Throughout history, Bible scholars were looking for evidence of the Bible stories in the land of Israel. Many were looking for names of places that appear in the Bible and trying to identify where they are.
The modern archaeology in Israel and modern Bible research are very serious in the way they examine the evidences. In very few places there were findings that had the name of the city written on a piece of clay. One famous example is the city of Gezer: Close to the site that is known as Tel Gezer, was found a stone on which it was engraved in ancient Hebrew: “Boundary of Gezer”:
So in all other archaeological sites, how can we be sure whether the site represents an ancient Biblical site?
The answer is not so simple. In many cases there is a context of the findings that resembles the site. For example a palace or administrative building. Sometimes the geographical description in the bible appears the same as we see the place today.
But in the land of Israel, there is a spacial aid that comes from an unexpected source.
The Arab names
In Israel there are many Arab towns and villages that preserve the names of cities from the time of the Bible. This is a phenomenon that is very unique to Israel: Although this land was conquered so many times during history, and each conqueror wanted to leave his mark on the land, miraculously, many of the Biblical names still exist today. And they were preserved by the Arabs!
In the modern Biblical geography research, the Arab names play a crucial role as an evidence for the correctness of the Bible. There are hundreds of them and we will bring just a few examples.
The Border of Ephraim and Manasseh
1 The lot fell to the children of Joseph from the Jordan(1), by Jericho(2), to the waters of Jericho(2) on the east, to the wilderness that goes up from Jericho(2) through the mountains to Bethel(3), 2 then went out from Bethel(3) to Luz(4), passed along to the border of the Archites at Ataroth(5), 3 and went down westward to the boundary of the Japhletites, as far as the boundary of Lower Beth Horon(6) to Gezer(7); and it ended at the sea. (Joshua 16, 1-3)
The verses above describe the southern border of Ephraim (referred here as Joseph). Let’s look at each of the places marked with numbers 1 to 7 and see what is the Arab parallel:
- Jordan river. Hebrew – יָּרְדֵּן. In Arabic: Urdun (الأردن)
- Jericho. Hebrew – יְרִיחוֹ. The citi is called in Arabic: ‘ariha (أريحا )
- Bethel. Hebrew – בֵּית אֵל. The meaning of this name is “House of God”. “Beth” is house. Archaeologists identify the place with the Arab Village Biatin (بيتين). It is interesting to note that there was another “Bethel” in the inheritance of Ephraim, where Deborah would sit: And she would sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim (Judges 4, 5). There is an Arab village today called Beitillu (بيتللو) that is identified with this other Bethel.
- Luz. Hebrew – לוּז. This is the previous name of Bethel. Jacob changed its name: And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously (Genesis 28, 19).
- Ataroth. Hebrew – עַטְרוֹת. An Arab village there is called: ‘Atara (عطارة)
- Lower Beth Horon. Hebrew – בֵּית חוֹרוֹן תַּחְתּוֹן. In Arabic: Beit Ur alttahta (بيت عور التحتى). “alttahta” in Arabic means “lower”. So the name of the village is literally “Lower Beth Ur”. The sound of Horon is close to Ur and the whole meaning is similar.
- Gezer. Hebrew – גזר. The hill (“Tel”) on which the ancient city was found, is called by the Arabs: “Tel Jazar”. “Tel” is hill in both Hebrew and Arabic. Jazar and Gezer are similar as the ‘G’ in Hebrew is replaceable with ‘J’ in Arabic.
Based on the above we can now draw the border of Ephraim. Similarly we can draw most of the borders between the tribes.
The Beloved Friend and the Judge
Even more fascinating than the above example, is the fact that some names were preserved not by their phonetic sound but by their meaning.
For example, the city of Jerusalem is called by the Arabs “Al-Quds” (القدس) which means “The Holy”. In the Arab books from the Middle Ages the city is often called “bayt almuqaddas” (بيت المقدس) which is translated to “The Temple”.
So Arabs in the Middle Ages acknowledged that Jerusalem is the place of the Jewish Temple!
But there was never any doubt about the identification of Jerusalem, as this is a city that Jews almost always inhabited.
Another one is Hebron. The Arabs calls it Al-Khalil (الْخَلِيل). And its meaning is “The beloved friend”. The beloved friend refers to Abraham as he is a friend of God and is buried in Hebron. It is interesting in this regard, that the word Hebron comes from the Hebrew root H.B.R. which means “friend”.
But the most surprising one is the city of Dan. Let’s read from the Bible:
And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born to Israel. However, the name of the city formerly was Laish (Judges 18, 29)
The archaeological site of Tel Dan is a hill (Tel) near the spring of Dan which is the biggest spring in Israel. very interesting stuff was found in the excavations there. The most important findings are the Canaanite gate, The massive Israelite wall and the Tel Dan Stele on which the House of David the king is mentioned.
But the name of the Tel in Arabic does not sound like Dan. It is “tal alqadi” ( تل القاضي).
Tal alqadi in Arabic means: The hill of the Judge. And who is the Judge? “Dan” is the name of the son of Jacob, and the tribe. But the meaning of the word Dan in Hebrew is “Judge”.
So we see here that the meaning of the name was translated to Arabic and this is the new name of the place.
Tel Dan Stele
There are many more examples that include names of cities or mountains and valleys. Not all the examples are from the Bible. There are Arab names that preserve more recent names that appear first in the New Testament or in the Talmud.
What is important is that the local Arabs of Israel help us a lot in the research of Biblical Geography.