Recently, two important discoveries pertaining to Jews and ancient Israel were announced. One involved a cache of Jewish documents around 1,000 years old that were found in a cave in Afghanistan. The other discovery takes us much further back in time to the first use of the word “Israel” outside of the Bible. It dates to almost 3,500 years ago in ancient Egypt. Both of these discoveries are amazing in their own ways.
The discovery of Jewish documents in Afghanistan takes us far from our ancient homeland to a war-torn region that is constantly in today’s headlines. Controversy and strife are not new to Afghanistan. That country has been experiencing these things for millennia.
What is intriguing is the question of what Jewish documents were doing in the area some 1,000 years ago. At the time, Afghanistan was near the route of the fabled Silk Road that connected China to Europe, which had been craving its luxury goods, especially silk, at least as far back as the days of the Roman Empire.
We know that Jewish merchants and traders were involved in the region dating to ancient times, at least as far back as the days of the Persian Empire. The fabled documents from the Cairo Genizah, from roughly the same time period as the ones found in Afghanistan, also mention Jewish merchants dealing with the East.
More than a century ago, the legendary British-Hungarian (and Jewish) explorer/archeologist Sir Aurel Stein explored the Silk Road and found a number of sites containing manuscripts in its vicinity. Since the Silk Road traverses mostly desert, any writings that were left there tend to be very well preserved. Stein found the world’s oldest book as well as documents that were more than 2,000 years old. But he didn’t find any Jewish writings. The documents recently found in Afghanistan are promising to add fascinating new evidence about Jewish activities on the Silk Road in the Middle Ages.
Also exciting is the recent publication of a discovery by scholars in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin about the earliest use of the term “Israel” outside of the Bible. Until this publication, the earliest extra-biblical mention of Israel was on a monumental inscription of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II (a.k.a. Yul Brynner), dated to late 13th-century BCE.
This new inscription pushes the use of “Israel” back by two centuries to around the year 1,400 BCE. If this dating is correct, it raises a host of fascinating questions. Among them would be the date of the Exodus. One also wonders what characterized this early Israel and, most importantly, is there any information about its religious beliefs and practices.
The fascination of any discovery is the fact that it raises more questions than it answers. As Einstein once said, “When the light of knowledge expands, so does the darkness surrounding it.”