Paleoclimatology and Ancient Israel Two Examples: David and the Exile

History is (wo)man-made. There are, however, some constraints to human actions. Climate, for instance, is a clear boundary of what can be done. In my presentation, I would like to discuss the interaction between topics like demography, technology, landscape, politics and climate in Iron Age Israel/Palestine (± 1200 – 331 bce).

Climate in the Holocene – from the last ice age until present – has not been constant but due to change. After a general global warning around 10.000 bce, the average temperature of today was reached.  Warmer and colder, dryer and wetter periods, however, have left there traces. The traces are now been made visible thanks to the GISP II-project in Greenland. My question for today is: How have these oscillations influenced human behaviour and the flow of history.

In the Hebrew Bible, King David is portrayed as an intriguing and paradoxical figure. The depiction of this king is colourful and multi-dimensional. In the narratives of Samuel and 1 Kings, the reader meets a character of flesh and blood. Recently, some ‘lives of David’ appeared written by Steven McKenzie, Baruch Halpern, John van Seters and Joe Blenkinsopp. I appreciate much of this work. I will, however, first and foremost concentrate on the existing evidence. Not every narratio on David would be adequate. Not every appropriation of this king – be it in words or pictorial – can be assessed as successful.

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

Climate: 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 implies an increase in rainfall. This can also be deduced form the fact that the sea water level in the Dead Sea was rising in the period. By implication, an increase of rainwater in combination with the improved technology in the construction of terraces leads to the presence of more water for agriculture and to a better harvest.

Demographic Developments in Iron IIA. Paula, based on a variety of excavations and their interpretation, supposes an increase of population in the area of Judah in Iron IIA can be detected. The climate change mentioned above could have been instrumental in this development. Improvement of Terrace Building. Apiculture at Tēl Reḥōv. Fish bones in Jerusalem.

Epigraphic evidence. The Tel Dan-inscription excavated 20 years ago, gives evidence for the historicity of David as a ruler, but not for 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 starting literacy were signs of the time. They were not orchestrated by a central state. They can be seen as elements of a histoire conjuncturiel: These developments were in need of a stronger administration to defend the economic interests that came out of them. Therefore, the “Kingdom of David” better could be construed as an “ethnic entity that would become a nation” or be seen as a patrimonial society.

The period of the Babylonian Exile coincides with a period of global warming of an even greater magnitude than we experience nowadays followed by a drastic decline of temperature in the early Persian Period. Phrased otherwise: 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 of temperature.

To 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. Parry has convincingly shown the interconnections between climate change and agriculture (Parry 1978). 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. All this evidence concur with the demographic data available. After a minor decline just before 500 bce, the population of Mesopotamia increased steadily and heavily from 480 bce onward.

The course of human history is by no means solely dependent on circumstances provoked by climate. In any culture, technological developments are of great importance to cope with the 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.