June 30, 2020 - 9:00am

An extraordinary long read in The New Yorker digs into the complex and controversial world of Israeli archaeology. A bit niche, you may think. No, not really. For Ruth Margalit compellingly demonstrates that what is at stake in the dusty pits of the Israeli countryside is not only Israel’s own widely cherished narrative about where it came from, but also the empirical truth of the Bible itself.

In Israel, archaeology is the most sensitive and political of activities. After all, the claim made to the land of Israel is partly premised upon the belief that God gave the title deeds to the Jewish people in perpetuity. And as the Netanyahu government prepares to annex large swathes of the West Bank, religious conservatives are anticipating the fulfilment of the Biblical promise.

In the Bible, the great King David and after him his son Solomon, ruled over a great monarchy from the Euphrates to the Negev. It is this period, around 1000 BC, that the whole messianic movement seeks a return to. It prophesies that a leader will come again to return the country to this golden era. This is why the New Testament is so keen to describe Jesus as being directly related to David. The messiah is the “make Israel great again” movement.

But what if the broken pots and pottery unearthed in the desert tell a different story? That is what revisionist archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, based at Tel Aviv University, believes. He says there is evidence for a totally different story. His David is a local bandit, living up in the hills, a vagabond, a racketeer, who makes regular raids on the more settled population of Philistines living nearer the coast:

[David] is a wily, resourceful man from Bethlehem, who decides that his people are meant for more than lightning raids and mercenary stints. He sends his men to rout an advancing force, then shares the loot with the highland elders. This wins over the highlanders, and, in time, they make him chieftain of the southern hill area. He takes over the tribal center of Hebron, and later captures Jerusalem, another hilltop stronghold. The chieftain moves his extended family to the main homes of the Jerusalem village, and settles in one himself—a palace, some might call it, though there is nothing extravagant about it. He rules over a neglected chiefdom of pastoralists and outlaws. 
- Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker

This, Finkelstein maintains, is where the Jewish narrative begins. Forget the story of an exodus from Egypt, there is no record of anything like that. Finkelstein’s tools of the trade are radiocarbon dating and image processing. And with them he has been unearthing a very different account from the one we read about in the Bible. It all begins with David, and David was basically a small-time Bedouin sheikh. As you can imagine, there is a lot invested in whether he is right or wrong.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.