How an Israeli Archaeologist Accidentally Upended a Skeptical Account of the Bible’s Accuracy

November 17, 2021 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

In 1934, Nelson Glueck—an American rabbi and expert on ancient pottery—came across evidence of ancient copper mining in the Timna Valley, a remote desert area in southeastern Israel. Based on the potsherds he discovered nearby, he dated the site to about 1000 BCE, and concluded that he had discovered King Solomon’s mines. Subsequent archaeologists discredited this theory, uncovering evidence that the site was much older, and had been established by Egyptians. But then, in 2009, the archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef arrived with a team to do geological research. Matti Friedman describes what followed:

The dig quickly took an unexpected turn. Having assumed they were working at an Egyptian site, Ben-Yosef and his team were taken aback by the carbon-dating results of their first samples: around 1000 BCE. The next batches came back with the same date. At that time the Egyptians were long gone and the mine was supposed to be defunct—and it was the time of David and Solomon, according to biblical chronology.

In the past decade, Ben-Yosef and his team have rewritten the site’s biography. They say a mining expedition from Egypt was indeed here first. . . . But the mines actually became most active after the Egyptians left, during the power vacuum created by the collapse of the regional empires. A power vacuum is good for scrappy local players, and it’s precisely in this period that the Bible places Solomon’s united Israelite monarchy and, crucially, its neighbor to the south, Edom.

Far from any city, ancient or modern, Timna is illuminating the time of the Hebrew Bible—and showing just how much can be found in a place that seems, at first glance, like nowhere.

What the archaeologists had found was striking. But perhaps more striking was what no one had found: a town, a palace, a cemetery, or homes of any kind. And yet Ben-Yosef’s findings left no doubt that the people operating the mines were advanced, wealthy, and organized. What was going on?

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