The Possibility of a Scandal:
The Relationship between Religion and Israeli Archaeology
Everyone who digs in Israel, digs for a reason. Some reasons, however, are not as well received as others. My reason for digging at Megiddo and now Gezer – I am afraid — requires a short apology (that is, a short defense).
I work at the excavation of Iron Age Gezer (remember, the Iron Age is a time period from 1200 BC to 586 BC) in order to understand Iron Age Israel. And, the reason for understanding Israel is to improve my reading of the Hebrew literature. And the reason for that is to understand the nation and background that set the stage for the first century arrival of the Jew who turned the ages — Jesus. My rationale for digging is a chain of reasons. And each link in the chain requires much of me. I do not rush through any of them, but spend years to become even a little conversant in one. Digging at Gezer is a large investment in time and money, but the cost is related to that final link: the Jew who turned the ages.
The need for my apology arises because of my confessed faith, especially given the number of religious faithful who have marched into the field with fixed notions about what scripture allows us to find or not find. Too many have hoisted naive and private interpretations onto archaeological sites, and subjugated scientific methods to subjective passions. The solution is not a wall to separate history and religion, but to discover history without imposing a religious revision. Gezer has its own tale to tell, and in the end, we conform to the facts of the dirt, not the other way around.
Beyond this, however, there is a deeper relationship between Jesus and my participation in archaeology. For me, the corollary to being motivated by a passion for Christ is this: If I did not have a care about him, I would have no reason to dig. The story told from archaeology becomes an interpretive grid in a bigger venture. Without that bigger venture, I personally would not dig, nor would I care much about Iron Age history. Whatever history is, it is what it is outside of me and I must be tutored by it because – in the case of Israel – it is more than history, it is a link in the chain.
What I want from archaeology is history; I want a context in which to find the meaning of the ancient Hebrew bible. Meaning, not validity, is the issue. For example, what is one to do with Numbers 31:17-18 and those horrific instructions?
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (RSV)
Moses had the military kill women and babies – “kill every male among the little ones”. Imagine, for a moment, what it would mean to wield the sword in that scenario. Encounter the text by contemplating the knife. It is horrific, what does it mean to do the cutting? I want historical help in interpreting.
The act of bloodshed in Number 31 belongs to a context, and the context belongs to a period of history that seems quite unreachable. Archaeology may be one of the chief means for reaching back and entering into that worldview. If a religious leader arose today and issued the same edicts, not many Jews and Christians would follow him. Yet, we esteem the man who did issue the edicts: Moses. What then are we to make of this account? What does it mean and what tools do we have to help us read it?
Asking about the validity of the event is hardly helpful, for we still need to interpret it, and the interpretation will, in part, come from the ground up (through archaeology). In this case, I would appeal to the work of a certain Dr. Mendenhall and the archaeological insights gained from excavated suzerain-vassal treaties. With that in place, we can begin to fit the tale of Numbers 31 into the overall story going from Genesis to Revelation.
I wonder, what else awaits us in the ground. Will we find something to change our thinking about ancient Israel? As we dig scientifically and listen attentively, what will we hear? Perhaps this season at Gezer, we will hear afresh and discover more of the story.
– SR, Neve Shalome, Israel.