Review Article

Fiat Lux: Archeology and the Old Testament

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Archeology has long been considered a good friend of the Hebrew Bible. Just as Heinrich Schliemann's discoveries proved that Homer's stories were not purely mythical, so archeological discoveries in Old Testament lands have been taken to demonstrate that the Bible is history rather than legend. Although for centuries textual critics have realized that the Old Testament represents the editing together of several texts produced at different times by different groups, until the 1970s most archeologists continued to accept its accounts at face value. Since virtually all were Christians or Jews with a strong commitment to the truth of the Bible, they interpreted their finds in light of scripture. No wonder, then, that archeological findings confirmed the Bible when researchers used the Old Testament to identify, date, and interpret the significance of the towns, buildings, pottery, and other artifacts they unearthed.

But in the 1970s a new trend emerged as archeologists began to treat discoveries in the Holy Land as they would those anywhere else. Concentrating on Israel's ancient history itself, rather than solely on its biblical associations, they used artifacts, architecture, settlement patterns, animal bones, seeds, soil samples, anthropological models drawn from world cultures, and other modern methods to produce a description based on scientific evidence. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (Free Press, New York, 2001, 385 pages, ISBN 0684869128, cloth, $26.00; Touchstone Books, New York, 2002, ISBN 0684869136, paperback, $14.00) brings this scholarship to a general audience. Dr. Finkelstein is director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Silberman is director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium.

Seeking to "separate history from legend," the authors "share the most recent archaeological insights — still largely unknown outside scholarly circles — not only on when, but also why the Bible was written," discoveries which "have revolutionized the study of early Israel and have cast serious doubt on the historical basis of such famous biblical stories as the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan, and the glorious empire of David and Solomon" (p. 3). The Bible Unearthed discusses in some detail the evidence behind these claims, and shows why, although "no archaeologist can deny that the Bible contains legends, characters, and story fragments that reach far back in time. . . . archaeology can show that the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History bear unmistakable hallmarks of their initial compilation in the seventh century BCE" (p. 23).

The Bible opens its account of the Jewish people with the wandering of the patriarchs, beginning with Abraham. To judge by recent cover stories in such magazines as National Geographic and Time, one would think that Abraham must be a well-established historical character. Said to be a Babylonian from Ur in what is now southern Iraq, according to Genesis Abraham moved northwest to Haran in southern Turkey, where the voice of God told him to go south into Canaan. The Bible traces all the nations of the region to his family. The Moabites and Ammonites derive from his nephew Lot; the Jews and southern Arabs from Abraham's sons, Isaac and Ishmael respectively. There follow Isaac's sons Esau — father of the Edomites and other desert tribes — and Jacob; then Jacob's twelve sons, each of whom ruled one of the twelve tribes of Israel. One son, Joseph, is sold into slavery in Egypt. During a famine the rest of the family, seeking relief there, discover that Joseph has risen high in the Pharaoh's favor. After Jacob's death, the children of Israel remain in Egypt.

What archeological evidence is there concerning these biblical figures? Archeologists, many of them churchmen, have searched in- tensely for evidence of the historical patriarchs because they felt that unless these people actually existed, their own religious faith would be erroneous. Although the Bible provides a great deal of specific information, the search has proved unsuccessful. Discrepancies in details are significant because such "specific references in the text to cities, neighboring peoples, and familiar places are precisely those aspects that distinguish the patriarchal stories from completely mythical folktales. They are crucially important for identifying the date and message of the text" (p. 38). For example, camels were not commonly used as beasts of burden in the Near East until the seventh century BCE, and the Philistines did not settle in Canaan until after 1200 BCE. Excavation of several sites mentioned as prominent in Genesis sometimes show that in the early Iron Age they were insignificant or nonexistent, but by the late eighth and seventh century BCE had become important.

Analysis shows, moreover, that the genealogies of the patriarchs and the nations deriving from them represent "a colorful human map of the ancient Near East from the unmistakable viewpoint of the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. These stories offer a highly sophisticated commentary on political affairs in this region in the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods" (pp. 38-9). The Bible also gives a dominant role to Judah in Genesis, even though at that time it was insignificant:

It is now evident that the selection of Abraham, with his close connection to Hebron, Judah's earliest royal city, and to Jerusalem . . . was meant also to emphasize the primacy of Judah even in the earliest eras of Israel's history. It is almost as if an American scripture describing pre-Columbian history placed inordinate attention on Manhattan Island or on the tract of land that would later become Washington, D.C. The pointed political meaning of the inclusion of such a detail in a larger narrative at least calls into question its historical credibility. — p. 43

The authors conclude that the patriarchal traditions

must be considered as a sort of pious "prehistory" of Israel in which Judah played a decisive role. They describe the very early history of the nation, delineate ethnic boundaries, emphasize that the Israelites were outsiders and not part of the indigenous population of Canaan, and embrace the traditions of both the north and the south, while ultimately stressing the superiority of Judah. — p. 45

Rather than a chronicle or history, evidence indicates that this part of Genesis was a national epic created in the seventh century BCE which successfully joined many regional legendary ancestors into one unified tradition.

A second series of biblical events revolves around the slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt, the miraculous escape of 600,000 led by Moses, their wandering in the wilderness for forty years, their swift conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua, and the slaughter of all the original inhabitants. These events, memorialized in major Jewish festivals, occupy four of the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. Physical evidence and historical texts confirm that Canaanites had traditionally settled in the prosperous east delta region of Egypt, particularly in times of drought, famine, and war. Some came as landless conscripts and prisoners of war, others as farmers, herders, or tradesmen. Egyptian historians tell of the Hyksos, Canaanite immigrants who became dominant in a great delta city and were forcibly expelled by the Egyptians around 1570 BCE. After the Hyksos expulsion, the Egyptian government controlled immigration from Canaan closely and built forts along the eastern delta and at one-day intervals along the Mediterreanean coast to Gaza. These forts kept extensive records, none of which mention the Israelites or any other foreign ethnic group entering, leaving, or living as a people in the delta.

Biblical scholars place the Exodus in the late thirteenth century BCE, and up to that time there is only one mention of the name Israel, despite many Egyptian records concerning Canaan. Nor is there any archeological evidence for a body of people encamping in the desert and mountains of Sinai in the Late Bronze Age:

Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real. A few were well known and apparently occupied in much earlier periods and much later periods — after the kingdom of Judah was established, when the text of the biblical narrative was set down in writing for the first time. Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness. — p. 64

Archeology also reveals dramatic discrepancies concerning the military campaign of Joshua, dated between 1230-1220 BCE, when the powerful Canaanite kings were supposedly destroyed and the twelve tribes inherited their traditional territories. Abundant Late Bronze Age Egyptian diplomatic and military correspondence and other existing texts give detailed information about Canaan, which was closely administered by Egypt at that time for a period of several centuries. The Canaanite cities were small and unfortified — Jericho and some of the other cities mentioned were even unsettled altogether — and the total population of Canaan probably did not exceed 100,000. While in fact many Canaanite cities were burned and destroyed in the thirteenth century BCE, evidence points to widespread causes affecting also prosperous cultures in Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. A major factor was mysterious, violent invaders known as the Sea People, who included the Philistines. In 1185 BCE the last king of Ugarit (a large port on the coast of Syria) wrote that "enemy boats have arrived, the enemy has set fire to the cities and wrought havoc. My troops are in Hittite country, my boats in Lycia, and the country has been left to its own devices" (p. 87). A contemporary Egyptian inscription states that "The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. . . . No land could stand before their arms" (ibid.). In evaluating the biblical account, Finkelstein and Silberman conclude that

The book of Joshua offered an unforgettable epic with a clear lesson — how, when the people of Israel did follow the Law of the covenant with God to the letter, no victory could be denied to them. That point was made with some of the most vivid folktales — the fall of the walls of Jericho, the sun standing still at Gibeon, the rout of Canaanite kings down the narrow ascent at Beth-horon — recast as a single epic against a highly familiar and suggestive seventh century background, and played out in places of the greatest concern to the Deuteronomistic ideology. In reading and reciting these stories, the Judahites of the late seventh century BCE would have seen their deepest wishes and religious beliefs expressed. — pp. 94-5

But if the Israelites did not flee Egypt and invade Canaan, who were they? After the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Jewish archeologists began to thoroughly explore, map, and analyze the hill country of Judah, looking for settlement patterns, evidence of lifestyles, and changes in demography and the environment.

These surveys revolutionized the study of early Israel. The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages — all apparently established within the span of a few generations — indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead, it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle. In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites. — p. 107

Further research showed that there had been two previous waves of settlement: first in the Early Bronze Age around 3500 BCE, peaking at about 100 villages and towns, which were abandoned around 2200 BCE; and again in the Middle Bronze Age shortly after 2000 BCE, resulting in 220 settlements ranging from villages to towns and fortified centers, comprising perhaps 40,000 people. This period ended sometime in the sixteenth century BCE, and the highlands remained sparsely populated for 400 years. The Israelite settlements of around 1200 BCE contained 45,000 people in 250 sites, climaxing in the eighth century BCE with 160,000 people in over 500 sites. During settled times, farming was common; in unsettled times, herding sheep and goats dominated, a pattern found throughout the Middle East. As Canaanite cities collapsed, the pastoralists in the hills were forced to grow their own grain and produce, resulting in settlements. Thus,

the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan — they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people — the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were — irony of ironies — themselves originally Canaanites! — p. 118

The authors hold in this connection that the stories in the Book of Judges about conflicts with the Canaanites — such as those concerning Samson, Deborah, and Gideon — may be authentic memories of village conflicts and local heroes preserved as folktales, combined and recast for later theological and political purposes.

Thirdly, the Bible tells of the golden age of the united kingdom of Israel ruled over by a Judean monarch, first David and then his son Solomon. It describes a renowned empire spreading from the Red Sea to the border of Syria, the splendor of Jerusalem and the first Temple built by Solomon, as well as other magnificent building projects. This united kingdom then split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Does archeology confirm this picture? Despite legendary exaggerations and elaborations, the authors believe that David and Solomon did exist — but as minor highland chieftains ruling a population of perhaps 5,000 people. No archeological evidence exits around 1005-970 BCE for David's conquest or his empire, nor in Solomon's time (ca. 970-931 BCE) is there any evidence of monumental architecture or of Jerusalem as more than a village:

As far as we can see on the basis of the archaeological surveys, Judah remained relatively empty of permanent population, quite isolated, and very marginal right up to and past the presumed time of David and Solomon, with no major urban centers and with no pronounced hierarchy of hamlets, villages, and towns. — p. 132

There is no trace of written documents or inscriptions, nor of the Temple or palace of Solomon, and buildings once identified with Solomon have been shown to date from other periods. Current evidence refutes the existence of a unified kingdom: "The glorious epic of united monarchy was — like the stories of the patriarchs and the sagas of the Exodus and conquest — a brilliant composition that wove together ancient heroic tales and legends into a coherent and persuasive prophecy for the people of Israel in the seventh century BCE" (p. 144).

Map: Kingdom of David and Solomon according to the Bible
Kingdom of David and Solomon according to the Bible

In the second half of the book the authors sketch the history of Israel and Judah from 930 to 440 BCE based on archeological evidence, comparing it with the biblical account. They show that the northern and southern kingdoms were always separate and independent. Because of topography and natural resources, Israel to the north was always more populous, cosmopolitan, prosperous, and therefore desirable to foreign conquerors, while Judah long remained poor, sparsely populated, and isolated. The Old Testament material about this era was written from the viewpoint of the Judean royalty and Deuteronomistic priests with their religious reforms: insistence on the worship of one imageless God in the Temple at Jerusalem and the complete separation of a united Jewish people from surrounding peoples. There is much evidence that such monotheistic demands were an innovation in both Judah and Israel, where worship of subsidiary gods and goddesses, as well as the heavenly bodies, was traditional. Nor were they adopted widely by the people, who continued to worship using goddess figures in their homes. The Deuteronomistic account, the authors hold, is a cautionary epic joining elements from various regions to serve seventh-century Judean interests. Later, after the Babylonian exile, it was refashioned to meet new (though in many ways similar) conditions, resulting in the accounts we have today.

In summing up the significance of these recent findings, Finkelstein and Silberman maintain that "the historical saga contained in the Bible . . . was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of human imagination" (p. 1), and argue that

the Bible's integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful historical "proof" of any of its particular events or personalities . . . The power of the biblical saga stems from its being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people's liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality. It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive. — p. 318

For centuries, however, Jews, Christians, and Moslems have believed that events in their racial and religious history are recorded in the Old Testament. Even today many continue to believe that the biblical account is literally true, or at least basically accurate. Scholarly findings in archeology, textual analysis, history, and newly translated ancient documents all point to a reality which may be difficult for many traditional and fundamentalist believers to reconcile with a faith that depends on biblical events, promises, prophecies, and revelations being historical facts. Nonetheless, this knowledge represents a new dawning in our understanding of these religions and their ancient history.

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