January 03, 2008

The words came down

I've been reading The Bible Unearthed, which I bought a while back and skimmed a few pages and put aside and forgot all about until this came along. The book reevaluates the Bible--or about two thirds of the Old Testament at least--in light of archaeological findings, and comes up with a fairly different narrative. No Exodus, for example--the Israelites were always Canaanites. The evidence for a Davidic state with Jerusalem as its capitol or for a Solomonic empire extending from the Nile to the Euphrates simply doesn't exist. There wasn't even a united kingdom. While Judah was a pastoral backwater, ancient Israel, the land of Ahab and Jezebel, Baal worshippers and Asherah sticks -- was actually a sophisticated multiethnic state that vied culturally, economically and militarily with Syrians, Assyrians, Moabites and Phoenicians for dominance in the Levant.

Authors Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have put together a work that, I think, someone not versed in interpreting archaeological evidence could easily follow. The gist is that the Bible begins with two parts, a sort of collection of legends (which may have had some basis in fact but are essentially myths) and a polemical, imagined history concocted to support the goals of the 7th century BCE king of Judah who sought to add to his territory what had been the old Omri empire of northern Israel.

A few caveats: Archaeological evidence is open to interpretation and those interpretations can prove to be totally erroneous by new discoveries (or new techniques--Carbon 14 dating radically changed our understanding of the spread of ancient culture). In the case of this book, it seems to me that the authors are sometimes forced to label certain remains are "Israelite" or "Hebraic" although there's nothing in the material remains that indicates the religious orientation of the creator. As always, reasonable people could find fault with some of the arguments. That said, I think it's a compelling work -- one which demonstrates from actual evidence a counter-narrative to the Bible that makes a great deal of sense. I don't believe fealty to the text is reasonable.

Posted by Ideofact at January 3, 2008 11:52 PM