The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman is an exciting read, especially for those of us who have questioned the historical and literal accuracy of biblical accounts before the time of the Kings. (1) The Jewish Encyclopedia does not make either claim, nor do many reputable academics. The reasons are numerous and easy to document.
The book also provides archeological support for the idea that the biblical history of this period and the subsequent historical narratives were written to support the theological assumption that God rewarded Israel and Judah’s “good” behavior and punished them when they “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
That theological bias was the guiding truth and underlying assumption of the scribes, priests, and prophets who wrote Old Testament history. The Moabites were “bad,” i.e. worshiped “other gods,” and therefore the story of the Israelites’ attempted genocide was an act of god. (Thank goodness Naomi survived.) If the Israelite army was defeated, it was because god was punishing the nation for the sins of its kings, idol worship, and/or marrying “foreign” wives.
The Bible Unearthed allows modern Christians and Adventist theologians to escape the dilemma of trying to amalgamate the brutal god of the Old Testament with the loving God of the New.
It is important for the reader to know that I am not an archaeologist. I have, however, determined that the reputations of Finkelstein and Silberman are exemplary. Larry Geraty is a personal friend of the authors and testifies to their integrity.(2) Baruch Halpern, author of The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History, lauds the book as “The boldest and most exhilarating synthesis of the Bible and archaeology in fifty years.”
Before I let the authors speak for themselves, I want to make it clear that this book has enhanced my admiration for the redactors who so carefully recounted the biblical stories, prophecies, poetry, historical accounts, proverbs, and drama found in the Old Testament in such a way that the serious student is challenged intellectually and spiritually to determine what really happened. As far as I am concerned, the authors’ summary statement that concludes this review has the ring of truth.
In the Prologue, Finkelstein and Silberman tell their version of how, why, and when the literature of the Old Testament was created.
“The world in which the Bible was created was not a mythic realm of great cities and saintly heroes, but a tiny, down-to-earth kingdom where people struggled for their future against the all-too-human fears of war, poverty, injustice, disease, famine, and drought. The historical saga contained in the Bible—from Abraham’s encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination. It was first conceived—as recent archaeological findings suggest—during the span of two or three generations, about twenty-six-hundred years ago. Its birthplace was the kingdom of Judah, a sparsely settled region of shepherds and farmers, ruled from an out-of-the-way royal city precariously perched in the heart of the hill country on a narrow ridge between steep, rocky ravines.
“During a few extraordinary decades of spiritual ferment and political agitation toward the end of the seventh century BCE, an unlikely coalition off Judahite court officials, scribes, priests, peasants, and profits came together to create a new movement. At its core was a sacred scripture of unparalleled literary and spiritual genius. It was an epic saga woven together from an astonishingly rich collection of historical writings, memories, legends, folktales, anecdotes, roil propaganda, prophecy, and ancient poetry. Partly an original composition, partly adapted from earlier visions and sources, that literary masterpiece would undergo further editing and elaboration to become a spiritual anchor not only for the descendents of the people of Judah but for communities all over the world.”(3) (Prologue, pages 1-2)
“The Bible’s integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful full historical ‘proof’ of any of its particular events or personalities, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the trumpet blasts that toppled the walls of Jericho, or David’s slaying of Goliath with a single shot of his sling. The power of the biblical saga stems from its being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people’s liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality. It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive.” (Page 318)
(1) If the recorded lifespan of Shem is accurate, he survived Abraham.
(2) “Andy. I know both Finkelstein and Silberman well; they are personal friends. In the current jargon, they would both be considered “minimalists”—that is, scholars who try to pull biblical history down late, i.e. David and Solomon are minor chieftains who left little archaeological evidence, most of the OT books are very late and often untrustworthy historically, etc. They are both well known and respected in the field. Finkelstein is a gifted archaeologist at Tel Aviv University while Silberman is really a journalist, but one who is very knowledgeable about the Bible and archaeology. While they make an articulate case for their view, I just don’t believe that the biblical narrative “was first conceived 2600 years ago.” Of course they go on to nuance that and if one reads carefully, you see that they allow much older dates for a lot of the biblical material. Both of them have a more skeptical (“liberal”) bent than I am comfortable with but I agree, the book reads well and has an interesting thesis.” —Larry Geraty
3) The authors go to great lengths to establish the archaeological evidence to support this statement. However, in the cover feature in the February 25, 2010, Adventist Review, “Another Battle Over David and Goliath,” Michael G. Hasel reports on current archeological discoveries in the Holy Land that he believes may validate the historicity of the biblical account.
Andrew Hanson blogs at Adventist Perspective and contributes reviews of the Review to the Spectrum blog.
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