Mining the Evidence

AI generated image of workers constructing the Holy Tabernacle.
Constructing the Tabernacle (Exodus 36). Image Credit: AI generated.

My current historical novel is a retelling of the Exodus story, from the point of view of non-biblical characters who are reflecting on the strange and miraculous events of their youth. The book takes place towards the end of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert (Numbers 14:33), after the death of Moses when Joshua is preparing to conquer the Promised Land. So this period of history in the Levant, during the 1200s BCE when some form of exodus from Egypt may have taken place, is a topic of urgent research for me.

There isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence about the belief systems of people living at that time, but one thing we know for certain is that a major aspect of the region’s economic activity seems to have been the copper trade. A huge and productive mine in a place called Timna, about 17 miles north of the present-day Red Sea city of Eilat (now an Israeli national park), was at the heart of this industry. Excavations at the Timna metallurgy works have shown evidence of more or less continuous operation for thousands of years — from the Stone Age to the Romans and even into the common era.

It turns out that there was a switch in control of the mines from the Egyptians to the Midianites that occurred at some point during Ramses II’s reign. This is exactly the period I am interested in. Archaeologists know about the change because there had been a shrine to Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of mining, at Timna — and that shrine was dismantled. In its place, matzevot were erected and a tent — i.e., a tabernacle that in some ways resembles the resplendent Tent of Meeting described at length in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 25–31) — was set up.

A reconstruction of the tabernacle at Timna National Park, Israel.
A reconstruction of the Tent of Meeting at Timna National Park, Israel. Image credit: Mboesch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Does this mean that the Israelite slaves who had miraculously escaped Pharaoh’s clutches by crossing the Red Sea, led by Moses who had lived among the Midianites for years (Exodus 3:1), brought the Holy Tabernacle with the broken tablets of the first Ten Commandments to Timna — and then financed their invasion of the Promised Land by selling copper? It’s a tantalizing thought . . . that no archaeologist worth their scientific salt would ever say aloud. Luckily for me, I don’t need to be as rigorous. If a novelistic scenario is backed by solid evidence, I can run with it.

But how solid is the evidence that the Timna tabernacle was a space holy to the Israelites? According to Jacob Edward Dunn, who in 2015 was a Master’s student at the University of Georgia, “[t]he Midianite tent-shrine at Timna is the only discernable Semitic tent-sanctuary ever discovered in ancient Israel” (p. 54). A large number of tent poles, curtain hooks and even the remains of richly-dyed curtains were found there, along with matzevot made from intentionally defaced sculpted pillars representing Hathor. Most provocatively, a magnificently-worked gilded snake was uncovered, “a cultic item [that] recalls the biblical story about Moses and the bronze serpent he creates in the wilderness” (Numbers 21: 6–9) (p. 57).

Three years after Dunn’s thesis was accepted in Georgia, Tel Aviv University published a collection of essays about Timna, including a piece by Gérard Nissim Amzallag of Ben Gurion University about the deity worshiped in the tabernacle after the Egyptians had left or been pushed out. Amzallag is convinced that the tent shrine was dedicated to YHVH, or Yahveh, partly because of the matzevot and partly because of the gilded snake, as well as other evidence.

Moses and the Fiery Serpent, detail of a window in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh.
Moses and the Fiery Serpent, detail of a window in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh. Image credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr.

All this detail is extremely helpful to me as I imagine what Yahveh’s worship might have looked like in the wilderness. Even though it is very unlikely that the enormous and fabulously expensive Tent of Meeting of biblical fame was actually broken down and carried around all the time, if for no other reason than marauders would have been continually raiding the community to get at the precious metals and fabrics therein, a somewhat larger tent with red and yellow dyed curtains and a locked box of small but important religious items could very well have been quite portable.

So maybe this wasn’t the Holy Tabernacle, but it was surely a holy tabernacle. And as such, it is utterly fair game for historical novelists like me.

Ancient lipstick. Apropos mining, albeit with a very different application, a beautifully-carved vial made of green-tinted chlorite stone, originally found at an excavation in southeast Iran, may have held the earliest lipstick ever discovered — about 4,000 years old. Lab testing of the powder inside the tube showed that it was mostly red hematite iron ore, which was used in pigments. We know that makeup was common throughout the Near East at the time — and still is, as in kohl-based eyeliner — but this is the first lip coloring that we know of. And it was probably pretty glossy: particles of quartz crystal were also in the powder.

So now I can write about how some of my characters might have prettied themselves up for a big party at the Tent of Meeting. Not bad for a few weeks’ research.

The famous bust of Nefertiti at the Old Museum in Berlin, with lips clearly lacquered.
The famous bust of Nefertiti at the Old Museum in Berlin, with clearly lacquered lips. Nefertiti and Akhenaten ruled Egypt a century or so before the events we now call the Exodus may have taken place, and centuries after Iran was making lipstick for its upper classes. Image credit: Glenn Ashton, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

1 thought on “Mining the Evidence”

  1. Pingback: Midian and the Midianites

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