Bible and Beyond

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To the Bible writers, they were the bad guys. But they were nevertheless important.
The Ammonites emerged east of the Jordan at about the same time as the Israelites appeared as a people west of the Jordan. Together with their neighbors—the Moabites, the Edomites and the Amorites (who also lived west of the Jordan)—the Ammonites loomed large in Israel’s consciousness for many centuries. Even today, the name of the capital of Jordan, Amman, is derived from the Ammonite name.

The Biblical view of the Ammonites is amply reflected in their putative ancestry. According to Genesis 19-30–38, the Ammonites were descended from an incestuous union between Lot and his younger daughter. At best, they were scandalous relatives of the Israelites.

At one point during the period of the Judges, the Ammonites teamed up with the Amalekites to reconquer Jericho from the Israelites (Judges 3-13). On another occasion, the Ammonites allied themselves with the Philistines and made war against the Israelites east of the Jordan for 18 years (Judges 10-7–8). At other times, the Ammonites forayed into Israelite territory west of the Jordan- “Israel was in great distress” (Judges 10-9).

The Gileadite Jephthah, son of a prostitute, who had been driven out by his half-brothers and was living the life of an outlaw, was called back to lead the Israelites in battle when the Ammonites declared war. The Israelites promised Jephthah that they would make him their military chief if he would lead them against the Ammonites. Then Jephthah made the foolish vow that if the Lord granted him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice whatever first came out of his house on his safe return. Jephthah was victorious, but it was his daughter who came out to greet him Judges 11).a

When Nahash (the name must be an Israelite caricature- it means “snake”), the king of the Ammonites, agreed to spare the Israelites of Jabesh-Gilead only if the Israelites allowed Nahash to gouge out the right eye of every man,b the soon-to-be king of the Israelites, Saul, came to their rescue and defeated the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11). Throughout his reign, Saul made war on the Ammonites (1 Samuel 14-47). David too fought the Ammonites (2 Samuel 8-12, 10).

Despite all these references to the Ammonites—and others to their neighbors—the land east of the Jordan was largely terra incognita to Bible students before the 1930s. In the 19th century, a few intrepid explorers like Johann Burckhardt and Ulrich Seetzen traversed this largely unoccupied land, often in disguise to protect themselves from warring Bedouin tribes. They discovered Jerash, one of the best-preserved cities from the Roman world and, of course, the incomparable ruin of the Nabatean city of Petrac tucked away behind mountain passes. But no one attempted a systematic look at the land east of the Jordan until the American rabbi Nelson Glueck surveyed it in the 1930s.
Glueck’s work marks the beginning of modern scientific archaeology in Jordan. He discovered scores of ruins hidden beneath mounds of debris. In this way he was able to fill in numerous blank spots in Bible atlases. Nevertheless, our knowledge of the nations east of the Jordan and Dead Sea valleys—Ammon, Moab, Edom, Gilead and others—remained scanty.

Based on his surface survey, Glueck concluded that the Biblical nations east of the Jordan had histories parallel to Israel’s; that is, they began about 1200 B.C.E. (the Iron Age I period) and ended with the Babylonian conquest in the early sixth century B.C.E. But until some of the mounds east of the Jordan were excavated, very little specific information was available beyond what we could glean from the Bible.

Before that happened, historical models were transplanted from the west side of the Jordan, where Judah’s existence came to an end in 586 B.C.E. At that time the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple, which had been at the center of Israelite religion for 400 years. And so began the Babylonian Exile, as the people of Judah were forcibly resettled in Babylonia.
Based on his survey results east of the Jordan, Glueck concluded that the Ammonites also ceased to exist at the same time. This view became so firmly entrenched in scholarly thinking that almost no one seriously entertained any other. So little was known about the Ammonites and the archaeology of Jordan that the far more extensive knowledge of western Palestine became the historical paradigm for the whole region. But was this right? As it turns out, it was nothing more than intellectual imperialism, for, as we shall see, the story is very different east of the Jordan.
Data from several excavations in the region now indicate that the Ammonites did not disappear with the Babylonian captivity, but instead flourished right through it and into the Persian period (c. 550–330 B.C.E.), when Persia replaced Babylonia as the world’s superpower. The archaeological record reflects little or no break in the material remains east of the Jordan at the time of the Babylonian captivity of Judah. Instead, it provides some evidence for the Ammonites as late as the fourth century B.C.E.

Our story begins at Tell Hesban, probably Biblical Heshbon (“The Search for Biblical Heshbon,” BAR 19-06.1 There, near the top of the mound, Siegfried Horn’s team uncovered a large plastered pool (perhaps one of the “pools in Heshbon” referred to in the Song of Solomon 7-4—Song of Songs in Hebrew, 7-5). It was filled with tons of debris from later cities. James Sauer, the pottery specialist for the excavation, first recognized an important, unique feature of this fill- Most of the hundreds of pieces of broken pottery (or sherds, as they are called) seemed to date to the end of the Iron Age (the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E.), but they were very different from the sherds in contemporaneous deposits west of the Jordan.2

Other excavations throughout the region of ancient Ammon, from the Jordan River in the west to the desert in the east, were unearthing identical pottery. But similar potsherds did not exist, or were very rare, at sites to the south of Madaba (Moab) and to the north of the Wadi Zerqa or River Jabbok (Gilead). Could the distinctive pottery from this area be identified with an ethnic group—the Ammonites? Some of us think it can.3

But this was only the beginning of the identification of a distinctive Ammonite culture. Also in the fill of the Hesban pool were several ostraca (singular- ostracon)—broken pieces of pottery with ink inscriptions. Harvard’s Frank Cross, probably the world’s leading authority on ancient alphabetic inscriptions, studied these ostraca and concluded that most were written in the Ammonite language and script of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., contemporaneous with the pottery according to Sauer’s dating.

The Ammonite language is very closely related to the languages of other nations in the vicinity, such as Phoenicia, Israel and Moab. In fact, it may be more correct to call them all Canaanite dialects. An ancient Israelite probably could have understood the gist of what an Ammonite was trying to tell him. A few Ammonite words related to Arabic may have been introduced by Ammonites living in the east, next to the desert.

Like other nations around them, the Ammonites also developed a distinctive way of writing the basic Canaanite alphabetic script. Based on Aramaic writing of the eighth century B.C.E., it conservatively retained old forms for over a century. On the scores of Ammonite seals that have been found, the strongest trait of their writing is the vertical stance of the letters. Contemporaneous Hebrew letters leaned to the right and had curving legs, and sometimes had added flairs; Ammonite forms were upright and simple. Handwriting experts would probably say the Ammonites were an efficient, no-nonsense society.4

The ability to date inscriptions like those found at Heshbon on the basis of script has become so refined that Cross was able to pinpoint a few of the ostraca to the late sixth century B.C.E. This was not only after the period of the Babylonian captivity, but into the early years of the Persian period. During the Persian period, scribes began using the Aramaic script as the international mode of writing, instead of the old national scripts of the region. Some of these late ostraca from Heshbon were written in this Aramaic script, but the language was Ammonite!5 Could this mean that the Ammonites, unlike the Judahites, remained in their homeland during the Babylonian Exile? It certainly seemed so. But scholarly theories, especially those with Biblical connections, die hard. Some rationalized the evidence by contending that perhaps only a few Ammonites remained after the supposed Babylonian destruction, enough at least to write the late Heshbon ostraca in Aramaic script.

Recent discoveries at Hesban’s daughter excavation, Tell el-‘Umeiri, however, indicate that more sweeping conclusions are justified.d At the western edge of the city (which may be identified with Abel-Keramim of Judges 11-33 [see “The Search for Biblical Heshbon,” BAR 19-06]) we uncovered three large public buildings. The walls we discovered were actually basements dug deep into the ruins of earlier cities. Basements are rare in this part of the ancient world and only serve to emphasize the public nature of the buildings and their importance.

We were eventually able to date the construction of these buildings to the early to mid-sixth century—about the time that the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem—and to show that they continued to be used, in a later second phase, with only slight architectural changes as the floor levels were raised. Not only this, but the culture throughout both phases contained the same “Ammonite” pottery. In addition to the pottery evidence were several small finds, in many ways the most fascinating material yet uncovered in our excavation.

The first find, not yet published, was a small ostracon. Hundreds of ostraca have been found in the Holy Land; most of them bear lists of names or goods. Our ostracon may have been an exception. According to its decipherer, a student of Frank Cross’s named Todd Sanders, it may have been a letter addressed to the king, but it still contained several typical Ammonite names. For us, the important feature of the ostracon is its Ammonite style of writing, datable to the mid-sixth century B.C.E. That date is important because the ostracon was found in a pit from a stratum immediately below the earliest administrative complex. This means that our three administrative buildings were not built until sometime around the middle decades of the sixth century B.C.E., probably after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

We probably should not date the construction of the buildings too late, however, due to the second find- a small object discovered in the topsoil above the southernmost of the three administrative buildings. Because the top of the mound had been used in modern times as an agricultural field, many of the finds from the upper stories of the buildings had been plowed up and were found in the topsoil near the surface. This object was found by a volunteer on the very first day of our excavation in 1984. Lloyd Willis, at that time a volunteer but now a supervisor, was able to identify it as a conical lump of clay covered with dirt. Willis did not know whether to save it or throw it away. Fortunately, his area supervisor, Douglas Clark, arrived just then and irreverently wiped the lump of clay on his trousers. Suddenly before his eyes there emerged faint traces of minute writing and an artistic scene. The object was quickly brought to me and I recognized it as an Ammonite seal impression on a small baked clay cone, perhaps used to cap a juglet.

After it was properly cleaned (no more trouser-wiping!), I was able to examine both the inscription and the artistic scene beneath it with a binocular dissecting microscope. The two eyepieces of these low-powered microscopes bring out the relief of the impressions with stunning vividness. Although the letters were faint, they stood out in enough detail that I was able to read the inscription quite confidently.

The seal that had impressed the clay turned out to be much more important than most seals. The owners of the vast majority of seals were merchants or scribes. But this seal belonged to a high official of the Ammonite royal court. Even the scene engraved in the middle of the seal boasted royal connections—a winged scarab beetle, pushing a small solar disk (or dung ball!) with standards on either side. These are well-known royal symbols on seals from both ancient Israel and Ammon.6

The writing on the seal is characterized by the typical Ammonite upright stance of the vertical letters, best seen on the first line of the inscription. Like the Israelites, Ammonites wrote from right to left. In the first line, the owner of the seal placed his name, Milkom’ur, preceded by a preposition (lamed) meaning “belonging to.” This name, like most ancient names, is a short sentence containing a god’s name. The national deity of the Ammonites, as we know from the Bible (see 1 Kings 11-5, 33; 2 Kings 23-13), was Milkom. The name on the seal means “Milkom is light.” This name itself was an exciting discovery. Most Ammonite names did not contain the name of their national god, but used a more generic divine name, El. This seal impression was one of the first ever discovered to use the name Milkom.

In the next line, just above the two royal standards flanking the scarab beetle, are the first two letters of the word ‘bd, meaning “servant of.” This identifies the owner’s official position. On ancient seals “servant of” was no lowly domestic. It was an exalted title, and the next word, when preserved, invariably names a king. Milkom’ur was, therefore, a servant, or high official, of the king.
The king’s name, on the bottom line, is Baalyasha, meaning “Baal saves.” (An analogous Hebrew name is Elisha, meaning “El [or God] saves.”)

Based on the writing style, I could date the seal of Milkom’ur to the early sixth century. Robert Boling, then director of our regional survey, first realized that Baalyasha was the Ammonite version of an obscure king mentioned in the Bible—Baalis (Jeremiah 40-14). From this text of Jeremiah, we learn that King Baalis ruled Ammon during the early years of Judah’s Babylonian Exile. According to Jeremiah, Baalis supported the plan by a renegade Judahite prince named Ishmael to kill Gedaliah, the governor of Judah installed by the Babylonians. Gedaliah disregarded a warning of the plot and was subsequently assassinated.

There is little doubt that Baalyasha and Baalis are the same person. The Biblical story occurred in 582 B.C.E. The script on the seal dates to the early sixth century. Moreover, the divine element Baal is extremely rare in Ammonite names; it is unlikely that two kings from roughly the same time period would have had names containing the Baal element. The Hebrew spelling of the name Baalis (ba‘aliys, syl[b) indicates that it was probably a garbled rendition of the Ammonite form of the name. Just how the Hebrew version of the name came to be is the subject of much debate. Some scholars think a scribal error was involved, but I think the best explanation is that the Hebrew scribe wrote the name phonetically as he heard it in the Ammonite dialect, which was different enough from Hebrew pronunciation to cause the changes in spelling.

Now, because this seal impression dated to the early sixth century, and our first object, the ostracon, dated to the mid-sixth century and belonged to a level immediately earlier than the administrative buildings, we can establish a date for the beginning of our settlement somewhere in the 570s or 560s B.C.E. This is early enough for Baalis’s seal from the early sixth century to have been used (or reused) and late enough for the date of the ostracon. Moreover, because the Baalis seal belonged to an Ammonite royal official, we were able to establish that our public buildings were part of the Ammonite royal bureaucracy, which apparently managed to preserve itself after the Babylonian destruction of Judah. Ammonites lived and ruled elsewhere before the destruction of Jerusalem, but we can now document, from our site, that this was also true during the years immediately afterward. Furthermore, as we have previously noted, these same public buildings continued to be used in a later phase. Because the pottery in the later phase was virtually identical to the earlier phase, we are able to suggest that the Ammonites continued to occupy the buildings in the later phase—during the Persian period—as well. That is, if we are right in connecting the pottery with the Ammonites.

The third and fourth objects substantiate this conclusion. In 1989 we found two other seal impressions, this time associated with the middle administrative building. These, however, were much different from Milkom’ur’s seal impression. Stamped onto the handles of jars, there was no artwork on them and the letters were much larger and more crudely shaped.
The writing was difficult to read. The seals had been impressed onto the jar handles hastily and not quite fully, and the clay was rough. I could see the letters on the bottom lines easily enough, but the top lines were more problematic. Because of the crude look, no one thought they were important, and I did not study them until the dig was long over. When I finally put them under a dissecting microscope, I discovered two impressions that said exactly the same thing, but were made by two different seals.

Like the late ostraca from Hesban, the script on these seal impressions was not Ammonite, but Aramaic. Also like the ostraca from Hesban, they could be dated to the very end of the sixth century or even the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E., the Persian period.7 The data from Heshbon and Tell el-‘Umeiri agreed- Inscriptions from the Ammonite region of Jordan were written in Ammonite script before about 550 B.C.E., while after that date they were written in Aramaic script.

Although the late Heshbon ostraca were in the Aramaic script, the language was nevertheless Ammonite. But what about these late seals from ‘Umeiri? The script was Aramaic, but were they too written in Ammonite?

The answer is probably yes, though it is hard to tell. The first three letters (all consonants, like ancient Hebrew writing) make up a typical Ammonite nickname- Shuba’, perhaps short for Shub’el. The next word, ‘mn consists of the three consonants of the national name ‘Ammon. Thus, both our impressions may be loosely translated, “Shuba, Ammon.”

Of the more than 500 ancient inscribed seals known from the seals themselves or from seal impressions, only one class of seals contains a national identification. That name is Judea (Yahud, in the original), as Judah became known in the Persian period. These Judean seals, or Yahud seals, as scholars call them, are found by the score, primarily in the Jerusalem area.8 They, too, are written in the Aramaic script. And they, too, date to the late sixth or early fifth century B.C.E. Our two seals are probably the Ammonite version of these Judean seals.

Most scholars believe that these Yahud seals were part of the Persian provincial taxation system, usually stamped onto jars of goods.9 Most do not carry a personal name, but those that do probably indicate either the governor of the Persian province of Judea or the provincial treasurer in charge of tax collection.

The same most likely holds true for the two Ammonite seal impressions from ‘Umeiri. Shuba’ was either the governor or treasurer of the Persian province of Ammon, and the people Shuba’ governed were Ammonites. Otherwise, why call the province “Ammon”? In a recent political history of Palestine during the Persian period, André Lemaire noted that not enough evidence had been found to determine whether Ammon was indeed a Persian province.10 With the finding of these two seal impressions, we can now be more certain. There was a Persian province of Ammon, and Shuba’ was one of its important officers.

That the two seals have the same inscription but were made from different seals supports this analysis. Potters in different parts of the province of Ammon probably had their own stamps bearing Shuba’s name, which they placed on jars made for the government, certifying that the jars were intended for tax-related uses. The handles from two of those jars ended up in the same administrative building at Tell el-‘Umeiri.

Unlike the Judahites, the Ammonites were apparently not exiled. They were still living in their homeland during the Persian period. Three separate lines of evidence support this conclusion. First, the language on the late Heshbon and Tell el-‘Umeiri inscriptions- Although the script is Aramaic, the language is Ammonite.

Second, the architectural evidence- The same administrative complex that housed Milkom’ur’s official duties for the Ammonite monarchy was still functioning, virtually unchanged, when Shuba’ collected taxes for the Persian empire almost a century later.

Third, the pottery- Until recently, the pottery evidence was thought to support the demise of the Ammonites at the time of the Babylonian Exile of Judah. This was based on the absence of typical Persian-period pottery in Ammon. Iron Age pottery seemed to be the last made by the Ammonites. However, more recent studies of Ammonite pottery, especially the pottery of Hesban and ‘Umeiri, show that the “typical” Persian vessels were never made in Jordan. Instead, potters continued to make Iron Age II forms during the Persian period. There was apparently no cultural disruption significant enough to alter pottery traditions.

So what did happen to the Ammonites? The Babylonians did not destroy them when they wiped out Judah. Instead, Ammonite culture continued unscathed, and the Ammonites prospered right through the sixth century B.C.E. and on into the Persian period, perhaps as late as the fourth century B.C.E., based on potsherds that look very close to Hellenistic vessels. Although the Persians no doubt exercised suzerainty over the area, the basic Ammonite culture, including language and pottery techniques, continued just as it had been when Ammon was independent.
If we are to find out what eventually happened to the Ammonites, we will have to reexamine the materials from the Hellenistic period, a period that saw the internationalization—and disappearance—of many social groups.

In the meantime, we are writing a new chapter in the history of the Ammonites during the Persian period, when, as we now know, the Ammonites were alive and well and living in Ammon.

a. See Solomon Landers, “Did Jephthah Kill His Daughter?” Bible Review, August 1991.

b. See Frank Moore Cross, “Original Biblical Text Reconstructed from Newly Found Fragments,’” BR 01-03.

c. See Philip C. Hammond, “New Light on the Nabateans,” BAR 07-02; Avraham Negev, “Understanding the Nabateans,” BAR 14-06; and Judith W. Shanks, “A Plea for the Bedoul Bedouin of Petra,” BAR 07-02.

d. The excavations are sponsored by Andrews University in consortium with Atlantic Union College, Canadian Union College and Walla Walla College.

1. Some European scholars think that Tell Hesban was Moabite. See Ulrich Hubner, Die Ammoniter Untersuchungen zur Geschichte, Kultur und Religion eines transjordanischen Volkes im I. Jahrtausend v. Chr. (Wiesbaden- Harrassowitz, 1992).

2. E. N. Lugenbeal and James A. Sauer, “Seventh–Sixth Century B.C. Pottery from Area B at Heshbon,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 10 (1972), pp. 21–69.

3. Although in the Bible Heshbon is identified as an Amorite city, by the end of Iron Age II the Ammonite kingdom seems to have been in firm control of the region. We hear no, more about the Amorites after the Israelite victory over them (Numbers 21-21–32), and the tribe of Reuben, which was originally allotted some of this area, seems to have faded away early. See “Frank Moore Cross—An Interview, Part 1- Israelite Origins,” Bible Review, August 1992, p. 62; and Frank Moore Cross, “Reuben, Firstborn of Jacob,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 100 (1988), Supplement- Lebenudige Forschung im Alten Testament.

4. See Larry Herr, The Scripts of Ancient Northwest Semitic Seals, (Missoula, MT- Scholars Press, 1978). Also Walter E. Aufrecht, A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions (Lewiston, NY- Edwin Mellen, 1989).

5. See Cross, “Ammonite Ostraca from Heshbon- Heshbon Ostraca IV–VIII,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 13 (1975), pp. 1–20.

6. See Randall W. Younker, “Israel, Judah, and Ammon and the Motifs on the Baalis Seal from Tell el-‘Umeiri,” Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1985), pp. 173–180.

7. My colleague André Lemaire favors a slightly later date in the early fifth century—personal communication.

8. The most comprehensive publication is still that of Nahman Avigad, Bullae and Seals from a Post-Exilic Judean Archive (Jerusalem- Hebrew University, 1976).

9. Ephraim Stern, The Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538–332 B.C. Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1982), pp. 202–206.

10. André Lemaire, “Populations et territoires de la Palestine a l’epoque perse,” in Transeuphratene 3 (1990), pp. 31–74.