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Shifting Ground in the Holy Land

Archaeology is casting new light on the Old Testament

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Clutching a Bible and a bag of oranges he picked at the kibbutz where he lives, Haifa University archaeologist Adam Zertal climbs into an armored van beside me. A vehicle full of soldiers is in front of us; two Israeli Army vans are behind us. The convoy sets off through the heavily guarded gates of the settlement of Karnei Shomron and onto a dusty mountain road in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Through bulletproof windows six inches thick, we soon see the Palestinian city of Nablus in the valley below. After ten minutes the convoy stops, and an officer from the lead vehicle, an Uzi automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, runs back to consult with Zertal’s driver in Hebrew. “We are waiting for clearance for this section of the road,” Zertal tells me. “There has been trouble here in the past.”

After 20 minutes the convoy moves on. The track peters out onto a plateau, and we can see the mountains of Gerizim and Kebir on the other side of the valley. Ahead lies Zertal’s destination: a heap of stones he chanced upon in 1980 and excavated for nine years. It doesn’t look like much at first, but closer inspection reveals a rectangular structure, about 30 feet by 23 feet, with thick walls and a ramp leading up to a platform ten feet high. Zertal believes the structure was the altar that the Bible says the prophet Joshua built on Mount Ebal—the altar he built on instructions from Moses, after the Israelites had crossed into the promised land of Canaan. This, Zertal says, is where Joshua allotted the new land among the 12 tribes, and where the Israelites “became a people,” as the Old Testament puts it.

“The altar was supposed to be nonexistent, a legend,” says Zertal, leaning on crutches, a legacy of wounds he suffered in combat during the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria. “At first we didn’t know what we were excavating.”

We sit on a rock, looking at the ramp and walls, and open up a Bible. The Book of Joshua describes the building of the altar, but Moses’ instructions come earlier, in Deuteronomy 27:4: “So when you have crossed over the Jordan you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster.” Meanwhile, four soldiers circle around us, guns at the ready, scouring the hillside for snipers.

Nearly every friday for the past 28 years, Zertal has gathered friends and students to map the hills and desert on the Jordan River’s west bank, seeking evidence that would illuminate how the ancient Israelites entered Canaan, or modern-day Israel and Palestine, in the late 13th century b.c. In this search, the Old Testament has quite literally been his guide. This approach was once common for archaeologists in Israel, but in recent years it has come to define an extreme position in a debate over whether the Bible should be read as historical fact or metaphorical fiction.

Those in Zertal’s camp say that all, or nearly all, the events in the early books of the Old Testament not only actually happened but are supported by material evidence on the ground. On the other side are the so-called biblical minimalists, who argue that the Old Testament is literary rather than historical—the work of ideologues who wrote it between the fifth and second centuries b.c.—and that Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon never even existed. A third group accepts the Bible as folk memory transmuted into myth—a mixture of fact and fiction. They argue over the balance between the two.

The various points of view have focused on a few fundamental questions: Did the Israelites, under Moses and then Joshua, leave Egypt, conquer Canaan and establish settlements in the 13th century b.c.? And did David and then Solomon preside over a great united kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem and its temple on the Temple Mount, 200 years later?

In Israel, these questions reach beyond academe to the nation’s very sense of itself. In the Israeli collective consciousness, the kingdom of David and Solomon is the model for the nation-state. Under Ariel Sharon, the government invoked the Bible to support the Israeli presence in the occupied territories on the West Bank, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits civilian settlements on occupied territory. The Jewish struggle for sovereignty over all Jerusalem is also traced to biblical accounts of David’s kingdom and Solomon’s temple.

Yet most archaeologists in Israel insist their work has nothing to do with politics. Their debates, they say, focus on what is in the Bible, and what is in the ground.

For the literalists, the stones at Mount Ebal are crucial. “If this corroborates exactly what is written in that very old part of the Bible,” says Zertal, “it means that probably other parts are historically correct. The impact is tremendous.”

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