Shifting Ground in the Holy Land
Archaeology is casting new light on the Old Testament.
Clutching a Bible and a bag of oranges he picked at the kibbutz where he lives, Haifa University archaeologist Adam Zertal climbs into an armored van beside me. A vehicle full of soldiers is in front of us; two Israeli Army vans are behind us. The convoy sets off through the heavily guarded gates of the settlement of Karnei Shomron and onto a dusty mountain road in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Through bulletproof windows six inches thick, we soon see the Palestinian city of Nablus in the valley below. After ten minutes the convoy stops, and an officer from the lead vehicle, an Uzi automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, runs back to consult with Zertal’s driver in Hebrew. “We are waiting for clearance for this section of the road,” Zertal tells me. “There has been trouble here in the past.
After 20 minutes the convoy moves on. The track peters out onto a plateau, and we can see the mountains of Gerizim and Kebir on the other side of the valley. Ahead lies Zertal’s destination: a heap of stones he chanced upon in 1980 and excavated for nine years. It doesn’t look like much at first, but closer inspection reveals a rectangular structure, about 30 feet by 23 feet, with thick walls and a ramp leading up to a platform ten feet high. Zertal believes the structure was the altar that the Bible says the prophet Joshua built on Mount Ebal—the altar he built on instructions from Moses, after the Israelites had crossed into the promised land of Canaan. This, Zertal says, is where Joshua allotted the new land among the 12 tribes, and where the Israelites “became a people,” as the Old Testament puts it.
“The altar was supposed to be nonexistent, a legend,” says Zertal, leaning on crutches, a legacy of wounds he suffered in combat during the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria. “At first we didn’t know what we were excavating.”
We sit on a rock, looking at the ramp and walls, and open up a Bible. The Book of Joshua describes the building of the altar, but Moses’ instructions come earlier, in Deuteronomy 27:4: “So when you have crossed over the Jordan you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster.” Meanwhile, four soldiers circle around us, guns at the ready, scouring the hillside for snipers.
Nearly every friday for the past 28 years, Zertal has gathered friends and students to map the hills and desert on the Jordan River’s west bank, seeking evidence that would illuminate how the ancient Israelites entered Canaan, or modern-day Israel and Palestine, in the late 13th century b.c. In this search, the Old Testament has quite literally been his guide. This approach was once common for archaeologists in Israel, but in recent years it has come to define an extreme position in a debate over whether the Bible should be read as historical fact or metaphorical fiction.
Those in Zertal’s camp say that all, or nearly all, the events in the early books of the Old Testament not only actually happened but are supported by material evidence on the ground. On the other side are the so-called biblical minimalists, who argue that the Old Testament is literary rather than historical—the work of ideologues who wrote it between the fifth and second centuries b.c.—and that Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon never even existed. A third group accepts the Bible as folk memory transmuted into myth—a mixture of fact and fiction. They argue over the balance between the two.
The various points of view have focused on a few fundamental questions: Did the Israelites, under Moses and then Joshua, leave Egypt, conquer Canaan and establish settlements in the 13th century b.c.? And did David and then Solomon preside over a great united kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem and its temple on the Temple Mount, 200 years later?
In Israel, these questions reach beyond academe to the nation’s very sense of itself. In the Israeli collective consciousness, the kingdom of David and Solomon is the model for the nation-state. Under Ariel Sharon, the government invoked the Bible to support the Israeli presence in the occupied territories on the West Bank, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits civilian settlements on occupied territory. The Jewish struggle for sovereignty over all Jerusalem is also traced to biblical accounts of David’s kingdom and Solomon’s temple.
Yet most archaeologists in Israel insist their work has nothing to do with politics. Their debates, they say, focus on what is in the Bible, and what is in the ground.
For the literalists, the stones at Mount Ebal are crucial. “If this corroborates exactly what is written in that very old part of the Bible,” says Zertal, “it means that probably other parts are historically correct. The impact is tremendous.”
By 1985, Zertal had concluded that the stone structure was Joshua’s altar. It fit the Bible’s description of the site, he says, and its ramp and other features are consistent with ancient accounts of the altar at the Second Temple in Jerusalem—another example of such a structure in ancient Israel. In addition, Zertal says he found charred animal bones at the site, which he interpreted as sacrificial offerings. To Zertal, the “altar” proves that the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan, just as the Old Testament says they did.
Zertal, 60, has a poetic affinity for the land he has spent so much time surveying. Talking to local Bedouin shepherds in Arabic about place names and checking them against biblical references, he has found what he says are more than 300 Israelite sites from the early Iron Age (or Iron Age I, as the years 1200 to 1000 b.c. are known), moving gradually westward into Israel.
But he has yet to submit his Ebal finds to radiocarbon dating. And he professes a dislike for the common archaeological practice of establishing chronologies by radiocarbon dating potsherds, or pieces of broken pottery. “Others see things through the narrow keyhole of pottery,” he tells me as I join him on one of his Friday walkabouts. “I prefer to see things in a wider perspective: history, Bible, literature, poetry.”
While Zertal’s findings on Mount Ebal have given comfort to those in Israel and elsewhere who take the Bible literally, few of his fellow archaeologists have accepted his conclusions. In an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review in 1986, Aharon Kempinski of Tel Aviv University contended that the stones were actually part of a watchtower from the first part of the Iron Age, and that there is “no basis whatever for interpreting this structure as an altar.” Most archaeologists have ignored the find. “Adam Zertal is the lone wolf,” says Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “He’s working alone.”
“There’s definitely an Iron I site there, and there may even be evidence for cultic activity,” says Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University. “But I don’t think that you can take the Book of Joshua and use it as a guidebook to the architectural landscape. Joshua was put in writing much later than the events it describes and is full of ideologies related to the needs of the writers.”
Though Finkelstein occupies the middle ground between the literalists and the minimalists, he has led the challenge to traditional biblical archaeology in Israel for the past decade. He offers a markedly different picture of Israel’s early history.
Finkelstein and co-author Neil Asher Silberman rocked the world of biblical archaeology with the publication, five years ago, of The Bible Unearthed. The book argues that the biblical accounts of early Israelite history reveal more about the time they were written—the seventh century b.c.—than the events they describe, which would have taken place centuries earlier. The book also maintains that Israeli archaeologists have indulged in a kind of circular reasoning, drawing on biblical references to date a potsherd, for example, and then using it to identify places described in the Bible. The Bible, Finkelstein believes, should be used far more cautiously in interpreting archaeological sites.
Last year, Finkelstein received the $1 million Dan David Prize for innovative research, awarded by an international venture based at Tel Aviv University. But his work has proved controversial. Several archaeologists have challenged his finding that some ruins related to Solomon are too recent to fit into the biblical account of his reign (“a huge distortion,” says Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem). David Hazony, editor of a journal sponsored by a conservative Israeli think tank, wrote that “the urge to smash myths has overtaken sound judgment” in Finkelstein’s work. In an essay in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, likened Finkelstein to the minimalists, who, he said, were “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” for their “faddish lack of pride in Israel’s history.”
Over lunch on the Tel Aviv University campus, Finkelstein, 57, jokes that his more conservative colleagues “are the guardians of the true faith. We are the simple apostates.” More seriously, he adds: “I was surprised that some scholars are completely deaf and blind, in my opinion, and they don’t accept the inevitable and very clear evidence.”
He cites the fact—now accepted by most archaeologists—that many of the cities Joshua is supposed to have sacked in the late 13th century b.c. had ceased to exist by that time. Hazor was destroyed in the middle of that century, and Ai was abandoned before 2000 b.c. Even Jericho, where Joshua is said to have brought the walls tumbling down by circling the city seven times with blaring trumpets, was destroyed in 1500 b.c. Now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the Jericho site consists of crumbling pits and trenches that testify to a century of fruitless digging.