The golden calf
After crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites made their way to Mount Sinai. The account of Israel’s appropriation of a golden calf to worship was long questioned by secular scholars. They noted that bull-worship was common in both Egypt and Canaan, but not calf-worship. However, in 1991 a statue of a silver calf was found in an excavation of ancient Ashkelon on Israel’s coast. Authorities dated this calf to more than 100 years before the Exodus.
When Aaron shouted to the people, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4 Exodus 32:4And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a engraving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
American King James Version×), he knew well how popular calf-worship was. Four centuries later, almost the same words were uttered by King Jeroboam when he made two golden calves and told the people, “Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28). In Biblical Archaeology Review , an extensive article on the discovery of the silver calf notes: “The Golden Calf worshipped at the foot of Mt. Sinai by impatient Israelites (Exodus 32) may have resembled this statuette” (March-April 1991, p. 1).
The eating of quails
During their wilderness years the Israelites complained to God that they had only manna to eat: “Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!’ ” (Numbers 11:4-6 Numbers 11:4-6 4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic:
6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
American King James Version×).
This list represents one of the 10 major murmurings of the Israelites against God and Moses (Numbers 14:22 Numbers 14:22Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not listened to my voice;
American King James Version×). God decided to give the people what they asked for: “Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?’ ” (Numbers 11:18-20 Numbers 11:18-20 18 And say you to the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and you shall eat flesh: for you have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; 20 But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome to you: because that you have despised the LORD which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?
American King James Version×).
The next day quail descended on the Israelite camp to a depth of 12 inches. These fowl were common in biblical times and remain so in the Middle East. They are migratory birds that fly at the end of the European summer to the Sinai peninsula, where they remain for six months.
“The old world quail . . . a small, mottled brown game bird about 18 cm. (7 in.) long, is the only member of the [pheasant] subfamily . . . that is migratory. The routes of migration run from southern Europe, along the eastern Mediterranean coast, through the Sinai Peninsula, to Arabia or West Africa. The quails travel southward in the late summer and northward in early spring (the time of the Israelite exodus from Egypt) . . . As recently as the early decades of the 20th cent[ury], migrating quails were killed by Egyptians at the rate of two million annually; in 1920 a kill of three million was recorded” ( The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia , Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1988, Vol. 4, pp. 4-5).
The miracle of God was to bring these quails to the Israelite camp and deposit them in huge numbers in that precise location.
When the Israelites began their final journey to the Promised Land, they passed through the land of the Ammonites close to Moabite territory. They needed passage through this area to enter Canaan by way of Jericho. But King Balak of the Moabites refused to let the Israelites enter peacefully. He resorted to a known pagan prophet of the times, Balaam, to prevent them from entering his land.
“Then he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River [Euphrates] in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: ‘Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me’ ” (Numbers 22:5 Numbers 22:5He sent messengers therefore to Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:
American King James Version×).
Apparently, Balaam’s renown was such that a Moabite king would pay a considerable sum for his services. In 1967 archaeologists digging up the remains of Deir Alla, an ancient Ammonite city on the east bank of the Jordan, found an inscription that mentioned Balaam, the son of Beor. The 16 lines of an incomplete inscription on a wall turned out to be part of one of Balaam’s prophecies, in language similar to that is recorded in Numbers.
The Bible describes God’s censure of Balaam. One night God forbade him to curse the Israelites. Disappointed, he told Moabite messengers he could not help them. “So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, ‘Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you’ ” (verse 13).
Later God forced Balaam to prophesy of Israel’s blessings and victories. “Then he took up his oracle and said: ‘The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor . . . who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, with eyes wide open: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! . . . God brings him out of Egypt; he has strength like a wild ox; he shall consume the nations, his enemies; he shall break their bones and pierce them with arrows’ ” (Numbers 24:3-8 Numbers 24:3-8 3 And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor has said, and the man whose eyes are open has said:
4 He has said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:
5 How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!
6 As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD has planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.
7 He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
8 God brought him forth out of Egypt; he has as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.
American King James Version×).
Shortly after these events Balaam, greedy for money (2 Peter 2:15), helped the Moabites induce Israel to sin. Not surprisingly, he perished after the defeat of the Moabites and Midianites (Numbers 31:8 Numbers 31:8And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
American King James Version×).
The restored text discovered in Deir Alla reads: “Inscription of Balaam, son of Beor, the man who was a seer of the gods. Lo, the gods came to him at night and spoke to him. According to these words, and they said to Balaam, son of Beor thus: ‘There has appeared the last flame, a fire of chastisement has appeared!’ And Balaam arose the next day and he could not eat and he wept intensely. And his people came to him and said to Balaam, son of Beor: ‘Why do you fast and why do you weep?’ And he said to them: ‘Sit down! I shall show you how great is the calamity! And come, see the deeds of the gods! . . .’ ”
These words are strikingly similar in detail to the biblical account. Apparently the memory of what happened to this seer remained in the memory of the Ammonites and was recorded in their version.
Archaeologist Andre Lemaire, who pieced together the incomplete script, wrote: “. . . The inscription from Deir Alla, dated to about the middle of the eighth century B.C. and written on the wall of what may have been some kind of religious teaching center, is very likely the earliest extant example of a prophetic text. The principal personage in the Deir Alla text is the seer Balaam, son of Beor, well known to us from the stories in Numbers” ( Biblical Archaeology Review , September-October 1985, p. 39).
Here we have another biblical figure who cannot be related to myth.
The route from Egypt
Another source of scholarly controversy concerns the route the Israelites took to enter the Promised Land. “The Bible is very specific in its list of places along the final stage of the Exodus route taken by the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land. Yet it is this very specificity that has made it vulnerable to criticism from some scholars. Many of the places in question, they say, did not exist when the Exodus is said to have occurred” ( Biblical Archaeology Review , September-October 1994, p. 5).
Yet three lists showing the very route the Israelites took to enter Canaan have been found in Egyptian monuments.
Numbers 33:45-49 Numbers 33:45-49 45 And they departed from Iim, and pitched in Dibongad.
46 And they removed from Dibongad, and encamped in Almondiblathaim.
47 And they removed from Almondiblathaim, and pitched in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo.
48 And they departed from the mountains of Abarim, and pitched in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho.
49 And they pitched by Jordan, from Bethjesimoth even to Abelshittim in the plains of Moab.
American King James Version×describes the Israelites passing through Ijim, Dibon Gad, Almon Diblathaim, Nebo, Abel and finally the Jordan. The route the Egyptians took to supervise this area, which they ruled for many centuries, includes eight places, of which six appear in the same sequence mentioned primarily in Numbers 33: Melah, Ijim, Heres-Hareseth (mentioned only in Judges 8:13 Judges 8:13And Gideon the son of Joash returned from battle before the sun was up,
American King James Version×), Dibon, Abel and the Jordan.
Charles Krahmalkov, a professor of ancient Near Eastern languages, speaks of the accuracy of the biblical account: “In short, the Biblical story of the invasion of Transjordan that set the stage for the conquest of all Palestine is told against a background that is historically accurate. The Israelite invasion route described in Numbers 33:45 Numbers 33:45And they departed from Iim, and pitched in Dibongad.
American King James Version×b-50 was in fact an official, heavily trafficked Egyptian road . . .” ( Biblical Archaeology Review , September-October 1994, p. 58).
Thus, archaeology, notwithstanding scholarly criticism, confirms another part of biblical history. GN