January 4, 2010
The Bible Unearthed
By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
New York: Touchstone, 2002
Despite (or perhaps because of) the tremendous power and influence of the Bible in shaping our Western cultural tradition, it’s only been in recent decades that archeologists have made much progress in answering basic questions about it: Who wrote it? When did they write it? How much of it is true? The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman does a powerful and effective job in putting together recent findings to create a satisfyingly credible narrative.
The book’s main theme is that “much of the biblical narrative is a product of the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the reign of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE.” We see how the events described in the Bible close to that time are borne out to a large extent by archeological findings, but as you go further back into the past, there’s not much to validate the literal veracity of the biblical stories. As the authors put it:
Much of what is commonly taken for granted as accurate history – the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and even the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon – are, rather, the creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age.
A theme I believe is important in the rise of monotheistic religion is the natural linkage to monotheism of both authoritarianism and intolerance. In Finkelstein and Silberman’s narrative, this linkage becomes very clear. They see the adoption of monotheism by the kingdom of Judah as being driven in large part by the need for a centralized and unified political authority. Prior to this time, Judah was like any other place in the ancient world, where “religious ideas were diverse and dispersed,” with countless fertility and ancestor cults in the countryside” and “the widespread mixing of the worship of YHWH with that of other gods.” However, after the fall of Samaria, the centralized authority in Jerusalem had a “new political and territorial agenda: the unification of all Israel.”
Unfortunately, this “extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology” introduced the same monotheistic intolerance that our modern world continues to suffer from. As Finkelstein & Silberman describe it, “in order to effect a thorough cleansing of the cult of YHWH, Josiah launched the most intense puritan reform in the history of Judah.” They quote from 2 Kings to show how zealously Josiah established his new centralized dogma — and sadly this is one of the more believable parts of the Bible because of the proximity of the events to the time of writing:
The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah… to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. 5He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained… He brought out the image of* Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people… He slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.
With a beginning like this, is it any wonder that Jerusalem is still one of the centers of global intolerance and hatred?
Finkelstein & Silberman go to great pains, however, to try to offer a balanced perspective on the moral implications of their findings. Clearly, they don’t want the scientific rigor of their analysis to be colored by the emotions from all sides of the religious debate. They point out that the book of Deuteronomy, written for the most part by Josiah’s reformers, “contains ethical laws and provisions for social welfare that have no parallel anywhere else in the Bible” and calls for “the protection of the individual, for the defense of what we would call today human rights and human dignity.”
On the other hand, we see similar drives for social equity in other groundbreaking traditions of the time, such as Solon’s reforms in Athens, and the old Akkadian notions of andurarum (“freedom”) and misharum (“equity”) which appear as loan words in the Old Testament and may have been the source of Josiah’s ethics. Somehow, though, the Greeks and the Mesopotamians managed to get their ideas across without resort to the intolerance of monotheism.
It would be nice to think that detailed, rigorous studies such as this book could have an impact on the fundamentalist tides surging through our modern world. It may not stop any raging preacher calling on his flock to fulfill “God’s commandments,” but at least it offers an accessible and authentic account of the source of the Old Testament for those who take the effort to try to sort things out for themselves.
 For a full discussion of these Akkadian concepts, see Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. (2000). “The Near Eastern ‘Breakout’ and the Mesopotamian Social Contract”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 13-24.