Resurrecting the Ancient Israelites From the Valley of Dry Bones
The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones prophecy is one of the most powerful prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel. In this vision, Ezekiel finds himself in a valley full of dry human bones of Israelite origins. He is asked to revive them, bring them hope, and lead them to the land of Israel.
The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.… And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them… Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel.” Ezekiel 37
Engraving of “The Vision of The Valley of Dry Bones” by Gustave Doré. (Opoterser~commonswiki / Public Domain )
Ezekiel’s Vision and Jewish Ancestry
For the past decades, paleogenomics, the field dealing with ancient genomes, has been fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision by extracting DNA from dry bones and telling their stories with increasing accuracy. As Ezekiel envisioned, only dry (and cold) bones can tell stories.
Humidity and heat accelerate the degradation of the DNA beyond repair. At times, even the samples we can use are of poor quality, leading to an inability to put together all the pieces of the DNA and thus resulting in incomplete stories from the bones, as if told by stuttering tongueless skeletons. These are only some of the challenges we face in our efforts to reconstruct the past.
Ezekiel’s prophecies were written in the 6th century after several exiles of the Judeans to Babylon (601-582 BC). The importance of this vision to the debate on the continuity of the Jewish people became apparent very quickly. Already in the Talmud, two interpretations were offered.
The first considered it a complete allegory. The second considered it a reality where the Babylonian exiles returned to Israel and continued the Judaean bloodline. Zionism, a secular movement that recruited the Bible to serve its needs whenever necessary, considered the State of Israel the ultimate fulfilment of Ezekiel prophecies and called to the ingathering of the exiles.
The question of whether Ezekiel’s vision has been correctly interpreted is not anachronistic and has offshoots in history, archeology, linguistics, and genetics – the latest battlefield of the primordialists and constructivists. Did contemporary Jews descend from the ancient Israelites , as the primordialists claim? Or did they descend from people who converted to Judaism and only later on adopted nationalist ideas as the constructivist camp argues?
Of course, one look at Ethiopian, Yemenite, Ashkenazic, and Russian Jews can lend credence to the constructivist view without digging up a single bone. However, the primordialist camp has ready-made answers to that question. It criticized the weak diaspora Jews who succumbed to assimilation and embraced the Jews who remained as authentic Israelites.
Using a “Jewish Type” to Study Jewish Ancestry
It has always been clear that the only way to decide which Jewish communities represent the ancient Israelites most accurately, is by going back to the source – Israel. Therefore, in the late 19th century a search for the jüdische Typus , the “ Jewish type ” was launched.
Jewish types from Popular Science Monthly 1898. (Ineuw / Public Domain )
Anthropologists explored Palestine, studied the native inhabitants, and compared their anthropological measures to Jews. The results of these studies were incredibly disappointing, at least to the Ashkenazic Jews who carried out these studies and craved to see the jüdische Typus reflected in the mirror. As it turned out, Yemenite Jews held the greatest anthropological resemblance to the wandering Bedouins, the poster boys of the Patriarchs. Ashkenazic Jews, by contrast, resembled the Caucasian type more than anything else (Efron 1994).
This was not what Zionist leaders wanted to hear amid the formation of their nationalistic movement that called Jews to return to their homeland, fight and, maybe, die for it.
The research question had to be rephrased. Abandoning any desire to see a jüdische Typus specimen ever again, the new research paradigm focused on studying features common to all contemporary Jews and deriving the characteristics of the jüdische Typus from them (Elhaik 2016). Unfortunately, no biomarker for Jewishness was ever found in a way that excluded Jews from non-Jews. Yet the question remained: which of all the Jews, who have nothing in common except religion, best represent the Ancient Israelites. The answer among the Ashkenazic Jewish researchers was almost unanimous – let us mold the jüdische Typus in our own image.
To support these claims, geneticists began producing a large body of literature aimed to support and prove two things: 1) their genetic superiority and 2) their genetic ties to Israel, by showing their resemblance to Levantine populations (Falk 2017), whose own claims to the land were later dismissed on account of being “work migrants.” Kirsh (2003) demonstrated how human geneticists and physicians have consistently manipulated their results and emphasized the sociological and historical aspects of their research using their work as a vehicle for establishing a national identity and confirming the Zionist narrative.
The mammoth in the room was the lack of any genetic evidence from the ancient Israelites that would allow testing the similarity of their DNA to that of modern-day Jews. Since no one imagined that mammoths would ever come to life, they avoided the problem completely.
It was much easier to pretend that modern-day Jews and Ashkenazic Jews, in particular, are living replicas of the ancient Israelites who not only were all related to one another but also resisted the gene flow from non-Jews all this time. Despite the imagined link between modern-day Jews and the ancient Israelites, the claims of the primordialist camp became well accepted in the direct-to-consumer industry.
The myth of the “Cohen gene” (Skorecki et al. 1997) or “Four mitochondrial mothers” (Behar et al. 2004) produced by the members of this camp became the bedrock of the Genetic Judaism era, where one needs only to order a genetic test from the right company to receive a Jewishness certificate.
A genetic test from the right company can help one claim Jewish ancestry. ( Rospoint / Adobe Stock)
Using DNA to Study Jewish Ancestry
Paleogenomics changed all that. Thanks to advances in the field, it became possible to extract DNA from ancient people and identify their mitochondrial haplogroups and even autosomal DNA. This remarkable progress allowed the unthinkable: A semi-revival of the ancient Israelites from their dry bones and the recovery of their stories.
The DNA extracted from those bones can tell us who these people were, what they looked like, what they ate, and what diseases they carried (Nielsen et al. 2017; Prohaska et al. 2019). We can trace their migration routes to gain a deeper understanding of where we all came from. Yes, they can also tell us how similar those ancient Israelites were to modern-day people, and if modern-day Jews are not the lineal descendants of the ancient Israelites, we can find out who is.
To answer some of these questions, Ancient DNA Origins developed a series of genetic tests (disclosure, I contributed to the development), which allow comparing the DNA of modern-day people to the ancient DNA extracted from skeletons of various people, including the Ancient Israelites .
The ancient Israelites were obtained from three regions Motza Tachtit at the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, Peqi’in (Naphtali), and Raqefet Cave (Manasseh), near the valley of the Raqefet river.
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The dry bones from Raqefet Cave. (Reuveny / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The bones still cannot speak, but in their own way, they have a lot to teach us and allow us to reevaluate our core beliefs.
The answer to the question who is closer to the ancient Israelites rests in the DNA extracted from some 50 bones of ancient Israelites and Judaeans with many more to come. Are modern-Jews mostly Middle Easterners (or ancient Israelites) like Ostrer claims? Hardly.
Upon examining the results of 80 Jews from various communities, I could not help noticing the irony considering how the progress in population genetics validated the findings of the 19th-century anthropologists who combed the Levant in an honest search for the jüdische Typus before the repercussions of their findings became clear and their results were deplored on every stage. The most similar Jews to the ancient Israelites who left their dry bones in the Raqefet Valley in Israel were Yemenite and Mesopotamian Jews, but that genetic similarity was less than 15%, on average, in agreement with our previous analyses ascribing less than 5% ancient Levantine ancestry to Ashkenazic Jews (Das et al. 2017).
Yet, these averages mask the high heterogeneity among all Jewish communities. Some people may share the highest similarity with Gal (named after Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot), a young Neolithic woman – only 6200 years old, and other people may find that they are close to Abraham, a Turkish man (E1b1) who led a group of Anatolians to what he must to have felt was the promised land.
Due to the many population replacements that the area experienced, we can see a diverse range of mitochondrial haplogroups that vary over time. Among the most common lineages are J2, K1a, and T. An analysis of Judaeans from the first century AD confirmed the prevalence of the T haplogroup (Matheson et al. 2009), found today in less than 10% of Ashkenazic Jews. Unsurprisingly, not a single skeleton matches the alleged four Ashkenazic Jewish mothers, whose origin is in prehistoric Europe (Costa et al. 2013). As expected, an exact match with one of those “mothers” was found in Neolithic Spain (Haak et al. 2015).
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This is the only match from prehistoric times to date, but it is reasonable to expect many more to come as ancient DNA from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus will be sequenced. Interestingly, the Y chromosomal haplotypes of the ancient Israelites are typically E1b1 and T1 haplotypes, commonly found today in Africa with lower frequencies in the Middle East and Europe.
We can expect that future tests covering other regions of the world would be able to explain the remaining portion of the elusive Jewish ancestry. Only time will say if “Genetic Jewishness” will evolve onto “Primeval Jewishness” where people define their Jewishness based on their similarity to ancient Israelites and Jews rather than modern ones.
Think about it the next time that your favorite genetic testing company tells you that you have some “Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry.”
Top image: Ezekiel’s vision ‘The Valley of Dry Bones”. Source: loswl / CC BY-SA 2.0 .
By Dr Eran Elhaik
Atzmon, G., HaoI, L., Pe’er, I., and Velez, C. 2010. Abraham’s children in the genome era: major Jewish diaspora populations comprise distinct genetic clusters with shared Middle Eastern ancestry . American Journal of Human Genetics. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45096123_Abraham's_Children_in_the_Genome_Era_Major_Jewish_Diaspora_Populations_Comprise_Distinct_Genetic_Clusters_with_Shared_Middle_Eastern_Ancestry
Behar, D., Hammer, M., Garrigan, D., and Villems, R. 2004. MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population . European Journal of Human Genetics. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8466965_MtDNA_evidence_for_a_genetic_bottleneck_in_the_early_history_of_the_Ashkenazi_Jewish_population
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Skorecki, K., Selig, S., Blazer, S., Bradman, R., Bradman, N., Waburton, P., Ismajlowicz, M., and Hammer, M. 1997. Y chromosomes of Jewish priests . Nature. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14223371_Y_chromosomes_of_Jewish_priests