What archaeology tells us about the Bible
A contentious dig in Israel delves into the kingdoms of David and Solomon, stirring a debate over the veracity of the biblical record.
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"If you are in the trenches of what's going on today, the battle for Qeiyafa looks very important," says Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and one of Garfinkel's most prominent critics. "But if you are zooming out, you see that all this is another phase in a very long battle for the question of the historicity of the biblical text, for understanding the nature of the Bible, for understanding the cultural meaning of the Bible."Skip to next paragraph
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The dispute is exacerbated by the imprecision of archaeology, a discipline that is as much art as science. What ancient potsherds reveal about the past is subject to interpretation, which is shaped by prevailing cultural views, history, religion, and politics. And perhaps nowhere in the world is the nexus of religion and politics more combustible than in the Middle East.
Indeed, in a land where the theme of building a nation in the face of hostile neighbors is every much a part of the modern narrative as the biblical one, the debate over Qeiyafa and other digs around Israel reverberates well beyond the field of archaeology.
With each flick of a shovel, with each discovery of an ancient gate, with each sensational TV documentary, new claims and counterclaims are made that inflame modern politics and raise an age-old question: Can science ultimately prove – or disprove – the Word that the Psalmist wrote is forever "settled in heaven?"
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Israel Finkelstein's life arc shares a certain symmetry with that of Israel: He was born in 1949, one year after the founding of the country and the same year an armistice ended Israel's war of independence with its Arab adversaries.
The young Finkelstein grew up just east of Tel Aviv, and by age 13 he had acquired such a curiosity about archaeology that one weekend he and his friends rode their bikes out to the site of Tel Afek, an excavation close to the Jordanian-held lines. His risky expedition drew such a stern reprimand from his father, he wrote years later, that it made him regret for a time his interest in history.
But as both Israels came of age, the adolescent state won the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors in less than a week, in effect pushing the boundary of exploration to the Jordan River. That opened the way for a new generation of Israeli archaeologists to dig into the history of ancient Israel for the first time.
Suddenly, the sojourns of Abraham, the kingdom of Saul, the escapades of David – all were encapsulated in a theater of history that their descendants rushed in to explore. Many hoped to find archaeological evidence that would support the biblical narrative, and solidify the modern state's claims to the land.
True, the Zionist movement that spearheaded Israel's establishment was largely secular. But it also drew heavily on the Bible. Founding father David Ben-Gurion pushed aside the image of bespectacled Jews poring over rabbinical teachings and championed instead the brawny heroes of the Bible, who overcame insurmountable odds to conquer Israel's enemies. These included David and Solomon, who, according to the Bible, joined the tribes of Israel and Judah into a kingdom known as the United Monarchy.
"For Ben-Gurion, the image of a great United Monarchy with territorial expansion ... establishing a nation, establishing a big administration with monumental architecture – this was an image that played back and forth, between that David and this David, between King David and David Ben-Gurion, in a way," says Finkelstein.