Archaeology and Genesis—What Does the Record Show? Part 1

In this article we take a look at some of the astounding discoveries of the last two centuries and show how physical evidence confirms aspects of the biblical record.

A century ago Charles Darwin advanced an alternative to the biblical account of creation. About the same time, Karl Marx made use of the theory of materialism, which stated that matter has always existed and doesn't need a Creator. This provided his followers with an alternative to belief in God. Then literary criticism focused its sights on the Bible and slowly began to attempt to tear it to pieces. Literary critics claimed that the Bible is filled with myths and is of much more recent origin than the Bible itself claims to be.

As one scholar explains, man began to think of himself, rather than God, as the center of the universe. "The idea of evolution had captured the thinking of that day, and was thought to furnish the best key to the understanding of history as well as of nature. Religion was discussed from the standpoint of its subjective benefits to man. All possibility of special revelation from a personal God was discounted, and the religious side of man was to be explained by a natural process . . . They concluded that Israel's religion must have developed along similar lines" (A. Noordtzy, Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 98-99, pp. 388-390, 1940-41).

When the 20th century dawned, the tide of criticism eroded belief in the literal truth of the biblical accounts. Then came a series of remarkable archaeological discoveries. Archaeology began in the 19th century but came to full force in the 20th. Critics of the historical accuracy of the Bible were confronted with physical evidence attesting to the truthfulness of certain accounts.

As author John Elder comments, the study of archaeology had much to do with tipping the scales, in many people's minds, back in the favor of biblical credibility. "Little by little, one city after another, one civilization after another, one culture after another, whose memories were enshrined only in the Bible, were restored to their proper places in ancient history by the studies of the archaeologists . . . Nowhere has archaeological discovery refuted the Bible as history" (Prophets, Idols and Diggers, 1960, p. 16).

In this article we take a look at some of the astounding discoveries of the last two centuries and show how physical evidence confirms aspects of the biblical record.

When Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name, he carefully laid out the evidence in favor of the historicity of Jesus Christ and His miracles, including His resurrection . He wanted his account to meet the scrutiny of doubters. Luke said he intended to write "an orderly account" ( Luke 1:1-4) so his readers could "know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed" (emphasis added throughout).

Luke then proceeded to augment his account with historical references mentioning, for example, the contemporaneous rulers of Judah and the emperor of the Roman Empire ( Luke 1:5; 2:1).

Because of the number of discoveries, we cannot examine all of the evidence here. We will discuss, however, some of the principal finds that corroborate parts of the biblical record of Genesis.

The Temptation Seal

Seals made use of some of the most ancient forms of writing. They were used to certify documents, to show authority and, on occasion, as amulets. The earliest seals were made of clay impressed with markings or writing, and some of them became hardened with time or were baked when fires swept through a city. Since they are made of clay, they have survived much longer than records written on papyrus or parchment.

Archaeologists' dating of some seals has found them to be more than 5,000 years old. They are among the few surviving materials that provide firm evidence of people's beliefs at the dawn of civilization. Seals have been uncovered that confirm several biblical accounts, including some in Genesis.

The first chapters of the book of Genesis cover the creation of humans and the temptation that induced Adam to sin. God had given Adam certain laws to keep and explained the consequences of disobedience. "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die'" ( Genesis 2:16-17).

Genesis depicts the tempter, Satan, influencing Eve and in turn her husband, Adam, to disobey their Creator. God had told Adam and Eve they would die if they ate of the tree. But the serpent said to Eve, "You will not surely die." So Eve partook, found the fruit pleasant, then offered it to her husband, "and he ate" ( Genesis 3:1-6).

Is this account only a myth? Many critics thought so. Yet archaeology has unearthed, not in biblical Israel, but in the site of the most ancient civilization known, Sumer, a seal depicting this very sequence of events described in the book of Genesis. This find, known as the Temptation Seal, is in the British Museum. It dates to the third millennium before Christ, some 5,000 years ago. This artifact shows a man and a woman viewing a tree, and behind the woman is a serpent. The man and woman are both reaching for fruit of the tree.

The Genesis account of the temptation was believed to be a fabrication by Jewish writers, yet this graphic portrayal of events described in Genesis existed thousands of years before critics believe the book of Genesis was written. This artifact, one of the earliest surviving records, demonstrates that humans knew the essentials of the temptation incident, and not only from the biblical account written in Genesis.

The Adam and Eve seal

Another Sumerian seal, dated ca. 3500 B.C. and now housed in the museum of the University of Pennsylvania, shows events that took place after the man and woman ate the forbidden fruit. This seal depicts the naked figures of a male and a female, bowed in humiliation, being driven out, followed by a serpent. This seal also describes the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden: ". . . Therefore the LORD God sent him [Adam] out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken" ( Genesis 3:23).

It is difficult to explain what the three figures, engraved on a seal dating from the beginnings of human antiquity, are doing if the artifact is not another depiction of the Genesis account.

The flood epics

"And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered . . . And all flesh died that moved on the earth" ( Genesis 7:19, 21).

One of the most questioned accounts of the Bible is the flood of Noah's time. A century ago liberal critics considered it one of the most fanciful biblical myths. Yet more than a century of archaeological digging has revealed accounts of the flood in the earliest of civilizations.

One of the most astounding finds is the Gilgamesh Epic, recorded on clay tablets that were translated in 1872 by George Smith of the British Museum. The tablets narrate the flood account from the perspective of the ancient Babylonians. A similar account was found on Sumerian tablets, which are the earliest writings yet discovered.

Which one is the more authentic account of the flood? That is easily answered. Professor Gleason Archer notes that the differences in the Gilgamesh and Genesis narratives are too great to allow one to have been borrowed from the other. "The stark contrast between the passion-driven, quarrelsome, greedy gods of the Babylonian pantheon and the majestic holiness of Jehovah is most striking and significant," he writes. "Likewise the utter implausibility of a cube-shaped ark and an inundation of the entire world by a mere fourteen-day downpour [of the Gilgamesh Epic] stand in opposition to the seaworthy dimensions and the gradual sinking of the waters in the Biblical record" (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 211).

Clearly, the Gilgamesh Epic shows evidence of corruption.

These ancient tablets are by no means the only external corroboration of the biblical flood narrative. An enterprising historian, Aaron Smith, is said to have patiently tallied all the flood stories he could find. He came across 80,000 works in 72 languages about the deluge (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, 1980, p. 38).

Certainly if Noah's flood were just a local event affecting people in a limited geographic region, its impact would not have been etched indelibly into the minds of so many far-flung peoples.

One historian notes: "The Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of Mesopotamia might well be expected to cherish a similar tradition to that of the Hebrews, since they lived so close to the presumed seat of antediluvian civilization . . . But what shall we say of the legend of Manu preserved among the Hindus . . . or of Fah-he among the Chinese . . . or of Nu-u among the Hawaiians; or of Tezpi among the Mexican Indians; or of Manabozho among the Algonquins? . . . All of these agree that all mankind was destroyed by a great flood (usually represented as worldwide) as a result of divine displeasure at human sin, and that a single man with his family or a very few friends survived the catastrophe by means of a ship or raft or large canoe of some sort" (Archer, p. 209).

The Tower of Babel

"Then they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.' They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens . . .'" ( Genesis 11:3-4).

Many of us have heard about the Tower of Babel, but few know of the solid evidence behind the Bible account.

Excavations in Iraq at the beginning of this century revealed that an enormous tower had existed in Babylon at one time. Werner Keller writes: "In 1899 the German Oriental Society equipped a large expedition under the direction of Professor Robert Koldewey, the architect, to examine the famous ruined mound of 'Babil' on the Euphrates. The excavations, as it turned out, took longer than anywhere else. In eighteen years the most famous metropolis of the ancient world, the royal seat of Nebuchadnezzar, was brought to light, and at the same time, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the 'Hanging Gardens' . . . and 'E-temen-an-ki,' the legendary Tower of Babel . . .

"The bricklaying technique described in the Bible at the building of the Tower of Babel corresponds with the findings of the archaeologists. As the investigations confirmed, actually only asphalted bricks were used in the construction, especially in the foundation. That was clearly necessary for the security of the structure in accordance with building regulations . . . Foundations and stonework were therefore made waterproof and damp-proof with 'slime,' i.e., asphalt . . . Seven stages, 'seven squares,' rose one above the other. A little tablet belonging to an architect which was found in the temple expressly mentions that length, breadth and height were equal . . . The length of the sides at the base is given as being rather more than 290 feet. The archaeologists measured it as 295 feet. According to that the tower must have been almost 300 feet high" (The Bible As History, 1980 edition, pp. 302, 317-318).

This means the tower rose to the height of a 20-story building.

Further research has revealed that the original tower was destroyed, and on the same site a similar tower was later built at the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

D.J. Wiseman, professor of Assyriology, explains: "The tower was severely damaged in the war of 652-648 B.C. but restored again by Nebuchadrezzar II (605-562 B.C.). It was this building, part of which was recovered by Koldewey in 1899, which was described by Herodotus on his visit c. 460 B.C. . . . The base stage [of the later tower] measured 90 by 90 m[eters] and was 33 m[eters] high . . . The ziggurat [a sacred tower] at Babylon was demolished by Xerxes in 472 B.C., and though Alexander cleared the rubble prior to its restoration this was thwarted by his death. The bricks were subsequently removed by the local inhabitants, and today the site of Etemenanki is a pit as deep as the original construction was high" (New Bible Dictionary, 1982, p. 111).

Sacred towers were common in Mesopotamia. So far, the ruins of 35 such structures have been found. The first was the one at Babel.

From this brief survey, we can see the light that archaeology has shed on questions about the veracity of the biblical record. Although doubters will always question the truthfulness of God's Word, fewer and fewer now doubt its historical statements.

Many other exciting archaeological finds have helped confirm and shed light on the book of Genesis, and these will be examined in a future article.

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