Digging up King David in the Israeli mountains
Archaeologists are unearthing a very different account of Jewish history
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.
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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:
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.
Surely the second half of 1 Samuel and early 2 Samuel are very clear that David was at one time no more than a “a small-time Bedouin sheikh” whose actions were in line with the quote from Ruth Margalit.
As some have already stated there seems to be nothing in these archaeological finds which contradict the Biblical record of King David. They simply throw extra light on one period of his life which you can read in 1 Samuel chapters 19-31.
How,therefore,it can be said that these finds can invalidate the traditional narrative of the formation of Israel and undermine the historical basis of Judaism, l fail to understand.
Are we seriously suggesting that there is no historical basis for the Exodus, Wandering in the desert and Conquest? It is true there is hardly any archaeological evidence for these events. But they were dynamic and transitory and the chances of leaving archaeological footprints are negligible. There is some evidence of major disruption to the settled communities of Palestine in the late 13th. Century BC which many scholars think was the time of the Israelite incursions. It is also true that the Biblical records are not totally consistent in some respects, but there are at least 4 principal written sources for these events and it would be very surprising if they provided exactly the same narrative. Even the most radical Old Testament scholars accept that these sources are records of events which would shape the history,theology and religion of Judaism and Christianity and would, through the 10 Commandments, have a profound effect on the world at large.
It makes sense. Arthur was the same, a small time bandit living on the periphery of the collapsed Roman Empire whose actions started a legend that grew and grew. Both David and Arthur had great poet-publicists on their side.
Archaeology – The mask of science that allows complete works of fiction to be generated from ancient pieces of pottery. And thereby overturn a previous fiction (or factual narrative – who knows?).
But one thing is for sure – if David was a bandit living up in the hills, then he was a pretty good poet!
Yes, Mr Finklestein does seem to be reading rather a lot into his ‘evidence’
This article is not inconsistent with 1 Samuel chapter 21 onward – in fact it supprts it.
This’ll upset the self-righteous. It sounds like fascinating research.
Genuine question for Giles Fraser: what do you actually believe? Given you are a Christian vicar it’s not an irrelevant question
You talk about annexation by the Israelis but in fact this area was annexed by the Jordanians in 1948. In fact what is the West Bank was actually reserved for the Jews and subsequently under various agreements agreed by the League of Nations and subsequently the UN
The highland sheep are sweeter
But the lowland sheep are fatter.
Therefore ‘twould be meeter
To carry off the latter.
Many years ago, at an Archaeological Conference, the late Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of England’s foremost archaeologists, was asked “is Archaeology an Arts or a Science based discipline?”. He replied, “neither it’s a vendetta!”
This is precisely what is going on Israel today. One group of Israeli archaeologists believe their work must be ‘biblically’ driven, whilst others, including Israel Finkelstein and his older colleague Ze’ev Herzog believe it should be evidence driven.
Herzog and Finkelstein caused outrage more than twenty years when they published their conclusions, that much of the biblical account for the city of Jerusalem was pure fantasy.
For those who insist that the Bible is ‘Gospel’ this has been a bitter pill to swallow.
The idea that David was a small time, homicidal Bedouin thug, comes are no surprise, and thank you Reverend Fraser for revealing it.
The word vendetta is applicable to too many ‘disciplines’ today. The experts are untrusted because they no longer ask what the data tells us – they ask how can I use the data to advance my opinion/ ideology.
I thought the end of the “long read” was quite persuasive, that there was very sophisticated social structure in the time of David and Solomon but maybe not a lavish stone palace to find – we are often looking for the wrong thing.
The writer seems to resent that descriptions like “environmentally-minded woman pushes for tougher EPA regulations and recycles consistently xxxx and xxxx” might prove to be an improbable choice for men to click on. Heres the thing. That description would also get similarly few clicks from lesbians checking out porn. So it’s much less an issue particular to men or to male-female dynamics of power or sex. And more an issue with the basically illogical, irrational dynamic of human sexuality among both genders.
There’s far more awareness today about the sexual abuse sex workers experience than was the case in prior decades. There’s reason to be hopeful the porn industry is becoming more proactive in protecting vulnerable performers from sexual abuse/sexual assault. We’ll see.
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