In 1936, Andre Parrot made great discoveries at Mari. His finds include- remains of a grand palace dating to the early second millennium B.C., including largely intact archives containing nearly 25,000 cuneiform tablets, and a temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and several other sanctuaries.

“The History Behind the Bible; BAR Interviews Avraham Malamat,” BAR Jan-Feb 2003.

Scholars had for a long time been familiar with the royal city of Mari which features in many old inscriptions from Babylonia and Assyria. One text maintained that Mari was the tenth city to be founded after the Flood. The great spade-offensive against Tell Hariri began.

With considerable intervals the digging went on from 1933 to 1939.

At last in the fifth season, when a further forty rooms had been cleared of rubble, the palace of the kings of Mari lay in all its vast extent before Parrot and his assistants. This mammoth building of the third millennium B.C. covered almost ten acres. Never before during any excavations had such an enormous building with such vast ramifications come to light.

Columns of lorries had to be commissioned to remove the cuneiform tablets from the palace archives alone. There were almost 24,000 documents. The great find of the tablets at Nineveh was put in the shade, since the famous library of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, amounted to a “mere” 22,000 clay texts.

To get a proper picture of Mari palace aerial photographs were taken. These pictures taken from a low altitude over Tell Harm gave rise to almost incredulous amazement when they were published in France. This palace at Mari was, around 2000 B.C., one of the greatest sights of the world, the architectural gem of the Ancient East. Travelers came from far and near to see it. “I have seen Mari,” wrote an enthusiastic merchant from the Phoenician seaport of Ugarit.

In Paris the Assyriologists were deciphering a clay tablet from the archives of Mari. They read with astonishment a report from Bannum, an officer of the desert police-

“Say to my lord- This from Bannum, thy servant. Yesterday I left Mari and spent the night at Zuruban, All the Benjamites were sending fire-signals. From Samanum to Ilum-Muluk, from Ilum-Muluk to Mishlan, all the Benjamite villages in the Terqa district replied with fire-signals. I am not yet certain what these signals meant. I am trying to find out. I shall write to my lord whether or not I succeed. The city guards should be strengthened and my lord should not leave the gate.”

In this police report from the central reaches of the Euphrates in the 19th century B.C. there appears the name of one of the tribes known to us from the Bible. It literally calls them Benjamites.

There is frequent mention of these Benjamites. They seem to have given the ruler of Mari so many headaches and caused so much trouble that periods of a king’s reign were even called after them.

In the Mari dynasties the years of each reign were not numbered but were identified with some notable event, for example the building and consecration of new temples, the erection of great dams to improve irrigation, the strengthening of the banks of the Euphrates or a national census. Three times the chronological tables mention the Benjamites-

“The year in which lahdulim went to Hen and laid hands upon the territory of the Benjamites” is referred to in the reign of King lahdulim of Mari and

“The year that Zimri-Lim killed the davidum of the Benjamites”

“The year after Zimri-Lim killed the davidum of the Benjamites …” in the reign of the last monarch of Mari, Zimri-Lim.

An elaborate correspondence between governors, district commissioners, and administrators takes place over the single question- Dare we take a census of the Benjamites?

In the kingdom of Mari a census of the people was not uncommon. It provided a basis for taxation and for enlistment for military service. The population was summoned by districts and a nominal roll was made of every man liable for call-up.

The proceedings lasted several days, during which free beer and bread were distributed by government officials. The administration in the palace of Mari would fain have included the Benjamites in this but the district officers had their doubts. They advised against it since they understood only too well the temper of these roaming and rebellious tribes.

“Reference the proposal to take a census of the Benjamites, about which you have written me,” begins a letter from Samsi-Addu to lasmah-Addu in Mari. “The Benjamites are not well-disposed to the idea of a census. If you carry it out, their kinsmen the Ra-ab-ay-yi, who live on the other bank of the river, will hear of it. They will be annoyed with them and will not return to their country. On no account should this census be taken!”

Thus the Benjamites lost their free beer and bread and also escaped paying taxes and military service.

Werner Keller. The Bible as History. Bantam Books. New York. 1982. p.43-48.