The Bible Unearthed: A Review

The Bible Unearthed is a book and documentary on the theories of Israel Finkelstein, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, a contributing editor for Archaeology Magazine. The documentary discusses the archaeological evidence of the stories contained in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures). The Bible Unearthed presents the narrow academic view that if solid evidence cannot be found for an event or a story, that this story or event never actually took place. What is more, they also believe that if a story did not take place within the given time frame that it was believed to have taken place, then it must also be false. For this reason the documentary suggests that Avraham never existed, the Exodus story never happened, and that the Battle of Jericho (Joshua [Yehoshua] 6:1-27) never took place.

The hypothesis put forward in this work is that the Israelites were Canaanite peoples and nomads who established early Iron Age settlements in the mountains of Israel. From these settlements they believe that this people grew into the two kingdoms referenced in the books of Kings and that it was the flow of refugees into Jerusalem during the reign of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and the religious reforms of King Yossiyahu (Josiah) that created Judaism.

The first question here relates to the Biblical narrative of Avraham. They say that there is no evidence of Avraham, or any Mesopotamian peoples migrating to Canaan in the time frame suggested. Further, there is no evidence in Hebron that Avraham’s family settled there. This reasoning ignores a great deal of information from the Bible and from other archaeological evidence. Up to 2100 BCE the entire region from Canaan (modern Israel) to Sumer (Modern Southern Iraq) was ruled by the Akkadians. Akkadian culture, language, and administrative systems would influence the peoples of the regions for centuries. Essentially, by the time of Avraham, circa 2000-1900 BCE (the documentary cites the early second millennium BCE), the peoples of these regions lived in small city states beholden to local regional powers (the Sumerians controlled most of southern Iraq, for example) that shared a common root language, cultural similarities, and similar political organization. How would one identify a single extended family group from among so many similar family groups?

There is evidence that Canaanite peoples, called Amorites, had even travelled to Mesopotamia and settled there. The Mesopotamians mention them as being different only in that they did not live in cities like civilized people. Avraham would have been familiar with these peoples and their way of life. He would have been able to travel relatively unnoticed from one place to another without leaving any evidence behind. Details in the Torah about where he lived, from a historical perspective, may also be exaggerated. Did he really settle in Hebron or did he settle closer to Beersheva? Could he have settled near Hebron in the countryside? Is our current reckoning of where these places were accurate?

Now we come the matter of the Exodus. The documentary accurately cites the fact from from about 1500 BCE until the 1200’s BCE the Egyptians had solid control over Canaan and recorded all of the comings and goings of local peoples. No evidence here of an exodus or of the conquest of Canaan. What is interesting, is that there is an entire school of archaeology dedicated to an earlier date for the Exodus as being between 1650 and 1500 BCE. A period of time when Egypt did not control Canaan, and when it was plagued by a number of natural disasters. The Battle of Megiddo (the first) which is dated to have been around 1482 to 1479 BCE took place when Pharaoh Tutmosis III (who succeeded Hatshepsut) set out to reassert Egyptian control in Canaan. Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt had just emerged from a time of poverty and natural disasters. What is curious is the odd parallel between the Egyptian account of this battle and the story of Devorah.

Historians try desperately to associate Devorah (Shoftim [Judges] 4-5) with a later battle, but the possibility exists that this is the time when Devorah and Barak went up against Sisera. Barak is widely believed to have been the King of Kadesh a regional state in northern Israel and southern Syria. The Eyptian account has the battle as a narrow victory for the Egyptians after a seven month siege. The King of Kadesh is known to have escaped. Although the Egyptians won, it seems that they gave favorable terms to those captured in the city. It is possible that Sisera was among the Egyptian generals and was killed by Yael. The peace that is said to have reigned afterward may refer to an arrangement after the battle between the Egyptians and the locals, possibly including Devorah. Such a favorable arrangement would not have been recorded among in the Egyptian narrative which consists primarily of propaganda.

If the first Battle of Megiddo is the battle described in the book of Shoftim (Judges or Rulers), then the Exodus would have taken place during the reign of Achmose in or before 1550 BCE. The book of Shoftim (Judges) says that spoilers or raiders came the the land after the conquest, and after the death of Kalev (Caleb) and that the Shofet Otaniel drove them out and there was peace for eight years. This immediately before the time of Devorah. All of these events fit into the seven or eight decades between the Exodus dated at circa 1550 BCE and the Battle of Megiddo dated at about 1480 BCE. It is true that from this time forward Egypt has firm control over Canaan. However, this precludes the Exodus story happening at any time after the Battle of Megiddo. This fact does not prove that the Exodus story never happened, simply that it must have taken place in an earlier time.

A map of Ancient Israel.

When it comes to the Battle of Jericho, here too, the documentary claims that the city was not inhabited in the late Bronze Age. They also claim that the walls had been destroyed centuries earlier. Again, we see that misdating may be at fault. When the books of the Neviim (Prophets) including the histories were compiled sometime during the Kingdom of Yehudah (Judah) the authors could only guess as to the dates and time frames of these events. The dates given must thus be taken with a gain of salt. The Book of Yehoshua (Joshua) says that the walls were breached (Rahav the Prostitute had been helping Israelite agents enter the city) and that the Israelites destroyed the city and drove out the inhabitants. The fact that the city was uninhabited during the late Bronze Age is more likely due to the Israelite conquest, not evidence that it never happened.

Academics also argue that there is no evidence for the rest of the conquest because there is no change in culture in the region or evidence of destruction. The Bible says that the Israelites would enter the land and live in cities that they did not build. The Israelites did not destroy the cities (except Jericho as a warning) but captured them. The Israelites were also from a similar culture, did not destroy the inhabitants, and fell into idol worship. I still see no evidence here that the Biblical narrative is implausible.

The documentary does draw attention to the number of early Iron Age settlements in Israel that made olive oil. The documentary claims that these indicate that the nomadic peoples in the region moved into the mountains and settled there. This ignores the body of evidence from other civilizations that were victims of the Sea Peoples. In Greece, too, people moved away from the coast to small simple settlements in easily defensible terrain. Civilization seems to have fallen back on simpler technology and a less developed way of life. It is more likely that these early Iron Age settlements were populated by refugees from the devastated cities along the coast both Canaanite and Israelite, and possibly some nomads. What is curious is the lack of pig bones at these sites, as opposed to coastal sites in which they are common. The laws of Kashrut, whether in full or in part, were being observed in these early Iron Age Settlements.

In its description of the Unified Kingdom of David and Solomon the documentary suggests that it is possible for such a kingdom have existed, as the Egyptian Empire had receded and no power had entered the region to replace it. Yet the documentary states that there is no evidence for its existence. Dr. Finkelstein even suggests that the idea of the Davidic Kingdom is “ridiculous.” What I find ridiculous is the shallow nature of the academics and their theories. Here we see the distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and Dr. Finkelstein has little of the later despite the former. Obviously, the impression of David’s kingdom has been exaggerated by the author’s of the Bible and by our own modern conception of a “great kingdom.” The Biblical narrative tells us that Shaul (Saul) formed a central administration and proceeded to fight a few defensive battles against the coastal Philistines and Canaanites.

David then assumed control of the kingdom, with the help of the Philistines, starting with Yehudah in the south, which readily accepted his reign, and then extended his reign to the north. He then “subjugates” the Philistines, Edomites, and Moabites in a series of small military campaigns. These peoples became tributaries of David’s kingdom. He then defeats the Arameans in Syria and eventually succeeds in his siege of Ammon. The King of Lebanon also seems to have offered gifts to David. This makes his “empire” one far less grand than our own impression. Why did he choose Jerusalem as a capital? A small city made up of Jebusites? It is a natural fortress with a fresh water spring that provides water year-round, sits along a major international trade route (east-west and north-south) through the mountains of Israel, and is located in the part of the kingdom where his political support is strongest. Much as Washington DC was established as a new capital for the Unites States, and Tel Aviv was built as a new center for Jewish residents of Israel, Jerusalem was built up as a new capital.

It did not arise as a large city at the time probably because it was primarily a fortress. The residents lived outside the city in the surrounding hills and valleys. They could easily seek refuge within the city walls if any threat loomed. We also see that the three cities King Solomon built, Hatzor, Megiddo, and Gezer were not large settlements, and these served as trading posts in a largely agrarian society. In Medieval Europe the cities were relatively small and most of the population lived out in the fields where the society’s production took place. Obviously, after the Unified Kingdom split into two, further evidence that the this kingdom was not as “grand” as we have come to believe of it, the southern Kingdom of Yehudah became less wealthy and declined.

The documentary becomes accurate when it begins to describe how the arrival of refugees from the northern Kingdom, following its destruction by the Assyrians, made Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Yehudah stronger and changed the focus of the legal and religious thinking to a more individualistic system. Although they exaggerate Devarim’s (Deuteronomy) role in individualizing moral duties. Devarim says that the rest of the Torah existed at the time that it was written (during the reign of Yossiyahu (Josiah) circa 620 BCE). The remaining books of the Torah also stress individual moral responsibility.

The City of Lachish in the Kingdom of Yehudah (Judah) was destroyed by Sencherev (Sennecharib)
the King of Assyria during the reign of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) of Yehudah. You can still see the
rampart to the lower right where the Assyrians breached the city walls.

Overall the documentary makes good use of the archaeological evidence. Dr. Finkelstein seems far more eager to prove the Biblical narrative incorrect than simply to explore the archaeological evidence and how it can help to correct our modern misunderstandings of the Biblical narrative.

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