ToI podcast'The biblical nomadic culture is part of who we are today'

What Matters Now to archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef: King David’s tent-dwelling monarchy

The Tel Aviv University professor proposes that just because early Israelite kings were nomadic doesn’t mean they didn’t control complex societies. ‘Look at Genghis Khan’

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

A small agile nation takes advantage of an unprecedented window of opportunity. As that start-up nation’s influence quickly spreads throughout the Holy Land, it gains the begrudging admiration of its neighboring frenemy states.

Sound familiar? But of course, we’re not talking about the modern State of Israel’s hi-tech scene, rather the period in which ancient Israelites founded the biblical United Monarchy some 3,000 years ago.

“It’s exactly the time when things changed dramatically. The Egyptian empire that was the ruler of the region collapsed, so the stabilizing force that was here to make sure that these nomads do not interfere and do not disrupt trade and the livelihood of the city-states, this force was not here anymore,” Tel Aviv University Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, the head of the ongoing Timna Valley Archaeological Expedition, told The Times of Israel this week.

While excavating at Timna, Ben-Yosef realized that it was not the commonly thought ancient Egyptian empire that ruled the copper mines at their prime, but rather the Edomites, a nomadic biblical kingdom.

This led Ben-Yosef to propose a theory that the beginnings of the United Monarchy under King David — as described in the Bible — was also nomadic, but equally complex. If true, his theory of a nomadic, largely tent-dwelling kingdom would explain why there is a general paucity of architectural evidence of grand palaces during this Iron Age era.

So this week, as the Jewish people return to temporary dwellings during the festival of Sukkot, we ask Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, what matters now.

The following transcript has been slightly edited.

A view of Timna Park in the Arava region in southern Israel, January 26, 2021. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Erez, thank you so much for joining me here today.

Erez Ben-Yosef: My pleasure.

You know, when I was driving over here to Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios, I saw a bunch of cars with all sorts of materials on their roofs, including metal posts and bamboo pillars and all sorts of things for the Sukkot, which is our holiday that’s approaching this week.

So I wonder, in this week in which Jews all over the world put up impermanent structures ahead of the festival of Sukkot, I ask you Erez, what matters now? And why should we care about what mattered thousands of years ago?

If we try to understand the origin of our people, of the Jewish people, the nomadic aspect, the nomadic part, the period where we lived in sukkot, or tents, is crucial to understand our history and to understand us today, even.

Excellent. So right now, I would like to set up the chessboard, the chessboard of 3,000 years ago. So what is happening geopolitically, right then?

So we are talking about the Exodus, and then after that, we have the conquest of Canaan, and then we have the periods of the Judges, and then we have the first monarchy. So 3,000 years ago is about the time of King David and King Saul, before King David, the first monarchy that the Jewish people ever had.

Wasn’t there some kind of power vacuum happening back then? In fact, people who were ruling the area were all of a sudden not ruling the area. And perhaps we were exhibiting some of our start-up nation tendencies already way back then.

Copper mines in Timna, 35 km north of Eilat, March 2007. (Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

It’s exactly the time when things changed dramatically. The Egyptian empire, which was the ruler of the region, collapsed. They had their own problems and they didn’t come back to the region anymore around the mid-12th century BCE. So the stabilizing force that was here to make sure that these nomads did not interfere and did not disrupt the trade and livelihood of the city-states, this force was not here anymore.

So this is a very interesting period in the history of the land where we have many changes. We do know that a lot of the local kingdoms, not only the Israelites but also the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites, came from a nomadic background. So this is kind of a consensus. All scholars agree that we came from a tent-dwelling tradition. The sukkot, the huts, the impermanent huts that you can take and move, et cetera, or the tents, is something that is inherent to our culture.

But nevertheless, most scholars, or all scholars, come with the Western perception of what it means to be nomads today. Like the Bedouins, the accepted notion was that before everybody settled down and moved to live in permanent houses, you cannot talk about a kingdom, you cannot talk about a king, you cannot talk about something significant happening in the region. And this is a big problem because when you go back to the text and you read about the kings of the Edomites, or even Saul and David, and you immediately try to look for their capital, for their stone-built palace, and you don’t find it, so the conclusion has to be that it’s not history, that it’s not true, that it was all invented many years later than the events that the story describes.

And I think here we have a big mistake as scholars, as people who try to understand the real history behind the texts. And our assumption that only a settled society can create a kingdom is false. It’s something that we have, it comes from our background as Western, part of Western society, is for the culture of the cities, about the urban society, about people being settled as a prerequisite for any cultural advancement.

So you gave me a lot of homework before our conversation, and there were a lot of very nice, huge words in some of the texts that you gave me. And one of them I just had to say out loud, it is “sedentarocentrism,” which is an amazingly long word, great for scrabble anyone who’s listening. What does that mean?

Sedentary society is the society that is settled down. And sedentarocentrism means that we always look at history from the perspective of the ones that settle down, meaning that we always have some bias against the “lowly nomads.” And this is really fundamental because when we think about a king in the Bible — we all read verses of the Bible every week and also now we are going to the synagogue and we read a lot of descriptions and we hear about kings, whether it’s the Israelite kings or the Midianite Kings, let’s say. In the Book of Judges, we hear about the Midianite Kings. Immediately, we think about a sedentary king, meaning that he sits in a city surrounded by walls and he has a palace made of stones. This is what we have in our imagination. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

If you go back to the text, you can see explicitly in certain places that some of these kings dwelled in tents. And this is very important because I’m an archaeologist. So we are trying to look for tangible remains that we can study and these tent-dwelling kings did not leave behind much for us to find. If we only have this image of a sedentary king and we don’t find it, we will have to assume that it didn’t exist. And it really affects our interpretation of the biblical texts.

An Afghan nomad, called Kuchi, leads his sheep on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on April 9, 2021. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

This was from the beginning of biblical scholarship, even before archaeology got into the picture. In 18th-century Europe, in Germany, think about these scholars trying to imagine the nomads of the Bible, the guys that sat in sukkot and stuff. So what they had in their possession was the description of the Bedouins in the Ottoman Empire that were, on the one hand, very exotic, a romantic place deep in the desert, remote from Europe, very exotic, very attractive. But on the other hand, they were the people to whom you needed to pay baksheesh in order to cross their land, and it was a very dangerous place, and people objected to the central rule of the Ottoman Empire.

So on the one hand, it is very exotic and attractive. On the other hand, it imposes a very specific interpretation of the political and social capabilities of these people that really went directly to the interpretation of the biblical texts, without even the possibility to think for a moment about other options, that nomads 3,000 years ago were completely different than the Bedouins of today. And that in this particular time in the history of the land, this was the time when they had the upper hand. And in this particular time — while still being tribal and nomadic — they achieved a lot of political power. And actually, they were the ones that ruled the city-states, the Canaanite city-states, and not the other way around.

This is perfectly in agreement with the biblical description. And in recent years we also have some archaeological proof for these powerful nomads in this particular period in the history of the region.

Okay, so we’re going to definitely talk about that. But what you’re saying essentially sounds to me like people have a very hard time, Western scholars have a very hard time divorcing the “noble savage” archetype from the Bedouin ideology, from the idea of a nomadic, Davidic kingdom. And yet the Bible doesn’t seem to have a problem with this idea. In fact, there are so many verses: “How great are your tents?” All sorts of things like that. “Mahanaim,” the two camps that we hear about, of course, describe the very thing that you’re talking about, a nomadic camp lifestyle. And of course, you don’t have many remains. There’s no plastic left over from the tents, this is about 3,000 years ago. Though you have found some very interesting remains in Timna, which is your primary place of excavation.

But I would like to just also add in some of the other things I learned through your essays, which is of course, that even back in Ancient Greece there was a historian who kind of had a premonition that this would be the case in future generations. That those who describe Sparta might not exactly describe it how it was. [This was] Thucydides, who described Sparta. But there are other examples from other places, such as, of course, Genghis Khan, the great Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler who rode on his horses and caused havoc. And yet there’s an archaeologist at Hebrew University, Prof. Gideon Shelach-Lavi, who does a lot of work on describing his fortresses that, here and there, were indeed built, though he had this nomadic lifestyle.

Yes. So in the history of the world, nomads were probably not always part of a kingdom or an empire. Maybe the Bedouin example is something that is relevant to understanding the nomads in a common way. But we have to remember that there were instances in the history of the world that we know that nomads created huge kingdoms, even empires, like the Mongol Empire, for example, or even the Nabatean Kingdom that started as a nomadic kingdom before they built their monuments in Petra. They had kings while still living in tents and being nomadic.

So we can say that in world history, we do have examples of these exceptional cases of nomads creating kingdoms. I believe that the Early Iron Age was exactly this kind of a period, not only because of the biblical description which tells us about nomads creating a kingdom, but also because this is a unique period in the history of the Land of Israel.

Illustration depicting the ‘wilderness consensus.’ (Courtesy: Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef)

We have more and more evidence that this was also because of dramatic climatic change, a much more dry climate. And this is also something that gives an advantage to mobile people. If the well is dry, you can move, in contrast to the settled people who, if the well is dried, are lost and they are much weaker. So I think if we look at the long history of the region, it is exactly the time when the nomads could have accumulated power in an unprecedented way, and we don’t have any examples of it before or after this specific period. And we have to think about them much differently than what we are used to.

Even the Bible itself bothers to tell us that one tribe, the Rechabites, the sons of the Rechabites, dwelt in tents all the way to the end of the period, to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. So people, some of the families, some of the tribes were still dwelling in tents all along the period that we are talking about, which in archaeology is the Iron Age. And my claim is that it was a very, very gradual process, in contrast to what scholars and other people have in mind that as soon as they got into the land of Canaan — you know, Joshua and the Judges — all the people settled down and got into homes, etc. Maybe it’s something that we think about as people living in cities — that as soon as a nomad can get into a stone structure, he will do it — but it’s not true. It’s a cultural transformation. It was a cultural transition that was very slow. We can see it even today with a lot of Bedouins that are not willing to live in permanent houses in our modern days.

Even though they may have a satellite dish on the roof of their tin hut.

Exactly. And even if they are forced to move into stone buildings, they always keep the tent outside. So it takes many generations for the entire population to settle down. So we think about the Tribes of Israel coming into Canaan and then settling down, and we have to accept that this was a long process. So definitely, during the time of David and Solomon, a lot of the people, maybe most of the people, still lived in tents, which we cannot see and we cannot study as archaeologists. And then we cannot really estimate the size of the population.

My colleagues sometimes say: “We have only such and such, let’s say, 4,000 people around the area of Judah, and this cannot hold a big, huge kingdom.” But how do archaeologists count 4,000 people? They count the visible structures. So only the permanent, only the settled population. But if this is only a fragment of a much bigger picture, it means that we were looking, as you say, under the streetlight: So you are focusing on what you can see, but you forget that there is so much behind that you can’t see of these people, other people that were still living in tents. If you understand that these were not necessarily these lowly nomads or the Bedouins, but people that can still be very powerful, this is a game changer.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past a Sukkah, a temporary hut constructed to be used during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot, the feast of the Tabernacles, in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Batei Ungarin near Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem on September 20, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

I think that some of these aspects are still part of our culture today, even if it’s in prayers and the holidays, like the sukkot, and other things that we have in the Jewish religion that come from this nomadic and kind of modest background.

How did I come to all of that? It’s not because one day I woke up and I thought differently about the nomads. We all come from this background of thinking about the Bedouins and have a very specific perception of these people. I happened to work in the copper mines in the south, in the Arava, in Jordan, for many years as part of the American expedition there, and then my own expedition in Timna, next to Eilat.

We all know Timna. If we visit Israel, it’s a beautiful park, and we see there thousands of ancient copper mines and also smelting sites, where copper was produced in furnaces. And we have a lot of archaeology. I excavate every year in the winter. And we find fantastic stuff. And this is all part of the waste of the industry, industrial waste of broken furnaces and slag and bellows and all of the things that they needed for the smelting process. This is amazing stuff that, before we came to Timna, it was accepted by everybody that it was only the Egyptian Empire that could have done all of this amazing project back then, 3,300 years ago.

Because it was so organized and so high-tech for the era.

Exactly, so organized. You have to make many people, hundreds of people, work for you, for the elite, in their mines. So this mechanism is what actually defines a state, an early state. If we think about what defines a kingdom, a king, it’s this ability to control people and make them work for an elite society, an elite class. This was accepted by everybody and when we first excavated there, we just sent many samples to be radiocarbon dated, and none of them came from the Egyptian period, not a single one. Most of them came from this debated period of the 11th, 10th, 9th century BCE — 3,000 years ago — the days of David and Solomon in Jerusalem. This was a major discovery based on radiocarbon because this was the difference between us and the previous expedition there.

Excavations of ancient copper mines as part of Tel Aviv University’s Central Timna Valley Project. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)

And then, we realized that what we excavate is actually only this industrial context and we don’t have their villages or their cities or anything like that. So the conclusion had to be that we have here an example of a nomadic society, a tribal nomadic society that got together, and created a coalition of tribes that controlled all of the Arava from the mines in Jordan in the north to the mines in Timna in the south, and also the Jordanian plateau and the Negev highlands. All of this vast area was controlled by a nomadic polity that was able to make people work for them, for the elite in the mines, and to produce vast amounts of copper. And it’s something that we would have never been able to reconstruct based on the Bedouin perception of nomads.

So that is when I understood that we really had a major problem in our understanding of this nomadic phase of the people in this period, including the ancient Israelites. The only difference was that I was lucky because just by chance, this society in the south engaged in copper production, which is very visible archaeologically.

Because of these piles of slag that you see until today, everywhere there.

Absolutely. And the mines, they scarred the landscape. There are thousands of mines that are very impressive. Some of them are more than 70 meters deep. It’s really amazing. And it’s not surprising that until our project and the American project in Jordan, everybody accepted that it’s only an empire that can be behind these mines. But now we really have more and more dates and we know that the Egyptian phase was very minor and the big production happened after the Egyptians left. After the collapse of the Egyptian Empire, what we talked about and the opportunity of the local people to create something significant in the region.

So in the south, it was around the copper mines. They produced copper at a much higher intensity than during this Egyptian phase. And it was all controlled by the local tribes that probably had a king heading this nomadic kingdom. So until our recent work, this was an oxymoron. This was something that could not be discussed in scholarship — a nomadic kingdom during the biblical period — nobody had even imagined this possibility.

Now I’m saying that in the south we have physical, direct evidence that a nomadic kingdom was there, headed by a king. We identified this with, of course, biblical Edom that was in this region. Of course, according to the Hebrew Bible, David conquered the Edomites and put garrisons all over the land. Now, not only that we know that people were in this region, we also have a good reason for why David went to this remote desert area and put garrisons there. Of course, he was interested in the lucrative industry and taxing this copper production. But this is the land of Edom. Even according to the Hebrew Bible. Solomon, David’s son, built a port in Eilat, Ezion-Gaber, Eilat, in the land of Edom. It says this explicitly.

Okay, so let’s talk about the structures that we actually do see and have been excavated. Let’s start with Jerusalem. There are, of course, in the City of David, several structures that are under contention for their dating, number one, and also what their purposes are. So there are many who would claim that part of these structures are actually related to the time of David and Solomon, and then there are others who, taking a different dating approach — and this is a huge argument in archaeology — would say, no, this is more like King Omri or Ahab of the Bible, if you want to put a date on it. But it kind of sounds like your theory is smoothing the way between both of them, that maybe you can say: “Okay, so maybe David’s kingdom was originally here, but maybe it transitioned into these structures by the time of Omri.” Am I reading you right?

Absolutely. My approach is different from these big debates about the dating of stone structures. David’s palace in Jerusalem is very contentious. If it’s early-10th, it’s David, but if it’s 9th century, it cannot be David. And of course, the arguments about the Solomon’s Gates in Megiddo, the structures in Megiddo — Hazor and Gezer — it’s like huge efforts were invested by archaeologists to date them precisely, but why?

The exposed section of the First Temple-era protective wall on Jerusalem’s eastern perimeter. (Koby Harati/City of David)

Until today, I would say.

My question to you is, why? Why do they invest so much? Why is it such an interesting question for them?

Okay, a couple of answers for you. Number one, fundraising, because anything that’s connected to the Bible will get more fundraising.


But number two, the Bible is our touchstone. So of course, you want to connect it to somebody who is, you know, a glorious — though quite complicated leader such as King David — you don’t want to go to Ahab or somebody like that. You want to have it connected to the ultimate king.

Right, this is part of it. And also, of course, for the archaeologists and biblical scholars, the main argument is about the historicity of the text. And the assumption is, by everybody, by scholars from Jerusalem and from Tel Aviv, by the minimalists and maximalists, everybody has the same assumption, which is that if you have big structures, if you have a stone palace, if you have a wall with a gate dating to the time of David, you really can say that there was a big kingdom. And if you don’t have this, you cannot say that there was any big kingdom there and the entire biblical story is completely myth or a huge exaggeration. If you accept even the existence of David and Solomon as historical figures, you would say that they were, you know, small mafia leaders in the hill country, that nobody heard about, et cetera.

This is the main reason why there was so much effort to date these structures precisely. Because of the implications of the dates, because of the consequences. If it’s dated to 1,000, we can say: “Okay, David was here, David was strong.” If it’s not, if it’s dated to the 9th century, it means that the 10th century is left without significant stone buildings and immediately it means that there was nothing in the biblical description of this magnificent kingdom that can be true.

Because a king needs a castle, obviously.

Now you understand where I’m coming from.

Exactly. I love one of the phrases that you have in one of your articles, which is the idea that archaeology is the “High Court,” the Supreme Court of proving history or not. And what you’re saying essentially is the absence of evidence doesn’t mean that this kingdom didn’t happen. What we’re seeing here is that maybe it’s just a different kind of kingdom than we’ve been conceiving of forever.

Absolutely. I think the kingdom that we’ve been conceiving of until now is a straw man. And this is what I think is the most interesting part of my profession actually — looking at the methodology, looking at how we construct history out of the stones, and understanding that there are many, many challenges, much more than usually we admit even that exist. And when we take the nomadic component into this, we understand not only that the challenges are great, but also that the role that archaeology took upon itself — being the High Court — is not something that it could have done, or it should have done because we just don’t have the tools to be the High Court. When you’re talking about this early phase of a nomadic kingdom being in this region.

Painting of David anointed king by Samuel, wearing royal purple, from the Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria, 3rd century CE. (Public domain)

Some of these recent publications of mine were done with Dr. Zachary Thomas, who is a young scholar. We have found together a lot of examples from world history and ethnography. And we also demonstrated that in world archaeology, the complexities of ancient societies are much more recognized than in Levantine archaeology. I would call it that way.

We suggest that the reason is because of the Bible, and because of the fear of many scholars to sound unscientific because if you give some room for interpretations that are not based on physical, tangible evidence, something that you can see, like a big stone palace, you can be blamed for being a fundamentalist and trying to “prove” the Bible in many different crazy ways. On the contrary, the way archaeology in the entire world moved forward is by understanding the complexities of ancient societies and the possibility of tribes, nomadic people to achieve state-level society.

This is something that, in the 1960s was also not an option in world archaeology, because there was kind of the evolutionary model — that tribes, bands and tribes, are in the “lowest tier,” and they cannot be compared to the state, which is the “upper tier” of social evolution. And this is still what we are doing here in Levantine archaeology today. While in world archaeology, it completely changed. Now it is considered obsolete, completely obsolete. Understanding that nomadic tribes in certain places, in certain conditions, could have achieved kingdoms, states, is something that is accepted and well-recognized in world archaeology.

I’m not saying it’s every day that these nomads achieved kingdoms, but this particular period in the history of the region is the period when we should expect these nomads to achieve states. And this is exactly what the Bible is telling us. So we cannot evaluate the biblical story with tools that are not appropriate for the story. We weren’t investing efforts in the correct place because it wouldn’t give us the answers that people think they should, or they would, because we’re talking about people with a nomadic background and these nomads were not Bedouins, like today.

But I would argue that even if you look at the contemporary history of our region — okay, take for instance, the Emirate Kingdoms, or Saudi Arabia or even Jordan — that you see examples of tribal kingdoms who, perhaps accelerated by vast amounts of money, became sedentary quite quickly in our modern era.

This rapid sedentarization is only a modern phenomenon. Of course, we live in a modern world. On the contrary, I think that even if what looks to us very fast, it’s not that fast. We talked about Bedouins who still have tents in their yards, and we have Bedouins today who are not willing to move to cities that were built for them. This is all over the place where we worked in Feynan in Jordan, there was this situation. The Jordanian government built stone houses and villages, and most of the population were not willing to move there easily.

So even though it looks rapid, actually it is rapid relative to historical periods, but it’s still not very fast. And in historical periods, it was much, much slower. We see it in historical descriptions from the Nabateans and others that this is something that takes many, many generations. Even the Amorites that you’ve mentioned, there were a few generations of kings dwelling in tents before they started to live in urban centers. And also when they started living in urban centers, it was only some of the population, not all of them, which is a very different way to look at history.

Tel Aviv University Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef at Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios, September 27, 2023. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

It’s like this dark matter because you don’t see these people that were tent-dwellers and you don’t really hear a lot about them because the history was written from the perspective of the urbanites, from the perspective of the city-dwellers. We almost don’t have accounts of the nomads themselves.

Actually, one of the good sources to maybe learn about them is the Hebrew Bible, because this history is possibly the only one that was written by the nomads themselves or the people that had a strong nomadic background. Of course, maybe the scribes who put everything in writing or edited the volumes were already with urban culture, but they still appreciated this early phase of being a nomad. And this is something that usually if nomads were really lowly and not very powerful, nobody would be proud of this background.

Of course, there is a lot of debate and rejection from the older generation of scholars. It’s very hard to change the way you do archaeology for so many years. I think the way we have been doing archaeology in that regard, of doing history out of the sherds and understanding this nomadic aspect, hasn’t changed since the early days of biblical archeology, since the days of William Foxwell Albright in the 1920s. The same ideas that he had about nomads, that they could not do anything, that they have to be on the margin of history, are still being held today.

I would like to bring us back to the holiday — our time is short now — to the holiday at hand and bring up something that you said earlier in our conversation, which is that, perhaps we came from a more modest tradition. And we’re going to for the next week, some of us at least, eat and sleep in these home, do-it-yourself built huts that are very modest, usually. I really love this idea of modesty for this holiday, which brings us back to our tent-dwelling history.

Absolutely. This is part of our culture. We came from a nomadic background. These nomadic tribes had their own culture. And then they created a coalition of tribes, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 13 Tribes of Israel. They ruled a vast area in the hill country and they established a kingdom while still, some of them still being nomadic. And for sure, for many generations forward, the nomadic culture was part of what they were and what we are still today.

This brings us to the archaeologists and the scholars today, biblical scholars and mostly archaeologists, that we also have to be much more modest. And I think this is the real lesson from all of this new information that we have from recent years because we don’t have answers.

I cannot tell you if David was really, as depicted in the Bible, ruling all the region from Lebanon to Egypt. I don’t have physical proof, but I think archaeology cannot provide this proof. And because of that, we as archaeologists have to be much more modest in our historical conclusions. And this is something I think we have to take forward and continue the discussion with other scholars, and with the public, because it’s very interesting to everybody, to learn about our past.

A hundred percent. Erez, thank you so much for joining me today.

My pleasure. Thank you very much, Amanda.

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