Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: The Bible, Archaeology, and History

What kind of proof has archaeology furnished for the historical validity of the Bible? Jacob J. Finkelstein here examines the problem in the light of Nelson Glueck’s Rivers in the Desert (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy; $6.50).




The lay reader who keeps abreast of the output of popular and semi-popular books on the subject of the Bible and Biblical archaeology, as well as the specialist working in these or related fields, cannot but be struck by a pronounced new trend reflected in a large part of the recent literature: the presentation of archaeological evidence as corroborating the Bible’s historicity. In other words, there is a marked tendency to treat the Bible as a wholly reliable record of events, exactly like a primary source in any other branch of historical inquiry. We may exclude such treatments of this theme which are frankly addressed to religiously committed audiences, usually under the sponsorship of fundamentalist or orthodox groups, and which boldly impress the impartial testimony of archaeological discovery into the service of doctrines and beliefs about the Bible that were held before such discoveries were made. What I am concerned with here are books which appeal to the public on an allegedly non-sectarian and even on a non-religious basis. For if the Bible can be shown to be “history” on a presumably scientific basis, it is obviously a matter of the first importance to all people, theist and atheist alike. The best-known example of the kind of book I have in mind is The Bible as History of one Werner Keller, originally appearing in Germany but published in this country five years ago amid much publicity, which purported to demonstrate with finality the literal accuracy of Biblical tradition as corroborated by archaeology. Whatever Keller’s qualifications were for writing a book of this kind, firsthand acquaintance with the subject was not one of them. His inaccuracies and misrepresentations were pointed out in responsible reviews, including one by Nelson Glueck—whose new volume forms the basis of the present remarks—in the New York Times (October 28, 1956). But other books dedicated to the same thesis have appeared in the last few years.

One of the first questions that comes to mind in pondering this new thesis is why the “discovery” was not made earlier. After all, explorations have been going on in Palestine and its surrounding areas for about a hundred years. The men engaged in these activities were for the most part devout Christians, often clergymen, and they were ever at pains to keep the general public abreast of the implications of their discoveries for Biblical history, as anyone familiar with the literature on this subject for the last hundred years is aware. Yet in all this literature, popular as well as scholarly, the claim that archaeology proved the historicity of the Bible is hardly ever emphasized. I need cite only the best known volume of this type, G. A. Barton’s Archaeology and the Bible, published by the American Sunday School Union for use by Protestant seminaries, Sunday schools, and the Protestant laity in general, which went through seven revisions and editions from 1916 to 1937 in order to keep up with the latest results of scholarly investigation. Are we to infer that the scholars of this period were so uniformly obtuse that they failed to draw the most obvious as well as the most important conclusion demanded by the evidence? Although, to be sure, some striking discoveries casting new light on the Bible have been made in recent years, the greater part of the “evidence” was already available to the scholars of an earlier generation. Upon closer examination of this evidence, however, it becomes apparent that there is nothing in it to warrant the recent claims made in its behalf. I shall devote the remainder of this essay to an analysis of the evidence which Nelson Glueck, the latest scholar to champion the new thesis, adduces in Rivers in the Desert.



Dr. Glueck, the president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is an eminent Biblical scholar of many years’ standing, whose archaeological explorations and excavations in the Transjordan, and more recently in the Negev, comprise one of the truly major contributions to the knowledge of the Biblical and post-Biblical civilizations of the Near East. The larger part of his present book is, in fact, devoted to a popular account of his various discoveries in these areas, in a style designed to attract the widest possible audience. If this were all the book were intended to be, it could simply be recommended as a straightforward account of adventure and discovery which is perennially appealing to the general reading public, with the added attraction, in this case, that the discoveries are related to the Bible and Biblical history. But this is by no means the case. Dr. Glueck utilizes this account as a frame for a much more ambitious design, namely, as a demonstration of the historicity of the Bible. This theme is the leitmotif throughout the book. In his own words—which he repeats with minor variations at different points along the way: “it may be stated categorically1 that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference” (p. 31). Or again, in his work he relies “heavily upon the almost incredibly accurate historical memory of the Bible, and particularly so when it is fortified by archaeological fact” (p. 68). Although Dr. Glueck is an ordained rabbi, the authority with which he pronounces these broad claims—they constitute in fact the most extreme statement of the new thesis that I have yet seen—is not that of religious conviction but of a scholar of recognized standing. This makes the new thesis a matter of the most serious moment for all those who are concerned with the history of civilization regardless of their religious commitment.

But before proceeding further, I will take the liberty—as an initiate in a related discipline—of narrowing the scope of Dr. Glueck’s categorical statements cited above in a way that I feel sure Dr. Glueck means them to be understood, although he does not make this clear. I am certain, for instance, that the thesis of historicity of the Bible is not meant to apply to the Creation and Flood legends in Genesis.

Nor does the thesis deserve examination so far as Dr. Glueck means it to apply to the Historical books, beginning with Judges. If he did, the new thesis would have to be dismissed as saying nothing really new. No school of Biblical criticism since the beginning of scientific investigation of the Bible, including the most extreme exponents of the Higher Criticism, has ever doubted the essential truthfulness of the events related in the historical books of the Bible, especially in the light of all the evidence provided for the period by the cuneiform records of Assyria and Babylonia.

I am fairly certain, too, that Dr. Glueck did not intend his statements to apply to certain books of the Hagiographa, for example, the book of Esther. As a result of the knowledge of the Persian Empire and its administration accumulated over the last century, most scholars have concluded that the book of Esther, whatever its original purpose and despite some obvious acquaintance of its author with the terms of Persian administration, is essentially a work of fiction which dates from a period much later than that in which its story is set. The absence of this book alone, among all the books of the Old Testament, in the library of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has lent strong support to this conclusion.

In short, I think that what Dr. Glueck really had in mind as “the Bible” to which his categoric statements are meant to apply, is the Hexateuch, that is, the Five Books of the Law plus Joshua; in other words, that very portion of the Old Testament which has been the real subject of analysis and contention among the Higher Critics and various other schools of Biblical criticism. Narrowing the scope of Dr. Glueck’s claims even more closely, I would say that the question of historicity involves primarily the narratives about the Patriarchs in Genesis, the events associated with the figure of Moses, and the story of the conquest of Canaan as described in Joshua. It would be as pointless for me to disprove Dr. Glueck’s thesis by citing, for example, the obviously legendary Creation and Flood narratives as it would be for Dr. Glueck to demonstrate its truth by citing almost any chapter in the book of Kings together with the extra-Biblical evidence bearing on it. Nevertheless, Dr. Glueck’s failure to define his terms of reference in this basic way gives the average lay reader the impression that Dr. Glueck’s thesis applies indeed to the entire Bible. For the reader with some liberal education such imprecision will have the Very opposite effect of that obviously desired by the author; it can serve only to alienate him from the Bible even further than he already is.



But the really crucial question is to what extent, if any, the new thesis is valid for the Hexateuch, and what is the nature of the evidence cited in its support. It must first be acknowledged that Dr. Glueck is aware that his thesis is not to be applied literally to all parts of these Hexateuchal narratives. On page 30 he states: “The purpose of the Biblical historian and archaeologist is, however, not to ‘prove’ the correctness of the Bible. It is primarily a theological document, which can never be ‘proved.’ . . . Saga and song, legend and myth, fact and folklore were woven into the text to illustrate this central theme [the uniqueness and universality of God]. . . . The archaeological explorer in Bible lands must be aware of the fact that as important as the Bible is for historical information, it is definitely not primarily a chronicle of history, as we understand that term today.” This is certainly a careful and judicious warning to those “of little faith who seek through archaeological corroboration of historical source materials in the Bible to validate its religious teachings and spiritual insights.” But in the very next paragraph Dr. Glueck throws his own caution to the winds with his categorical claim that archaeology has never controverted a Biblical reference. This claim could conceivably be defended by resort to casuistry, but as a matter of plain fact it is untrue. There are many instances where archaeologically provided fact or near certainty has contradicted a Biblical statement. I shall discuss at length only one, possibly the most famous, the Fall of Jericho.

Jericho, or its ruined site, has been the subject of intensive excavation, on and off, from the early years of this century down to the present day. One of the results of all this work, known to every student of Palestinian archaeology, is the plain evidence that Joshua could not have fought the famous battle of Jericho for the simple reason that the site was uninhabited during the only period in which it is possible to fit the story of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, around the middle of the 13th century B.C.E. Dr. Glueck has many references to Jericho in his book, but beyond an oblique reference to the Israelites’ “miraculous experience at Jericho” (p. 114) he does not mention the story of its conquest as described in the book of Joshua.

More instructive for our purposes, and as a revealing sidelight on the vagaries of scholarly objectivity in recent years, is the treatment of the subject by G. E. Wright, now professor at Harvard and a leading authority on Palestinian archaeology. In the first edition of the Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (1946) he states forthrightly: “the evidence for the final fall and abandonment of Jericho in the previous (i.e. 14th) century is conclusive. At the present there is no final solution of this discrepancy (i.e. the age of Joshua vs. the evidence of archaeology) . . . we are led to the conclusion that Jericho fell, not to Joshua, but to relatives of Israel, etc.” The vague allusion to some “relatives of Israel” is, of course, a faint-hearted stab in the direction of harmonization, but for the rest, the statement is an honest acknowledgment of the verdict of archaeology. But here are Dr. Wright’s words at the same point in the new edition (1956) of the same work: “Beginning in 1952, however, a new expedition began work on the site. A redating of the major architectural remains has occurred, with the resulting conclusion that very little remains on the site from 1500 to 1200 B.C. The nature of the town or fort that existed there during the 14th and 13th centuries is something we know little about, nor can we say much about the date of its capture by Joshua.” When this statement is reduced to unambiguous phraseology, it means that the most recent excavations at Jericho have proved that the violent destruction of the city occurred in the 15th century B.C.E. and not in the 14th. The earlier excavator had dated the event in the 14th century to harmonize his findings with Scripture, and moved Joshua back to the 14th century as well. (The fortifications of Jericho found by the first excavators of the site before World War I, and immediately identified as the great walls which Joshua brought tumbling down, are now known to be of the third millennium B.C.E., that is, more than a thousand years before Joshua!) In short, the “redating of the major architectural remains” means that the destroyed city of Jericho was a hundred years older than previously believed, and that the site remained unoccupied for at least three or four hundred years, that is, until well into the period of Israelite domination of Judea. Wright’s allusion to a “town or fort” of Jericho which was captured by Joshua is a purely gratuitous one for which there is not a shred of new archaeo logical evidence.

What amounts to an admission of this is to be found in a still later statement by Dr. Wright in his new large work Biblical Archaeology (1957), where he discusses the subject of Jericho in greater detail: “The most surprising and discouraging result of the work so far has been the discovery that virtually nothing remains at the site between 1500 and 1200 B.C.” If nothing remains on the site (“virtually” is a normal scholarly hedge), then the obvious conclusion is that it was uninhabited; the assumption that there was some habitation about which we know nothing is untenable. Wright’s description of the findings as “discouraging” speaks volumes on the subject of scholarly detachment in the area of Biblical studies. The dictates of the new trend, which requires that every contradiction between archaeological evidence and Biblical text be harmonized to uphold the veracity of Scripture, has apparently driven Dr. Wright—in this case at least—beyond the reach of common sense.

For the explanation of the Jericho “dilemma” stares one in the face. The destruction of Jericho in the 15th century B.C.E., a city whose might and historical importance as reflected in the Bible were amply confirmed by the excavation of its site, was an event that must have created a deep impression on the surrounding population, not unlike the fall of Troy, and was remembered in later generations. At an age much later than that of Joshua, when Israelite tradition began to formulate the story of its conquest of Canaan, it was only natural that the famous episode of the fall of Jericho was incorporated in that tradition. Is it not enough that archaeology has confirmed the Biblical tradition about a disastrous destruction of Jericho—in an age, after all, not too long before Joshua—without having to corroborate other details? Surely, not even the exponents of the new trend will expect archaeology to confirm the tradition that the fortifications of Jericho tumbled down at the sound of seven trumpets. It will not do to reply to the present strictures that the verdict of archaeology is not final; that further excavation may yet disclose a city of Jericho which Joshua could have destroyed. For the same argument could be applied the other way as well; all apparent confirmations of Biblical tradition by archaeology could eventually be discredited by further excavation and discovery, or by better understanding of the material. This has actually happened in more than one instance in Palestine archaeology, as in the case of Jericho itself.



I have chosen the Jericho episode, not only because it provides an outright contradiction to Glueck’s claim that archaeology has never controverted a Biblical reference, but also because the treatment of the episode by one scholar over the course of only a decade illustrates starkly what has been happening in Biblical scholarship in recent years. The main motive that has prompted this development in Biblical scholarship is the modern reaction against the Higher Biblical Criticism, to whose crumbling archaeology has indeed contributed in large measure. (But by no means has this been entirely due to archaeology; 20th-century thought in general—whatever its own deficiencies—has succeeded in exposing the artificiality of 19th-century Hegelian and evolutionary reconstructions of history, of which the Higher Criticism was only one example.) Archaeology has demonstrated, for instance, especially through discoveries of the present generation, the authenticity of the social and cultural milieu of the patriarchal narratives which the Higher Criticism had discounted for the most part as late, even post-exilic, and artificial recreations. Many details of family law and customs as described in these narratives have found their exact parallels in Mesopotamian cuneiform records to the early part of the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. The very names of the Patriarchs, such as Abraham and Jacob, have been found in these records; these are, of course, not references to the Biblical personages themselves, but they prove the authenticity of these names as West Semitic or “Amorite” and as belonging to the name-repertoire current in this early period. Or again, all except the most diehard adherents of the Wellhausenian reconstruction of Israelite history now accept the Mosaic Law as essentially reflecting early usage and formulation—that is, 13th century B.C.E. or even earlier—and not, as the Higher Criticism had envisaged it, a patch-quilt compilation reflecting the prejudices of much later times. The list of impressive gains in this direction which are directly due to archaeological discovery can only be suggested by these random examples.

But it is precisely at this point that the exponents of the new “Historicity School” go beyond the conclusions warranted by the evidence. None of these archaeological discoveries verifies in any way the actual historicity of the events and personages connected in the Bible with these usages and customs. To show that the patriarchal milieu of the Bible is authentic does not imply anything about the actual existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or the events they figure in. To accept the Mosaic Law as representative of a truly early stage of Israelite society, in no way proves Moses to have been a historical figure, or to have been the actual author of the legislation associated with his name. Similarly, if many of the Psalms, which the Higher Criticism had for the most part relegated to the post-exilic period, are now known from early Canaanite parallels to go back possibly to the second millennium B.C.E., it constitutes no proof whatever that they were composed by David. The historicity of these figures and events still depends solely on the Biblical statements, and their historical status remains a question of probability and to a great degree subjective. It should be borne in mind, furthermore, that practically all the new archaeological evidence bearing on the Biblical milieu comes not from Palestine, but from other areas in the Near East, such as Mesopotamia and North Syria; it is hardly to be expected that it should have any bearing on Biblical personages and events. For my own part, I should argue that archaeology has thus far not corroborated a single event nor authenticated the actual existence of a single personage mentioned in the first six books of the Bible.2 This statement may even be taken to cover such clearly real figures as David and Solomon, for the first such figure to occur in any contemporary extra-Biblical source is Omri, king of Israel in the early 9th century B.C.E., who is mentioned in the famous inscription of Mesha, king of Moab.



With these considerations in view, we may turn to examine the kind of evidence adduced by Dr. Glueck to support his thesis. The “Sacrifice of Isaac” (p. 60 ff.), which Dr. Glueck treats at some length, exemplifies the variety of methods and types of “evidence” used to support the thesis, and I propose, therefore, to analyze this treatment in some detail. Dr. Glueck first situates this episode against the background of archaeological evidence which shows that, among the Canaanites, newborn infants were buried by their parents under the family hearth or under the foundations of their houses. The assumption of Dr. Glueck and others is that this represents the sacrifice of the first-born, who were thus offered to the gods as “first fruit” in order to insure the future fertility of the family. To the best of my knowledge, however, there is no evidence that these infants did not die naturally; the phenomenon may testify to the extremely high rate of infant mortality which has plagued most of the Near East to this day. There could have been any number of religious, superstitious, or even sentimental reasons why their bodies should then have been buried in or near the family dwelling. But let us for the present assume, with Dr. Glueck, that these burials do represent the ceremony he imagines to have been current. In his ensuing interpretation of Abraham’s last-minute stay of Isaac’s sacrifice as a gesture signalling disgust with “such a hideous ceremony,” Dr. Glueck proceeds to speak of Abraham’s youthful idol-smashing and his attack on idolatry without informing the reader that these iconoclastic activities of Abraham are the offspring solely of late rabbinical midrashic musing, having no basis whatever in any Scriptural passage. As a matter of fact, there is no ground for assuming that Abraham was a monotheist; all schools of thought, apart from the strict fundamentalist, are agreed that whatever the historical basis for the Patriarchal Age, its religious notions as we have them in the book of Genesis are not monotheistic. And in his eagerness to impress upon the reader the importance of Abraham’s gesture as the abolition of such hideous ceremonies “forever,” Dr. Glueck appears to have overlooked Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter—not exactly the same ceremony, but still human sacrifice—almost a thousand years later, by Dr. Glueck’s own chronology of the “Abrahamitic Age.”

It is, of course, unlikely that Dr. Glueck wrote this section conscious of all its implications; he appears to have been carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment. But this is precisely the difficulty: this book, and others of the same genre, are not designed for spiritual edification. The dust jacket, the introductory sections, and the unquestioned competence of the author himself proclaim the contention that the book presents—on an admittedly popular level—the objective conclusions of a scholar about the nature of Biblical history and the evidence brought to bear on it by the impartial testimony of archaeological science. What, then, is the ordinary reader (unable to discriminate between proven fact and momentary fancy without a clear sign from the author himself) to make of the passage (p. 2) in which Dr. Glueck tells us of the correspondence of certain Paleolithic flint hand-axes found in the Negev with similar implements used by “Palestine Man,” (a Neanderthaloid found in the Mt. Carmel caves, going back to around 50,000 B.C.E.—a detail which Dr. Glueck fails to mention): “It is possible that the very, very great grandchildren of Palestine Man, if we assume that, somehow, there were continuous lines of succession, may include such native peoples of the Negev as the Kenites, among whom Moses found himself a wife. It is conceivable that there may be a chain of unbroken connection from the prehistoric man of the cave near Mt. Carmel to Moses, the ‘man of God’ of Sinai and Nebo.” This is, of course, a conceit, but how is the innocent reader to know this? Does Dr. Glueck hold that it is quite all right—it is, after all, on the side of the angels—if the popular mind takes that passage seriously?



But let us return to Abraham and Isaac, and follow them with Dr. Glueck to the appointed place of sacrifice. Dr. Glueck now describes the “anguish” of Abraham, and how, “distractedly, he had listened to his beloved son’s chattering and answered the child’s torrent of questions.” When we turn to the Biblical text (Gen. 22:7-8) we find only one very sensible question put by the boy: “Here are the fire (stone) and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” The author has again failed to indicate to the reader that he is interpolating another piece of rabbinic midrash (which, to be sure, the story cries out for). Dr. Glueck then proceeds to what, for the purposes of his central thesis, is the crucial point of the episode. He writes: “Is there truth in this story? I believe there is! Does this place [where the sacrifice was to have taken place] exist? I believe it does.” If we inquire what “truth” it is that Dr. Glueck presumes to have found in this story, we find that it is nothing more than a possible identification of the name of the place where the story is said to have occurred. Assuming for the moment that the identification is correct—a matter I shall presently examine—the kind of reasoning involved here amounts to precisely this: King Arthur is said in Malory’s tales to have been at Dover. Dover is known to exist. Therefore there is “truth” in the story of King Arthur. Exactly what “truth” does Dr. Glueck find in the Biblical story? If it is nothing more than the fact that the place-name is authentic, then his statement is an outright tautology; his belief, or finding, that the place really exists is explicit in the second part of his statement. If he means by “truth” some extra-Biblical verification of all or part of the story, he cites no such additional evidence. Dr. Glueck’s statement about finding “truth” in the story amounts therefore to an ambiguity that is ony compounded by the exclamation point that follows it.

But what of the identification of the place-name itself? Here Dr. Glueck characterizes as “mistaken” the commonly accepted equation of the “Land of Moriah” (the name of the place in the Sacrifice story) with the Mt. Moriah upon which, according to traditional Jewish belief, Solomon erected the First Temple at Jerusalem. This tradition goes back at least as far as the time II Chronicles 3:1 was written—the 5th or 4th century B.C.E.—and was probably current long before that time. As there is no other reference to any Moriah in the Scriptures apart from the locale of the Sacrifice of Isaac, and no extra-Biblical occurrence of this name in association with any place in Palestine, including Jerusalem, it is obvious that the Mt. Moriah of Chronicles is itself based on the “Land of Moriah”; in other words, the tradition—preserved in the Hebrew prayer-book—that the Mt. Moriah of the Temple and the “Land of Moriah” of the Sacrifice of Isaac are identical, goes back at least as far as the early post-exilic period. Dr. Glueck nevertheless postulates the existence of two “Moriahs”; one being the hill of Solomon’s temple, as recorded in Chronicles, the other being the locale of Isaac’s sacrifice, which Dr. Glueck claims must have been in the Sinai-Negev border region “in the neighborhood of Kadesh-Barnea.” This alleged existence of a southern Moriah, which lacks the sanction even of tradition, is built up by Dr. Glueck on the basis of a most labored comparison of various names—too involved and inconclusive to be described here—none of which is shown to have any etymological relationship, let alone resemblance, to the name “Moriah.” Apparently aware that this chain of comparisons is none too convincing, Dr. Glueck falls back circuitously on his thesis by saying: “The remarkable historical memory of the Bible seems to indicate this” (p. 64).

Why does Dr. Glueck feel compelled to dispute the traditional association of the “Land of Moriah” with the “Mt. Moriah” of Chronicles? The reason, in his own words, is that “it would not have been necessary for Abraham for days on end (the Bible states explicitly that he arrived at the spot on the third day!) to drag a supply of kindling with him for the altar fire had his mission been to the wooded hills of Judah (i.e. the vicinity of later Jerusalem).” Dr. Glueck, in other words, is troubled by the vision of Abraham carrying coals to Newcastle, if the traditional location of Moriah at Jerusalem is allowed to stand. As if the storyteller—at an age at least a thousand years later than Abraham, by Dr. Glueck’s own calculations—would have stopped to consider the “incongruity” in Abraham’s bringing firewood to a place where there was already a plentiful supply of it. And precisely this trivial “incongruity” is what sets Dr. Glueck off on his search for a “Moriah” in the barren Sinai-Negev area where, of course, the bringing of firewood from the outside makes more sense. In his eagerness to find some clue that might demonstrate the historicity of the story, he has here disregarded his own previous warning to Biblical scholars not to treat such narratives literally. But having done so, he has entangled himself in a greater contradiction than the imaginary one he has attempted to explain. For the place where he imagines this southern “Moriah” to be located is almost fifty miles, as the crow flies, from Beersheba, Abraham’s point of departure. Dr. Glueck himself, in speaking of the difficulty of traversing the Negev terrain, writes that “even swift and unencumbered travellers cannot cross the length of the Negev except in many strenuous days.” How then could Abraham’s party have managed such a distance in three days or less on foot? (The Biblical text speaks of only one animal, an ass, which presumably carried the equipment and supplies.) Not that the distance from Beersheba to Jerusalem is appreciably shorter; if we were to be as literal as Dr. Glueck about the story we should have to conclude that neither Jerusalem nor Kadesh-barnea could really have been the locale of the hill or the land of Moriah. To be truthful, there is no way of ascertaining the real location of Moriah, nor is it a matter of any importance whatever. What is important is that as far back as tradition can be traced, in other words, after the legends about the patriarch Abraham had assumed a more or less canonical form, the Israelites—or perhaps more specifically the writers of the Judean Kingdom—began to associate the location of the Sacrifice of Isaac with the sanctuary at Jerusalem, a very natural tendency designed to enhance the prestige of that city as the sole authorized center of the Jewish cult. A precisely parallel tradition developed in the full light of history when Mohammed placed the seal of Islamic approval on the pagan pilgrimage to the Ka’aba at Mecca by announcing that it was Abraham and Ishmael who had originally hallowed the spot and had inaugurated the pilgrimage rites associated with it. The ingenuity expended here in trying to square a legendary tale with history strikes one as utterly misplaced.



But let us suppose once more that a place called “Moriah” was actually found in the Negev at a location in keeping with the setting of the Biblical episode. What possible bearing could such a discovery then have on the historicity of the story? It is, nevertheless, primarily on the basis of such place names that Glueck and others proclaim their newly found evidence for the historicity of the Biblical narratives. But these are no “new discoveries.” Never during the entire past century or more of scientific investigation in Palestine and else-where in the Near East was it ever suggested that the topographical and onomastic references in the Bible were wrong or fictitious even by the extreme exponents of the Higher Criticism, or, for that matter, even in the “exposés” of the Bible by modern atheists. One gets the impression, reading Dr. Glueck, that such references in the Bible supply a rich vein of evidence which had remained neglected by explorers and archaeologists until very recently, and that thanks only to this ostensibly new approach—Dr. Glueck has been referring popularly to the Bible in this context as a “divining rod”—has the “historical accuracy” of the Bible been securely established.

Here, for instance, is how Dr. Glueck describes his own approach to the discovery of Ezion-geber on the Gulf of Aqaba: “The whereabouts of Solomon’s long-lost port city of Ezion-geber was for centuries an unfathomable mystery, because no one paid attention to the Biblical statement that it was located ‘beside Eloth, or on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom’ (I Kings 9:26; 10:22). And that is exactly where we found it. . . . Memory of its location had been snuffed out like the flame of a gutted candle. Assuming, however, as we did, that the Biblical statement was literally correct, it was not too difficult to discover it” (p. 31f.). Now there are at least three straw men set up in this brief passage, whom the author then proceeds to mow down. I do not mean to detract in any way from the importance of Dr. Glueck’s discovery and excavation for our knowledge of the area in Biblical times. But his way of stating things appears to me to be unjustified and misleading. First is his reference to Ezion-geber as “Solomon’s long-lost city.” The reader immediately gets the impression that scholars and explorers had been searching for this particular city, which, in contrast with most other Biblical cities, was “lost.” As a matter of plain fact, however, Ezion-geber was no more “lost” than virtually all the sites of ancient cities in the Near East. Almost all of these places were ultimately reduced to low, flat-topped hillocks (known as tells in the Near East) including, for example, such cities in Palestine at least as important as Ezion-geber as Megiddo and Lachish, and the more famous Nineveh and Babylon in Iraq. None of these places was really “lost” because, until the 19th century, nobody was looking for them, at least not in any systematic way. Not everything “found” has first to be “lost”; Australia was not “lost” before the voyage of Captain Cook, nor was America “lost” before Columbus.

The second straw man, related to the first, is the “unfathomable mystery.” Now a “mystery” cannot be said to exist before there is some consciousness of a problem, and the attempt to find a solution for it proves unfruitful. No more “mystery” surrounded the whereabouts of Ezion-geber before Dr. Glueck’s excavation of the site than almost any other site in Palestine before its excavation or exploration. As a matter of fact, I cannot recall offhand any ancient Israelite city whose whereabouts could be described as a mystery, but a good example of such a bonafide “mystery” is the ancient Semitic capital of Akkad in Babylonia, whose location has indeed been sought by modern explorers without success.



The third and most important straw man is to be found in Dr. Glueck’s allegation that he was able to solve the “mystery” of Ezion-geber because he assumed “that the Biblical statement [about its location] was literally correct,” while his predecessors presumably disregarded such references. Implicit in this sentence is the entire basis for the newly proclaimed thesis about the historical accuracy of the Bible. For it follows immediately upon his categorical statement of it which I quoted earlier, and is obviously meant to illustrate it, Reading this, the impression is inevitable that earlier archaeologists and explorers had failed to place as much credence in the Biblical references as more recent researchers do, and as a consequence were unable to appreciate how accurate and trustworthy the Bible really is. But the fact is that every explorer and archaeologist who has ever worked in Palestine, skeptic as well as fundamentalist, has relied heavily on the topographical information in the Bible as a matter of course. It would never have occurred to any of them to suspect that such information would have been invented, and this was not a matter of faith but of common sense. Events and persons might be fictitious or legendary, but the locales of such stories are usually authentic enough, as in the case of the Arthur legends. In his three-volume account, Biblical Researches in Palestine (1841), the famed founder of Palestinian exploration, Edward Robinson, describes the method of identifying ancient sites which he used on his journeys: “To examine everywhere for ourselves with the Scriptures [in Hebrew, Greek, and English]; and to apply for information solely to the native Arab population.” The Arab names of places often contained at least an echo of the Biblical one, and the topographical indications in the Bible often helped to confirm the identity of a site. By this method Robinson identified the location of scores of Biblical cities, a great many of which were confirmed by later excavation, some even in very recent years. Robinson and all those who followed him, using the same methods—albeit with increasing refinement and better technical equipment—did not consider the accord of the modern with Biblical topographical information in any way extraordinary, nor did they draw any conclusions from it about the veracity of the Biblical stories and personalities associated with these places. Of course, Robinson himself, as well as some of the later explorers, believed firmly in the literal truth of all Biblical narratives. No need was felt by such people to demonstrate by scientific means what was believed as a matter of faith. It was enough for him to have re-discovered (or think he had) the places mentioned in the Bible by what were for his day objective means. He probably would have scoffed at being shown artifacts purported to be associated with Biblical characters and events. It was precisely because of his skepticism of such traditional manifestations of pious credulity that he undertook his researches in the first place. His first principle, in his own words, was “to avoid as far as possible all contact with the convents and the authority of the monks.” When, in later decades, the literal truth of the Bible began to be doubted in many—including religious—quarters, the fundamental reliability of Biblical topographical information was never questioned, except as it came to be realized that a Biblical author could sometimes make as honest a mistake as a modern one.

It is plain, in short, that from the beginning of Palestine exploration down to the present day, the topographical information of the Bible has consistently been used as a primary tool for the identification of ancient sites. But never before recent years was this universally accepted usage appealed to as evidence for the truth or accuracy of the Bible as a whole. It is perhaps significant in this connection that Dr. Glueck, whose chief exploration tool, by his own account, is the same repertoire of Biblical information utilized by all his predecessors, never once mentions Robinson, who first demonstrated the reliability of the tool, nor any of the other early giants of Palestinian exploration who used it to such profitable account.



If all Dr. Glueck intended by his thesis was to dramatize the fact that the Bible has proved to be a reliable guide in the exploration of Palestine, much that I have written here would be beside the point. The book would then have amounted to a reaffirmation of what has been accepted and used as a matter of course for more than a hundred years, together with a popular account of Dr. Glueck’s application of this tried and trusted technique in areas which had remained relatively neglected before his own researches. But the entire book is really meant to illustrate a more ambitious thesis, and the few examples I have chosen for analysis exemplify his approach throughout. There is something behind this insistence on the historicity of the Bible just because the places mentioned in it are authentic which I find particularly disturbing. My uneasiness has to do with the apparent readiness of an influential number of Biblical scholars to enlist the substantial gains made during recent decades in our knowledge of Israelite and Biblical history—perhaps unintentionally—in the current campaign to sell the public on a 1959-model piety incorporating all the latest scientific gadgets. By stamping the Bible with the approval of scientific authority, an accommodation is ostensibly achieved with the popular faith in science—a faith that must progressively deepen as the realm of science recedes ever further from the horizon of general comprehension; but this is merely to ally the Bible and God with the other shibboleths of our time. At this point, however, I am leaving the area of my own limited competence.

I would close, however, with a kind of plea. We shall always have with us the third- and fourth-hand popularizers who will pound and mash significant additions to the fund of knowledge into an amorphous and misleading pablum for the consumption of the semi-literate. The field of Biblical history and archaeology has had more than its fair share of such treatment. But it is quite another thing for reputed scholars in the field to lend their own prestige and authority to similar endeavors. These words may strike one as unduly severe, but I believe that the first responsibility of such scholars after the requirements of their own researches is to inform the truly literate portion of the general public, limited in numbers though it may be, of the very substantial gains made in recent decades toward our understanding of the Bible and the world of which it was a part. And this must be done in a way that can inspire the confidence of the educated lay public in the methods and critical standards of Biblical scholarship. Only in this way can the true historical value of the Bible as an important landmark in the odyssey of mankind be made to stand out boldly and unambiguously, and to become a source of reliable information—and inspiration—even for those who are not committed to the religious conceptions set forth in it.




1 Italics are mine throughout.

2 The sole exceptions to this statement are the names of the four kings (Genesis XIV: 1) whom Abraham is said to have fought and vanquished.

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