Is there archaeological evidence of the sons of Jacob, the tribal leaders of Israel?
DAN—Will Provide Justice for His People
see: Genesis 49:16
Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first son of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid (Genesis 30:1-6). During the period of Judges, the tribe of Dan migrated from their original allotment on the Mediterranean coast to the city of Laish, renamed Dan (Judges 18). The site of Laish/Dan has been under excavation since 1966, directed by Avraham Biran on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Therefore the king asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And he set up one in Bethel, and the other he put in DAN.
—1 Kings 12:28-29
In 1977, a very important discovery from the Hellenistic period (3rd-2nd centuries BC) was made. A dedicatory inscription mentioning Dan was found some 17 meters south of the high place (Biran 1981). For the first time, the Biblical name of the site was found in an ancient inscription and, by association, the name of one of Jacob’s sons.
GAD—Will be Attacked by a Band of Raiders
see: Genesis 49:19
In the famous Mesha Inscription found at Dhibon in Jordan, dating from the 9th century BC, the tribe of Gad is mentioned. The Moabite king Mesha states, “And the men of GAD had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old” (Lemaire 1994: 33, line 10).
ASHER—His Food Will be Rich
A number of scholars have maintained that that the name 'Isr appearing in Egyptian texts is the Israelite tribal name Asher (e.g., Aharoni 1979: 179, 183; Hadley 1992: 482). That appears not to be the case, however. So we present the following in the way of a correction to information that might appear in other sources.
The earliest mention of the name 'Isr is in a list of conquered peoples from the time of Seti I, early 13th century BC (Simons 1937:147, List XVII, no. 4).
The name also appears several times in the inscriptions of Rameses II (1279-1212 BC), again in lists of conquered peoples (Gauthier 1925:105; Kitchen 1993:39-40; Simons 1937: 162, List XXV, no. 8).
Perhaps the most interesting of these references is in Papyrus Anastasi I from the end of the 13th century BC. Here, the wise scribe Hori chides the novice scribe Amen-em-Opet concerning his knowledge of Canaan. He warned that his reputation could become as low as that of “Qazardi, ruler of Asru ('Isr), when the hyena caught him up a tree” (Kitchen 1993: 40).
Noted Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen lists four reasons why the Egyptian name “Isr” cannot be the Israelite tribe of Asher (1993: 40-41; cf. Kitchen 1966: 70-71):
- The texts indicate that 'Isr is a territory or place-name, not a tribe.
- The final Egyptian “r” can stand for “l” as well as “r.”
- It is not known where 'Isr was located, so it is not possible to make a geographical link between 'Isr and the tribal area of Asher.
- The Egyptian letter “s” corresponds to th not sh, as in Asher.
JUDAH—Holder of the Royal Scepter and Ruler’s Staff
Judah is perhaps the best known of Jacob’s sons. He was the fourth son of Jacob and the fourth son born to Leah (Genesis 29:35). It was Judah who talked his brothers out of killing Joseph at Dothan and selling him to the Ishmaelite traders (Genesis 37:26-27). Judah acted as spokesman for the brothers on their second journey to Egypt to face Joseph during the famine (Genesis 43:3; 44:14-34). Since his three older brothers were passed over, Judah inherited the position of firstborn of Jacob’s sons and received the kingly blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:8-12).
The tribe established by Judah became the greatest of the Israelite tribes. It received the largest allotment in the promised land (Joshua 15), and it was from Judah that the Messiah descended (Genesis 49:10-12; Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). When the kingdom divided, the southern kingdom was known simply as Judah. After the return of the exiles from Babylon, the ancient tribal area continued to be known as Yehud/Judah/Judea until the suppression of the Bar Khokba revolt by Hadrian in AD 135. After that, the name passed out of use.
Because of the political importance of the area of Judah through the centuries, the name has turned up in many ancient inscriptions.
The oldest of these are two references to Ahaz King of Judah from the eighth century BC. One is on a bulla (clay sealing) which reads “Ahaz (son of) Jotham King of JUDAH” (Shanks 1997). The other is in a building inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III from Calah (Nimrud), Iraq. It simply states that king “Jehoahaz (Ahaz) of JUDAH” paid tribute to the Assyrian king (Oppenheim 1969:282).
Additional references to Judah occur throughout the Assyrian period (Oppenheim 1969: 287, 288, 291, 294, 301). The Babylonians recorded the fall of the “city of JUDAH” to Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC (Oppenheim 1969: 564) and the issuing of rations to Judean captives, including Jehoiachin (Oppenheim 1969: 308). In addition, we have a 407 BC letter from Elephantine to Bagoas, governor of JUDAH (Ginsburg 1969: 492), Yehud (Judah) coins from the 4th century BC, and Yehud seals from the 4th-2nd centuries BC (Stern 1982: 224-27; 202-13).
All of these data support the historicity of the Biblical record concerning Jacob, his 12 sons, and the later tribes of Israel. There is even evidence of their sojourn in Eqypt.
Is there evidence that the Israelites once lived in Egypt as the Bible says? And has Joseph’s original tomb been found? Answer
- For archaeological evidence for the migration of the Danites, see Wood 1991:107-109.
- For more information on the Mesha Inscription, see Wood 1996.
- Ataroth is thought to be located at Atarus 13 km northwest of Dhiban.
- Reuben sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Gn 35:22), and Simeon and Levi massacring the men of Shechem (Genesis 34).
- Aharoni, Y. 1979 The Land of the Bible, rev. ed., trans. and ed. A.F. Rainey. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
- Aling, C.F. 1996 The Historicity of the Joseph Story. Bible and Spade 9: 17-28.
- Bietak, M. 1986 Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta. London: The British Academy. 1991a Der Friedhof in einem Palastgarten aus der Zeit des spten Mittleren Riches und andere Forschungsergebnisse aus dem stlichen Nildelta (Tell el-Daba 1984-1987). Agypten und Levante 2:47-109. 1991b Egypt and Canaan During the Middle Bronze Age. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 281: 27-72. 1996 Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos. London: British Museum Press.
- Biran, A. 1976 City of the Golden Calf. Bible and Spade 5:22-27. 1981 To the God Who is in Dan. Pp. 142-51 in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, ed. A. Biran. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College.
- Chambon, A. 1984 Tell el-Far'ah I: L'ge du Fer. Mmoire 31. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations.
- Finkelstein, I. 1986 Izbet Sartah: An Early Iron Age Site Near Rosh Haayin, Israel. BAR International Series 299. Oxford: B.A.R.
- Fritz, V., and Kempinski, A. 1983 Ergebnisse der Ausgrabunden auf der Hiebet el-Msas (Tel Masos) 1972-1975. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
- Gardiner, A. 1961 Egypt of the Pharaohs. London: Oxford University Press.
- Gauthier, H. 1925 Dictionnaire des noms goraphiques contenus dans les textes hiroglyphiques, vol. 1. Cairo: L'Institute Franais d'Archologie Orientale.
- Ginsberg, H.L. 1969 Aramaic Letters. Pp. 491-92 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Hadley, D.V. 1992 Asher. Pp. 482-83 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
- Holladay, J.S., Jr. 1992a House, Israelite. Pp. 308-18 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday. 1992b Maskhuta, Tell el-. Pp. 588-92 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday. 1997 Maskhuta, Tell el-. Pp. 432-37 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 3, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Kitchen, K.A. 1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity. 1993 Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Notes and Comments, vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Lemaire, A. 1994 House of David Restored in Moabite Inscription. Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3: 30-37.
- McCown, C.C. 1947 Tell en-Nasbeh I. Berkeley: The Palestine Institute of Pacific School of Religion.
- Oppenheim, A.L. 1969 Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts. Pp. 265-317 and 556-67 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Redford, D.B. 1992 Hyksos: History. Pp. 341-44 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed, D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
- Rohl, D.M. 1995 Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. New York: Crown.
- Shanks, H. 1997 Strata. Biblical Archaeology Review 23/2: 8.
- Shea, W.H. 1990 Leaving Egypt. Archaeology and Biblical Research 3: 99-111.
- Stern, E. 1982 Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
- Ward, W.A. 1984 Royal-Name Scarabs. Pp. 151-192 in Studies on Scarab Seals, vol. 2, by Olga Tufnell. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
- Wente, E., and Van Siclen III, C. 1977 A Chronology of the New Kingdom. Pp. 217-61 in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes January 12, 1977, ed. J.H. Johnson and E.F. Wente. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 39. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.
- Wood, B.G. 1991 Recent Discoveries and Research on the Conquest. Archaeology and Biblical Research 4: 104-110. 1996 Mesha, King of Moab. Bible and Spade 9: 55-64.
- Wright, G.E. 1965 Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City. London: Gerald Duckworth.
Author: Dr. Bryant G. Wood of Associates for Biblical Research. Adapted from the ABR article: “The Sons of Jacob: New Evidence for the Presence of the Israelites in Egypt”
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