This Day in Jewish History

1984: An Archaeologist Who Brought Israel's History to Life, Dies

Yigael Yadin helped acquire the Dead Sea Scrolls, identified the historical significance of Masada, and made Israelis feel connected to their ancient history.

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On June 28, 1984, Yigael Yadin – Israeli archaeologist, soldier and politician – died at age 67. Although Yadin’s career was studded with many accomplishments, he is probably best remembered for his role in acquiring and interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls, and for his excavation of Herod’s mountain palace at Masada. Yadin had an ability to present archaeological subjects in a way that resounded with meaning and continuity for the people of the young state, who were eager to connect emotionally with Jewish history in the Land of Israel.

Yigael Sukenik was born March 21, 1917 in Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire. His mother, the former Hasya Feinsod, was an early-childhood educator and women’s rights pioneer; his father, Eliezer Sukenik, was a teacher who became a professor of archaeology. Both had been born in Bialystok, in what is today Poland.  

At the age of 16, Yigael was recruited into the Haganah pre-state militia, where his code name was “Yadin,” which he later adopted as his surname. His early training in archaeology, at the Hebrew University, was intertwined with his ongoing service in the Haganah, where he became chief of operations shortly before independence was declared. After statehood, when the various militias were united into the Israel Defense Forces, he became the new army’s second chief of staff. That was in 1949, when he was only 32. Yadin also represented Israel at armistice talks with Egypt.

Yadin was instrumental in envisioning the IDF as an army largely comprised of a reserve force that could be quickly mobilized in emergency situations, an idea inspired by his observation of the Swiss army. He also was responsible for the army being involved in many different realms of life, including education and immigrant absorption. He resigned as army chief in 1952, after coming into conflict (not for the first time) with prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion.

After leaving the military, Yadin devoted himself to archaeological research, beginning with translating and interpreting a first group of Dead Sea Scrolls that his father had purchased in Bethlehem in 1947. It was Yadin’s translation of what Sukenik called “The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness” that served as his 1955 doctoral dissertation from the Hebrew University.

The Scrolls, which consist of 972 documents or parchment fragments excavated at the Qumran caves along the Dead Sea, date to the period between the late fifth century B.C.E. and early fourth century C.E. Some are transcriptions of known biblical texts, others are previously unknown, and sometimes quite esoteric religious texts that offer insight into an ascetic sect – thought by many scholars to be the Essenes – that existed at the end of the Second Temple period, and also into the precursors to Christianity.

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In 1954, Yadin also arranged for the purchase for Israel, through an intermediary, of four additional scrolls, completing the acquisition of the seven major complete scrolls whose collection had been initiated by his father.   

Yadin subsequently led excavations in other Dead Sea caves, leading to the discovery of the Bar-Kochba letters; at the vast Canaanite site at Hatzor, at Megiddo, and, in 1963-65, at Masada, at the southern end of the Dead Sea. Along with his scholarly publications, he wrote popular books about each of his major excavations. In each case, Yadin had a knack for establishing a connection between his finds and the traditional accounts of ancient Jewish history, thus capturing the public’s imagination.

In 1963, speaking to soldiers from the Armored Corps who had their swearing-in ceremony at the Masada excavation, Yadin said: “When Napoleon stood among his troops next to the pyramids of Egypt, he declared, ‘Four thousand years of history look down upon you.’ But what would he not have given to be able to say to his men: ‘four thousand years of your own history look down upon you.’ The echo of your oath this night will resound throughout the encampments of our foes.”

It was Yadin who concluded that the bones (and pottery shards, which served as lots for choosing the order in which people would die) found at Masada belonged to the Jewish Zealots who, according to the historian Josephus, committed suicide at the site in 73 C.E., rather than surrender to the Roman army. His presentation of the tale succeeded, at least in the early decades of the state, in presenting the Zealots in a heroic light, despite the religiously and ethically troubling nature of their end. 

The final chapter in Yadin’s public life was a late entry into politics, following the death of his wife, Carmella, in 1976. Having served on the Agranat Commission, which examined the intelligence failure that preceded the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, Yadin had faced up close the disillusionment that Israelis felt about their political leaders. He decided to form a new political party, the Democratic Movement for Change, or “Dash,” as it was called by its Hebrew acronym.

Several months after Dash won 15 seats (out of 120) in the 1977 Knesset elections, Yadin took the party into the coalition government of Menachem Begin, in which he himself became deputy prime minister. He played a role in the negotiations with Egypt that led to a peace treaty with that country, but feeling that Begin denied him any real influence in the cabinet, and seeing his party splintering, a disillusioned Yadin resigned from the government, and from political life, in 1981. This last, political stage in his career is seen as his least successful.  

Yadin resumed his archaeological work, publishing his analysis of the so-called Temple Scroll in 1983. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, on this day in 1984.