Archaeology: What It Can Teach Us

Excavations at Tel Arad. Image taken from Wikipedia article.

I have just started making my way through the 2015 Wiley Companion to Ancient Israel. Here’s a wee synopsis of the first article by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, “Archaeology: What It Can Teach Us”:

Because of the vastly different data that the two sources of archaeology and the biblical texts give, there is both an ancient Israel and a biblical Israel. For example,

Physical remains are inclusive, generally not manipulated by subsequent peoples, and immeasurably greater in scope than literary accounts. In contrast to texts, which are limited by religious and royal perspectives and agendas, material remains are generated by diverse human groups including rich and poor, males and females, adults and children, and urban and rural populations (13).

Dating of archaeological remains is also much easier to determine than the dating of biblical texts. Moreover, connections can be made between the remains and the texts, providing more information on the origin and meaning of the texts themselves.

The archaeologist employs a number of different methods in their work. A synchronic approach generally works horizontally at a site to discover different aspects of one particular time. A diachronic approach generally works vertically to discover change over time. Digs can also be undertaken on a macro or a micro level, whether the focus is on the big picture or the relationships between individual remains. Most digs will combine all of these approaches in different ways.

Next, remains are interpreted. This requires looking for relationships between different objects, surroundings, etc at the site. “For example, a particular pot type that typically appears in a basement room of a house or the hold of a ship functions for storage or for transport” (14). Here the Bible and other texts can provide helpful information. Natural phenomena such as geology, flora, fauna, water availability and a host of other things can also give clues as to the inner workings of ancient societies.

There are nonetheless limits to archaeology. Examples include that archaeologists tend to focus on “tells,” i.e., cities and forts, allocating less attention to the likes of villages and farmsteads, for instance. There is much that has been excavated but there is also much that has not. Moreover, while dating methods are helpful, they cannot pinpoint exact years or even decades. Interpretation is also limited. In focussing on patterns in the remains, unique occurrences of phenomena that go against patterns are obscured and marginalised. And, of course, interpretations are always conditioned by the socio-cultural contexts of the interpreters.

Two opposing groups of archaeologists, though not representative of all archaeologists, provide an important picture of some of the difficulties facing how to determine the relationship between the Bible and archaeological remains:

Ethnocentric Biblical Archaeologists consider Israel as central and unique, while Syro-Palestinian Archaeologists view Israel as one of several regional kingdoms. The former stress the uniqueness of ancient Israel and rely heavily on the Bible as history to bolster their position. This approach stems from biblical archaeology of the 1950s (a cultural-historical approach), in which the canonical text had primacy of place and archaeology served to elucidate and verify the Bible. For the latter, Syro-Palestinian Archaeologists, the Bible constitutes a critically important cultural artifact that enhances understanding of the general culture but more specifically of those who composed, edited and transmitted the texts. This is not to minimize but to qualify use of biblical texts. Syro-Palestinian Archaeologists recognize that biblical texts and inscriptions contribute information irretrievable from material culture … Without texts, we might not know that Israelite society was patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrimonial. Both avenues of study, with the Bible either central or supplemental to the archaeological endeavor, contribute to the emerging picture of ancient and biblical Israel. However, the cultural presuppositions of each group, with consequent selectivity of cited data, must be kept in mind when utilizing publications and considering societal reconstructions (16).

Archaeological investigation of ancient Israel generally begins with the Iron Age, around 1200-1125 BCE. This corresponds to the biblical conquest of Canaan attested in Joshua and Judges (though the archaeological record gives a different picture to the biblical one of conquest).

One of the difficulties in identifying early Israelites is the lack of distinctly Israelite material. For example, abstinence from pork not only characterised Israelite existence but that of many Canaanite peoples in the Late Bronze Age (prior to the Iron Age). Philistines or Sea Peoples are generally more distinct but in the Iron Age the amount of evidence that distinguishes Canaanites and other inhabitants of land from Israelites is negligible. Even settlements explicitly designated in the biblical record as Israelite, Jerusalem for example, most likely contained non-Israelites as well.

One of the benefits of archaeology is that it can provide an independent witness to ancient Israel’s religious history. Because biblical texts belong to an editorial tradition which often reinterpreted them for new generations, aspects of later Israelite society and religion were retrospectively read into earlier periods. (This wasn’t absolute. There are many indications in Scripture that show biblical authors and editors’ awareness of the differences between their time and the time before them. Take for example Jacob marrying two sisters, a practice that was banned in the law). Archaeology can provide alternative and extended pictures of ancient Israelite religious life that might otherwise be obscured by the perspectives of biblical writers:

The Tel Arad temple exemplifies a disjunction between text and artifact; it illustrates praxis as opposed to promulgation and provides the context in which texts were written and to which they were responding. According to the Books of Kings, the late eighth-to late seventh-century BCE Judahite kings Hezekiah and Josiah tore down and defiled altars and high places to restrict worship with sacrifice to the Jerusalem temple (2 Kings18:22; 23:5–20). However, the Bible omits mention of the royally sponsored temple with a sacrificial altar constructed within a Judahite military fort on the southern border at Arad. Seventh- to sixth-century BCE correspondence between the local commander Eliashib and his Jerusalem superior confirms both the fort’s official status and Yahweh as the resident deity … Depending on its dates, this temple out-side of Jerusalem, in a royal fort and administrative center, suggests that Hezekiah and Josiah’s alleged cultic reforms perhaps promoted royal oversight of the cult* rather than exclusive worship in Jerusalem (18-9).

*Cult here is used in the general sense of a particular religious practice, rather than the exclusive sense of a sect.

Bloch-Smith continues,

Rather than viewing exclusive worship of Yahweh in the eighth- to sixth-century BCE Jerusalem temple as the norm, this temple illustrates Israelite worship, at disparate sites, of multiple deities manifest in physical forms, including standing stones. Biblical references to Israelites, including kings worshipping Baal, Asherah, the host of heaven, and the Queen of Heaven, in Jerusalem and at shrines throughout the country (2 Kings 23:4–6; Jer. 7:17–8; 44:17), suggest that Israelites of that period worshipped multiple deities. While select voices denounced polytheism as apostasy, it appears to have been common practice among the populace and royalty alike (20).

Archaeological finds can supplement the biblical testimony in revealing just where the biblical authors are coming from. While Scripture tells us that at many times in Israel’s history worship of gods other than Yahweh was practised by certain Israelites, the archaeological record is helpful in showing that it in many cases it seems to have been more of the norm! If this is true, then we can better understand the uniqueness of the perspectives of the biblical writers. Positively, in this instance, although the temple at Arad runs counter to the biblical claim that Yahweh is to worshipped in one place, Jerusalem, it also demonstrates the biblical belief that the land belongs to Yahweh since the temple at Arad is part of a military camp that defends Israel’s borders.


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