Archeological Crisis

When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. Numbers 21:1 NASB

King of Arad – Something unexpected is happening. As I investigate the background for a book about Solomon, I am unearthing (pun intended) archeological evidence that a great number of the stories about Israel’s history before the captivity are unsupported by physical corroboration. Less than ten years ago, Finkelstein wrote, “It is thus now accepted by all that archeology in fact contradicts the biblical account of the Israelite Conquest as a discreet historical event led by one leader.”[1] After reviewing the popular theories used to support the biblical story, he writes:

Since the 1960’s, however, it has become obvious that this was not the historical reality. Archeological investigations have shown that many of the sites mentioned in these conquest stories turned out to be uninhabited during the assumed time of the Conquest, ca. 1200 B.C.E. This is the case with Arad, Heshbon, ‘Ai and Yarmuth.[2]

Arad is but one example. “Many years of archeological research at Arad and in its vicinity have not revealed any evidence for a canaanite settlement of the Late Bronze Age.”[3] Typical biblical historicists’ arguments that we have just not looked hard enough or deep enough are uncomfortably insufficient. The biblical text is detailed and when nothing is found to verify the text, it’s hard to maintain that the text is accurate, especially when there are other factors that explain why the text doesn’t match the physical evidence. All of this suggests that some of the biblical accounts are purposeful history rather than event history. Since this flied in the face of what we think “history” should be, it questions our entire paradigm regarding what is “true.”

There are dissenting opinions by other archeologists, of course. Amihai Mazar disagrees with Finkelstein’s assessment of the data, claiming that the evidence at Arad supports an earlier, tenth century BCE settlement. But debates over the dating of the physical evidence are not enough for even Mazar to claim that the descriptions of Solomon’s kingdom in the biblical accounts are factually correct.[4]

This is producing a crisis—at least for me. I have always more or less believed that the Bible is accurate, perhaps within its own cultural parameters, but at least accurate in the general pattern of historical events. In other words, I always thought that if the Bible says Joshua led the people in the conquest of the Land, then that was true, i.e., it actually happened that way. Now it appears that the biblical “history” is more like a national saga than it is event sequence accuracy. In other words, it’s like the stories about George Washington during the revolutionary war. There really was a George Washington and he really did lead his men through a brutal winter encampment in the war against the British, but there are also accumulated legends, embellishment and retro-fitted “events” that make his campaign American saga. George Washington is not just a man. He is an icon. He represents the American ethos, and as such, his stories are more cultural and political than they are chronological records. This is understandable and acceptable for George Washington, but what do we do about Joshua, or Moses, or David?

What I am struggling to reconcile is not the possibility that the stories of Joshua and David aren’t crafted to serve a purpose for the original audience. I can wrap my head around that. After all, things like that happen in every culture, even in our culture today (as America rewrites the history of the civil war to fit certain racial themes). The problem is that these stories are in the Bible and I have been taught that the Bible isn’t like all other ancient literature. It comes from God, so it has to be true! In other words, my idea of biblical inspiration actually interferes with my ability to recognize what is actually happening in the text. And this scares me. I feel like I am losing footing. I being to question other “stories,” realizing that I might not have the same appreciation of the accounts that the original audience had at all! I might be imposing my view on authors who were really doing something very different. And if that’s a possibility, then where does it leave me with regard to trusting God’s word?

Should I just pretend there isn’t any conflict and throw out anything that challenges the biblical record? Should I retreat to the “we haven’t looked hard enough” caveat? Should I claim that I will only understand it all when the “Spirit” reveals it to me? Or should I consider the option of holding on loosely?

What do you think?

Topical Index: Numbers 21:1, Arad, archeology, story, history

[1] Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, p. 62.

[2] Ibid., p. 61.

[3] Ibid., p. 63.

[4] Cf. Amihai Mazar, “The Search for David and Solomon: An Archeological Perspective,” in The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archeology and the History of Early Israel (Society of Biblical Leterature, 2007), pp. 117-139.