Shifting Ground in the Holy Land

Archaeology is casting new light on the Old Testament

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Biblical archaeology has been popular in Israel since the nation’s founding in 1948. As Jews poured into Israel from all over Europe following the Holocaust, the “national hobby” helped newcomers build a sense of belonging. “There was a need to give something to the immigrants, to the melting pot,” says Finkelstein. “Something to connect them to the ground, to history, to some sort of legacy.”

In the 1950s, Yigael Yadin and his archaeological rival, Yohanan Aharoni, battled over whether the Israelites conquered Canaan by force, as described in the Book of Joshua, or whether they came peacefully, as described in the Book of Judges. In 1955, Yadin began excavating the ancient city of Hazor in the hope of finding proof of an Israelite conquest. After the Six-Day War in 1967, during which Israelis gained control of the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli archaeologists began surveying those areas as well, in many cases displacing Palestinian residents to do so. The archaeologists sought out Old Testament sites and renamed places according to biblical tradition, in effect “recasting the landscape of the West Bank” in biblical terms, says Columbia University anthropologist Nadia Abu el-Haj, author of Facts on the Ground, a history of Israeli archaeology. Those terms, she says, “the [West Bank] settlers now pick up.”

Many Palestinians are understandably skeptical of any research that links biblical events to land they feel is rightfully theirs. “In Israel, biblical archaeology was used to justify illegal settlement policy,” says Hamdan Taha, director general of the Palestinian Authority’s department for antiquities and cultural heritage. “Land was confiscated in the name of God and archaeology. It’s still going on with the construction of bypass roads and the building of the separation wall inside the Palestinian land.”

In Hebron, on the West Bank, where 130,000 Palestinians live close to 6,500 Jews in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, the political implications of biblical archaeology are obvious: the tomb of Abraham, sacred to Jews and Muslims alike, has been effectively split in half since 1994, when a Jewish settler shot 29 Muslims at prayer; now, grilled windows that look out onto opposite sides of the sepulcher separate the members of the two faiths. In 2005, Ariel Sharon said the tomb justified the Israeli presence in the West Bank. “No other people has a monument like the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and Sarah are buried,” he told the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. “Therefore, under any agreement [on the West Bank], Jews will live in Hebron.”

However, most archaeologists who have studied the sites say there is not enough evidence to support assertions that the Hebron site is really Abraham’s tomb. Other contested sites include Joseph’s tomb in Nablus and Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem. “It’s not real archaeology,” Finkelstein says. “It’s based on later traditions.”

More recently, a find in Jerusalem itself has stirred hope—and skepticism. Until last summer, archaeologists seeking evidence of the city David supposedly built there pointed to the few stone blocks they called the “stepped stone structure” in what is now called the City of David, south of the Temple Mount; they dated the structure to the tenth century b.c.

Last August, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar (a cousin of Amihai Mazar) reported that she had found new evidence of a palace, also supposedly built by David, near the site of the stepped stone structure. Using potsherds and the traditional chronology, Mazar dated huge stones she believes made up part of the palace, to the tenth century b.c. also. The find made headlines around the world.

But detractors note that the conservative Israeli research institute sponsoring her dig, the Shalem Center, is funded by American investment banker Roger Hertog, who is on record as saying he hoped to show “that the Bible reflects Jewish history.” For her part, Mazar says her research is scientific but adds that it is “unwise to dismiss the value of the Bible as a source of history altogether.”

Finkelstein says Mazar’s stones should be dated to the ninth century, or even later. Her find, he says, only “supports what I and others have been saying for the last five years, that Jerusalem took the first step to becoming a meaningful town” a century after the time of David and Solomon.

In 1999, Ze’ev Herzog, a Tel Aviv University colleague of Finkelstein’s, convulsed the Israeli public with an article in the weekend magazine of the newspaper Ha’aretz asserting that archaeologists had shown definitively that the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ origins was not factual. Outraged letters poured into the newspaper; politicians weighed in; conferences were organized so the distressed public could quiz the archaeologists. But once the issues were addressed, feelings cooled.


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