I have often challenged myself to read the Bible with the inevitable consequence that after a few pages, the storied work returns to the bookshelf to gather dust. My interest, however, has been rekindled by a new book The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University and Neil Asher Silberman, contributing editor to Archaeology magazine among other positions.
The authors reinterpret the stories of the Old Testament in light of the most recent archaeological evidence and reveal which stories were true, which were false, and which were exaggerations. They also provide an understanding of why this text from the unlikeliest of times and places could have persisted and changed history.
The main thrust of their work is that the core of the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, was written in the seventh century BCE near the time that King Josiah reined, hundreds or even thousands of years after the described events. The authors point out anachronisms in the text such as in the story of Joseph. In Genesis chapter 37, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery to a passing camel caravan. However, camels were not domesticated as pack animals until after 1000 BCE.
There is, in fact, no archaeological evidence for the stories of the Old Testament until the time of King David. This portion without evidence includes the stories of Abraham, his son Isaac, his son Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons. There is no evidence for the Israelite’s captivity in Egypt, their escape from bondage, or their forty years of wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.
These stories were the threads of legends of the various groups of the area. And the books that describe these events were an effort in the seventh century BCE by priests and scholars loyal to King Josiah to consolidate central power by creating a common history for the scattered people of the region and create a sense of unity amongst them.
The authors assert that there is no evidence for the existence of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, which would later fracture under Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Rather, the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel existed as separate entities until the destruction of Israel by the Assyrian empire as described in 2 Kings Chapter 17 around 722 BCE.
After Israel’s fall, the kingdom of Judah flourishes due to its status as last-man-standing in the region, and as is usually the case, writes history to suit its own ends. The goal of the Old Testament authors is to create a sense of unity amongst the people of the area and encourage loyalty to the central government in Jerusalem. The priesthood begins by weaving local myths and legends into a common history interwoven with a personal relationship with one god. Chapter 22 of 2 Kings describes how the lost book of law was “found” in the temple. In reality, this book of law, an early version of Deuteronomy, was written at that time and introduced to the people of Judah.
The kingdom of Israel had been for centuries the more prosperous, populated, and economically advanced kingdom of the two. In a fashion that would make our own political operatives proud, the writers of the Old Testament waged a propaganda campaign for the purpose of discrediting the northern kingdom by discrediting their kings. The northern kingdom’s leaders were painted as idolaters and wicked. Judah was the hero of the narrative as being more true to God.
The Old Testament is punctuated throughout with episodes in which God’s chosen people commit idolatry and worship other gods. Archaeological evidence provides us with an understanding of their lapses. The people described in the Old Testament were polytheists throughout their history. Monotheism was not the norm, not even at the time of King David or Solomon. Not until the seventh century did monotheism begin to gain the upper hand. Noticeably, the only place to worship this singular god was in the temple in Jerusalem, which enhanced the centralization of power in Jerusalem’s priesthood.
The greatest contribution of The Bible Unearthed is the understanding it imparts to its readers of how and why these stories were written. The authors build from the archaeological evidence a picture of the political climate of the time, which created a need for a politically and theologically unifying religious text to knit the people of the region together under Jerusalem’s king and priesthood.
The book demonstrates how easily it has always been to obfuscate the truth and create mythology. Our own American history is already shot through with mythology after only two hundred years. The story of George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree is apocryphal. The world of ancient Israel was little different from our own in this respect. They suffered from a dearth of the divine and a plenitude of political propaganda.