In my previous column, I mentioned the need Bible teachers have for archaeological materials and lamented the growing division between archaeology and Biblical studies.a Since then, I have read a paper that my friend Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s leading archaeologists, delivered at a symposium.b It reminded me of the reverse—archaeologists’ need for Biblical scholars. The truth is that archaeologists and Biblical scholars badly need each other, but I’m not sure either side fully realizes it, perhaps because it is becoming increasingly difficult to master the two fields.
Finkelstein notes that the “importance of the biblical source, which dominated past research on the rise of Early Israel, has been dramatically diminished in recent years.” Indeed true, but Finkelstein is hardly unhappy with this: “A minimalist school of scholarship (from the biblical point of view) has recently stormed its way to the front-line of research,” Finkelstein tells us. Finkelstein is, in fact, Israel’s leading Biblical minimalist, although he rejects the moniker. Yet it will be hard to resist this label in the face of his statement that the Bible is “irrelevant as direct historical testimony” concerning the rise of Israel. Why is it irrelevant? Because it was written in the seventh century at the earliest and it has what he calls a “theological/ideological/political bias.” All that may be true, but does that make it “irrelevant” in trying to understand the emergence of early Israel? Oh, there may be “some historical germs … disguised in it,” he confesses. “But the extraction of these possible nuclei from the biblical text is a treacherous and Sisyphean task, if at all possible” [my italics]. With that he dismisses the Bible, never to return to it in his 28-page text. In short, no demonstration whatever is needed, according to Finkelstein, to sustain the proposition that the Bible is “irrelevant” to his task. One wonders whether he refrains from any demonstration of this proposition because he does not consider himself a Biblical scholar? Many archaeologists have recently taken this position. But then, they are hardly in a position to pontificate either for or against the use of the Bible as a historical source.
Others at the symposium spoke for the Bible’s place in historical studies. Hugh Williamson, a highly respected Bible scholar and the Regius Professor at Oxford University, remarked in a response to Finkelstein that to deny the “historical bedrock” of the Bible seems nothing less than “perverse.” As Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev put it, “Let us admit that the fog covering the origins and the early phases in the history of ancient Israel has not yet dispersed. The Bible is still our most important source of information for this study.” And the British Museum’s Jonathan Tubb stated that it was “unnecessarily obtuse to look further afield for [the] catalyst [that transformed the self-perception of Canaanites to Israelites] than the literary traditions of the Exodus and 063conquest preserved in the Old Testament.”
When it comes to a consideration of the archaeological materials, Finkelstein dismisses the hieroglyphic reference to Israel in the famous Merneptah Stele, which dates to 1207 B.C., on the grounds that we cannot tell the “exact location” of this Israel or “their number,” even though it is quite clear from the inscription that Pharaoh Merneptah knew Israel was a people in Canaan.
He therefore proceeds to discuss the emergence of early Israel based strictly on other archaeological materials. Not surprisingly, he finds no evidence for Israel until after the United Monarchy—the northern kingdom of Israel in the ninth century B.C. and the southern kingdom of Judah in the eighth century B.C. (Hence, the United 064Monarchy of David and Solomon may never have existed, and, if it did, it was hardly a monarchy.)
Strangely, Finkelstein does not discuss the archaeological materials that allow him to conclude that in the ninth and eighth centuries the nation-states of Israel and Judah in fact existed. He spends the entire paper analyzing the archaeological evidence relating to the 12th to 10th century B.C. Don’t misunderstand me. It is interesting material, and Finkelstein’s grasp of it is indeed impressive. But insofar as it is relevant to his topic, it has only one purpose: to demonstrate that Israel cannot be identified in the archaeological record during this period.
Finkelstein recognizes, as he must, that there was an enormous increase in the number of settlements in the central hill country of Palestine in the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. (Iron Age I)—precisely in the area where the Bible says that the early Israelites settled. In the Late Bronze Age (the preceding archaeological period), there were only 29 settlements in this area; in Iron Age I there were 254. Instead of concluding that these were the settlements of the emerging Israelites, Finkelstein tells us that the phenomenon was simply a repetition of a cyclical pattern of settlement and abandonment of the central hill country that had been going on since the Chalcolithic period. Finkelstein therefore emphasizes that this was by no means “a singular event in the history of the country.” It simply represents a “cyclical rise and collapse of urban cultures” from which the hill country settlers periodically fled. This is Finkelstein’s major point, here and in his many other publications discussing the emergence of early Israel. But he never stops to ask, So what? Assuming he is right, what does this say about the emergence of early Israel? After all, at some time or other a unique culture and people called Israel did emerge in the central hill country. Is it not possible that in the cyclical history of the central hill country, in a particular cycle beginning in what we call Iron Age I, a unique civilization involving a new religious dimension, but otherwise by no means wholly unconnected with what went before, began to emerge? As Tubb notes in the passage quoted above, there must have been some catalyst that made this cycle different from previous ones.
It is easy to get so caught up in whether or not Finkelstein’s cyclical theory is correct that we forget to notice that he is no longer talking about how early Israel might have emerged. This reminds me of a story told of a brilliant lawyer who taught more than one generation of Harvard Law School students. It was said that it was possible to win an argument with “Bull” Warren—but never if he put the question. Be careful of letting Finkelstein put the question.
After establishing his cyclical theory, Finkelstein proceeds to consider whether there are any archaeological markers that might identify the early Israelites in Iron Age I. The so-called four-room house, the collared-rim storage jar, basement cisterns, iron plowpoints and terraced hillsides (to support viticulture)—all these have at one time or another been considered by scholars as characteristics of the hill-country settlements that might be used to identify the early Israelites. Finkelstein considers each of these and comes up with a negative judgment. They were used elsewhere or earlier or are related to the terrain rather than to the ethnicity of the inhabitants. A contrary case can be made and has been (by William Dever). And one could cavil here or there with Finkelstein’s facts (for example, according to Larry Herr, who is an expert on Transjordan, only a very few four-room houses have been found east of the Jordan), but that would be a strategic mistake. You would be arguing on Finkelstein’s turf. The real question is whether these new central-hill-country settlers are emerging Israelites, despite the fact that these factors individually (or even all together) may not be unique.
And even if Finkelstein found a unique attribute of these new hill-country settlers, that would cut no ice with him. He tells us that “the taboo on pigs was already practiced in the hill country in the Iron I … This may be the most valuable tool for the study of ethnicity of a given, single Iron I site.” But then the matter is dropped. He is still not willing to say these are emerging Israelites.
When it comes to looking for the reasons behind the cyclical settlement and abandonment of the hill country, Finkelstein confesses he has a problem: “With no historical material [texts or inscriptions] at hand for the third millennium [B.C.], and with very limited sources for the second millennium [B.C.], we have no other option but to indulge in speculated anthropological models, sometimes supported by ethnographic data from recent generations.” He is willing to indulge in all kinds of speculation to explain the basis for the cyclical settlement of the central hill country, but unwilling to consider the Biblical evidence as to whether these settlers are the emerging Israelites! Good Lord!
I hope I will not be understood as advocating literal acceptance of the Biblical word; but to dump the Bible entirely, without even considering how the Biblical text developed and what kinds of sources the Biblical writers had at hand, seems extreme. That there are problems with the Biblical text as a historical source is surely true. And certainty will doubtless elude us even if we consider the Biblical text as part of the evidence. But to engage in sheer speculation—or rather “speculated anthropological models”—on one hand, and to bar any consideration of the Bible as a historical source, on the other, certainly says something. I’m just not sure what to call it.
In my previous column, I mentioned the need Bible teachers have for archaeological materials and lamented the growing division between archaeology and Biblical studies.a Since then, I have read a paper that my friend Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s leading archaeologists, delivered at a symposium.b It reminded me of the reverse—archaeologists’ need for Biblical scholars. The truth is that archaeologists and Biblical scholars badly need each other, but I’m not sure either side fully realizes it, perhaps because it is becoming increasingly difficult to master the two fields. Finkelstein notes that the “importance of the biblical source, which dominated […]