Shifting Ground in the Holy Land

Archaeology is casting new light on the Old Testament

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Finkelstein says that rather than following Joshua out of the desert into Canaan and conquering the indigenous population, the early Israelites were actually Canaanites—that is, they were the indigenous population. Yes, he acknowledges, there was a wave of new settlements on the hills to the east and west of the Jordan River around 1200 b.c. But Finkelstein says such settlements are not necessarily a sign of conquest—archaeological evidence instead suggests a waxing and waning of the population both before and after that time. Instead of marching armies and massive slaughter, he sees a slow and gradual evolution of Israelite culture. “The emergence of the different ethnic identities was a very long process,” he insists.

More and more archaeologists have accepted the idea that “the Joshua invasion as it is described in the Bible was never really a historical event,” as Amihai Mazar puts it. But they disagree about the exact nature and origins of those who built the ancient hilltop settlements on the West Bank.
Even more vexing is the question of a united kingdom under David and then Solomon. Trying to answer it has taken Finkelstein to the ruin of Megiddo, which most archaeologists once believed was the site of a palace King Solomon built sometime between 970 and 930 b.c.

An hour’s drive northeast of Tel Aviv, Megiddo is a huge archaeological tell, or mound, the result of centuries of city-building in the same confined space. The tell is complicated, featuring stone walls from 30 layers of habitation spanning six millennia. Date palms have sprouted from seeds that previous excavators spit on the ground. A magnificent view sweeps from Mount Carmel in the northwest to Nazareth to Mount Gilboa in the northeast.

Many Christians believe this will be the site of Armageddon, where, according to the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, the final battle between good and evil will be waged, followed by the second coming of Christ. Evangelical Christians regularly gather at Megiddo to pray. But the site is also the focus of the debate over whether the biblical story of Solomon can be supported archaeologically.

The second Book of Samuel declares that King David “reigned over all Israel and Judah” at Jerusalem. After David, according to the first Book of Kings, Solomon was “sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt.” To many Jews, the era of David and Solomon represents their homeland’s zenith, the age of a Greater Israel. In I Kings, it is a time of great prosperity—“Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy”—during which Solomon built a great temple in Jerusalem, as well as the cities of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo. Over the past century, four archaeological excavations have searched for Solomonic artifacts in Megiddo, concentrating in recent decades on a few stone blocks some say are the remains of a great palace and stables.

Archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who excavated Megiddo in the early 1960s, believed that the stables belonged to King Ahab, who ruled in the ninth century b.c.; a ninth-century Assyrian inscription on a stone monument at Nimrud, in modern-day Iraq, described Ahab’s great chariot force. Yadin reasoned that the palace, which lies below the stables and so must be earlier, is part of a great building from the time of Solomon. But Finkelstein, who has been excavating at Megiddo for more than ten years, argues that this chronology is wrong—that both layers are several decades later than Yadin posited.

The palace layer beneath the stables, Finkelstein notes, bears masonry marks like those found at a ninth-century b.c. palace site nearby. In addition, pottery found at the palace is almost identical to pottery found at Jezreel, about six miles away, which has also been dated to the mid-ninth century b.c. through independently dated potsherds and biblical references. Finkelstein says that Yadin’s claim, which lacks any confirmation by independent potsherd dating, rests on the I Kings reference only—“This is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon conscripted to build the house of the Lord and his own house, the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer.”

Finkelstein also says that masonry marks and potsherds from the palace layer suggest that it must have been built around 850 b.c., in the time of Ahab—who “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him,” according to I Kings. The so-called golden age of Solomon, Finkelstein goes on, is not supported by archaeological evidence. Rather, he says, it’s a myth concocted in the seventh century b.c. by the authors of Kings and Samuel to validate Judah’s expansion into the northern territory of Israel. Finally, Finkelstein says David never united the country; rather, Judah and Israel remained neighboring states. (The only non-biblical reference to David is found in a ninth-century b.c. inscription from Tel Dan, a biblical site in northern Israel that mentions “the House of David.” Finkelstein says the inscription proves only that David existed, not that he united the kingdom.)

Finkelstein believes that pottery that the literalists date to the mid-tenth century b.c. should actually be dated to the first half of the ninth century b.c. But not everyone agrees. Hebrew University’s Mazar, one of Finkelstein’s main critics, insists with equal conviction that “it’s impossible to condense all these strata of pottery to such a short time span.”

In the fall of 2004, Mazar and Finkelstein each presented their contradictory theses at a conference at Oxford, England, and each brought in a physicist to analyze the radiocarbon dating of the objects from Megiddo. But since the margin of error for radiocarbon dating is about 50 years—within the difference between the competing chronologies—both could claim validation for their theories. The discrepancy of 50 years might seem like splitting hairs, but the implications reverberate into the present day.


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