Friday, September 17, 2010

The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

Finkelstein and Silberman are archeologists who have summarized the archeological evidence that relates to the history of the people of Israel in their book: The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. The authors present the history as provided by the books of the Hebrew Bible and compare it with the history deduced from archeological studies. The comparison allows them to pinpoint the time when the various books were written and to make conclusions about who wrote them and why.

To understand the history of the Israelites one must know the history—both military and economic—of the territory stretching from Egypt to Persia. It is surprisingly rich and complex. The territory of the Israelites was often dominated, and occasionally overrun by whoever had the most power at the time. These other kingdoms often provided records of historical events that could be used either to corroborate or to discredit the accounts contained in the books of the Bible. When the Israelis regained control of the Biblical lands the opportunities for archeological investigations exploded. For centuries investigators had assumed the authenticity of the biblical accounts and tuned their studies to providing verification of the writings. Eventually enough information became available that one could take the approach of determining a history based solely on the data. At that point the story became quite interesting.

The authors go into considerable detail in tracking the historical twists and turns from the time of the first known reference to Israel up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the return of the exiles around 538 BCE. It is all interesting reading. Here we will only touch on the major events.

The authors provide a concise Biblical history as well as a detailed one.
"The Bible’s tale begins in the garden of Eden and continues through the stories of Cain and Able and the flood of Noah, finally focusing on the fate of a single family—that of Abraham. Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation, and faithfully followed God’s commands. He traveled with his family from his original home in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan where, in the course of a long life....begot a son, Isaac, who would inherit the divine promises first given to Abraham. It was Isaac’s son Jacob—the third generation patriarch—who became the father of twelve distinct tribes....Jacob wrestled with an angel and received the name Israel (meaning ‘He who struggled with God’), by which all his descendents would be known. The Bible relates how Jacob’s twelve sons left their homeland to seek shelter in Egypt at the time of a great famine. And the patriarch Jacob declared in his last will and testament that the tribe of his son Judah would rule over them all."

"The children of Israel had grown into a great nation, but they were enslaved as a despised minority....God’s intention to make himself known to the world came through his selection of Moses as an intermediary....The God of Israel led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness. At Sinai God revealed to the nation his true identity as YHWH (the Sacred Name composed of four Hebrew letters and gave them a code of law...The holy terms of Israel’s covenant with YHWH, written on stone tablets and contained in the Ark of the Covenant, became their sacred battle standard....The great triumphs of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, King David’s establishment of a great empire, and Solomon’s construction of the Jerusalem Temple were followed by schism, repeated lapses into idolatry, and, ultimately exile."
That is the story presented in the Bible. Let us now march through this history as informed by the archeological data.

The authors begin with the story of Abraham. They state that it is difficult to arrive at a precise chronology and determine when Abraham would have lived from the Biblical tales (one estimate would place him around 2100 BCE). In any event, no one has been able to find any evidence to corroborate the tale at any of the possible times. Instead, researchers discovered that the Biblical narrative was consistent with what was known of the world and the surrounding peoples around the seventh century BCE. Some of the details presented would not have been consistent with the times presented in the narrative. The conclusion was that the Biblical description was created by someone around the seventh century BCE and it was based on the known world at that time. The authors view the Abraham tale as an attempt to demonstrate the primacy of Judah as far back in history as possible. That does not preclude some legendary input into the story, but there was also a clear political motive.

The earliest known reference to the word "Israel outside of the Bible is on an Egyptian stele describing an Egyptian campaign in Canaan at the very end of the thirteenth century BCE. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt would have had to have occurred in the fourteenth or fifteenth century BCE. The Egyptians apparently were prodigious record keepers. They had never even heard of the Israelites, let alone held hundreds of thousands of them captive. They also had possession of the desert region in which the Israelites were supposed to have wandered (all 600,000 of them) for forty years. This area was dotted with closely spaced fortifications intended to detect activity from an enemy to the east. Not a word was recorded about anyone wandering around. One has to conclude that the events of the Exodus never happened.

The creation of such a tale is probably linked to the history of the Canaanites. There was a large population of Canaanites working in Egypt in the sixteenth century BCE. For some reason they were expelled and presumably returned to their homeland. The authors present evidence that the Israelites were in fact Canaanites themselves.
"The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages—all 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."These were the people who would come to be called Israelites. Joshua and the tumbling walls of Jericho never happened. Jericho never had any walls to begin with. Egyptian records again describe Canaanite towns as small and unfortified. However, there was a victory, in a sense, because the Canaanites were in decline and the Israelites were on the rise. Perhaps this decline became a military defeat in legends that evolved over the centuries. Or perhaps it just made for an inspirational story to stir up a little patriotism.

An interesting fact comes out about these early settlements in the highlands. There were no pigs. Bones of pigs are found in lowland settlements and in earlier eras in the highlands but not in these early Israelite villages.
"Half a millennium before the composition of the Biblical text, with its detailed laws and dietary regulations, the Israelites chose—for reasons that are not entirely clear—not to eat pork. When modern Jews do the same, they are continuing the oldest archeologically attested cultural practice of the people of Israel."The era of David and Solomon is thought to be around 1005-930 BCE. The Bible says that God told David he would be king of the Israelites and he and his heirs would rule forever over the Israelite homeland. Solomon was his son. Both men are invested with glorious accomplishments in the Biblical literature.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that there was ever a large wealthy kingdom, and no evidence of David’s conquests. There is also no evidence Jerusalem was other than a small village at the time. No evidence of a monumental Temple of Solomon or any other significant architecture has ever been discovered. On the other hand, there is an inscription on an artifact that has the King of Damascus referring to the "House of David." This leads the authors to believe that there was a figure known as David who was probably a local chieftain who for some reason developed legendary qualities.

Given that so many of the Biblical tales were either false or wildly embellished—who produced them, and for what reason? The authors suggest that the books of the Bible were assembled in essentially their final form just before or during the reign of King Josiah (649-609 BCE). At the time the Israelites had spent centuries divided into a relatively wealthy northern kingdom, Israel, and a much poorer kingdom to the south, Judah. Much of the Bible is devoted to detailing the ups and downs of these kingdoms. Whenever something bad happened it was attributed to God’s anger at some offense, and conversely, good things happened when you behaved and pleased God.

Josiah was a descendent of David. He was intensely religious and wanted to impose his form of religion on the remainder of the Israelites. He needed documents that would support his concept of religion, would legitimize him as a powerful king, and prove inspirational to the people. That is what he needed and that is what someone provided him. A prophecy supposedly issued at the time of David predicted that three hundred years later a King named Josiah would appear and do great and wondrous things. That might have made one a bit suspicious.

Josiah was programmed to be the Messiah. Everything was in place except fate. Josiah went to meet Pharaoh Necho for what was to be a non-threatening meeting, but, for some reason, Josiah was slain. The Israelites were stunned. Josiah had done everything correctly. He was perceived to have been the perfect servant of the Lord—and suddenly he was dead before any of his grand goals could be accomplished.

Things went from bad to worse afterword. Josiah’s successors sought protection through an alliance to the west with Egypt. Meanwhile the Babylonians were growing stronger and on the move. The Babylonians arrived in an angry mood. They destroyed as much of Judah as they could, including Jerusalem and the temple, and carried much of the population into exile. The priests and the Davidic ancestors were all removed. Roughly a century later the Persians took control of the region and allowed the Israelites to return home and rebuild their temple.

This period of disappointment and exile forced the priests to make one last major change to the sacred scriptures. Effectively, the Davidic line no longer existed in spite of God’s covenant with David. Therefore God’s covenant had to be made conditional with a specific condition that had not been met. Basically, they made one of the earlier kings, one who they did not like, to be the transgressor. The beloved Josiah was only "good" enough to delay the destruction of Jerusalem, not to prevent it. And then the writers did a clever thing. They redefined God’s covenant to be not with David, but with all the Israelites—a much more powerful and compelling religious message.

This brings the story to an end. The sacred documents are essentially in final form and the subsequent history is well known from a variety of sources. The authors have succeeded in demolishing the Bible as an historical chronicle, but they are quite proud of it as a document detailing the hopes and aspirations of a small and poor people who dreamed mightily. As to the religious significance of their findings—they are silent. Perhaps they realize that all matters of faith, ultimately, are neither provable nor disprovable. A devout Jew is not likely to have his faith shattered by these revelations.

1 comment:

  1. I read with great interest your post, which is beautifully written. What a fantastic livelihood one is given in archaeology. I regret not having had its influence of study in my life. But I do have a keen interest in the Bible, researching its content with the writings of Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Matthew Black and H. H. Rowley. My study began in 1983 and it’s fascinating. There’s so little I know, except for this: “There’s one thing I know–God exits. If you have an open mind, you never know where God is going to lead you.” Time doesn’t cradle the past remnants caringly, as one is to draw nigh to a universal creator known as God. This of course brings me to James 4:13–15 (AV) in the Holy Bible. But I certainly love learning the numerous facets in archaeology, especially when they’re sited so informatively professional that even laymen, such as myself, eagerly and most appreciatively soak it in like a sponge whose purpose is one of learning and growing closer to who I am in God. In my novel “Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich? it’s given in a personal perspective that equates to the significance of religion or no dogmatic creed. With or without proof, what matters is one’s relationship with a heavenly Father. As God isn’t religion, but it’s believing in something bigger than their selves. Great post!

    Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author (year-end 2010)’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich?


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