Grounds for Disbelief

Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and his colleagues are stirring controversy with contentions that many biblical stories never happened, but were written by what he calls `a creative copywriter' to advance an ideological agenda.

Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori

Prof. Israel Finkelstein sees no contradiction between holding a proper Pesach seder and telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, and the fact that, in his opinion, the exodus never occurred. The Hebrew edition of the book by Finkelstein and his American colleague, the historian and archaeologist Neal Asher Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts" has just been published. The English edition was published in the United States in January 2001 and a French edition appeared last year. In both countries the book spent many weeks on the best-seller lists and generated considerable public interest. The New York Times dubbed the biblical authors of the seventh century BCE "God's ghostwriters" in a lengthy review of the book.

Next month the University of California in Los Angeles will hold an event on the archaeology of David and Solomon, with the participation of Finkelstein and Prof. Lawrence Stager of Harvard. On the same occasion Arte, the Franco-German culture channel, will start to film a four-part documentary based on the book, which is scheduled to be broadcast next year.

What is it about "The Bible Unearthed" that has stirred such interest? Finkelstein, who is director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, observes that this is the first "comprehensive book in which archaeology is the queen of battle and not some tawdry ornament of Bible scholars." And Finkelstein is indeed ready to do battle. In addition to the periods of the patriarchs and the exodus, about which most scholars agree that there is only the most tenuous connection between the stories in the Bible and the historical reality, Finkelstein and Silberman place a large question mark over the period up to and including the time of the United Monarchy.

"Did it happen or not?" he asks at the end of each chapter, and proceeds to explain why it did not, based on his research and archaeological findings, including the discoveries at Megiddo, a site that is considered the jewel in the crown of biblical archaeology.

An additional innovation in the book is the reverse point of view the authors adopt. "The book does not examine the history chronologically, from earlier to later," he explains. "It goes from the later to the earlier, and at the end of every chapter there is a "punch line" that examines the authors' intentions." The authors, in this case, are those who wrote the biblical account in question, and the authorial intention refers to the theological and ideological foundation of the seventh century BCE, the period in which most of the Bible was written, according to Finkelstein.

He deconstructs this foundation only in order to reconstruct it according to the logic that guided the ancient authors, and arrives at the conclusion that the stories about the conquest of the Land of Israel, the settlement period, the United Kingdom and the attempt to enhance the prestige of the Kingdom of Judah at the expense of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) are part of an ideological - religious and political - manifesto, a master stroke by a creative copywriter.

The village of Jerusalem

The Bible talks about the great and magnificent united monarchy of David and Solomon in the 10th century BCE, which split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, because of the demand by Solomon's son, Rehoboam (Rehavam), for excessive tax payments from the tribes of the northern hills and Galilee, which thereupon angrily seceded from the united monarchy. The result was two centuries of strife, wars and fraternal hatred.

The Scriptures treat Israel as a secondary kingdom of no importance, a place of incorrigible sinners, whereas Judah is considered the great and just kingdom whose capital is Jerusalem, where King Solomon established a splendid temple during the glorious era of the united monarchy. Finkelstein is dubious about the existence of this great united monarchy.

"There is no archaeological evidence for it," he says. "This is something unexampled in history. I don't think there is any other place in the world where there was a city with such a wretched material infrastructure but which succeeded in creating such a sweeping movement in its favor as Jerusalem, which even in its time of greatness was a joke in comparison to the cities of Assyria, Babylon or Egypt. It was a typical mountain village. There is no magnificent finding, no gates of Nebuchadnezzar, no Assyrian reliefs, no Egyptian temples - nothing. Even the temple couldn't compete with the temples of Egypt and their splendor."

Then why was it written?

"For reasons of ideology. Because the authors of the Bible, people from Judah at the end of the seventh century BCE, in the period of King Josiah, had a long score to settle with the northern kingdom, with its splendor and richness. They despised the northerners and had not forgotten their dominance in forging the Israelite experience, in the competition for the sites of ritual. Contrary to what is usually thought, the Israelites did not go to pray in Jerusalem. They had a temple in Samaria (today's Sebastia) and at Beit El (Bethel). In our book we tried to show that as long as Israel was there, Judah was small and frightened, militarily and internationally. Judah and Jerusalem were on the fringes. A small tribe. There was nothing there. A small temple and that's all."

And the kingdom of Israel?

"The archaeological findings show that Israel was a large, prosperous state, and was the main story until its destruction in the eighth century. Its geographic location was excellent, on the coast, near Phoenicia, Assyria and Syria. It had a diverse demographic composition: foreign residents and workers, Canaanites, Phoenicians; there was an Aramean population in the Jordan Valley, and there were mixed marriages. It was only 150 years after Israel's destruction that Judah rose to greatness, becoming self-aware and developing the monotheistic approach: one state, one God, one capital, one temple, one king."

What is the root of the tension between archaeology and the text, and what happened during Josiah's reign?

"We think these ideas of Judah, that all the Israelites have to worship one God in one temple, and live under the rule of one king, sprang up in the seventh century BCE. If anyone had raised such ideas aloud before 720, he would have been beaten to a pulp by the northern monarchs. Everything started to come together after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, and it also had a territorial aspect: from 734 to 625 BCE the Assyrian Empire ruled here. Today's American empire is negligible in comparison, in terms of its power and its crushing strength. For example, if someone in Judah had talked about expansion into Assyrian-dominated territories in 720, that would have been the end of him. King Hezekiah tried, and we saw happened to him. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, arrived with a huge army and decimated him.

"But a few years later, when Josiah was in power, something incredible happened. Assyria, the kingdom of evil, collapsed in front of his eyes. In the same way we saw the Berlin Wall collapse in 1989, that's what happened to Assyria. It fell apart and beat a hasty retreat from the Land of Israel. By this time the kingdom of Israel no longer existed, so Josiah woke up one morning, looked to his left and to his right, and there was neither an Assyrian nor an Israelite to be seen. And then his officials decided to put into practice their religious and territorial ideas."

Still, why was the United Monarchy invented?

"Because they wanted to seize control of the territories of the kingdom of Israel and annex them, because, they said, `These territories are actually ours and if you have a minute, we'll tell you how that's so. `Many years ago, one of our kings, David, reigned in Jerusalem and ruled them, and we are the only ones who have a historical claim to them' - and so the myth was created. `The kings of Israel were scoundrels,' the people of Judah said, `but as for the people there, we have no problem with them, they are all right.' They said about Israel what an ultra-Orthodox person would say about you or me: `Israel, though he has sinned, is still Israel.'"

Nothing to conquer

According to Finkelstein's theory, the legends about earlier periods were invented for the same purpose. "The people of Judah started to market the story of Joshua's conquest of the land, which was also written in that period, in order to give moral justification to their territorial longings, to the conquest of the territories of Israel. The story also contains a `laundering' of foreigners, which was exactly the problem Josiah faced when he conquered Israel. So they relate the story of the Gibeonites, who were terrified by the might of Joshua and his army and begged for their lives, and told Joshua that they were not indigenous Canaanites but foreigners who came from afar. Joshua made an alliance of peace with them, but when he found out they had cheated him, he did not expel them but made them hewers of wood and drawers of water - in other words, he laundered them.

"That is the situation Josiah and his people faced with foreign deportees the Assyrians brought to the Land of Israel, and the biblical text comes and says, `Have no worry, this already happened before: there were strangers in the land then, too, and Joshua laundered them during the conquest. Our conquest is not really what it looks like, it is only the restoration of past glories.'

So they must have had a good information ministry?

"I don't believe that there was a department for the invention of stories in Jerusalem. There were folktales that were handed down from generation to generation, local traditions and legends, and they were the basis for the creation of the biblical narrative. Maybe there really was no conquest, and maybe there were vague memories of local events. In any case, the scribes in the period of Josiah collected these materials and forged them into a coherent story containing a message it was important for them to get across. They didn't actually care whether there ever was such a person as Joshua. Jericho and the area of Bethel, and the Shefelah and the Galilee were on the agenda of Judah. They never actually conquered many of these regions. `This was once ours,' they said, `as in the time of Joshua, and all we are doing is putting history back in its track, correcting the course of history and on this occasion renewing the glorious monarchy of David, which was the first to rule these territories.'"

Are you saying that the story of the conquest of the land is a complete fiction?

"It is a story which, as it is presented in the Bible, definitely never happened. Archaeology shows that it has no historical grounds. Many of the sites that are cited in the story of the conquest were not even inhabited in the relevant period, so there was nothing to conquer, there were only hills and rocks. Jericho was not fortified and had no walls, and it's doubtful that there was a settlement there at the time. Therefore, in the case of the story of the conquest of Arad, for instance, some scholars said that the war was fought against the forces of one Bedouin sheikh.

"If one does a calculation backward from the point at which we have historical documentation, such as the external Assyrian writings about the monarchy of Ahab, it turns out that the story of the biblical conquest would have occurred at the end of the 13th century BCE. At that time the Egyptians ruled in the land, but there is no mention of that in the Bible.

"There is a stela in a Cairo museum on which the word Israel first appears in written form. The son of Ramesses II launched a military expedition to Caanan and conquered Ashkelon and Gezer, and wrote the famous sentence, `Israel is spoiled, his seed is not.' That was in 1207 BCE - after the conquest as related in the Bible."

If there was no conquest, where did the Israelites come from?

"Egypt was a mighty empire that ruled here with an iron fist. In the 14th century BCE there are stories about local kings who ask Pharaoh for help against one another, asking him to send 50 soldiers - in other words, that was the number that was sufficient to impose order here. So how did a few foot soldiers from the desert conquer the land? There was certainly no orderly military conquest. According to the archaeological findings, the Israelites came from the local stock: they were actually Canaanites who became Israelites in a socio-economic process."

Lies, no; spin, yes

Finkelstein did not always hold these views. "I remember that when I was writing my doctoral thesis about the Israelite settlement in the hill region, I was convinced of the accuracy of the theory propounded by the German scholars - which was then dominant in the field - holding that this population came from outside in a quiet infiltration and settled here," he says. "And I remember well that in the course of the surveys I did in Samaria, at Shiloh and in the areas between Ramallah and Nablus, I began to be aware that this was not a population that had infiltrated here but groups of a local population that moved around the land in circular processes. That it was not a pool of desert nomads who then moved rapidly west, but rather a lengthy process, of hundreds of years, which had already taken place in the past, at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age and in the Middle Bronze Age.

"For me this was something entirely new. It led me to the thought that the settlement processes in the Land of Israel were circular: in periods of crisis the tribes became nomadic shepherds, and in periods of abundance they had permanent settlements. From this I understood that these were processes that were undergone by the local population and not by a population that marched in a procession and entered the Land of Israel by means of war or peace."

The question is why it appears in this form in the Bible. What idea is it meant to serve?

"The answer is that in order to understand the episode of the conquest, we have to look at the kingdom of Judah in the seventh century BCE and understand that the story serves the authors of the Scriptures, because through it they resolved for themselves the territorial problems of the conquest of the then vanquished Kingdom of Israel."

So Joshua did not exist?

"I don't say that. Perhaps there were memories of some great commander or general. On the other hand, this text describes something that happened in the 13th century and was written in the seventh century - that is, 600 years later - by people who did not have access to newspaper archives, and at the time of the events not one letter of the alphabet had been written anywhere, so it is not reasonable to think that this story contains many early memories."

And was there a United Monarchy?

"A huge number of people talk about the United Monarchy; but the number of people who truly understand the matter is very small. There is a stream in the research that says that David and Solomon were not historical figures, that they are a legend. I don't think so. There is an inscription from Tel Dan from the ninth century BCE that mentions the southern kingdom by the name of `the house of David.' So it stands to reason that they existed, but the question is whether they ruled a large empire, and about that there is not the slightest hint. All the evidence is against it."

Yet there are many archaeologists and historians who dispute your view?

"It's true that until recently there was a great deal of opposition to this conception. Today, though, at least some of my adversaries agree with me. There is a large difference in the text between the David stories and the Solomon stories. The whole character of Solomon is that of an Assyrian king: resplendent, rich, wise, a womanizer and a great trader, a figure of ideology like someone out of a journal. David is not, precisely because he is given a complex description and there are the unpleasant stories about him that make him a human figure. And according to archaeology, there is no hint of magnificence or pomp in 10th-century Jerusalem, and in fact until the end of the eighth century BCE, until the Assyrian period and after the destruction of Israel, when refugees from the north began streaming into the city, it was a small village, remote, wretched and unfortified."

So are you saying that the United Monarchy is a lie?

"I don' believe in lies in history. Spin, yes; lies, no. What I am saying is that if in the seventh century BCE a strong tradition existed in Jerusalem that the temple on the hill had been built by the founders of the dynasty, I see no reason to question that. That doesn't mean it was a huge and magnificent building. On the question of the grandeur of the United Monarchy I find myself in a tough scholarly confrontation: there is still a debate over the archaeological remnants. Two magnificent palaces were found at Megiddo. [The noted archaeologist] Yigael Yadin said they were from the 10th century BCE, the period of Solomon, and could support the account of the great monarchy, whereas I think they are from the ninth century BCE, 70 years later, from the period of the northern kingdom."

Doesn't it follow that if there was no United Monarchy, there was also no schism?

"All the villages in the north in the 10th century BCE were Canaanite villages. David and Solomon ruled in Jerusalem, and probably also the southern hill region, and maybe part of the northern hill region. They did not rule in the northern valleys or in Galilee, and therefore there was no split of the monarchy. From the beginning there were two entities - northern and southern - but the Scripture story about the schism is meant to serve Josiah's conquest in the seventh century BCE. `Now we will establish the monarchy anew,' the authors of the Bible said to their readers, `and it will be united eternally.'"

The Caananite connection

If Finkelstein is ready to concede the existence of David and Solomon, albeit as kinks of a small, marginal entity, when it comes to the exodus from Egypt he is absolute in his opinion. "There is no evidence that the Israelites were in Egypt, not the slightest, not the least bit of evidence. There are no clues, either archaeological or historical, to prove that the Israelites built monuments in Egypt, even though the biblical description of the famine in the Land of Israel may be accurate. We know from archaeology that there was a migration of Canaanites to Egypt in the first half of the second millennium BCE, that these migrants built communities in the area of the Nile Delta, and that the Egyptians afterward expelled them from there. Perhaps that is the ancient memory, I don't know. What I can say is that the story, in the form we have it, serves a later situation. It spoke to the exiles in Babylon and to those who returned from the exile. What the story told them is that exile is not the end of the world, it's possible to return, the deserts can be crossed, the land can be reconquered. That gave them hope."

The stories of the patriarchs, Finkelstein says - adding that today most scholars accept this view - are folklore about forefathers that the authors of the Bible in the seventh century salvaged from the mists of history in order to reinforce their hold on the cultural heritage. Scientific searches for them have produced nothing.

"Did these people ever exist? I don't know. They were primeval forbears, and the goal was to create a myth saying that Judah is the center of the world, of the Israelite way of life, against the background of the reality of the later kingdom."

So, if there were no patriarchs, maybe we don't have patriarchal rights?

"I am a great believer in a total separation between tradition and research. I myself have a warm spot in my heart for the Bible and its splendid stories. During our Pesach seder, my two girls, who are 11 and 7, didn't hear a word about the fact that there was no exodus from Egypt. When they are 25, we will tell them a different story. Belief, tradition and research are three parallel lines that can exist simultaneously. I don't see that as a gross contradiction."

What about the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron?

"The building is Herodian. It was built in the time of Herod, hundreds of years after the period of the patriarchs as told in the Bible. There are apparently ancient graves under the building. The question is what the Bible intended to express in the story of the cave's purchase. Its genre is influenced by the Assyrian and Babylonian period, from the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This particular chapter was probably written in the period of the return to Zion and it may have earlier foundations, from the end of the period of the monarchy, and then the goal would be to exalt the kingdom of Judah and say that the fathers of the nation are buried in "our territory" - not where the Israelites were, but in Judah. If it was written in the period of the return to Zion it is even more interesting, because when the Persians divided the land and redefined its borders, Hebron remained outside Judah. In this context, the tombs of the patriarchs are the Promised Land. They resided in Judah and saw Hebron from afar, and they could only despair over their territorial ambitions.

"One day, at the time of the withdrawal from Hebron, I visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs with Rabbi Menahem Fruman, from [the nearby settlement of] Tekoah, as part of a television program. I explained that the structure is Herodian, and the interviewer, Emmanuel Rosen, asked Fruman what he had to say about that. He replied, `It's very interesting. He is a man of science, so I assume he knows what he is talking about.' Rosen was absolutely flabbergasted, he was afraid Fruman would attack me, but Fruman went on, `Do you want me to play time games here? For me it's enough that he says Jews prayed here in the Herodian period. If he said that it's been here since the Middle Ages, that would be enough for me, too.'

"I identified so strongly with him that I almost embraced him, because matters of culture and identity are not measured by a stopwatch and don't work at the pace of politics.'

Aren't you concerned that your theory will serve those who deny the Zionist argument?

"The debate over our right to the land is ridiculous. As though there is some international committee in Geneva that considers the history of peoples. Two peoples come and one says, `I have been here since the 10th century BCE,' and the other says, `No, he's lying, he has only been here since the ninth century BCE.' What will they do - evict him? Tell him to start packing? In any event, our cultural heritage goes back to these periods, so this whole story is nonsense. Jerusalem existed and it had a temple that symbolized the longings of the Judahites who lived here, and afterward, in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, of the Jews. Isn't that enough? How many peoples go back to the ninth or 10th centuries BCE? And let's say that there was no exodus from Egypt and that there was no great and magnificent united monarchy, and that we are actually Canaanites. So in terms of rights, we are okay, aren't we?"

Turbulent years

As a child, Prof. Finkelstein, 54, didn't dream of becoming an archaeologist and didn't collect shards of broken vases in order to glue them back together. After his army service he applied to study international relations and political science at Hebrew University and, for good measure, to study archaeology and geography at Tel Aviv University.

"It transpired like many things in life," he says. "I didn't fall in love with archaeology at first sight. It grabbed me slowly and surely, until finally I decided to do a second degree."

He also obtained his Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University and then went on to teach and conduct research at the University of Chicago, Harvard and the Sorbonne. Professionally, he is today in the forefront of the group of excavators at Megiddo (together with Profs. David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and Baruch Halpern of Penn State). He and some of his colleagues reject the possibility that the palaces there are from the period of the United Monarchy.

"The identification of the strata of the United Monarchy is as though written on ice. It's all circular reasoning, which in the end is based on one source: a verse in I Kings stating that Solomon built Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer and Jerusalem. That is the Yadin structure, and it is incorrect. But we should not pass judgment on Yadin for this, because at the time everyone thought as he did. I didn't agree with this dating, and in 1996 I published my thoughts in a professional journal in England. The seven years since have been turbulent - one unending battle that still continues. What didn't they say about me and some of my colleagues? That we are nihilists, that we are savaging Western culture, undermining Israel's right of existence. One person used the term `Bible denier.'"

Finkelstein doesn't want people to think that he is being deliberately provocative, that he only wants good headlines.

"I am not some kind of yuppie nihilist," he emphasizes. He was born in Petah Tikva and grew up in a farming family. His mother's family came to Palestine in 1860, his father's family eight decades ago. "So what will I do, leave? Where am I supposed to go? To Grodno? I don't want to go there," he says. "Maybe it's quiet and pleasant in Boston or Paris, but if you live here, then you at least have to be part of the ongoing historical experience and understand its power. If you live here only for the parties on the beach on Thursday night, then it would be better if you didn't live here, because this is a dangerous place. Anyone who thinks that Tel Aviv is a type of Goa has missed the point completely."



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