Nor Is It Necessarily Not So, Part II

Jonathan D. Safren yonsaf at
Sat Nov 6 11:08:03 EST 1999

Below follows Part II of Hershel Shanks' retort to Ze'ev Herzog's
article in Ha'aretz newspaper.
Jonathan D. Safren
Dept. of Biblical Studies
Beit Berl College
44905 Beit Berl Post Office

Well, yes and no
It is said that archaeology disproves the Israelite conquest of Canaan -
or, in Herzog's words, "The archaeological findings blatantly contradict
the biblical picture." Well, yes and no. Again, the question is more
subtle than Herzog would allow. There are problems. But Herzog ignores
the fact that the Bible itself recognizes this. We get two somewhat
differing pictures in the books of Joshua and Judges. If we are looking
for history, we must take into account not only the successful lightning
attacks described in Joshua, but also the more gradual and incomplete
settlement described in Judges. That the excavations of Jericho and Ai
indicate there were no cities here at the time Joshua was supposed to
have conquered them must be
balanced against the fact that, according to Hebrew University
archaeologist Amnon Ben-Tor, Hazor was indeed most likely destroyed and
burned by the incoming Israelites, just as the Bible says (Joshua

Moreover, there was a destruction of Jericho that comports in
extraordinary detail with the description of the Israelite conquest of
the city, down to the time of year and the fallen
walls. But it occurred before the supposed date of the Israelite
appearance on the scene. Did the Israelites somehow later take credit
for this earlier destruction of Jericho? That's quite possible. But the
situation is considerably more complicated than Herzog allows. It begins
to seem that he has another agenda - simply to destroy the credibility
of the Bible, as is so fashionable among academic sophisticates these

The minimalists' most recent attack is on the United Kingdom. Some
minimalists deny the very existence of a kingdom of David and Solomon.
Some even deny that there were such figures as David and Solomon. Herzog
apparently thinks they may be right: "The united monarchy of David and
Solomon...was at most a small tribal kingdom," he says. If that is what
it was at most, what was it at least? Some of the minimalists have gone
so far as to
charge that the recently discovered reference to the House (Dynasty) of
David in a monumental stele excavated by Avraham Biran at Tel Dan is a
forgery! Herzog does not go
so far. He refers to the find only glancingly and does not discuss its
relevance to a recognition of the power of the Davidic dynasty; [though]
it is mentioned in a monumental inscription of a non-Israelite ruler
barely a century or so after David lived.

That the kingdom of David and Solomon was not as glorious or as
extensive as the Bible indicates is certainly arguable and even
probable. Perhaps Israelite hegemony was measured in different terms in
those days - in terms of influence rather than absolute power. But again
these are questions of "more or less than." To question the very
existence of the united monarchy because the Bible does not preserve its
separate name, as Herzog does, bespeaks
of denigration rather than a rational search for truth amid great

Similar tendentiousness infects Herzog's discussion of Israelite
monotheism. He points to two extremely interesting finds that indicate
that Yahweh, the Israelite God, had a consort. From this he concludes
that ancient Israel had more than one god until a very late date. On the
contrary, in many respects these finds confirm the picture we get from
the Bible: Yahweh had a hard time of it; Israel was a nation of
backsliders; this is what the prophets are all about.
Herzog does not mention in support of his argument, as he could have,
that thousands of clay figurines that apparently reflect polytheistic
commitments have been excavated, even (and especially) in Jerusalem. Do
these finds demonstrate that all Israel was polytheistic? Do these finds
disprove the biblical assertion that elements in Israel soon developed a
concept of a single God who created and ruled the world? Again, the
archaeological evidence does not go so far as Herzog would have us
think. Not all ancient Israelites were monotheistic, but neither were
they all polytheistic. A far more measured response to the evidence is
called for than Herzog provides.

A few final comments about archaeological evidence: It is minute
compared to what we don't know and is subject to change tomorrow. True,
some archaeological facts are closer to certainty than others. But it is
not always easy to distinguish one from the other. Take Jerusalem as an
example. Herzog correctly points out that very little has been found
from the period of the supposed united monarchy. Admittedly this is a
problem, especially because Jerusalem is easily the most excavated city
in the world. The so-called City of David, south of the Temple Mount,
has been a particular focus of such modern archaeological giants as Dame
Kathleen Kenyon and the late Yigal Shiloh. Despite their efforts,
however, they failed to discover a major city wall that has been
discovered only in the past couple of years by Ronny Reich and Eli
Shukron. This wall has been preserved to a height of 15 feet. It is very
close to
the Spring Gihon where we would expect archaeologists to dig. Yet Kenyon
and Shiloh (and others) missed it. Reich and Shukron have also found two
or three major towers that protected the spring in about 1800 B.C. that
previous excavators failed to find.

I mention this not to fault them and not because it disproves anything
Herzog has said, but simply to suggest that the archaeological picture
is never complete and is often revised. The next generation of
archaeologists may well do to the current doubters what they have done
to such eminent scholars as William Foxwell Albright. (But then again,
they may not. I do not trade in the certainty that is Herzog's coin.)

Ignoring the stele

Finally, the archaeological evidence is not only minute, but random.
Herzog mentions a famous Egyptian stele that refers to "Israel" as a
people in Canaan in 1208 B.C. No
scholar questions this. Although Herzog mentions it, however, he doesn't
deal with it. This wholly chance find makes the minimalists squirm. They
argue that it refers only to a geographic location, not a people; or
that it refers to some other Israel, not the one mentioned in the Bible.
Without this chance find, you can be sure the minimalists would be
arguing that there was no such entity as Israel at such an early period,
that indeed Israel was "invented"
hundreds of years later.

Similarly with the existence of David: Just as the minimalists were
revving up for a full-scale attack on the existence of David (who had
never been mentioned outside the Bible), Biran found the "House of
David" stele. All this doesn't prove that the minimalists are wrong,
only that we must be very careful in reaching our conclusions. History,
and especially ancient history, is unfortunately very complicated, much
more so than is dreamed of in Herzog's
philosophy. Just as it is unjustified to conclude that the Bible is
literally true in every detail, so it is unjustified to throw it out as
historically worthless, especially when that view is so vigorously
pursued by a few scholars with a political agenda.

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