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Every once in a while, archaeologists in Israel hit pay dirt, undoing years of speculative claims that the key stories in the Bible never happened. For decades, it was claimed that King David never existed — putting into question the pivotal stories of the books of Kings and Chronicles on which a great deal of the biblical narrative turns. But then, in 1992 at Tel Dan, archaeologists uncovered the first clear nonbiblical evidence of David’s reign, an explicit reference to the king himself.
Now it has happened again. For years, biblical “minimalists,” as they are called, have been telling us that most of the Bible had to have been written many centuries after its stories took place. Basing their view mostly on the lack of Hebrew texts being found that date back to the time of David and Solomon, scholars like Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University have insisted that the ancient Israelites back then didn’t have the textual skills needed to record the stories of the Bible and that, at best, the texts we now have were written in the 7th or 6th centuries B.C.E., three or four centuries later.
But last week, Prof. Gershon Galil of Haifa University revealed what may be the most important discovery in the last decade: he succeeded in deciphering a text dating to the 10th century B.C.E., written in an ancient proto-Canaanite script, discovered near the Elah Valley in Israel 18 months ago. (Click here for a reproduction of the text and analysis.) Employing verb roots that are uniquely Hebrew, the text tells readers to protect the widows and orphans and strangers in their midst — themes immediately familiar from the prophecies of Isaiah and other biblical texts, and mostly absent from any of the neighboring peoples’ texts. Judge for yourself:
1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
Sound familiar? As Galil puts it, the discovery “indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.”
Archaeology is not an exact science, and while books purporting to offer conclusive debunkings of the biblical accounts continue to sell well, they are usually grounded in the absence of evidence supporting the Bible, rather than in any hard evidence contradicting it. Yet as the renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen once said, in archaeology “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” And the evidence that does exist overwhelmingly supports the reality of ancient Israel in the land of Israel very much as described in the biblical books beginning with Joshua. Maybe not everything in the Bible has been proved, but there’s more than enough to indicate that it’s far from a string of myths about a fanciful kingdom that never existed.
For more than a century and a half, new “scientific” proofs of the falsehood of the Bible have been the surest way to establish yourself in the inner circles of academic fashion. Yet in most cases, these proofs unravel with the continued work of archaeologists, whether at Tel Dan in 1992, or in the discovery of King David’s Palace in the City of David in the early 2000s (full disclosure: I was at the time the editor of a journal published by the Shalem Center, which also sponsored that dig), or in the Elah Valley this week.
None of this proves that one has to accept the Bible’s authority as a source of faith or morals. But it does suggest that efforts to use science as a bludgeon against religion are not really working.
This week, archaeologists in Jerusalem reported the discovery of a great wall dating to the sixth century B.C.E., likely to be part of the very city walls built by the Israelite leader Nehemia as described in the Bible. The archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, of Hebrew University and the Shalem Center, made major headlines two years ago with the discovery of what is likely the remains of King David’s palace. (I wrote an essay in Azure about this at the time.)
The debate over archaeological support for the Bible has, over the past years, gotten weirder and weirder. As more evidence like Mazar’s discovery emerges supporting the historical account of an Israelite people centered in Jerusalem, opponents are driven further into the arms of post-modernism: Not that the evidence doesn’t prove the hypothesis, but that all evidence and hypothesis are not real but political manipulation. I remember hearing a talk by Israel Finkelstein, head of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department and the leading promoter of the theory that David and Solomon’s kingdom never really existed. When asked to provide proofs for his alternative theory of how to know the dates of archaeological finds (upon which he based his whole pitch), he began citing the 1960’s philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn—who famously argued that science is not about truth but about shifting “paradigms,” driven as much by politics as anything else—to justify why he didn’t need proofs at all.
Now comes Barnard anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, who received tenure for a book she wrote claiming that the entire field of biblical archaeology is nothing but a political manipulation to justify the Jewish state and the oppression of Palestinians. But unlike Finkelstein, whose post-modern approach is often obscured by his archaeological knowledge, El-Haj is up-front about her intentions. As cited in Haaretz this week, she describes her research as building upon “post-structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism, and critical theory”—and therefore on “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method.” Ultimately, she is guided by a “commitment to understanding archaeology as necessarily political.”
This is a sign of desperation. As the evidence continues to mount, and the truthful nature of much of the biblical history becomes increasingly clear, these critics have little left to say but that evidence doesn’t matter. Students of Said, take note.
In one of the more insightful assessments of the Jewish situation of late, Martin Kramer (of the Washington Institute, the Shalem Center, and Harvard University) stated:
[T]he geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it.
The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.
Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status-quo people.
Kramer then lays out five scenarios that would seriously undermine this desirable status quo: the waning of American influence; the “subtraction” of Europe from the power of the West; the emergence of Iran as a regional power on par with Israel; the disintegration of Arab states into Iraq-style internal conflict, producing multiple Hezbollah’s on Israel’s borders; and finally, the failure of the Palestinians as a nation, leading to the collapse of the two-state paradigm.