography and the Hebrew Bible session entitled “Boundary Crossing and Boundary Blurring in the Bible’s Tales of David and Gath” which I did attend does continue this theme and will be covered in a future post.

For now, let me close this already too long post, with an observation of my own based on these presentations on the tenth century BCE, Hesi, Megiddo, Lachish, Moza, and Shephelah ambiguity. A fluid situation at the end of the 11th century and beginning of the 10th century BCE provides an extraordinary opportunity for an individual genius to seize the moment and make it his own. Compared to American history, there is little place for human agency and the “great person in history” in biblical scholarship be it archaeological or text based. As it turns out, there is one straightforward, direct, and simple way to connect the dots of these presentations to create a coherent historical reconstruction at the turn of the 11th century BCE and early tenth century BCE in Judah and Israel. The word is David.

Lessons from the ASOR Conference: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Writing of the Hebrew Bible

Steady State versus Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution (

At the just concluded American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) conference, two sessions in the last two time slots were:

Integrating Cultural Change – Punctuated Equilibria Models in Near Eastern Archaeology and Egyptology I and II.

Neither session specifically mentioned the Hebrew Bible nor do I recall any questions from the audience addressing that topic either. Nonetheless, these sessions may provide more insight into the writing of the Hebrew Bible than sessions directly addressing that topic including at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference.

The term “punctuated equilibria” refers to when “long periods of stasis and apparently uneventful continuum are broken up by brief periods of rapid and profound changes. During such ‘punctures,’ the whole social –political system is exposed to a series of vital changes that influence essentially every component (subsystem) of the society, bringing it to a qualitatively new level of development and attained complexity and texture” (from the abstract of Mirolsav Bárta, the first presenter).

The genesis of the term arose in the field of evolution. Some scientists thought the more steady-state linear evolution approach proposed by Darwin did not fit the data. Instead, they developed a hypothesis that described a series of dramatic changes following a period of comparative stability. The changes “punctuated” the status quo. The most famous name associated with this hypothesis is Stephen Jay Gould. The most famous example of a punctuation probably is an asteroid hitting the earth leading to demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of the age of mammals.

The hypothesis is descriptive in nature and not explanatory. It is a way of organizing data but not explaining it. In the initial presentation by Bárta, he proposed that five such punctuations occurred during the Old Kingdom in Egypt. These leap periods led to the establishment of the first territorial state in human history, an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus, and massive stone-build monuments among other changes. During the Q&A, I asked about a causal factor for these five leaps. The model has no set trigger but simply states that such leaps periodically occur and are quick when they do.

Perhaps the most famous political example of such a change in the lifetime of many of the attendees at the sessions was the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is reasonable to say that during the 1980s, people did not anticipate such a collapse (excluding Ronald Reagan), that when it did occur it took people by surprise, and it happened very quickly. The Arab Spring may be considered a partially aborted punctuation.

In biblical times, a significant one occurred in 1177 BCE. That year also appears in the title of a book by Eric Cline, one of the presenters in the second session. He informed us that when he started to write the book, he envisioned the Sea Peoples as the causal agent for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. The more he investigated the subject, the more he came to realize that a “perfect storm” involving multiple factors had led to its demise.  In the end, what the Iron Curtain, the Arab despots, and the Late Bronze Age have in common is a certain fragility despite the image of great enduring strength and stability.

I first sought to apply the concept of punctuated equilibrium to the writing of the Hebrew Bible in a paper entitled “The Mesha Stele: Underutilized Key to Understanding Israelite History and the Writing of the Bible” presented at the ASOR conference in 2010.  In my paper, I wrote and said:

Therefore I wish to propose the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory in contrast to the Big Bang Theory of Writing.  This theory of writing is based on the premises that

1. We are a story-telling species
2. We tell stories through the available media about the issues that concern us
3. Ancient Israel was not a people of silence with no stories to tell, songs to sing, holidays to celebrate, or places to assemble.

In this context, I propose that in Iron II Israel a series of separate and independent alphabet prose narrative scrolls were written over the centuries primarily by the prophets as the political situation warranted. They served as the basis for the integrated narrative which would be created post-721 BCE in the kingdom of Judah.

In that paper, I did not explain how I derived the term “punctuated equilibrium” so it was quite likely that many in the audience were not familiar with it.  I employed the term to refer to the aftermath of Mesha’s destruction of the Yahweh sanctuary at Mount Nebo, home of the traditional burial site of the founder of the Israelite people. In this sense, Mesha functioned as an asteroid disrupting the life of the Levites or prophets of Moses much as temple destructions would later do to temple priests. Although I did not use the word “trauma” at that time, I suggested that the trauma led to writing as a means of coping with the event.  In this suggestion I was guided by the work of Anthony Campbell in 1986 in his book Of Prophets and Kings (1986) and later with the assistance of Mark O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, and Present Text (2000). In the latter, they elaborated on his hypothesis by identifying verse by verse the texts that belonged to this prophetic narrative. Mesha’s actions meant to those who believed that the sanctuary dedicated to the burial place of the founder that the Omrides had lost their legitimacy to rule.  In this regard both Jehu and Hazael could be understood as the rod of Yahweh’s anger, the staff of Yahweh’s fury, instruments of Yahweh delivering his message of wrath upon the underserving Omrides.

By coincidence, just prior to the ASOR conference, I read Self-Interest or Communal Interest: An Ideology of Leadership in the Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah Narratives by Eliyahu Assis (2005).  His analysis included Judges 6:8-10:

Judges 6:8 the LORD sent a prophet to the people of Israel; and he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of bondage; 9 and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land; 10 and I said to you, `I am the LORD your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.”

He compared the words to the beginning of the covenant in Ex. 20:2-3:

Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

Suddenly when reading this book, it occurred to me that this exchange in the story of Gideon was about something going on with Egypt at the time it was written. Frequently biblical scholars observe that the story of the golden calves (Ex. 32) relates to the time of Jeroboam I. In that story, the people say that (i) Moses brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:1), (ii) the golden calf Aaron had fashioned brought them out of the land of Egypt, and (iii) according to Moses, Yahweh brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:11). Evidently there was a discussion and disagreement about exactly how the people left the land of Egypt. There was no disagreement about having left Egypt, just who should be considered responsible.

The time of Jeroboam also was the time of Sheshonq’s invasion of the land of Canaan. So instead of the biblical texts simply being a tirade between the Aaronid and Levite priesthoods, was there also a debate about the very identity of Israel and responsibility for its existence?  How could Jeroboam be the new Moses if he was in cahoots with Pharaoh? Did Sheshonq’s invasion trigger a written response as the northern prophets (Ahijah) sought to cope with what it meant for Israelite identity based on having left the land of Egypt?

Consider the circumstances at the time of Sheshonq’s invasion which apparently brought him to Megiddo. It had been two hundred years since Ramses VI had left Megiddo ending Egyptian hegemony in the land after 350 years beginning with Thutmose III at Megiddo. It had been about 250 years since Ramses (Se-se-ra) III’s invasion in 1177 BCE also remembered in a song mentioning Megiddo. And it had been nearly 300 years since Merneptah had claimed to have destroyed the seed of Israel. Now Pharaoh was back campaigning in the land. For the northern prophets, this action was traumatic.

I do not claim to have the details worked out, but just as there was a prophet narrative following Mesha’s destruction of the sanctuary to Yahweh, so there might be a Sheshonq narrative in response to when he invaded the land.

As a result of these readings, musings, and sessions, I think it is reasonable to consider a punctuated equilibria approach to the writing of the Hebrew Bible. Israel wrote when it needed to in response to periodic traumas that punctuated their sense of identity. And they did so for centuries each time an “asteroid” fell.

Philistines/Creation the monarchy (10th century BCE)
Sheshonq (5th year of Rehoboam)
Mesha (around 843 BCE leading to Jehu’s deposing the Omrides)
Hazael (8th century BCE success of Jeroboam II against the Aramaeans).

Each of these threats engendered the composition of a separate scroll by the northern prophets to explain how the threat could have occurred and who was the savior (if any) who ended it. These scrolls were brought to Jerusalem and eventually combined into a single scroll that would include Judah as well. The “asteroids” for ancient Israel were the foreign kings who threated their existence and one response was an alphabet prose narrative that addressed the situation. The challenge now is to escape the Persian-fixation on the time at the end of this process and to identify the writings following each punctuation of the Israelite equilibrium.

Note: If on the Saturday overlap between the ASOR and SBL conferences I had attended the SBL conference instead of the ASOR conference as I sometimes do, this blog would not have been written.