No Cities in Transjordan before 1250 B.C.?

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In Numbers 21:21-32 and other passages in the Bible we read about the cities that were taken from king Sihon by the Israelites: Heshbon, Dibon, and Aroer, just to name a few. Sihon's kingdom stretched from the Arnon in the south to the Jabboq in the north. Deuteronomy 3:4,5 tells us that the Israelites, guided by Moses, also took 60 cities from king Og of Bashan, whose kingdom extended from the Jabboq further to the north. All these cities were fortified with high walls.

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THE FINDINGS OF NELSON GLUECK

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Nelson Glueck, who carried out archaeological research in the area east of the Jordan during the thirties, in 1940 published a book entitled 'The other side of the Jordan'. In this book he concluded that the kingdoms of Sihon and Og could not have existed before the end of the 13th century B.C., because between c. 1900 and 1250 B.C. the region was not urbanized, but inhabited by semi-nomadic people in small numbers. According to Glueck, these nomads lived in tents, wandered about, and did not use durable pottery, but perishable hides to store their supplies. This hypothesis, which turned out later to be entirely incorrect, has led many people to abandon dating the Exodus in the 15th century B.C. and instead adopt the late dating.

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The results of Glueck's archaeological work, which was carried out from 1933 through 1938, were published first in the years 1934-1951.1 In 1970 a revised edition of his book was published, in which Glueck to some extent weakened his statements about this inhabitative vacuum. He admitted that a few cities did exist in some parts of the area during Middle Bronze II (c. 1875-1470 B.C.) and Late Bronze (c. 1470-1200 B.C.):

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"In much of Transjordan, especially in the areas some distance south of the south side of the Wadi Zerqa (Biblical River Jabboq), the Middle Bronze I period of the Age of Abraham seems to have been followed by a considerable decline in sedentary settlement during the Middle Bronze II and Late Bronze I-II periods, although not as radically as we had once assumed." "It is possible, of course, that further excavations will yet reveal Middle Bronze II and Late Bronze occupancy there, as we never gave up believing would be the case in all of central and southern Transjordan."

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Glueck also mentioned the discovery of a tomb from the Late Bronze period in Madeba and Late Bronze pottery in Jalul, at about 5 km east of Madeba, and in other places.2

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In 1971 Prof. Dr. H.J. Franken sharply criticized Glueck's position. Franken conducted excavations in Deir 'Alla, in the Jordan valley, which proved to have been inhabited throughout the Late Bronze period. He argued that Glueck had dated some specific pottery to the Iron period, whereas it could equally have been dated to the 14th century B.C.3

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It may be pointed out here that the Amarna letters (c.1360-1335) make reference to the cities of Pella, Astaroth, Bozrah, and Kenath, all lying in Bashan country, and also to Zaphon which lies south of Pella in the Jordan Valley. This in itself should have made it clear that Glueck's hypothesis was incorrect.

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EXCAVATIONS EAST OF THE JORDAN

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Recent excavations in the area east of the Jordan have produced results that refute Glueck's argument completely. The investigation included a number of new sites. Both northern and central Transjordan yielded evidence of Late Bronze habitation in a number of big cities, where Amman, Sahab, Tell- Safut, Tell el-Husu (Pella), Tell Irbid, Tell es-Sa'idiyeh (probably Zarethan), Tabaqat Fahl, and Tell el-Mazar are located today. The archaeological finds showed that these Transjordan settlements shared their cultural characteristics with Palestine and Phenician cities from the same period.4

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Elaborate excavations in Tell el-Husu (Pella) showed that this city (in the past named Pehel) existed both in Late Bronze I (1470-1400 B.C.) and in Late Bronze II (1400-1200 B.C.).5 Late Bronze graves were found in Amman, Irbid, Pella, and Tell es-Sa'idiyeh, and large quantities of Late Bronze pottery were found in many places in the Transjordan area.6

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Archaeologist R. Dornemann, an expert in Transjordan archaeology, not surprisingly concludes that the archaeological research carried out since Glueck's publications has proved beyond doubt that urban civilisation existed throughout the Middle and Late Bronze periods, although the number of cities may have decreased after the Early Bronze period.7

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The large quantities of pottery found - which include Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery characteristic of Late Bronze, and scarabs from the same period - make it impossible to deny that cities existed in the Transjordan area during the entire Late Bronze period.

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Glueck's conclusion even proved to be incorrect for a number of sites investigated by himself.8 In an archaeological survey between 1963 and 1966, 18 Middle Bronze II cities and almost as many from the Late Bronze period were discovered. Middle or Late Bronze pottery has up till now been excavated at c. 200 Transjordan locations.9

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HESHBON

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There is still much uncertainty about the precise locations of the cities that are mentioned in Numbers 32 and Deuteronomy 3.

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Former cities sometimes were not located in the places that later carried their names. Heshbon, king Sihon's capital (Nu.21:26 and Dt.1:4) is such a city. Excavations have been carried out in Tell Heshban, identified as the city of Heshbon during the reign of king Mesha of Moab (c. 850 B.C.). However, no material dating from before 1200 B.C. was found. A small unfortified agrarian village was the only settlement lying there before c. 900 B.C., and it was not until the times of king Mesha that a city was built.10 Even adherents of a late dating for the Conquest cannot maintain that Tell Heshban once was Heshbon, capital of Sihon's kingdom.

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Prof. S.H. Horn, who conducted the excavations at Tell Heshban took the view that the city of Heshbon from the days of king Sihon was not located in the same place as the city of Heshbon from Mesa's time, but nearby it. He suggested that Tell Jalul, a large mound not yet excavated, could be the place of former Heshbon.11 Middle and Late Bronze pottery has been found at the surface of Tell Jalul.12

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DIBON

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It happened quite often when a town was destroyed that its name was next given to another town built later in the vicinity. This must also have been the case with Dibon. In Nu.21:30, 32:3, and 33:45 it is mentioned as a city east of the Jordan in the days that the Israelites were on their way to Canaan. Excavations in Tell Dhiban have shown that no city existed there during Late Bronze II (c. 1400-1200 B.C.) and Iron I (1200-1000 B.C.). It was not until the ninth century B.C. that any habitation did occur.

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Various Egyptian texts however indicate that there was a city of Dibon already during Late Bronze. The name is included in a route list from the reign of Pharao Thutmose III (c. 1479-1425 B.C.) on a wall of the Amon temple in Karnak.13

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A list of cities dating from the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.) includes the name Qarho, which was synonymous to Dibon. In the inscription on the famous Mesha Stone, the Moabite king Mesha quite often uses the name Qarho for Dibon; the names are used alternatedly. Ramses II mentions the city of Qarho on his topographical list. In another inscription he reports that he had the city of Dibon plundered during his Moab campaign.14 Dibon is mentioned also in an inscription on the eastern wall of the courtyard of the temple at Luxor, where a report is given of the campaign conducted against the Moabites and others in his seventh year. Dibon is referred to in this text as Tabunu.15

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It follows that the city of Dibon we know from the Biblical report on the Conquest and Dibon built during the days of king Mesha were located in different places.

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KIR-HARESETH

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A route list from the time of Amenhotep III (1391-1353 B.C.) in his memorial temple at Soleb mentions the city of Hareseth. In view of the fact that the route ran east of the Dead Sea this must have been Kir-Hareseth, a city of importance in Moab, probably known as Kerak today.

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More information about route lists is given in an article on Dibon and Hebron during the Conquest, which appeared in Dutch journal 'Bible, History and Archaeology' (from March 1995). The above evidence makes it sufficiently clear that there is every reason to accept that the Conquest took place in the 14th century B.C.

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NOTES

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1. N. Glueck, Explorations in Eastern Palestine, 4 vol., New Haven 1934-1951.

2. N. Glueck, The other side of the Jordan, second edition, Cambridge 1970, p. 140-141.

3. H.J. Franken, Explorations in Eastern Palestine, VT, 21, 1971, p. 119-123.

4. J.A. Sauer, Transjordan in the Bronze and Iron Ages: A critique of Glueck's synthesis, BASOR, 263, 1986, p. 6-9.

5. R.H. Smith, Pella, in: The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Jeruzalem 1993, IV, p. 1174-1180.

6. R.H. Dornemann, The Archaeology of the Transjordan in the Bronze and Iron Ages, Milwaukee 1983, p. 20.

7. Idem, p. 165.

8. J.R. Kautz, Tracking the Ancient Moabites, BA, 44, 1981, 4, p. 29, 31-33; J.A. Sauer, Transjordan ..., p.3.

9. W.H. Stiebing, Out of the Desert, Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest narratives, Buffalo 1989, p. 75.

10. L.T. Geraty, Heshbon, in: The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Jerusalem 1993, II, p. 626-630

11. S.H. Horn, Heshbon, in: The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Supplementary Volume, Nashville 1976, p. 410-411.

12. R. Ibach, in: L.T. Geraty, Heshbon, Ferrien Springs 1978, p. 215-222.

13. C.R. Krahmalkov, Exodus itinerary confirmed by Egyptian evidence, BAR 20, 1994, 5, p. 56.

14. Idem, p. 57.

15. K.A. Kitchen, Some new light on the Asiatic wars of Ramesses II, JEA, 50, 1964, p. 53-64.

Latest update: april 17 2019