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Professor Thompson's brief presentation of traditional critical commentary on Old Testament History

2 The Bibles many views of the past

When one begins to describe historical developments within the regions of South Syria on the basis of archaeological data, one finds a very different picture of Palestines past than in many books of biblical archaeology. The sketch of ancient Israel that comes from a harmonizing of archaeology with the biblical story is not congruent with the Bibles view. Even if one were to adopt the most conservative of methods urged by scholars today, and try to accept a biblical view of the past wherever this has not been proven false, one faces nearly insurmountable difficulties. Removing the unbelievable and the impossible, correcting what is clearly wrong and tendentious, and reconstructing what remains in a more or less coherent account is hardly adequate and fails to deal with the Bibles unhistorical qualities. Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach.

For example, consider the question of how the Israelites of the Bible come to occupy Jerusalem. In Joshua 10, Jerusalems king, Adonizedek, the leader of five Amorite kings, was defeated by Joshua and his army in a running battle. Yahweh killed more enemies than Joshua did by throwing huge stones down on them from heaven. The kings were captured hiding in a cave and executed by Joshua. To endorse this story, the author tells us that five of these large stones are laid at the entrance of the cave to this day.

The humour of this closing ought not be missed. The author is very aware of the audiences critical sensibilities. Just as Yahweh is hurling the large stones down from heaven, killing the enemy, the dead are described as having been killed by hailstones. After all, everyone knows even the minimalist that God sends hailstones. And this is where the author traps his listeners! The memorial set up at the cave, five of Yahwehs stones, is an obvious argument for the storys historicity. Such an argument is a common folktale motif, quite like the closure of Hans Christian Andersens story of the princess and the pea with its historicizing details that the pea is still in the museum . . . that is, if someone hasnt stolen it.

Similarly, in allowing Yahwehs stones to be hailstones, the biblical author intentionally subverts his monument to the tales historical authenticity! Such deconstructive humour highlights some of the difficulties that occur when such a story is taken for history by readers of any time. We simply cannot escape the discomfort of this glimpse of the author laughing at us. The laughter wont be resolved if tries to remove the big stones, the melted hailstones or God from the story.

While Joshua 10 tells this tale about the defeat of Jerusalems king, Joshua 18 tells of Jerusalem being given as spoils of war to the tribe of Benjamin. This narrative obviously confirms the assumption of the story of chapter 10 that the city of Jerusalem was one of the cities of Joshuas conquest, part of what one might call Joshuas view of the past.

Judges I, on the other hand, sets its tale of Jerusalems conquest to a time after Joshua had died. Jerusalem is not Amorite in this story, but Canaanite. Even more surprising, it is Jacobs sons, the founders and patriarchs of the tribes themselves, Judah and Simeon, who defeat the Canaanites in Jerusalem, kill the inhabitants and burn the city to the ground. Accordingly, in I Samuel 17: 54, Jerusalem is already part of Israel, when the young David brings Goliaths head there as a trophy!

Yet a third story of Jerusalems conquest is offered to us. It comes in two variations: one in II Samuel 5: 6b, and the other in I Chronicles 11: 49. Both offer aetiologies of Jerusalem as City of David and Fortress of Zion. The capture of Jerusalem in this tale is set during Davids reign as king in Hebron. Jerusalem is neither Amorite nor Canaanite; it is a Jebusite city, as in the story of Judges 19: 1012. Drawing on motifs well-known from 1-bomers sack of Troy, Jerusalems fortifications are presented as so strong that it could not be successfully stormed. What cannot be taken by storm needs to be taken by wit and courage. Joab enters the city by stealth, crawling up the water tunnel whose construction II Kings 20: 20 has described as one of the great deeds of Hezekiah. Ignoring both the storys tradition in epics of war and its anachronism, this most famous of Jerusalem conquest stories has become an essential part of biblical archaeologys view of the past. That three different books of the Bible have at least three different stories about how Israel came to possess Jerusalem is hardly to be wondered at. Jerusalem is a city at the very centre of the tradition, and would naturally attract many such stories.

Thompson, Thomas L., The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, Basic Books, 1999, P. 44.

Silberman and Finkelstein's work is an example of what is wrong with having true believers dominate the field of biblical archaeology.  Even so they have problems with portions of the Old Testament account--jk. 


The Bible Unearthed, Silberman & Finkelstein


 “The biblical stories should thus be regarded as a national mythology with no more historical basis than the Homeric saga of Odysseus’s travels of Virgil’s saga of Aeneas’s founding of Rome (36—Searching for the Patriarchs).


We know that through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE.  And an even more telling detail—the camel caravan carrying “gum, balm, and myrrh.” In the Joseph story—reveals an obvious familiarity with the main products of the lucrative Arabian trade that flourished under the supervision of the Assyrian empire in the eighth-seventh centuries BCE (id. 37).


Then there is the issue of the Philistines.  We hear of them in connection with Isaac’s encounter with “Abimelech, king of the Philistines,” at the city of Gerar (Genesis 26:1).  The Philistines, a group of migrants from the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, had not established their settlements along the coastal plain of Canaan until sometime after 1200 BCE.  Their cities prospered in the eleventh and tenth centuries and continued to dominate the area well into the Assyrian period {quite different than the Biblical account} (id. 37). 


All the clues point to a time of composition many centuries after the time in which the Bible reports the lives of the patriarchs took place.  These and other anachronisms suggest an intensive period of writing the patriarchal narratives in the eighth or seventh centuries (id. 38). 


Putting aside the possibility of divinely inspired miracles, one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt through the heavily guarded border fortifications into the desert and then into Canaan in the time of such a formidable Egyptian presence.  Any group escaping Egypt against the will of the pharaoh would have easily been tracked down not only by an Egyptian army chasing it from the delta but also by the Egyptian soldiers in the forts in northern Sinai and in Canaan (id. 61, Did the Exodus Happen). 


The conclusion—that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible—seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert…. Not even a single shred left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees (id. 63).


Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time whey reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness (id. 64).


As with the Exodus story, archaeology has uncovered a dramatic discrepancy between the Bible and the situation within Canaan at the suggested date of the conquest, between 1230 and 1220 BCE (76, A Different Kind of Canaan).


It is highly unlikely that the Egyptian garrisons throughout the country would have remained on the sidelines as a group of refugees (from Egypt) wreaked havoc throughout the province of Canaan (id. 79).   


Only recently has the consensus finally abandoned the conquest story (id. 83). 


Biblical historians such as Thomas Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen and Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield dubbed “biblical minimalists’ by their detractors, have argued that David and Solomon, the united monarch of Israel, and indeed the entire biblical description of the history of Israel are no more than elaborate, skillful ideological constructs produced by priestly circles in Jerusalem in post-exilic or even Hellenistic times (128, Did David and Solomon Exist?) 



 The Bible Unearthed:  Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman, The Free Press, 2001, NY







Even those sympathetic to the Old Testament, such as the two noted Archaeologiests, Neil Silberman & Israel Finkelstein have drawn conclusions counter to much of what has been assumed to be historical in the Old Testament.  This lends support to the work of Professor Stiebing.  There are grave limitations to Finckelstein and Silberman’s work; nevertheless, I have included some of their work for to show that even those of faith have come to recognize errors in the biblical account when using the evidence of archaeology.  


Unlike biological science which is dominated by people who draw their conclusions upon evidence of the material world, the subject of Biblical Archaeology is dominated by those with a spiritual bias.  Thus for the critics of evolution their position is recognized as religious and on the fringe; however, for Biblical Archaeology it is those without faith who seem on the fringe. 


The issue of reasonable conclusions on archaeology evidence has been so muddled by faith based conclusions, that only an expert in that field without faith would be required to set that record straight.   In particluarly how strong is the evidence for the identification of places named in the bible?  Those of faith assume that the ruins are named in the bible, and then name the mounds using biblical names. 


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