Friday, 27 May 2011

Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho Pr Ze'ev Herzog, occupied Palestine.

Ha'aretz, 1999

A Journal of History, Geography, Language and Archaeology

Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho

By Professor Ze'ev Herzog, Tel Aviv University

Following 70 years of intensive excavations in the Land of Israel,
archaeologists have found out: The patriarchs' acts are legendary, the
Israelites did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, they did not conquer
the land. Neither is there any mention of the empire of David and Solomon,
nor of the source of belief in the God of Israel. These facts have been
known for years, but Israel is a stubborn people and nobody wants to hear
about it

This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land
of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert,
did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to
the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the
united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a
regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an
unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female
consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the
waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.Most of those who are
engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible,
archaeology and the history of the Jewish people - and who once went into
the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story - now agree that
the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people's emergence
are radically different from what that story tells.

What follows is a short account of the brief history of archaeology, with
the emphasis on the crises and the big bang, so to speak, of the past
decade. The critical question of this archaeological revolution has not yet
trickled down into public consciousness, but it cannot be ignored.

Inventing the Bible stories

The archaeology of Palestine developed as a science at a relatively late
date, in the late 19th and early 20th century, in tandem with the
archaeology of the imperial cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.
Those resource-intensive powers were the first target of the researchers,
who were looking for impressive evidence from the past, usually in the
service of the big museums in London, Paris and Berlin. That stage
effectively passed over Palestine, with its fragmented geographical
diversity. The conditions in ancient Palestine were inhospitable for the
development of an extensive kingdom, and certainly no showcase projects such
as the Egyptian shrines or the Mesopotamian palaces could have been
established there. In fact, the archaeology of Palestine was not engendered
at the initiative of museums but sprang from religious motives.

The main push behind archaeological research in Palestine was the country's
relationship with the Holy Scriptures. The first excavators in Jericho and
Shechem (Nablus) were biblical researchers who were looking for the remains
of the cities cited in the Bible. Archaeology assumed momentum with the
activity of William Foxwell Albright, who mastered the archeology, history
and linguistics of the Land of Israel and the ancient Near East. Albright,
an American whose father was a priest of Chilean descent, began excavating
in Palestine in the 1920s. His declared approach was that archaeology was
the principal scientific means to refute the critical claims against the
historical veracity of the Bible stories, particularly those of the
Wellhausen school in Germany.

The school of biblical criticism that developed in Germany beginning in the
second half of the 19th century, of which Julian Wellhausen was a leading
figure, challenged the historicity of the Bible stories and claimed that
biblical historiography was formulated, and in large measure actually
"invented," during the Babylonian exile. Bible scholars, the Germans in
particular, claimed that the history of the Hebrews, as a consecutive series
of events beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and proceeding through
the move to Egypt, the enslavement and the exodus, and ending with the
conquest of the land and the settlement of the tribes of Israel, was no more
than a later reconstruction of events with a theological purpose.

Albright believed that the Bible is a historical document, which, although
it had gone through several editing stages, nevertheless basically reflected
the ancient reality. He was convinced that if the ancient remains of
Palestine were uncovered, they would furnish unequivocal proof of the
historical truth of the events relating to the Jewish people in its land.

The biblical archaeology that developed from Albright and his pupils brought
about a series of extensive digs at the important biblical tells: Megiddo,
Lachish, Gezer, Shechem (Nablus), Jericho, Jerusalem, Ai, Giveon, Beit
She'an, Beit Shemesh, Hazor, Ta'anach and others. The way was straight and
clear: every finding that was uncovered would contribute to the building of
a harmonious picture of the past. The archaeologists, who enthusiastically
adopted the biblical approach, set out on a quest to unearth the "biblical
period": the period of the patriarchs, the Canaanite cities that were
destroyed by the Israelites as they conquered the land, the boundaries of
the 12 tribes, the sites of the settlement period, characterized by
"settlement pottery," the "gates of Solomon" at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer,
"Solomon's stables" (or Ahab's), "King Solomon's mines" at Timna - and there
are some who are still hard at work and have found Mount Sinai (at Mount
Karkoum in the Negev) or Joshua's altar at Mount Ebal.

The crisis

Slowly, cracks began to appear in the picture. Paradoxically, a situation
was created in which the glut of findings began to undermine the historical
credibility of the biblical descriptions instead of reinforcing them. A
crisis stage is reached when the theories within the framework of the
general thesis are unable to solve an increasingly large number of
anomalies. The explanations become ponderous and inelegant, and the pieces
do not lock together smoothly. Here are a few examples of how the harmonious
picture collapsed.

Patriarchal Age: The researchers found it difficult to reach agreement on
which archaeological period matched the Patriarchal Age. When did Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob live? When was the Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs
in Hebron) bought in order to serve as the burial place for the patriarchs
and the matriarchs? According to the biblical chronology, Solomon built the
Temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt (1 Kings 6:1). To that we have
to add 430 years of the stay in Egypt (Exodus 12:40) and the vast lifetimes
of the patriarchs, producing a date in the 21th century BCE for Abraham's
move to Canaan.

However, no evidence has been unearthed that can sustain this chronology.
Albright argued in the early 1960s in favor of assigning the wanderings of
Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age (22nd-20th centuries BCE). However,
Benjamin Mazar, the father of the Israeli branch of biblical archaeology,
proposed identifying the historic background of the Patriarchal Age a
thousand years later, in the 11th century BCE - which would place it in the
"settlement period." Others rejected the historicity of the stories and
viewed them as ancestral legends that were told in the period of the Kingdom
of Judea. In any event, the consensus began to break down.

The exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the desert and Mount Sinai: The
many Egyptian documents that we have make no mention of the Israelites'
presence in Egypt and are also silent about the events of the exodus. Many
documents do mention the custom of nomadic shepherds to enter Egypt during
periods of drought and hunger and to camp at the edges of the Nile Delta.
However, this was not a solitary phenomenon: such events occurred frequently
across thousands of years and were hardly exceptional.

Generations of researchers tried to locate Mount Sinai and the stations of
the tribes in the desert. Despite these intensive efforts, not even one site
has been found that can match the biblical account.

The potency of tradition has now led some researchers to "discover" Mount
Sinai in the northern Hijaz or, as already mentioned, at Mount Karkoum in
the Negev. These central events in the history of the Israelites are not
corroborated in documents external to the Bible or in archaeological
findings. Most historians today agree that at best, the stay in Egypt and
the exodous occurred in a few families and that their private story was
expanded and "nationalized" to fit the needs of theological ideology.

The conquest: One of the shaping events of the people of Israel in biblical
historiography is the story of how the land was conquered from the
Canaanites. Yet extremely serious difficulties have cropped up precisely in
the attempts to locate the archaeological evidence for this story.

Repeated excavations by various expeditions at Jericho and Ai, the two
cities whose conquest is described in the greatest detail in the Book of
Joshua, have proved very disappointing. Despite the excavators' efforts, it
emerged that in the late part of the 13th century BCE, at the end of the
Late Bronze Age, which is the agreed period for the conquest, there were no
cities in either tell, and of course no walls that could have been toppled.
Naturally, explanations were offered for these anomalies. Some claimed that
the walls around Jericho were washed away by rain, while others suggested
that earlier walls had been used; and, as for Ai, it was claimed that the
original story actually referred to the conquest of nearby Beit El and was
transferred to Ai by later redactors.

Biblical scholars suggested a quarter of a century ago that the conquest
stories be viewed as etiological legends and no more. But as more and more
sites were uncovered and it emerged that the places in question died out or
were simply abandoned at different times, the conclusion was bolstered that
there is no factual basis for the biblical story about the conquest by
Israelite tribes in a military campaign led by Joshua.

The Canaanite cities: The Bible magnifies the strength and the
fortifications of the Canaanite cities that were conquered by the
Israelites: "great cities with walls sky-high" (Deuteronomy 9:1). In
practice, all the sites that have been uncovered turned up remains of
unfortified settlements, which in most cases consisted of a few structures
or the ruler's palace rather than a genuine city. The urban culture of
Palestine in the Late Bronze Age disintegrated in a process that lasted
hundreds of years and did not stem from military conquest. Moreover, the
biblical description is inconsistent with the geopolitical reality in
Palestine. Palestine was under Egyptian rule until the middle of the 12th
century BCE. The Egyptians' administrative centers were located in Gaza,
Yaffo and Beit She'an. Egyptian findings have also been discovered in many
locations on both sides of the Jordan River. This striking presence is not
mentioned in the biblical account, and it is clear that it was unknown to
the author and his editors.

The archaeological findings blatantly contradict the biblical picture: the
Canaanite cities were not "great," were not fortified and did not have
"sky-high walls." The heroism of the conquerors, the few versus the many and
the assistance of the God who fought for his people are a theological
reconstruction lacking any factual basis.

Origin of the Israelites: The fusion of the conclusions drawn from the
episodes relating to the stages in which the people of Israel emerged gave
rise to a discussion of the bedrock question: the identity of the
Israelites. If there is no evidence for the exodus from Egypt and the desert
journey, and if the story of the military conquest of fortified cities has
been refuted by archaeology, who, then, were these Israelites? The
archaeological findings did corroborate one important fact: in the early
Iron Age (beginning some time after 1200 BCE), the stage that is identified
with the "settlement period," hundreds of small settlements were established
in the area of the central hill region of the Land of Israel, inhabited by
farmers who worked the land or raised sheep. If they did not come from
Egypt, what is the origin of these settlers? Israel Finkelstein, professor
of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, has proposed that these settlers were
the pastoral shepherds who wandered in this hill area throughout the Late
Bronze Age (graves of these people have been found, without settlements).
According to his reconstruction, in the Late Bronze Age (which preceded the
Iron Age) the shepherds maintained a barter economy of meat in exchange for
grains with the inhabitants of the valleys. With the disintegration of the
urban and agricultural system in the lowland, the nomads were forced to
produce their own grains, and hence the incentive for fixed settlements

The name "Israel" is mentioned in a single Egyptian document from the period
of Merneptah, king of Egypt, dating from 1208 BCE: "Plundered is Canaan with
every evil, Ascalon is taken, Gezer is seized, Yenoam has become as though
it never was, Israel is desolated, its seed is not." Merneptah refers to the
country by its Canaanite name and mentions several cities of the kingdom,
along with a non-urban ethnic group. According to this evidence, the term
"Israel" was given to one of the population groups that resided in Canaan
toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, apparently in the central hill
region, in the area where the Kingdom of Israel would later be established.

A kingdom with no name

The united monarchy: Archaeology was also the source that brought about the
shift regarding the reconstruction of the reality in the period known as the
"united monarchy" of David and Solomon. The Bible describes this period as
the zenith of the political, military and economic power of the people of
Israel in ancient times. In the wake of David's conquests, the empire of
David and Solomon stretched from the Euprates River to Gaza ("For he
controlled the whole region west of the Euphrates, from Tiphsah to Gaza, all
the kings west of the Euphrates," 1 Kings 5:4). The archaeological findings
at many sites show that the construction projects attributed to this period
were meager in scope and power.

The three cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, which are mentioned among
Solomon's construction enterprises, have been excavated extensively at the
appropriate layers. Only about half of Hazor's upper section was fortified,
covering an area of only 30 dunams (7.5 acres), out of a total area of 700
dunams which was settled in the Bronze Age. At Gezer there was apparently
only a citadel surrounded by a casematewall covering a small area, while
Megiddo was not fortified with a wall.

The picture becomes even more complicated in the light of the excavations
conducted in Jerusalem, the capital of the united monarchy. Large sections
of the city have been excavated over the past 150 years. The digs have
turned up impressive remnants of the cities from the Middle Bronze Age and
from Iron Age II (the period of the Kingdom of Judea). No remains of
buildings have been found from the period of the united monarchy (even
according to the agreed chronology), only a few pottery shards. Given the
preservation of the remains from earlier and later periods, it is clear that
Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon was a small city, perhaps with a
small citadel for the king, but in any event it was not the capital of an
empire as described in the Bible. This small chiefdom is the source of the
"Beth David" title mentioned in later Aramean and Moabite inscriptions. The
authors of the biblical account knew Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, with
its wall and the rich culture of which remains have been found in various
parts of the city, and projected this picture back to the age of the united
monarchy. Presumably Jerusalem acquired its central status after the
destruction of Samaria, its northern rival, in 722 BCE.

The archaeological findings dovetail well with the conclusions of the
critical school of biblical scholarship. David and Solomon were the rulers
of tribal kingdoms that controlled small areas: the former in Hebron and the
latter in Jerusalem. Concurrently, a separate kingdom began to form in the
Samaria hills, which finds expression in the stories about Saul's kingdom.
Israel and Judea were from the outset two separate, independent kingdoms,
and at times were in an adversarial relationship. Thus, the great united
monarchy is an imaginary historiosophic creation, which was composed during
the period of the Kingdom of Judea at the earliest. Perhaps the most
decisive proof of this is the fact that we do not know the name of this

Jehovah and his consort: How many gods, exactly, did Israel have? Together
with the historical and political aspects, there are also doubts as to the
credibility of the information about belief and worship. The question about
the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea
arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a
pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah. At two sites, Kuntiliet Ajrud in the
southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet el-Kom in the
Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention "Jehovah
and his Asherah," "Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah, "Jehovah Teman and his
Asherah." The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his
consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple's name. These
inscriptions, from the 8th century BCE, raise the possibility that
monotheism, as a state religion, is actually an innovation of the period of
the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel.

The archaeology of the Land of Israel is completing a process that amounts
to a scientific revolution in its field. It is ready to confront the
findings of biblical scholarship and of ancient history. But at the same
time, we are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon in which all this is simply
ignored by the Israeli public. Many of the findings mentioned here have been
known for decades. The professional literature in the spheres of
archaeology, Bible and the history of the Jewish people has addressed them
in dozens of books and hundreds of articles. Even if not all the scholars
accept the individual arguments that inform the examples I cited, the
majority have adopted their main points.

Nevertheless, these revolutionary views are not penetrating the public
consciousness. About a year ago, my colleague, the historian Prof. Nadav
Ne'eman, published an article in the Culture and Literature section of
Ha'aretz entitled "To Remove the Bible from the Jewish Bookshelf," but there
was no public outcry. Any attempt to question the reliability of the
biblical descriptions is perceived as an attempt to undermine "our historic
right to the land" and as shattering the myth of the nation that is renewing
the ancient Kingdom of Israel. These symbolic elements constitute such a
critical component of the construction of the Israeli identity that any
attempt to call their veracity into question encounters hostility or
silence. It is of some interest that such tendencies within the Israeli
secular society go hand-in-hand with the outlook among educated Christian
groups. I have found a similar hostility in reaction to lectures I have
delivered abroad to groups of Christian bible lovers, though what upset them
was the challenge to the foundations of their fundamentalist religious

It turns out that part of Israeli society is ready to recognize the
injustice that was done to the Arab inhabitants of the country and is
willing to accept the principle of equal rights for women - but is not up to
adopting the archaeological facts that shatter the biblical myth. The blow
to the mythical foundations of the Israeli identity is apparently too
threatening, and it is more convenient to turn a blind eye.

© copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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