Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13)

Sometimes referred to as Kadesh (Numbers 13:26, 20:1) or Kedesh (Joshua 15:23), the Biblical site of Kadesh Barnea is an important location in Israelite history. Miriam, Moses’ sister, died there (Numbers 20:1), and Moses, overcome by anger, disobediently struck the rock that brought forth water at this location (Numbers 20:11). The 12spies also returned there after their foray into the promised land (Numbers 13:26). Although the name Kadesh is probably related to the Hebrew word qadesh, meaning “holiness”, the origin of “Barnea” is unknown.

Since 1905 modern Ain el-Qudeirat in the Wadi el-Ain of the northern Sinai has been widely accepted to be the location of the Biblical Kadesh Barnea. Several Iron Age fortresses have been excavated there. The oldest, a small, elliptical structure, dates to the tenth century B.C. but was evidently abandoned for some time after the first fort’s destruction. A second fort constructed during the eighth century B.C. (probably during the reign of Uzziah) was destroyed during the seventh century B.C., most likelyduring Manasseh’s reign. This fort was somewhat larger and rectangular in shape, and a good amount of pottery associated with this structure has been found. Most significantly, two ostraca (pottery fragments containing writing) engraved in Hebrew have been recovered there, suggesting that Israelites did indeed occupy this site.

In 586 B.C. the Babylonians may have destroyed a final fortress, which appears to have been built during Josiah’s rule. Some ostraca containing inventories of goods have also been unearthed; their texts are in Hebrew, but the numerals are hieratic (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics that became common during the late Juahite monarchy),

At Ain el-Qudeirat, not a single pottery sherd has been discovered dating to the Late Bronze or Iron I periods. This archaeological gap has troubled historians who have sought evidence for an Israelite presence there, as indicated in Numbers. Sceptics have suggested that this interruption gives reason to question the veracity of the Biblical accounts of the exodus and the subsequent conquest of Canaan.

Others have interpreted this pause differently, challenging the identification of Ain el-Qudeirat with the Biblical Kadesh Barnea and suggesting alternative sites at Ain Qedies and Ain Qeseimeh. But problems exists with these sites too. The Kadesh Barnea mentioned in Numbers 20 and 22 was probably a region rather than a specific site (see Numbers 33:36), and the Bible does not imply that a significant settlement existed there when the Israelites passed through.

Since the archaeological work at Ain el-Qudeirat has not been completed, the possiblity remains that Late Bronze or Iron Age I evidence will in fact surface. Future excavations there and elsewhere may help to answer lingering questions concerning this Biblical location.

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