Genesis mentions several cities, towns and villages, some of which have been identified and excavated by archaeologists. Archaeology has revealed that some of these places were either abandoned or not in existence in the historical time frames of the biblical narratives. This brief article will note what archaeologists found and conclusions are drawn regarding not only the historicity of the biblical texts, but also when they were composed. I am not attempting to account for every site mentioned in Genesis, I am focusing in on the "archaeological anomalies" which are useful in the dating of the text.
Tradition claims the Pentateuch, which includes Genesis, was written by Moses ca. 1446 BCE (cf. 1 Kings 6:1 for the date of the Exodus, favored by some Conservative Scholars). The archaeological evidence suggests otherwise, the text appears to be no earlier than the 6th-5th centuries BCE, as the rest of this article will attempt to demonstrate.
In Genesis' so-called "Table of Nations," (Ge 10) mention is made of the leading cities of Assyria. Taking pride of place in being first mentioned is Nineveh followed by Rehoboth-ir, Calah and Resen (Ge 10:10). Of the four cities only Nineveh and Calah have been archaeologically identified and excavated.
Grayson makes the following observations about Nineveh and Calah (ABD is The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Doubleday. 1992. 6 Volumes, edited by David Noel Freedman) :
"In the 7th century BC the city of Nineveh was transformed from being a major metropolis in Assyria to being the capital of the entire country and empire. This was result of a decision by Sennacherib (704-681 BC)...In choosing Nineveh as his capital, Sennacherib launched a massive rebuilding program there...The transformed city was surrounded by an enormous wall...Thereafter Nineveh remained the capital of Assyria until the fall of the empire and the capture of the city itself in 612 BC by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians." (ABD 4.1119, "Nineveh," A. Kirk Grayson)
"Calah was of no significance in the 3d and 2d millenium BC. It was singled out for importance only in the 9th century BC when Assurnasirpal II chose it as his capital. Assurnasirpal totally transformed the insignificant village into a metropolis which was suitable to the center of the empire he created...Calah remained the administrative center of Assyria until about 700 BC. At that time other cities were chosen as capitals, and eventually Nineveh became the chief city." (ABD 1.808 "Calah," A. Kirk Grayson)
Grayson's articles point out that Calah was the capital of Assyria during the 9th-7th centuries BCE until it was succeeded by Nineveh which became Assyria's capital during the reign of Sennacherib (BCE) in the 7th century. I suspect that the reason Calah was not given "pride of first mention" in Genesis is that during the time period of this book's composition it wasn't the capital, Nineveh was. If my hunch is correct this would suggest that Genesis can be no earlier than the 7th century BCE when Nineveh became "the number one or most prominent" city of Assyria.
Claims have been made that parts of Genesis originated in the time of Solomon (the 10th century BCE). I find this assertion to be untenable in light of the fact that in Solomonic times the capital of Assyria was the city called Asshur/Assur. Calah succeeded Asshur in the 9th century BC. If Genesis was, in part, a composition of the Solomonic court, it should have been given "pride of place" to Asshur, not Nineveh. Grayon on Asshur/Assur :
"The city Asshur, which was the capital of the kingdom of Assyria, is also never specifically referred to in the Bible...In the 14th century BC Asshur became the capital of a land which was for the first time called Assyria, a kingdom which included the cities of Nineveh and Arbela...Asshur continued to be the capital until the 9th century BC when Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) moved the capital to Calah. Then in the 7th century BC the capital was once again moved, this time by Sennacherib (704-681 BC) to Nineveh." (ABD 1.500, "Asshur," A. Kirk Grayson)
It is just as unlikely that Moses (ca. 1446 BCE) or the Jahwist (960 BCE) knew of Lud/Lydia (Genesis 10:22) when according to the testimony of Asshurbanipal, this nation was unknown and unheard of by "his fathers", remarking on the fact that Gyges of Lydia/Luddu has sought him out, seeking to be his vassal, and offering captured Gimmerai (biblical: Gomer, Greek: Cimmerians) warriors as a token of esteem ?
Bury on Lydia and Assyria, citing Asshurbanipal's (669-633 BCE) own words preserved in cuneiform:
"Gyges, king of Lydia, a district which is across the sea, a remote place of which the kings my fathers had not heard speak of its name. The account of my grand kingdom in a dream was related to him by Assur, the god my creator: "Of Assurbanipal, king of Assyria, the beloved of Assur, king of the gods, lord of all, his princely yoke take." (cf. p. 840, notes to p. 104, citing a cuneiform translation by G. Smith, History of Asshurbanipal, p. 64, 73, in J.B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, New York, the Modern Library, Random House, 1937)
Ai, (modern et-Tell) near which Abraham set up an altar (Ge 12:8) has been throughly excavated, and found to have been an abandoned site in Abraham's (21st century BCE) as well as Joshua's days (ca. 1446 BCE for Conservative Scholars or the Liberal Scholars' ca. 1220 BCE). Callaway noted that Ai was occupied from Early Bronze I to Early Bronze III, 3200-2400 BCE when it was abandoned, then resettled ca. 1200 BCE in Iron I (Cf. the Archaeological Occupational Chart, ABD 1.127, "Ai" ). Callaway observes on Ai :
"Another violent destruction overtook the city about 2400 BC, during the 5th Dynasty of Egypt...the city was completely destroyed and abandoned, and was not reoccupied until Iron Age settlers came upon the ruins of the site 1,200 years later, ca. 1200 BC." (ABD 1.129, "Ai," Joseph A. Callaway)
Beersheba, identified by most scholars with Tell es-Seba, was founded in Iron I (the 12th century BCE), the only occupation of an earlier era is Chalcolithic (Stone Age). Archaeology has revealed that the place was unoccupied in Abraham's days (the 21st century BCE). Beersheba's well was believed to have been dug at some time after the city's founding in the 12th century BCE. Of interest was the presence of distinctive Philistine pottery shards amongst the proto-Israelite pottery assemblages in the earliest Iron Age I levels of the tell. It is probably this presence of Philistine wares at Beersheba -when it was founded- that is being remembered in the Abrahamic narratives recounting his struggle with Philistines over the well he had created (Ge 21:22-32).
Manor noted that the earliest occupational levels at two different sites, Bir es-Seba and Tell es-Seba (further to the east) were no older than the Iron Age. He also noted the presence of Philistine pottery in the earliest levels at Tell es-Seba:
"Tell es-Seba. Stratum IX. The earliest strata...The ceramic collection associated with this level (including some shards of PHILISTINE POTTERY, and red-slipped and hand-burnished wares) implies a date at then end of the 12th century or early 11th century BCE." (ABD 1.642, Dale W. Manor, "Beer-Sheba")
"It is not possible to determine when the well was dug, although it appears from the building that surrounded the well in stratum VII, and the fact that the well stood almost exactly in the center of the courtyard of this building, that the well existed during stratum VII. Because the stratigraphy of the well area has been disrupted in antiquity (due to the collapse of the upper walls of the shaft), it is impossible to determine stratigraphically the date of the well. The only possibility available to determine its date is to excavate to the bottom of the well, but after excavating through 28 m of accumulation without reaching bottom, it was deemed necessary to abort the operation. On the basis of the orientation of nearby stratum IX architectural features, the excavators suggest that the well was dug in stratum IX (Herzog 1984:4-6). There is, however, no evidence to attribute any part of this well to the patriarchal period." (ABD 1.642 , Dale W. Manor, "Beersheba," 1992)
The excavators did not dig down to the base of the well found at Tell es-Seba, they concluded that based on the earliest surrounding strata (level IX, of the late 12th century BCE), that the well was no earlier. Thus this well does not date from the Patriarchal era, the 3rd millenium BCE and Abraham's world. I conclude that the Pentateuchal story of Abraham excavating a well at Beersheba in the 3rd millenium BCE is fantasy.
Gerar (identified with Tell Haror) is portrayed in Genesis as a Philistine city. The Philistines arrived in Canaan ca. 1175 BCE when they make their first appearance in Egyptian records as the Pelest, one of the Sea Peoples who attempted to invade Egypt in the days of Pharaoh Rameses III. Their distinctive pottery was found at Tel Haror in the 12th century BC levels which are contemporary with Beersheba's founding. Oren's article on Gerar notes that the city was founded in the Middle Bronze II era, the 18th century BCE and existed in Late Bronze, Iron Age I-II and Persian times. No remains, not even pottery shards, have been found of the 21st century BCE and Abraham's world.
"Surveys and excavations have demonstrated that Tel Haror was one of the largest Middle Bronze settlement sites in South Canaan, covering an area of ca. 40 acres...Earlier occupational strata in the 12-11th centuries BCE included...masses of early and late types of beautifully decorated Philistine pottery. One of the refuse pits produced a large collection of scrap iron tools and vessels, implying some processing of iron implements. The rich early Iron Age settlement at Tel Haror testifies to the dynamic eastward expansion of Philistine culture from the South coast into the Judaean Shephelah." (ABD 2.990, "Gerar," Eliezer D. Oren)
Abraham's tomb at Mamre is today called in Arabic Beit el-Khalil or Haram el-Khalil. Applebaum makes the following observations :
"West of the wall at this point were uncovered the foundations of two towers of the Haram, containing pottery of the Iron II (9th-7th centuries BC). These were probably entrance towers to the temenos...the temenos yielded pottery of the early phase of the Middle Bronze II, although no other remains attributable to that period were found." (p.776, Vol.3. S. Applebaum, "Mamre." Michael Avi-Yonah and Ephraim Stern, Editors. Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1977. ISBN 0-13-275131-3)
It would appear that the Haram el-Khalil possesses no indication of an occupation or presence of the 21st century BCE and Abraham's world. The towers, if entrances to the sacred temenos, suggest that certainly by the 9th-7th centuries BCE some Abrahamic legends were in place. This is some 300 years after the founding of Beersheba and its well in the 12th century BCE. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Abrahamic legends arose after the arrival of the Philistines/Pelest, that is after 1175 BCE and the founding of Beersheba and its well. Over a period of some 300 years a tradition evidently arose that Abraham had been buried at Hebron, as witnessed by the two towers constructed in the course of the 9-7th centuries BCE.
Genesis mentions Bozrah in Edom (Ge 36:33) which has been identified with the modern village of Buseirah. Hart and Hubner make the following observations :
"Bozrah, the ancient capital of Edom, is without a doubt to be identified with the modern village of Buseirah, which is located in Northern Edom. It guards both the King's Highway (the major North-South route through Transjordan) and a major route West to the Wadi Arabah and thence to the Negeb and South Judah...Excavations at the site...have revealed a large, fortified site with monumental public buildings, far larger than any other site in the region. Two major phases of occupation have been found in all the excavated areas...both phases would appear to fall within the confines of the 7th-6th centuries BC. There is no evidence for occupation earlier than the 8th century BC." (ABD 1.774, "Bozrah 1." Stephen Hart and Ulrich Hubner)
If Bozrah is no earlier than the 8th century and principally the 7-6th centuries BC, then this archaeological anomaly reveals that the Genesis text could not have been composed before this period of time. Genesis suggests that Bozrah is a city inhabited by one of Esau's descendants, who are described as Kings of Edom before any King reigned in Israel (Ge 36:31). Saul, Israel's first King is dated by some scholars as ruling ca. 1020-1000 BCE (cf. p.1548. Bruce Metzger and Herbert G. May, editors. The New Oxford Annotated Bible With Apocrypha. 1977). Archaeology has revealed that no Edomite King reigned at Bozrah before Israel had a King, because the city didn't come into existence until the 7th-6th centuries BCE. This archaeological anomaly suggests that Genesis could not have been composed in the 7th century BCE because within "living memory" there would be a realization that the city was a recent creation. A couple of hundred years would need to pass for the national memory to fade and forget when Bozrah came into existence, such that this tale of it being a city before there were Kings in Israel would not have been objected to by the audience. A 7th-6th century Bozrah (the principal building remains are 7th-6th centuries, not 8th) suggests Genesis was composed either in the 6th or 5th century BCE.
We have seen that some cities were either abandoned (Ai) or not in existence in Abraham's time, the 21st century BCE (Beersheba and Gerar). The latest markers date the text, it would appear that Nineveh's being mentioned first, before three other Assyrian cities, dates the text to some time in the 7th century BCE at the earliest. Moses (ca. 1446 BCE, cf. 1 Kings 6:1) certainly would have had no knowledge of the 10th century BCE "insignificant village" of Calah, nor would his audience know of it as a great city of Assyria in the 15th century BCE. Bozrah's principal building remains are of the 7th-6th centuries BCE, suggesting again, that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch and Genesis in the 15th century BCE (cf. 1 Kings 6:1). Allowing 100 to 200 years for the national memory to fade, and forget just when Bozrah had come into existence as a prominent Edomite city, suggests that Genesis was composed either in the 6th or 5th century BCE.