An Israeli Tour Guide with a Ph.D. in Bible: Ten Questions with Dr. Dudu Cohen

On source criticism, Kadesh, Israel and his religious journey


February 11, 2014

Dr.David Ben-Gad HaCohen


David Ben-Gad HaCohen


Dr. Dudu Cohen (David Ben-Gad HaCohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University (2011), where he did his undergraduate (1974) and masters training (2004) as well . His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. He was a high school Bible and Jewish History teacher in Sderot, and spent 1979-1981 in Chicago as a shaliach to the United Synagogue Youth movement. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan. You may contact him at

An Israeli Tour Guide with a Ph.D. in Bible: Ten Questions with Dr. Dudu Cohen

1. Tell us about your background, what community did you grow up in and with what community do you currently associate?

My family was the only religious family in a secular/traditional neighborhood Kiryat Bialik. My parents planted in me the feeling that I was special in this regard and that I should represent Judaism to my friends. As there was no religious school in my hometown, I was sent to an elementary school in a neighboring town. For high school, I wanted to join a high school yeshiva, but as Yeshiva required its students to stay in dorms and my mom refused to let me go, I ended up in a regular religious high school.

Today I live in Efrat, a kind of Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist community, and in a way that has made me lose my uniqueness since virtually everyone in the neighborhood is religious.

2. Your dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives. Can you summarize your 377 page thesis in 3.7 sentences? What was your main chiddush (innovation)? What archeological evidence would change or validate your thesis?

The Torah discusses Kadesh sometimes and Kadesh Barnea other times. Many have suggested that these are just two different terms for the same place, E calls it one thing, J another. The chiddush in my dissertation is that Kadesh and Kadesh-barnea are two separate sites; Kadesh was situated east of the Arava valley and should be identified with Wadi Musa next to Petra. Kadesh-barnea, on the other hand, should probably be identified with Ein el-Qudeirat in the northern Sinai Peninsula. My research shows that there are chapters in Genesis that can be understood only by Petra’s geography (10, 14, 16, 27, 32–33, 50:10–11). In other words, many of the stories in Bereishit occur in the Transjordan, including parts of the Isaac-Ishmael accounts.

Insofar as evidence, it would be nice to find an inscription that indicates that Petra/Wadi Musa was known in antiquity as Kadesh or as Reqem (the Aramaic translation of Kadesh in the Targum)…. Just a minute, such evidence does exist! A Nabatean (an ancient Arab polity) inscription that was found at the entrance to Petra indicates that the Nabateans did call the place Reqem. Since Reqem is Kadesh, this shows that Petra is ancient (biblical) Kadesh. (In other words, as I see it the archaeological evidence already validates my thesis.)

3. Before you studied the Torah academically, what did you believe about the Torah? Did the academic study surprise you?

I entered the academic world in 1972 sure that the Torah was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. I choose to immerse myself in biblical criticism expecting to use geography as a tool to prove that there are no sources in the Torah, that it was a unified whole. To explain, most biblical critics explained that D uses the name Kadesh-barnea, J uses the short version Kadesh and P uses the general area Paran, all for the same place.

I thought that proving that Kadesh and Kadesh Barnea were two separate sites would drop the ground from under the feet of the critics in this case. Nevertheless, I was shocked when ‘my’ geography did validate the existence of the sources, even though I ended up arguing that, indeed, the places are different. (For more details, see pp. 60-66 in my dissertation.)

At first, I tried defending my traditional belief with a partial retreat. I tried to associate J, which I thought to be the earliest source, with Moses. As I got deeper into my dissertation, however, I realized that the belief in Hashem started in Jordan perhaps by the proto-Judahites or the ‘Leah coalition.’

In my historical reconstruction, the proto-Judahites are the members of the Shasu tribe that worshiped YHW and later on formed the tribe of Judah. (see my answer to question 4 for more details on Shasu.) There might be indications that they associated with some other tribes on Mt. Seir. The Leah coalition is what I call the old Transjordanian tribes, who ended up in Cisjordan and identified as children of Leah. It is possible that the exodus, in some form, was an historical fact, with Moses leading the Israelites or proto-Josephites.

In my view, the proto-Josephites are the Israelites, the worshipers of El, who came out of Egypt. Joining the proto-Judahites they form a new nation. In that nation, they form the house of Joseph. (For more details about these early groups, see pp. 210-214 in my dissertation.) Nevertheless, even if this did occur, the Israelites and even Moses worshiped the Canaanite Gods like El and Asherah, as hinted at in Ki-Tissa (see my “Dancing Erotically with the Golden Calf” ).

4. What is the significance of your identifying Kadesh as Petra?

According to the local tradition, the spring was formed
by Moses when he hit this very rock with his rod.

Knowing where Kadesh was enables us to understand where many of the stories in the Torah are occurring. For example, where did Hagar wander? Where did Aaron die? Where did Moses strike the rock? From where did Moses send the scouts? The biblical stories of Kadesh and Kadesh Barnea actually occur in two totally different regions, the Transjordan and the Sinai respectively, and each comes with a complex of other stories in neighboring geographic areas (Mount Hor and Midbar Zin are in the Transjordan, the scouts and Midbar Paran are in the Sinai.)

Does this mean the Israelites dwelt in Kadesh in historical fact? I guess that depends on when you date the stories that involve Kadesh or its surrounding areas. If someone were to take an extremely minimalist position and claim that Genesis was written in the first or maybe second century B.C.E., when Petra was a well-known place, then it would be possible to claim that a writer in Jerusalem just used the city as the basis for a story.

But if one accepts what most scholars believe, that the stories in Genesis were written well before this time, whether during the late First Temple or Early Second Temple periods, what could a Jerusalemite know about Ein Musa? In addition, on the dirt road going from Ein Musa (Ein Kadesh in my opinion) to the ‘Arava valley, one passes by Ein el-Chai (=Be’er La-Chai Roi) and then by Siq el-Bared (=Bared). Only a writer that lived in the area could be that precise describing the way of Hagar (Gen 16:14). The same is true with chapters 10, 14, 25, 32-33, etc. If Israelites or Judahites were not living there in earlier times, these stories could not have been written with such geographical precision.

A Shasu of YHW Land from Amenhotop III’s inscription in a Temple in Soleb.

Placing the Israelites in this area in the ancient period may explain who our ancestors were and even where God, or at least Yhwh, is originally from. Let me explain. Among the sites that Amenhotep III (1390–1352 B.C.E) conquered in the Transjordan were seven Shasu sites. (The Shasu were Semitic nomads who appeared in the Levant during the Bronze Age.) One was a place known as ‘Shasu land YHW’. YHW is the epithet of the Israelite/Judahite God Yhwh in theophoric names; it is the only name for God that the Elephantine Jews used, and it appears as God’s name in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, an Israelite or Judahite worship center south of Judah. The toponym indicates that there was a Shasu tribe that worshiped Yhwh in the 14th century B.C.E.

Where was this Shasu land YHW? I argue that it was Kadesh. Why? Four of the Shasu sites have been identified as being in northern Edom, and they cover the whole area from east to west. Now, we know that the advance of the military campaign was from north to south since, in both of Amenhotep III’s campaigns to this area, the Egyptian army marched north from Egypt along the coast of the Mediterranean and then back south on the eastern side of the Jordan.

Thus, we have to look for the other three Shasu lands, including Shasu land YHW, in southern Edom. Kadesh is in southern Edom and a memorial scarab of Pharaoh Amenhotep III was found next to Petra, indicating that this was a location of an Egyptian commissioner. I assume that the Egyptian commissioner would have been stationed in a central place or command center, one that would have been important enough to be mentioned in the conquest list. Thus Petra/Wadi Musa should be one of the three remaining Shasu lands.

How do I know this was Shasu land YHW and not one of the other two remaining areas? Since we have a biblical tradition connecting the Israelites to Kadesh, and since the Israelites were YHW worshipers, it seems very reasonable to assume that Shasu land YHW was the home of proto-Israelites / Proto-Judahites, known at the time as Shasu, who already worshiped the god, Yhwh. Of course, it would be better to find the seal or seal impression of “the commissioner of YHW’s land” but you can’t have it all.

5. How do you personally reconcile the tension between the academic perspective on the development of the Bible and Judaism?

As a result of my academic life, I had to reformulate my belief. My God is the God of H (the writer of the Holiness Code in P), the God of Elazar ben Yair, the final leader of the rebel band at Masada. My God is the God of Spinoza and of Einstein. My God is the God of silence, who doesn’t appear to people directly and doesn’t recompense good acts. I worship God because God is up there and I am down here. I worship God in the Jewish way, the way Chazal paved for me. This is the only way I know and it works well for me. I was happy to find out that the Decalogue didn’t come down from Heaven but was written by one of my ancestors. It strengthened my commitment to halacha.

6. Are there any rabbis or religious leaders in Israel that you follow or who inspire you? If yes, please elaborate.

As a student, Rabbi Professor Ezra Zion Melamed, my mother-in-law’s uncle, inspired me. Rabbi Prof. Melamed was a Charedi looking man, who was a critical Rabbinics scholar and the winner of the Israeli Prize in 1987 for Rabbinic Literature and Biblical Interpretation. My wife and I used to visit him at home for long talks on the importance of the land of Israel in our faith. We loved to pray in his synagogue, the Persian shul, and to watch the love and care with which he handled his congregants.

Today I follow both Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow. They are fully committed to halacha and to the state of Israel. They never hesitate to respond immediately to issues that, at first glance, seem not to have any connection with religious life, yet they succeed in portraying how a ‘halachic Jew’ should respond to every situation.

7. Do you feel that the leadership of the religious world is dealing with the issues posed by academic Bible in a productive way?

Being realistic, I know that the religious leadership has to deal with the religious mob. Unfortunately, many people won’t accept religious ethics unless they believe that those ethics came directly from Heaven. Furthermore, I don’t think that Orthodox rabbis in general feel free to unveil a liberal attitude towards issues posed by academic biblical scholarship.

8. As a tour-guide, specializing in touring biblical sites, have the questions about the historicity of some of the narratives attached to the sites affected how you conduct tours?

No one tells an Israeli guide what to tell his or her clients. We take a long course and have to prove our knowledge in tests. Then we are on our own. Israeli guides are expected to be sensitive to their clients’ beliefs and not to do or say anything that will upset them. In short, every tour is built to the specific people we accompany.

9. Does academic scholarship affect your relationship with Israel adversely?

Just the opposite. The land is ours not because we got it as a gift. The land is ours just because we as well as our ancestors made it ours. No gift can be as precious as your own accomplishment.

10. As a Bible scholar who is also a tour guide, what is one place in Israel that intrigues/ excites you that is overlooked from a traditional point of view?

Horned Altar Be’er Sheva

Most of the tours miss out on the Negev, and if you miss the Negev you lose biblical Be’er Sheva. Visiting the site enables the guide to discuss Judean religion in biblical time (an alter inscribed with snakes) and expose the genius of the biblical writers (Num. 21:6–9 – try reading this text emphasizing shin, samech, and sin). The site allows me to present a problem that came up in academic scholarship and to solve the problem with the help Joshua (Be’er Sheva seems anachronistic in Genesis; my response comes from Joshua 19:2 – if you still can’t guess, email me. 🙂 ) It allows us to learn from the Avot and to appreciate the urban plan of an Israelite city with a special concern for modesty – house doors never face each other, and there is a special space for the needy next to the city gate, inside the city. I love the place! Join my tour and see for yourself. I promise to show you all this and more. Like I said, tailor-made.

Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan. 


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