Do not leave the path


June 2014

Ancient Mesopotamian Beliefs in the Afterlife

The Mesopotamians did not view physical death as the ultimate end of life. The dead continued an animated existence in the form of a spirit, designated by the Sumerian term gidim and its Akkadian equivalent, eṭemmu.

Unlike the rich corpus of ancient Egyptian funerary texts, no such “guidebooks” from Mesopotamiadetail the afterlife and the soul’s fate after death. Instead, ancient Mesopotamian views of the afterlife must be pieced together from a variety of sources across different genres.

Many literary texts, most famously the Epic ofGilgamesh, contemplate the meaning of death, recount the fate of the dead in the netherworld, and describe mourning rites. Other texts were probably composed in order to be recited during religious rites involving ghosts or dying gods. Of these ritual texts, the most notable are Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the NetherworldIshtar’s Descent to the Netherworld; and Nergal and Ereshkigal. Further sources for Mesopotamian afterlife beliefs include burials,grave inscriptions, economic texts recording disbursements for funerals or cults of the dead, references to death in royal inscriptions and edicts, chronicles, royal and private letters, lexical texts, cultic commentaries, magico-medical texts, omens, and curse formulas.

In addition to belonging to different genres, the sources for Mesopotamian beliefs in the afterlife come from distinct periods in Mesopotamian history and encompass Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures. We should therefore be careful not to view Mesopotamian afterlife beliefs as static or uniform. Like all cultural systems, Mesopotamian ideas of the afterlife transformed throughout time. Beliefs and practices relating to the afterlife also varied with socio-economic status and differed within official and popular religious paradigms. With this in mind, however, cultural continuity between the Sumerian civilization and its successors allows a synthesis of diverse sources in order to provide a working introduction to Mesopotamian concepts of the afterlife.

The Netherworld

Ancient Mesopotamians conceptualized the netherworld as the cosmic opposite of the heavens and as a shadowy version of life on earth. Metaphysically, it was thought to lie a great distance from the realm of the living. Physically, however, it lay underground and is poetically described as located only a short distance from the earth’s surface.

Literary accounts of the netherworld are generally dismal. It is described as a dark “land of no return” and the “house which none leaves who enters,” with dust on its door and bolt (Dalley 155). Yet other accounts moderate this bleak picture. For instance, a Sumerian work referred to as the Death of Urnamma describes the spirits of the dead rejoicing and feasting upon the ruler Urnamma’s arrival in the netherworld. Shamash, the sun god of justice, also visited the netherworld every night on his daily circuit through the cosmos. Similarly, scholar Caitlín Barrett has proposed that grave iconography – specifically symbolism related to the goddess Inanna/Ishtar who descended and returned from the underworld — indicates a belief in a more desirable afterlife existence than the one described in many literary texts. Although humans could not hope to return to life in exact imitation of Inanna/Ishtar, Barrett argues, by utilizing funerary iconography representing Ishtar, they could seek to avoid the unpleasant aspects of the netherworld from which Inanna/Ishtar herself had escaped. The Mesopotamian netherworld is therefore best understood as neither a place of great misery nor great joy, but as a dulled version of life on earth.

Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night

One of the most vivid portrayals of the netherworld describes a subterranean “great city” (Sumerian “”) protected by seven walls and gates where the spirits of the dead dwell. In the Akkadian Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, Ishtar passes through these seven gates on her journey to the netherworld. At each gate she is stripped of her garments and jewelry until she enters the city of the dead naked. In light of such descriptions, it is perhaps notable that Mesopotamian funerary rites for the elite could last up to seven days.

The community of spirits living in the “great city” was sometimes called Arallu in Akkadian or Ganzer in Sumerian, terms of uncertain meaning. Sumerian Ganzer is also a name for the underworld and an entrance to the underworld. Paralleling the Mesopotamian idea of divine authority in heaven and earth, the realm of the dead was governed by particular deities who were ranked in hierarchical order with a supreme chief at their head. In older texts the goddess Ereshkigal (“Mistress of the Great Earth”) was queen of the Netherworld. She was later replaced by the male warrior god Nergal (“Chief of the Great City”). An Akkadian myth dating at latest to the mid-second millennium BCE attempts to resolve the conflicting traditions by making Ereshkigal the spouse of Nergal. Like the deities in heaven who met regularly in a divine council to render judgments for the universe, the divine rulers of the underworld were assisted in their decisions by an elite body of divinities called the Anunnaki.

It must be emphasized that the Mesopotamian netherworld was not a “hell.” Although it was understood as the geographic opposite of the heavens, and although its environment was largely an inversion of heavenly realms (for instance, it was characterized by darkness instead of light), it did not stand opposite heaven as a possible dwelling place for dead spirits based on behavior during life. The Mesopotamian netherworld was neither a place of punishment nor reward. Rather, it was the only otherworldly destination for dead spirits whose bodies and graves or cult statues had received proper ritual care.

Human Nature & Fate after Death

In the Old Babylonian Atrahasis epic, the gods created humans by mixing clay with the blood of a rebellious deity named We-ilu who was specially slaughtered for the occasion. Humans therefore contained both an earthly and a divine component. Yet the divine element did not mean that humans were immortal. The Mesopotamians had no concept of either physical resurrection or metempsychosis.[4] Rather, Enki (Akkadian Ea), the Sumerian deity of wisdom and magic, ordained death for humans from their very inception. Mortality defined the fundamental human condition, and is even described as the destiny (Akk. šimtu) of mankind. The most common euphemism for dying in Mesopotamian texts is “to go to one’s fate” (Cooper 21). The quest for physical immortality, suggests the Epic of Gilgamesh, was consequently futile. The best humans could strive for was enduring fame through their deeds and accomplishments on earth. Immortality, insofar as it was metaphorically possible, was actualized in the memory of future generations.

Humans were considered alive (Akk. awilu) as long as they had blood in their veins and breath in their nostrils.  At the moment when humans were emptied of blood or exhaled their last breath, their bodies were considered empty cadavers (Akk. pagaru. The condition of this empty corpse is compared to deep sleep and, upon burial in the ground, the body fashioned from clay “returned to clay” (Bottéro, “Religion” 107). The biblical euphemism for death as sleep (New Revised Standard Version, 1 Kgs. 2:10; 2 Kgs. 10:35; 15:38; 24:6; 2 Chron. 9:31) and the statement, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19; cf. Ecc. 3:20), point to the common cultural milieu underlying ancient Mesopotamian and Israelite paradigms.

The Mesopotamians did not view physical death as the ultimate end of life. The dead continued an animated existence in the form of a spirit, designated by the Sumerian term gidim and its Akkadian equivalent, eṭemmu. The eṭemmu is best understood as a ghost. Its etiology is described in the Old Babylonian Atrahasis epic I 206-230, which recounts the creation of humans from the blood of the slain god We-ilu. The text uses word play to connect the etemmu to a divine quality: We-ilu is characterized as one who has ṭemu, “understanding” or “intelligence”. Thus, humans were thought to be composed of a corporeal body and some type of divine insight.

It must be stressed that Mesopotamian notions of the physical body and the eṭemmu do not represent a strict body/soul dualism. Unlike the concept of psyche in Classical Greek thought, the eṭemmu was closely associated with the physical corpse. Some texts even speak of the eṭemmu as if it were identical to the body. For instance, the eṭemmu is sometimes described as “sleeping” in the grave (Scurlock, “Death” 1892) – a description that echoes accounts of the corpse or pagaru. Further, the eṭemmu retained corporeal needs such as hunger and thirst, a characteristic that will be discussed in more detail below. It also unclear whether the eṭemmu existed within the living body prior to death (and was thus an entity that separatedfrom the body), or whether it only came into existence at the moment of physical death (and was thus an entity created by the transformation of some physical life-force). In either case, upon physical death the status of the deceased changed from awilu to eṭemmu. Death was therefore a transitionary stage during which humans were transformed from one state of existence to another.

The eṭemmu was not immediately transported to the netherworld after bodily death, but had to undergo an arduous journey in order to reach it. Proper burial and mourning of the corpse was essential for theeṭemmu’s transition to the next world. Provided that the necessary funerary rites were performed, the ghost was required to cross a demon-infested steppe, pass over the Khuber River with the assistance of an individual named Silushi/Silulim or Khumut-tabal (the latter meaning “Quick, take [me] there!”), and be admitted through the seven gates of the netherworld city with the permission of the gatekeeper, Bidu (“Open up!”).

Upon arrival in the netherworld, the eṭemmu was “judged” by the court of the Annunaki and assigned a place in its new subterranean community. This judgment and placement was not of an ethical nature and had nothing to do with the deceased’s merits during its lifetime. Instead, it had rather a clerical function and confirmed, according to the rules of the netherworld, the etemmu’s entrance into its new home.

Yet the judgment and placement of the eṭemmu in the netherworld was not entirely arbitrary or neutral. Just as social hierarchies existed within living communities, so too did a hierarchy between ghosts exist in the “great city” of the dead. The status of an eṭemmu in the netherworld was determined by two factors: the social status of the deceased while alive, and the post-mortem care its body and grave or cult statue received from the living on earth. Kings like Urnamma and Gilgamesh remained rulers and judges of the dead in the netherworld, and priests remained priests. In this respect the social order underground mimicked that above. Some texts such as Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the Netherworld indicate that the deceased’s lot in the underworld depended on the number of children one had. The more descendents, the more privileged the eṭemmu’s existence in the netherworld, for there were more relatives to ensure the performance of necessary post-mortem rituals.

In the underworld the eṭemmu could be reunited with relatives who had preceded them in death. It should be noted, however, that although the eṭemmu was capable of recognizing and being recognized by the ghosts of people the deceased had known during life, these ghosts do not seem to have retained the deceased’s unique personality traits in the netherworld.

Chaplet from Tomb at Ur

Chaplet from Tomb at Ur

In addition to the eṭemmu, living beings were also thought to be composed of a wind-like emanation called in Akkadian the zaqiqu (or ziqiqu). This spirit was sexless, probably birdlike, and was associated with dreaming because it could depart the body while the individual was asleep. Both the eṭemmu and thezaqiqu descended to the netherworld after physical death. Aside from descriptions of dreams, however, theeṭemmu is mentioned far more prominently than the zaqiqu in Mesopotamian literature. This may be due to the fact that, unlike the eṭemmu, the zaqiqu was considered relatively harmless and unable to interfere either positively or negatively in the affairs of the living. It was therefore natural that a greater number of Mesopotamian texts would focus on proper ritual care for the eṭemmu, since these rites were intended to pacify the spirit of the dead so that it would not haunt the living.

The Relationship Between the Dead & the Living

As indicated above, the fate of the eṭemmu after corporeal death depended on performance of the proper post-mortem rituals by the living. First, funerary rites—specifically burial of the corpse and ritual mourning— at the time of death were necessary for the eṭemmu’s successful journey to and integration into the netherworld. Second, continued cultic offerings at the deceased’s grave or (at least in the pre-Sargonic period) cult statue were required to ensure the eṭemmu’s comfortable existence in the netherworld. We have seen that the eṭemmu retained the needs of a living being. Most importantly, it required sustenance. Yet the netherworld was devoid of any palatable nourishment. As the Death of Urnamma articulates, “The food of the netherworld is bitter and the water is brackish” (Cohen 103). The ghost was therefore dependent on the living for subsistence, which was provided through offerings of food and beverage. Absence of offerings reduced the eṭemmu to a beggar’s existence in the netherworld. The primary responsibility for performing these offerings fell to the eldest son of the deceased. Scurlock connects post-mortem duties with Mesopotamian property laws by positing that this “is presumably why [the eldest son] also customarily received an extra share of the inheritance” (“Death” 1888).

Mesopotamian Male Worshiper Votive Figure

Mesopotamian Male Worshiper Votive Figure

Both non-elites and elites required such rituals, but the necessity of death cults for the elite was particularly emphasized. The primary difference between death cults for the non-elite and elite appears to have been that, for ordinary people, only the deceased personally known to their descendants –such as immediate family— required individual eṭemmu cults. Distant relatives seem to have “merged together in a sort of corporate ancestor” (Scurlock, “Death” 1889). In contrast, royal cult offerings were made individually to all ancestors of the reigning king.

As long as offerings continued regularly, the eṭemmu remained at peace in the netherworld. Pacified ghosts were friendly and could be induced to aid the living, or at least were prevented from harming them. A person who did not receive proper burial rites or cultic offerings, however, became a restless ghost or vicious demon. Some cases where this could occur included people who were left unburied, suffered a violent death or other unnatural end, or died unmarried. Vicious ghosts pursued, seized, bound, or even physically abused their victims, and could also possess victims by entering into them via their ears. They could also haunt the dreams of the living. Sickness, both physical and psychological, and misfortune were often believed to be caused by the anger of a restless eṭemmu . For example, the suffering servant of the Babylonian poem Ludlul bēl nēmeqi deplores his fate:

Debilitating Disease is let loose upon me:
An Evil Wind has blown [from the] horizon,
Headache has sprung up from the surface of the underworld….
The irresistible [Ghost] left Ekur
[The Lamastu-demon came] down from the mountain. (Lines 50-55, Poem of the Righteous Sufferer)

The Mesopotamians developed many magical means of dealing with vengeful ghosts. Some methods included the tying of magical knots, the manufacturing of amulets, smearing on magical ointments, drinking magical potions, the burial of a surrogate figurine representing the ghost, and the pouring libations while reciting incantations.


In Mesopotamian conceptions of the afterlife, life did not end after physical death but continued in the form of an eṭemmu, a spirit or ghost dwelling in the netherworld. Further, physical death did not sever the relationship between living and deceased but reinforced their bond through a new set of mutual obligations. Just as the well being of the ghost in the netherworld was contingent upon offerings from the living, so too was the well being of the living contingent upon on the proper propitiation and favor of the dead. To a notable degree, these afterlife beliefs reflected and reinforced the social structure of kinship ties in Mesopotamian communities.

Written by , published on 20 June 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.


Ancient Coins and Looting


Ancient coins provide a precise chronology when discovered in context. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most frequently looted artifacts and are often traded without regulation.

“Let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the ‘smoking gun’ for an excavation.”


So writes Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist Nathan T. Elkins in “Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins” in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. In his Archaeological Views column, Elkins describes the importance of ancient coins as primary chronological indicators. When found under sealed floors, foundations or walls, they can provide definitive chronological evidence. Unfortunately, they are also the most widely collected and sought-after artifact type, and millions of coins enter the market each year from unrecorded digs.

Looted ancient coins do still provide information for numismatists who want to study, say, iconography. But Elkins notes that ancient coins’ iconography, archaeology, text and inscription are all pieces of the same historical puzzle, and we must “endeavor to preserve, and encourage the preservation of, as much information as possible.”


If archaeologists are the detectives of history, then ancient coins are the “smoking guns” of the ancient crime scene, according to Elkins. Detectives reconstruct crimes by looking at the relationships between weapons, footprints, fingerprints, broken glass and other evidence. Archaeologists do the same by analyzing artifacts within their find contexts. Looting not only removes valuable evidence from the equation—such as dates or imperial faces inscribed on ancient coins—but also scatters the primary context of the disturbed area, destroying our ability to recreate the story behind the evidence.

When Egyptian Pharaohs Ruled Bronze Age Jerusalem

Peter van der Veen investigates an Egyptian presence before the time of David

What were Egyptian pharaohs doing in Bronze Age Jerusalem?


In a BAR feature 13 years ago,1 Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay investigated evidence of an Egyptian temple in Jerusalem, exposing the “Egyptianizing” of Bronze Age Jerusalem. In the March/April 2013 issue, Peter van der Veen presents new evidence of an Egyptian presence in Bronze Age Jerusalem before David made the city the Israelite capital. In “When Pharaohs Ruled Jerusalem,” Peter van der Veen brings together an array of evidence—including Egyptian statues, stylized architecture and material culture—that points to their presence in the city. But what did the Egyptian pharaohs want with Late Bronze Age Jerusalem? And where were they when David conquered the Jebusite city?

The initial study by Gabriel Barkay (which Peter van der Veen refers to as “reminiscent of nothing so much as Sherlock Holmes”) exposed Egyptianizing column capitals, a hieroglyphic stela and two Egyptian-style alabaster vessels that likely served as burial gifts. Peter van der Veen expanded the investigations of Gabriel Barkay to include figurines and Egyptian statues as well as a funerary stela referring to the local “ruler” of Bronze Age Jerusalem.

The Egyptian artifacts date to the 13th century B.C.E., during the 19th Egyptian Dynasty that included the reign of Ramesses II. Peter van der Veen writes, “Egypt was not new to Canaan in the 19th dynasty … Canaan was in effect an Egyptian province during the 14th century B.C.E.” In the famous Amarna letters, Abdi-Heba, the puppet-king of Jerusalem, proclaims that “the king has placed his name in Jerusalem forever.” While Bronze Age Jerusalem was not situated on Canaanite trade routes, Peter van der Veen notes that it controlled north-south traffic between Hebron and Shechem, as well as east-west traffic from the Via Maris to the King’s Highway. The Egyptians established a garrison at Manahat, just two miles southwest of Bronze Age Jerusalem.

It seems that the Egyptian pharaohs of the 19th dynasty used local vassal rulers to run daily affairs in Late Bronze Age Jerusalem, as did their predecessors in the Amarna period. But there is almost no evidence of an Egyptian presence in Jerusalem just prior to David’s conquest, around 1000 B.C.E. The Egyptian pharaohs did not lose interest in the city; the Bible tells us that Shishak sent his army north less than a century after David’s conquest of Jerusalem.2


Peter van der Veen poses the question: “Was David able to conquer Jerusalem (in about 1000 B.C.E.) because it was defended only by the Jebusites/Canaanites, without any Egyptian presence in the city?”

The Land Between The Two Rivers: Early Israelite Identities in Transjordan

By: Thomas Petter, Associate Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Were there Israelites in Transjordan in the early Iron Age? How would we know from archaeology? Or if not Israelites (and Moabites), who should we be looking for?

The task of plotting identities in the past is tricky business. It becomes even more problematic when opinions diverge dramatically about the value of artifacts for historical reconstruction. The question is routinely raised regarding the history of early Israel in the southern Levant whether archaeology can recover anything that speaks to identities during the Late Bronze and early Iron I periods. Over half a century of scholarship attests that answers range from a definite “no” to a definite “yes,” with a few shades of “maybe’s” in between. While my book The Land Between the Two Rivers makes an historical claim that there were indeed early Israelites present, on the basis of long term cyclical settlement patterns in central Transjordan, my goal is also to propose a model of tribal ethnic identities that could be flexible enough to be applied to other historical settings.

Map of Transjordan showing sites mentioned in the text. Image courtesy of Thomas Petter.

Mesha Stele.

Tall al-`Umayri fortification wall dating to the Late Bronze/Iron transition. Photo courtesy of Larry Herr and the Madaba Plains Project.

Why focus on Transjordan and the region bounded by the Wadi Zarqa/Jabbok in the north and the Wadi Mujib/Arnon River in the south? There are several reasons for this emphasis. First, it has the advantage of providing a cultural “micro-zone” that is genuinely transitional and marginal. Second, many recent discussions have focused on the Israelite hill-country but relatively little attention has been given to the region east of the river Jordan. Third, the available documentary sources (both biblical and Moabite, such as the Mesha Stele) suggest that vigorous tribal interaction existed there. Finally, ongoing excavations in the region also speak to the need for new syntheses of the data.

Madaba, recent excavations with remains of fortification wall. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

These excavations have dramatically changed our perception of the region. Excavations at Tall al-`Umayri have uncovered monumental architecture from Late Bronze and the early Iron Age. Likewise, excavations at the urban site on the acropolis of the modern city of Madaba have now reached stratified LB/Iron I levels along with Iron II levels which includes a portion of an impressive fortification wall. Thus, the challenge issued by the late James Sauer to Nelson Glueck, the pioneer of modern excavations and surveys in Transjordan, and Glueck’s idea that there was a settlement “gap” during the Late Bronze Age has now been met. Other excavations in the area such as at Tell Jalul, along with a new expedition that is soon to start on Mount Nebo/Mukhayyat, promise to add additional detail to an already impressive picture of settlement activities preceding the better-documented rise of Iron II regional polities.

The settlement data from Umayri and Madaba along with surveys conducted in the area reveals a material cultural landscape with strong affinities with its counterpart highland culture west of the Jordan. Nevertheless, local micro-variations, such as potter’s marks on the collared rim storejars, among others, could be interpreted as signals of “ethnic” variations.

But any hope for a strong one-to-one relationship between material culture and ethnic identity is mitigated by the fluid nature of the area. As coveted agricultural land, the Madaba plateau region (the region of North Moab, cf. Numbers 21:13) is described in both Israelite and Moabite sources as contested territory which changed hands several times among varying tribal groups. As interpreted in my study, data from Numbers 21, the Mesha Inscription, as well as the Jephthah story (Judges 11) acknowledge a long history of conflict and reflect remarkable candor in acknowledging that, in spite of their claims to the contrary, no one group could really hold the land permanently.

Madaba, showing modern city above ancient remains. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

Imported Myceanean pottery from Madaba. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

One way to imagine identities on this “shifting social frontier” is to rethinking the nature of identity itself. Identity includes both ‘primordial’ traits (deeply embedded cultural characteristics and beliefs that cannot be changed) and ‘instrumental’ ones (those that are social choices serving a more immediate purpose). For some cultures, the “primordial” elements (the idea of ancestry being a primary area) will matter more than “instrumental” traits that are shaped by social and political conditions. For others, it might be the reverse.

Thus, ethnic badges, specific patterns encoded onto material culture such as pottery, will look different according to the particular social dynamics at play in a particular historical setting. The task, then, is to determine the predominant markers of identity in a particular culture, and whether these represent instrumental or primordial traits, or both. Such an integrative approach to ethnic research also has a keen interest in finding out a culture’s self-perceptions of identity. These can be embeddedboth in material culture manufacturing technologies and in textual sources. Moreover, each of these lines of evidence informs us regarding the other. To leave out any would result in an incomplete picture and, in my opinion, partial conclusions as well.

Collared rim pithoi from Madaba showing potmarks. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

In the case of central Transjordan, the available texts describe strong tribal identities delineated by the twin tribal dynamics of “loyalty” to one another –and especially to the deity (Israel/Yahweh, Moab/Chemosh) – and “otherness,” reflected via the language of herem tribal warfare, an ideology of destruction (Israel and Moab). In addition, documentary sources also describe the deities’ “otherness” in that they would also turn against their own people in cases of “disloyalty” (Chemosh against Moab and Yahweh against Israel).

The chief index of ethnic identity in early Israel, then, revolves around both the instrumental notion of “covenant” (Yahwism) and the primordial notion of “kinship” (ancestry). In Transjordan, documentary evidence (from the book of Judges, among others) is interpreted to suggest that tribal identities could and did shift along these two primary identity markers over extended periods of time.  Such long-term social dynamics in effect mirror the well-documented settlement patterns of contraction and expansion present throughout the history of the central highlands of Jordan.  Thus, any sense that one tribe could lay claim to the territory of North Moab for any length of time and with a permanent material-cultural imprint of its own seems highly unlikely.

Four roomed house from Tall al-‘Umayri. Photo courtesy of Larry Herr and the Madaba Plains Project.

Reconstructed four room house from Tall al-‘Umayri. Photo courtesy of Larry Herr and the Madaba Plains Project.

My overall conclusion is that any hope for a strong appearance of material cultural identity in early Israel in general and in Transjordan in particular, would have to be subsumed under the larger category of a “highland” culture with strong Canaanite ties. This doesn’t mean that these cultural features (e.g.. the four-room house) weren’t adopted and adapted by Israelite groups and became their own at some point. However, the generic highland imprint upon early Israelite culture both in Israel and more so in Transjordan, makes early adoption of a specifically “Israelite” identity less likely than a later one, perhaps under the rulership of the kings during the Israelite and Judean monarchy.

As post-scriptum, this long-standing interest in ethnicity is not unrelated to my own upbringing in a French-speaking area of Switzerland with all the aspects of a cultural “transitional” zone: two languages (French and German) and two confessions (Protestant and Catholic) where three cantons intersect and overlap in what is called the “lake region” of Lac de Morat/Murtensee. My later journeys in life have also taken me to different cultures as well. This reality is reflected in my own son who can claim Swiss, Canadian and American (and little bit of Italian) identities.


Thomas Petter is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. 

Did Pharaoh Sheshonq Attack Jerusalem?

The Bubastite Portal’s record of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s campaigns does not mention the invasion described in 1 Kings


“In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt marched against Jerusalem.”
(1 Kings 14:25)


Shishak, actually Pharaoh Sheshonq I, left his own account of this northern campaign carved into the walls of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, but he does not mention Jerusalem among the places he conquered. Israeli scholar Yigal Levin’s article “Did Pharaoh Sheshonq Attack Jerusalem” in the July/August 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review examines the historical veracity of both the Egyptian Pharaoh’s account and the Bible’s.

Levin points out that if the Egyptian Pharaoh’s records on the Bubastite Portal match those from 1 Kings, “this would be the earliest event in Biblical history for which we have a contemporaneous reference in an extrabiblical source.” Moreover, Egyptian records of Sheshonq’s rule between 945 and 925 B.C.E. could be used to date the reigns of Rehoboam’s father, Solomon, and his grandfather, David.

Sheshonq was no modest conqueror (Egyptian pharaohs rarely were) and built a great colonnaded forecourt to the temple of Amun in Karnak, including the famous Bubastite Portal. On the Bubastite Portal, Sheshonq is supported by Amun and other gods as he smites his enemies in Asia, who are bound in the depiction below him. Each prisoner features a name-ring with a toponym, identifying a place that Sheshonq conquered or destroyed.

Jerusalem is the only city that Shishak destroys in Kings, but it is not among the surviving toponyms on the Bubastite Portal, which does mention campaigns in Judah, including a mention of fighting in Megiddo. Rehoboam and Jeroboam are also conspicuously absent.

Why was Jerusalem not mentioned on the Bubastite Portal, and why does the passage in Kings mention Jerusalem but not Sheshonq’s other campaigns in Judah? Some scholars believe that Jerusalem’s toponym was erased by time. Others believe that Rehoboam’s tribute to Sheshonq saved the city from destruction and therefore from the Bubastite Portal’s lists. Still others suggest that Sheshonq claimed conquest that he did not enact (Egyptian Pharaohs made false claims about their conquests frequently) and copied the list of conquered territories from an old Pharaoh’s conquest list. Finally, as Kings is a religious text, it focuses on Jerusalem without including full details on the military, history and politics of the surrounding region, though Chronicles tells a fuller account of the Egyptian invasion.

Yigal Levin and most modern scholars believe the Bubastite Portal recounts legitimate and historical campaigns conducted by the Egyptian Pharaoh Sheshonq. He says that “Sheshonq’s campaign in Israel and Judah brought an end to the many architectural, military and political achievements of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon and ushered in a new age—that of the nation divided.”

Read Levin, Yigal. “Did Pharaoh Sheshonq Attack Jerusalem” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug 2012, to find out what Levin learns about the chronology and itinerary of Sheshonq’s campaign.

Bronze Age Collapse: Pollen Study Highlights Late Bronze Age Drought

During the Late Bronze Age (1500–1200 B.C.E.), the Eastern Mediterranean boasted a flourishing network of grand empires sustaining sophisticated infrastructures, the likes of which the world would not see again for centuries to come. An interregional destruction (attested in Greece, Turkey, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt) known as the Bronze Age collapse is one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries.


In the Archaeology Odyssey article “When Civilization Collapsed: Death of the Bronze Age,” William H. Stiebing describes the Late Bronze Age collapse:

It was a cataclysm of immense proportions: Near the end of the 13th century B.C.E., the great Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean and Near East suddenly collapsed. In the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400–1200 B.C.E.), Mycenaean civilization flourished in Greece and Crete. The Hittites controlled most of Anatolia and northern Syria from their capital at Hattusa. The Egyptian New Kingdom ruled not only in the Nile Valley but also in Palestine and southern Syria. Commerce flowed over trade routes that crisscrossed both land and sea. A late-14th-century B.C.E. ship excavated off the Uluburun promontory in southern Turkey, for example, carried cargo from Cyprus, Canaan, Egypt, Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece. A century later, all these civilizations had begun to unravel. Cities burned, trade became almost nonexistent, and large groups of people migrated from one place to another.

The Bronze Age collapse was swift and sudden, ushering in a so-called “Dark Age” of decreased literacy, population and technology in much of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, as Thomas Fuller wrote in A Pisgah Sight of Palestine in 1650, “It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.” The power vacuum and increased migration surely played a role in the emergence of the Biblical Israelites and classical Greeks.

But what caused the Bronze Age collapse? Scholars have proposed a combination of factors including marauding Sea Peoples, plagues and earthquakes leading to a so-called “systems collapse,” in which complex societal networks broke down under mounting interregional economic or demographic pressures. Some see Homer’s Iliad as an illustration of the warfare that brought about (or occurred in the wake of) the Late Bronze Age collapse.


A recent study of pollen grains in sediment cores beneath the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea provides a new view of the Bronze Age collapse. The research, published in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, suggests that drought may have played a major factor leading to the Bronze Age collapse. Every plant produces a distinct pollen print (see below), and the recent studies show a decrease in trees requiring a great deal of water and an increase in the cultivation of dry-climate trees, such as olive trees, during the period between 1250 and 1100 B.C.E. Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein told the New York Times that pollen counts taken every 40 years are the “highest resolution yet in this region.” When compared with pollen data from Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and the Nile Delta, the new studies suggest a broader climate change across the Eastern Mediterranean around the time of the Bronze Age collapse.


The three-year pollen study is part of a broader scientific research project conducted by Israel Finkelstein and the Weizmann Institute’s Steve Weiner that includes DNA and molecular studies of archaeological data (click here to visit the BAS Archaeological Technology Page).

The new pollen data is critical for understanding the Late Bronze Age collapse. While a single source for the centuries-long upheaval seems unlikely, an extended period of drought may have led to economic failures and population migration, sparking broader military and other conflicts that broke down the extended imperial network of the Late Bronze Age. While Egypt, Hatti, Mycenae and others would never rise to their pre-collapse levels of prosperity again, the so-called Dark Ages saw the birth of some of history’s most prodigious cultures, including the Biblical Israelites.

City by City: Death of the Bronze Age

Special Feature: Read “City by City: Death of the Bronze Age” as it appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of Archaeology Odyssey below. Read William H. Stiebing, Jr.’s full article “When Civilization Collapsed: Death of the Bronze Age” in the BAS Library.

Mycenae: The City of King Agamemnon

Described by Homer as a “strong-founded citadel” that was “rich in gold,” Mycenae was the greatest of the Mycenaean cities that flourished in mainland Greece from about 1600 to 1200 B.C. (In the Trojan War, Mycenae’s king, Agamemnon, is the king of kings who leads the Greeks into battle.) Around 1500 B.C. Mycenaeans conquered the island of Crete and adapted the Minoan script, called Linear A, to write their own language, an ancient form of Greek. This new script, called Linear B, was used solely for recording inventories and commercial transactions; hundreds of Linear B tablets have been found both on Crete and in such Mycenaean cities as Tiryns, Pylos and Mycenae itself. When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Mycenae in the 1870s, he uncovered royal shaft graves filled with extraordinary gold artifacts (such as the famous Mask of Agamemnon, shown at right). All of the Mycenaean cities were destroyed toward the end of the 13th century B.C. or the beginning of the 12th century B.C.

Knossos: Center of Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations

The island of Crete gave rise to Europe’s first and most splendid Bronze Age civilization. In the early second millennium B.C., the Minoans, named by modern archaeologists after the legendary King Minos, built an elaborate palace complex at Knossos, which was excavated—and partly restored—by the British antiquarian Arthur Evans about a century ago. The Minoans were extremely influential in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean—trading textiles, timber and wine to Cyprus for copper and Anatolia for tin. Minoan frescoes dating to the 17th century B.C. have been found in the Nile Delta, in the northern Levant and on the Anatolian coast. The Minoans also developed a script, the still-undeciphered Linear A, to write their language. In Knossos’s maze-like palace complex, Evans found frescoes of bull-leapers and exquisite bull’s-head rhytons, reflecting the Minoans’ reverence for the bull as well as the myth of Minos and the labyrinth he built to house the Minotaur. In the early 15th century B.C. Crete was invaded by Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland—who absorbed numerous aspects of Minoan culture (such as writing) and occupied the palace at Knossos.


Troy: Homer’s great Late Bronze Age City

Located near the western entrance to the Dardanelles, ancient Troy (modern Hisarlik, in northwestern Turkey) grew rich levying mooring fees on vessels waiting to negotiate the straits leading to the Black Sea. First inhabited in the early third millennium B.C., Troy became an important commercial center for wool, horse-breeding and metalworking. (The gold objects of “Priam’s Treasure,” excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, are from the end of the third millennium B.C.) Late Bronze Age Troy, perhaps the city described by Homer, lasted from about 1700 to 1200 B.C.; this settlement featured towering fortifications and a great defensive moat. The citadel’s palaces were destroyed around 1250 B.C.—either by earthquake, fire or attack—and replaced by more modest buildings. Some 70 years later, Troy was attacked and burned, perhaps giving rise to oral stories that four centuries later would be written down by Homer.

Hattusa: Capital of the Hittite Empire

So vast was the Hittite capital of Hattusa (modern Bogazköy, in central Turkey) that its circuit walls ran for six miles. The city contained a temple complex with a remarkable library of over 3,000 clay tablets—many of them written in Hittite, the earliest recorded Indo-European language. The Hittites worshiped their “One Thousand Gods” in the sanctuary of Yazilikaya, a rock outcropping 2 miles from Hattusa that was carved with images of Hittite and Hurrian deities and kings. By the mid-14th century B.C. the Hittites had become one of the Near East’s superpowers, rivaling Egypt in the south and Assyria in the east. Toward the end of the 13th century B.C., however, their kingdom suddenly collapsed and Hattusa was destroyed.


Ugarit: A Fusion of Canaanite and Syrian culture

During the second half of the 14th century B.C., Ugarit, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, experienced a period of great peace and prosperity. Ugarit’s merchants traded for Mesopotamian and Lebanese timber, Mycenaean pottery, Egyptian ivory, Cypriot copper and Anatolian tin. This was one of the Bronze Age’s most scintillating cities: Its citizens carved delicate ivory figurines (above), made elaborate inlaid furniture, adapted the Semitic alphabet for cuneiform characters and recorded numerous Canaanite myths, songs and stories. (Much of this was revealed by the French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer, who excavated Ugarit from 1929 to 1970.) Ugarit’s golden age ended around 1300 B.C., when an earthquake struck the region and a tidal wave and fire engulfed the city. A century later, invading Sea Peoples from the Aegean disrupted the city’s commercial routes and forced much of its population to migrate to other sites. The Sea Peoples eventually conquered Ugarit and set the city ablaze.

Megiddo: City of Armageddon

Perhaps no other city in the ancient world is so associated with destruction as the mountaintop citadel of Megiddo, in north-central Israel. (The word “Armegeddon,” referring to the final battle between Good and Evil, derives from har Megiddo, a Hebrew term meaning “mountain of Megiddo.” Settled by Canaanites in the fourth millennium B.C., Megiddo prospered greatly during the Late Bronze Age. During this period, a palace was built near the gateway of the city, with an ingenious passageway cut through the bedrock to link the citadel to a spring outside the city’s walls. Around 1130 B.C., Megiddo and other Canaanite cities were violently destroyed—perhaps by a strong earthquake.


The Bible: Most important book ever written designed for people, not states

Mideast Israel Bible.jpg

In 1896 Flinders Petrie discovered what is for many the most important achievement of his long and celebrated career as an archeologist. It is a large granite stela, over ten feet high, dating to 1208 BCE. This stone bears an account of how Egypt’s King Merneptah conquered his enemies in Libya and Canaan.

As the philologist helping Petrie at the excavations came over to decipher it, they stumbled with excitement on the name of a population that was listed among those whom the Egyptian king had vanquished:

“Israel is wasted, its seed is no more.”

Today the inscription of the pharaoh Merneptah stands prominently in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There millions of visitors have gazed upon it and searched for line 27 that contains, by a long shot, the oldest reference to the people of Israel ever discovered.

What accounts for the Bible’s continued impact, not only on religion, theology, and morality, but also on political identities—on the way we think of ourselves as nations with divine callings?

In one of the many ironies of history, Merneptah’s own legacy had been buried in the sands for thousands of years, while the people he claimed to vanquish survived and produced a collection of writings that exerted more influence than any other corpus of literature — the Bible.

In the centuries after Merneptah’s death, the population of Israel went on to flourish. They built kingdoms that jockeyed for power with their neighbors. Eventually, these kingdoms were destroyed by the imperial armies of Assyria and Babylon. And in the wake of these destructions, the biblical authors collected the fragments of their pasts and produced what came to be known as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. These Scriptures have endured to the present, and in turn they preserved the communities that cherish these Scriptures.

But why did we inherit this Bible from the small defeated kingdoms of ancient Israel rather than from the ancient centers of civilization? This is a question to which I have long devoted my research and teaching, and it’s one that I treat in a free online course.

The massive states that once ruled ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt invented writing and produced many impressive works of literature. But we know today about their texts because we discovered them, thanks to the marvels of modern archeology.

Not so the Bible. The Scriptures from ancient Israel were preserved and have been handed down by Jews and Christians over generations.

Why is this case? And what accounts for the Bible’s continued impact, not only on religion, theology, and morality, but also on political identities — on the way we think of ourselves as nations with divine callings?

Many scholars today claim that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament must have emerged at times when the centralized state was at its strongest, during the reigns of Israel’s and Judah’s most powerful kings, sometime before destruction and exile in 587 BCE.

I agree that the Hebrew Bible contains within it many ancient sources that date to the times of Israel’s and Judah’s kings. Yet something else best accounts for its formation, its central themes, and its enduring impact.

In my research and teaching I show that the Bible in its present shape is a response to the defeat of these kings and to the destruction of the centralized states they ruled. A key feature is the attention the Bible gives to the people as a whole.

The biblical writers were working not at the centers of state power, but on the periphery and at the margins.

In many cases, they stand over against the state. The prophets pronounce the downfall of kings and the demise of the entire political order.

The important later biblical writings emerged in the wake of state destruction, as communities sought to reimagine new political, spiritual, and educational possibilities. In all these areas, the Hebrew Bible emphasizes the role of the people, rather than the state.

King Merneptah’s stone inscription celebrates his military exploits. The emphasis falls on what he has done. And when he was gone, the memory of Merneptah, as we would expect, was eventually consigned to oblivion. That we even know today about his triumph over Israel is due to Flinders Petrie’s pioneering work in archeology. (For more on this inscription, see the video here.)

Compare Merneptah’s stela to a triumphal monument preserved in the Bible: TheSong of Deborah is an impressive ancient Hebrew poem in the Book of Judges, chapter 5, that celebrates a victory in battle. Here the victor is not an individual human ruler. It is instead Israel’s God and the people of Israel as whole.

Yes, individual figures lead the nation into battle. But the combatants are not soldiers conscripted by a king. They are instead average members of the population who, in response to rallying cry of “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), volunteer for service. Today we would call them “citizen-soldiers.”

So whereas the Merneptah monument is about individual glory and the power of the king, the Song of Deborah is about peoplehood and the power of collective participation by all members of the nation. The contrast could not be more obvious, and it relates directly to what I call the Bible’s “project of peoplehood.”


Dr. Jacob L. Wright teaches Hebrew Bible at Emory University. 

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