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The Mysterious MBI People, Rudolph Cohen, BAR 9:04, Jul-Aug 1983.

Does the Exodus tradition in the Bible preserve the memory of their entry into Canaan?

Be'er ResisimOne of the most obscure periods in the history of Palestine is the Middle Bronze I period (commonly referred to as MBI) which extended from about 2200 B.C. to about 2000 B.C. Who were the MBI people? We really don’t know. On the basis of my research, I would suggest that they were a people who migrated slowly, from the south or southwest, into the Central Negev of Palestine. I would further suggest that the dim, historical memory of their journey powerfully influenced the Biblical author who described Israel’s entry into Canaan. In fact, these MBI people may be the Israelites whose famous journey from Egypt to Canaan is called the Exodus.

On one thing scholars are agreed- The pottery, the settlements, and other aspects of the material culture of the MBI people that have been uncovered over the last 50 years differ significantly from what went before in the Early Bronze period and from what followed in the Middle Bronze II period. The Early Bronze Age (c. 3150 B.C.–2200 B.C.) was characterized by a flourishing urban civilization.

The same was true of the Middle Bronze Age II (c. 2000 B.C.–1550 B.C.). In MBI, however, there was a notable absence of urban settlements, although such settlements continued to flourish on the seacoast of Lebanon and Syria. However, the relationship of the MBI to what went before and to what went after is currently a matter of intense scholarly debate. Even the name of the period is the subject of controversy The great American archaeologist William F. Albright first identified the pottery of the period at his classic excavation at Tell Beit Mirsim. It was he who called it MBI, implying that the pottery of the period foreshadowed the types that developed in MBII and thus was more closely connected with the following period than with the previous one.

George Ernest Wright of Harvard, however, was more inclined to associate the characteristic ceramic types of MBI with those of the Early Bronze Age, and thus he referred to the period as EBIV—that is, as a continuation of the previous tradition.

Kathleen Kenyon, the great British archaeologist, discovered MBI graves at Jericho.1 The burial artifacts she recovered in the tombs and the society they seemed to represent (as inferred, for example, from the disarticulated skeletons) were strikingly different both from those of the urban center that preceded the MBI occupation and from those of the urban center that succeeded it. Kenyon regarded the culture not only as different but as essentially intrusive, so she gave the period the bulky designation “Early Bronze–Middle Bronze.”

R. H. Smith, in his 1959 excavations at the cemetery of Khirbet Kufin, reached similar conclusions, but he preferred to call the period the “Intermediate Bronze Age.”

If scholars cannot reach agreement on what name to give the period, it is because they still disagree on who these MBI people were. Were they a local people, or were they an intrusive people, a people who migrated from elsewhere? If the latter, where did they come from and what was the path of their migration?

Nelson Glueck, the American rabbi-archaeologist, believed MBI was the age of the patriarch Abraham. In his Negev surveys, Glueck found that small MBI settlements had flourished all over the Central Negev, while the area was largely uninhabited during the prior and following periods.2 Since Negev sites like Beer-Sheva and Gerar figure prominently in the partriarchal narratives, Glueck concluded that this age must have been that of the patriarchs and that the MBI people included the patriarchal Hebrew tribes. Glueck’s hypothesis was soon adopted by Albright in his famous and controversial essay, “Abram the Hebrew.”3 Albright argued in this essay that the Biblical stories concerning the patriarch had their natural setting in the wide-ranging donkey caravans that conducted trade in the ancient Near East in MBI, which he dated to the early second millennium B.C.

More recent scholarship has rejected this view. As important as these patriarchal wanderings reflected in the Biblical narratives are the frequent Biblical references to kings and cities—not only Beer-Sheva and Gerar, but Bethel, Hebron and others. Yet the clear archaeological evidence is that there were no towns in Palestine during MBI. The most extensively excavated of the cities mentioned in the patriarchal narratives is Beer-Sheva, which has yielded no remains from MBI.a Similarly, MBI remains are not found at other urban sites.

An explanation of the identity of the MBI people that has gained favor recently is the so-called Amorite hypothesis. Championed by Kathleen Kenyon,4 the argument is that the MBI settlers in Palestine represent a wave of a broader Amorite expansion, which toward the end of the third millennium B.C. overran the entire Levant. According to this hypothesis, the Amorites were West Semitic tribesmen from the semi-arid margins of the Syrian desert, who at that time began exerting massive pressure on the more fertile and civilized territories of northern Syria and Mesopotamia. Kenyon argues that the archaeological finds are clearly consistent with the descriptions appearing in literary sources concerning these semi-nomadic tribesmen.

Ruth Amiran5 of the Israel Museum and William G. Dever, formerly head of the William F. Albright School for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, both for a time supported the Amorite hypothesis. They went so far as to divide the MBI people, or Amorites, into identifiable subgroups. According to Amiran, the Central Negev sites belong to the Southern Group (her Family A), which she originally believed to be typologically and chronologically the earliest. Subsequently, however, she accepted Albright’s position that the Southern Group was a later development. She currently believes that all the regional groups were contemporaneous. Another group of sites belongs to a Northern Group of Amorites, and a third group, associated chiefly with Megiddo, belongs to still another Amorite group. Dever6, too, recognized a “Southern Family” along with six or more other families, each with its peculiar regional traits. It is only fair to add that while Dever insists on the validity of his cultural groupings, he no longer considers the MBI people to be intrusive into the area, as we shall see.

While the Amorite hypothesis long commanded general support, it did not go unchallenged. In 1966, Paul W. Lapp7, who preceded Dever as head of the William F. Albright School for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, disputed the identification of the MBI people as Amorite tribesmen. To him it seemed improbable that nomads from the Syrian desert could have overthrown the flourishing Early Bronze civilization. His search for a more credible identification led him to the Proto-European “Kurgan” peoples of the Caucasus. In Kurgan cultural remains—including their pottery decoration and forms, burial practices, and skill in metallurgy—Lapp claimed to see clear parallels to the MBI finds in Palestine. Moshe Kochavi of Tel Aviv University independently arrived at very similar conclusions on the basis of his excavations at Har Yeruham.8 Yohanan Aharoni, in his posthumously published introduction to the archaeology of Eretz-Israel, also identifies the MBI people as Kurgan.9

Over the past decade, Dever, as I indicated above, has changed his mind. He, together with his colleagues and students, has undertaken a complete reevaluation of the period. On the basis of new information about the last phases of the Early Bronze Age in Transjordan, Dever now maintains that there is no real gap between the material cultures of EB and MBI, particularly with regard to pottery types. Instead of viewing the MBI culture as an intrusive, “intermediate” culture, Dever now contends that the period can be understood as the natural development of the third-millennium Early Bronze Age civilization which, in its final stages, and for reasons still unknown, underwent a transformation, in which urban centers were gradually abandoned for a pastoral, transhumance way of life. Apparently, ecological changes played a major part in effecting this transformation. While Dever does not deny that there were some new elements in the MBI pottery repertoire, he contends that the changes represent a normal evolution of Early Bronze Age prototypes. Accordingly, Dever would abandon the term Middle Bronze Age I entirely and replace it with the designation Early Bronze Age IV. (With this designation, Dever returns to an idea first advanced by G. E. Wright 50 years ago.)

Dever believes that further evidence for his position is rapidly accumulating and that his reconstruction will lead to a consensus among archaeologists. But in April 1982, at the ninth Archaeological Conference in Israel, Kochavi criticized Dever’s theory; the consensus is perhaps still far off. Kochavi maintains that there remain too many jarring discontinuities in the material culture, both ceramic and otherwise, to explain MBI as an offshoot of the Early Bronze Age. Instead, Kochavi argues, the “intermediate” and intrusive character of the period is predominant.

I have been studying the MBI sites in the Central Negev for almost two decades now. The result of this study can, I believe, elucidate some of the outstanding issues. My own conclusion is that the MBI culture must be differentiated from those both preceding and following it. MBI is, in this sense, intermediate. But I also agree with Dever that some MBI pottery types represent a continuation of Early Bronze types. In this sense I see clear connections between the MBI and the Early Bronze Age which preceded it. But other new aspects of MBI culture, including burial customs and social structure, imply a new ethnic element. Thus, the MBI culture is also intrusive; migrating peoples who destroyed the existing urban centers must be involved. But this new ethnic element was neither Amorite nor “Kurgan” peoples who supposedly came from the north and east. In my view, the new MBI population came from the south and the Sinai, the route of the Israelites on that journey known as the Exodus. This is a new hypothesis published here for the first time. I think the latest evidence supports it. Let us look at this evidence, especially the geographic and archaeological discoveries of the last five to ten years.

Literally hundreds of MBI sites have been surveyed in the Central Negev10; many have been recently excavated. As a result, certain generalizations can now be made. The MBI sites in the Central Negev were regularly established on the summits or slopes of high hills, and sometimes on comparatively low hills. Rarely are remains of settlements found in valleys. The sites are widely scattered throughout the Central Negev. Nevertheless, there is a large concentration of sites along the geomorphic line that runs from the Kadesh-Barnea region to north of Dimona.11

As Kochavi suggested, the settlements can be classified into three principal types according to size- central, intermediate, and small settlements. The central settlements are large, compact settlements built on prominent hills. Normally they are situated near plentiful sources of water. Three sites pre-eminently fit this description in the Central Negev- Horvatb Nahal Nissana, Be’er Resisim and Har Yeruham. All have been excavated.

The largest MBI site in the Central Negev, Horvat Nahal Nissana, dominates the top of a long, flat hill on the southern bank of the Nahal Nissana. The site covers almost 2.5 acres and, as described by Kochavi, is divided into two main areas of building- the larger area extends over nearly 2.25 acres and is roughly rectangular in shape; the smaller is less than one quarter acre. Between these two areas is a strip of land about 35 feet wide on which no building remains were observed. The site was apparently unfortified. Though naturally protected on three sides, its southern approach was open. Horvat Nahal Nissana consisted mainly of round buildings (10–15 feet across) with round courtyards (approximately 25–30 feet across) attached outside each round building. In both built-up areas there were tumuli—piles of stones covering a burial box—and narrow alleys here and there between the aggregate of structures. In 1982 the site plan of Horvat Nahal Nissana was prepared by a team of the Israel Archaeological Survey in the Negev led by Y. Segal. This summer I will continue the study of Nahal Nissana by excavating the southern part of the site.

In 1973 Beno Rothenberg12 surveyed a settlement in Sinai, on the upper course of the Wadi el Fogeya, which was very similar in size and plan to the site at Nahal Nissana. Rothenberg dated his site to the Proto-dynastic period (late Chalcolithic–Bronze Age I), but the site may, in fact, belong to the MBI period.

Har Yeruham, some three miles west of the modern town of Yeruham, was also a “central” MBI site. In 1963, Kochavi carried out four weeks of excavations and was able to distinguish two strata, both MBI. The earlier level consisted of a settlement surrounded by what he described as a stone wall nearly 800 feet long, encompassing an area of approximately one acre. The houses were rectangular and had been built along this “wall,” joining it either along their length or their breadth. The roofs of the houses were supported by stone pillars that stood either alone in the center of the room or in a row of two or three along its longitudinal line. Stone benches ran along some of the walls of the houses. The floors were bedrock, the natural irregularities having been leveled.

In 1973, I conducted three weeks of further excavations at this site.13 I was principally concerned with clarifying the relationship between the two strata uncovered by Kochavi and with determining whether a pre-MBI settlement had occupied the site. We found no architectural remains earlier than MBI, but some hole-mouth rims from Early Bronze II (2850 B.C. to 2650 B.C.) had been unearthed in the earlier excavation. These sherds, as we shall see, were of critical importance. The “wall enclosure” noted by Kochavi turned out to be the outer walls of neighboring buildings joined together, and did not, in any event, surround the entire area. Our most significant discovery was that the ground plans of the structures at Har Yeruham conformed to the pattern attested at all other Central Negev sites- roundish and rectangular dwelling and storage rooms grouped around a common central courtyard. Six or more such units with common courtyards could be identified at the site.

Be’er Resisim, the third central MBI site, is located on a narrow, oblong hill near the well, Be’er Resisim, and close to the southern bank of Nahal Resisim. In 1978–80, Dever and I co-directed three successive seasons of excavations.14 The site covers roughly four acres and was relatively easy to clear, as the walls of the structures projected from the surface of the ground. We were able to determine almost the entire settlement groundplan- it consists of some 150 circular rooms. The basic building type is a unit comprising round and rectangular dwelling rooms and smaller installations arranged around a common central courtyard.

A single room can serve as an example of the Be’er Resisim groundplan. It is round (about ten feet across) with a central pillar that apparently supported the roof. The roof itslef was formed by spanning wooden beams radially from the top of this pillar to the encircling walls, and then placing flat stone slabs over the scaffolding. The slabs were covered with mud or lime. Scattered on the floor made of small stones and beaten earth were typical MBI potsherds. Beneath this floor-level, on the natural rock, we found sherds from the Early Bronze Age II in a thin ash layer, again a critical finding. We found rooms like this, with minor variations, over and over again. Between the units were open-air enclosures used principally for food preparation, as we know from the remains of cooking pots and animal bones, mostly sheep and goat. Apart from pottery, the other artifacts included grinding stones (sometimes of Aswan granite), fragments of ostrich egg shells, Red Sea conches (and the ornaments fashioned from them), “Canaanean” bladesc and innumerable flint chips, and (in one building) a hoard of two copper ingots and a copper dagger. Smaller individual buildings as well as cairns (stone piles) were excavated in the area.

The basic architectural arrangement, comprising round and rectangular rooms around a common central courtyard, repeats that found in the other two major sites and is generally characteristic of the Middle Bronze Age I. The excavations conducted here also confirm a general pattern I had previously noted from other excavations I conducted at MBI sites.15 The MBI structures had been erected over the remains of EBII settlements.

It is customary to view the MBI sites in the Central Negev as the seasonal dwelling places of nomadic or semi-nomadic people who lived by herding and marginal farming. This does not apply to the larger settlements I have just described or to the intermediate settlements, although it is true of the smaller settlements.

The numerous intermediate settlements consist of clusters of 10 to 15 building units, usually less concentrated than those in the central settlements.16

One of these sites, Nahal Boqer, is located about two miles northwest of Kibbutz Sde Boqer. The one structure on which we concentrated included several rooms, some rectangular and others roughly circular in plan, around a central courtyard about 50 feet across. Four rooms were excavated. Two of these, circular in shape, had been built right on the bedrock, which also served as the floor. The other two rooms, one of which was rectangular (about 16 feet long and 13 feet wide), had two strata. The upper stratum had a floor of beaten earth, about four inches thick, on which were a number of MBI sherds. Below this floor was debris of fallen stones over the natural rock, in which EBII sherds were again found.

Horvat Har Harif is scattered over a large area and consists of several dwelling units and numerous tumuli. The site was poorly preserved, with no more than one course of stones intact in the structures. Two of the units we excavated revealed the typical MBI pattern of circular and rectangular rooms around a central courtyard. The finds, apart from a typical MBI vessel, included again several EBII sherds.

By far the most widespread type of MBI settlements in the Central Negev—there are hundreds of examples—are the small settlements that normally consisted of, at most, two or three building units, including a dwelling structure and animal pens. In contrast to the intermediate and larger central settlements, these were of a temporary nature. Their inhabitants probably resided mainly in or near the larger sites, with their ample supplies of water, and moved to these outlying structures only during the pasturage season. I have excavated several sites like this, and they have nearly all revealed the same two-period character of the sites described above an upper stratum with MBI sherds, and a lower stratum with EBII ware.

The fact that all of these sites consistently evidence EBII sherds beneath the MBI has, as we shall see, important historical implications. Professor Benjamin Mazar in an important paper, now 15 years old, noticed the unusual concentration of MBI settlements in the Central Negev and the disturbed conditions which they evidenced- “Most astonishing is the dense network of semi-nomadic settlements in the Negev highlands during the later stage of MB Age I, surveyed and studied by Glueck and others. It is possible to see in this phenomenon a consequence of the ceaseless wanderings by tribal groups and their struggles for control over the sources of sustenance. This movement produced an overflow of land-hungry people who spilled out of the agricultural regions into frontier districts. Settling in the arid regions, they tried to support themselves by sporadic agriculture, pastoral activity, hunting and manufacture of copper implements.”17

The MBI culture as a whole is essentially an interlude between the urban civilizations that came before and after.d The MBI culture is clearly a non-urban society, different in culture, economy, and burial customs. Nevertheless, I do not agree with Kochavi that these MBI people were basically foreign to the region and came from afar. In this respect, I believe Dever is correct in seeing certain MBI pottery types as a continuation of Early Bronze Age prototypes.

This seeming contradiction raises a fundamental question- Who were these MBI people? How is their culture to be understood? I would like to suggest an answer.

All of the hypotheses described above, the Age of Abraham, the Amorite Hypothesis, the “Kurgan” Migration, and the Early Bronze Age IV (2350 B.C. to 2200 B.C.), share a common assumption—that the MBI settlement in Palestine, and hence in the Central Negev, proceeded from the north or northeast. The Amorites, whether associated with Abraham or not, are normally identified with the semi-nomadic tribes that inhabited the fringes of the Syrian desert. Lapp looked much further afield for the source of the MBI movement. He was not sure whether the “Kurgan” tribesmen reached Palestine by way of the sea or overland (across Syria), but in either case, he felt they originally came from the Caucasus, in the north. Even Dever’s recent EBIV thesis, though it stresses continuity in cultural development from the Early Bronze Age, argues for the arrival of the Central Negev settlers at a comparatively late stage, after that culture had largely coalesced in Transjordan.

Scholars who defended the “Amorite” theory related the movement of the Amorites to the incursions of the Asiatic tribes into the Nile Delta, incursions that brought the unsettled times of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200 to 2000 B.C.). W. A. Ward in his detailed study of this period in Egypt reached the conclusion “that the Asiatic penetration into the Delta was not as severe as generally supposed, that the western part of the Delta was never overrun with foreigners and that the sea-route between Egypt and the Syro-Lebanese coastal cities was never closed.”18 This view is in harmony with our theory—especially Ward’s statement, “We cannot think in terms of an ‘Amorite’ invasion or of a horde of refugees pouring out of southern Palestine fleeing the ‘Amorite’ settlement there” (p. 46). We agree with his view that the decline of the Old Kingdom in Egypt was the result of internal and economic factors. Barbara Bell19 attempted to show that drought and famine were the primary causes for the collapse. She relies principally on Egyptian literary texts such as “The Instruction of King Merikare.” Though one must be careful about her thesis, it does call to mind the Biblical ten plagues which befell the Egyptians (Exodus 7-8–10-29).

On the basis of my own surveys and excavations in the Central Negev, however, I believe that the MBI people did not come from the north or northeast; on the contrary, there is evidence pointing to their origins in the south or southwest. The principal support for this thesis comes from the primary groundplan found at all MBI sites. At all the MBI settlements investigated in the Central Negev we find one basic architectural unit—roughly round or rectangular rooms arranged around a common courtyard. Whatever the size of the settlement, this basic arrangement reappears with only very minor variations.

Glueck, Kochavi and others believed that these circular structures had no historical precedent in Palestine. However, recent research in the Sinai, especially by Itzhak Beit-Arieh20 of Tel Aviv University, has shown that this groundplan was, in fact, employed in the Sinai in the Early Bronze II period! Beit-Arieh found EBII settlements consisting of rooms and courtyards of varying circular shapes at a number of Sinai sites.21 A similar EBII site was excavated by Beit-Arieh and Ram Gophna, also of Tel Aviv University, in 1976 in the area of Kadesh-Barnea.22 They concluded that this site had the same basic groundplan as those examined earlier in southern Sinai, including Nabi Salah, Sheikh Muhsin and Watiah North. Ruth Amiran, Beit-Arieh and J. Glass23 have demonstrated the close connection between these Sinai sites and the important EBII city of Arad. More recently, the Negev Emergency Survey has shown that EBII generally was one of the major settlement phases in the Central Negev and in the Uvdah Valley (northwest of Eilat).24

These EBII findings are of special importance for understanding the later MBI settlements. The building techniques seen by Beit-Arieh and Gophna in their EBII sites and those we uncovered more recently in the EB settlements in the Central Negev could as easily be found in many of the MBI sites. It is obvious that, at least as far as their construction is concerned, there is a direct relationship between these EBII and MBI settlements. The exact nature of this relationship remains the crucial question.

I have already noted that in a number of the Central Negev sites, MBI pottery overlies a stratum containing EBII sherds. All of this implies that the construction techniques of the MBI population in the Sinai and Central Negev were extensively influenced by the EBII sites they found standing; in some cases the MBI people may also have taken over these sites. It is interesting to speculate on whether the EBII settlements were still inhabited at the time the MBI people arrived. In view of the substantial time gap normally assumed between the two periods in question, it is possible, of course, that the early settlements had long since been abandoned and that the MBI population moved into empty quarters. The other possibility, however, should not be dismissed- namely that the later people drove out or destroyed the former and settled in their homes.

I am of course aware that this reconstruction implies that the Early Bronze ceramic assemblage continued in use for a considerably longer period in the south of Palestine than in the north. In northern Palestine, there is a distinct Early Bronze III phase, 2650 B.C. to 2350 B.C., (the Khirbet Kerak culture). But this is not so in southern Palestine, where the EBII ceramic assemblage continued to the end of the Early Bronze Age. The Early Bronze sites in the Central Negev have been dated on the basis of certain diagnostic pottery sherds (mainly hole-mouth rims) which, in themselves, can be assigned to EBII or EBIII. They are normally assumed to be EBII because they are not found together with other sherds (Khirbet Kerak ware) characteristic of EBIII culture in northern Palestine. But if I am correct in supposing that the Khirbet Kerak pottery simply never penetrated into the south, our sites in the Negev could have existed at the same time as the EBIII sites in the north.

Thus, Arad, until now assumed to have been destroyed at the end of EBII, was in fact destroyed at the end of EBIII. The excavator of Arad may have assumed there was no EBIII material at Arad because of the absence of Khirbet Kerak ware, but as noted above, Khirbet Kerak ware may not have penetrated this far south. Accordingly, the hole-mouth jars and other material from Arad may evidence EBII and EBIII settlement. If I am correct, Arad was destroyed at the end of EBIII by the MBI people—perhaps they were incipient Israelites, what we might call “proto-Israelites.” Incidentally, this destruction of Arad would coincide with the destruction of Jericho at the end of EBIII.

The MBI newcomers, to be sure, transformed the basic nature of the Central Negev settlement. While the scattered EBII sites were closely connected with fortified urban centers such as Arad, the MBI people were self-sufficient without any connection with urban centers.

If one accepts this reconstruction of events, we can demonstrate a northerly migration—from the Sinai—of the MBI population (see map, above). Note that a large concentration of MBI settlements existed in the Nahal Nissana-Be’erotayim-Be’er Resisim vicinity. From here, the settlements spread out across the southwestern part of the Central Negev to the area of Har Yeruham, then to the region of Horvat Telma and the Dimona Hills, and from there, on the one hand, along Nahal Dimona and Nahal Ef’e, northwards to the Arad environs, and on the other, eastwards into the southern Dead Sea district and Transjordan. There is evidence too for another route from the Avdat-Nahal Zin area eastwards into the Aravah and then into Transjordan. Another route led from the Kadesh Barnea area southward to the Uvdah Valley and from there eastward into Transjordan. It appears that the MBI people, as they went along, destroyed the EBII settlements, and for the most part, reoccupied the ruins. Although these settlements are customarily dated to the EBII period, in my view they continued to exist in the EBIII period, as I stated in my discussion of Arad above. A slow-moving invasion of this sort would explain some of the unusual characteristics of the MBI material culture, such as the use of EBII prototypes in its pottery repertoire. The MBI peoples apparently had few technical traditions of their own and adapted those they found in use among the settled population they conquered. Naturally, they adapted the EBII forms to their own way of life, and the result was the characteristic MBI vessels, which recall the earlier models but employ different techniques and decoration.

This hypothesis, of course, contradicts the prevailing assessment, which describes the MBI sites in the Central Negev as a movement that came from the north. It is interesting, however, to note that this migratory drift, as I have reconstructed it, bears a striking similarity to that of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt to the Promised Land, as recorded in the book of Exodus. The concentration of MBI sites in the relatively fertile district east of Kadesh-Barnea recalls the tradition that the Israelites encamped near this oasis for 38 of their 40 years of wandering after leaving Egypt (Deuteronomy 1-46). If the EBII communities were still flourishing in the Negev and Sinai at the time of this MBI incursion, then the capital city of EB Arad with its satellites in the desert no doubt formed a kind of league like that of the Canaanite king of Arad, described in Numbers 21-1, and like that of the Amalekites in Exodus 17-8–13. Both no doubt offered fierce resistance to the northward-advancing MBI Israelites. The establishment of the MBI settlements directly over the ruins of the EBII–EBIII sites in the Central Negev is consistent with the tradition that the Israelites dwelled in the area previously inhabited by their Amalekite foes (Deuteronomy 25-17–19). The northeastward migration of the MBI population into Transjordan has parallels in the Biblical recollection that the Israelites remained in Moab before crossing the Jordan River and laying siege to Jericho (Deuteronomy 3-29). In this connection, it is interesting to note that Early Bronze Age Jericho was destroyed by a violent conflagration, and the site was thinly reoccupied by MBI newcomers, who were apparently unaccustomed to urban dwellings.

In the central and northern parts of Israel, the EBIII urban culture flourished. The MBI invaders in the south overwhelmed this urban Canaanite civilization and destroyed their cities but thereafter persisted in a semi-nomadic way of life. This bears a striking similarity to the tradition of Joshua’s devastating campaign against the Canaanite centers in central Palestine and his ban on rebuilding some of them (e.g., Joshua 8-28). Both Jericho and Ai were fortified cities at the end of the Early Bronze Age. According to the Biblical account, they were both destroyed by the Israelites; God specifically instructed that these cities should not be rebuilt. Interestingly enough, after the EBIII destruction of Jericho and Ai, both cities lay in ruins for hundreds of years.

Having successfully taken over Palestine, the MBI tribes were profoundly influenced by the mores of the people they conquered, and many of their artifacts and customs have their origin in the Early Bronze Age.

I do not necessarily mean to equate the MBI people with the Israelites, although an ethnic identification should not automatically be ruled out. But I am suggesting that at the very least the traditions incorporated into the Exodus account may have a very ancient inspiration reaching back to the MBI period. The migration of the MBI population from the southwest and their conquest of the Early Bronze civilization evidently made a very deep impression, and the memory of these events was preserved from one generation to the next. The late Yohanan Aharoni25 made a similar suggestion when he noted that the Biblical tradition concerning the destruction of the two Canaanite cities Arad and Horma could not be placed, archaeologically speaking, in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age (there were no cities there then)—although this is the period to which the arrival of the Hebrews is normally ascribed—but had remarkable parallels in MBII, when these two strategic outposts in the Beer-Sheva basin guarded the country’s southern approaches. (Aharoni identified Biblical Arad with MBII Tel Malhata and Horma with MBII Tel Masos.) He maintained that the recollection of these two important sites was perpetuated among the local populace and appeared in the Biblical saga of the conquest.

The similarity between the course of the MBI migration and the route of the Exodus seems too close to be coincidental, and a comparable process may have operated here. The Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.)—the period usually associated with the Israelites’ flight from Egypt—is archaeologically unattested in the Kadesh-Barnea areae (as elsewhere in the Central Negev, for that matter), but MBI remains abound and seem to provide a concrete background for the traditions of settlement. Whether the Israelites’ trek from Egypt actually occurred in this period or was based on a dim memory of an earlier migration and conquest along this route cannot yet be determined with certainty. But the background of the journey seems clearly to be related to that mysterious archaeological period we so dryly call MBI.f

The author and BAR would like to express their special thanks to Nachshon Sneh whose photographs illustrate this article.

a. See “Beer-Sheba of the Patriarchs,” BAR 06-06, by Ze’ev Herzog.

b. Horvah (or horvat when used in combination with a name) is the Hebrew word for a “ruin.” It is often abbreviated H. In Arabic, the same word is Khirbet, abbreviated Kh.

c. The term Canaanean is used to distinguish these people from later Canaanites. The Canaanean blade is a long, thin, narrow blade formed by flaking a flint core. Sometimes it is retouched after flaking. It is quite sharp and can be used as a knife, spearhead, etc.

d. On this point, I completely agree with Kochavi’s views in his criticism of Dever’s thesis.

e. See “Did I Excavate Kadesh-Barnea?” BAR 07-03, by Rudolph Cohen.

1. Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up Jericho, London, 1957, pp. 186–209; Kathleen Kenyon, Excavations at Jericho, Volume I (London- 1960), pp. 180–262.

2. Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York- 1959); Nelson Glueck, “The Age of Abraham in the Negeb,” Biblical Archeologist 18 (1955), pp. 2–9.

3. W. F. Albright, “Abram the Hebrew, A New Archaeological Interpretation,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR), No. 163, p. 36.

4. Kathleen Kenyon, Amorites and Canaanites (London- 1966).

5. Ruth Amiran, “The Pottery of the Middle Bronze I Age in Palestine,” Israel Exploration Journal 10 (1960), pp. 204–224. See also Atiqot 7 (1974), pp. 1–12 (Hebrew).

6. William G. Dever, “The Peoples of Palestine in the Middle Bronze I Period,” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971), pp. 197–226; “New Vistas on the EBIV (“MBI”) Horizon in Syria-Palestine,” BASOR 237 (1979), pp. 31–59.

7. Paul W. Lapp, The Dhahr Mirzbaneh Tombs (New Haven- 1966), pp. 94–116.

8. Moshe Kochavi, “The Excavations at Har Yeruham (Preliminary Report),” Bulletin of the Israel Exploration Society 27 (1963), pp. 284–292 (Hebrew); The Settlement of the Negev in the Middle Bronze (Canaanite) Age (Jerusalem- 1967), Hebrew University (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation [Hebrew]); “The Middle Bronze Age I (The Intermediate Bronze Age) in Eretz-Israel,” Qadmoniot 6 (1969), pp. 38–44 (Hebrew).

9. Yohanan Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel (Philadelphia- 1982).

10. See the author’s latest summary of his survey in Rudolph Cohen, Archaeological Survey of Israel, Map of Sde Boqer-East (168), Jerusalem, 1981, pp. ix–x.

11. It is interesting to note the particular density of settlements in several localities- (a) the vicinity of Be’erotayim-Nahal Nissana-Be’er Resisim, in the district east of Kadesh-Barnea; (b) between Yeruham and Sde Boqer; (c) the area of Dimona.

12. Beno Rothenberg, Sinai- Pharaohs, Miners, Pilgrims and Soldiers (Joseph J. Binns- Washington-New York, 1979), Figure 22 on p. 118.

13. Rudolph Cohen, “Her Yeruham,” Israel Exploration Journal 24 (1974), pp. 133–134.

14. Rudolph Cohen and William G. Dever, “Preliminary Report of the Pilot Season of the Central Negev Highland Project,” BASOR 236 (1980), pp. 41–60; Third Season in BASOR 243 (1981), pp. 57–77.

15. At Horvat Ahdir and Horvat Nahal Boqer.

16. I have excavated a number of these sites, including H. Nahal Zalzal, H. Nahal ’Avnon, H. Nahal Boqer, H. Telma, H. Har Harif, and others.

17. Benjamin Mazar, “The Middle Bronze Age in Palestine,” Israel Exploration Journal, 18-2 (1968).

18. W. A. Ward, Egypt and the East Mediterranean World 2200–1900 B.C. (Beirut- 1971), pp. xxii–xxiii.

19. “The Dark Ages in Ancient History,” American Journal of Archaeology 75 (1971), pp. 1–26.

20. Itzhak Beit-Arieh, “A Pattern of Settlement in Southern Sinai and Southern Canaan in the Third Millennium B.C.,” BASOR 243 (1981), pp. 31–55.

21. Nabi Salah, Sheikh Muhsin, Watia North, and elsewhere.

22. Itzhak Beit-Arieh and Ram Gophna, “Early Bronze Age II Sites in Wadi el-Qudeirat (Kadesh Barnea),” Tel-Aviv 3 (1976), pp. 142–150.

23. Ruth Amiran et al., “The Interrelationship Between Arad and Sites in Southern Sinai in the Early Bronze Age II,” Israel Exploration Journal 23 (1973), pp. 193–197.

24. For a brief summary of these finds by the author, see Rudolph Cohen, “The Negev Archaeological Emergency Project,” Israel Exploration Journal 29 (1979), pp. 250–254. In October 1979 rescue excavations were carried out at Ramat Matred on behalf of the Department of Antiquities of Israel, under the direction of the author. Among the excavated sites were several EBII–MBI sites; see Rudolph Cohen, “Ramat Matred Rescue Excavations,” Israel Exploration Journal 30 (1980), pp. 231–234. In February 1980 large-scale rescue excavations were carried out in the Uvdah Valley under the direction of Avraham Eitan, the director of the Israel Department of Antiquities. Most of the excavated sites were EBII–MBI sites. See Hadashot Arkheologist (Hebrew) 74–75 (1980), pp. 35–49.

25. Yohanan Aharoni, “Nothing Early and Nothing Late- Re-Writing Israel’s Conquest,” Biblical Archeologist 39 (1976), pp. 55–76.

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