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February 4, 2001

God's Ghostwriters 

Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel 
and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. 
By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. 
Illustrated. 385 pp. New York: 
The Free Press. $26. 
history is written for the present, not the past, then the quest for
the historical Bible becomes an unending endeavor subject to the
vicissitudes of times, talents and testimonies. Since the 18th century,
with its emphasis on reason as the way to truth, the endeavor has
stirred no small controversy. 
Verbal warfare often enlists the
armor of archaeology. By the middle of the 19th century, discoveries in
ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia also illuminated lands between them,
especially that corridor known as Canaan, Palestine, Israel, the Holy
Land or the land of the Bible. Geographical explorations of Palestine,
conducted by Edward Robinson, an American, identified many mounds or
ruins (tells) with biblical sites. Excavations of them, pioneered by
another American, William Foxwell Albright, came in the 20th century.
These labors enabled scholars to connect the Bible with outside sources
and to construct a context for verifying its historicity. But by now,
goals, judgments and conclusions depart strikingly from those of
earlier generations. 
The departure is the subject of ''The
Bible Unearthed,'' a fascinating book written by two Jewish
archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. With an
irenic spirit they join the debate, at times ugly and vicious, about
the historicity of the Bible (by which they mean the Hebrew Scriptures,
also known as the Old Testament). To this battle they bring an arsenal
of scholarly research, field experience and well-chosen words artfully
used. They also claim a ''new'' archaeological perspective, but it may
be somewhat less than new. Parts of the proposal have been available
for decades. Yet their particular thesis, as well as the impressive
development of it, can only lead the reader to think anew. 
the end of the seventh century B.C. a young prince named Josiah,
descendant of King David, acceded to the throne of Judah after his
father's assassination. Described in the Bible as the most righteous of
all the kings, he in time renovated the Temple in Jerusalem. The
renovations turned up a scroll (perhaps the world's first
archaeological discovery) that began a religious reformation. Called
''the book of the law'' in II Kings, it was probably an early version
of Deuteronomy. How it came to be, and to be in the Temple, remains a
disputed topic, though Finkelstein and Silberman believe it was written
in the seventh century B.C. Obeying the commandments of the scroll,
Josiah ordered a thorough purification of the cult of the Hebrew god
YHWH (Yahweh). He abolished from the Temple, and throughout Judah, all
idolatry and fusions of different types of worship, and extended this
activity into parts of the land of Israel, for his plan included
territorial conquest. Under his leadership a reform group in Judah
declared the purified Temple as the only legitimate place of worship
and YHWH as the only deity to be worshiped. The seed of monotheism took
This great reformation, inspired by a book, itself
inspired the composition of a national epic for seventh-century-B.C.
Judah. A small nation with big plans could use a grand story. In
constructing it, authors and editors drew on many diverse and
conflicting traditions, which they embellished and elaborated. The
intent was ideological and theological -- not to record history (in the
modern sense) but to appropriate the past for the present. The epic
that emerged was edited and added to in subsequent centuries to become
the powerful saga we know as the Hebrew Bible. Unequaled in the ancient
world, it articulated a national and social compact for an entire
people under God. Finkelstein and Silberman leave no doubt of their
reverence for it. In their view, however, it is ''not a miraculous
revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination.'' 
sections of the Bible constitute the core of the epic. The first
contains the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and
Deuteronomy. Its stories about Israel begin with the ancestors (the
authors regrettably use the old label ''patriarchs''), continue with
the sojourn and bondage in Egypt, the Exodus and the wanderings in the
wilderness, concluding with Israel poised to enter the promised land.
The second section includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and
Kings. It tells of the conquest of Canaan, the rule of the judges, the
establishment of a united monarchy, the division of the monarchy, the
destruction of the northern kingdom (Israel) by the Assyrians, the
destruction of the southern kingdom (Judah) by the Babylonians and the
beginnings of exile in Babylon. This second section is often called the
Deuteronomistic history because it reflects the language and ethos of
the book of Deuteronomy, judging events by the criterion of obedience
to the law, with the result of blessing or punishment by God. 
expounding their view of the Bible as a national epic that shaped and
sustained a people, Finkelstein and Silberman juxtapose this narrative
with the discoveries and interpretations of archaeology. They say their
predecessors tended to use archaeology to argue for the historicity of
the biblical record. By contrast, they use archaeology as an
independent source to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel. Yet
respect for earlier scholarship, especially when they reject it, lends
integrity to their own work. It sends the salutary message that the new
vision of today inevitably becomes the old vision of tomorrow. Drawing
on new methods, excavations (even of old sites) and assumptions, they
turn the traditional argument on its head. Archaeological studies, they
argue, undercut rather than support the historicity of biblical
traditions about the origin and rise of Israel. Their detailed analysis
yields conclusions that are startling to the uninitiated: the search
for the historical ancestors has failed; the Exodus did not happen as
described; the violent, swift and total conquest of Canaan never took
place; the picture of judges leading tribes in battle against enemies
does not fit the data; David and Solomon existed in the 10th century
B.C. but as ''little more than hill country chieftains.'' There was no
golden age of a united kingdom, a magnificent capital and an extended
These conclusions do not lead to historical nihilism
but open up alternative understandings promoted in the thesis of the
book. In bringing together the Judean patriarch Abraham and the
Israelite patriarch Jacob, the ancestor stories serve well the needs of
seventh-century-B.C. Judah for a unified kingdom. The pastoral
landscape of these ancient stories resonates with the way a large
portion of the later Judahite population lived. The Exodus traditions
also serve this setting. Josiah's efforts to establish Judah's
independence and reclaim territory of the destroyed kingdom of Israel
conflicted with a revival of Egyptian power that encroached on Judah
and Israel. The challenge of Moses to an unnamed Pharaoh mirrors
Josiah's to Pharaoh Necho II. Similarly, the conquest narratives fit
the setting. Like Joshua, Josiah fought in the name of God and
commanded his people to stay faithful to YHWH, apart from the
surrounding world. His agenda was a second conquest of Canaan. David
and Solomon also reflect the age of Josiah, the sole legitimate heir of
the dynasty. Like David, Josiah sought a united kingdom, territorial
expansion, military conquests and the centralization of cult and
politics in Jerusalem. Thereby this seventh-century B.C. king could
nullify the transgressions of Solomon and restore the glorious past
that never was but can be. 
Finkelstein and Silberman propose
that from the beginning two distinct Hebrew societies lived in the
highlands of Canaan. Both were originally Canaanite -- irony of
ironies,'' the authors comment. (Biblical diatribes against the
Canaanites suggest this common origin; after all, the Israelites
protested too much.) The original division between these societies
lingers in the phrase used even for the so-called united monarchy,
''the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.'' Furthermore, contrary to the
biblical record, Judah was always the poorer, weaker, more rural and
less influential. Its prominence came only after the fall of Israel to
Assyria in 722 B.C. Then, as heir to the northern traditions, Judah
determined which would become part of its national epic and how they
would be interpreted. Caveat lector. 
A classic case of Judean
bias involves the Omride dynasty of the ninth century B.C. Noting only
that its founder, Omri, built at Samaria a new capital for the kingdom
of Israel, the Deuteronomistic historians dismiss him (in eight verses
of the books of Kings) as the most evil of kings. Yet his dynasty
endured some 40 years, and archaeological evidence, from hostile
witnesses at that, attests its greatness. An inscribed stone called the
Mesha stele, found in 1868 east of the Dead Sea, reports that, to the
consternation of King Mesha of Moab, Omri and his son Ahab controlled
extensive land in Transjordan. The ''House of David'' inscription,
discovered in 1993 in the biblical city of Dan, implies even larger
holdings, extending south from near Damascus through the highlands and
valleys of Israel to Moab. The Monolith Inscription, found at ancient
Nimrud in the 1840's, describes the participation of Ahab the
Israelite, with 2,000 chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers, in an
anti-Assyrian coalition that tried in vain to resist the Assyrian
monarch Shalmaneser III. 
In addition, excavations of northern
cities attest the greatness of the Omride dynasty. Samaria, called
''the house of Omri'' in Assyrian records, consisted of a royal
acropolis of five acres that included a large and beautiful palace
unrivaled in its time. Similarly, the ninth-century sites of Megiddo,
Hazor, Dan, Jezreel and Gezer all show architectural achievements of
the Omrides. An earlier generation of archaeologists, eager to confirm
the biblical narrative, tried valiantly to assign these cities to the
Solomonic era. To the contrary, neither Solomon nor David of Judah but
Omri of Israel founded the first true kingdom, with all its splendors. 
Judah maligned Israel in its national epic, so it presented a skewed
picture of itself. Archaeological data show that the traditional
religion of this isolated and sparsely populated nation consisted of
local shrines (''high places'') for the worship of YHWH alongside other
deities. These syncretic practices prevailed also in Jerusalem.
Demographic growth, social transformation and the desire for a unified
land came only in the late eighth century B.C., and they were probably
related to the struggle for national survival under the shadow of the
Assyrian empire. Sensing the threat of syncretic worship to
unification, certain unidentified circles in Jerusalem condemned the
local Judean shrines as a Canaanite evil and pushed for something new:
a ''YHWH-alone'' religion centered in Jerusalem. Ironically, they
labeled this new religion the traditional one and so turned the
traditional religion into heresy. Their work prepared the way for
Josiah's Deuteronomic reformation in the next century. 
Josiah's violent death at the hands of Pharaoh Necho II put the lie to
Deuteronomistic theology. Obedience to YHWH-alone by the ideal king did
not prevent Egypt's return to enslave the people of Israel. Even
Egypt's defeat a few years later by Babylon brought not relief but
destruction to Judah. By 587 B.C. the inevitable was complete. The
Babylonian devastation of Judah, from outlying cities to proud
Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile of its aristocracy are both
biblical and archaeological realities. 
Yet the story did not
end. To account for the unaccountable -- the violent death of the pious
Josiah and the total destruction of eternal Jerusalem -- the exiles
revised their national saga to produce a second edition of the
Deuteronomistic history. It claimed that the destruction of Judah was
inevitable because of the evil of an earlier king named Manasseh.
Though Josiah's righteousness delayed the ending, it could not prevent
it. So the exiles altered their theology to make the unconditional
promise of YHWH to David and his dynasty contingent on the conditional
covenant made between YHWH and the people at Sinai. In this version, if
the people obey the commandments, they yet have a future. This
rewritten past spoke to the present; it served the needs of a defeated
and dispossessed people. 
With the demise of the Babylonian
empire in 539 B.C., the new conqueror, Persia, for its own political
reasons, allowed the exiles to return home. Those who did constituted a
province known as Yehud, its citizens called Yehudim, or Jews. In this
setting the ancient traditions acquired new relevance. Abraham's
journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan mirrored the return of the exiles.
The bondage in Egypt followed by the Exodus also mirrored exile and
return. The old conquest of Canaan offered hope for the return to the
promised land; ancient warnings not to assimilate with the Canaanites
became guides for how to live in Yehud. The covenant of obedience made
at Sinai provided the way back to glory, centered not in the Davidic
dynasty but in a rebuilt Temple. Although the promises did not
materialize, the epic saga called the Bible became the enduring book
for the survival of a people. 
Finkelstein and Silberman have
themselves written a provocative book that bears the marks of a
detective story. In juxtaposing the biblical record and archaeological
data, they work with tantalizing fragments of a distant past.
Assembling clues to argue their thesis requires bold imagination and
disciplined research. ''The Bible Unearthed'' exhibits both in
abundance. Imagination invariably exceeds the evidence; research makes
plausible the reconstruction. Fortunately, the book does not achieve
its goal: ''to attempt to separate history from legend.'' It is better
than that, for it shows how intertwined they are. What ''actually
happened'' and what a people thought happened belong to a single
historical process. That understanding leads to a sobering thought.
Stories of exodus from oppression and conquest of land, stories of
exile and return and stories of triumphal vision are eerily
contemporary. If history is written for the present, are we doomed to
repeat the past? 
Phyllis Trible is a professor of biblical studies at the Wake Forest University 
Divinity School. 
        * Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company 
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