Moses, Kadesh, Negev, Bronze Age, & Archaeology

Moses, Kadesh, Negev, Bronze Age, & Archaeology June 10, 2021

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.

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In this article I will be responding to a portion of his post, “Let the Stones Speak: Part 2” (unknown date). He wrote:

Site Focus: Kadesh-barnea

The final nail in the coffin comes when we examine one of the most important sites mentioned in the biblical narrative in relation to the Exodus: the oasis of Kadesh-barnea in the eastern Sinai. According to the Bible, Miriam, Moses’ sister, died and was buried there (Numbers 20:1). It was at Kadesh-barnea that Moses disobeyed a divine command, creating a spring by striking a rock with his staff rather than speaking to it as God commanded, and as a result was condemned to die in the desert without ever entering the promised land (Numbers 20:11-13). It was from Kadesh-barnea that Moses dispatched scouts to survey the land they were about to enter and determine the strength of their enemies (Numbers 13:26; Deuteronomy 1:19; Joshua 14:7), as well as messengers to ask the kings of Edom and Moab for permission to pass through their land (Judges 11:16-17). Of all the sites mentioned in the narrative of the Israelites’ wandering, Kadesh-barnea is the one where they stayed the longest. Deuteronomy 1:46 declares that they abode there “many days”, and verse 2:14 clarifies this, explaining that the Israelites spent thirty-eight of their forty years in the desert in the vicinity of Kadesh-barnea, between that site and the brook of Zered.

Kadesh-barnea is today almost unanimously identified with the oasis of Ain el-Qudeirat in the eastern Sinai, on the western margin of the Negev foothills about 50 miles southwest of Beersheba (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 268). . . .

Ain el-Qudeirat is visually impressive; the spring flows downhill between two mountain ranges, broadening out as it goes to irrigate a fertile, green valley that stands in sharp contrast to the desolate desert surrounding it. . . .

Most importantly, however, no evidence of occupation exists at Kadesh-barnea for the time of the Exodus. Not even a sherd from the Bronze Age has been found (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 63), despite thorough excavation of the site and surveys of the surrounding area. . . .

Again, as with the Sinai in general, evidence of even small-scale, transient occupation is readily forthcoming for both earlier and later periods, but at the time of the Exodus, none. It would be purely special pleading to argue that the Late Bronze Age [1550-1200 BC], out of all the periods in ancient Near East history, was the only one in which people just happened to occupy Kadesh-barnea but left no noticeable remains.

I accept the life and death dates of Moses to be c. 1370-c. 1250 BC, with the Exodus occurring around 1290 BC, according to the data in the article, “Moses” in Encyclopedia Britannica.

All agree that there isn’t much to be found from the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC) in this area, but there is some evidence. On the Israel Antiquities Authority web page one can find the article, “‘Ain el-Qudeirat and the Negev Highlands: 2nd Millennium B.C.E.”, by Hendrick Bruins, professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He writes:

The remains of various aqueducts were found in the ‘Ain el-Qudeirat Valley in northeastern Sinai. Minute particles of ash in the lime-based mortar facilitated the C14 dating of three ancient aqueducts. One of them dates between the years 1673-1454 BCE (MBII or LB). . . .

In the geoarchaeological excavations in the Negev Highlands [adjacent to biblical Kadesh or ‘Ain el-Qudeirat] at Horbat Halukim, a thick layer of anthropogenic soil was discovered in Nahal Midurog. This soil is characterized by a composition of minute particles of ash that are homogenously mixed with the regular mineral particles in addition to the small bone particles of sheep and goats. These are the remains of the soil improvement by man . . . Very interesting C14 dating results were derived from along the stratigraphic section of the anthropogenic soil: . . . A date of 1530-1450 BCE (MBII or LB) came from the middle of the section . . .

This is two pieces of archaeological evidence of human occupation at Kadesh or near it, from the Bronze Age, varying from 303 to 80 years before the approximate date of Moses’ birth. Additionally, writing about Kadesh / Tell el-Qudeirat, Lily Singer-Avitz, archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, states about some of the interesting artifacts:

The Qurayyah Painted Ware was in use during the latter part of the Late Bronze and the Iron I periods, from the 12th to the 11th centuries B.C.E., about the time of the Exodus from Egypt according to those who attribute some historicity to this central Biblical event. (“Wilderness Wanderings: Where is Kadesh?”, Bible History Daily / Biblical Archaeology Society, 5-30-21)

She wrote specifically about this “Qurayyah Painted Ware” in a section of the book, The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994). D. Ussishkin, editor. Tel Aviv, 2004:

Qurayyah Ware is conventionally dated to the period between the 13th (or late 14th) and the mid-12th century BCE (Rothenberg and Glass 1983:100-101; Rothenberg 1998:201). . . . 
The painted pottery, found in the north-western part of the Arabian peninsula (Hejaz) and the southern  part of Wadi Arabah, was first identified and defined as Midianite ware some thirty years ago (Parr et al. 1970; Rothenberg 1970). Over the years similar vessels have been found at other sites, both in the northern Hejaz and in the Land of Israel (Parr 1988; Rothenberg and Glass 1983). (p. 1280)
Juan Manuel Tebes, Near Eastern historian at the Catholic University of Argentina, wrote about these findings and related ones in his article, “Revolution in the Desert: A Reassessment of the Late Bronze/Early Iron Ages in Northwestern Arabia and the Southern Levant” (Rihao 21 [2020]: 99-125):
There is also evidence of human activity during the LBA in the valley of ‘Ain el-Qudeirat in the north-eastern Sinai, some pointing to runoff farming (see below) and other to sedentary occupation. Singer-Avitz (2008) has suggested the presence of a twelfth-century BCE occupation layer below the IA fortress of Tell el-Qudeirat, evidenced by the presence of QPW, New Kingdom-type seals, and by at least one radiocarbon date (Bruins and van der Plicht, 2007: 488; although this 14C date has been contested by Gilboa et al., 2009: 91). . . .
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To judge from the apparent lack of permanent LBA settlements in the central Negev highlands, nomadic pastoralism was likely the preponderant economic activity in this region. However, the presence of runoff agriculture in the central and western Negev during the second millennium BCE is attested by radiocarbon dates retrieved from presumably ancient farming fields at Horvat Haluqim and the ‘Ain el-Qudeirat Valley (Bruins and van der Plicht, 2007; 2017) (pp. 107, 109)
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SOURCES
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Bruins, H. J. and van der Plicht, J. (2007). Radiocarbon Dating and the “Wilderness of Zin”, in: Radiocarbon 49/2: 481-497.
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Bruins, H. J. and van der Plicht, J. (2017). Dating of Iron Age Agriculture in the Negev Highlands: A Response to Shahack-Gross and Finkelstein, in: Radiocarbon 59/4: 1233-1239
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Gilboa, A., Jull, T. A. J., Sharon, I. and Boaretto, E. (2009). Notes on Iron IIA 14C Dates from Tell el-Qudeirat (Kadesh Barnea), in: Tel Aviv 36: 82-94.
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Singer-Avitz, L. (2008). The Earliest Settlement at Kadesh-Barnea, in: Tel Aviv 35: 73-81
In the first article in the “Sources” above, Bruins and van der Plicht state:
Abstract: . . . Concerning the vexed question of Kadesh-Barnea, . . . our research reveals that archaeological remains of the 2nd millennium BCE do exist in the region, as determined chronologically by radiocarbon dating. (p. 481)
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The valley of Ain el Qudeirat contains remnants of various aqueduct systems (Porath 1989). The aqueducts were lined with stones and lime mortar. Small pieces of charcoal usually appear throughout the mortar, which facilitated 14C dating of the aqueducts. Remnants of a large dam in the valley of Ain el Qudeirat, which once blocked the valley, had an aqueduct system beginning on its top. . . . A third aqueduct remnant about 400 m downstream from the actual spring of Ain el Qudeirat, also lined with stones and lime mortar containing fine charcoal pieces, gave a 14C date in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE (GrN12327, 3270 ± 100 BP). The amount of charcoal was not sufficient for a more precise date with the GPC system; the AMS system was not yet available during the time of measurement in the 1980s (van der Plicht et al. 2000). The calibrated age with the highest relative probability is 1641–1438 BCE (64.9%), which could fit either the Middle Bronze Age II or the Late Bronze Age, in material cultural terms. (p. 489)
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Discussion and Conclusions
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Modern archaeological excavations and surveys in the northeastern Sinai and central Negev deserts did not identify any remains belonging to the 2nd millennium BCE. . . .
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However, 14C dating of organic material retrieved during excavations carried out at key sites in the “Wilderness of Zin” and geoarchaeological investigations did yield data belonging to the 2nd millennium BCE. Many past activities of human beings, such as walking, traveling, herding, farming, and living in tents do not necessarily leave comprehensible traces behind in terms of material culture. However, a 14C date in an anthropogenic deposit or agricultural soil is as hard a piece of evidence as a diagnostic pottery sherd—perhaps even harder, as the age of a Negbite sherd is hard to decipher. . . .
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In contrast with most archaeological assessments thus far, our investigations based on 14C dating show that the “Wilderness of Zin” region of northeastern Sinai and the central Negev is not devoid of archaeological remains from the 2nd millennium BCE. A significant part of this region constitutes an ecological niche due to comparatively higher elevation, good soils in wadis with a landscape geomorphology naturally suited for rainwater harvesting (runoff) agriculture, as well as some springs. It would seem irrational that people did not enter and use these regions for such a long period of 1 kyr, from ~2000 to 1000 BCE. (pp. 492-494)
More evidence from the same time period comes from the research article, “Desert kites in the Negev desert and northeast Sinai: Their function, chronology and ecology”, by A. Holzer, et al., Journal of Arid Environments (2010). The Abstract explains:
Desert kites are stone-built, funnel-shaped installations comprising two long and low stone-built walls (‘arms’) converging on an enclosure or pit at the apex. They are found in the deserts of the Near East, and are generally accepted as representing game traps to catch herds of wild ungulates.
Four of these kites, from Har Shahmon (Mt. Shahmon), which is just to the north of the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea), and on the southern tip of Israel in the Negev,  yielded carbon-14 dates (documented in  chart on page 5) as follows: 1) 1550-1890 BC, 2) 1443-1636 BC, 3) 1411-1615 BC, and 4) 1303-1366. All of these dates are prior to the date of the Exodus, according to Encyclopedia Britannica (1290 BC). The modern city of Eilat is near it, and the related biblical city was Elath, mentioned in Deuteronomy 2:8 in conjunction with Moses, and the wandering Jews on the way to Canaan. The Wikipedia article states:
In antiquity Elath bordered the states of EdomMidian and the tribal territory of the Rephidim, the indigenous inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. Elath is first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Exodus. The first six stations of the Exodus are in Egypt. The 7th is the crossing of the Red Sea and the 9th–13th are in and around Elath after the exodus from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. Station 12 refers to a dozen campsites in and around Timna in Modern Israel near Eilat.
Yes, there were folks around in the general area of the route of the Exodus north to Canaan. The Bible has been shown to be historically and geographically accurate again, for the 14,289th time. People like Adam Lee and the more skeptical of archaeologists hoped and prayed (oops, wished) that this wasn’t the case, so the Bible could be mocked and ridiculed once again, but archaeological science moves forward, ever discovering and verifying (as the case may be), oblivious to whether some people are biased and hostile in particular to the biblical accounts or not. It is what it is, and Christians need not fear it in the slightest. Overwhelmingly, it backs up what we believe.
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Photo credit: Moses striking the rock (1630), by Pieter de Grebber (1600-1652) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Summary: Once again, anti-theist Adam Lee attacks the historical accuracy of the Bible: this time claiming that there is no Bronze Age evidence at all for Kadesh & other areas in the Negev Desert.
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