Genesis, Joseph, Archaeology, & Biblical Accuracy

Genesis, Joseph, Archaeology, & Biblical Accuracy June 8, 2021

+ A Brief Survey of Evidence for “The King’s Highway” in Jordan in the Bronze Age (Prior to 1000 BC)

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and activist, who runs the blog, Daylight Atheism. He has written articles for AlterNet, Salon, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Canadian FreethinkerFreethought TodayFree Inquiry, and Secular Future, the newsletter of the U.K.-based National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies.


In this article I will be responding to a portion of his post, “Let the Stones Speak: Part 1” (unknown date). He wrote:

Anachronisms in the Patriarchal Narratives

The Arabian Trade

During the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, a lucrative trade network flourished in Palestine, originating in the Arabian peninsula where goods such as gold, spices and incense were brought by caravan through the deserts of southern Judah to Syria, Egypt and Mediterranean ports. This trade was carried out mainly under Assyrian supervision and was of considerable economic importance to the empire, such that Assyrian kings went on numerous campaigns into the desert to subdue Arab tribes who threatened their control over the flow of commerce. Assyrian inscriptions mentioning these campaigns are known from the mid-eighth century onward, starting with the time of Tiglath-pileser III, who took the throne around 750 BCE.

The existence of this trade network was apparently known to the authors of the patriarchal accounts. Consider Genesis 37:25, in which Joseph’s brothers sell him to a group of caravaneers carrying the products of the Arabian trade, “spicery and balm and myrrh”, to Egypt. However, there is no evidence that this trade route, called the “king’s highway”, existed or was of importance in the second millennium BCE (Van Seters 1975, p. 25). As stated, the first known Assyrian campaigns to secure it began only in the mid-eighth century, and there is no justification for simply reading its existence back into a period a thousand years earlier.

I have no beef with the first paragraph. I’m sure trade flourished in these areas at that time. But the inaccuracies immediately come to the foreground in the second paragraph. First of all, I’ll be operating from the assumption that the approximate dates of the patriarch Joseph’s life were c. 1562-1452 BC), as is suggested by the Jewish Virtual Library. Here is the passage:

Genesis 37:25 (RSV) Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ish’maelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.

Genesis 37:28 Then Mid’ianite traders passed by; and they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ish’maelites for twenty shekels of silver; and they took Joseph to Egypt.

Genesis 37:36 Meanwhile the Mid’ianites had sold him in Egypt to Pot’i-phar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.

It was described as a caravan, and they were on their way to Egypt. The people are called “Ish’maelites” in 37:25 and 37:27, yet are also simultaneously called “Midianites” in two later verses in the overall passage. So we know they are people called by both these names, and were from (or at least were coming from) Gilead. This was in an area now in Jordan. Wikipedia (“Gilead”) elaborates:

Gilead was a mountainous region east of the Jordan River, situated in modern-day Jordan. . . . According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary,[5] it refers to a region in Transjordan. The deep ravine of the river Yarmuk . . . separated Bashan from Gilead, which was about 60 miles (97 km) in length and 20 miles (32 km) in breadth, extending from near the south end of the Lake of Gennesaret [the Sea of Galilee] to the north end of the Dead SeaAbarim, Pisgah, Nebo, and Peor are its mountains mentioned in Scripture. . . .

Gilead (Arabic: جلعاد‎, Ǧalʻād or Jalaad) is an Arabic term used to refer to the mountainous land extending north and south of Jabbok. It was used more generally for the entire region east of the Jordan River. It corresponds today to the northwestern part of the Kingdom of Jordan.

Encyclopedia Britannica (“Midianite”) states:

. . . member of a group of nomadic tribes related to the Israelites and most likely living east of the Gulf of Aqaba in the northwestern regions of the Arabian Desert. They engaged in pastoral pursuits, caravan trading, and banditry, . . .

The Midianites traditionally have been identified as Ishmaelites, in part because of an unclear passage in Genesis (37:28) that refers to the traders to whom Joseph was sold by his brothers as both Midianites and Ishmaelites. In addition, the story of Gideon in Judges contains a verse (8:24) that includes an apparent interpolation identifying the Midianites as Ishmaelites.

So they may have lived somewhere in the Arabian peninsula, or this particular group may have lived in the northern regions of what was later called the Qedarite Kingdom of Ishmaelites (see a map of its extent in the 5th century BC). If that were the case, then they would have lived in Gilead, as the Bible seems to imply in Genesis 37:25. Lee says they were “carrying the products of the Arabian trade” based on what was listed (RSV: “gum, balm, and myrrh” / KJV: “spicery and balm and myrrh”). Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers observes about this description: “The first was probably gum tragacanth [see more on that], though some think that it was storax [see more info.], the gum of the styrax tree (see Genesis 30:37).” This commentary continues:

“Balm,” that·is, balsam, was probably the resin of the balsamodendron Gileadensea tree which grows abundantly in Gilead, and of which the gum was greatly in use for healing wounds. “Myrrh” was certainly ladanumthe gum of the cistus rose (cistus creticus)As all these were products of Palestine valued in Egypt, Jacob included them in his present to the governor there (Genesis 43:11).

Note especially that “all these were products of Palestine valued in Egypt”: as opposed to “products of the Arabian trade.” Easton’s Bible Dictionary notes regarding this “gum” or “spicery”: “Heb. nechoth, identified with the Arabic naka’at, the gum tragacanth, obtained from the astralagus, of which there are about twenty species found in Palestine.” That is: not Arabia. Encyclopedia Britannica (“Gilead”) notes that Gilead was the “area of ancient Palestine east of the Jordan River, corresponding to modern northwestern Jordan.”

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on this verse, adds:

balm] R.V. marg. mastic, for which Gilead was famous; cf. Genesis 43:11Jeremiah 8:22Jeremiah 46:11Jeremiah 51:8Ezekiel 27:17. It was used for incense, and medicinally for wounds. It is said to be the gum of the mastic tree, pistacia lentiscus.

myrrh] R.V. marg. ladanum, a gum obtained from the cistus creticus, or rock-rose. Myrrh, lôt = LXX στακτή (cf. Genesis 43:11), appears is ladunu in Assyrian inscriptions describing tribute from Syria to Tiglath-Pileser IV. The caravan trade with Egypt was evidently largely occupied with materials for the practice of physicians, embalmers, and priests.

Thus, we see that the “gum” (tragacanth) and “the balm of Gilead” were specifically from ancient Palestine, including Gilead (modern-day Jordan): precisely as the Bible accurately states. Shimshon Ben-Yehoshua and Lumir Hanus, in their wonderful article, “Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea” (Horticultural Reviews 39(1):1-76; September 2012) noted that “Balm of Gilead, known also as the Judaean balsam, grew only around the Dead Sea Basin in antiquity” (p. 2). In the case of myrrh, however, it seems not to have been an indigenous Palestinian / Judean product. The same article observed:

Frankincense and myrrh were available in the biblical period only in limited parts of southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Due to the high demand for these spices, trade routes were developed to carry this precious burden over long distances through many countries to their foreign markets (Keay 2006). . . . (p. 3)

The ancient Egyptians used spices for their religious ceremonies that they purchased from the Land of Punt, long thought to be in the Horn of Africa (Kitchen 1993). At the beginning of the third millennia BCEpharaohs went to great lengths to obtain spices, particularly myrrh, from other climes, since they were not grown locally. References to the importation of myrrh to Egypt from Punt, appear as early as the fifth dynasty ca. 2800 BCE under King Sahure and King Isesi; later there were expeditions under Mentuhotep III in 2100 BCE and under Amenenhat II and the Sesostris dynasty. Since the price of these spices was exorbitant, the Queen Pharaoh Hatshepsut organized an expedition to Punt about 1500 BCE to investigate the option of importing the spice plants into Egypt. The famous depictions (Fig. 1.1) of the expedition of Queen Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BCE) are recorded on the walls of the temple at Deir-el-Bahri (Lucas 1930; Phillips 1997). Five ships loaded with many treasures are depicted in the Temple in Thebes. One ship has 31 young trees that some scholars believed to be frankincense in tubs (Hepper 1969; Zohary 1982; Dayagi Mendels 1989). However, Groom (1981) believed them to be myrrh, as, according to his opinion, depictions of trees at that period were mainly schematic, presenting an image rather than a specific plant, and he referred also to the opinion of most previous experts that these trees were myrrh. (pp. 5-6; my bolding)

D. The Incense Road

The connection between the source of ancient spices, mainly the Arabian Peninsula and India to Mesopotamia and Europe, is known as the Incense Road (Fig. 1.2). Archaeologists placed the date of the beginning of the incense trade sometime around 1800 BCE, but it is more than likely that trade commenced earlier (Rosengarten 1970). Much evidence has been collected about the trade of myrrh from Punt to Egypt in the third millennia BCE (Kitchen 1993). (p. 10)


Dayagi-Mendels, M. 1989. Perfumes and cosmetics in the ancient world. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Groom, N. 1981. Frankincense and myrrh: A study of the Arabian incense trade. Longman, London and New York.

Hepper, F.N. 1969. Arabian and African frankincense trees. J. Egyptian Archaeology 55:66–72.

Keay, J. 2006. The Spice Route—a History. Univ. California Press, Berkeley.

Kitchen, K.A. 1993. The land of Punt. In: T. Shaw et al (eds.). The archeology of Africa: Food, Metals, Towns. Routledge, London.

Lucas, A. 1930. Cosmetics, perfumes and incense in ancient Egypt. J. Egyptian Archeology 16(1/2):41–53.

Phillips, J. 1997. Punt and Askum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa. J. African History 38(3):423–457. 

Rosengarten, F. Jr. 1970. The book of spices. Livingston, Wynnewood, PA.

Zohary, M. 1982. Plants of the Bible. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.

Clearly, then, trade rotes for at least myrrh (and likely also Balm of Gilead and tragacanth) and were long established by the time of Joseph, whereas Lee argues that the text exhibits anachronism. Massive evidence presented above contradicts him. But there is more. He assumed about Genesis 37:25, that the “trade route, called the ‘king’s highway'” was being referred to. But the text doesn’t say that (although the road is mentioned in Numbers 20:17 and 21:22). The King’s Highway ran through Gilead, as this map showing trade routes in 1300 BC (only about 150 years after Joseph’s died) shows. Lee argued that it didn’t exist before 1000 BC. I shall get to that question shortly.

But The King’s Highway is not directly relevant to Genesis 37:25, because it was too far east. Genesis 37:17 informs us that the incident where Joseph was traded into slavery occurred at Dothan. It was located in the present West Bank, at what is now the archaeological site Tel Dothan, which is roughly in the middle on a line between the sea of Galilee and Tel Aviv (see the exact location; I recommend using Google Map).  Dothan was located on a different trade route, later called the Via Maris. The Wikipedia article on it states that it dated “from the early Bronze Age“: which age in Mesopotamia lasted from c. 3300–1200 BC. The “early” period of that was clearly long before Joseph. Two Bible commentaries (writing about Genesis 37:25) expand our knowledge of this ancient route:

Dothan lay on the trade route that led from Gilead through the valley of Jezreel towards Egypt. . . . The trade route followed by caravans passed (1) from Gilead on the east of the Jordan, (2) by a ford, across the Jordan, (3) by Beth-Shean or Beisan, down the plain of Jezreel, and so (4) by Lydda and the coast, to Egypt. (Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges).
Dothan was situated on the great caravan line by which the products of India and Western Asia were brought to Egypt. As the eastern side of Canaan is covered by the great Arabian desert, the caravans had to travel in a north-westernly direction until, having forded the Euphrates, they could strike across from Tadmor to Gilead. The route thence led them over the Jordan at Beisan, and so southward to Egypt. (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers)
Once again, the Bible is accurate in remarkable detail. And of course, archaeology confirms that Dothan was already quite ancient by the time Joseph ran into a caravan following the route through it. “Tel Dothan 2002 Overview” informs us:
Major finds include a massive Early Bronze age fortification system, a Middle Bronze age city with citadel and fortifications, and an Iron Age II storage complex. . . .
Tel Dothan is strategically located. Internationally, it dominates the southern pass of the coastal highway, the critical route for armies and caravans traveling from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Locally, Tel Dothan connected the heartland of ancient Samaria to the Jezreel Valley.
I mentioned that Lee claimed that the King’s Highway didn’t exist between 1000-2000 BC. In fact, it was already flourishing long before 2000 BC. The site Time Maps (“History of Ancient Palestine”) observed:

By the 3rd millennium BCE, the southern Levant was a land of small, fortified towns and villages, ruled over by petty kings and chiefs. . . . 

A major trade route connecting Mesopotamia with Egypt (later known as the King’s Highway) ran south from Damascus through the Jordan valley. Urbanism, along with Bronze Age technology, had presumably arrived in this region via trade links with Mesopotamia. In any event, urban civilization began to flourish here not long after it had begun in Egypt.

Shimshon Ben-Yehoshua and Lumir Hanus (see above) stated that the ancient Incense Road route was functioning by 1800 BC or even much earlier, and part of that route went through Petra up to Damascus: what was later called “The King’s Highway.” Corroborating evidence includes flourishing cities along the route in the Bronze Age. For example, John Strange asserts in his chapter, “Jordan between Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Bronze and Iron Ages”, in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan VIII. Amman: Department of Antiquities, Jordan, 2004. s. 427-432:
From Damascus there must have been a gateway rather early, finds at Tall-al Fukhar from the very beginning of the Middle Bronze Age point to this . . .” (p. 427). Tall-al Fukhar, the site of an ancient city on the border between Jordan and Syria. Its Wikipedia article states:

Tell el-Fukhar  was settled during the Early Bronze Age II and III. Tell el-Fukhar is a multi-period site with archaeological evidence showing occupation during the Early Bronze AgeLate Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, . . .Archaeological remains found at el-Fukhar include a Late Bronze Age II cooking pot which, analysis shows, came from the Region of Gaza. This is evidence of extensive trade networks between Tell el-Fukhar and other regional trade centers . . . Numerous houses have been investigated, as well as the discovery of a monumental public building built between 1450BC and 1300BC, . . .

Not far directly south lies Irbid, the third-largest city in Jordan:
Artifacts and graves in the area show that Irbid was inhabited in the Bronze Age. Pieces of pottery and wall stones found at Tell Irbid were estimated to be made in the year 3200 B.C. (Wikipedia, “Irbid”)
Ancient Pella, 17 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, east of the Jordan River, also began earlier than the Bronze Age. Wikipedia informs us that archaeologists have found:

a city wall and other structures dating back to 3400 BCE and some even to 3600 BCE, indicating that the city standing at the top of Pella’s Tell Husn at the time was a “formidable” city-state around 3400-3200 BCE, . . . The official University of Sydney excavation page only mentions Early Bronze Age stone defensive platforms from ca. 3200 BCE. The Middle Bronze Age city of ca. 1800 BCE boasted massive mud-brick city walls.

John Strange described Pella as “in the Middle Bronze Age an important centre in a network of trade routes” (p. 428).
Further south, down the King’s Highway, near the Dead Sea, is Khirbet al-Mukhayyat: probably ancient Nebo, and close to Mt. Nebo, where Moses looked out over the Promised Land. Sure enough:
Since 2014, Mukhayyat has been excavated by an international team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Debra Foran of WiIfrid Laurier University (Canada). These excavations are ongoing and indicate a long history of occupation, from the Early Bronze Age to the Ottoman Period.
And of course, the ancient precursor of Amman, the capital of Jordan, is also of very ancient pedigree:
The L-shaped citadel hill, inhabited at least since the Early Bronze Age, was fortified at various times thereafter, including massive walls of the Middle Bronze Age. (“Amman Citadel”, Jordan Group Tours)
The famous and beautiful Petra, also on the ancient trade route, goes back to the Bronze Age as well, which apparently surprised some people when the Journal of Archaeological Science (vol. 42, February 2014, pages 260-272), published “A geophysical investigation of a newly discovered Early Bronze Age site near Petra, Jordan” by Thomas M. Urban et al. It reported:
The hinterland of the famed Nabataean city of Petra in southwestern Jordan has yielded archaeological remains ranging from the Paleolithic to the Medieval Period, with a time-span of approximately one-million years of human and hominin activity represented in the archaeological record of the region. Bronze Age sites, however, have been grossly underrepresented for reasons that are not presently well understood, even to the extent that some past researchers have assumed that the region was sparsely occupied during this period. Our team has conducted a preliminary investigation at a previously undocumented Early Bronze Age site, located on an isolated hilltop in the northern hinterland of Petra.
Thus we find, yet again, that the Bible as far back as the book of Genesis, was accurate in all details, as relentlessly confirmed by secular archaeology and historiography. The book of Numbers makes reference to the King’s Highway in the time of Moses (c. 1370-c. 1250 BC). Adam Lee and other anti-theist atheists constantly claim that they respect science, whereas Christians en masse (even educated ones, informed about their faith) supposedly disdain it. Great! Then I eagerly look forward to their responses to the abundance of scientific findings presented above. But I sure won’t hold my breath waiting . . .
Photo credit: Dothan, where Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery [public domain / Wikipedia]

Summary: Various aspects of the story of Joseph & the Ishmaelite caravan are remarkably confirmed by archaeology; also a survey of the (biblically accurate) history of the “King’s Highway”.



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