The View from Nebo: How Archaeology Is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East, by Amy Dockser Marcus. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. xix + 248 pages. Notes on Sources to p. 265. Index to p. 284. Reading Group Guide to p. 295. $25.95 cloth.
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. New York: The Free Press, 2001. vii + 318 pages. Appendices to p. 355. Bibliography to p. 372. Index to p. 385. $26.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Keith W. Whitelam
The looting of the museums of Baghdad and the destruction of priceless historical records and artifacts in libraries and museums throughout Iraq is a chilling reminder of the nightmare in George Orwell's 1984 where the party slogan in Oceania was "who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." A nation without a past has no future, or only a future that can be dictated by those imperial or colonial powers that control the present. Biblical studies and archaeology have been engulfed by a "fight for history," to use a term by Lucien Febvre (Combats pour l'histoire [Paris, 1953]), over the control and representation of Palestine's ancient past, which has serious consequences for the present and future. These two volumes attempt to bring to a wider audience some of the personalities and issues in an increasingly belligerent and abusive debate that has escaped the confines of specialist publications and academic conferences.
Amy Marcus, formerly Middle East correspondent in Tel Aviv for the Wall Street Journal, has produced a well-written, accessible account of a technically complex subject, enlivened by interviews with many of the leading personalities. Some of the same ground is covered in the volume by Israel Finkelstein, who as one of the leading Israeli archaeologists plays a significant role in Marcus's narrative, and Neil Silberman, who has produced some of the most insightful works on the politics of biblical and archaeological scholarship. At the heart of both volumes is a description of how radically perceptions have changed in recent years about the history of ancient Israel. Those unfamiliar with these debates will be surprised to find that the very foundations of the study of the history of ancient Israel as it was confidently reconstructed using the Bible have been completely undermined: There is little archaeological evidence for the traditional picture of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, or the monarchies of David and Solomon. These are the very stories that have fueled Western imaginings of Palestine for centuries and which have become so institutionalized that they seemed immune from challenge. These dramatic stories have underpinned the powerful appeal to the "historic right" to possess Palestine which informs the policies of the modern state of Israel and its unthinking support in the West. The vehement response to this challenge to the traditional picture, partially documented by Marcus, shows how deeply the present and thereby the future are tied to the representation of the past.
Finkelstein and Silberman attempt to explain why the biblical picture differs so dramatically from the historical picture now being painted by an increasing number of scholars. Essentially, they claim that "the historical core of the Bible" (p. 221), as they term it, was written during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah in the seventh century B.C.E. These narratives looked back to an ideal golden age, particularly to the time of David and Solomon, as part of the ideological justification for Josiah's religious reforms and political ambitions against the backdrop of an imperial threat to the region from Assyria and later Babylonia. (This is the weakest part of the book as their conjectures on the location of the biblical text at the court of Josiah repeat many of the methodological problems in which earlier scholars claimed that much of the Bible emanated from the scribes at the court of David and Solomon.) In later periods, and particularly for those in exile, a rewritten history helped to foster and maintain a sense of identity. The stories of Abraham, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan provided an important claim to the land for those returning from exile. The authors see this later period of editing of the Bible as repeating many of the key themes of Josiah's edition: "once again they did it by brilliantly reshaping the historical core of the Bible in such a way that it was able to serve as the main source of identity and spiritual anchor for the people of Israel as they faced the many disasters, religious challenges, and political twists of fate that lay ahead" (p. 313). It is ironic, of course, that despite this very common understanding of the development of the Bible, which stresses the right of return of those exiled after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., the right of return for Palestinian refugees exiled from 1948 onward is denied by the government of Israel.
Marcus brings alive how these stories maintain a powerful hold in the present and how the fight for history inflames passions. As in the past, these stories are intricately tied to the development of national identity within modern Israel. She recounts how excavations at Mount Ebal, where the excavator claimed to have found an altar associated with Joshua, became the focus for some on the Israeli Right. Shuki Levin, described as the security head for Jewish settlements in the region, is reported as saying, "This is our past . . . and our past should remain in our hands" (p. 103). The ferocity of the scholarly exchanges has intensified in recent years as the focus of the debate has switched to the period of David and Solomon, precisely because this period is central to the appeal to "historic right" as the Jerusalem 3000 celebrations or the numerous statements by Israeli government spokespersons on the sovereignty of Jerusalem illustrate. With so much at stake, it comes as no surprise to learn that those who have challenged the traditional biblically based picture have suffered attacks on their integrity and claims that their work is anti-Israel, anti-Bible, anti-Zionist, or anti-Semitic. Finkelstein, because of his central role in disseminating the new archaeological data and his courageous scholarship, has come in for particular opprobrium. Marcus, in trying to negotiate the middle ground between what she sees as two extremes, notes that those who have questioned the historicity of the biblical narratives, often derogatively termed "minimalists," have not been given credit for what they have achieved. "The bottom line is," she says, "that when it comes to the big picture, they were often right. Many of their ideas, once considered far-fetched are now solidly mainstream concepts" (p. 120).
The construction of national identity by appeal to the past is not confined, of course, to modern Israel. Marcus shows how archaeology is producing a much more positive picture of the indigenous populations of ancient Ammon, Edom, and Moab, traditionally viewed as enemies of ancient Israel from a biblical perspective. The history of ancient Palestine, as told by biblical scholars and archaeologists, all too often has been a history of ethnic difference and neat chronological divisions corresponding, supposedly, to ethnic, material, and cultural differences. All too often such histories appeal to that which separates, defines, and makes exclusive, thereby informing and underpinning narrowly nationalistic claims in the present. The current reevaluation of the traditional historical picture based on the Bible with which both volumes are concerned makes possible the pursuit of an integrated history of Palestine that celebrates the adaptability of its indigenous populations over time and which is not a tract for the support of exclusivity. It is a history that in challenging colonial representations of the past and its right to possess Palestine, hopefully, in the words of Jacques Le Goff, will "serve the liberation and not the enslavement of human beings" (History and Memory [Columbia University Press, 1992], p. 99).
Keith W. Whitelam, professor of biblical studies and head of department at the University of Sheffield, England, is author of The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (Routledge, 1996) and a number of specialist studies on the history of ancient Palestine.