Shifting Ground in the Holy Land

Archaeology is casting new light on the Old Testament

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Throughout most of Israel, they’re still cooling. “The idea of the Old Testament as a historical document prevails,” says sociologist Michael Feige of Ben-Gurion University, “but people don’t give it that much thought.” He adds that Israel’s shifting priorities may account for the less impassioned view. “In the 1950s, there was a collective anxiety: What are we doing here? How do we justify it? The very essence of Israeli identity depended on the biblical, historical narrative. Now, with increased fears of terrorism, the anxiety is more a personal one: What will happen to me tomorrow?” The recent election to the Palestinian leadership of Hamas, which Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, considers a terrorist organization, has hardly calmed this anxiety.

But if the general population appears less invested in a literal biblical narrative, Israel’s religious right—and particularly Israeli settlers on the West Bank—remain steadfast. “The attack on the Bible,” says Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun, a leader in the settlers’ political movement, Gush Emunim, “is part and parcel of the general attack on Zionist values that is exemplified by the current Israeli government’s willingness, in the framework of the peace process, to hand over parts of the biblical land of Israel to the Palestinians.”

Ben-Nun and others in the settlers’ movement emphatically agree with the views of Adam Zertal and other biblical literalists. At the settlement of Elon Moreh, on a hill above Nablus, a sign quotes Jeremiah 31:5: “Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria.” Menachem Brody, who emigrated from Maine to Israel 28 years ago and raised a family there, runs archaeology tours supporting the literal interpretation of the Old Testament. On one such tour, passing through numerous army checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, he traced the Way of the Patriarchs, the road traveled by Abraham according to Genesis. Later, Brody stood in his own vineyard, which he planted to fulfill the Jeremiah prophecy, and said of Zertal’s discovery: “It’s the find of the century. Before, it was just a pile of stones, and it was only when we came to live here that somebody found it.”


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