The Complex Societies of Biblical-era Nomads

Has a bias of biblical Archaeology impeded understanding biblical history?

Is archaeology biased against biblical nomads? Because modern archaeologists can find and analyze architectural remains more easily than ancient nomadic camp sites, do they falsely assume the nomadic societies were not well-developed? Erez Ben-Yosef examines this potential bias, and how it may be challenged by recent discoveries in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review in an Archaeological Views article titled, “Biblical Archaeology’s Architectural Bias.”

Ben-Yosef notes that biblical archaeologists, since the beginning of the discipline, have believed that the biblical-era nomads were “people who could not form strong political entities and whose influence on the course of history was marginal.” There was an assumption that the entire population must first become sedentary. Only then could complex political organizations, such as monarchies, begin to form. Thus, archaeologists would look for–and often find–substantial stone remains in order to identify the existence of kingdoms. Arguments about the United Monarchy’s (Kingdom of Israel) size, or even its existence, would boil down to the architecture that could be found and attributed to it.

The recent discovery of a thriving copper industry from the 11th-9th centuries B.C.E. in Faynan and Timna, in biblical Edom, challenges these assumptions. The complex organization, and collective effort, required to operate these mines argues that Edom was in fact a nomadic kingdom. Ben-Yosef says that multiple lines of evidence show that for centuries, the Edomites maintained their nomadic ways, while maintaining a powerful enough society to cooperate in mining and in long distance trade. It is only a happy accident that the Edomite kingdom was discovered; Without the notable remains of an intensive industry like copper mining, this nomadic kingdom might have been invisible to biblical archaeologists.

Other nomadic societies might have been similarly developed. Because it may be “impossible to extract from [ancient campsites] meaningful insights on the occupants’ social organization,” archaeologists continue to default to assuming the biblical nomadic groups they find resemble less-complex modern-era Bedouin societies. Ben-Yosef discusses how this assumption colors modern understanding of the societies in the Bible, leading to potentially false assumptions that populations must have been fully sedentarized in order to be part of known complex kingdoms.

Critically, the bias against nomadic complexity may even lead to archaeology steering biblical scholarship away from accuracy. Previously, it seemed that biblical archaeology could arbitrate the historicity of biblical narratives involving nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples, often in the negative. Now, Ben-Yosef “would argue that archaeology cannot provide the answer.”

To read more of Erez Ben-Yosef’s take on “Biblical Archaeology’s Architectural Bias,” read the article in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Bible Secrets Revealed, Episode 1: “What Do Archaeologists Do With the Bible?” by Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

Who Were the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites in the Bible? by Megan Sauter

Who Tells the Truth—the Bible or Archaeology? by Marek Dospěl

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