On Sept. 24, the president of Iran informed reporters that Israel has “no roots there in history” in the Middle East. Now a lot of good jokes come to mind at the expense of this clueless man, but, seriously folks, he has at least conveyed an important truth: he recognizes that Israel’s historical presence in that world since antiquity matters — matters enough to deny it. Now, the Bible pictures an Israelite-Jewish population and government there starting in the 12th century B.C.E. and continuing until the end of the [Old Testament’s] history about 800 years later. But how do we know if this is true?
In the first place, the land is filled with Hebrew inscriptions, so I begin with that. These are not just an occasional inscription on a piece of pottery or carved in a wall. Nor should we even start with one or two of the most famous archaeological finds. Rather, there are thousands of inscriptions. They come from hundreds of excavated towns and cities. They are in the Hebrew language. They include people’s names that bear forms of the name of their God.
The inscriptions also refer to their kings. They include stamps and seals from official documents. They come from tombs where that land’s people were buried. They name people who are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. They include wording that also appears in the Hebrew Bible.
I happened to be present at the time of the discovery of another important inscription in Jerusalem. Right below the Church of Scotland in Jerusalem, in a Jewish tomb from the seventh century B.C.E., was a silver cylinder with the words inscribed in it: “May YHWH bless you and keep you. May YHWH make his face shine to you and give you peace.” It is the words of the Priestly Blessing in the Hebrew Bible(Numbers:6:24-26).
That’s just one inscription….As for those foreign inscriptions, texts from the neighboring lands refer to the people, to their kings, to their government, to their armies and to their cities. The basic fact: everybody knew that Israel was there: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Arameans, the Moabites, the Persians. Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 B.C.E.) refers to the people of Israel in a stone stele. Pharaoh Shoshenk I (c. 945-924 B.C.E.) describes his campaign in which he refers to cities in Israel (including Ayalon, Beth-Shan, Megiddo, Rehob and Taanach). Assyrian King King Shalmaneser III names King “Ahab the Israelite” among his opponents in his Kurkh monument and names and pictures King Jehu on his Black Obelisk. Seven other Assyrian emperors also refer to Israel and Judah and name kings who are also mentioned in the Bible. The Babylonian sources, too, refer to the Jews and their monarchy in the years after the Babylonians replaced the Assyrian empire. And the record continues when the Persians replace the Babylonians, as documented in the Cylinder of Cyrus, the Persian emperor. Cyrus’ decree in 538 B.C.E., let the exiled Jews return to their land; it was followed by an influx of Jewish population. There was population growth from the reign of Darius I to Artaxerxes I. The country that the Babylonians had conquered was reestablished as a state of Judah (yehud medintha) within the Persian umbrella. You want irony? Persia, now called Iran, the country that re-established the Jews’ country in biblical times, now has a president who says that Israel has no roots there.