Archaeology and Torah
When Did "Fire Go Forth from Heshbon"?
The Conquest of Heshbon and the Bards’ Song
According to the Torah, as the Israelites continue their journey to the promised land of Canaan, their route takes them south of the Dead Sea into Transjordan and then north, skirting the eastern boundary of Moab. In order to cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan they must traverse formerly Moabite territory now controlled by King Sihon and the Amorites.
Sihon denies the Israelites passage through his land and attacks them. In retaliation, Israel massacres the Amorites to conquer their territory, including the capital city of Heshbon (Num 21:1-32). The Torah records the bards’ (מֹשְׁלִים) poem celebrating Israel’s conquest and burning of Heshbon, in Numbers 21:27b-30:
במדבר כא:כז עַל כֵּ֛ן יֹאמְר֥וּ הַמֹּשְׁלִ֖ים בֹּ֣אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֑וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֥ה וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן׃
Num 21:27 Therefore the bards would recite: “Come to Heshbon; firmly built and well founded is Sihon’s city.
כא:כח כִּי אֵשׁ֙ יָֽצְאָ֣ה מֵֽחֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן לֶהָבָ֖ה מִקִּרְיַ֣ת סִיחֹ֑ן אָֽכְלָה֙ עָ֣ר מוֹאָ֔ב בַּעֲלֵ֖י בָּמ֥וֹת אַרְנֹֽן׃
21:28 For fire went forth from Heshbon, flame from Sihon’s city, consuming Ar of Moab, the lords of Bamoth by the Arnon.”
On the basis of its name and location, scholarly consensus identifies biblical Heshbon with the archaeological site of Tell Hisban/Hesban, located about 20 km (12 mi) southwest of Amman, on the Wadi Hesban.
Absolute dates are required in order to compare the evidence from Tell Hesban to the biblical version of events at Heshbon. Based on primarily archaeological remains, in conjunction with epigraphic and biblical evidence, the Israelite conquest and settlement of Transjordan and Canaan would have occurred around the end of the 13th or beginning of the 12th century B.C.E. An Israelite sojourn in Egypt during the 13th century reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II, his son Pharaoh Merneptah’s mention of the “people Israel” in Canaan ca. 1207 B.C.E., Egypt’s waning power in the 12th century, and intensive settlement in the highland heartland of the later kingdom of Israel beginning in the early 12th century all support an early-mid 12th century date for the Israelite conquest and settlement.
This evidence is admittedly irreconcilable with the biblical date of an exodus in the later 15th cent. (1 Kings 6:1). However, strong Egyptian control of Canaan and the lack of mention of Israelites in the extensive written records of the 15th century argue against the biblically ascribed date. Thus early twelfth century would be the “expected” time for an Israelite conquest of Heshbon and settlement of the “Amorite area” of the Transjordan. How does this fit with the archaeological findings?
Archaeological Survey of the Hesban Region
Under the direction of Siegfried Horn and Lawrence Geraty of the Seventh-Day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, from 1968-1976 excavations at Tell Hisban/Hesban and a regional survey were carried out, focusing on biblical period remains. Survey findings illustrate the regional settlement trajectory:
14th-13th cent. – The remains suggest a diminished population concentrated in only three fortified settlements, not including Hesban.
12th-11th cent. – The region revives with 21 sites though most were “very small” or “small.”
900-500 B.C.E. – The population increases and larger settlements proliferate, including a cluster in the Hesban vicinity.
Late Persian period – Settlement virtually ceases.
Based on this evidence, Israel would likely have encountered a formidable enemy that controlled extensive territory with substantial settlements such as Sihon’s capital city of Heshbon only in the 9th-6th centuries, hundreds of years after an exodus from Egypt.
The History of Tell Hesban Itself
Tell Hesbon was first settled in the 12th century. Meager 12th-11th cent. remains indicate a “small unfortified village dependent on agriculture, sheep herding, and perhaps simple cottage textile industries.”
Pottery indicates people at the site during this period, but no architectural remains have been identified. Perhaps later populations obliterated buildings of this period in preparing the area for their own construction but the lack of any architecture is telling.
A large water reservoir may date to these centuries, but the time of its construction cannot be determined with certainty. It is currently attributed to the 9th or 8th cent. and considered the earliest evidence of higher-order political and economic organization. Its exposed portion measures 17.5 x 17.5 x 7m deep with an estimated capacity of 2,200,000 liters. Song of Songs 7:5 may invoke the beauty of this reservoir’s waters in comparing it to the eyes of the poet’s beloved: “Your eyes like pools in Heshbon” (עֵינַ֜יִךְ בְּרֵכ֣וֹת בְּחֶשְׁבּ֗וֹן).
9th to 8th Centuries – Moabite Period
We learn about the economics and politics of 9th cent. Moab from both biblical texts and the Mesha Stele, a mid-9th cent. inscription memorializing King Mesha of Moab. 2 Kings 3 lists the vassal king Mesha’s tribute of 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams, but then acknowledges a successful revolt following King Ahab’s death (2 Kings 3:4-27).
According to the Moabite version of events, Mesha rebelled after having been subject to Israel through the reigns of Kings Omri and Ahab. Mesha massacred, enslaved, and expelled the Israelites living in his territory and initiated monumental building projects, including his capital city of Dibon constructed by captive Israelites. As evident in the growth of regional centers, monumental constructions, and the distribution of “Moabite-style” pottery as far north as Hesban, Moab burgeoned in the later 9th cent.
Accordingly, Israelites ruled northern Moab during the reigns of Omri and his son Ahab, from about 880-850 B.C.E. With Mesha’s successful rebellion, Israelite dominion and settlement in Moab ended. However, Moab’s resurgence was short-lived.
7th-6th Centuries – Ammonite Period
Already in the 8th century, the Ammonites wrested control of much of the area from the Moabites. Through the 7th and 6th centuries, Hesban thrived under Ammonite (not Moabite) rule. This is indicated by the material remains, with items such as pottery, statuary, and the written script reflecting Ammonite rather than Moabite culture. Excavations demonstrate a growing and prosperous settlement probably encompassing a fort, domestic habitation on the tell slope, and the still functioning water reservoir.
A late 7th or early 6th cent. inscription offers a glimpse into the Ammonite kingdom’s resources as well as its economic and political complexity. The inscription is a receipt listing taxes paid to the Ammonite king and five other individuals, most likely court officials: 35 jars of grain plus 8 sheep and goats to the king, in addition to the combined taxes of a two year old cow, a three year old cow, fourteen measures of gum grain, 40 pieces of silver, 30 jugs of wine, nineteen sheep and goats, 30 jars of grain, and fine flour to the five other individuals (Hesbon Ostracon IV).
6th Century Destruction
Heshbon declined after its Ammonite heyday. Ashy debris dumped into the reservoir suggests the city met a fiery and violent end not earlier than the 6th century. Following the conflagration, the site remained abandoned for about 300 years, so 6th – 2nd century visitors would have seen the ruins of the once monumental now burned city.
Comparable to the finds from the regional survey, the Israelites would not have encountered formidable resistance and a substantial settlement at Heshbon before the 9th or 8th century. Moab controlled the region in the 9-8th centuries and Ammon prevailed in the 7th and 6thcenturies. Not until the 6th century or later did Heshbon burn.
The Limitations of Archaeology and Text
Both the archaeological and literary evidence are problematic sources for reconstructing history. The mound was only partially excavated and some earlier evidence was likely destroyed by the 2nd cent. builders. The biblical references to Heshbon are difficult to date, and could have been written hundreds of years after the events they purportedly describe. Biblical scholars disagree regarding the subject and date of the bards’ song (Num 21:27-30). The poem (or verses within it) is dated to various periods:
- A pre-monarchic celebration of Israelite defeat of the Amorites (e.g. H. Ewald, M. Noth, R. De Vaux),
- A song of Amorite victory over Moab (e.g. A. H. Van Zyl, P. Hanson, A. Ferch),
- A monarchic period paean commemorating victory over Moab by either King David (e.g. R. Bartlett, J. M. Miller) or King Omri (e.g. E. Meyer, B. Stade, B. Levine),
- An exilic composition (e.g. J. Van Seters).
Two Steps toward Creating the Sihon Story
The Hesban and regional remains portray a history that differs from the biblical narrative. Archaeological evidence precludes a late 13th/early 12th cent. Israelite defeat of Sihon’s “firmly-built and well-founded” city as described in the biblical text. Neither the regional survey nor the Hesban excavation demonstrates centralized authority in the region or a substantial city before the 9th or 8th cent. at the earliest. Thus the wilderness period conquest described in the Torah must be discarded, and we must look to the 9th century or later for possible contexts in which the story and its poem could have emerged. As we will see, the story likely developed in stages.
Stage 1 – The Core Story: Conquest of Sihon and the Amorites
As noted above, we know from biblical sources as well as from the Mesha Stele that King Omri of Israel conquered northern Moab, which led Baruch Levine to interpret the poem as a 9th century composition celebrating this conquest. Although this cannot be the origin of the poem itself (see further on), it may be the reason for the Sihon story.
If Israel conquered Moab directly, why do biblical texts describe this as a conquest of a (non-existent) Amorite polity in the Transjordan? The answer may lie in a tradition recorded elsewhere in the Torah, that Israelites were forbidden to conquer Moabite territory (see Deut 2:9).
If the biblical authors were uncomfortable with the idea of Israel’s conquering territory from their Moabite “cousins,” the creation of a back-story in which the territory had already been conquered by the Amorites – a polity with which the biblical authors had no sympathy – would remove the stain of forbidden activity from the Israelites. Thus the story of the mythical kingdom of Sihon likely originated as a ruse or decoy, deployed to legitimate Omri’s early 9th cent. conquest. According to Numbers 21:26, the land was conquered by Sihon from Moab and by Israel from the Amorite Sihon. This subterfuge allowed Israel to honor the injunction protecting Moabite territory.  But this does not explain the central role of Heshbon in this story. According to the Mesha Stele, Dhibon was Mesha’s capital city, not Heshbon, so why focus on Heshbon?
Stage 2 – The Exilic Bard’s Song and the Burning of Heshbon
As noted above, Heshbon was a great city during the Ammonite period, but it was not destroyed until the 6th century at the earliest. The bards’ evocation of Heshbon in flames was thus likely inspired by the visible evidence of conflagration of the now abandoned city, and must be exilic or post-exilic. The poet retrojected the geo-political realities of his time, including the burned ruins, into an earlier time; the city of the 6th cent. was envisioned as Sihon’s capital at the time of Moses and the conquest.
Archeological and Torah Layers
The archaeological sequence considered together with the biblical narrative suggests the Sihon legend dates to the period of or within memory of Omri. Sihon may or may not have been a historical figure but he was either drafted or created to justify Israelite conquest of Moabite land. The story was then redacted in the Ammonite period or later to anachronistically depict Heshbon as Sihon’s capital. The reference to Heshbon in v. 25 may reflect a 7-6th cent. context, but the “Heshbon Ballad,” with its celebration of the burning of the once great city, could not date before the 6th cent. or later and is therefore exilic or post-exilic.
It is not only archeological remains that are produced by successive layering. Careful analysis shows that the Torah as we have it here contains two layers, both retrojected into one story set in the wilderness period. This complex text celebrated and validated Israelite territorial claims in Transjordan through a narrative and poem of conquest and settlement in the distant past, the time of Moses.
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June 25, 2017
January 8, 2021
Dr. Elizabeth Bloch-Smith teaches Bible and archaeology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Among her publications are Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead, “The Impact of Siege Warfare on Biblical Conceptualizations of Yahweh” and “Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence for Phoenician Astarte.”
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