Commentary Magazine


Searching for the House of David

Although modern archeology is a reasonably rigorous scientific discipline, it is subject to non-scientific constraints. In the first place, it is expensive. To excavate a small area whose earliest strata of human settlement lie far beneath the surface can cost large sums of money. Even if the diggers comprise students and other volunteers, they have to be transported to the site, housed, and fed; professionals like photographers and map drawers must be employed; excavated objects need to be carefully cleaned, catalogued, and stored; and in some cases, exotic experts like archeo-zoologists and archeo-botanists have to be brought in. As a rule, moreover, all this is done on an inefficient, drawn out, stop-and-start basis. A process in which every bucket of earth must be sifted and examined, and in which it is impossible to work in bad weather or during rainy seasons, may require a dig to go on for years—at the end of which its findings and conclusions must be published in numerous volumes crammed with intricate drawings and illustrations.

Other sciences, of course, can involve even more expensive research. But whereas such research may be financed by governments or businesses hoping to reap commensurate returns, archeology, apart from an occasional contribution to tourism, yields only knowledge of the past. Moreover, when excavating in urban or built-up areas, even well-funded archeologists are restricted in their choice of sites. They cannot generally demolish existing buildings to get at what is beneath them, and the threat of further development hangs preemptively over their work. (New construction can itself lead to archeological discoveries, but these must be followed up by emergency digs that rarely have time for thoroughness.) As a result, archeologists often cannot excavate in places they consider the most promising and frequently must make do with exploratory shafts that may miss findings of great value by small distances.

All this helps to explain why a dispute that has been going on in biblical studies for decades has not been settled by archeological evidence long ago. Itself part of a larger argument over the historical reliability of the entire Bible, the dispute has centered on the biblical figures of David and Solomon and has involved dozens of Israeli, European, and American scholars—two of whom, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University and Eilat Mazar of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, are now facing off in a crucial battle over Mazar's latest dig.

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Finkelstein is the most prominent of a group of contemporary archeologists, sometimes lumped together as “biblical revisionists,” who hold among other things that King David (conventionally said to have ruled ca. 1010-970 B.C.E.) and his son Solomon (ca. 970-930), while genuine historical figures, were never the powerful monarchs and grand builders of the united north-south monarchy in ancient Palestine that the Bible tells us was established by them and fell apart after their deaths.
1 Rather, Finkelstein maintains, the two were little more than the petty warlords of a small southern kingdom alone, and were turned into grand legends hundred of years afterward by a religiously and politically motivated campaign of glorification.

In The Bible Unearthed(2001), the first of two books that he has written for lay readers together with the American scholar Neil Asher Silberman, Finkelstein made the case for this thesis in a single chapter entitled “Memories of a Golden Age?” Now, in David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition,

2 he has re-stated his position in greater detail and with a more comprehensive theoretical structure.

This structure begins, as Finkelstein argued in The Bible Unearthed, not with David and Solomon but far earlier in the Bible's account of things: namely, with the stories found in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. These tell of the Patriarchs, Israel's enslavement in Egypt, its liberation from bondage, and its conquest of Canaan. During the heyday of traditionalist biblical archeology in the half-century between 1920 and 1970, these stories were generally considered, if not provable, at least plausible in terms of what was known about the historical periods in which they supposedly took place.

And yet, Finkelstein contended in The Bible Unearthed, not only had three decades of intensive archeological excavation in the years after the 1967 war, both in Israel proper and in the West Bank, failed to turn up the slightest evidence to confirm the biblical account, but the account itself is riddled with anachronisms that place its composition long after the events it refers to. Furthermore, an analysis of those anachronisms points to the 7th-century B.C.E. kingdom of Judah and, especially, to the reign in Jerusalem of King Josiah, a religious reformer lauded by the book of Kings for his zealous monotheism, as the period in which the Bible's core narrative was shaped and put into writing.

Not all of this would be challenged by today's archaeological “traditionalists.” Most would agree that the historical existence of the Patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, and the Exodus has yet to be demonstrated, although some would balk at saying the same of the conquest of Canaan. (It is no longer as clear as it was once thought to be that there is a widespread pattern of destruction of 13th- and 12th-century B.C.E. Canaanite towns indicative of a foreign invasion in what would have been the age of Joshua, but there are archeologists who still believe that such a pattern is detectable.) The battle lines begin to be clearly drawn only when, passing over the book of Judges, we come, some 200 years after the purported time of Joshua, to the books of Samuel and Kings. Here Finkelstein and those who agree with him part ways with the traditionalists sharply.

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In David and Solomon, Finkelstein first explains why, in his opinion, the real David and Solomon were no more than “local chiefs,” and why their history was later so grandiosely rewritten. For one thing, he writes, in the 10th century their capital of Jerusalem was a small town in the southern hill country of Palestine—one that has yielded, despite numerous excavations, no archeological remains testifying to the monumental building that the Bible attributes to them and that would be expected of the wealthy rulers of a large kingdom. Nor, he maintains, is there any reason to hold, as was once widely assumed to be the case, that the massive construction found outside of Jerusalem, in such northern sites as Megiddo and Hazor, should itself be assigned to the 10th-century reign of Solomon; in fact, it dates somewhat later to the 9th and early 8th centuries.
3

Moreover, Finkelstein contends, the southern hills, of which Jerusalem was the largest settlement, were in David and Solomon's age a poor and sparsely settled area that could not possibly have supplied the resources or manpower for the army and administration needed to conquer and control the richer and more populous north, let alone the additional territories in Palestine, Transjordan, and Syria said to have been ruled by these two biblical heroes. Not only that, but the development, in a region traditionally dominated by Egypt, of independent monarchies like the northern kingdom of Israel, the Syrian kingdom of Aram, and the kingdoms of Ammon and Moab east of the Jordan, was a distinctly 9th-century phenomenon that emerged from a temporary power vacuum caused by Egyptian weakness. For demographic and economic reasons, finally, neither an independent southern kingdom nor a north-south monarchy controlled by it could have arisen before an independent kingdom in the north. Indeed, the archeology of both regions has shown that northern Palestine came under centralized rule at an earlier stage than did Jerusalem and the south.

Why, then, close to 300 years after David and Solomon's lifetimes, was a false memory of their greatness born? Finkelstein connects this myth, as he conceives of it, with two historical developments. The first was the destruction, in the late 8th century, of the northern kingdom by the new empire of Assyria, an event that flooded the south with northern refugees while freeing it of its more powerful northern rival that had kept it from expanding territorially. This it now began to do under kings Hezekiah (716-687), Manasseh (687-642), and Josiah (639-609), who imposed on their subjects extremes of taxation, military service, and obedience to a state apparatus never demanded of them before. The second development was concentrated in the reign of Josiah, who launched, partly in order to strengthen his own centralized rule, an all-out campaign against polytheism and idol worship on behalf of the Temple cult in Jerusalem and its strict monotheism.

Seventh-century Judah was thus a society, Finkelstein writes, in which great transitions were taking place and whose kings were in need of ideological rationalizations for them. To integrate the growing number of northerners in the south, they sought to foster a new “pan-Hebraic” identity, based on a re-imagined past shared by northern Israelites and southern Judahites alike. To justify the growing power of the Judahite state and the zealotry of Josiah's reforms, they presented them not as the radical new departures they were, but as a harking back to an exemplary period of national grandeur.

The vehicles chosen for this, so Finkelstein believes, were the personages of David and Solomon, placed by the royal scribes of late-8th- and 7th-century Judah at the culmination of a divine saga that begins with the age of the Patriarchs. On the one hand, being elevated into great potentates who united the northern and southern tribes at the outset of their political histories, they promulgated an ideal of national unity now restored after long and lamentable centuries of internecine strife among the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On the other hand, being depicted as ambitious rulers who forged powerful governments in the service of a monotheistic God and of the magnificent Temple they had built,
4 they were held up as ancient heroes in whose path a king like Josiah was commendably trying to follow. Literary greatness aside, the Bible, and especially the books of Samuel and Kings, need to be viewed as Judahite ruling-class spin.

David and Solomon is carefully thought out and well argued. It presents, from a “centrist” perspective, the problems posed by the biblical account of the rise of the House of David and offers persuasive and historically credible solutions to them. Yet because that persuasiveness rests to a considerable extent on the absence of archeological evidence—the absence, that is, of the grand edifices, especially in Jerusalem, that the David and Solomon of the Bible would have had to have erected—it stands on an Achilles heel. Were any such evidence to turn up, the entire argument would be hobbled. Even an archeologist as confident of his opinions as Finkelstein must have known that he was taking this risk in writing David and Solomon. And yet not even a less confident archeologist could have imagined that, before the manuscript of his book had reached the printer's, a colleague would announce that she had found, not only such a piece of evidence, but a piece of the most spectacular kind.

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In the biblical story, David is not the first Hebrew king. He succeeds the tragic Saul, whose suspicions of David's disloyalty have caused the younger man to flee to the rugged frontiers of Judah, where he lives the life of a Robin Hood-like bandit chief. After Saul's death in battle with the Philistines, David is crowned king by his supporters in Hebron, a town in the far south of Judah. There he rules for seven years before capturing Jerusalem, a city farther north, inhabited by a people called the Jebusites, which he makes his capital. Chapter 5 of the second book of Samuel tells us:

So David dwelt in the fortress [of Jerusalem], and called it [Jerusalem] the city of David. And David built round about from the Millo and inward. And David went on, and grew great, and the Lord God of Hosts was with him. And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, and carpenters, and masons; and they built David a house.

Since the second half of the 19th century, when the first archeological excavations in Jerusalem commenced, it has been universally accepted that the ancient site of the “city of David” was located, not within the Ottoman walls of Jerusalem's present-day Old City but right outside those walls, several hundred yards to the south of their southeastern corner. At this point, running downhill in a north-south direction, there is a narrow ridge, surrounded by steep valleys on its eastern, western, and southern sides; only to the north, where the ridge continues to rise gradually until it meets the Old City's southern wall and widens out into the Temple Mount, would it have been militarily difficult to defend against enemies in David's time. This generally advantageous topography made it a desirable site for an ancient city; so did its proximity to water, always a problem in a country where rains fall for only half the year. In the Kidron valley to the east of it there is a perennial water source, known in the Bible and still today as the Gihon spring, that was able to supply the city's needs throughout the summer dry season.

Here, then, the Jebusites had lived. Here, too, sections of the wall of pre-Davidic Jerusalem were believed to have been found, including the biblical “Millo”—a Hebrew word meaning landfill and referring to an eastward extension of the ridge's narrow width, partly supported by a massive, sloped retaining wall; known as “the stepped stone structure,” this has been excavated near the northeast tip of the city of David. And here, presumably along the line of their northern defensive wall, where Jerusalem was most vulnerable, the Jebusites had built—so the Bible tells us—a fortress to help protect it. It was in this fortress that David is said to have first resided after conquering the city and before he moved to a palace built for him by his new ally, the Phoenician king Hiram, who provided materials, techniques, and skilled workers that could not be found in Jerusalem at the time.

As Finkelstein and others have never tired of pointing out, however, no traces of either this fortress or palace have ever turned up, despite repeated attempts to find them. Although much was added to the archeological knowledge of ancient Jerusalem after the city of David passed into Israeli hands in 1967, the following summation of the traditionalist-minded British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon, who had dug extensively there in the early 1960's, still seemed true nearly four decades later:

It may seem disappointing that the excavations have discovered none of the buildings of David's city. . . . Within the area to which we now know that David's city was limited, virtually no area remains in which there is any hope of finds of the period. . . . For a distance of 120 meters south from the northern limit, the whole width of the summit has been excavated by earlier expeditions. . . . The result is the virtual disappearance of all except fragments of the early walls, and the mangling and disturbance of the floor levels and occupation deposits. . . . The whole of this area must therefore be written off as far as any knowledge of early Jerusalem is concerned.

If anything, Kenyon's last sentence would ring even truer nearly 40 years later, because meanwhile more and more Palestinian houses had been built on the site, and there was less and less room to dig. And so when it first struck Eilat Mazar, the granddaughter of the renowned Israeli archeologist Benjamin Mazar, that David's palace might still be found because it had hitherto been looked for in the wrong place, she could find no one to sponsor her financially, not even after publishing an unusual appeal, in a 1997 issue of Biblical Archeological Review, entitled “Excavate David's Palace!”

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Mazar's theory was based on precisely the sort of biblical clue that anti-traditionalists refuse to consider meaningful—that is, on another passage from Samuel II, chapter 5. This one reads:

And when the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over [all] Israel [in Jerusalem], all the Philistines marched up [from the coastal plain] in search of David. But David heard of it, and he went down to the fortress.

The words that set Mazar to thinking were “went down.” If the Jebusite fortress was at the northern, upper end of Jerusalem, how could David have gone “down” to it from the palace Hiram had built for him? He could have done so only if his palace were even higher up along the ridge toward the Temple Mount. This would have placed it outside the city walls, a seemingly illogical location exposing it to an attack like that of the Philistines—which was why no one had bothered to search for it there. When, in the early 1920's, the British archeologists R.A. Macalister and J. Garrow Duncan had dug in the area and found the ruins of ancient walls, they automatically deemed them to be Jebusite.

But Mazar reasoned differently. The Jebusite city, archeology showed, had been small and presumably crowded, so that David would have had to raze a large part of it in order to build a new royal compound. And if he was already planning (as the book of Samuel tells us he was) to build a house of worship on the Temple Mount, this in any case would have meant expanding the city northward and, eventually, walling in the expansion. Meanwhile, his palace would have its own defenses; if a formidable foe approached, there would be enough warning time to evacuate it for the fortress below. Besides, previous excavators had found curious things, such as a well-preserved proto-Ionic capital discovered by Kenyon to the north of the “stepped-stone structure.” Kenyon had thought that this crowning portion of a column or gateway, which was of unusual magnificence, might be “Solomonic,” but had no idea where it had fallen from. Why not, Mazar now asked, from David's palace?

It was an intriguing notion, but it had no buyers. Almost another decade had to pass before the Shalem Center offered to fund the dig; the project, underwritten by the American philanthropist Roger Hertog, broke ground in February 2005. In part because Mazar and her team worked unusually quickly, and in part because she reached bedrock closer to the surface than anticipated, she finished excavating the area at her disposal within a few months. By last summer she was making newspaper headlines—“King David's Palace Is Found, Archeologist Says,” declared the New York Times—and in the January/February 2006 issue of Biblical Archeology Review she published a first account of her findings. Although, she repeated there, it was still too early to be absolutely sure, she was reasonably convinced that she had found the remains of the “house” built for David by Hiram.

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Piles of stones do not speak for themselves, and archeological excavations are generally disappointing to the untrained eye. Yet, standing in Mazar's excavation, which is roughly the size and shape of a junior-high-school basketball court sunk some fifteen feet into the ground, one is immediately struck by two things. The first is the luck of there having been space for her to dig at all. To the east of the excavation are the “stepped stone structure” and a steep slope. To the north and south are Palestinian houses and their gardens, built since Kathleen Kenyon's day. To the west is a “David's City Visitors Center” owned by the Ir David Association, a Jewish settlers' group that has been buying up property in the area. Mazar could dig at all only because the association placed part of its land at her disposal.

One's second impression is that whatever it is that she has unearthed, it is indeed the remains of something grand. At eye level are the bottoms of huge stone walls, six to eight feet in width, running off into the unexcavated earth all around. While it is impossible to calculate just what sort of structure they were meant to be the foundations of, it clearly occupied a considerably larger area than the 3,000 square feet that have been explored so far and must have risen to a height of more than one story.

Could this structure have been, as Macalister and Duncan thought, part of the Jebusite city wall? Mazar thinks not, the reason being that in places where she has cleared the foundation stones down to the bedrock, she has found broken pottery of the so-called Iron Age I period that she dates to the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. Since the stones could not possibly have been laid earlier than that, a “Jebusite” interpretation of them would mean that, sometime in the 200 years before David's conquest of Jerusalem, the city's rulers decided to replace its existing northern defenses with new ones at the cost of an enormous investment. They would have had no evident motive for doing so. And at the same time, the walls Mazar has found are located where the Bible tells us David's palace was built: “round about from the Millo” and higher up than the Jebusite fortress.

Could these walls date to a period after David's, and thus be the foundations of a royal building erected by later kings—perhaps the same 7th-century ones who play such a key role in Finkelstein's historical reconstruction? Mazar rules this out because of another find: pottery vessels, including a largely intact little juglet, identifiable as 10th- or 9th-century Cypriot in provenance, whose presence in 7th-century foundations would be as hard to explain as that of a French Revolution-period teacup in the substructure of a 1970 Manhattan high-rise. On the other hand, she says, there is definite evidence that the structure in question was still in use even later than the 7th century, if not as a royal palace then at least as a royal office building. For the dig's most dramatic discovery so far is a bulla—a small clay impression commonly used in ancient times as a personal seal—that bears on it the stamp “Yehuchal ben Shelemiyahu,” a name occurring in the book of Jeremiah as that of an official at the court of Josiah's son Zedekiah (598-587).

Finkelstein, who has visited the dig, is not convinced. Although he agrees that the foundations are of an early Judahite building, he places that building “between the late 10th century and ca. 800 B.C.E.,” and disputes Mazar's dating of the bedrock pottery. Moreover, he argues, the building could not have been David's palace, because royal palaces in the ancient Near East were always built adjacent to temples; if David was planning to situate his temple on the Temple Mount, he would have built his palace closer to there. Most probably, Finkelstein believes, Mazar has unearthed a royal administrative center constructed by a 9th-century Judahite king, one seeking to create a southern copy of the bureaucratic state already existing in the north.

And here, for the time being, matters rest. Mazar is planning to expand her dig, following the foundations she has uncovered westward into the Ir David Visitors Center. It is anybody's guess what she will find there. If it is not the archeological equivalent of a knockout blow, such as a datable inscription like the Tel Dan stele, the battle will go on and eventually have to be decided on points—that is, on the basis of pottery analysis, stratigraphic considerations, radiocarbon tests, issues of historical plausibility, and all the other factors that enter into archeological debates. These debates can last for a very long time. Meanwhile, the newspapers have moved on to other matters.

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Whether or not Mazar has found David's palace is certainly a question of historical import. Yet it is perhaps not quite as important historically as it might seem at first glance. All in all, Mazar and Finkelstein's opinions regarding the history of ancient Israel do not differ enormously. Both would agree that the archeological record has little positive to say about this history before the time of David. Mazar's David is—as the Bible depicts him—the first Hebrew ruler of the southern hill country of Palestine; so is Finkelstein's. A strong Judahite state first arose, according to Mazar, in the early 10th century; according to Finkelstein, in the mid- to late 9th. Starting with the 9th century, both agree again that the Bible's account of Judahite and Israelite kings, and of their wars, victories, and defeats, is in its bare outlines correct. All in all, they are quarreling about some 100 to 150 years of biblical history. This does not set them worlds apart.

Because it does not, their dispute does not have quite the contemporary political ramifications that have been attributed to it, either. True, a categorical dismissal of the Bible's historicity has been linked in some circles, both academic and political, to pro-Palestinian positions and to the assertion that the Jewish claim to the “land of Israel” is historically fraudulent, there having been, so it is said, no Jewish people in that land until the last centuries before Jesus.

But such sweeping “Bible denial,” whose echoes were audible in Yasser Arafat's lunatic declaration that the Temple Mount was never a Jewish site, has been restricted to the more radical biblical minimalists and has nothing to do with Finkelstein or any other reputable archeologist. Rationally considered, the Jewish right to a country in which, by any measured archeological judgment, Jews have a history of over 3,000 years can hardly be compromised by a disagreement over how much power and territory were possessed by two of that history's kings, no matter how great their significance in a tradition that continued to turn them into legends long after the biblical period. (In rabbinic midrash, for example, David is pictured as a great Torah scholar.) For their part, less than rational minds will go on denying this right even if Eilat Mazar finds a crown with David's name on it. (The palace is David's? Ah, yes, but you see, this David was a Canaanite king whose story the Jews stole. . . .) Willful malice and ignorance are not to be discouraged by anything so trivial as an archeological excavation.

Similarly, the dispute cannot be said to bear heavily on issues of religious belief. On the contrary: those who read the Bible through believing eyes have no need for archeological confirmation, and every reason not to seek it. To do so would be to substitute archeology for faith, with fatal consequences for the latter. Even if Mazar should be proved right, the same science that vindicates the biblical account of David will still cast doubt on the biblical account of Joshua. What could be gained by such a victory?

And yet faith, it must be said, is not a central concept in the Hebrew Bible, even if it is very much so in the Christian New Testament. While it plays a crucial role in the story of Abraham, who is in every sense a man of faith, he is unique in this respect. Unlike Abraham, who is asked to believe in a God Who has not yet proved Himself, other major characters in the Bible are asked to serve a God Who has. What is tested in them is the courage to follow God after He has been made manifest in their experience.

Apart from the participants in the exodus from Egypt and the theophany at Sinai, the biblical people of Israel as a whole have no such God-experience of their own. But they too are not asked to have faith. Rather, they are asked to remember the experiences of others. And this they are enjoined to do over and over again, as in chapter 8 of the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses exhorts not only the Israelites in the desert but all their descendants:

And thou shalt remember all the way in which the Lord thy God led thee these 40 years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldst keep His commandments or no. . . . Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping His commandments, and His judgments, and His statutes, which I command thee this day. . . . But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to prosper, that He may establish His covenant, which He swore unto thy fathers.

To remember is the supreme commandment of the Bible, not because forgetting is worse than murdering, committing adultery, or doing anything else that one is commanded not to do, but because when one forgets one no longer knows why one has been commanded.

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But human memory is a pitiful tool. What do we remember even of our own lives? A tiny fraction of a fraction—and the farther back we go, the tinier it becomes. Of yesterday, much. Of last week, less. Of ten or twenty years ago, very little. Of our childhoods, next to nothing. If we can recall a half-dozen tangible things from our fourth or fifth year of life, we consider ourselves fortunate. And how joyful we are if we manage to salvage one more such recollection, wresting it from the oblivion into which it has fallen! We treasure it as a child treasures a coin that has been extracted with great difficulty through the grating of a sidewalk.

The scandal of memory is how it lets our lives slip away even as we live them, let alone the lives of those who came before us.

This is what inspires the great monuments of antiquity. To be remembered! To be remembered when all else is forgotten! By a pyramid. By an inscription. I am Tukulti-Urta, king of the universe, the mighty king, king of Assyria, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four regions, favorite of Assur and Shamash. . . .

And so, after a fashion, we remember Tukulti-Urta, who lived about 1250 B.C.E. There are many like him in the history books. But the Bible is the first book in history that asks us to remember, not just the public deeds of great men, but their private experience as well. It asks us to believe that this experience has something to do with our own. And it came to pass in an eveningtide that David rose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house, and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself, and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. . . .

This is not history. But it is not religious myth, either. It is a supposed memory from roughly the age of Tukulti-Urta. And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him and said unto him . . . Wherefore hast thou despised the commandments of the Lord, to do evil in His sight, that thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife?

The narrative books of the Bible are a collection of such supposed memories, handed down faithfully for thousands of years. These memories are themselves the most infinitesimal part of the most infinitesimal part of what happened to the human race in those years, a handful of coins extracted through all the gratings of all the sidewalks in all possible universes. And yet they are, the Bible improbably asks us to believe, memories of the most important things that ever happened to humanity.

One thus does not have to be a religious believer to comprehend the mockery involved if all this remembering has been of nothing—if its memories are, like many of the “memories” of our childhoods, false ones, stories imagined, perhaps in the 7th century B.C.E., about people who never existed, or who, if they did exist, never did or said the things they are said to have done or said.

I say “all this remembering” because much of the Bible obviously is false memory. It is not reasonable to assume that a boy named David slew a giant named Goliath, especially because, as biblical critics have pointed out, the same slaying is attributed elsewhere in the book of Samuel to a different hero and apparently belongs to a legend that settled on David in the course of time. The Bible has many such legends. But the story of David and Bathsheba need not be a legend. It may not have happened—but it could have.

This is perhaps the only reason, ultimately, why it is of more than just historical interest whether Eilat Mazar has found David's palace. Not that finding it would make David and Bathsheba's story, part of which takes place in a bedroom of this palace, necessarily true; and not that failing to find it would make it necessarily untrue. But just as, in a courtroom trial, each truth told by a witness increases the probability that his next statement will also be true, and each falsehood that his next statement will also be false, so it is with the verses in the book of Samuel: “And David built round about from Millo. . . . And Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, and carpenters, and masons, and they built David a house.” Each, if true, makes it more likely that so are other things in the book of Samuel, and in the rest of the Bible.

One can read the Bible as a work of the imagination and still garner wisdom and pleasure from it. But the Bible asks to be read as a book of memory. Those who love it can be as skeptical about it as they wish and still cheer for it every time another reason is found to read it in this way.

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Footnotes

1 Finkelstein himself objects to being called a “revisionist” and prefers to be known as an “archeological centrist,” standing halfway between the radical “minimalists,” on the one hand, and the conservative “traditionalists,” on the other. He differs from such minimalists as the European scholars Philip Davies and Niels Peter Lemche both in a greater willingness to concede a possible measure of truth to biblical traditions that cannot be proved archeologically, and in an earlier dating of many biblical books that the minimalists assign to periods as late as the third and second centuries B.C.E. Many minimalists once denied the historicity of David and Solomon altogether, a position from which they were made to retreat by the discovery of the “Tel Dan stele”: an Aramaic text, carved in stone in approximately 835 B.C.E., that was unearthed by archeologists in northern Israel in 1993. In the text, Hazael king of Damascus boasts of a victory in battle over a combined force led by “Jehoram son of Ahab,” king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and “Ahaziahu of the house of David,” king of the southern kingdom of Judah. The text is now generally accepted as proof of David's (and therefore Solomon's) historical existence.

2 Free Press, 352 pp., $26.00.

3 Finkelstein's reasons for re-dating these sites, set forth more completely in articles in archeological journals, are complex and based heavily on analyses of the pottery found in different strata. They have been rejected by traditionalists who continue to defend the older chronology.

4 Although Finkelstein allows that the Temple in Jerusalem may originally have been Solomonic, he argues that in the 10th century it would have been a simple structure, to be lavishly renovated only at a later date.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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