Comments on "The Bible Unearthed"

Abbreviations: Finkelstein and Silberman, FS; The Bible Unearthed, TBU.


Some time ago one of our readers review TBU and it is now time for a closer look at some of its claims. This will only be a "highlight reel"; it is not intended to be comprehensive. We will not address where TBU offers its own alternative explanations to data or where it simply recounts what the Bible records.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2 -- this is on the Exodus; much is answered in what links we give at the top of our page on Exodus. In particular I want to know how much debris, relatively, the nomadic Scythians left behind over hundreds of years, and by that reckoning, how much we would have expected a mere 40 years to have left behind in Arabia.

Chapter 3 -- On this see some of the links we have on our page on Joshua. FS mention none of the work done by Bryant Wood on Jericho; his name is not even in the Index. In fact, they do not even mention the detailed data corresponding with the Middle Bronze Age Jericho site at all, even claiming, contrary to that evidence, that no Canaanite city had walls [81] (though they apparently mean in the Late Bronze Age).

It also doesn't help that FS place the Exodus and Conquest at 1230-1220 BC rather than c. 1440 BC where it belongs.

Chapter 4 -- Begins with a false interpretation of Josh. 21:43-45 as related here) [98] and fails also to differentiate between clearly conquered and unconquered territory in the land grant [99].

Otherwise the chapter mostly develops, based on the assumption of having disproved the account as it stands, the idea that Israel devolved from an indigenous Canaanite population, and tries to interpret the evidence (displaced, as noted re Jericho) to come up with an answer.

It is interesting to note the chart [114] that records that in the Middle Bronze Age -- where we think they need to be looking -- there is a wave of settlement, with "220 sites recorded".

It is starting here that much of what follows is FS' reinterpretations of evidence; hence we will have less to address.

Chapter 5 -- This follows the same line as the previous chapter, into Davidic and Solomonic times. It is worthy of note that TBU does not endorse the minimalist position that David and Solomon were mythological figures. As above we would note that in Rohl's revised chronology, the evidence is said to be a precise match, so much so that David and Saul may be found in the Amarna tablets and the political situation matches exactly what it would be in the time of Akhenaten.

FS do not see this match, so their presentation is simply a repetition of how the evidence does not fit the record -- which is obviously going to be true, if they are looking in the wrong place (which they may still be even if Rohl is wrong).

Chapter 6 -- TBU presents the thesis that Israel and Judah were never a politically unified nation. This seems rather a peculiar assertion in light of the Merneptah stele which names "Israel" as an enemy but not Judah. How would they explain this? Did Merneptah skip Judah?

One of TBU's first stated reasons for their thesis is that the north and south kingdoms had different topography and different settlement patterns [153]. How this in any sense proves political differentiation is not explained; it would make havoc with divisions among the American states, or with America and Canada. TBU's explanations about social and topographical differences goes just as far in explaining why the united kingdom so rapidly devolved into two, just as Kings reports.

One may think of Paine's famous argument that an island nation could hardly rule a continent. By the same token, it isn't hard to imagine northern Jews wondering what in the world they were doing letting themselves be ruled by (as they saw it) a bunch of rurals.

Much of the chapter beyond this puts a secular spin on the Biblical history, noting that the northern kingdom was prosperous while the southern kingdom was not, and explaining the demise of the north in political terms (i.e., it provoked the incursion of Assyria by greed) versus theological. It may not occur to FS that the northern kingdom's materialism and abandonment of Yahweh provided a self-fulfilling "prophecy" that was BOTH theological and historical. Other than this we would note that the usual connection is made between Shishak and Sheshonq that we discuss here.

Chapter 7 -- This chapter consists in the main of paeans of praise for the northern kingdom and much of it is non-controversial, discussing Israel's various social and architectural achievements. Other than noting that the texts ignore all of this in favor of the dark side of the northern kingdom, FS charge the Biblical narrative with being "thoroughly filled with inconsistencies and anachronisms" [175] but name only two that they do not even explain (no monarchy in Edom; the wrong time for Ben-Hadad's invasion).

Chapter 8 -- Other than offering naturalistic views of the northern kingdom's material success -- apparently FS think that blessings and compassion can only be expressed by God by supernatural means -- FS offer little here, other than giving population estimates lower than the Bible's by about 75%, with no explanation as to why. Years from now I wonder whether a future FS team will express doubts about India or China having 1 billion +/- people each.

They also suggest that maybe prophets from the northern kingdom that the Bible calls "false" would have had something different to say [223], which while undoubtedly true, without solid evidence is about as meaningful as suggesting that perhaps if we heard Mao's side of the story, we'd understand why he murdered millions.

The majority of the chapter consists of more praise for the northern kingdom's material accomplishments, while at least admitting that these accomplishments led to the sort of injustices noted by Amos and Hosea, and an account of the Assyrian destruction of Israel.

Chapter 9 -- FS write here, "Despite Judah's prominence in the Bible...there is no archaeological indication until the eighth century BCE that this small and rather isolated highland area...possessed any particular importance."

Importance, in what way? In ways contradicted by the text? Is the "prominence" in the text related to what they call "importance"? It isn't said, and thus this is like saying, "Despite how often Joe mentioned himself in his biography, there is no indication on his block that he was anyone particularly important." Where in the Bible is Judah claimed to be, politically speaking, anything but a small and isolated kingdom?

Beyond that FS suppose to set the archaeological record against the text's "late religious ideal" of fidelity to YHWH. Given the number of times good kings of Judah had to remove or smash high places, we have to ask whether FS are not over-reading the claimed "fidelity" in the text. FS argue that the intertwining of reigns and accession dates of kings of Israel in Judah in the books of Kings is somehow a way of Kings saying that the kings of Judah were "equals of their northern counterparts in power of administrative ability..." [235]

That kind of reading between the lines is simply unwarranted from the Biblical text. By the same means they overread the works of Solomon as supposed evidence taken for widespread literacy: The wisdom and literacy of one man is argued for the wisdom and literacy of hundreds of thousands of others?

Readers with interest may wish to compare FS' account of the Amarna letters [238ff] with Rohl's thesis that these letters mention Saul, David, and Jesse as tribal chieftains. FS even admit that there is an "uncanny similarity" between "ragtag Apiru bands" that harried a local Palestinian king and David's own "mighty men".

FS also offer the note that the existence of high places, etc. was not "as the books of Kings imply" an apostasy from a purer, earlier faith, but part of the "timeless tradition of the hill country settlers of Judah" who worshipped Yahweh with other deities.

Where does Kings "imply" any such thing? The texts say that syncretism was rapid and widespread -- with that "timeless tradition" having origins right at the foot of Mt. Sinai and the golden bull.

Chapter 10 -- Once again, even as they criticize the text for "black and white" thinking [252], FS themselves fallaciously think in the same colors as they argue that political realities negate the theological reports of the text. The focus is on the reign of Hezekiah, and while putting policy at the forefront, and objecting to what they perceive to be troubling silences about political issues, FS here say nothing that actually indicates outright error in the text.

They do contrast the report of miraculous deliverance from Sennacherib with the Assyrian record (which says only that Hezekiah was "shut up like a bird") but do not comment on it, nor on Herodotus' partial confirmation of the miraculous deliverance.

As before, FS attack an overstated interpretation of the text, not the text itself. Beyond that the chapter offers praise for Manasseh's political achievements while depicting his opponents as frustrated religionists.

Chapters 11 and 12 -- as TBU progresses, controversial statements become fewer, as correspondingly, FS find less disagreement between the Biblical record and archaeology, though they do continue to press the dichotomy between theology and history.

By this chapter we have little for comment; it does offer the standard line on Deuteronomy as a late document, saying that it matches well with 7th-century BC Assyrian treaties [276], but you don't hear about detailed work showing that it matches 14th-century BC treaties even better (see here). As throughout FS seem to assume that no informed opposition exists.

We will close this review with an observation from William Dever, a more moderate critic/archaeologist, who notes in his What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? [42-3] that although he does not go to the same extreme, Finkelstein's work has been abused by biblical minimalists who regard the Biblical record as almost entirely fictional. Dever also notes that Finkelstein's conclusion about Israelite chronology is "idiosyncratic" and "scarcely accepted by any other archaeologist." Of particular note is the specific disagreement with the mainstream Finkelstein has on the cities of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer (discussed in TBU Appendix B).

As a whole, TBU is not the threat it's title portends. It is merely a case of FS presenting a point of view unilaterally as if no informed opposition exists, and based on these conclusions, erecting a psychological edifice to explain the Biblical text. It sounds fine in theory -- especially when the dead are not around to defend themselves.

-JPH