Ancient Israel Through a Social Scientific Lens

As published in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR

Courtesy of the Badé Museum, Pacific School of Religion
BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY’S GENESIS. Archaeology has come a long way since 19th-century explorers surveyed and mapped Biblical sites across the Holy Land. Large-scale, systematic excavations in the 20th century, such as William Badé’s expedition to Tell en-Nasbeh (shown in 1929) paved the way for ever-increasingly technical studies.

In broad scope, our extensive knowledge of the “world of the Bible” was formed in three stages. The 19th century saw the early exploration of the Holy Land and surrounding countries by people like the American Edward Robinson, the Frenchmen Victor Guérin and Charles Clermont-Ganneau and especially the explorers associated with the British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), founded in 1865, such as C.R. Conder, Charles Warren, H.H. Kitchener, Conrad Schick and Charles Wilson, as well as equivalent French, German and American schools.a Many of these explorers published multivolume works on the geography and history of the Holy Land, including proposals for the identification of many of the major Biblical sites. In the years 1871–1878, the PEF conducted its grand Survey of Western Palestine, and by the end of the 19th century, most of the land west of the Jordan had been surveyed and mapped. The 19th century also saw the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform and the uncovering of the literature and history of the ancient Near East, which gave us both the historical and cultural contexts out of which the Bible emerged.

The second stage may be dated to the first half of the 20th century, perhaps stretching into the 1970s. This was the time of major archaeological excavations, from the early work by Flinders Petrie and Frederick Bliss at Tell el-Hesi, Gottlieb Schumacher at Megiddo and R.A.S. Macalister at Gezer to the later systematic excavations at such major sites as Jericho, Hazor, Jerusalem, Lachish, Samaria, Gibeon, Ai, Arad and dozens of others. These excavations, using ever-improving methodologies and technologies, gave us the basic periodization and stratigraphy that we still use, as well as our knowledge of the different material cultures that are typical to various periods and regions, and supplied us with hundreds of inscriptions—from Ugarit to Samaria to Lachish and Arad—greatly expanding our knowledge of the languages, scripts, society and history of the Biblical world. But most of all, this stage in the research of the land gave us firsthand knowledge of the settlement history of hundreds of sites, all of which have been combined into a great “mosaic” that makes up the picture that we now have of ancient Israel and its neighbors.

The third stage of research, beginning in the 1970s and 80s, is one of “fine-tuning” and paying more attention to detail. Excavations no longer move tons of earth with hundreds of laborers but rather work slowly, recording almost each stone and every potsherd. Finds are then subjected to much more sophisticated lab analysis. Surface surveys have given us a much better understanding of context, and many excavations are now focusing on smaller rural sites, rather than the major mounds (tells).

Courtesy the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project/Photo: Richard Wiskin
Zane Stepka worked with the Kimmel Center’s International Field School for Archaeological Sciences to conduct on-site infrared spectroscopy at Tell es-Safi/Gath.

Additionally, archaeologists working in the Middle East are much more involved in theoretical issues than they were in the past, using the knowledge and models developed by anthropology, sociology and other branches of the social sciences, trying to understand such issues as the structure of society, the development of the state, the urban and rural economies, identity and religion. All of these are being studied through the archaeological data, which is then often collated with the Biblical and other textual evidence. That picture of the past no longer changes by leaps and bounds, driven by spectacular discoveries, but by small steps, based on meticulous analysis.

Two books by Avraham Faust, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, well represent the latest stage in this scholarship.

Avraham Faust

In The Archaeology of Israelite Society in Iron Age II, Faust brings together a huge array of data in order to give the reader a comprehensive picture of what Israelite society looked like during the time of the monarchy in the tenth through the early sixth centuries B.C.E. To a certain extent, this volume can be considered a sequel to his Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance,b 1 in which Faust expounded his views on the Iron Age I, the pre-monarchic period in the history of Israel. Indeed, many of the issues dealt with are the same. In both, he describes the structure of Israelite “tribal” society as based on an “egalitarian ethos” or “ideology.”c This is reflected, for example, in his analysis of the ubiquitous “four-room house,” the typical private dwelling that first appeared in Iron Age I (more or less the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E.) and remained in use throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah until their demise—Israel’s in the late eighth century and Judah’s in the early sixth (see box). Both of these books also deal extensively with the “pots and peoples” issue: To what extent can the use of different types of pottery (and other things) be connected to different “ethnic” identities?

Learn more about Avraham Faust’s research into ancient Israelite burial customs in “Was Biblical Israel an Egalitarian Society?” in Bible History Daily.


The Archaeology of Israelite Society in Iron Age II
(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012), xviii + 328 pp., $49.50 (hardcover)

After outlining past studies of Israelite society, Faust turns to an analysis of the Israelite (and Judahite) city, surveying the excavation results at such major sites as Samaria, Hazor, Megiddo, Tirzah, Jerusalem, Lachish, Mizpah and Beer-Sheva, examining land use and urban planning, public and private structures, gates and more. He then discusses what we can learn about the economy and society that existed within those cities. Next he moves to rural sites—villages and farms. To complete the picture of types of settlements, Faust surveys the few Israelite fortresses that are known. Next he turns to the larger unit—the Israelite state itself. He concludes that in the late Iron Age (the time of the monarchy), Israel and Judah were both highly stratified and hierarchal societies; that is, states in which there were “upper” and “lower” classes, distinguishable archaeologically by the difference in the size and quality of the houses that they lived in (their “inequality index”). On the state level, eighth-century Israel (the northern kingdom) had a well-developed “rank-size distribution” settlement hierarchy, with cities, towns and villages of all sizes and functions, while seventh-century Judah (which achieved its most developed stage only after the demise of northern Israel) was a more “primate city” state, in which the capital Jerusalem was far larger than the next largest city in the kingdom, Lachish. Finally, he surveys the long-term history of the development of Israelite society, from a “relatively simple society” in Iron Age I to the complex, stratified society of the monarchic period.

To the student of archaeology, most of this hard data will not be new. What is new is the comprehensive way in which the data is collected and presented and the way in which it is used. To historians and Bible scholars, this book serves to add “hard facts” to the much more subjective view of Israelite society that is supplied by the Biblical texts themselves. Faust’s interpretation of some of the “hard facts” and the way in which he connects them to the Biblical texts may be controversial (and have in fact been attacked by a number of scholarsd), but the very way in which they have been put together is immensely useful, making it possible for us to then evaluate Faust’s ideas. It is unfortunate that the book does not include a systematic survey of the archaeological evidence pertaining to Israelite religious practices, which is one aspect of society that is of special interest to Bible students, and one on which Faust has expressed his views before.2 As he has pointed out, we know of absolutely no urban temples or cult buildings in Iron Age II Israelite or Judahite towns and only have evidence of a few small shrines (such as those at Arad and at Dan). The Temple at Jerusalem seems to have been unique. Unlike their Canaanite predecessors, Israelites did not generally worship at large urban temples. The stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and of judges such as Gideon in Judges 6 and Samson’s parents in Judges 13 assume the early Israelites worshiped at open-air altars. Biblical tradition tells of a “tent of meeting” or “Tabernacle” that served the Israelites from the time of Moses through the days of David, with Solomon’s grand Temple being an innovation. Especially telling is 2 Samuel 7:6–7, in which God says to David, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” And even after the Temple is built, the Bible tells us that the Israelites continued to worship “on every high hill and under each green hill.” This, too, seems to have been a part of their “ethos.”

Read about Avraham Faust’s excavation of a possible Iron Age Judahite administrative center at Tel ‘Eton, located between the Shephelah and the Hebron hill country in Israel.

The second book reviewed here, Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation, is different in purpose and scope, although the methodologies Faust uses are similar. The purpose of this book could be defined as polemical. It is intended to debunk “The Myth of the Empty Land.” This is the title of a book published in 1996 by Hans M. Barstad3 but actually represents a recent trend in scholarly understanding of what is generally called “the Babylonian Exile.” Faust in effect argues that it is not a myth; the land was empty for all intents and purposes.

Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation
(Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), xiv + 302 pp., $39.95 (paperback)

According to many recent analyses, which Faust aims to debunk, the Babylonian destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E. was far from the total desolation described in the Bible. According to this argument, while Jerusalem and many other cities were destroyed, much of the countryside, especially in the Benjamin region north of Jerusalem, was left unharmed, and while many of Judah’s inhabitants were carried off to exile in Babylonia, many more were left behind. Thus, the claim goes, the idea that all of Judah was desolate is a “myth” created by the writers of the Bible, who wished to picture the exilic community as the only rightful heirs to ancient Judah (and Israel), and to expunge the majority of (un-exiled) Judahites from history. The fact that up until 15 years ago or so the vast majority of archaeologists and historians accepted this “myth” was due to their uncritical interpretation of the archaeological data in light of an uncritical reading of the Bible. Supposedly, a more sophisticated generation of scholars is now capable of seeing through this “myth” and reinstating the native population of the Holy Land to its rightful place in history. However, Faust disagrees with this interpretation.

Faust’s approach is, as it should be, primarily archaeological. He begins by explaining the difficulties that archaeologists have in even identifying the material remains (such as pottery) of the very short period of Neo-Babylonian rule of Judah (effectively from 586 to 539 B.C.E.). Indeed, it is the very fact that so few remains have been identified that makes the issue so difficult to deal with. Does this lack of material signify that the land was (mostly) empty, or does it mean that life went on as usual? After all, the pottery of the sixth century B.C.E. is basically the same as that of the seventh century—and thus difficult to distinguish.

But the fact remains that almost every city and village in Judah that has been excavated or surveyed was indeed destroyed or abandoned at this time. However, western Samaria, an area not conquered by the Babylonians (it had already been conquered by the Assyrians a century and a half earlier), shows clear archaeological evidence of continuity from the seventh to the sixth centuries. Had the Babylonian conquest not been all that destructive, we would see at least some continuity in Judah as well. But we don’t.

Faust next shows that the types of pottery produced in Greece during the sixth century are also found all over the Levant. This is evidence of heightened trade between the Levant and the Aegean area. However, these types are almost totally missing from Judah and the adjacent coastal area. This is yet another indication that, since the land had been desolated, there was basically no one with whom to trade in Judah at this time!

Faust then shows how two physical features of Iron Age II Judahite settlements—the four-room house and the particular style of rock-cut tombs used in Judah—suddenly disappear from the archaeological record in the early sixth century and are not found, for example, in the Persian period (beginning in 539 B.C.E.). The same is true of the figurinese that are so typical of late Iron Age Judah; they too disappear. All this indicates a sudden change in the society of Judah. Turning to demographics, Faust compares the number of occupied sites in the seventh (Iron II), fifth (Persian) and third (Hellenistic) centuries. While Faust is well aware of the limitations of such comparisons, in his view the results are clear—the population of Judah dropped drastically between the seventh and the fifth centuries and only really recovered in the third. The logical reason for this huge decline is the Babylonian conquest and destruction.

For good measure, Faust then compares the situation after the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E. with the earlier Assyrian campaign (in 701 B.C.E.) of Sennacherib. Here too Judah was attacked (by the Assyrians), as described so graphically in the Bible (e.g., in 2 Kings 18, and even more so in Micah 1 and in Isaiah 1:6–9: “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.”). In much modern scholarship Sennacherib’s campaign is described as particularly destructive. But Faust’s analysis shows that, in fact, most areas of the kingdom were either not seriously affected or bounced back very quickly. This stands in stark contrast to the situation following Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign of 586 B.C.E.

In conclusion, Faust charges some scholars with “inventing” a continuity of settlement between the end of the Iron Age (i.e., the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah) and the Persian and Hellenistic periods in order to show that the society of Babylonian and Persian-period Judah was capable of producing many of the texts of the Bible, which they date to this period. In Faust’s opinion, this is simply impossible: Society in Judah was too depleted and too poor to have supported such a huge literary project. Bible scholars, he concludes, will have to take the reality that archaeologists present into account when developing their theories of how the Bible was produced.

Much of what Faust writes is controversial, and he, too, has an agenda—especially in The Archaeology of Desolation, in which he explicitly takes his opponents to task for using the archaeological data selectively in accordance with their preconceived views. But as long as he admits his agenda openly, as he does, this is legitimate. In both books, Faust takes the archaeological evidence and uses it to present his view of life in Israel and Judah in the periods of the monarchy. Others will undoubtedly argue for a different interpretation. As long as this is done in a way that is collegial and based on facts, this is exactly the way scholarship advances.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

Sidebar: How to Identify an Ancient Israelite House

Israel Finkelstein/Tel Aviv University
Four-room houses, such as this Iron Age I example from Izbet Sartah in the Judahite hill country, are traditional parts of the Israelite and Judahite building program in the Iron Age. Faust notes that four-room houses disappear from Judah’s archaeological record in the early sixth century, suggesting a discontinuity between Judahite culture in the Iron Age and the Neo-Babylonian period.

The “four-room house” refers to a type of private dwelling that seems to have first appeared in the hills of Samaria and Judah in Iron Age I (12th and 11th centuries B.C.E.) and remained in use throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah right up to their demise in the late eighth and early sixth centuries, respectively. The name “four-room” is a little misleading, because there are many variations on the general plan, and not all of these have exactly four rooms. The basic plan of these structures is that of a rectangle, usually with one entrance. A single closed-off room runs along the entire width of the back end, and the rest subdivided into a central corridor (if roofed) or small courtyard (if not roofed—in most cases we just don’t know), with a room on either side. Often, one of the side rooms will be closed in by a wall, while the other will be separated from the central corridor by a row of pillars. The general assumption is that the back room was used by the inhabitants for sleeping, the side rooms were used for various household functions, such as cooking, dyeing fabric and storage, and the central space was used for passage and may have housed small animals. However, we often find the various spaces subdivided in different ways, apparently to accommodate families of different sizes and status. In some cases, there is evidence that they had a second story. Such structures have been found in both small villages and in major cities. In some urban examples (e.g., at Beer-Sheva), the back rooms of the houses make up the “casemates” of the city wall. In other places (e.g., at Hazor and Tell Beit Mirsim), the same plan was used for public structures as well as private dwellings.

Houses of this type were first noticed in early 20th century excavations at Jericho, Beth-Shemesh, Megiddo, Lachish and Tell Beit Mirsim, but it was only in the 1950s that archaeologists had enough data to classify them as a specific type that could be attributed to Iron Age Israel. Various theories about their origin were suggested, ranging from Assyrian-style “palaces” to Aegean-type “megaron” buildings. In 1955, Israeli archaeologist Shmuel Yeivin1 showed that the four-room house first appeared in the central hills of Israel during the early Iron Age and disappeared with the demise of the Hebrew kingdoms. He suggested that they were a particularly “Israelite” building style. This was expounded upon by Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh in the 1970s. Discoveries since the 1980s proved them right: We now know of hundreds of such houses, first appearing in the hill country in Iron Age I and spreading to the valleys and the coast in Iron II (1000–586 B.C.E.), reflecting the spread of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. A few similar houses east of the Jordan River were interpreted as evidence of Israelite settlement there as well.a And when, in the late ninth century B.C.E., people in Judah began to bury their dead in rock-cut family tombs, these tombs were actually designed like four-room houses!b 2

However, recently, some archaeologists have begun taking a more critical view of connecting particular architectural styles to ethnic identity and suggest alternative explanations for the sudden proliferation and then disappearance of the four-room house. Faust, in both of the books discussed here, defends the notion of the four-room house as particularly “Israelite” and explains its design, once again, as a reflection of what he calls the Israelite “egalitarian ethos.”

“Ancient Israel through a Social Scientific Lens” by Yigal Levin originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.



1. (London: Equinox, 2006). The two volumes were not planned that way. The present volume is actually an updated translation of a Hebrew version published in 2005, which is based on his PhD dissertation which was presented in 1999. In the introduction to the book, Faust admits that had the entire book been written more recently, he would have treated some topics differently.

2. Avraham Faust, “The Archaeology of the Israelite Cult: Questioning the Consensus,” BASOR 360 (2010), pp. 23–35.

3. Oslo: Scandinavian Univ. Press.

a. See, for instance, David Jacobson, “Charles Warren vs. James Fergusson,” BAR 29:05; “Edward Robinson (1794–1863), Biblical Geographer,” sidebar to J. Maxwell Miller, “Biblical Maps,” Bible Review 03:04. For a more complete history, see Thomas E. Levy, “From Camels to Computers: A Short History of Archaeological Method,” BAR 21:04.

b. See William G. Dever, ReViews: “Archaeological Anthropology,” BAR 34:06.

c. Which does not mean that Israelite society was actually “egalitarian.” As the present book shows, during the time of the Monarchy, Israelite society became extremely stratified. It did, however, retain an “ethos” or “ideology” of equality. This was explained by Faust in his recent BAR article on the apparent lack of Israelite burials (“Early Israel: An Egalitarian Society,” 39:04).

d. These critics claim that Faust gives too much credit to the Biblical texts, a claim that Faust would of course deny—justly, in this reviewer’s opinion. Much of this debate has taken place on blogs, e-lists and unpublished conference papers, and thus cannot be quoted in an article such as this. This is unfortunate, since the proper venue for academic debate is in published articles and reviews.

e. See Robert Deutsch, “JPFs—More Questions than Answers,” p. 37.

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