Evidence of climatic change has the potential, already partially realized, of dating the patriarchal age, the sojourn in Egypt (the Joseph story) and the origins of the Biblical Flood story. It may even enable us to locate at least one of the four rivers associated with the Garden of Eden.
I speak as a former skeptic. Every scholar (and many BAR readers) knows of the egregiously failed effort by the great William F. Albright in the heyday of Biblical archaeology to place the patriarchs in the Middle Bronze period, shortly after 2000 B.C.E. Today, the conventional wisdom—or at least the view of many mainstream scholars—is that the patriarchal stories do not have a setting in a particular archaeological period, that there is no patriarchal period as such. I too have written numerous papers noting that Albright and many of his students (including Nelson Glueck, G. Ernest Wright and John Bright) were too optimistic in making connections between archaeology and the Biblical sources before the emergence of Israel in Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.
Now I am recanting. My current work on climate change had led me to conclude that Albright and his students were clearly correct to look for connections between the archaeological evidence and early Biblical traditions.1
Until very recently, the prevailing assumption among scholars had been that the climate of the Near East changed little, if at all, after about 9000 B.C.E., or the end of the last glacial period. This concept of climate stability has been held by the vast majority of scholars working in the Near East, including such leading Israeli archaeologists as the late Yohanan Aharoni2 and Amihai Mazar.3 But in the last few years, this situation has been changing, thanks to the work of such scholars as Aharon Horowitz,4 054Thomas Levy,5 Paul Goldberg and Arlene M. Rosen.6 My own work is simply an extension of theirs.
The evidence is unfortunately quite complex and technical, so here I will only summarize it, giving some examples.7 The bottom line is that climatic changes have occurred in historic periods in the Near East; these climatic changes, which may explain widespread social changes, appear to have been a significant part of the Biblical memory.
Three boreholes, two from the Hula Lake (drained at the turn of the century and now partially refilled) in Israel and the other from the Mediterranean coast of Israel, provide us with pollen samples from various periods.8 A high percentage of arboreal (tree) pollen results from a dense forest cover, which indicates a period of heavy rainfall. Percentages of arboreal pollen are markedly higher (indicating a wetter phase) in the Chalcolithic period (c. 4500–3500 B.C.E.), which ended with a dry oscillation before a wetter Early Bronze Age I (c. 3500–2850 B.C.E.), a somewhat drier but still moist phase during Early Bronze II–III (c. 2850–2350 B.C.E.) and a more arid phase in at least part of the Early Bronze IV period (c. 2350–2000 B.C.E.). This 057aridity peaks in Early Bronze IV (called by some Middle Bronze I). Middle Bronze Age I–II (c. 2000–1550 B.C.E.) witnesses a return to much wetter conditions, tapering off gradually through the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.E.) and the Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.E.). A slight increase in moisture appears in the Byzantine period (324–638 C.E.) and Islamic period (beginning in 638 C.E.), continuing until about 1400 C.E., and then declining until modern times.a
A wetter Chalcolithic period than we had previously supposed correlates beautifully with other evidence from Chalcolithic sites in Jordan and southern Israel. Teleilat el-Ghassul in the southeastern Jordan Valley and sites like Beersheba and Shiqmim in southern Israel are located in topographically low areas with little rainfall in modern times (generally between 0 and 200 millimeters annually—steppe-desert). These sites must have had more rainfall when they were occupied. Toward the end of the Chalcolithic period, however, there was a marked drop in arboreal pollens resulting from a decline in wooded vegetation, which indicates a decrease in rainfall.
My own studies in Yemen buttress this evidence.9 In Wadi al-Jubah, we found dark paleosol (ancient soil), in places nearly 10 feet thick. This contrasts to the light, dry soil associated with arid climates. Studies of this dark soil revealed that it was full of decayed organic matter such as roots—a product of wetter conditions. We were able to date the layer of paleosol by carbon-14 tests. The test results show that the wetter period extended to the end of the Chalcolithic period, about 3500 B.C.E. After that, a drier period (but one still wetter than today) probably followed.
Similarly, in southern Saudi Arabia ancient lakes existed in the Empty Quarter (today, the largest sand desert in the world) until about 3500 B.C.E.
A core sample from the Arabian Sea not far from Yemen gave clear evidence of a wetter environment from about 7000 to 5000 B.C.E., followed by what appears to have been a drier climate after about 3000 B.C.E.10 Other consistent evidence comes from African lakes.11
Some especially striking but very different kind of evidence comes from the Arabian Peninsula. With the use of remote sensing technology, Farouk El-Baz has traced a major, partially underground, sand river channel from the mountains of Hijaz to Kuwait, which he has named the Kuwait River. Dated by associated geology, the dry river channel is clearly a relic of a wetter phase in Arabia during this period. It gradually dried up sometime after 3500 B.C.E.12
All this evidence (and much more that I have not cited here) supports the view that a global wet phase began around 7500 B.C.E. This phase, though probably interrupted by some drier periods, was predominantly wet until at least 3500 B.C.E., around the end of the Chalcolithic period. Water filled major lakes, at 064least one river flowed in Arabia and part of Arabia was grassland.
In Mesopotamia, the mid-fourth-millennium B.C.E. evidence probably corresponds to the Biblical and other ancient Near Eastern traditions of floods. True, these floods were localized phenomena, not global catastrophes. Several localized floods from this period have been found. At Ur, Leonard Woolley discovered an almost 3-meter-thick sterile layer that he originally considered evidence of the Flood, though he eventually abandoned that viewpoint because the level in question dated too early. But other flood deposits were later found at higher levels at several sites.13
The Kuwait River also has a probable Biblical connection. It may well be the Pishon River, one of the four rivers, according to the Bible, associated with Eden:
The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
Although the meaning of some of the details in this passage is uncertain, it does seem to describe a river flowing into the head of the Persian Gulf from the low mountains of western Arabia, the path followed by the recently discovered Kuwait River. An important key is the Biblical phrase “the gold of that land is good.” Only one place in Arabia has such a deposit—the famous site of Mahd edh-Dhahab, the “Cradle of Gold.”b This ancient and modern gold mining site is located about 125 miles south of Medina, near the headwaters of the Kuwait River.
The Biblical text also mentions bdellium and onyx. Aromatic resins (bdellium) are known in Yemen to the southwest, and, although they are not thought to have been produced in the vicinity of Medina, they could easily have been brought there. Semiprecious stones such as alabaster also come from these areas, but it is uncertain whether other precious stones, such as onyx, do.
In any event, no other river would seem to fit the Biblical description. I am therefore inclined to think that the Kuwait River could well be the Pishon of the Bible. If so, it implies extraordinary memory on the part of the Biblical authors, since the river dried up sometime between about 3500 and 2000 B.C.E.
At the end of the third millennium B.C.E., say around 2000 B.C.E., most major urban sites in Israel and Jordan were abandoned for about 300 years. As Arlene Rosen has persuasively argued, a period of great aridity occurred at the end of the third millennium B.C.E.14
Harvey Weiss has recently shown that, in Northern Syria, the climate was drier from about 2200 to 1900 B.C.E., suggesting that the collapse at the beginning of that period may have been caused primarily by prolonged drought.
In Egypt, historical records attest to serious famines in this same period.
The aridity of this period explains some of the shifts in settlement in Israel and Jordan as well as in Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Climatic change was probably the main cause of these shifts.
In my opinion, the descriptions of the severe famines at the time of Joseph (Genesis 41–47) reflect this period of aridity. The famine reported at the time of Joseph is probably another accurate fragment of climatic memory reflected in the early Biblical traditions.
If this is correct, we may place the patriarchal age sometime in the third millennium B.C.E. Proceeding from these considerations is the likely conclusion that the Early Bronze Age sites of Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira and other places adjacent to the Dead Sea in Jordan were indeed some of the Biblical Cities of the Plain (Genesis 14), as was suggested early on by the excavators but lately is rarely mentioned.15
I do not mean to imply that the early Biblical stories are literally true. Clearly, the Biblical traditions are very much cast in the worldview of the Iron Age. But that has led too many scholars to ignore the possibility that the Biblical texts accurately preserve many earlier traditions. Since the memories of climatic change and of early geography seem so accurate, some of these traditions may have been written down for the first time, not in the tenth century B.C.E. (the earliest date given by most scholars) but very much earlier.
These conclusions not only agree with Albright’s views, but they also push back even further his dates for the historical backgrounds of the Biblical traditions. He and his students opted for a patriarchal age in the Middle Bronze period. The evidence I have just rehearsed would place it in the Early Bronze period. David Noel Freedman was right, but for the wrong reasons, when he proposed a third-millennium B.C.E. date for the patriarchs.
I thus disagree with archaeologists like William Dever in their treatment of the Bronze Age and the preceding Chalcolithic period. I think we can expect more archaeological, climatic, geographical, literary and artistic evidence from these periods that will buttress my position. “Biblical archaeology” can and should be extended back to these periods and to regions as far afield as Mesopotamia and Egypt, as Albright originally maintained.
Evidence of climatic change has the potential, already partially realized, of dating the patriarchal age, the sojourn in Egypt (the Joseph story) and the origins of the Biblical Flood story. It may even enable us to locate at least one of the four rivers associated with the Garden of Eden. I speak as a former skeptic. Every scholar (and many BAR readers) knows of the egregiously failed effort by the great William F. Albright in the heyday of Biblical archaeology to place the patriarchs in the Middle Bronze period, shortly after 2000 B.C.E. Today, the conventional wisdom—or at least […]