Physical background

Most of the land of Israel has a fairly shallow layer of soil, with the rock, from which it has weathered, pretty well exposed. Sometimes it looks as though Israel cultivates rocks (though Israelis never developed the North American fad for this form of pet).

Surface rocks in Israel are largely sedimentary, from the Mesozoic era. Nevertheless, geological remains going back to the granite Precambrian shield can be seen around Eilat on the Red Sea, where the majestic mountains are named for the Kings of Israel and Judah. In the nearby Timna Valley, erosion has created a collage with granite mountains overlain by windswept sandstone, topped by sedimentary limestone: Fantastic shapes have been carved out by nature, exposing a profusion of colors. Further north, the Ramon Crater, a veritable geological laboratory, exposes a wealth of Triassic and Jurassic deposits along with a fascinating fossil collection.

Mammoth tusks were discovered in the north and dinosaur footprints in the hills of Judea. The animal life today is far less varied than it was before modern man helped the decline (the last crocodile was shot in the early 20th century by the German consul). Other large predators such as lions and bears are no longer found in Israel; there are still a few wolves, desert leopards and hyenas, as well as smaller carnivores such as jackals and foxes. These prey on a variety of the deer family, rock rabbits and other small creatures. The diversity in birds is greatly enriched every autumn and spring, when one billion or so fly south for the winter and north for the summer; a number spend the winter in Israel.


Early man on his way out of Africa would have had to pass through this strip of land. The oldest signs of human habitation can be seen just south of the Sea of Galilee at Ubeida, which paleontologists believe to be almost 1,000,000 old. The remains of Mousterian and Neanderthal man were found in caves on Mount Carmel; in 1938 Britain’s Dorothy Garrod discovered a skeleton, about 80,000 years old, which she called Palestinian Man; though contemporary with Neanderthals, he had no receding jaw or protruding eyebrows; in fact he was remarkably similar to man today. Unfortunately pictures are all that remain. Shipped off to Britain, the ship was sunk by the Germans.

The ealiest unambiguous use of controlled fire by man was found on the banks of the Jordan in the Huleh valley, at a site dated to some 800,000 years ago. Nomadic life was plentiful, and the earliest signs of settled communities, when man began to cultivate his food, go back a little over 10,000 years. In the Jordan valley at Jericho, Kathleen Kenyon uncovered the oldest town as yet found, going back about 10,000 years. Flintstone had abandoned his cave(s), plenty of which can be seen in the limestone hills to the west of Jericho, and opted for the luxuries of modern living. It did not last; Neolithic (Late Stone Age) Jericho was abandoned after a 1000 years, and resettled only in the late 3rd millennium BCE. In between, nomads came back.

The first metal to be used by man was copper. It was first used about 6,000 years ago. Along the shores of the Dead Sea, across the northern Negev, and up the southern coastline, Chalcolithic (copper-stone) remains have been found, including a wonderful collection of copper artifacts, butter churns and ossuaries, in which the bones of the dead were placed. Though there were no signs of a violent displacement, no invasion by others, these people apparently disappeared from the region about 3000 BCE, when bronze implements began to make their first appearance.

This time also marks the beginning of what the west calls civilization; the first widespread settlement of people takes place, first on the banks of the lower Euphrates and Tigris rivers; in the area known as Mesopotamia. People began to live in organized communities, cultivating their food, and producing more than they themselves consumed. Trade began. Organized communities need people to run the organization, so a bureaucracy developed; surplus food and other traded goods, needed protection from marauders, as perhaps did the bureaucrats from their own; and so armed forces were developed. Thus we have two groups, the bureaucrats and the soldiers, who were no longer part of the production force. They could only live off the labors of others and thus a good case can be made for equating the rise of civilization with the introduction of taxes.

In 2,900 BCE, with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, the same process of civilization developed along the Nile. In the east cuneiform writing appeared, in Egypt, hieroglyphics. A polarity between these two superpowers of antiquity developed, each trying to expand at the expense of the other. The sliver of land on the Mediterranean seaboard was caught up, and from then on remained, part of this tug of war. The direct line from Egypt to Mesopotamia runs through the desert; instead the armies, the trading caravans, traveled along the coast and then to or from the northern Euphrates; Chicago University’s excavator of Megiddo, James Breasted, called this route the Fertile Crescent. In their time the Romans called it the Via Maris (the Road of the Sea). An alternate route, along the mountains east of the rift valley, was known as the Kings’ Highway.

At the same time that man first cast bronze implements in the land, the first large towns appear on the landscape. Much larger than the towns built in Solomon’s day (some 2000 years later), at Arad in the northern Negev, at Hazor in the northern Galilee, at Megiddo in the Jezre’el valley (the plains of Esdraelon) archeologists, who work from the ground down, have barely scratched the surface of these and many more. The big (Canaanite?) towns just mentioned appear in the early Bronze Age. With the exception, in a minor way, of Hazor, none of these large towns can match the size or magnificence of Egypt’s or Mesopotamia’s monuments.

Archeologists date their finds in terms of the material culture; there are those who speak of the Canaanite period, the Israelite era and so on. But it is more or less generally accepted today, to date human settlement in terms of Paleolithic (early stone), Neolithic (late stone), Chalcolithic (copper stone), Bronze and Iron ages. As each of these range over many hundreds of years, they are subdivided. Large towns first appear in the Early Bronze Age, Abraham probably belongs in Middle Bronze IIA – B, sometime in the 18th century BCE.