When looking at the interface between biblical text and archaeology, we need to determine to what degree broken walls, fragments and stones can tell the whole story. In the biblical account, nomadic tribes somehow created a kingdom. How, and when did that transition occur? I wrote last week about the transition from tents to buildings in the transition of not only people, but also God, from wandering to settlement. Nomads do not leave archaeological remains and so studying them today can be a challenge. A few years ago, I wrote about the revised dating in Timna relating to this topic. This basic tenet of biblical archaeology – nomads cannot create complex social structures and kingdoms – can no longer be taken as inevitable.
But what about the people themselves? What happened when the Children of Israel moved into the land of the hill country? Did they all immediately give up the nomadic lifestyle and settle down? Looking at the text, it seems that this was not immediate, but rather a gradual process. During the reign of King Solomon’s son, Rechavam, the northern tribes (which would become known as “Israel”) make a demonstration against the new king. At the conclusion of their meeting with him, when their complaints were not addressed, the biblical text describes:
When all Israel saw that the king had not listened to them, the people answered the king:
“We have no part in David
And no inheritance in the Jesse’s son!
To your tents, Israel!”
And the people of Israel went to their tents.
I Kings 12:16
Does the Bible here actually mean “tents”? Or is this just poetic language for “homes”? Science and archaeology do not know how to deal with un-measurable ideas. How do you measure how many people lived somewhere if there is no physical evidence for their existence? Could it be that people at this time, the end of the 9th century BCE, are still living in tents?
During the early monarchy, we do have cities and structures that can be studied by archaeology. Researcher Joseph Livni, a researcher specializing in demography of early societies, found that according to archaeology, the population of the hill country in the 10th century BCE – the time period of David and Solomon – was about 5,000 people. Structures and archaeological evidence from 200 years later in the 8th century BCE indicate a population of 40,000! This is way too large of a growth to be accountable by birthrate. What could cause the increase? One candidate is mass immigration. The movement of a large number of people into the area from the outside would necessitate the building of more structures and larger cities. The only problem is that there is no textual historical basis for such a large scale movement of people.
A second option is that the people who were living in tents alongside settlements and cities in the 10th century, began living in permanent dwellings by the 8th century BCE. Possibly, tent dwelling Israelites, who had wandered the desert for 40 years, were not so quick to give up all of their nomadic ways and continued to live in tents when they settled the Land of Israel. These “suburbs” would be archaeologically invisible and could account for additional uncounted population. As these people moved into cities and towns gradually, they would become apparent in the archaeological record from the homes and other structures they built. These structures could then be studied and included in projections of population. This trend from tent to house could account for the seemingly fantastic population boom noted in the 8th century BCE.
Both the view that David and Solomon controlled a powerful kingdom (maximalist view) and the paucity of archaeological remains from this time period (minimalist view) can be explained once we disavow the theory that 100% of the Children of Israel made an immediate transformation from a nomadic to a settled life. And really, nothing in history is 100%.