JERUSALEM — An Israeli archaeologist is drawing fire for claiming that the biblical history of the Jewish people is probably fiction.
In an article last week in Ha’aretz newspaper, Ze’ev Herzog, a professor at Tel Aviv University argued that the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt probably never happened, the Ten Commandments were not given on Mount Sinai, and Joshua never conquered the land of Israel. Herzog said that if there was a King David, he probably was no more than a tribal chieftain. The same holds for King Solomon, Herzog said.
“The many Egyptian documents known to us do not make any reference to the sojourn of the Children of Israel in Egypt or the events of the Exodus,” Herzog said. “Generations of scholars tried to locate Mount Sinai and the stations of the tribes of Israel in the desert. Despite all this diligent research, not one site was identified that could correspond to the biblical picture.”
Herzog said there is no evidence that Joshua led the children of Israel into the Holy Land or brought down the walls of Jericho.
“Repeated excavations by various expeditions… have only yielded disappointments,” he said. “During the period when the conquest would have taken place, there were no cities there, and of course no walls to bring down.”
To many people in Israel, such claims smack of blasphemy, even though many scientists agree with Herzog.
“What did they expect to find? The bones from Pharaoh’s dreams?” scoffs Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, head of Maale Adumim Yeshiva and a former principal of Jews’ College in London. “The fact of the matter is that details are very scant in the text. Frequently, we don’t even really understand what it says. To say that archaeology can prove or disprove anything is ridiculous.”
Not just religious leaders are angered. Many secular Israelis see the modern Jewish state as a revival of the biblical Hebrew kingdoms. To them, challenging the Bible means challenging the legitimacy of the modern Jewish claim to the land of Israel.
“I adhere to the view that the Bible is our basic starting point,” said Tommy Lapid, leader of the avowedly secularist Shinui Party. “No other people in the world has a book like the Hebrew Bible, so why is Professor Herzog feeding us this nonsense?”
Herzog also has drawn fire from scholars. Adam Zertal, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, has dedicated his life to mapping the biblical episodes in Samaria, including the entry of Joshua into the Holy Land.
“We found almost certain proof that the story of the entry into Israel is very believable,” said Zertal, who has spent eight years excavating a site on Mount Ebol, where the Bible states Joshua set up his first altar to God. “The relevant materials are in the field. We only have to find them.”
“Archaeology does not have the power to disprove the written record,” said Avraham Malamat, a Jewish history expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “If you ask a good archaeologist, he will say that he cannot find out the entire truth.”
Herzog is surprised at the criticism. “I don’t think it is right to guess at motives, based on the results of scientific inquiry,” he said.
“Archaeology has always been used in this society and used to point in one direction,” he said. “Now I’m suggesting that perhaps it should be used to point in another direction.”
Palestinian and European archaeologists accuse their Israeli colleagues of politicizing archaeology to bolster Jewish claims.
Palestinian archaeologist Hamdan Taha has been excavating Tel Es-Sultan, the ancient site of Jericho. “There is no proof of any wall from the assumed time of Joshua’s invasion,” Taha said. “Nothing has been uncovered here in the last 100 years of excavation. … Archaeology must be viewed as a scientific enterprise and no more as an ideological means to prove or disprove modern political claims.”
Many contemporary biblical archaeologists support most of Herzog’s views.
It is a different story, however, for the Israeli public, which idolizes biblical heroes such as King David.
While conceding that the Bible probably glorified David and Solomon, Avraham Biran, head of archaeology at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College, said an inscription he discovered at Tel Dan in northern Israel proves their prominence at the time. The Aramaic inscription, attributed to a king of Damascus, refers to a “House of David” and is believed to date from the ninth century B.C. — 100 years after David.
“If an Aramaean king from the middle of the 9th century knew about the existence of David, why should an archaeologist say that he doesn’t?”
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