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Archaeology and the Biblical Text, Fredric R. Brandfon, BAR 14:01, Jan-Feb 1988.

Merneptah SteleArchaeological evidence is, unfortunately, fragmentary, and therefore limited. This has always been true, but in recent decades this simple truth has impressed itself more forcefully on archaeologists working in the field and, consequently, on historians.

Typical archaeological finds such as pottery sherds, modest mud houses and simple crafts appear inadequate to the task of sophisticated historical inquiry. How, for example, may the historian understand complex social transformations, market shifts in ancient economies, or religious and ideological innovations, given the rudimentary evidence discovered at archaeological sites in Israel and Jordan? An archaeologist may feel lucky if on a given day he or she finds the following assemblage on a floor- a few cooking pot rims, a ceramic lamp, an unidentifiable piece of corroded metal and a bone awl. What, however, can such finds tell us about social structure, economic trends, or the political and religious diversity of ancient history?

One result of this problem of fragmentary archaeological evidence has been that archaeologists have tried to squeeze as much information as possible, in as much detail as possible, from what we do excavate. Now we collect vast amounts of data, including not only artifacts and architecture, but animal bones, carbonized grains and seeds, soil, pollen and metallurgical samples.

But this rush to collect more and more data, while admirable, has not solved the basic problem of fragmentary evidence. No matter how many animal bones we collect, we will still have only a small fraction of the total evidence available at any one site, and that site in turn holds only a fraction of what existed in antiquity.(1)

Archaeologists are thus faced with what historiographers call “The Problem of Generalization.” How does one draw general conclusions about past civilizations from the fractional and fragmentary evidence of potsherds and soil layers?(2)

One prominent approach, associated with the “new archaeology,” has been to apply sociological and anthropological theories or hypotheses to Biblical and archaeological data, on the assumption that Israelite culture was sufficiently similar to peasant societies,(3) tribal societies(4) or seminomadic societies(5) to allow such a comparative study. Although this kind of analysis has provided many interesting new insights into the Biblical world, some of us remain puzzled at the transformation of an endeavor that began as a historical one and became an anthropological one. In searching for some way to “translate” our data into meaningful knowledge of the past, history as an academic discipline has somehow been overlooked. In the “new archaeology,” history as such often drops from sight.

People sometimes think that history deals only with “the facts,” not theories, or that history deals with particulars and therefore avoids comparative research.(6) This is a popular misconception, however. Historians operate with many implicit presuppositions that may be called “theories”; moreover, in recent years, historians have developed an extensive body of explicitly theoretical literature that may prove very helpful to the archaeologist. What follows is at best a sketch of how we might apply a particular historical theory to the archaeological evidence to see if it can shed new light on the Biblical world.

The problem I will examine as a kind of case study is the question of Israel’s emergence in Canaan, what, in Biblical terms, is called the Israelite “conquest of Canaan.” I put “conquest of Canaan” in quotes because that is part of the problem we will be exploring—the nature of the historical change in Canaan at this time. It may or may not have involved a “conquest.”

Archaeologists and historians agree that at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age I (c. 1250–1150 B.C.) significant changes took place in the land of Canaan. The question is whether the overall pattern of changes was essentially peaceful or violent; whether it was occasioned by forces from within (a revolution) or without (a conquest); and if it was a conquest, who did most of the conquering (Egyptians, Philistines or Israelites)?

These questions arise for us out of an interest in the Biblical text. But ancient historians, Egyptologists, archaeologists and classicists all have a stake in the answers to these questions.

Moreover, the problem of the conquest raises a more general question- How do we integrate the evidence provided by the Biblical narrative with the evidence provided by archaeology?

Early 20th-century excavations at sites throughout the land of Israel resulted in cautious optimism concerning the coordination of Biblical and archaeological evidence, especially as it related to the conquest of Canaan. Excavations at Jericho, Tell Beit Mirsim, Lachish and Bethel appeared to indicate that the archaeological record and the Biblical text could be understood as rough but ready reflections of each other. Destructions described or implied in the Bible seemed to correspond to layers of ashy debris found at a number of ancient cities. However, later excavations at these and other sites, such as Ai and Gibeon, raised doubts. There was no evidence of a Late Bronze Age conquest at these sites, although the Bible said there should be. Then in the 1960s and 1970s archaeologists like Yohanan Aharoni gathered archaeological evidence for a relatively peaceful settlement of the land rather than a military conquest. They collected evidence of village sites on the fringes of Canaanite territory—in the Negev, in the upper Galilee and in the Judaean hills—presumably settled peacefully by the incoming Israelites.

It soon became apparent that the archaeological evidence could be used to support contradictory reconstructions of early Israelite history—military conquest and peaceful infiltration.(7) The connection between the excavated evidence and the Biblical text that had once seemed clear was now very unclear.

Is there any way of restoring the link between the archaeological and the Biblical evidence? I believe there is, but not in its old form, only on a new basis.

To restore the connection it may be necessary to rethink what we mean by historical “events.” During the last half-century a school of French historical theoreticians, including Marc Bloch, Lucian Fevre and Fernand Braudel, has been reexamining what we mean by history and historical events. Braudel, for example, suggests that the past may be divided into three levels. The most basic is the longue durée, by which he refers to phenomena that lasted for generations, if not centuries. Such phenomena might be, for example, climactic or geographic conditions that may account for certain living patterns over extended time periods. The second level of phenomena Braudel identified he called conjuncture; that is, the economic and social trends the importance or popularity of which may rise or fall in a single generation. Only on the third level does Braudel refer to the event—historical phenomena that are most familiar to us but that are of the shortest and most insignificant duration—a day, a week or at most a few years.(8)

Archaeological evidence, at least theoretically, may bear on a question relating to any of these three levels—the longue durée, the conjuncture or the event. Thus, the Egyptian text known as the Merneptah Stele describes a victory by Pharaoh Merneptah over a people called Israel, which is clearly evidence of an event. What archaeologists have identified as “Philistine” pottery or “Israelite” pottery provides evidence of a conjuncture; that is, particular pottery styles usually enjoy a limited popularity for at most a generation or two. The materials used in the manufacture of tools, weapons and architecture change at a much slower rate than the styles of such tools, weapons and architecture, so the evidence of these materials may be relevant in understanding the phenomena of the longue durée. Settlement patterns and scientific data concerning the ancient environment are also relevant to phenomena of the longue durée.

Any particular artifact may provide evidence for the event, the conjuncture or the longue durée—or all three. A monumental Egyptian inscription, for example, provides evidence for the event it describes, but it may also provide evidence of changing trends in writing styles and evidence long term phenomena in the kind of stone used for inscriptions and for architecture.

The archaeologist attempting to squeeze “history” out of finds must first identify the level to which the evidence is relevant—an event, a conjuncture or the longue durée. Rarely, if ever, can pottery, for example, provide evidence of an event. The evidence of pottery is far better suited to an understanding of social and economic trends—conjunctures.

Many archaeologists and historians of ancient Israel, aware of the limits of archaeological evidence in establishing the existence of a historical event, give archaeological evidence a contextual function. G. Ernest Wright, for example, instead of linking particular destruction levels with Biblical events, describes those destructions as background to the Biblical narrative-(9)

“During the 13th and 12th centuries [B.C.] Palestine was hit hard by several invasions which ended Bronze Age civilization and left only occasional city-states as pockets of resistance, these being gradually reduced by the new occupants. Among the latter in the central hills was surely Israel. And the ruins of villages indicate that the 12th and 11th centuries [B.C.], the Period of the Judges in the O[ld] T[estament], was an extremely chaotic age, towns, repeatedly blackened by fire, etc.—an archaeological commentary on the characterization of the time as one in which ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes.’”

It is not enough, however, to say that the archaeological evidence provides context to the Biblical events. Using archaeological evidence to provide context ultimately reduces archaeological research merely to illustrating the Bible stories.

Let us see if Braudel can help. To begin with he would suggest that the events of Early Iron Age history developed in a context of longue durée phenomena and conjunctures. However this would be only his first step. He would then direct our attention to the relationship between the context and the historical events. Braudel would ask how this context was perceived at the time and how those perceptions changed. He would ask whether events were natural outgrowths of the context or perhaps violent reactions to the context.

We may begin our analysis of the Biblical problem of the “conquest” by identifying a long-term trend in the Biblical world. Only after this has been done can we understand how historical events were connected to the context of the longue durée.

One such longue durée phenomenon in Canaanite and Israelite history, for example, appears to be a long-standing tension between culturally organized societies and kin-based societies. The Canaanite city-states of the Middle Bronze Age (2200–1500 B.C.) and the Late Bronze Age (1500–1200 B.C.) were culturally organized societies that participated in Eastern Mediterranean civilization. Egyptian, Cypriote, Aegean and Syro-Palestinian cultures intermingled in this civilization. Kin-based groups were undoubtedly part of this picture, although to a minor extent.

In the Early Iron Age (1200–1000 B.C.) kin-based societies predominated outside the urban centers, that is, in the numerous villages located throughout Canaan. In these villages, the people generally perceived their own social existence as determined more by blood ties than by cultural connections. The situation was largely reversed in the urban centers in Canaan.

In a kin-based society, the division, or appropriation, of land is organized through kin relations (marriage or inheritance); in a culture-based society it is more often organized through cultural relations such as conquest, confiscation or sale. The distribution of goods and services may also be understood in similar terms. Family farms providing subsistence are kin-based; taxation of such farms or the giving of tribute is a culturally enforced activity.

I am not saying that the cities were exclusively culture-oriented or that the villages were entirely organized along kinship lines. But I am saying that some people perceived their social existence as determined more by blood ties than by cultural connections, and vice versa. In short, we had at the time what anthropologists call socioeconomic dimorphism, as noted by Norman K. Gottwald.(10)

Information concerning kin-based and culture-based societies can be squeezed out of archaeological evidence. Such evidence may consist of settlement patterns pottery styles, building materials, as well as paleoenvironmental findings extracted from pollen and bone samples.

Against the background of this tension we may begin to understand the Early Iron Age conflicts between Canaan (a culture-based society) and Israel (a kin-based society). Similar conflicts may be identified between the Philistines (a culture-based society) and Israel.

The events that took place at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, whether peaceful infiltration, violent conquest or insurrection or any combination of these three types of events, can all be understood in terms of a kin/culture tension. Our understanding, then, of any particular Early Iron Age event should be in terms of this underlying tension. By this means, a study of Early Iron Age history may shift from a study of the events to a study of the long-term phenomena behind the events, as well as the relationship between the longue durée phenomena and the events.

For example, the destruction of urban centers throughout the land of Israel at the beginning of the Iron Age may be seen as a historical event evident in the archaeological record. Such an event may be understood against the background of a long-term phenomenon, also evident from the archaeological record, such as the tension between kin- and culture-based groups in the Levant. Ultimately, the researcher will want to ask how the destruction of the Canaanite cities (the event) was related to its context (the kin/culture tension). Was the urban and cultural collapse a natural consequence of centuries of social conflict, and one that ushered in an era of egalitarian and kin-based societies? Or was it a disaster for both kin- and culture-based groups, given their mutual dependence over hundreds of years? These and other questions concerning the relationships among bodies of archaeological evidence need to be systematically explored by historians of the Early Iron Age.

In this way, archaeological evidence is not relegated to the background against which history is played out. Instead archaeological evidence may be understood as evidence of the long-term tensions within a region that, to some extent, influenced centuries of historical events.

This I believe provides a new approach to the relationship between archaeological data and the historical events in Early Israel’s history.

So far, however, I have applied this new approach only to the archaeological evidence. Is it possible to bring a similar understanding to the Biblical evidence as well? I believe it is. Just as historical phenomena may consist of surface events overlying deeper substrata, such as the longue durée, so literary phenomena reflected in the Biblical text may be divided into surface literary events and a deeper literary structure. This is what has been called literary structuralism.(11)

The relationship between the structure of the narrative and the events of that narrative may be compared with the relationship between longue durée historical phenomena and the historical events revealed by archaeological evidence. For example, the Biblical books that describe the events of the Early Iron Age, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, might reveal a relationship between deep narrative structure and surface event that is comparable to the relationship between the kin/culture tension and Early Iron Age events. The comparison of literary and historical structures has been done in New World(12) and French(13) history and could be profitably done for the Biblical world as well.

Deep literary structures are discovered by understanding texts not so much as collections of stories but as collections of words, concepts and symbols that form an interlocking system separate from the plot or story.(14)

The literary structure of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers Joshua, Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel may reveal the same tensions between kinship and culture we found in the archaeological evidence. General categories like “Egypt” and “Mesopotamia” appear to represent culture and kinship, respectively.

Egypt is the land where someone like Joseph can rise to the top of the hierarchy without any kinship ties at all and within the system; at the same time, he is cut off from his own family. Mesopotamia, on the other hand, is the ancestral homeland of the Israelites, to which the patriarchs return to find wives. The Biblical narrative in general is the story of the travels of the Israelites between these two points, Mesopotamia, the land of kinship societies, and Egypt, the land of culture-based societies. Eventually, the Israelites settle in Canaan, somewhere between the two poles.

Other geographical markers function similarly. In the early Biblical stories, Hebron in southern Israel is the family burial ground, while Shiloh in the north is the cultural and religious center. Just as the Hebrews begin their journeys in Mesopotamia only to go down to Egypt, so do the early Biblical narratives concern Hebron (in some measure) and the later stories concern Shiloh. Eventually Jerusalem, located between the two, becomes the capital of David’s kingdom. By the end of the tenth century B.C., after King Solomon’s reign, the northern tribes, Israel, appear to be associated with culture as they reject the kinship-based (Davidic) dynasty of Judah. The southern tribe of Judah, on the other hand, by adopting a kin-based dynasty, represents a kin-based social organization. Even the tribal names of the divided kingdoms hark back to a kinship/culture tension.

The tribe of Judah is named after Judah, the son of Jacob and his Mesopotamian wife Leah. The northern kingdom of Israel is often called Ephraim after its largest tribe. Ephraim is the son of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath.

Similarly the religious life of the Israelites, as depicted in the Bible, may be seen as reflecting a kin and culture tension. On leaving the kin-oriented land of Mesopotamia, the Hebrews are described as chosen ones of a patriarchal “God-of-the-fathers.” Upon leaving Egypt, the Hebrews confront a culture-oriented God who organizes their community on the basis of law. This God is served by both a kin-based priesthood and a culture-based tradition of prophecy.

Such kinship/culture oppositions in the Biblical text reflect the writer’s concern for the long-term tensions between kinship and culture within Israelite society. I do not mean to claim that Judah or Mesopotamia were solely kin-based societies or that Israel and Egypt were solely culture-based. Rather, the Biblical writers expressed the kinship/culture tensions in their society in terms of well-known political realities.

If we can identify a kin/culture tension in the long-term sweep of Israelite history as presented in the books of Genesis through 2 Samuel, then we may take the next step and ask how this tension is expressed in the short-term events that describe the Israelite entrance into Canaan. The books of Joshua and Judges are often understood as two different visions of these Early Iron Age events. Joshua describes a swift and unified conquest of the land by all 12 Israelite tribes, while Judges describes a more peaceful, if less concerted, settlement of Canaan, taking place over a few generations.

However, the difference between Joshua and Judges is not only the difference between a “conquest” and a “settlement” Joshua appears to explain the conquest in cultural terms while Judges explains it in terms of kinship. Compare the openings of each book.

In Joshua, God declares that the success of the conquest will depend on Israelite adherence to laws found in a book, giving the book a culture-based setting.

“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success” (Joshua 1-7–8).

In Judges the defeat of the Canaanites along with other nations is often described in terms of shifting alliances among the Israelite tribes and families, giving the book a kin-based setting.

“After the death of Joshua the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’ The Lord said ‘Judah shall go up; behold I have given the land into his hand.’ And Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you’” (Judges 1-1–3)

In these passages the kinship/culture tension evident in the story of Israel’s beginnings in some measure dictates the way in which the conquest narrative unfolds. This relationship between the deep structure of the narrative and the surface events of the narrative is similar to the relationship between the longue durée phenomena and the events of Early Iron Age history.

This particular analysis of a Biblical narrative is but one of a number of possible structural interpretations.(15) It illustrates an underlying structure beneath the level of specific events in the Bible. In some way this literary structure may even determine the particular choice of events that make up the plot. In a similar way, the underlying long-term phenomenon of kinship/culture tension found in the archaeological evidence may have determined the specific events of Early Iron Age history.

In this way, Biblical literature may be compared to the archaeological and historical evidence in a new way. Instead of looking for a one-to-one correspondence between the Bible and the archaeological evidence, instead of looking for archaeological corroboration of Biblical narrative, the Biblical archaeologist should be doing something a bit more complex. He or she should be coordinating not Biblical and archaeological evidence, but the theoretical frameworks through which Biblical and archaeological evidence are understood. The Biblical archaeologist should be looking for the underlying structure of both the Biblical narrative and the Biblical world. It is on this level, and not on the level of historical events, that a comparison may be most fruitful.

The comparison made here between the kinship and culture tension in the Biblical world and in the Biblical narrative is perhaps oversimplified. The structure of the Biblical narrative and the structure of the Biblical world may ultimately prove to be different, rather than identical. In any case, this article only sets out a program of research that needs to be articulated and explored further. But it does outline a new avenue in Biblical and archaeological research that can give new meaning to the term “Biblical archaeology.”

1. Of course, sampling techniques (see Lewis Binford, “A Consideration of Archaeological Research Design,” American Antiquity 29 [1964], pp. 425–441) and statistical methods enable one to extrapolate from a small sample to the larger population, but they only begin to address the historiographic question of how one generalizes in interpretation from the part to the whole.

2. Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (New York- Harper & Row, 1964); Carl G. Hempel, Philosophy of Natural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ- Prentice-Hall, 1966); W. Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (Oxford- Oxford Univ. Press, 1957); P. Gardiner, The Nature of Historical Explanation (Oxford- Oxford Univ. Press, 1952); Alan Donagan, “Historical Explanation- The Popper-Hempel Theory Reconsidered,” History and Theory 4 (1964), pp. 1–26; H. Adelman, “Rational Explanation Reconsidered- Case Studies and the Hempel Dray Model,” History and Theory 13 (1974), pp. 208–224; Paul Dietl, “Deduction and Historical Explanation,” History and Theory 7 (1968), pp. 167–188; Maurice Mandelbaum, “Historical Explanation- The Problem of Covering Laws,” History and Theory 1 (1961), pp. 229–242.

3. Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250–1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, NY- Orbis, 1979), pp. 650–663.

4. Carol Meyers, “Of Seasons and Soldiers- A Topological Appraisal of the Premonarchic Tribes of Galilee,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 252 (1983) pp. 47–59; Lawrence E. Stager, “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel,” BASOR 260 (1985), pp. 1–35; Robert W. Wilson, Sociological Approaches to the Old Testament (Philadelphia- Fortress, 1984).

5. M. B. Rowton, “Autonomy and Nomadism in Western Asia,” Orientalia 42 (1973), pp. 247–258, and “Urban Autonomy in a Nomadic Environment,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 32 (1973), pp. 201–215; for a general discussion of anthropology and Biblical studies, see John W. Rogerson, Anthropology and the Old Testament (Atlanta, GA- John Knox Press, 1978).

6. The literature on this is vast. For the latest statement of the problem, see Salo Baron, The Contemporary Relevance of History. A Study in Approaches and Methods (New York- Columbia University, 1986), p. 43.

7. See the debate between Yigael Yadin (Hazor- The Head of All Those Kingdoms [London- Oxford Univ. Press, 1972]) and Yohanan Aharoni (“New Aspects of the Israelite Occupation in the North,” in Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century [New York- Doubleday, 1970], pp. 254–267) concerning the destruction of Hazor where precisely the same evidence is used to support opposed theories.

8. Fernand Braudel, On History (Chicago, IL- Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 74.

9. G. Ernest Wright, “Archeology and Old Testament Studies,” Journal of Biblical Literature 77 (1958) p. 44.

10. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, pp. 465–473.

11. Northrop Frye, The Great Code (New York- Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1982).

12. N. Wachtel, The Vision of the Vanquished. The Spanish Conquest of Peru through Indian Eyes 1530–1570 (New York- Barnes and Noble, 1977).

13. Emanuel LeRoy Ladurie, Love, Death, and Money in the Pays D’Oc (New York- George Braziller, 1982).

14. For the classic definition of structuralism, see Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, in Myth a Symposium, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Bloomington and London- Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 81–106.

15. And it owes a great deal to Levi-Strauss, “Structural Study of Myth”; Edmund Leach, Genesis as Myth and Other Essays (London- Grossman Publishers, 1969); Leach and D. Alan Aycock, Structuralist Interpretations of Biblical Myth (Cambridge, UK- Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983).

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