Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jericho and the Jews

"Deconstructing the walls of Jericho

This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.

Webmaster's Commentary:

This article did appear in Ha'aretz and can still be found using their archive search system.


One of the great crimes committed against the people of Iraq was the looting of the Baghdad Museum and the destruction of many important ancient sites inside Iraq.

I think that destruction of ancient sites is deliberate policy.

Egypt is literally littered with the ruins of the ancient temples and palaces of her rulers. As much as has been found, it is estimated that only 1/3 of Egypt's archeological wonders have been uncovered. A newly discovered temple was uncovered while digging a sewer line, and a cache of finely preserved mummies was literally stumbled over by a cow in a pasture.

Iraq's ancient heritage was enshrined in its ancient sites and museum. As a result of the war, many of those sites have been damaged or destroyed. Part of the ancient city or Ur now lies underneath a US air base runway. Nebuchadnezzar's palace now lies underneath a US-built parking lot. The treasures of the museum have only partly been recovered. The treasures from the looted archaeological sites have been scattered to the world.

All of this wealth of archaeological treasures must of course annoy Israel. We are raised from birth with Old Testament tales of the greatness of the ancient Israelites, of the powerful kingdoms of Solomon and David and the first temple. Yet Israel, while rich in antiquities, is almost totally devoid of artifacts from this supposedly glorious time in her history. The existence of the fabled First Temple was supported with just two artifacts, a carved staff ornament in the shape of a pomegranate and the Jehoash tablet. Both of these artifacts have been exposed as frauds. We are told that once there was a magnificent temple on that hill, but it "all went away."

The wonders emerging from the soil of Egypt, Iraq, and Iran serve as a constant reminder that ancient buildings of such a scale as we are told the First Temple was simply do not vanish without a trace. There is considerable reason to suspect that the tales told in the Old Testament are just that; tales. The Bible is not science, it is the collected stories of a primitive tribal people telling each other how important they are. And like fishermen talking about the one that got away, or Ramses with his temple carvings of the did-not-really-happen victory over the Hittites at Kadesh, the writers of the ancient testaments assumed that the people they were telling stories to had no way to verify the claims for themselves. So "embellishment" was a low-risk activity.

We do know from the available archaeological evidence that the Exodus probably actually happened to the Hyksos, not the Israelites. We know that the story of Moses is suspect because no Egyptian princess would hide a Hebrew child inside Pharaoh's household, then give the kid a Hebrew name ("Moses" is actually an Egyptian title meaning "Prince" and is included in the names of many Pharaoh's names such as Tut-Moses, Ah-Moses, Ra-Moses (Ramses) etc.)
Likewise, the story of Masada may be less than accurate. The remains found on the mountain were buried with pig bones, something no proper Jewish funeral would tolerate, which suggests that the bodies found and venerated as heroes of ancient Judea were actually those of dead Romans, for whom burial often involved animals as gifts to the spirit of the dead.

But a good story is a good story and the writers of the ancient texts were probably not thinking much further into the future than the guys who pen the "Celebrity dates space alien" stories you see at supermarket checkout lines. The fact that the celebrity is a real person does not prove the space alien exists. It's just a story. Given enough time, even a simple story written in jest can take on a life of its own. Scientology began as a bet between two science fiction writers; look how wide spread that has become in just a short time.

But, over time, entire religions with attendant wealth and power structures have been built on the premise that these old testament stories really happened exactly as written. And today, here in the 21st century world, science has started to catch up with these ancient legends and call many of them into doubt.

So, for a nation that justifies its existence on the writings of the Torah, the plethora of sites and artifacts confirming the ancient histories of Egypt, Iraq, Iran, etc. etc. etc. must seem a dire political threat for a nation whose own ancient history seems to have left little if any traces at all.

In that context, the strange behavior of the US military which posted guards around the Iraq oil ministry while bulldozing Iraq's archaeological sites starts to make sense, if the supporters of a very insecure nation decide that leveling the archaeological playing field is preferable to allowing the obvious disparity in artifacts to remain visible to the world.