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Paleoclimatology and Ancient Israel Two Examples: David and the Exile

Bob Becking
p. 54

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1History is (wo)man-made. There are, however, some constraints to human actions. Climate, for instance, constitutes a clear boundary of what can be done.

2In my presentation, I have discussed the interaction between topics like demography, technology, landscape, politics and climate in Iron Age Israel/Palestine (± 1200 – 331 BCE).

3Climate in the Holocene – from the last ice age until the present – has not been constant but subject to change, after a general global warming around 10,000 BCE. Warmer and colder, dryer and wetter periods, however, have left their traces, which are now visible thanks to the GISP II-project in Greenland. My question was: how have these oscillations influenced human behaviour and the flow of history.

4In the Hebrew Bible, King David is portrayed as an intriguing and paradoxical figure. The depiction of this king is colourful and multi-dimensional. In Samuel and 1 Kings’ narratives, the reader meets a character in flesh and blood. Recently Steven McKenzie, Baruch Halpern, John van Seters and Joe Blenkinsopp have published “lives of David”. While I appreciate much of this work, I have, however, first and foremost concentrated on the existing evidence. Not every narratio on David would be adequate. Not every appropriation of this king – be it verbal or pictorial – can be deemed to be successful.

5Landscape: Ancient Israel/Palestine was a hilly area, that contained various and differing zones. The mountainous core of Judah was blessed with soil which was, as such, fertile.

6Climate: the first half of the tenth century BCE was a period of global cooling at an even greater magnitude than we expe­ri­ence today. The lowering of the average temperature in a sub-tropical climate implied an increase in rainfall. This can also be deduced from the fact that the sea water level in the Dead Sea was rising during that period. By implication, an increase of rainwater combined with the improved technology in the construction of terraces led to the presence of more water for agriculture and allowed for a better harvest.

7Demographic Developments in Iron IIA: Paula, based on a ­variety of excavations and their interpretation, indicates that there was a population increase in the area of Judah in Iron IIA. The climate change mentioned above could have been instrumental in this development: improvement of terrace building apiculture at Tēl Reḥōv, fish bones in Jerusalem.

8Epigraphic evidence: The Tel Dan-inscription excavated 20 years ago, gives evidence of the historicity of David as a ruler, but not of all the details in the stories. The epigraphic evidence from the tenth century BCE can be related to a period of demographic growth. Population growth, upcoming trade and the beginning of literacy were signs of the time. They were not orchestrated by a central state. They can be seen as elements of a histoire conjoncturelle: These developments required a stronger administration to defend the economic interests that came out of them. Therefore, the “Kingdom of David” could be better construed as an “ethnic entity that would become a nation” or be seen as a patrimonial society.

9The period of the Babylonian Exile coincides with a period of global warming of an even greater magnitude than the one we experience today, which was followed by a drastic decline of temperature in the early Persian Period. That is, the ‘forced migration’ to Babylon and the ‘exilic period’ coincided with a process of rapid warming, while the period of ‘return from exile’ up to the time of the mission of Ezra in 398 BCE was ­char­ac­terized by a likewise rapid decrease in temperature.

10To understand the impact of climate change on the history of the Exile, it should be noted that the culture of Ancient Mesopotamia heavily depended on agriculture. In Climatic Change, Agriculture, and Settlement (1978), Martin Parry has convincingly shown the interconnections between climate change and agriculture. There were large urban areas where trade was of great importance. During the Iron Age, agriculture in Mesopotamia was made possible thanks to the yearly flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The floods came in late spring or early summer when the ice in the northern and north-western mountains was melting. The age-old system of irrigation distributed the water over the fields. These evidences tally with the available demographic data. After a minor decline just before 500 BCE, the population of Mesopotamia increased steadily and heavily from 480 BCE onward.

11The course of human history is by no means solely depen­d­ent on climate-related events. In any culture, techno­logical developments too are of great importance to cope with reality. Cornelia Wunsch hinted at the importance of the improvement of the cedar plough that turned out to be instrumental in improving agriculture in Mesopotamia from the Neo-Babylonian period onward. This feature only underscores my assumptions.

• The Faculty invited Mr Bob Becking upon Prof. Thomas Römer’s proposal.

• The videos of the lectures are available on, on Prof. Thomas Römer’s page.

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Bob Becking, « Paleoclimatology and Ancient Israel Two Examples: David and the Exile », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Bob Becking

Professor for Old Testament Study, Faculty of Theology, Utrecht University (Netherlands)

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