Israel and Its Neighbors Then and Now: Revisionist History and the Quest for History in the Middle East Today

Essay from: Gitin, Seymour, J.Edward Wright, J.P. Dessel, eds. Confronting the Past: Archaeological and Historical essays on Ancient Israel in Honor of William G. Dever. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006.

By Eric M. Meyers
Duke University
Durham, NC, USA
March 2009

William G. Dever has been the most outspoken North American scholar in the maximalist-minimalist debate in the 1990s and in the 21st century. Single-handedly taking on a large group of European and some Israeli scholars, he has eloquently and emotionally defended the possibility and probability of an early Israel, the existence of the United Monarchy, the High Chronology at Gezer, and related groups of material.1 He has done this both in scholarly forums and venues and in more popular magazines, the print media, and on TV.2 While most of his supporters, friends, and colleagues have admired his courage and persistence in meeting the challenge of this historic exchange of views and clash of methodologies, too many of us in academia have sat quietly on the sidelines or have participated in the “great debate” only in a very limited way.3

One of the major by-products of this debate over the chronology of Israelite origins and the main features of ancient Israel’s primary socio-political institutions has been the appropriation of key aspects of the debate by the major players in the modern Middle East, the Palestinians and various Israeli groups, of which the settler movement and “new” revisionist historians are the most conspicuous.4 Their purpose in this is transparent. On the one hand, the Palestinians would have us believe that their origins in the “land” go back to the time when Canaanites dominated the area, contending that the Israeli heritage in the “land” is far more recent, as the minimalists have claimed.5 The settler movement, on the other hand, clings to the most maximalist position espoused also by fundamentalist Christian groups, namely, that the “Land of Israel” was promised to Abraham and enlarged by David and Solomon, and hence they have a “divine right” to Judea and Samaria, that is, the West Bank.6 In other words, one major result of the maximalist-minimalist debate has been the subsequent quest for legitimation of history in the contemporary Middle East through the appropriation of current scholarly opinions for specific political purposes.

In exploring this aspect of the debate on Israel’s origins, I hope to provide some new insight into the discussion. I will do this in several ways. First, I will offer my general support of Dever’s maximalist position, although I will also offer some alternative ways of understanding some of the material. Second, I will clarify the Palestinians’ claim to indigenous, early origins in the “Land of Canaan” in a way that offers hope for all parties in the region. I believe that in pursuing truthful historical reconstruction, a strong case for pluralism can be made for then and for now.

I will focus only on the discussion as it has impacted the debate over the chronology of ancient Israel in relation to its historic neighbors: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, all of which descend directly from their ancient predecessors. The ancestors of the Palestinians are more difficult to identify, but I will do so in the course of this presentation. It is in the context of the current crisis in Israel and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority (PA)—called “Intifada II”—that this debate has continued to rage, although its genesis goes back to the end of the 1980s, during “Intifada I.”7 Today, some Palestinians talk about Israelis as having no “historical” claim to the land of the Bible, let alone to the “Temple Mount,” which is to this very day administered by the Muslim religious authority, the Waqf. It may seem hard to believe that after all the archaeological research and the books and articles that have appeared, let alone the peace talks and discussions that have transpired all these many years, some Palestinians will still say this in public. By the same token, when some Israelis speak about the Palestinians as having no claim to the West Bank or Jerusalem, maintaining that they belong in Transjordan, where are these Israelis coming from and what historical sources are they reading? Is there any basis in fact for legitimizing either group living in Israel and the West Bank today? This essay offers an alternative academic perspective on a debate that has divided scholars and laypersons alike, in the hopes that a more reasoned approach might bring about a greater degree of understanding on the part of both sides to the issue.

When I was in graduate school at Harvard years ago, we studied the patriarchs who were said to have originated in Ur of the Chaldees, come down from Syria to Canaan and Egypt, and ultimately returned to Palestine, to Canaan. We were taught that this happened ca. 2000 BCE, during the “Age of the Patriarchs” or MB I period—although some placed it a tad later, in the MB IIA. The giants of the day who wrote and taught this were Nelson Glueck, W. F. Albright, Roland de Vaux, Ephraim Speiser, Benjamin Mazar, John Bright, and my mentor, G. Ernest Wright.8 In referring to biblical history, de Vaux wrote (1978: xv):

The history that they [the biblical authors] present is a religious history, in the course of which the people were again and again brought face to face with their God. A really impartial historian, working within the limits imposed by his special study, must avoid taking sides for or against faith. But, because that faith is an essential aspect of the history that he is studying, he must be at pains not to transform the religious history of the people of Israel into a purely profane history.

In those days, not only were the patriarchs set in real time, but the focus of much of our graduate work was to study the languages and cultures of Israel’s neighbors in the second millennium in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The great discovery of the 1960s and 1970s that left biblical studies practically breathless was Ebla (Tel Mardikh). At the American Schools of Oriental Research/Society for Biblical Literature annual meetings in St. Louis in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was running for president, the presentation on Ebla outdrew the live debate between the presidential candidates conducted in the plaza outside the hotel where our meetings were taking place. There was the coincidence of the three kings in the story of Genesis 14 also appearing in the Ebla materials, and the occurrence of the names Abraham and David in a Northwest Semitic dialect akin to Hebrew but distinct from it, now called Eblaite. For many devotees of biblical archaeology the discovery of Ebla and its huge cuneiform archive was the clincher in proving the traditional High Chronology that so many of us had been studying a few years before. For the Syrians, in whose modern country it was discovered, this was the beginning of their new history, which they soon featured in a traveling exhibition to the USA and Canada; this new history eschewed any connection whatsoever to the history of early Israel and to biblical culture.

David Noel Freedman, editor of Biblical Archaeologist at the time, became the most outspoken defender of the historicity of the patriarchs, and in his view, the Ebla tablets were definitive (1978: 144–45):

I am here to inform you that recent archaeological discoveries [at Ebla] have proved to be directly pertinent to the question of the historicity of the patriarch traditions, as they are preserved in the Genesis narratives. Generally they confirm or at least support the basic position maintained by Albright and Speiser, while effectively undercutting the prevailing skepticism and sophistry of the larger contingent representative of continental and American scholarship…The major thesis to be argued in this address is that the patriarchal traditions are essentially historical in nature, although there is an admixture of the legendary and mythical and furthermore that these cannot always be disentangled.

The point is not to single out Freedman for his wholehearted support of the relevance of Ebla in relation to the patriarchs, but to remind the reader of the enormous shift that has occurred in biblical studies in the past generation. And the Ebla supporters did not disappear either; this was only 1978! Regardless of what sort of view one had of Israel’s earliest history, in this scheme, the patriarchs still had a role to play and its setting was fixed irreversibly in the early second millennium, and also presupposed was the historicity of the period of sojourn in Egypt.9

New Theories about the Settlement of the “Land of Canaan”

As new archaeological evidence from surveys began to emerge, so too did new interpretations. The most compelling of these one having to do with Israelite origins is that there was a largely peaceful migration and settlement, with only a battle here and there with the indigenous Canaanites who ruled in city-states. The genesis of the peaceful infiltration theory, however, lay with Albrecht Alt, the German biblical scholar, who placed a military defeat of the Canaanites only at the end of this long process of settlement that roughly mirrors the Book of Judges (Dever 2003: 37–53).

An equally strongly-held view was articulated by Albright and his students, namely, that the account in the Book of Joshua was more accurate. This view, supported in Israel by Yigael Yadin, held that the story of a rapid and decisive military victory of the Israelites was reflected in the material Yadin and his team uncovered in the excavations at Hazor (1982). As a result of Yadin’s fierce determination to adhere to his interpretation, an alternative approach to understanding both the archaeological and biblical sources was undertaken by his one-time collaborator and future opponent in virtually every area, Yohanan Aharoni, who adopted a position much more in line with Alt’s. Aharoni’s survey of the Upper Galilee region was interpreted to be supportive of such a view, although in the new revisionist thinking of the late 1980s and 1990s, the pottery from this survey has been deemed not to be indicative of Israelite ethnicity (El-Haj 2001: 302).

I point out this “old” dispute between Yadin and Aharoni, which peaked at around the same time as the Ebla controversy emerged, not so much to show its relevance today, but rather to indicate once again how much the parameters of the discussion in the field have shifted in the course of so few years. I would submit, however, that there are aspects of each of these debates, whether regarding the historicity of the patriarchs or the nature of the Israelite settlement, that are still very much part of mainstream scholarship. To mention one of the most obvious issues: was there a period of sojourn in Egypt and/or an Exodus? Despite the currency of minimalist views, there are still scholars who take the possibility of an Exodus very seriously (e.g., Redmount 1998). How one deals with the archaeological materials or absence thereof is quite another matter; the same is certainly true in regard to the biblical sources as well.

The most important datum that exists in the archaeological record in regard to early Israelite life is the Merneptah Stela, which attests to Israelite ethnicity ca. 1207/9 BCE. It is worth quoting in full (Stager 1998: 124):

The princes are prostrate, saying “shalom” [peace]!

Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.

Now that Libya [Tahenu] has come to ruin, Hatti is pacified.

The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe; Ashkelon has been overcome; Gezer has been captured; Yanoam is made non-existent; Israel is laid waste and his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.

The reference in line 5 of the inscription to the people known as Israel is the first reference in history to such a group. In the stela, Israel is situated within the geographical confines of Canaan and Hurru, as are the city-states/kingdoms of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam. The word “Israel” in the stela is defined as a rural or tribal entity by the determinative for “people.” Israel, therefore, is clearly regarded as being different from the three city-states, since it carries an ethnic connotation. Regardless of where one might locate Israel within Canaan, it is clear that at this time—the very end of the Late Bronze Age—the Israelites already possessed a degree of military might. That the Israelites at this point in history were probably akin to the Canaanites may be inferred from the Merneptah reliefs, where both are depicted with the same hairstyles and clothing. This kinship is a key to understanding the appropriation of either the Israelite or Canaanite legacy by different groups today. At the very least, the Merneptah Stela and reliefs tell us that there were Israelites before the Iron Age and that they were already in Canaan, where they had been severely defeated or hurt by the Egyptians. The miraculous story of escape from Egyptian tyranny is preserved in Exodus 15, in “The Song of the Sea” (or “This Song of Miriam”), one of the earliest poems in the Hebrew Bible; the oldest poem celebrating Israel’s first victory over the Canaanites is in Judges 5, in “The Song of Deborah” (Stager 1998: 124–25). It is noteworthy that both these ancient poems are associated with women. The Merneptah Stela and reliefs, plus the oldest poems in the Hebrew Bible, in my opinion, offer unassailable evidence of the existence of some form of “early Israel.” What one does with such data, however, is quite another matter.

As of this writing, the excavations at Hazor are still continuing—some would say in search of the cuneiform archives thought to be there; others would say to find proof that the site had been destroyed by the Israelites in the 13th/12th century BCE, at precisely the time, Yadin believed, that the Israelite settlement and conquest had occurred. One of the excavators working at the site, however, has recently demurred from Yadin’s views by stating that the Israelite occupation in the Iron I period is too late in the 11th century to be historically related to the biblical narrative that describes Hazor’s destruction at the hands of the Israelites (Josh 11:6–15, 12:19; Judg 4:2–24, 5) (Ben-Ami 2001: 148–70). Whether Hazor was destroyed by Joshua himself or under the leadership of Deborah, the battle of Hazor has always been one of the major building blocks of the so-called “maximalists.”

It is not really fair to burden Yadin’s name with all the excess freight that goes with the term “maximalist,” but it is certainly fair to examine some of his assumptions in attempting to understand his approach better. Dever (2003: 44) quotes Yadin on the issue (1982: 23):


Archaeology broadly confirms that at the end of the Late Bronze Age (13th century B.C.E.), semi-nomadic Israelites destroyed a number of Canaanite cities. Then gradually and slowly, they built their own sedentary settlements on the ruins, and occupied the remainder of the country.

But surely more than scientific archaeology lay behind Yadin’s insistent pursuit of the legitimacy of the Hazor paradigm. The idea that the Israelites rose up against local Canaanite war-lords who were abusing the peasantry was no doubt very popular in the then relatively recently established State of Israel, the founders of which saw a parallel between their War of Independence and the War of Conquest and Liberation that had been waged some 32 centuries before.

Despite the tug and pull of those who would eliminate the reality of early Israel altogether, there is a consensus today about the historical basis of the pre-Monarchic period that numerous scholars like Dever have embraced. I would state this view as follows: the Book of Joshua is wrong in describing the Israelite settlement as a series of invasions and conquests, whereas the Book of Judges, which shows a slow, steady series of incursions with intermittent battles and fights here and there, is more in keeping with the archaeological data. The Book of Joshua is written to glorify an early hero of Israel and therefore credits him (Joshua) with a series of stunning victories. Judg 1:1, which recounts Joshua’s death, goes on to weave a 200-year story of charismatic leaders who deal with the threat Joshua is said to have destroyed. The chaos of this era is echoed in the refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 21:25). In short, many of us believe that an early Israel existed in the pre-Monarchic period. The ethnic makeup of this small group consisted of some local Northwest Semites, possibly Hapiru or Amorites, who had settled in Egypt and were expelled sometime at the end of the LB II/13th century BCE, and entered Canaan, bringing with them memories of those experiences as they joined up with other disenfranchised locals (Canaanites). We recognize this group in numerous Egyptian wall paintings, the most famous being from Beni Hasan (Pritchard 1958: ill. 2). The archaeological evidence for such a view lies in the following data:

(1) The archaeological attestation of the existence of highland settlements between 1200–1000 BCE, all told some 200–300 new villages, situated on rocky waterless hills. The inhabitants of these villages, affiliated in what we may designate as a complex chiefdom “with leadership usually ascribed on the basis of family in a kin-based society” (C. Meyers 2002: 38), learned terracing so that they would have arable land for orchards and some field crops; the new settlers dug enormous cisterns in limestone, lining them with plaster, in order to collect water in winter.

(2) The very nature of settlements: they were generally very small, some 2.5 acres (1 hectare) in size (around two soccer fields), the largest among them 5 acres (2 hectares), with a population numbering 50–150 individuals. Economic equality is reflected in their domestic housing and their lack of public buildings for specialized purposes; the absence of defense systems of walls also illustrates their heterarchical nature (C. Meyers 2002: 42).

(3) Exodus 21–23, which does not presuppose a king, but rather a nasi’ or chieftain, may be the product of this era. The Book of the Covenant, as it is called, contains customary laws of a village people concerned with protecting individuals and their livelihood.

(4) Finally, there is evidence of the Merneptah Stela (dated 1207 BCE), described above (C. Meyers 1999: 50–63; Dever 2003: 75–128).

Such a reconstruction of pre-Monarchic Israel may not appeal to the revisionist historians, who do not in effect recognize any “real” history before the 8th century BCE or even later, but it does have sufficient merit to allow for some of the major episodes of biblical history to survive, albeit in a much altered form.10 There is also reason to believe that some Northwest Semites could have gone down to Egypt and then left during the tumultuous 13th century BCE, salvaging a kind of “exodus” (with a small “e”) and joining hands with other disenfranchised groups in Canaan, lending their narrative of escape to the newly-settled villagers who occupied the central highlands. In any event, the case that Dever, C. Meyers, and others have made, while it may be lacking in some respects, has the singular merit of making sense of both the archaeology and the general framework of the biblical narrative.

Early Israel and Biblical Criticism

The recent attacks by some scholars on the earlier reconstructions of biblical history and in particular on their concomitant High Chronologies, called “revisionists” by Dever (2003: 137–42), should not be viewed separately from the debates regarding the documentary hypothesis that emerged in the 19th century, which identified four distinct strands in the Bible, JEDP. According to this hypothesis, most clearly enunciated by Wellhausen (e.g., 1965), the J strand (or Yahwist writer) was the earliest in date and the P strand (or priestly writer), the latest. Wellhausen contended that P was post-exilic and represented the narrowing of Israel’s interests, which, he argued, centered around the Temple, purity, and maintaining strong ethnic ties. Even D, identified with the Book of Deuteronomy, represented a narrow approach to religion based on blessing and curse. Second Temple Judaism, in contrast to the high point of First Temple prophecy, was in decline, to be eclipsed by early Christianity in the early Common Era. When the revisionists date the main components of the Hebrew Bible to the Persian or Hellenistic period, then, they are saying more than that the Bible is a fictional work or that it was written to establish an appropriate pedigree for a people just released from exile (586–538 BCE).

Ironically, one of the new voices associated with the revisionist debate is an Israeli—Israel Finkelstein—who, together with Neil Silberman, wrote The Bible Unearthed (2000), describing the biblical saga of Israel not as a miraculous revelation, but as “a brilliant product of the imagination” compiled after the Babylonian Exile in 538 BCE by the Jerusalem priesthood. In many ways, this approach is but a variation on the early Wellhausian view of P. Finkelstein’s more recent pronouncements place him more in the “middle” of the debate. Another book, written by Thomas Thompson, is entitled The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999); or try the title of the above-mentioned book by Keith Whitelam: The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996). The inference to be drawn is this: not only have American scholars conspired to reconstruct an imaginary “ancient Israel,” but they and some Israeli scholars have conspired to deprive the Palestinians of their history. Whitelam goes on to point out how the Israeli surveys of the West Bank are also expressions of land claims by the contemporary Israeli settlers. Finkelstein, who conducted some of these surveys (see, e.g., 1988; Finkelstein and Magen 1993), in fact has rejected the identification of the ancient settlers as “proto-Israelite” and he himself is secularist, but Whitelam and others maintain that he has played into the hands of the present-day right-wing settler movement. Some scholars have even accused Whitelam and Thompson of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism; I leave it to the reader to judge for him/herself.

So, even though Dever has engaged in much heated and personal invective over the issue of “early” Israel, especially in regard to the matter of “proto-Israelites,” he has not really placed the revisionists’ critique of biblical archaeology and the “Albright school” in particular within the context of earlier views of biblical scholars relating to the literary development of the biblical text. When viewed over against such approaches, it is plain to see that the entire discussion between the so-called maximalists and minimalists is but a variation on an older theme that portrayed Second Temple Judaism as biblical religion in decline. Labeling the Hebrew Bible a fiction makes it possible to dismiss anything. The early dating of Hebrew poetry is trivialized and taken for naught. Biblical historians who take parts of the Deuteronomic history seriously are too conservative. Early Israel, the United Monarchy, and even the beginning of Iron IIA (10th century) are now taken by the revisionists not to exist (e.g., Thompson 1997), even though there is ample evidence showing a marked increase in settlements as opposed to the Iron I, suggesting a kind of centralization of power and resources in Jerusalem by means of which an exchange of goods and services with the new settlements that were not self-sufficient was possible (Ofer 2001).

It is perhaps not surprising that European biblical scholarship has adopted the new revisionist low chronology with enthusiasm. The pre-exilic dating of any portion of P is unthinkable in Europe, although American and Israeli scholars such as L. Levine, J. Milgrom, A. Hurwitz, and R. E. Friedman have long espoused such views in commentaries and articles (see Friedman 1987: 161–72, 241–42, with references). The Ketef Hinnom amulet, which features a large part of the priestly benediction (Num 6:24–26) and is dated to the 7th century BCE (Geva 1993: 715), is surely proof enough that sections of P not only go back to the pre-exilic era, but circulated in a fixed form that is virtually identical to the much later Masoretic text.

If I were to summarize the current status quaestionis on the proto-canon of the Hebrew Bible, i.e., the state of the large blocks of material from the later Hebrew Bible in the biblical period itself, it would go something like this: while many individual pieces or strands of the Pentateuch (or Tetrateuch) may be dated to the pre-exilic era, the Pentateuch reached its first proto-canonical form in the exilic era when it was first edited, and D was joined to the former prophets to constitute the Deuteronomic History. Combined with the Pentateuch, the Primary History was promulgated during the Exile or just after the Return (Freedman 1991: 1–41). In addition, most of the prophetic books had already been edited, and by the middle of the 5th century BCE, the books of both the former and latter prophets had been assembled, along with a good many compositions of Kethubim. So, yes, there was a great deal of literary creativity in the exilic and post-exilic era, but much, if not most, of it involved collecting, editing, and writing down earlier materials. It is unthinkable that a small group of elite men in this era would have invented stories of the likes of Genesis-Exodus or Joshua-Judges, in which women such as Miriam and Deborah would have played such an important role. The early Persian period had only a very small population in the province of Yehud, although that population certainly wanted to recreate itself along the lines of the much earlier Davidic kingdom (C. Meyers and Meyers 1995). The idea of envisioning an earlier, more glorious time and kingdom was by the Persian period deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche and could not have been invented out of whole cloth, as the minimalists claim.

In a great ironic twist, the Philistines who appeared in Canaan ca. 1200 BCE and disappeared ca. 600 BCE (Dothan 1997; Gitin 1997: 311–13)—and who were not Semites and never displaced the Israelites—give their name to the Palestinians. Herodotus met some of these “late” or neo-Philistines along the Phoenician coast from Carmel (Akko) to Gaza, and called them in Greek “Palestinoi.” Herodotus clearly implies that “Palestine” either referred to the coastal area where the Philistines lived or to the part of Syria that he visited, namely, the area along the coast (Feldman 1990: 1–3). The Romans adopted the term after the Bar Kochba Revolt (132–135 CE), when Provinicia Judaea was renamed Syria Palaestina (= southern Syria) (Dever 1997). In the 4th century CE, the area was divided into Palaestina prima, secunda, and tertia. The name Palestine was perpetuated by Byzantine Christians as an alternative to Terra Sancta or the Holy Land. After the Muslim conquest, the name was Arabized as Filastin, defining the area from the West Bank to the Mediterranean, and Urdunn, which included eastern Palestine or Jordan. Throughout the Ottoman and British Mandate periods, the name Palestine persisted, until the partition that created the state of Israel in 1948.

It is obvious to me that the modern Palestinian movement led by Arafat and others does not see itself as descended from the Philistines. Rather, the Palestinians see themselves and the archaeology of Palestine as revealing their own ties and historical connections to the indigenous population of ancient Palestine, namely, the Canaanites, some of whom, in my reconstruction of early Israel and in the view of many others, were Israelites; still others persist in identifying the Canaanites as the Bible portrays them, that is, as the enemy of Israel.

What is the significance of the Palestinians really being descended from the Canaanites? In the early and more conservative reconstruction of history, it might be said that this merely confirms the historic enmity between Israel and its enemies. However, some scholars believe that Israel actually emerged from within the Canaanite community itself (Northwest Semites) and allied itself with Canaanite elements against the city-states and elites of Canaan (C. Meyers 2002). Once they were disenfranchised by these city-states and elites, the Israelites and some disenfranchised Canaanites joined together to challenge the hegemony of the heads of the city-states and forged a new identity in the hill country based on egalitarian principles and a common threat from without.

This is another irony of modern politics: the Palestinians in truth are blood brothers or cousins of the modern-day Israelis—they are all descendants of Abraham and Ishmael, so to speak. So, when Whitelam writes that biblical scholarship is an act of “retrojective imperialism” and has “collaborated in an act of dispossession…has silenced the history of the indigenous people of Palestine in the early Iron Age” (1996: 222), he not only misreads the evidence, but imposes a political agenda onto the field and data that is demonstrably false and inappropriate. It is as inappropriate as the Jewish settlers’ claim to all of the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria. The PA has repeatedly sought to demonstrate that the Israelites had no place in Jerusalem or on the Temple Mount in either both the First and Second Temple period (see Singer 2000: 26–28; Dever 2003: 237–38). The recent renovations on the Temple Mount conducted by the Islamic Religious Authority, especially in the area adjoining and underlying the El-Aqsa Mosque, produced a strong reaction from Israeli archaeologists and the Israel Antiquities Authority, because the dumped debris and fill was not investigated for evidence of an ancient Israelite presence there. The renovations have also contributed to the bulge in the southern wall of the Temple (Shanks 2002: 6).

The effacement of a particular ethnic or nationalist tradition in the Holy Land has unfortunately become part and parcel of the larger struggle for history. In the first part of this essay, we observed how that struggle is being played out in scholarly circles and the many ramifications it has there. Tragically, however, the battle continues on the ground as well, as Israelis and Palestinians seek to legitimize their presence in various places in the Land. This struggle, like the battle over “early” Israel, also has its roots in the 19th century CE, when pilgrims, archaeologists, painters, and adventurers from the West traveled to Palestine and brought back romantic views of biblical cities and places inhabited by “oriental” locals. Virtually all these travelers were Christians and wanted to relive the biblical narrative of both testaments (E. Meyers 1996). The West, in short, was completely Bible-centered in its interests, and this fact has influenced not only the Jewish settlers—the “Greater Israel” advocates—but the new Christian right and evangelical community that have given Israel carte blanche to do what it likes during the unrest or intifada (Ariel 2003: 1–3, 8–10).

Christian dispensationalism, which underlies this movement, assumes that at the end of time, when peace is at hand and the rebuilding of Zion complete, all Jews and Muslims will accept Christ and will become unified in the Second Coming (Davies 1996: 17–18). In a way, then, the struggle for history, origins, and ethnicity for such believers does not matter much, since in the end all inhabitants of the region will become one in Christ.11 For the Zionist settlers at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century, however, establishing their link to the past through archaeology and history was critical. The discovery, for example, of the Beth Alpha synagogue in 1929 led its excavator, E. L. Sukenik, to proclaim in a New York Times interview that “the Jewish race may eventually be traced as a result of epigraphs in mosaics taken from a synagogue which has just been uncovered and which dates from the reign of Emperor Justinian” in the 6th century CE (E. Meyers 2003: 5). Sukenik and his son, Yigael Yadin, thus early on saw in archaeology a discipline and science that would have a powerful role in molding the Jewish state and forging a national identity that would have deep roots in the past.

It was not a difficult step for Sukenik to take to read the Jewish past into the Jewish present on the basis of an ancient synagogue with epigraphs. It was quite another thing, however, for him and the early Zionist leadership to infer Jewish ethnicity or identity where there was none, especially at so-called biblical sites such as Jericho, which today is under the PA, and in effect to efface the past of others who might with equal legitimacy claim the right to have had their roots there as well.

Archaeology, therefore, played a determinative role in creating a sense of national belonging and identity among the early Jewish settlers; but even more, it inscribed a sense of spatial identity on the land its sponsors sought to inhabit. Today, as archaeological theory has become more and more sophisticated, establishing ethnicity through material objects is a very difficult and questionable task, fraught with methodological challenges of all sorts. By assuming that the modern Zionist immigrant was ethnically equivalent to the ancient Israelite or Byzantine-period Jew and also that such groups were and remained entitled to a specific piece of territory, the first wave of Jewish archaeologists revealed their essentialist bias and preference for a nationalist ideology. While Jewish archeologists in Palestine and Israeli archaeologists have been preoccupied for nearly 100 years with trying to establish a direct connection between the past and the present, there was no corresponding attempt in the USA to link the founding of the republic with the Pilgrim Fathers or Christopher Columbus. On the contrary, the founding of the republic may be characterized by a strong feeling of breaking with the past. At the very core of Zionism is the belief, supported by archaeology, that Jews had lived in the land for at least 3,000 years and hence were entitled to it.

The process of acquiring and transforming the past in the post-World War I era was very complex and for obvious reasons did not rely solely on the practice of archaeology. Just as the 19th century explorers, painters, cartographers, and pilgrims had realized their dreams because they were rooted in past glories and a priceless spiritual legacy, so too did the Yishuv, the new Jewish immigrant community, as it embarked on a long-term project of renaming that was to translate the then map of Palestine into the template of biblical Israel. Both the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society and the Va‘adat Shemot (Names Committee) embarked on a systematic re-naming of all Arabic place-names that were seen to have a biblical or historical Jewish precedent. This movement culminated in changing the name of the country from Palestine to Israel with the founding of the state (El-Haj 2001: 45–98). The irony in this project was that most name traditions were already preserved in Arabic because of the long occupancy of Arabic-speaking peoples in the land. Thus, instead of using the Arabic name for the capital of Samaria—Balatah or Nablus—it is understood by the Jews to be biblical Shechem, associated with the patriarchs. Similar is the case of Saffurieh in Lower Galilee, the largest Palestinian town in pre-1948 times, which had a long and illustrious 800-or-so-year history in Arab tradition. As a result of the Duke University excavations conducted there from 1985 to the present, it has now become associated with Sepphoris (Zippori) and Rabbi Judah the Patriarch who edited the Mishnah there, a Jewish city of pre-eminence in the Roman period, or known as a city of pre-eminence in the time of Jesus, because of its closeness to Nazareth. During the 1948 War of Independence, most of the 13,000 Arab residents of Saffurieh fled to Lower Nazareth for safety, where they and their descendants live to this day.

So, it is not only the historians and archaeologists who have set out to reclaim the past in its own peculiar telling as part of the present, but the very founders of Israel who set out systematically to impose their history and ethnicity on the region from the outset. Is it any wonder that the Palestinians have sought to do the same by rejecting Jewish claims to territories in the heart of the West Bank and Gaza? The Palestinians have even gone so far as to remove traces of Jewish ethnicity from a synagogue mosaic in Gaza, a blatant case of de-Judaizing the archaeology of Palestine (E. Meyers 2003: 10–11). Surely both sides of the conflict know very well how archaeology can be used to inflame the present by distorting the past.

The heritage of the Temple Mount, like its association with the Jewish and Christian religions, is a heritage in which the Palestinians and PA want a part. They have learned the power of history from the Israelis and the West and now the PA is hoping to find support for its history in its own excavations in the West Bank and Gaza. In truth, the Palestinians are trying to establish a direct link to the Canaanites, showing that they were in the land before the Israelites, taking the revisionist view of Israelite history. The Palestinians now recognize that Israel, the settler movement, and conservative Christians who support Israel to extend Israel’s borders and broaden its history and historical claims have misused the Bible. In searching for buried history, however, the Palestinians have run into ancient Israel and the struggle for history—whose history is it in the Holy Land?—and such a quest is just as bitter and difficult underground as it is today in the plain light of day. Peace will not be found in contesting history; it will be through learning to live together or side-by-side, as did the Canaanites who escaped from Egypt or from the Canaanite city-states, to ally themselves with their disenfranchised brothers and sisters who had also gone down to Egypt and returned. In a way, both Israelis and Palestinians have a legitimate claim to parts of the land. Whether either side will find in the historical record, written or archaeological, a paradigm for pluralism or justification for accepting the other remains the true challenge for today in the Middle East. Maybe the politicians and statesmen ought to look to the Golden Age in Spain or to the Ottoman Middle Ages, when toleration of Jews, Christians, Muslims and others led to unprecedented eras of accomplishment in art, science, and philosophy. So may it be in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, and throughout the Levant.

Although mutual recognition of the legitimacy of the other by all parties to the conflict may only be a hope for the future, but we can endeavor in our own teaching and research to demonstrate the complexity of the origins of the peoples of the Bible and to show how so much of that early history places today’s enemies side-by-side in a common past. The Israelites did not come in and conquer and expel the local indigenous culture. Rather, their ethnogenesis is deeply rooted in the local and regional history of the people of the land, together with the Canaanites and Northwest Semites of the Levant, or whatever you want to call them. All this occurred at the end of the Bronze Age and into the early Iron Age.

Perhaps some form of heterarchical behavior characterized that early, simple age of living, when there was hardly any notion of monotheism, which took nearly half-a-millennium or more to be articulated. A small group of disenfranchised individuals settled in the hill country and developed over time into a larger social, ethnic entity that was “organized in interlocking and overlapping spheres of activities and exchanges (C. Meyers 2002: 45). What was to become known as the people or religion of Israel came slowly, and over time became more exclusive in its theology and living patterns. Nonetheless, a core of its old heterarchical lifestyle with differentiated roles for men and women can be recognized in the universalistic outlook of the prophets, some of the pentateuchal writers, and many of the wisdom books. In that universalistic vision of the Hebrew Bible, which evolved over many centuries, can be seen the universalistic thrust of the New Testament and Christianity, as well as Islam.

It is to these formative and defining notions that we turn in times of crisis, and on which we urge our brothers and sisters in Israel and the PA to reflect now. This is the essence of our Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, the cornerstone of society. We must not allow these foundational ideas to be perverted in the name of the ideology of nation-state politics that have not respected the rights of others.

Bill Dever has led a large segment of scholarship to reclaim important components of the biblical story. Although the reconstructed narrative in the light of archaeology is complex, it is rich enough for all to share and could, if properly understood, serve to promote dialogue between Arabs and Israelis.


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1 Rather than include Dever’s extensive bibliography on these issues, I refer the reader to his two recent semi-popular books on the subject (2001; 2003). While he has focused primarily on his disagreements with Israel Finkelstein, any examination of Dever’s oeuvre indicates that his engagement with individual scholars and the scholarship of the debate is much broader.

2 Dever’s involvement has extended far beyond the boundaries of books and articles and hardly anyone following this debate has not seen him on TV or interviewed in the press. A major contributor to Dever’s popularity has been Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, who has almost single-handedly made Dever the spokesman for the maximalist position.

3 I myself have addressed this issue occasionally in print (2000; 2003), but have regularly lectured on the topic in various venues. I suspect that many colleagues have also limited their response on this issue to lectures and local press interviews.

4 Dever lists some of the main protagonists in his recent book (2003: 245), but all of these are scholars of ancient history. There is a major ongoing discussion regarding revisionist history in contemporary Israel, a subject I deal with to some extent (2003). In this connection, I strongly commend El-Haj 2001: especially 201–83, who deals with the role of archaeology in creating a national identity in modern Israel. Ben-Yehuda (2002) does likewise in his most recent book on the “Masada myth,” but he also deals with the place of archaeology within the framework of Israel’s new historians (2002: 226–41).

5 Note the subtitle of Whitelam’s book (1996)—“The Silencing of Palestinian History.”

6 Ben-Yehuda (2002: 232), quoting Y. Shavit, lists the following aspects of archaeology that have been placed in the service of Zionism: (1) confirming the essence of the biblical narrative; (2) proving the continuity of Jewish settlement in Israel as well as its size; (3) “to emphasize the attitude of Jewish settlers to the land”; (4) emphasizing the practical side of life in the land; (5) providing the contemporary Jewish presence with a deep “structural-historical” meaning; and (6) “to provide the new Jewish presence with concrete symbols from the past which can be transformed into symbols of historical legitimization and presence.”

7 Intifida II began in September 2000, when the then right-wing Likud opposition leader in the Knesset and current prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by a large entourage of followers and security forces, entered the Muslim holy precinct of the El-Aqsa Mosque (the “Temple Mount”) in the Old City of Jerusalem.

8 Although each of these individuals’ work is outdated, there is much to commend going back to them from time to time. It was unthinkable in those years—the 1950s and 1960s—for American scholars to question the historicity of the patriarchs.

9 Albright’s works are chock full of religious language, which may be observed in From Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process (1957), first published in 1940. In reference to the patriarchs, he writes in the introduction to the 1947 edition (p. 2) that he defends “the substantial historicity of patriarchal tradition, without any appreciable change in my point of view, and insist, just as in 1940–46, on the primacy of oral tradition over written literature.”

10 This summary is based on many of Dever’s articles and C. Meyers’s 1999 and 2000 essays. It is meant to be representative of a relatively recent interpretative strategy for understanding the complex evidence of archaeology and biblical sources. C. Meyers (2002: 42–45), in proposing “complex chiefdom” as a refinement of the terminology for the pre-Monarchic period, offers the notion of heterarchy in part to explain the appearance of more “egalitarian” social dynamics. She notes that “The notion of heterarchy is consistently in opposition to the notion of an overarching hierarchy affecting all domains of human interaction” (2002: 42). In recognizing that “early” Israel was a collection of chiefdoms, C. Meyers accepts that wealth differential and social complexity does not necessarily connote an “inegalitarian society,” but rather one that is more complex and more developed (2002: 45).

11 Davies (1996: 18) writes that to be “in Christ” for Christians is to be in the Land. For holiness of space, Christians have historically substituted holiness of person. Clearly, the new Christian right is being true to their theological roots.

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