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The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Textsby Israel Finkelstein
Introduction: Archaeology and the Bible
The story of how and why the Bible was written — and how it fits into the extraordinary history of the people of Israel — is closely linked to a fascinating tale of modern discovery. The search has centered on a tiny land, hemmed in on two sides by desert and on one side by the Mediterranean, that has, over the millennia, been plagued by recurrent drought and almost continual warfare. Its cities and population were minuscule in comparison to those of the neighboring empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Likewise, its material culture was poor in comparison to the splendor and extravagance of theirs. And yet this land was the birthplace of a literary masterpiece that has exerted an unparalleled impact on world civilization as both sacred scripture and history.
More than two hundred years of detailed study of the Hebrew text of the Bible and ever more wide-ranging exploration in all the lands between the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have enabled us to begin to understand when, why, and how the Bible came to be. Detailed analysis of the language and distinctive literary genres of the Bible has led scholars to identify oral and written sources on which the present biblical text was based. At the same time, archaeology has produced a stunning, almost encyclopedic knowledge of the material conditions, languages, societies, and historical developments of the centuries during which the traditions of ancient Israel gradually crystallized, spanning roughly six hundred years — from about 1000 to 400 BCE. Most important of all, the textual insights and the archaeological evidence have combined to help us to distinguish between the power and poetry of biblical saga and the more down-to-earth events and processes of ancient Near Eastern history.
Not since ancient times has the world of the Bible been so accessible and so thoroughly explored. Through archaeological excavations we now know what crops the Israelites and their neighbors grew, what they ate, how they built their cities, and with whom they traded. Dozens of cities and towns mentioned in the Bible have been identified and uncovered. Modern excavation methods and a wide range of laboratory tests have been used to date and analyze the civilizations of the ancient Israelites and their neighbors the Philistines, Phoenicians, Arameans, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites. In a few cases, inscriptions and signet seals have been discovered that can be directly connected with individuals mentioned in the biblical text. But that is not to say that archaeology has proved the biblical narrative to be true in all of its details. Far from it: it is now evident that many events of biblical history did not take place in either the particular era or the manner described. Some of the most famous events in the Bible clearly never happened at all.
Archaeology has helped us to reconstruct the history behind the Bible, both on the level of great kings and kingdoms and in the modes of everyday life. And as we will explain in the following chapters, we now know that the early books of the Bible and their famous stories of early Israelite history were first codified (and in key respects composed) at an identifiable place and time: Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE.
First, some basic definitions. When we speak of the Bible we are referring primarily to the collection of ancient writings long known as the Old Testament — now commonly referred to by scholars as the Hebrew Bible. It is a collection of legend, law, poetry, prophecy, philosophy, and history, written almost entirely in Hebrew (with a few passages in a variant Semitic dialect called Aramaic, which came to be the lingua franca of the Middle East after 600 BCE). It consists of thirty-nine books that were originally divided by subject or author — or in the case of longer books like 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, by the standard length of parchment or papyrus rolls. The Hebrew Bible is the central scripture of Judaism, the first part of Christianity's canon, and a rich source of allusions and ethical teachings in Islam conveyed through the text of the Quran. Traditionally the Hebrew Bible has been divided into three main parts.
The Torah — also known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch ("five books" in Greek) — includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These narrate the story of the people of Israel from the creation of the world, through the period of the flood and the patriarchs, to the Exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the desert, and the giving of the Law at Sinai. The Torah concludes with Moses' farewell to the people of Israel.
The next division, the Prophets, is divided into two main groups of scriptures. The Former Prophets — Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings — tell the story of the people of Israel from their crossing of the river Jordan and conquest of Canaan, through the rise and fall of the Israelite kingdoms, to their defeat and exile at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Latter Prophets include the oracles, social teachings, bitter condemnations, and messianic expectations of a diverse group of inspired individuals spanning a period of about three hundred and fifty years, from the mid-eighth century BCE to the end of the fifth century BCE.
Finally, the Writings are a collection of homilies, poems, prayers, proverbs, and psalms that represent the most memorable and powerful expressions of the devotion of the ordinary Israelite at times of joy, crisis, worship, and personal reflection. In most cases, they are extremely difficult to link to any specific historical events or authors. They are the products of a continuous process of composition that stretched over hundreds of years. Although the earliest material in this collection (in Psalms and Lamentations) may have been assembled in late monarchic times or soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, most of the Writings were apparently composed much later, from the fifth to the second century BCE — in the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
This book examines the main "historical" works of the Bible, primarily the Torah and the Former Prophets, which narrate the saga of the people of Israel from its beginnings to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. We compare this narrative with the wealth of archaeological data that has been collected over the last few decades. The result is the discovery of a fascinating and complex relationship between what actually happened in the land of the Bible during the biblical period (as best as it can be determined) and the well-known details of the elaborate historical narrative that the Hebrew Bible contains.
The heart of the Hebrew Bible is an epic story that describes the rise of the people of Israel and their continuing relationship with God. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, such as the Egyptian tales of Osiris, Isis, and Horus or the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, the Bible is grounded firmly in earthly history. It is a divine drama played out before the eyes of humanity. Also unlike the histories and royal chronicles of other ancient Near Eastern nations, it does not merely celebrate the power of tradition and ruling dynasties. It offers a complex yet clear vision of why history has unfolded for the people of Israel — and indeed for the entire world — in a pattern directly connected with the demands and promises of God. The people of Israel are the central actors in this drama. Their behavior and their adherence to God's commandments determine the direction in which history will flow. It is up to the people of Israel — and, through them, all readers of the Bible — to determine the fate of the world.
The Bible's tale begins in the garden of Eden and continues through the stories of Cain and Abel and the flood of Noah, finally focusing on the fate of a single family — that of Abraham. Abraham was chosen by God to become 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, he wandered as an outsider among the settled population and, by his wife, Sarah, 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. In the course of a colorful, chaotic life of wandering, raising a large family, and establishing altars throughout the land, Jacob wrestled with an angel and received the name Israel (meaning "He who struggled with God"), by which all his descendants would be known. The Bible relates how Jacob's twelve sons fought among one another, worked together, and eventually 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 (Genesis 49:8-10).
The great saga then moves from family drama to historical spectacle. The God of Israel revealed his awesome power in a demonstration against the pharaoh of Egypt, the mightiest human ruler on earth. The children of Israel had grown into a great nation, but they were enslaved as a despised minority, building the great monuments of the Egyptian regime. God's intention to make himself known to the world came through his selection of Moses as an intermediary to seek the liberation of the Israelites so that they could begin their true destiny. And in perhaps the most vivid sequence of events in the literature of the western world, the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers describe how through signs and wonders, 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 to guide their lives as a community and as individuals.
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 as they marched toward the promised land. In some cultures, a founding myth might have stopped at this point — as a miraculous explanation of how the people arose. But the Bible had centuries more of history to recount, with many triumphs, miracles, unexpected reverses, and much collective suffering to come. 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. For the Bible describes how, soon after the death of Solomon, the ten northern tribes, resenting their subjugation to Davidic kings in Jerusalem, unilaterally seceded from the united monarchy, thus forcing the creation of two rival kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel, in the north, and the kingdom of Judah, in the south.
For the next two hundred years, the people of Israel lived in two separate kingdoms, reportedly succumbing again and again to the lure of foreign deities. The leaders of the northern kingdom are described in the Bible as all irretrievably sinful; some of the kings of Judah are also said to have strayed from the path of total devotion to God. In time, God sent outside invaders and oppressors to punish the people of Israel for their sins. First the Arameans of Syria harassed the kingdom of Israel. Then the mighty Assyrian empire brought unprecedented devastation to the cities of the northern kingdom and the bitter fate of destruction and exile in 720 BCE for a significant portion of the ten tribes. The kingdom of Judah survived more than a century longer, but its people could not avert the inevitable judgment of God. In 586 BCE, the rising, brutal Babylonian empire decimated the land of Israel and put Jerusalem and its Temple to the torch.
With that great tragedy, the biblical narrative dramatically departs in yet another characteristic way from the normal pattern of ancient religious epics. In many such stories, the defeat of a god by a rival army spelled the end of his cult as well. But in the Bible, the power of the God of Israel was seen to be even greater after the fall of Judah and the exile of the Israelites. Far from being humbled by the devastation of his temple, the God of Israel was seen to be a deity of unsurpassable power. He had, after all, manipulated the Assyrians and the Babylonians to be his unwitting agents to punish the people of Israel for their infidelity.
Henceforth, after the return of some of the exiles to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple, Israel would no longer be a monarchy but a religious community, guided by divine law and dedicated to the precise fulfillment of the rituals prescribed in the community's sacred texts. And it would be the free choice of men and women to keep or violate that divinely decreed order — rather than the behavior of its kings or the rise and fall of great empires — that would determine the course of Israel's subsequent history. In this extraordinary focus on human responsibility lay the Bible's great power. Other ancient epics would fade over time. The impact of the Bible's story on western civilization would only grow.
For centuries, Bible readers took it for granted that the scriptures were both divine revelation and accurate history, conveyed directly from God to a wide variety of Israelite sages, prophets, and priests. Established religious authorities, both Jewish and Christian, naturally assumed that the Five Books of Moses were set down in writing by Moses himself — just before his death on Mount Nebo as narrated in the book of Deuteronomy. The books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel were all regarded as sacred records preserved by the venerable prophet Samuel at Shiloh, and the books of Kings were seen as the product of the prophet Jeremiah's pen. Likewise, King David was believed to be the author of the Psalms, and King Solomon, of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. Yet by the dawn of the modern era, in the seventeenth century, scholars who devoted themselves to the detailed literary and linguistic study of the Bible found that it was not quite so simple. The power of logic and reason applied to the text of the holy scriptures gave rise to some very troubling questions about the Bible's historical reliability.
The first question was whether Moses could really have been the author of the Five Books of Moses, since the last book, Deuteronomy, described in great detail the precise time and circumstances of Moses' own death. Other incongruities soon became apparent: the biblical text was filled with literary asides, explaining the ancient names of certain places and frequently noting that the evidences of famous biblical events were still visible "to this day." These factors convinced some seventeenth century scholars that the Bible's first five books, at least, had been shaped, expanded, and embellished by later, anonymous editors and revisers over the centuries.
By the late eighteenth century and even more so in the nineteenth, many critical biblical scholars had begun to doubt that Moses had any hand in the writing of the Bible whatsoever; they had come to believe that the Bible was the work of later writers exclusively. These scholars pointed to what appeared to be different versions of the same stories within the books of the Pentateuch, suggesting that the biblical text was the product of several recognizable hands. A careful reading of the book of Genesis, for example, revealed two conflicting versions of the creation (1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25), two quite different genealogies of Adam's offspring (4:17-26 and 5:1-28), and two spliced and rearranged flood stories (6:5-9:17). In addition, there were dozens more doublets and sometimes even triplets of the same events in the narratives of the wanderings of the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, and the giving of the Law.
Yet there was a clear order in this seemingly chaotic repetition. As observed as early as the nineteenth century (and clearly explained by the American biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman in his book Who Wrote the Bible?), the doublets occurring primarily in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers were not arbitrary variations or duplications of the same stories. They maintained certain readily identifiable characteristics of terminology and geographical focus, and — most conspicuously — used different names in narration to describe the God of Israel. Thus one set of stories consistently used the tetragrammaton — the four-letter name YHWH (assumed by most scholars to have been pronounced Yahweh) — in the course of its historical narration and seemed to be most interested in the tribe and territory of Judah in its various accounts. The other set of stories used the names Elohim or El for God and seemed particularly concerned with the tribes and territories in the north of the country — mainly Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. In time, it became clear that the doublets derived from two distinct sources, written in different times and different places. Scholars gave the name "J" to the Yahwist source (spelled Jahvist in German) and "E" to the Elohist source.
The distinctive uses of geographical terminology and religious symbols and the roles played by the various tribes in the two sources convinced scholars that the J text was written in Jerusalem and represented the perspective of the united monarchy or the kingdom of Judah, presumably at or soon after the time of King Solomon (C. 970-930 BCE). Likewise, the E text seemed to have been written in the north and represented the perspective of the kingdom of Israel, and would have been composed during the independent life of that kingdom (C. 930-720 BCE). The book of Deuteronomy, in its distinctive message and style, seemed to be an independent document, "D." And among the sections of the Pentateuch that could not be ascribed to J, E, or D were a large number of passages dealing with ritual matters. In time, these came to be considered part of a long treatise called "P," or the Priestly source, which displayed a special interest in purity, cult, and the laws of sacrifice. In other words, scholars gradually came to the conclusion that the first five books of the Bible as we now know them were the result of a complex editorial process in which the four main source documents — J, E, P, and D — were skillfully combined and linked by scribal compilers or "redactors," whose literary traces (called by some scholars "R" passages) consisted of transitional sentences and editorial asides. The latest of these redactions took place in the post-exilic period.
In the last few decades scholarly opinions about the dates and authorship of these individual sources have varied wildly. While some scholars argue that the texts were composed and edited during the existence of the united monarchy and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (C. 1000-586 BCE), others insist that they were late compositions, collected and edited by priests and scribes during the Babylonian exile and the restoration (in the sixth and fifth centuries), or even as late as the Hellenistic period (fourth-second centuries BCE). Yet all agree that the Pentateuch is not a single, seamless composition but a patchwork of different sources, each written under different historical circumstances to express different religious or political viewpoints.
The first four books of the Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers — seemed to be the result of a skillful interweaving of the J, E, and P sources. Yet the fifth, the book of Deuteronomy, was an entirely different case. It bears a distinctive terminology (shared by none of the other sources) and contains an uncompromising condemnation of worship of other gods, a new view of God as completely transcendent, and the absolute prohibition of the sacrificial worship of the God of Israel in any place but the Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars long ago recognized this book's possible connection to the otherwise mysterious "book of the Law" discovered by the high priest Hilkiah in the course of renovations to the Temple during the reign of King Josiah — in 622 BCE. As narrated in 2 Kings 22:8-23:24, this document became the inspiration for a religious reform of unprecedented severity.
The impact of the book of Deuteronomy on the ultimate message of the Hebrew Bible goes far beyond its strict legal codes. The connected historical narrative of the books that follow the Pentateuch — Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings — is so closely related to Deuteronomy linguistically and theologically that it has come to be called by scholars since the middle of the 1940s the "Deuteronomistic History." This is the second great literary work on the history of Israel in the Bible. It continues the story of Israel's destiny from the conquest of the promised land to the Babylonian exile and expresses the ideology of a new religious movement that arose among the people of Israel at a relatively late date. This work too was edited more than once. Some scholars argue that it was compiled during the exile in an attempt to preserve the history, culture, and identity of the vanquished nation after the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem. Other scholars suggest that in the main, the Deuteronomistic History was written in the days of King Josiah, to serve his religious ideology and territorial ambitions, and that it was finished and edited a few decades later in exile.
The books of Chronicles — the third great historical work in the Bible, dealing with pre-exilic Israel — were put in writing only in the fifth or fourth century BCE, several centuries after the events they describe. Their historical perspective is sharply slanted in favor of the historical and political claims of the Davidic dynasty and Jerusalem; they almost entirely ignore the north. In many ways Chronicles uniquely reflects the ideology and needs of Second Temple Jerusalem, for the most part reshaping an historical saga that already existed in written form. For these reasons we will make minimal use of Chronicles in this book, keeping our focus on the earlier Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic History.
As we shall see in the coming chapters, archaeology has provided enough evidence to support a new contention that the historical core of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History was substantially shaped in the seventh century BCE. We will therefore put the spotlight on late eighth and seventh century BCE Judah, when this literary process began in earnest, and shall argue that much of the Pentateuch is a late monarchic creation, advocating the ideology and needs of the kingdom of Judah, and as such is intimately connected to the Deuteronomistic History. And we shall side with the scholars who argue that the Deuteronomistic History was compiled, in the main, in the time of King Josiah, aiming to provide an ideological validation for particular political ambitions and religious reforms.
Archaeology has always played a crucial role in the debates about the composition and historical reliability of the Bible. At first, archaeology seemed to refute the more radical critics' contention that the Bible was a rather late composition, and that much of it is unreliable historically. From the end of the nineteenth century, as the modern exploration of the lands of the Bible got underway, a series of spectacular discoveries and decades of steady archaeological excavation and interpretation suggested to many that the Bible's accounts were basically trustworthy in regard to the main outlines of the story of ancient Israel. Thus it seemed that even if the biblical text was set down in writing long after the events it describes, it must have been based on a substantial body of accurately preserved memories. This conclusion was based on several new classes of archaeological and historical evidence.
Although Western pilgrims and explorers had roamed over the land of the Bible since the Byzantine period, it was only with the rise of modern historical and geographical studies, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that scholars well versed in both the Bible and other ancient sources began to reconstruct the landscape of ancient Israel on the basis of topography, biblical references, and archaeological remains, rather than relying on the ecclesiastical traditions of the various holy places. The pioneer in this field was the American Congregationalist minister Edward Robinson, who undertook two long explorations through Ottoman Palestine in 1838 and in 1852, in an effort to refute the theories of the biblical critics by locating and identifying authentic, historically verified biblical sites.
While some of the main locales of Biblical history, such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Beth-shean, and Gaza, had never been forgotten, hundreds of additional places mentioned in the Bible were unknown. By using the geographical information contained in the Bible and carefully studying the modern Arabic place-names of the country, Robinson found it was possible to identify dozens of ancient mounds and ruins with previously forgotten biblical sites.
Robinson and his successors were able to identify the extensive ruins at places like el-Jib, Beitin, and Seilun, all north of Jerusalem, as the likely sites of biblical Gibeon, Bethel, and Shiloh. This process was particularly effective in regions that had been inhabited continuously throughout the centuries and where the site's name had been preserved. Yet subsequent generations of scholars realized that in other places, where the modern names bore no relation to those of biblical sites in the vicinity, other criteria such as size and datable pottery types could be utilized to make identifications. Thus Megiddo, Hazor, Lachish, and dozens of other biblical locations were gradually added to the evolving reconstruction of biblical geography. In the late nineteenth century, the British Royal Engineers of the Palestine Exploration Fund undertook this work in a highly systematic manner, compiling detailed topographical maps of the entire country, from the sources of the Jordan River in the north to Beersheba in the Negev in the south.
More important even than the specific identifications was the growing familiarity with the major geographical regions of the land of the Bible (Figure 2): the broad and fertile coastal plain of the Mediterranean, the foothills of the Shephelah rising to the central hill country in the south, the arid Negev, the Dead Sea region and Jordan valley, the northern hill country, and the broad valleys in the north. The biblical land of Israel was an area with extraordinary climatic and environmental contrasts. It also served as a natural land bridge between the two great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its characteristic landscapes and conditions proved in virtually every case to be reflected quite accurately in the descriptions of the biblical narrative.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, repeated attempts were made to establish a standard chronology for the events described in the Bible. Most were dutifully literal. Outside sources were needed to verify the Bible's inner chronology, and they were eventually found among the archaeological remains of two of the most important — and most literate — civilizations of the ancient world.
Egypt, with its awesome monuments and vast treasure of hieroglyphic inscriptions, began to be intensively explored by European scholars in the late eighteenth century. But it was only with the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (on the basis of the trilingual Rosetta Stone) by the French scholar Jean-François Champollion in the 1820s that the historical value of Egyptian remains for dating and possibly verifying historical events in the Bible became apparent. Although identification of the specific pharaohs mentioned in the stories of Joseph and of the Exodus remained uncertain, other direct connections became clear. A victory stele erected by Pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BCE mentioned a great victory over a people named Israel. In a slightly later era, Pharaoh Shishak (mentioned in 1 Kings 14:25 as having come up against Jerusalem to demand tribute during the fifth year of the reign of Solomon's son) was identified as Sheshonq I of the Twenty-second Dynasty, who ruled from 945 to 924 BCE. He left an account of his campaign on a wall in the temple of Amun at Karnak, in Upper Egypt.
Another rich source of discoveries for chronology and historical identifications came from the broad plains between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the ancient region of Mesopotamia. Beginning in the 1840s, scholarly representatives of England, France, and eventually the United States and Germany uncovered the cities, vast palaces, and cuneiform archives of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia. For the first time since the biblical period, the main monuments and cities of those powerful Eastern empires were uncovered. Places like Nineveh and Babylon, previously known primarily from the Bible, were now seen to be the capitals of powerful and aggressive empires whose artists and scribes thoroughly documented the military campaigns and political events of their time. Thus references to a number of important biblical kings were identified in Mesopotamian cuneiform archives — the Israelite kings Omri, Ahab, and Jehu and the Judahite kings Hezekiah and Manasseh, among others. These outside references allowed scholars to see biblical history in a wider perspective, and to synchronize the reigns of the biblical monarchs with the more complete dating systems of the ancient Near East. Slowly the connections were made, and the regnal dates of Israelite and Judahite kings, Assyrian and Babylonian rulers, and Egyptian pharaohs were set in order, giving quite precise dates for the first time.
In addition, the much earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian archives from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (C. 2000-1150 BCE) at ancient sites such as Mari, and Tell el-Amarna and Nuzi, shed important light on the world of the ancient Near East and thus on the cultural milieu from which the Bible eventually emerged.
Scattered inscriptions would also be found in areas closer to the land of Israel that offered even more specific links. A triumphal description by the Moabite king Mesha, discovered in the nineteenth century in Transjordan, mentioned Mesha's victory over the armies of Israel and provided an outside testimony to a war between Israel and Moab that was reported in 2 Kings 3:4-27. The single most significant inscription for historical validation was discovered in 1993 at the site of Tel Dan in northern Israel, apparently recording the victory of the Aramean king Hazael over the king of Israel and the king of the "house of David" in the ninth century BCE. Like the Moabite inscription, it provides an extrabiblical anchor for the history of ancient Israel.
By far the most important source of evidence about the historical context of the Bible has come from more than a hundred years of modern archaeological excavations in Israel, Jordan, and the neighboring regions. Closely tied to advances in archaeological technique worldwide, biblical archaeology has been able to identify a long sequence of readily datable architectural styles, pottery forms, and other artifacts that enable scholars to date buried city levels and tombs with a fair degree of accuracy. Pioneered by the American scholar William F. Albright in the early twentieth century, this branch of archaeology concentrated mostly on the excavation of large city mounds (called "tells" in Arabic, "tels" in Hebrew), composed of many superimposed city levels, in which the development of society and culture can be traced over millennia.
After decades of excavation, researchers have been able to reconstruct the vast archaeological context into which biblical history must be fit (Figure 3). Beginning with the first evidence of agriculture and settled communities in the region at the very end of the Stone Age, archaeologists have gone on to delineate the rise of urban civilization in the Bronze Age (3500-1150 BCE) and its transformation into territorial states in the succeeding period, the Iron Age (1150-586 BCE), when most of the historical events described in the Bible presumably occurred.
By the end of the twentieth century, archaeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel and in the entire Near East and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all. But at the same time there were too many contradictions between archaeological finds and the biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occurred.
So long as the biblical textual critics and the biblical archaeologists maintained their basically conflicting attitudes about the historical reliability of the Bible, they continued to live in two separate intellectual worlds. The textual critics continued to view the Bible as an object of dissection that could be split up into ever tinier sources and subsources according to the distinctive religious or political ideas each was supposed to express. At the same time, the archaeologists often took the historical narratives of the Bible at face value. Instead of using archaeological data as an independent source for the reconstruction of the history of the region, they continued to rely on the biblical narratives — particularly the traditions of the rise of Israel — to interpret their finds. Of course, there were new understandings of the rise and development of Israel as the excavations and surveys proceeded. Questions were raised about the historical existence of the patriarchs and on the date and scale of the Exodus. New theories were also developed to suggest that the Israelite conquest of Canaan may not have occurred, as the book of Joshua insists, as a unified military campaign. But for biblical events beginning at the time of David — around 1000 BCE — the archaeological consensus, at least until the 1990s, was that the Bible could be read as a basically reliable historical document.
By the 1970s, however, new trends began to influence the conduct of biblical archaeology and eventually to change its major focus and completely reverse the traditional relationship between artifact and biblical text. For the first time, archaeologists working in the lands of the Bible did not seek to use excavated finds as illustrations of the Bible; in a dramatic shift to the methods of the social sciences, they sought to examine the human realities that lay behind the text. In excavating ancient sites, emphasis was no longer put only on a site's biblical associations. Excavated artifacts, architecture, and settlement patterns, as well as animal bones, seeds, chemical analysis of soil samples, and long-term anthropological models drawn from many world cultures, became the keys to perceiving wider changes in the economy, political history, religious practices, population density, and the very structure of ancient Israelite society. Adopting methods used by archaeologists and anthropologists in other regions, a growing number of scholars attempted to understand how human interaction with the complex, fragmented natural environment of the land of Israel influenced the development of its unique social system, religion, and spiritual legacy.
Recent developments in archaeology have finally allowed us to bridge the gap between the study of biblical texts and the archaeological finds. We can now see that the Bible is — along with distinctive pottery forms, architectural styles, and Hebrew inscriptions — a characteristic artifact that tells a great deal about the society in which it was produced.
That is because it is now clear that phenomena like record keeping, administrative correspondence, royal chronicles, and the compiling of a national scripture — especially one as profound and sophisticated as the Bible — are linked to a particular stage of social development. Archaeologists and anthropologists working all over the world have carefully studied the context in which sophisticated genres of writing emerge, and in almost every case they are a sign of state formation, in which power is centralized in national institutions like an official cult or monarchy. Other traits of this stage of social development include monumental building, economic specialization, and the presence of a dense network of interlocked communities ranging in size from large cities to regional centers to medium-sized towns and small villages.
Until recently both textual scholars and archaeologists have assumed that ancient Israel reached the stage of full state formation at the time of the united monarchy of David and Solomon. Indeed, many biblical specialists continue to believe that the earliest source of the Pentateuch is the J, or Yahwist, document — and that it was compiled in Judah in the era of David and Solomon, in the tenth century BCE. We will argue in this book that such a conclusion is highly unlikely. From an analysis of the archaeological evidence, there is no sign whatsoever of extensive literacy or any other attributes of full statehood in Judah — and in particular, in Jeru-salem — until more than two and a half centuries later, toward the end of the eighth century BCE. Of course, no archaeologist can deny that the Bible contains legends, characters, and story fragments that reach far back in time. But archaeology can show that the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History bear unmistakable hallmarks of their initial compilation in the seventh century BCE. Why this is so and what it means for our understanding of the great biblical saga is the main subject of this book.
We will see how much of the biblical narrative is a product of the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the reign of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE. We will argue that the historical core of the Bible arose from clear political, social, and spiritual conditions and was shaped by the creativity and vision of extraordinary women and men. Much of what is commonly taken for granted as accurate history — the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and even the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon — are, rather, the creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age. Although these stories may have been based on certain historical kernels, they primarily reflect the ideology and the world-view of the writers. We will show how the narrative of the Bible was uniquely suited to further the religious reform and territorial ambitions of Judah during the momentous concluding decades of the seventh century BCE.
But suggesting that the most famous stories of the Bible did not happen as the Bible records them is far from implying that ancient Israel had no genuine history. In the following chapters we will reconstruct the history of ancient Israel on the basis of archaeological evidence — the only source of information on the biblical period that was not extensively emended, edited, or censored by many generations of biblical scribes. Assisted by archaeological finds and extrabiblical records, we will see how the biblical narratives are themselves part of the story, not the unquestioned historical framework into which every particular find or conclusion must fit. Our story will depart dramatically from the familiar biblical narrative. It is a story not of one, but two chosen kingdoms, which together comprise the historical roots of the people of Israel.
One kingdom — the kingdom of Israel — was born in the fertile valleys and rolling hills of northern Israel and grew to be among the richest, most cosmopolitan, and most powerful in the region. Today it is almost totally forgotten, except for the villainous role it plays in the biblical books of Kings. The other kingdom — the kingdom of Judah — arose in the rocky, inhospitable southern hill country. It survived by maintaining its isolation and fierce devotion to its Temple and royal dynasty. These two kingdoms represent two sides of ancient Israel's experience, two quite different societies with different attitudes and national identities. Step by step we will trace the stages by which the history, memory, and hopes of both kingdoms were merged powerfully into a single scripture, that, more than any other document ever written, shaped — and continues to shape — the face of Western society.
Copyright © 2001 by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
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