Memory in Ruins

By David Hazony

For nearly a century, biblical archaeology has been a pillar of the Jewish national revival. Its professional approach, combined with its often dramatic capacity to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel, has done much to convince the world that the Bible is not mere myth, but a document that reflects the truth concerning central periods in Israel’s history.
Today, however, biblical archaeology has reached a crossroads. Seeking to reconstruct the historical record from scratch, a new school of Bible scholars, historians, and archaeologists has argued that nearly every major story of the Hebrew Bible is little more than a fabrication. Particular attention has focused on the kingdom of David and Solomon, whose authenticity was until recently considered substantiated beyond doubt. According to the new theory, this kingdom never existed.
The challenge to the historicity of the united Israelite kingdom is hardly a concern for academics alone. The era of David and Solomon is the classical, formative period in Jewish political history, analogous to that of Athenian democracy or the early Roman Republic in the history of the West. It is a symbol, of course; but like all important symbols, it also holds out hope for the future: The hope that the Jews may again become a politically and religiously united people, powerful and independent, yet at the same time morally and culturally elevated, at peace with man and God. The current claim that this kingdom is not historical at all, but was fabricated by later authors for political purposes, is therefore a matter of profound concern not only for Jews, but for all people who view the Hebrew Bible as a central part of their heritage.
It is, of course, true that academic research must never be distorted to serve the public interest. If there really was no kingdom of David and Solomon, then scholars ought to say so. Yet the quality of the work on which the new thinking is based leaves a great deal to be desired, and when this fact is combined with the timing of its publication—in the midst of a wave of historical revisionism that has left hardly a Jewish symbol unscathed—one cannot avoid the suspicion that in the new archaeology, as elsewhere in academia, the urge to smash myths has overtaken sound judgment, to the detriment of archaeological science and of the broader public, as well.
For nearly two millennia after its completion, the Bible’s overall story line was widely viewed as more or less accurate. Though many readers, including religious Jews and Christians, did not accept every detail in the biblical account—the descriptions of miracles in particular were greeted with skepticism—it was broadly accepted that a distinct Israelite people arose about 3,500 years ago; that this people was enslaved in Egypt, entered Canaan, and ultimately established a unified kingdom under David and Solomon; that this realm was divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judea; that the fall of the latter in 586 B.C.E. led to the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile; and that this exile was followed, half a century later, by the Jews’ return to the land in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In the nineteenth century, this view was called into question by scholars who argued on the basis of textual analysis that the Bible was—in the words of Julius Wellhausen, who popularized the documentary hypothesis and the school of “Higher Criticism”—little more than a “glorified mirage.” But when these scholars were drawing their conclusions, no significant archaeological work had been done. It was largely in response to this challenge that a group of researchers came to Palestine in the early twentieth century to learn the truth about the biblical period by digging for its physical remains.
The best-known among them, William Foxwell Albright, who was trained in both biblical scholarship and the cultures and languages of the ancient Near East, founded a school which became the dominant force in biblical archaeology for most of the twentieth century. Albright’s students included the renowned Israeli archaeologists Yigael Yadin, Benjamin Mazar, and Yohanan Aharoni; and American scholars such as Nelson Glueck and the historian John Bright, whose A History of Israel (1960) became a classic in the English-speaking world. While some of their conclusions about the biblical events did not hold up over decades of archaeological discovery, these scholars still had an important understanding of the role archaeology could play in writing history, one that was compelling in its own day and may have a great deal to offer in the current debate.
Albright was neither a religious fundamentalist nor a biblical literalist. His method was, as he explained, to steer “as cautiously as possible between the Scylla of overreliance on tradition and the Charybdis of hypercriticism.” His approach was that of the humanist scholar, dedicated to uncovering the roots of Western civilization and its unparalleled achievement. “What we have in mind,” he wrote in 1942, “is nothing less than the ultimate reconstruction, as far as possible, of the route which our cultural ancestors traversed in order to reach Judeo-Christian heights of spiritual insight and ethical monotheism.” For Albright, the aim of archaeology was not just to examine and catalogue artifacts, or to use them selectively to “prove” the Bible, but to weave them together with ancient texts and traditions into a reliable historical narrative, one that may teach Western man about his origins in the distant past.
Beginning with Albright’s excavations in the late 1920s and continuing through those of his students until the mid-1980s, a remarkable number of finds affirmed and enriched the biblical history. Clear evidence of a distinct people, possessing its own material culture and showing up at the dawn of the Iron Age—just the right time from the biblical perspective—appeared in hundreds of highland sites stretching from the Galilee to the Negev. Dozens of ancient Jewish, Canaanite, and Philistine cities were excavated and found to contain remains that corresponded surprisingly well to the biblical narrative. In Shiloh, the religious and political center of the Israelite tribes in the book of Judges, the remains of an extensive twelfth-century B.C.E. Israelite community were discovered. Great cities, containing many of the building projects which the book of Kings attributes to Solomon, were excavated and identified as Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer. Even in Jerusalem, where opposition from the Arab world continues to foreclose excavation at the site of the First Temple, monumental finds were nonetheless uncovered, including biblical-era structures and fortifications in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Southern Wall area, and the City of David (the original town of Jerusalem first conquered by David around the year 1000 B.C.E.).
At the same time, ancient inscriptions from Egypt to Assyria provided independent confirmation of the biblical narrative. The Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah testified to the existence of a people “Israel” dwelling in Canaan around the year 1200 B.C.E.; the campaign of the pharaoh Shishak, who the book of Kings says swept through Israelite cities shortly after the death of Solomon, was confirmed by discovery of the Egyptian’s own records at Karnak; the war between the Moabite king Mesha and the combined forces of Israel and Judea depicted in the book of Kings was described from Mesha’s perspective on a monument found in Dibon, in western Jordan; the reign of King Jehu was confirmed in the Black Obelisk of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III discovered at Nimrud; the Assyrian siege of the city of Lachish around 700 B.C.E. was depicted vividly at the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh in northern Iraq; and a clay seal was found in Jerusalem bearing the name of Gemaryahu ben Shafan, who is described in the book of Jeremiah as the chief scribe in the court of King Jehoiakim.
As Albright confessed, his own “initially rather skeptical attitude toward the accuracy of Israelite historical tradition suffered repeated jolts as discovery after discovery confirmed the historicity of details which might reasonably have been considered legendary.”
Recent scholarship, which has benefited from additional, equally dramatic finds, should be sympathetic to this view. But instead, the last two decades have seen a resurrection of the skepticism that prevailed a century ago. The stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan have been dismissed as unreliable by a growing number of scholars, some (but not all) of whom have an overtly political agenda, arguing that the traditional account was resurrected by the Zionists to justify dispossessing the Palestinian Arabs. Perhaps the most explicit of these is Keith W. Whitelam, whose best-known work is The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996). In Whitelam’s view,
Western scholarship has invented ancient Israel and silenced Palestinian history…. The ancient past belongs to Israel since this is the way it has been presented from the inception of modern biblical studies. Modern Israeli scholarship has been concerned with the history of ancient Israel written largely from a Western and Orientalist perspective as the ancient expression of the modern state and its Jewish population.
Drawing heavily on the ideas of literary scholar and political activist Edward Said, Whitelam sees his principal task as the creation of an alternate, “Palestinian” account of ancient history. “The problem here,” he writes, “is that the notion of a ‘Palestinian history’ is confined to the modern period, an attempt to articulate accounts of national identity in the face of dispossession and exile. It is as if the ancient past has been abandoned to Israel and the West.”

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