Herzog's Attack on the Bible Unjustified
Hershel Shanks

(full text as sent to editor; final edit appeared in Ha'aretz Magazine, November 5, 1999)

"The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert," proclaims my archaeologist friend Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University ("It ain't necessarily so," Oct. 29). He thus aligns himself with a small group of scholars widely known as the "Biblical Minimalists," although one of their number, Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield in England, has called this "a sneering epithet." According to the minimalists, the Bible is worthless as a source of history for the periods it describes; the texts were written hundreds and hundreds of years after the events they describe and thus can tell us, at most, about the period when they were composed, but nothing about the events they describe. 

The minimalists are sometimes called the Copenhagen School because several of their most prominent members are affiliated with the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Others are in Scotland, England and the United States. Among Israeli scholars, the minimalists are perceived as including Herzog's distinguished colleague (and another friend) Israel Finkelstein, whom Herzog cites approvingly in his article. While the minimalists have no formal organization and they do differ in details, they share the basic view that the Bible is essentially a fictional account that served other functions for the biblical authors, creating a glorious, but false national history at a much later time. 

That the minimalists are motivated by interests other than pure scholarship is widely acknowledged. Again, they differ somewhat from one another. Almost all, like Herzog and Finkelstein, are serious scholars. But most of them also have a political agenda. Professor Avraham Malamat of Hebrew University publicly described one of them as both "anti-Israel and anti-Bible." At the extreme, they can even be viewed as anti-Semitic. One of their number has written a book entitled, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History. That about says it all. 

In short, just as Herzog accurately tells us that "the archaeology of Palestine ... sprang from religious motives," so the position of the minimalists often takes on a conscious anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian cast. 

In this, it resonates with some of the recent revisionist histories of modern Israel. It also connects with a certain current faddish lack of pride in Israel's history, both modern and ancient, as well as a certain embarrassment at placing any great value, for whatever purposes, in the Bible. In Israel as well as elsewhere in the world, the Bible has somehow become associated with the literalists, the fundamentalists and evangelical Christians, not with sophisticated academic scholars. 

Hence, it is not surprising that Herzog alludes to the Israeli-Arab conflict in an article otherwise about the Bible and archaeology: Although "part of Israeli society is ready to recognize the injustice that was done to the Arab inhabitants of the country," he tell us, it is not ready to recognize that "the archaeological facts ... shatter the biblical myth." 

On the merits, Herzog's argument is simplistic and flawed. But it is also very clever and, as one might expect from such a distinguished archaeologist, based on an intimate knowledge of the facts on the ground. But the arguments are much more subtle than Herzog's quick-and-easy analysis recognizes. 

A human composition

All modern critical scholars recognize that the Bible is a human composition (although this does not exclude the possibility that it is also inspired). Its purpose is primarily theological, not historical. (History cannot deal with miracles, for example.) And it is tendentious; it exaggerates to make a point. It often speaks metaphorically when it appears to a modern mind to be speaking factually. And, of course, given the fact that it is a human document, it can also be inaccurate. 

But it also preserves its own dissent. We often get two (or more) sides of a story or event. Even its greatest heroes, whose history it is supposed to serve, are human and therefore flawed. 

It is in this context that we must ask whether there is any history to be found in it. The view that simply says No is unwilling to do the hard work that the task requires—or, for other reasons, prefers to deny the possibility that there is history embedded in the text. 

Take, for example, the Exodus. We don't need Professor Herzog to tell us that 2 million Israelites did not cross the Sinai on their way out of Egypt, despite the biblical implication as to this number (Exodus 12:37). And neither an archaeologist nor a historian can speak to the question as to whether God parted the Red Sea. It is also true that, as Professor Herzog tells us, no Egyptian document mentions the Israelites' presence in Egypt, nor the events of the Exodus. That is really all he says to support his grandiose lead: "The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert." Given this lead, I am surprised that he did not add the usual canard that there is no archaeological evidence of the Israelites' wandering in the desert. 

Instead, Herzog begins to contradict himself. He admits that "many [Egyptian] documents do mention the custom of nomadic shepherds to enter Egypt during periods of drought and hunger and to camp at the edges of the Nile Delta." This suggests that it is at least plausible that the Israelites (or the Israelites in formation) were among these groups. And Herzog fails to mention that the Egyptians tell us that these shepherds (and others) came from Asia and that they settled in precisely the area where the Bible tells us the Israelites settled.

Herzog counters, however, that "this was not a solitary phenomenon: such events occurred frequently across thousands of years and were hardly exceptional." Does this prove that the Israelites were not one of these groups? Hardly. Herzog's point is perhaps that the story could have been invented years later. Of course that it is possible. But the reverse is equally possible. He has surely not proved that Israel was not there. Yet that is all he says to prove his major point. 

In fact, much more could be said that indicates the plausibility of an Israelite sojourn in Egypt. An Austrian archaeologist has identified a so-called four-room house usually identified with Israelites that he discovered in Goshen, the part of the Nile Delta where the Israelites settled. A prominent English Egyptologist has noted that the price for which Joseph was sold into slavery was the price at the time of the supposed event, rather than the much higher price that prevailed when the story was composed. All scholars agree that in the mid-second millennium B.C. Egypt was ruled by some Asiatic interlopers known as the Hyksos. All this—and much more—plausibly suggests a real, historical prehistory of the Israelites in Egypt. 

Slaves, not kings

When people invent histories for themselves, their ancestors are secret kings or princes or descendants of gods. Who would invent a history of their people as slaves, if there were not some truth in it? 

If you read Herzog carefully, he grudgingly admits that there probably was an Egyptian sojourn and an Exodus: "At best, the stay in Egypt and the exodus occurred in a few families," he concedes. That poses a different question. Now we are really talking about how big the group was, not whether there was such a group. Perhaps it was only a few hundred, or a few thousand. But that is a far cry from trumpeting as fact that "the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert." 

Herzog admits that during the period identified with the Israelite settlement (Iron Age I, 1200-1000 B.C.), "hundreds of small settlements were established in the area of the central hill region of the Land of Israel." He cannot bring himself to call people who lived in these settlements the emerging Israelites, although that is precisely the area where, according to the Bible, the Israelites settled. Citing his colleague Israel Finkelstein, Herzog identifies these settlers as Canaanite shepherds settling down. The implication is that Israel emerged out of Canaanite society. 

But if you read the Bible carefully, this suggestion is not at all surprising: Ancient Israel emerged out of many groups. Some tribes, like Asher and Dan, were associated with ships (Judges 5:17). The polyglot nature of early Israel is reflected in Ezekiel's proclamation: "By origin and birth you are from the land of the Canaanites—your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite" (Ezekiel 16:3). The Shechemites were circumcised to become part of Israel (Genesis 34). In short, the Bible is a lot more subtle than Herzog gives it credit for. The fact that many groups accreted and became part of Israel does not detract from the fact that some, whose story became the national story, came from Egypt where they had been enslaved. 

Certainty eludes us when we are talking about the history of ancient Israel. We must talk about possibilities, likelihoods, plausibility and, at most, probability. I have not proved that there was an Egyptian sojourn and exodus. But neither has Herzog disproved it. And I believe my case is better than his, that is, that an element of ancient Israel came out of Egypt. For all that, however, we must learn to live with uncertainty. When we trumpet the negative, we only play into the hands of the worst elements among the biblical minimalists. 

The same kind of analysis that applies to the Egyptian sojourn and the Exodus is applicable to the other instances cited by Herzog. 

Take the Patriarchal Narratives. It is true that an earlier generation of scholars thought they had identified the patriarchal age—and they were wrong. From this, the minimalists conclude that there was no patriarchal age and that there is no historical truth behind the narratives. That the earlier effort to identify the patriarchal age failed does not mean that there was no patriarchal age. Archaeology has not disproved the existence of a patriarchal age. It has simply failed to identify one. 

Nor has archaeology proved that the patriarchs never lived. Doubtless, the stories contain legendary material (we come to this conclusion not on the basis of archaeology but on the basis of the stories themselves), but they may well reflect an accurate historical context. As is often stated, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This aphorism is not always applicable, but it is applicable here. 

Well, yes and no

It is said that archaeology disproves the Israelite conquest of Canaan—or, in Herzog's words, "The archaeological findings blatantly contradict the biblical picture." Well, yes and no. Again, the question is more subtle than Herzog would allow. There are problems. But Herzog ignores the fact that the Bible itself recognizes this. We get two somewhat differing pictures in the books of Joshua and Judges. If we are looking for history, we must take into account not only the successful lightning attacks described in Joshua, but also the more gradual and incomplete settlement described in Judges. That the excavations of Jericho and Ai indicate there were no cities here at the time Joshua was supposed to have conquered them must be balanced against the fact that, according to Hebrew University archaeologist Amnon Ben-Tor, Hazor was indeed most likely destroyed and burned by the incoming Israelites, just as the Bible says (Joshua 11:1-11). 

Moreover, there was a destruction of Jericho that comports in extraordinary detail with the description of the Israelite conquest of the city, down to the time of year and the fallen walls. But it occurred before the supposed date of the Israelite appearance on the scene. Did the Israelites somehow later take credit for this earlier destruction of Jericho? That's quite possible. But the situation is considerably more complicated than Herzog allows. It begins to seem that he has another agenda—simply to destroy the credibility of the Bible, as is so fashionable among academic sophisticates these days. 

The minimalists' most recent attack is on the United Kingdom. Some minimalists deny the very existence of a kingdom of David and Solomon. Some even deny that there were such figures as David and Solomon. Herzog apparently thinks they may be right: "The united monarchy of David and Solomon ... was at most a small tribal kingdom", he says. If that is what it was at most, what was it at least? Some of the minimalists have gone so far as to charge that the recently discovered reference to the House (Dynasty) of David in a monumental stele excavated by Avraham Biran at Tel Dan is a forgery! Herzog does not go so far. He refers to the find only glancingly and does not discuss its relevance to a recognition of the power of the Davidic dynasty; it is mentioned in a monumental inscription of a non-Israelite ruler barely a century or so after David lived. 

That the kingdom of David and Solomon was not as glorious or as extensive as the Bible indicates is certainly arguable and even probable. Perhaps Israelite hegemony was measured in different terms in those days—in terms of influence rather than absolute power. But again these are questions of "more or less than." To question the very existence of the United Monarchy because the Bible does not preserve its separate name, as Herzog does, bespeaks of denigration rather than a reasoned search for truth amid great uncertainty. 

Similar tendentiousness infects Herzog's discussion of Israelite monotheism. He points to two extremely interesting finds that indicate that Yahweh, the Israelite God, had a consort. From this he concludes that ancient Israel had more than one god until a very late date. On the contrary, in many respects these finds confirm the picture we get from the Bible: Yahweh had a hard time of it; Israel was a nation of backsliders; this is what the prophets are all about. Herzog does not mention in support of his argument, as he could have, that thousands of clay figurines that apparently reflect polytheistic commitments have been excavated, even (and especially) in Jerusalem. Do these finds demonstrate that all Israel was polytheistic? Do these finds disprove the biblical assertion that elements in Israel soon developed a concept of a single God who created and ruled the world? Again, the archaeological evidence does not go so far as Herzog would have us think. Not all ancient Israelites were monotheistic, but neither were they all polytheistic. A far more measured response to the evidence is called for than Herzog provides. 

A few final comments about archaeological evidence: It is minute compared to what we don't know and is subject to change tomorrow. True, some archaeological facts are closer to certainty than others. But it is not always easy to identify one from the other. Take Jerusalem as an example. Herzog correctly points out that very little has been found from the period of the supposed United Monarchy. Admittedly this is a problem, especially because Jerusalem is easily the most excavated city in the world. The so-called City of David, south of the Temple Mount, has been a particular focus of such modern archaeological giants as Dame Kathleen Kenyon and the late Yigal Shiloh. Despite their efforts, however, they failed to discover a major city wall that has been discovered only in the past couple of years by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron. This wall has been preserved to a height of 15 feet. It is very close to the Spring Gihon where we would expect archaeologists to dig. Yet Kenyon and Shiloh (and others) missed it. Reich and Shukron have also found two or three major towers that protected the spring in about 1800 B.C. that previous excavators failed to find. 

I mention this not to fault them and not because it disproves anything Herzog has said, but simply to suggest that the archaeological picture is never complete and is often revised. The next generation of archaeologists may well do to do the current doubters what they have done to such eminent scholars as William Foxwell Albright. (But then again, they may not. I do not trade in the certainty that is Herzog's coin.) 

Ignoring the stele

Finally, the archaeological evidence is not only minute, but random. Herzog mentions a famous Egyptian stele that refers to "Israel" as a people in Canaan in 1208 B.C. No scholar questions this. Although Herzog mentions it, however, he doesn't deal with it. This wholly chance find makes the minimalists squirm. They argue that it refers only to a geographic location, not a people; or that it refers to some other Israel, not the one mentioned in the Bible. Without this chance find, you can be sure the minimalists would be arguing that there was no such entity as Israel at such an early period, that indeed Israel was "invented" hundreds of years later. 

Similarly with the existence of David: Just as the minimalists were revving up for a full-scale attack on the existence of David (who had never been mentioned outside the Bible), Biran found the "House of David" stele. All this doesn't prove that the minimalists are wrong, only that we must be very careful in reaching our conclusions. History, and especially ancient history, is unfortunately very complicated, much more so than is dreamed of in Herzog's philosophy. Just as it is unjustified to conclude that the Bible is literally true in every detail, so it is unjustified to throw it out as historically worthless, especially when that view is so vigorously pursued by a few scholars with a political agenda. •