Digs 2018: Migration and Immigration in Ancient Israel

Read the full article from the January/February 2018 issue of BAR

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On the cover of BAR: Cade Kamaleson from Wheaton College helps uncover a cooking pot dated to the Late Hellenistic/Early Roman period (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.) at Tel Shimron. Photo: © Tel Shimron Excavations/Photo by Kate Birney.

The promised land (Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 8:1). The land I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 33:1). The land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31). The land to which you are going (Exodus 34:12; cf. Deuteronomy 31:16). The land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). The land that the LORD your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:2). The place that the LORD your God will choose (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 14:23–25).

The land that came to be known as Israel and Judah in antiquity is known by many names today: Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Sinai, the Holy Land, and the Levant, for starters. But the names listed in the above paragraph—the names taken straight from the Bible describing the land before there was an ancient Israel—all have one thing in common: they describe a land of migration and immigration.

According to the Bible, “ancient Israel” was first a concept of a new world—a new beginning for God’s chosen people. It was a land into which the Israelites first had to immigrate. Only then, after the immigration of the people, did the land become the allotment of the 12 tribes, the land of Israel. Until that point, the children of God were migrants seeking a new home.

That Israel is a land of immigration is not only a claim made by the Bible; it is also a claim supported by archaeology. To be sure, there are discrepancies between the Biblical account and the archaeological evidence regarding the timing of this immigration and the manner in which it occurred, but the archaeological data definitively tell us that people immigrated and emigrated into and out of Israel. They came, and they went.

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The Middle Bronze Age site of Tel Kabri in northern Israel boasts the oldest and largest wine cellar found in the ancient Near East as well as a Canaanite palace decorated with Minoan-style floor and wall paintings. Here, volunteers Matthew Kerwin and Sydney Thatcher from The George Washington University scrape loose soil into buckets with square-bladed hoes called turias. Photo: Eric H. Cline.

This has been true throughout history, both before and after ancient Israel. Kingdoms were built up and were conquered. Empires were overthrown by successive empires. The Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Amorites, Israelites, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Ptolemies, Seleucids, Hasmoneans, Nabataeans, Romans, Byzantines, Sasanians, Umayyads, Abbasids, Tulunids, Ikhshidids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Jordanians, and Israelis all at one time in history have migrated into modern Israel and Palestine.

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What’s more, the ancient Israelites understood this. This is why the Hebrew God, his prophets, and his righteous followers were so adamant about caring for the poor, widows, orphans, and especially the foreigner or alien (Hebrew: gēr) (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6). It is why God commanded his people to love the stranger (Hebrew: gēr), “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). It is (at least one reason) why Boaz treated Ruth kindly, even though she was a foreigner (Hebrew: nēkar; Ruth 2:10). And, it is why Ezekiel 47:21–22 commanded the Israelites to welcome foreigners into their company and allot land for them: “You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens (Hebrew: gērim) who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.”

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Across the Jezreel Valley on the foothills of the Gilboa Mountains, the Jezreel Expedition is excavating a large rock-cut winery that might have belonged to the period of Naboth (1 Kings 21). Here, area supervisor Inbal Samet takes notes while team members excavate a wall. Photo: Courtesy of the Jezreel Expedition.

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At the Roman-period site of ‘Einot Amitai in Galilee where chalkstone vessels were produced, a dig participant cheerfully wheelbarrows dirt away from the excavation area. Photo: Courtesy of the ‘Einot Amitai Excavation.

This also explains why Jesus constantly sought to minister to the “other” and to make “foreigners” the heroes of his parables, as he does with the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37) and the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31–46), where Jesus specifically welcomes into his kingdom those who welcomed a stranger (Greek: xenos).

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With eagle eyes, Kabri volunteers George Arbanas, Martha Soltani, and Nissim Sasson carefully sift buckets of excavated dirt in search of small artifacts. Photo: Eric H. Cline.

The issue of migration and immigration has become a popular research question for many excavations, especially those sitting on the ancient (perpetually shifting) borders between Israel, Judah, and neighboring peoples. The Elah Valley, about 30 minutes west of Jerusalem in the Shephelah (the fertile foothills in south-central Israel between the Judean Mountains and the Coastal Plain), serves as an ancient border between Judah and Philistia. The Shephelah itself has witnessed a number of exciting new excavations spring up over the past decade following the stunning discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified settlement that excavation directors Yosef Garfinkel (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Saar Ganor (Israel Antiquities Authority) claim to be from the time of King David.

In the Elah Valley, Aren Maeir (Bar-Ilan University) directs the excavation at Tell es-Safi, which most scholars identify as the ancient Philistine city of Gath, one of the five cities of the Philistine Pentapolis and the home of the giant Goliath mentioned in 1 Samuel 17. The Late Bronze Age residents of this site, the Canaanites, were displaced by the Philistines, who immigrated to the region toward the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200 B.C.E.). Maeir’s latest research from Safi has suggested that the Philistines weren’t simply Aegean peoples arriving and conquering the Late Bronze Age residents of the eastern Mediterranean coast, but were the result of an “entangled” culture, slowly mingling “Western” peoples (e.g., Mycenaean, Minoan, Cypriote, Anatolian, etc.) with Canaanite coastal peoples over a lengthy period of time.

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At Tell es-Safi/Gath, hometown of the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4), archaeologists have unearthed significant evidence of Philistine occupation in addition to remains from prehistoric to modern times. Here, Tina Greenfield and Liz Arnold excavate a donkey skeleton that was placed as a ritual deposit below the floor of an Early Bronze Age III house. Photo: Aren Maeir.

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BAS dig scholarship winner Jessie Blackwell of the University of Kentucky holds pieces of a Middle Bronze II platter she found while excavating part of the glacis of the city wall in Canaanite Gath’s upper city. Photo: Daniel Frese.

Across the verdant Elah Valley from Tell es-Safi is the Judahite border city of Tel Azekah, where Oded Lipschits and Yuval Gadot (Tel Aviv University) and Manfred Oeming (University of Heidelberg) have completed five seasons of excavation. Azekah served as a strategic stronghold on the border with the Iron Age Philistines. This massive excavation, now the largest in Israel in terms of annual participants, is exploring what life was like for residents living on the border between ancient Judah and Philistia.

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Excavation director Oded Lipschits, registrar Liora Freud, area supervisor Efrat Bocher, and volunteer Ashley Byrd analyze potsherds excavated at the Judahite stronghold of Azekah. Photo: Oded Lipschits.

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Volunteer Ella Gadot practices safety first by wearing a hard hat to protect her head from debris at Azekah. Photo: Oded Lipschits.

South of these two digs, the Tel Burna excavation, directed by Itzhaq Shai (Ariel University), explores the site that is the leading candidate for Biblical Libnah. The excavation is also exploring the border between Judah and Philistia, specifically asking how border communities functioned.

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Conservator specialist Yeshu Dray meticulously exposes a Roman mosaic at the Galilean site of el-Araj, a candidate for the fishing village of Bethsaida mentioned in the Gospels. Photo: Zachary Wong.

The Shephelah is not the only liminal region in Israel exhibiting evidence of migration. The Jezreel Valley served as the major east–west passage across Israel for those traveling from Syria and the Anatolian steppe to Egypt. The veteran archaeological excavation that is the Megiddo Expedition—Biblical Armageddon—led by Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), is gearing up for its 2018 season, as are the various research projects that are part of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project headed by Matthew Adams (W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research). Across the Jezreel to the north, a few miles west of Nazareth, the upstart Tel Shimron excavation directed by Daniel Master (Wheaton College) and Mario Martin (Tel Aviv University) broke ground in the 2017 season, and its future seasons promise to further our understanding of the east–west trade that passed through the Jezreel Valley in various periods.

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Perched high above the Jezreel Valley on the Nazareth Ridge, Tel Shimron witnessed the rise of ancient Israel, Jewish Galilee, rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. University of Reading Ph.D. candidate Jessie Feito operates a total station to measure spatial coordinates in a residential area occupied during the Roman and later Byzantine/Umayyad periods. Photo: © Tel Shimron Excavations/Photo by Tal Gluck.

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Noemi Palomares from Boston College carefully defines with her trowel a Late Hellenistic/Early Roman lamp at Tel Shimron. Photo: © Tel Shimron Excavations/Photo by Melissa Aja.

In the north of Israel, a number of digs are examining the influence that northern peoples, such as the Phoenicians, Hittites, and Sea Peoples, had on ancient Israel.

Read essays from the 2017 BAS scholarship recipients >>

Check out the 2018 excavation opportunities >>

The Tel Akko excavation, led by Ann Killebrew (Penn State University) and Michal Artzy (University of Haifa), examines one of the most important maritime trade ports in ancient Israel. Eric Cline (The George Washington University) and Assaf Yasur-Landau (University of Haifa) have renewed excavations at Tel Kabri, a regional capital of a Middle Bronze Age Canaanite kingdom located in western Galilee, which recently made big news when the team unearthed one of the largest wine cellars in the ancient Near East. The Tel Hazor excavation, directed by legendary archaeologist Amnon Ben-Tor (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), will begin its 29th dig season in 2018 and will continue unearthing one of the largest, most significant sites (in terms of international knowledge) of the ancient world. Finally, the Abel Beth Maacah project, led by Bob Mullins (Azusa Pacific) and Naama Yahalom-Mack and Nava Panitz-Cohen (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem), have expanded the northern Israel excavation they began in 2013. During the second season, the excavators discovered a Late Bronze Age hoard of 12 silver pieces that may help us understand who lived at this ancient border town and what their technological capabilities were. And just last season, they discovered the faience head of a bearded male in an Iron Age II context that might help us understand the ethnic makeup of the population living in this city.

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Spencer Silver of the University of Iowa and Cas Popp of Pennsylvania State University use patiches to uncover a street leading to a Late Iron Age Phoenician public structure on Akko’s acropolis. Photo: Jane Skinner, Courtesy of the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project.

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Beards remain in style at Abel Beth Maacah even after 3,000 years. Bearded volunteer Mario Tobia found a bearded faience head in an Iron Age II casemate structure. Photo: Robert Mullins.

These are only a small sample of the ongoing excavations in the Biblical world, many of which will be digging this summer. Here at BAR, we want to promote the study of—and your participation in—these archaeological excavations. To further this goal, generous donors have funded Biblical Archaeology Society scholarships, which are available to individuals who might not otherwise be able to participate in an excavation. In 2017, BAS scholarship recipients participated in excavations at Abel Beth Maacah, Tel Akko, Tel Burna, Khirbet el-Eika, Tell es-Safi, Tel Gezer, Tel Hazor, Hippos-Sussita, Khirbet el-Mastarah, Kiriath-Jearim, Lachish, Mt. Zion, Shikhin, Tel Shimron, and Khirbat al-Balu’a, Jordan.

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At Abel Beth Maacah, Wake Forest University professor Leann Pace (second from left) helps Wake Forest and Princeton Theological Seminary students Lisa Li, Jianing Li, and Melissa Fradkin excavate jars from an Iron Age II domestic area. Photo: Nava Panitz-Cohen.

It is my hope that you will consider signing up for one of the excavations taking place this summer. A list of 2018 excavations in the Holy Land can be found on our website at www.biblicalarchaeology.org/digs. Here, you will find dig descriptions, locations, dates, costs, websites, and contact information needed to sign up and migrate to the Holy Land—even if only for the summer. Safe travels!

“Digs 2018: Migration and Immigration in Ancient Israel” by Robert R. Cargill originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2018.


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  • Eileen says

    Thank you for so much for sharing such wonderful , interesting information and free! As a non Jewish elderly person I am left somewhat confused as I try to understand modern Israel’s attitudes to the “stranger” , the “foreigner”. It seems that whilst they lay claim to the land as God given, yet they ignore God’s instructions to share the land with these forementioned others…..selective listening?

  • Robne says

    I wish that the research will lead to the scholars to finally breaking down and admit their theoretical historical model is flawed and accept that the Bible narrative goes back much farther than previous thought by them as histories known for some time show. As the Philistines were not the Greeks, as they were just another group of foreigners that came after them (forgive me Trude), for the Sea People came during the time of the divided kingdoms of Israel in the real history. That means the migration of the Children of Israel was of a time further back than what many of my Peers wish to place them, as hinted by Dame Kenyon back in December of 1953.

  • Somendra says

    Completely mesmerised.

    Israel is not only the land bestowed by Almighty to the aggrieved Jewish community, but also a treasure trove – the more one learns, the more one wants to.

    I do not have means / modes to travel to the Land Of Abraham, else it would have been a lifetime achievement to be intimated with the TRUTH of the ancient Israel and its sustainable community – the Jews; particularly their religion, Judaism.

    Neither have I ever been to Israel, nor do have any link in the past. However, I have always been longing to be there – for some unknown reasons, perhaps.

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