Biblical Archeology

How the Experts Missed It. The search for Biblical Debir is among the most interesting "detective stories" of modem archeology.

Anson F. Rainey, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages at Tel Aviv University at Ramat Avin, Israel. He translated the book The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography by the Israeli archeologist Yohanan Aharoni from Hebrew in 1967. He also edited and translated the Armana tablets, numbers 359-379.
The search for Biblical Debir is one of the most interesting "detective stories" of modern archeological research.

The first step in seeking to identify a Biblical town is to search, not in the ground, but in the Scriptures. In the Bible the archeologist learns that Debir was one of the pre-Israelite cities occupied by the Anakims, along with Hebron and Anab in the hill country of Judah (Joshua 11:21). The conquest of southern Canaan is depicted as following a particular sequence—first Makkedah, then Libnah and Lachish, followed by Hebron and finally Debir (chap. 10:28- 41). This account, along with Joshua 12:13, indicates that we are dealing with a Canaanite city-state of the late Bronze Age.

Othniel, son of Kenaz, conquered Debir (chap. 15:15-19; Judges 1:11-15) and was awarded Achsah, the daughter of Caleb, as his wife. Achsah said to her father, "Since you have set me in the land of the Negeb, give me also springs [gulloth] of water" (see Joshua 15:19; Judges 1:15). Debir was thus located in a zone where the topographical characteristics were like those of the Negeb, and the city itself evidently lacked sufficient water sources of its own.

The Scriptures locate Debir in the first hill country district of Judah (Joshua 15:49) in association with ten other towns, at least five of which (Jattir, Socoh, Anab, Eshtemoa, and Anim) have positive identifications. All five lie in the southernmost zone of the Judean hills. Joshua 15 is the most magnificent geographical text in the Bible, and the presence of Debir in chapter 15:49 is crucial. The town must be sought in the hill country south of Hebron.

The modern search for Debir began on the right foot. C. R. Conder, of the British Survey of Western Palestine, took the Biblical data seriously and thus identified Debir with the town of Dhaheriyeh, the most important village in the hill country south of Hebron. But after World War I, W. F. Albright conducted some excavations at that site and found that the late Bronze Age was entirely missing. Thus was born the myth that no Canaanite occupation existed in the hill country south of Hebron.

Since the hill country is separated from the Shephelah (lowland) by a long valley of Senonian chalk in which are numerous water sources, several major Canaanite sites grew up there in ancient times. Albright turned his attention to these and soon settled on Tell Beit Mirsim as his candidate for Debir.

During the late 1920's and early 1930's Albright conducted several excavation campaigns at Tell Beit Mirsim. During the years, he developed his theory identifying Tell Beit Mirsim with Biblical Debir. At first it was only a working hypothesis, then it became a probability, and finally it became "virtually certain."

The finished theory ran something like this: Debir was a Canaanite city, but we know from archeological research that no such city existed in the hill country south of Hebron. Therefore, Debir must be sought in the valley at the western flank of the hill country. Tell Beit Mirsim is the most impressive of the three sites in the southern part of this valley (an opinion open to challenge). The various strata uncovered at Tell Beit Mirsim correspond to the period in which Debir was known to have existed (this detail is not too relevant if the written sources are at variance). Therefore, Tell Beit Mirsim must be Debir.

If so, then Debir must have been an administrative center placed where three districts of Judah converge—the south ern hill country, the Negeb, and the southern Shephelah. Such an administrative center is entirely foreign to Joshua 15 and other Biblical texts.

Most German scholars continued to accept the Biblical statements indicating that Debir was in the hill country, but each time they proposed a new site it was examined and found to be lacking the requisite late Bronze Age pottery.

In 1954 Kurt Galling sought to identify Debir with Khirbet Rabud, a very large site on an imposing hill beside the Hebron-Beersheba road. But because he could not produce any potsherds from the Canaanite period, no one took him seriously. When H. Donner made public the presence of abundant Israelite sherds and one fragment from a Cypriot "milk bowl" (a vessel typical of the late Bronze Age), his statement passed almost unnoticed.

After the June, 1967, war, an Israeli survey team headed by Moshe Kokhavy soon discovered large quantities of this pottery, most of which came from the ancient cemetery beside Khirbet Rabud! Kokhavy and his team also mapped the remains of an impressive Israelite wall at Khirbet Rabud.

Under the auspices of the Tel Aviv University and the American Institute for Holy Land Studies, Kokhavy under took excavations in 1968 and 1969 that clearly established Canaanite occupation. Rich finds from the Israelite period were also discovered. In a nearby ravine two wells were found that the Arabs call the upper and lower wells, names strikingly similar to the Biblical "upper and lower springs" of the Achsah narrative! Khirbet Rabud has no natural water source of its own.

The late Professor Albright refused to accept the new identification. His further objections led Kokhavy to another startling discovery. The three districts in the southern hill country, as defined by Joshua 15:48-57, conformed to the watersheds between the drainage systems in the area! The streams encompassed by the towns in verses 48 to 51 all flow southward; those in verses 52 to 54 run westward; those in verses 55 to 57 run eastward.

Because the hills in this region are formed of a rock that disintegrates into a very poor soil, the richest earth is found in the creek beds, brought down from the Hebron hills. Therefore, farming is done mostly in the stream beds in a manner identical to the "Negeb agriculture" farther south.

No wonder Achsah said, "You have placed me in Negeb land." So, besides the recovery of a lost Biblical city, we now can understand the organization of a part of Judah in relation to the ecological pattern.

The search for Biblical Debir illustrates that when archeological data is related to what is found in the Bible, the Biblical evidence must be primary.

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Anson F. Rainey, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages at Tel Aviv University at Ramat Avin, Israel. He translated the book The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography by the Israeli archeologist Yohanan Aharoni from Hebrew in 1967. He also edited and translated the Armana tablets, numbers 359-379.

March 1979

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