||By Ze'ev Herzog
This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the
Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the
desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass
it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the
fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described
by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And
it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah,
had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism
only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.Most of
those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of
the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people - and who once
went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story -
now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish
people's emergence are radically different from what that story tells.
What follows is a short account of the brief history of archaeology,
with the emphasis on the crises and the big bang, so to speak, of the past
decade. The critical question of this archaeological revolution has not
yet trickled down into public consciousness, but it cannot be ignored.
Inventing the Bible stories
The archaeology of Palestine developed as a science at a relatively
late date, in the late 19th and early 20th century, in tandem with the
archaeology of the imperial cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and
Rome. Those resource-intensive powers were the first target of the researchers,
who were looking for impressive evidence from the past, usually in the
service of the big museums in London, Paris and Berlin. That stage effectively
passed over Palestine, with its fragmented geographical diversity. The
conditions in ancient Palestine were inhospitable for the development of
an extensive kingdom, and certainly no showcase projects such as the Egyptian
shrines or the Mesopotamian palaces could have been established there.
In fact, the archaeology of Palestine was not engendered at the initiative
of museums but sprang from religious motives.
The main push behind archaeological research in Palestine was the country's
relationship with the Holy Scriptures. The first excavators in Jericho
and Shechem (Nablus) were biblical researchers who were looking for the
remains of the cities cited in the Bible. Archaeology assumed momentum
with the activity of William Foxwell Albright, who mastered the archeology,
history and linguistics of the Land of Israel and the ancient Near East.
Albright, an American whose father was a priest of Chilean descent, began
excavating in Palestine in the 1920s. His declared approach was that archaeology
was the principal scientific means to refute the critical claims against
the historical veracity of the Bible stories, particularly those of the
Wellhausen school in Germany.
The school of biblical criticism that developed in Germany beginning
in the second half of the 19th century, of which Julian Wellhausen was
a leading figure, challenged the historicity of the Bible stories and claimed
that biblical historiography was formulated, and in large measure actually
"invented," during the Babylonian exile. Bible scholars, the Germans in
particular, claimed that the history of the Hebrews, as a consecutive series
of events beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and proceeding through
the move to Egypt, the enslavement and the exodus, and ending with the
conquest of the land and the settlement of the tribes of Israel, was no
more than a later reconstruction of events with a theological purpose.
Albright believed that the Bible is a historical document, which, although
it had gone through several editing stages, nevertheless basically reflected
the ancient reality. He was convinced that if the ancient remains of Palestine
were uncovered, they would furnish unequivocal proof of the historical
truth of the events relating to the Jewish people in its land.
The biblical archaeology that developed from Albright and his pupils
brought about a series of extensive digs at the important biblical tells:
Megiddo, Lachish, Gezer, Shechem (Nablus), Jericho, Jerusalem, Ai, Giveon,
Beit She'an, Beit Shemesh, Hazor, Ta'anach and others. The way was straight
and clear: every finding that was uncovered would contribute to the building
of a harmonious picture of the past. The archaeologists, who enthusiastically
adopted the biblical approach, set out on a quest to unearth the "biblical
period": the period of the patriarchs, the Canaanite cities that were destroyed
by the Israelites as they conquered the land, the boundaries of the 12
tribes, the sites of the settlement period, characterized by "settlement
pottery," the "gates of Solomon" at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, "Solomon's
stables" (or Ahab's), "King Solomon's mines" at Timna - and there are some
who are still hard at work and have found Mount Sinai (at Mount Karkoum
in the Negev) or Joshua's altar at Mount Ebal.
Slowly, cracks began to appear in the picture. Paradoxically, a situation
was created in which the glut of findings began to undermine the historical
credibility of the biblical descriptions instead of reinforcing them. A
crisis stage is reached when the theories within the framework of the general
thesis are unable to solve an increasingly large number of anomalies. The
explanations become ponderous and inelegant, and the pieces do not lock
together smoothly. Here are a few examples of how the harmonious picture
Patriarchal Age: The researchers found it difficult to reach agreement
on which archaeological period matched the Patriarchal Age. When did Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob live? When was the Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs
in Hebron) bought in order to serve as the burial place for the patriarchs
and the matriarchs? According to the biblical chronology, Solomon built
the Temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt (1 Kings 6:1). To that
we have to add 430 years of the stay in Egypt (Exodus 12:40) and the vast
lifetimes of the patriarchs, producing a date in the 21th century BCE for
Abraham's move to Canaan.
However, no evidence has been unearthed that can sustain this chronology.
Albright argued in the early 1960s in favor of assigning the wanderings
of Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age (22nd-20th centuries BCE). However,
Benjamin Mazar, the father of the Israeli branch of biblical archaeology,
proposed identifying the historic background of the Patriarchal Age a thousand
years later, in the 11th century BCE - which would place it in the "settlement
period." Others rejected the historicity of the stories and viewed them
as ancestral legends that were told in the period of the Kingdom of Judea.
In any event, the consensus began to break down.
The exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the desert and Mount Sinai:
The many Egyptian documents that we have make no mention of the Israelites'
presence in Egypt and are also silent about the events of the exodus. Many
documents do mention the custom of nomadic shepherds to enter Egypt during
periods of drought and hunger and to camp at the edges of the Nile Delta.
However, this was not a solitary phenomenon: such events occurred frequently
across thousands of years and were hardly exceptional.
Generations of researchers tried to locate Mount Sinai and the stations
of the tribes in the desert. Despite these intensive efforts, not even
one site has been found that can match the biblical account.
The potency of tradition has now led some researchers to "discover"
Mount Sinai in the northern Hijaz or, as already mentioned, at Mount Karkoum
in the Negev. These central events in the history of the Israelites are
not corroborated in documents external to the Bible or in archaeological
findings. Most historians today agree that at best, the stay in Egypt and
the exodous occurred in a few families and that their private story was
expanded and "nationalized" to fit the needs of theological ideology.
The conquest: One of the shaping events of the people of Israel in biblical
historiography is the story of how the land was conquered from the Canaanites.
Yet extremely serious difficulties have cropped up precisely in the attempts
to locate the archaeological evidence for this story.
Repeated excavations by various expeditions at Jericho and Ai, the two
cities whose conquest is described in the greatest detail in the Book of
Joshua, have proved very disappointing. Despite the excavators' efforts,
it emerged that in the late part of the 13th century BCE, at the end of
the Late Bronze Age, which is the agreed period for the conquest, there
were no cities in either tell, and of course no walls that could have been
toppled. Naturally, explanations were offered for these anomalies. Some
claimed that the walls around Jericho were washed away by rain, while others
suggested that earlier walls had been used; and, as for Ai, it was claimed
that the original story actually referred to the conquest of nearby Beit
El and was transferred to Ai by later redactors.
Biblical scholars suggested a quarter of a century ago that the conquest
stories be viewed as etiological legends and no more. But as more and more
sites were uncovered and it emerged that the places in question died out
or were simply abandoned at different times, the conclusion was bolstered
that there is no factual basis for the biblical story about the conquest
by Israelite tribes in a military campaign led by Joshua.
The Canaanite cities: The Bible magnifies the strength and the fortifications
of the Canaanite cities that were conquered by the Israelites: "great cities
with walls sky-high" (Deuteronomy 9:1). In practice, all the sites that
have been uncovered turned up remains of unfortified settlements, which
in most cases consisted of a few structures or the ruler's palace rather
than a genuine city. The urban culture of Palestine in the Late Bronze
Age disintegrated in a process that lasted hundreds of years and did not
stem from military conquest. Moreover, the biblical description is inconsistent
with the geopolitical reality in Palestine. Palestine was under Egyptian
rule until the middle of the 12th century BCE. The Egyptians' administrative
centers were located in Gaza, Yaffo and Beit She'an. Egyptian findings
have also been discovered in many locations on both sides of the Jordan
River. This striking presence is not mentioned in the biblical account,
and it is clear that it was unknown to the author and his editors.
The archaeological findings blatantly contradict the biblical picture:
the Canaanite cities were not "great," were not fortified and did not have
"sky-high walls." The heroism of the conquerors, the few versus the many
and the assistance of the God who fought for his people are a theological
reconstruction lacking any factual basis.
Origin of the Israelites: The fusion of the conclusions drawn from the
episodes relating to the stages in which the people of Israel emerged gave
rise to a discussion of the bedrock question: the identity of the Israelites.
If there is no evidence for the exodus from Egypt and the desert journey,
and if the story of the military conquest of fortified cities has been
refuted by archaeology, who, then, were these Israelites? The archaeological
findings did corroborate one important fact: in the early Iron Age (beginning
some time after 1200 BCE), the stage that is identified with the "settlement
period," hundreds of small settlements were established in the area of
the central hill region of the Land of Israel, inhabited by farmers who
worked the land or raised sheep. If they did not come from Egypt, what
is the origin of these settlers? Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology
at Tel Aviv University, has proposed that these settlers were the pastoral
shepherds who wandered in this hill area throughout the Late Bronze Age
(graves of these people have been found, without settlements). According
to his reconstruction, in the Late Bronze Age (which preceded the Iron
Age) the shepherds maintained a barter economy of meat in exchange for
grains with the inhabitants of the valleys. With the disintegration of
the urban and agricultural system in the lowland, the nomads were forced
to produce their own grains, and hence the incentive for fixed settlements
The name "Israel" is mentioned in a single Egyptian document from the
period of Merneptah, king of Egypt, dating from 1208 BCE: "Plundered is
Canaan with every evil, Ascalon is taken, Gezer is seized, Yenoam has become
as though it never was, Israel is desolated, its seed is not." Merneptah
refers to the country by its Canaanite name and mentions several cities
of the kingdom, along with a non-urban ethnic group. According to this
evidence, the term "Israel" was given to one of the population groups that
resided in Canaan toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, apparently in
the central hill region, in the area where the Kingdom of Israel would
later be established.
A kingdom with no name
The united monarchy: Archaeology was also the source that brought about
the shift regarding the reconstruction of the reality in the period known
as the "united monarchy" of David and Solomon. The Bible describes this
period as the zenith of the political, military and economic power of the
people of Israel in ancient times. In the wake of David's conquests, the
empire of David and Solomon stretched from the Euprates River to Gaza ("For
he controlled the whole region west of the Euphrates, from Tiphsah to Gaza,
all the kings west of the Euphrates," 1 Kings 5:4). The archaeological
findings at many sites show that the construction projects attributed to
this period were meager in scope and power.
The three cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, which are mentioned among
Solomon's construction enterprises, have been excavated extensively at
the appropriate layers. Only about half of Hazor's upper section was fortified,
covering an area of only 30 dunams (7.5 acres), out of a total area of
700 dunams which was settled in the Bronze Age. At Gezer there was apparently
only a citadel surrounded by a casematewall covering a small area, while
Megiddo was not fortified with a wall.
The picture becomes even more complicated in the light of the excavations
conducted in Jerusalem, the capital of the united monarchy. Large sections
of the city have been excavated over the past 150 years. The digs have
turned up impressive remnants of the cities from the Middle Bronze Age
and from Iron Age II (the period of the Kingdom of Judea). No remains of
buildings have been found from the period of the united monarchy (even
according to the agreed chronology), only a few pottery shards. Given the
preservation of the remains from earlier and later periods, it is clear
that Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon was a small city, perhaps
with a small citadel for the king, but in any event it was not the capital
of an empire as described in the Bible. This small chiefdom is the source
of the "Beth David" title mentioned in later Aramean and Moabite inscriptions.
The authors of the biblical account knew Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE,
with its wall and the rich culture of which remains have been found in
various parts of the city, and projected this picture back to the age of
the united monarchy. Presumably Jerusalem acquired its central status after
the destruction of Samaria, its northern rival, in 722 BCE.
The archaeological findings dovetail well with the conclusions of the
critical school of biblical scholarship. David and Solomon were the rulers
of tribal kingdoms that controlled small areas: the former in Hebron and
the latter in Jerusalem. Concurrently, a separate kingdom began to form
in the Samaria hills, which finds expression in the stories about Saul's
kingdom. Israel and Judea were from the outset two separate, independent
kingdoms, and at times were in an adversarial relationship. Thus, the great
united monarchy is an imaginary historiosophic creation, which was composed
during the period of the Kingdom of Judea at the earliest. Perhaps the
most decisive proof of this is the fact that we do not know the name of
Jehovah and his consort: How many gods, exactly, did Israel have? Together
with the historical and political aspects, there are also doubts as to
the credibility of the information about belief and worship. The question
about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel
and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that
mention a pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah. At two sites, Kuntiliet
Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet
el-Kom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that
mention "Jehovah and his Asherah," "Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah, "Jehovah
Teman and his Asherah." The authors were familiar with a pair of gods,
Jehovah and his consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple's name.
These inscriptions, from the 8th century BCE, raise the possibility that
monotheism, as a state religion, is actually an innovation of the period
of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel.
The archaeology of the Land of Israel is completing a process that amounts
to a scientific revolution in its field. It is ready to confront the findings
of biblical scholarship and of ancient history. But at the same time, we
are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon in which all this is simply ignored
by the Israeli public. Many of the findings mentioned here have been known
for decades. The professional literature in the spheres of archaeology,
Bible and the history of the Jewish people has addressed them in dozens
of books and hundreds of articles. Even if not all the scholars accept
the individual arguments that inform the examples I cited, the majority
have adopted their main points.
Nevertheless, these revolutionary views are not penetrating the public
consciousness. About a year ago, my colleague, the historian Prof. Nadav
Ne'eman, published an article in the Culture and Literature section of
Ha'aretz entitled "To Remove the Bible from the Jewish Bookshelf," but
there was no public outcry. Any attempt to question the reliability of
the biblical descriptions is perceived as an attempt to undermine "our
historic right to the land" and as shattering the myth of the nation that
is renewing the ancient Kingdom of Israel. These symbolic elements constitute
such a critical component of the construction of the Israeli identity that
any attempt to call their veracity into question encounters hostility or
silence. It is of some interest that such tendencies within the Israeli
secular society go hand-in-hand with the outlook among educated Christian
groups. I have found a similar hostility in reaction to lectures I have
delivered abroad to groups of Christian bible lovers, though what upset
them was the challenge to the foundations of their fundamentalist religious
It turns out that part of Israeli society is ready to recognize the
injustice that was done to the Arab inhabitants of the country and is willing
to accept the principle of equal rights for women - but is not up to adopting
the archaeological facts that shatter the biblical myth. The blow to the
mythical foundations of the Israeli identity is apparently too threatening,
and it is more convenient to turn a blind eye.n
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