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Biran at Ninety, Hershel Shanks, BAR 25:05, Sep-Oct 1999.

biran-at-ninetyThe excavator of Dan recalls growing up in pre-state Israel, great archaeologists he’s known and why he’s a Biblical archaeologist

On October 23, 1999, Avraham Biran, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, will celebrate his 90th birthday. He will also have completed his 34th season at Tel Dan, the longest-running archaeological excavation in Israel.

He has led an extraordinary life—as a student, a government official, a diplomat, a dedicated Zionist and, not least, a Bible scholar and archaeologist. His life has stretched over most of the history of modern archaeology in the Holy Land, and he has known and worked with the leading men and women who participated in that history.

The presidency of the Israel Exploration Society is a largely honorary position. For many years it was held by Benjamin Mazar, the doyen of Biblical archaeologists. Since Mazar’s death in 1995, the position had remained vacant—until this year, when Avraham Biran was named to the post. May he serve for many years to come.

The following interview by BAR editor Hershel Shanks was conducted in Biran’s Jerusalem office on April 13 and 14, 1999.

Hershel Shanks- The first scientific excavation in Palestine occurred in 1890, as you know. Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie dug at Tel el-Hesi.

Avraham Biran- That’s right.

HS- You were born 19 years later.

AB- Yes—in 1909.

HS- In a way, you’re the last living link to that past—between the beginning of scientific archaeology in this land and Biblical archaeology today. You knew Petrie, didn’t you?

AB- Yes, when I graduated with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, I became the Thayer Fellow at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, now the William F. Albright School of Archaeological Research. That was in 1935, during the Depression, and the fellowship didn’t pay anything.

It was just an honor. I held it for two years, and I can boast that I am the oldest living Thayer Fellow. So it was worth something. But I did get a room to live in at the school, and my room was next to the room of Sir Flinders and Lady Petrie.

HS- Were you a bachelor then?

AB- Yes, but then I married. In 1936 my girlfriend, Ruth, came over from America, and we got married. She, too, lived at the school. She became the school secretary. The great William Foxwell Albright was the director. When he left, Nelson Glueck became the director.

HS- Was Petrie already Sir Flinders at that time?

AB- Oh, yes. I remember him sitting in the garden of the school for afternoon tea. He was very amiable and had a wonderful smile—all benevolence, very kind. We used to sit and chat and drink tea. He had a long white beard. He died when he was almost 90, just as I am now. To me any gentleman with a white beard was an old man. I didn’t think then about when I would get to be old. I remember he had difficulty hearing in one ear. He told me—I’m quoting him, I’m not being unkind—that he turns his deaf ear when Lady Petrie speaks! He was very human.

That was in 1936, when the “disturbances” broke out.

The Arabs attacked Jewish settlements because the British government had allowed some Jewish immigration into Palestine. It lasted until 1939. The Jewish population complained to the British that they were not strict enough with the rioting Arabs. We were talking about the disturbances, and Petrie came up with an idea. He said, “You know the trouble in the Middle East is not political. The trouble in the Middle East is the goat.” The goat eats everything. Unlike sheep, goats eat all kinds of grass. They even eat from the trees; they eat the bark so the tree dies. Petrie said they were doing that all over the Middle East. He said eliminate the goat and then the fields will blossom and there will be greenery all around and there will be no reason for disturbances.

He was very much admired, and he was always the center of attention. We all enjoyed being with him.

HS- He was supposed to be stingy—he wouldn’t spend money.

AB- I’m not sure it was he as much as she. The story goes—whether it’s true or apocryphal, I don’t know—that when Lady Petrie would organize an expedition to an excavation, she’d invite all the people who wanted to come and join his staff and put them around the table and give them food. And the story goes that Lady Petrie would choose those who ate the least.

HS- Were you born in Palestine?

AB- Yes, I call myself a Mayflower Israeli. My great-grandfather established the village of Rosh Pina in Galilee. So I consider myself a Galilean.

HS- Where did he come from?

AB- From Romania, in the 1880s, during the wave of Zionist immigration of Hovevei Tzion, “the lovers of Zion,” who came to settle the land. My great-great uncle, a man named David Shub, was sent as an advance party to see where he could buy some land. The Jews of Safed owned a piece of land next to an Arab village. The Jews of Safed apparently weren’t good farmers and couldn’t make a go of it, so when my great-great uncle came here, he bought the land from the Jews of Safed for a new village. And they called it Rosh Pina, “Even ma-asu ha-bonim haitah l’rosh pinah,” from the Book of Psalms, “The stone that the builders rejected became the rosh pina, the corner stone.”

In the early 1900s it was difficult for people to make a living in Rosh Pina, so my father went down to Egypt to look for work. In those days in Egypt foreign companies owned large tracts of land that grew cotton. My father, who they knew had come from a family of colonists, was put in charge of a village of cotton workers. When he decided to get married, he came back to Palestine to look for a bride. He started in Rosh Pina in the north and worked his way south. When he got to Petah Tikva [near Tel Aviv], he met a very beautiful young woman who was a teacher in the local school. I guess they fell in love, because they decided to get married. Then he took her with him to Egypt. But my mother said that if she is going to have children, she wanted to have them back home. So she came back. That’s where my sister and I were born. That was in the days of the Turks; the Ottoman Empire was ruling here. So we had Ottoman citizenship. Later, when the British passed the law of citizenship, the most coveted status was Turkish. And those who had Turkish citizenship automatically became Palestinians. We were all Ottoman—like the Mayflower.

HS- What language did you first learn as a child?

AB- My mother spoke to us in Hebrew. But in school in Egypt, I studied Arabic, French, Italian and English as a child of six, seven, eight years old. I remember that if you made a mistake, you stretched out your hands and you got caned. Nobody resented or minded that, I suppose.

My father died in 1919. I remember him lying in bed, probably with pneumonia. I don’t know what kind of medical care there was at the time in Mansura, Egypt, where we lived. My mother found a young doctor fresh from Paris. He did something to my father, put something in his throat. My mother always claimed that killed him, whatever new thing it was.

When my father died, my mother decided to come back to Palestine for good—to Rosh Pina. In those days Rosh Pina had an excellent elementary school, established by people like Itzhaq Epstein, educators of the old school. Something indicative of the times- We had a teacher who taught us Arabic, but he also taught Hebrew to the children of the Arab village next door. Chaim Keller was his name. I still remember him, a wonderful teacher.

One of the teachers, who came from Russia, played the violin. He decided that we must have a choir. My mother, like every good Jewish mother, thought her children could do everything, and she said, “Well, you should be in the choir.” Now, I don’t have an ear for music. I cannot carry a tune. The teacher said, “Look, I’ll try you anyway.” So he played the violin, and I was supposed to sing. Of course, I didn’t carry the tune and he said no, I couldn’t join the choir. I came back and told my mother. She said, “He doesn’t know anything. You should be in the choir.” A typical Jewish mother. I was 10 or 11 at the time—about 1920.

When I graduated from the elementary school in Rosh Pina, the next question was where I would go to high school. The Eton of Palestine in those days was the Reali school in Haifa. My mother wanted her children to have the best, so we moved to Haifa. It was an excellent school.

We used to do a lot of hiking in those days, and we’d take sandwiches with us. We had a gymnastics teacher—a short fellow, I can still see him—who would get furious if someone left a piece of bread from a sandwich. He would say, “You boys and girls don’t know what it was like. I was in the World War [One]. There was famine all over Europe, and you’re throwing away a piece of bread.” To this day, I cannot throw away a piece of bread. These things stay with you.

Anyway, we did a lot of hiking. It was not like today, when you go by bus.

If you would ask me where my interest in archaeology started, it was on a hike to Samaria in 1923 or 1924. I was 14. I still remember the columns with the capitals on top. I took a picture of a capital with my little girlfriend beside it.

When I was 13, my mother needed an operation. Again, the same story- They wanted a good doctor. So she went to Tiberias for the operation. She died on the operating table. So here we were, three orphans—my sister and I and my kid brother, who was only five or six years old.

HS- Were you bar mitzvahed at 13?

AB- Well, as an orphan, you don’t have very much of a bar mitzvah. My uncle took me to the synagogue. I laid tefillin [phylacteries] and read the Torah portion, but it wasn’t such a big ceremony like today. My family, of course, was very religious, and my grandmother kept very strictly kosher. We went to shul [synagogue], but we didn’t have a big do for my bar mitzvah. I don’t think any of my friends did either.

My sister and I continued at the Reali school. The principal was very fond of us. In those days high school was four years. The principal had just opened up a boarding school for the Reali, and he made me a counselor. My sister and I lived at the boarding school.

You never know what will happen to you in this life. Among the students at that time were the children of the Schimmel family in Philadelphia. Herb, the oldest boy, was in my class, and we were very friendly. Years later, in 1930, when I decided to go to study in America, I was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where Herb and his family lived. So I wrote him a letter saying I was coming to Philadelphia, so of course, the first home I had in Philadelphia was the Schimmel home. When Mrs. Schimmel saw me, she said, “Well, what are you going to do? How are you going to earn a living?” I said, “Well, I’m a licensed teacher.” By then I had finished teacher’s training college. Unlike people who were teaching Hebrew who just knew the language, I was a trained teacher. I had not only finished a seminar at the teacher’s training college, I had taught for two years at the Reali. So Mrs. Schimmel said, “You know, maybe you could teach at a Sunday school.” I said, “I’d love to.” So she called Rabbi Arnoff, who had a congregation in Camden, New Jersey, just on the other side of the river from Philadelphia. She told him that she had this Palestinian boy here who needed a job. “Don’t you know we’re in a Depression!” he said. “We don’t have jobs, and we don’t have any money. Impossible!” But she said, “See him anyway.”
So I took a bus and the ferry and I came to the synagogue and I knocked on his door and opened it. He gives me a look and says, “It’s you!”

It turns out Rabbi Arnoff was one of three American students who came to study at the Hebrew University [in Jerusalem] when it opened in 1925. And he and I used to study a daf [page of the] Talmud every evening. “I’ll find you a job!” he said. And I became a teacher at the Camden Hebrew School—all this because the Schimmel family sent their children to the Reali school in Haifa.

Anyway, after the Reali the principal said to me, “You will go to Jerusalem to study at the Yellin Teachers Seminary. There you will get your degree as a teacher, and then you will come back and teach at the Reali.” That’s what I did. In 1928, after the teachers seminary, I went back to Haifa and taught at the Reali for two years in one of the elementary classes. Among my pupils was Ezer Weizman [now president of Israel]. To this day, when I see him he calls me mori, “my teacher.”

After spending two years teaching at the Reali, I decided that I wanted to see the world. I spoke to Arthur Biram, our headmaster. He said the only place to study was Berlin. He was a student of Eduard Meyer, the great historian and Bible scholar. Germany had the top institutions of learning in those days. “But,” he said, “there is a beginning of Nazism in Germany, and I don’t think you as a Palestinian Jew would enjoy Berlin.” Then he said, “Why don’t you go to America? You can make a living there. You can teach Hebrew. There are enough Jews there you could teach Hebrew.”

So I decided to go to America. I didn’t know which university I should go to, so I sent letters to different universities—Columbia, Chicago, Pennsylvania, California.

The first letter of acceptance was from the University of Pennsylvania, so I went to Philadelphia. If I had received the first letter from another school, maybe my whole career would have been different.
I went by boat, from Haifa to Marseilles, from Marseilles by train to Cherbourg, and from Cherbourg by boat to New York.

HS- Where did you get the money?

AB- As a teacher at the Reali, I made eight pounds a month. That was a lot of money in those days. I could save half of it.

When we landed in New York, everybody was taken to Ellis Island, even students. We were in this huge hall; I didn’t know what to do or what would happen. I saw some guy walking around, and I said to him, “What goes on?” He said, “They can keep you here weeks before they let you in!” So I said, “What happens?” He said, “Well, there is a committee of five people standing like a court. And they ask you questions. After you finish answering, they decide whether you can come into America or not.” And a thought occurred to me, something that I have tried to tell my children and grandchildren as a lesson in life. I said to myself, “What questions can they ask?” I walked to a corner and figured out any number of questions. And 90 percent of the questions that they asked me, I had anticipated. There were five people—I can still see their faces—and they started asking questions. One of the questions they asked was, “How are you going to live?” That I anticipated. I said, “My uncle, who is a high official in the Palestine government (he was a district officer in Nazareth and in Safed), is going to send me money.” You couldn’t say you were going to work because that was against all the rules. And then there was one man on the panel who I later learned was a Lebanese American. That was in 1930, after the riots of 1929, when Jews were attacked going to the Wailing Wall. This man turned to me and said, “Why is there trouble between the Arabs and the Jews?” That question I did not anticipate; I didn’t think they would ask a political question. So I said, “There are hotheads on both sides, and that’s what caused all the trouble.” He nodded and seemed satisfied with that. And I was allowed in.

HS- What did you study at Penn?

AB- I took undergraduate courses. One of my classmates at the Reali had been David Magnes, the son of Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University. When I came to Jerusalem to the teachers seminary, I visited David Magnes, and his father asked me, “How will you make a living?” I said, “Well, I will teach Hebrew.” It so happened that the Magneses’ next-door neighbor was Henrietta Szold [the founder of Hadassah], from Baltimore. Her niece from Baltimore, named Harriet Levine, came to visit her. Magnes thought Harriet should learn Hebrew, so I gave her private lessons, and Harriet and I became very friendly. Years later, when I was in Philadelphia studying at the University of Pennsylvania, David Magnes’s brother Jonathan came to visit and one day suggested, “Let’s go visit Harriet in Baltimore.” So we went to Baltimore, and that is how I established contact with her. It was Harriet who told me, “Why don’t you go to see [William Foxwell] Albright at Johns Hopkins?”

HS- Why did she tell you to go see Albright?

AB- I was interested in the Bible and the history and the geography of the land. Albright had just been made chairman of the Department of Oriental Studies. So I went to see Albright. I don’t think he had many students in those days. And here was this Palestinian fellow who spoke Hebrew, who spoke Arabic, who knew the Bible, so he said, “Come and study with me.” He gave me a scholarship. One advantage of going to Hopkins was that you could go to graduate school without a B.A.; here was an opportunity. So the next year I left Pennsylvania and went to Baltimore.

HS- What was your impression of Albright?

AB- Albright was a towering figure. He knew so much that it was our total despair. He made us take courses which I think to this day are utterly impossible; you couldn’t study all that and know it all. He taught us cuneiform. He taught us hieroglyphics. There was a professor of Sanskrit at Johns Hopkins, a Professor Dumont, and Dumont didn’t have any students, so Albright said to us, “You take Sanskrit.”

When Hitler became chancellor of Germany and the Jewish professors felt they were going to be expelled, Albright extended an invitation to Professor Emil Forrer, who was a great authority on Hittite. So Forrer came to Hopkins and we took Hittite. It was ridiculous. Albright knew all these languages—he was amazing. He was a genius, and we were just simple human beings. He was a fantastic teacher.

In 1934 Albright invited Nelson Glueck to come and give a talk to the students. Glueck had just returned from his survey of Transjordan. If you ask me when the light, or the fire, of archaeology was lit, I think it was when Glueck came and gave a lecture on his [archaeological] survey in Transjordan. Glueck was so enthusiastic. He shared his own being with the students. When Glueck spoke about his explorations in Jordan, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. There is poetic justice in the fact that 40 years later I was appointed director (at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem) of the school named after him—the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology.

Later, after I had gotten my Ph.D. and was living at the American School [of Oriental Research, in Jerusalem], I joined him on a trip to Tell el-Kheleifeh [near the Gulf of Eilat]. He thought it was Ezion-Geber, the seaport of King Solomon. I went with him as a driver more than anything else. That’s when I learned to sleep standing up. We got to Kerak, a beautiful Crusader castle, where the Arab Legion was stationed. Glueck knew all the commanders from the days he did the survey of Transjordan. So they invited us to stay there, but there were no beds. So we stood—and that’s how we fell asleep.

HS- You stood all night?

AB- Yes. The next day we went to Tell el-Kheleifeh, did a quick survey and established that there was pottery there from the Iron Age. So Glueck decided that he would excavate it.a

HS- Were you a good student?

AB- When I graduated, Albright made me a Phi Beta Kappa. I don’t know whether that indicated I was a good student or not. I would say I was a good student because at Hopkins I did an M.A. in three years and the following year I got a Ph.D. I was Albright’s first Ph.D.

But I wanted to go back to Palestine. It’s something very strange, the attachment I have to this country. Romantic, roots—I don’t know.

HS- Had you met Ruth at that time?

AB- Yes. I dated her in Baltimore. I was a young man, fairly attractive. She was a piano teacher; she graduated from Peabody Conservatory. We started going together. But when I decided to go back to Palestine—Ruth is fond of telling the story—her father said, “Well, that’s good riddance of him!” But then I wrote her to come to Palestine to get married. In those days, of course, you came by boat. She came to shore with a big trunk like people did in 1936.

She arrived at Haifa on Erev Pesach [the day before Passover]. And if you don’t get married by Pesach, you can’t get married till Lag b’Omer, 33 days later. Her family would go crazy if this happened. I asked my uncle, who was the district officer of Haifa, to arrange with the rabbi for a wedding right away. In those days Jewish immigration was restricted. If you married a Palestinian, however, you automatically could live here. A lot of Jewish girls came looking for boys to marry so they could stay in the country. My brother, for example, married such a girl. It was a fictitious marriage. They hardly knew each other. The rabbi thought that was the kind of marriage I wanted, one of those fictitious marriages. Only when my uncle insisted—“No, look, this is a genuine marriage. You must marry her”—was a wedding arranged on Erev Pesach.

HS- Was her family at her wedding?

AB- No, of course not. They were in Baltimore.

HS- Were they in favor, or were they opposed to the marriage?

AB- They had no choice; she decided to come here and get married. What could they do?

HS- It must have been some love affair.

AB- Yes. It stuck to this day. In 1996 we celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary.

HS- Tell me about your first dig.

AB- One day when I was living at the American School, Albright said to me, “You know, there is a big argument about the identification of the Arab village of Anata [just north of Jerusalem]. Was it the birthplace of the prophet Jeremiah? Was it Biblical Anathoth?” Now, everybody had accepted that Anata, which is obviously the Arab pronunciation of Anathoth, is the same word. It has the same consonants. But Albrecht Alt, the great German scholar, conducted a survey at Anata and did not find any pottery from the time of Jeremiah [seventh to sixth century B.C.]. Alt suggested that the hill opposite Anata, called in Arabic Ras el-Kharrubeh (the Top of the Carob Tree, or St. John’s Bread), should be identified with Anathoth because there he found pottery from the days of Jeremiah. So Albright said to me, “Why don’t you go there and do a little excavation? It’s a wonderful opportunity. Try your hand.” So I organized a few workers and began an excavation.

HS- Did you have any instruction in methodology, in how to dig?

AB- I had a foreman who knew how to run the thing, and that’s how you learn. I came back and told Albright that it’s true, there is pottery from the days of Jeremiah at Ras el-Kharrubeh, but according to the references in the Bible, Anathoth was already a town in the days of Solomon and David [tenth century B.C.]. It was the birthplace of two of David’s military leaders [2 Samuel 23-27; 1 Chronicles 11-28, 12-3]. And I did not find any pottery from that time, so I don’t think that Ras el-Kharrubeh is Anathoth.

HS- How did you know how to date pottery?

AB- Clarence Fisher, who excavated Samaria, worked in the basement of the American School. He was a professor of archaeology. He knew ceramic typology. And Albright did too. So I brought the pottery and showed it to them. We spread it out, and they identified [dated] the pottery.

HS- You weren’t an expert then?

AB- Of course not. I’d just begun. That’s how you begin to learn.

HS- You had never participated in an excavation?

AB- Not that I remember.

HS- And you were directing the excavation?

AB- Look, this was only a small excavation. Anyway, Albright said to me, “Write an article.” I was delighted—a fresh, new Ph.D. I wrote an article saying Ras el-Kharrubeh is not Anathoth. Albright was editor of the Bulletin of the American School (BASOR), and he said, “I’ll publish it.” In due course BASOR arrived, I turned the page, and yes, there was the identification, A. Bergman (my name at the time). I read the article. It contained everything I said. Then I turned the page- There was an article by Albright proving I’m wrong! That was typical of the man. Give the student an opportunity—right or wrong.

There’s a footnote to that whole story. A few years ago, the archaeological officer in charge of Judea and Samaria came to me and said that the Arabs are building houses on Ras el-Kharrubeh and we have to do what we call an emergency dig. “Now, you excavated that way back in 1936; would you like to go back?” I said I’d be delighted. So we organized an expedition to Ras el-Kharrubeh. This time it was a full-fledged expedition, with student workers and a supervisor in charge of each area and so forth and so on. And I still came to the same conclusion- Although there is pottery from the end of the Iron Age II [the time of Jeremiah], there isn’t from the beginning. The question of Anathoth is still unsolved. I heard some time ago that in a survey done by the archaeological officer of the village of Anata, he did find early Iron Age II pottery. So maybe Anata is Anathoth, after all.

Another aspect of Albright’s character- When he was director of the school, he was, of course, very friendly with Père [Louis-Hugues] Vincent [of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem]. Vincent was the acknowledged leader of the archaeological community of Jerusalem. Ruth Albright [Albright’s wife] came under his influence, and she became a Catholic. I remember asking Albright one day, “What are the children?” Albright gave me a look—I can still see the expression on his face—and said, “Catholic, of course, like their mother.” He was a Methodist, the son of a minister, but he accepted the way things were. He was just saying that if the mother is Catholic she teaches them, she educates them. It’s only natural. I think one of his sons became a priest.

All the Israeli archaeologists worked with Albright at Tell Beit Mirsim. [Benjamin] Mazar worked there. I think [E.L.] Sukenik worked there. [Shmuel] Yeivin worked there. When they established an archaeology department at the Hebrew University, Yeivin was a candidate for appointment as professor, but Albright suggested Sukenik. He felt Sukenik would do a better job. So everybody went for Sukenik. Albright organized the Palestine Oriental Society and for ten years edited the Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society. Albright was the great one.

Years later, in 1937, when I was offered a job with the Palestine government, I told Albright about the offer. It was a good job in those days—it paid 29 pounds a month—but it would take me away from archaeology. Albright said to me, “Well, if you want to be an archaeologist, you have to do one of two things. Either marry a rich widow, like Professor Yahuda did, or marry a detective writer, like Max Mallowan did.” He married Agatha Christie. “Well,” Albright said, “You’re already married; you better take the job.” I became the district officer for the Valley of Beth-Shean. The country was divided into districts. The British adopted the division of the country from the Turks. The Turks had these districts, and there was a kaimakam (a Turkish word meaning “governor”). The kaimakam in the days of the Turkish Empire was very powerful. There was a kaimakam in Nazareth, there was a kaimakam in Jerusalem, there was a kaimakam in Jaffa. The British adopted this system and appointed a district commissioner in each district. After the Arab riots in 1936, the Jewish settlements didn’t want to go to the district officers in the Arab towns to conduct their business, and they demanded Jewish district officers in Jewish areas. For the Emeq [the Valley], I was offered the job.

HS- How did you happen to be offered that job?

AB- You know, life is made up of accidents. At the teacher’s training college, I shared the bench with a fellow named Reuven Zaslany (later Shiloah). He was the son of a rabbi who lived in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter. Reuven and I got to be friendly. When I went to study in America, he was sent by the Jewish Agency to Iraq to teach Hebrew to the Jewish kids in Baghdad. When he came back, he became head of intelligence. Because he was doing intelligence work, the Jewish Agency asked him to take care of the problem of the Jewish settlements wanting Jewish district officers. So he came to me and said, “Look, I have an idea. Why don’t you accept the job of district officer?” I said, “Me? I’m an archaeologist.” I had just published my dissertation in the Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society. But he said, “You know, it’s not just any job. You’d be going to the Emeq.” In Hebrew, emeq means just “valley.” But then it had a great symbolic significance. It was the Emeq Jezreel, the Jezreel Valley. The Emeq represented all the magnificence of the new Jewish settlements in Israel. To work in the Emeq is like for you to be in Washington in Congress. The Jewish settlements in the Emeq were the workshop of the new Israel. Finally, I took the job.

HS- When you accepted that job, you were effectively leaving archaeology, weren’t you?

AB- Well, I didn’t know. Some people know from childhood what they’re going to do. I didn’t. If I hadn’t gone to the Reali … Look, as a farmer’s son I could have gone to Mikveh Israel Agricultural School near Tel Aviv, which was founded by Baron Rothschild to teach young Jews to be good farmers. My uncles thought this was a wonderful opportunity. Here was a poor orphan boy- Go—and I almost went. My mother, who felt that her children should be educated, refused. She said she’d take us to the Reali. Whether that killed her or not, I don’t know. She was a widow with three small children. We lived in one room in downtown Haifa, where the marketplace is. One cannot imagine today conditions as they were then. If I had gone to Mikveh Israel, maybe today I would be a famous agricultural officer.

The only thing I did on my own was go to America. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. If I hadn’t met Albright, and if he hadn’t offered me that scholarship, who knows? Later, if I had not been offered the job in the Emeq, who knows? I don’t think I have ever in my life made an application for a job.

HS- Tell me about your work in the Emeq.

AB- The Jewish settlements, whenever they had any demands, would come to me, and I would pass them on to the British authorities. The British high commissioner, Arthur Wauchope, used to come to visit. He was very interested in agriculture. We’d be driving around, and once he stopped the car and asked, “What is this field?” I said it was barley, or whatever it was. He said, “Good, that’s what my agriculture inspector said to me, too.” He was testing to see how his people were doing.

When there were political issues, the settlements would send in a delegation to see me. At that time, we had opened an office in Afula. That separated the [Jewish] settlements from the Arab villages.

One day, sometime in September of 1938, people from the Jewish National Fund came to have a look at the settlements, and I decided to go with them. We were a convoy of cars with supernumerary [additional British] police following us in a tender [an open truck with benches in the back]. By then the British had appointed military units to guard the settlements. They also guarded the petroleum line from Iraq to Haifa, which ran through the Emeq. Arab gangs had attacked the pipeline and burned it. That’s when Orde Wingate came. He was a British officer sent to protect the pipeline, and he decided that the way to protect it was by anticipating the attacks of the gangs rather than waiting until they attacked. He would look for the gangs before they were able to attack. He trained the Jews in night fighting. The whole principle changed at that time. Until then the settlements were simply stockades with a watchtower. After Wingate, it was for attack instead of only defense.

Anyway, our convoy decided to have a look at the settlement of Maoz. In my car was Chaim Sturman, the recognized head of the settlements; the chairman of the settlements committee, Aharon Etkin; and my friend David Mossenson, a veterinary officer employed by the Palestine administration; and, in the front seat, a British policeman, who was acting as my guard. We went to Maoz and saw what they were doing, and we discussed their plans and so forth. Then we went to look at the site of what eventually became Kfar Rupin. From there we could see Tirat Zvi, which was a religious settlement that a few days earlier had repulsed a very severe attack by the gangs. So we wanted to see it. But we couldn’t get through because the area was muddy and full of swamps. So we decided to go back to Beth-Shean and from Beth-Shean we would follow the road that goes to Jericho, and from there you turn left to Tirat Zvi. At Beth-Shean the tender of the supernumerary police that had accompanied us left us to go with a car from the Jewish National Fund that was going back to Jerusalem; the tender was to guard them to Beth Alpha; from Beth Alpha the road was fairly safe, and the police tender could come back and accompany us. We would wait for them to come back, and then it would go with us down to Tirat Zvi. It was a very hot day, about 1-30 in the afternoon in September, and Chaim Sturman said, “Eh, let’s go. Why wait for the tender?” So we said okay. We got into the car. I was driving, with the policeman next to me, and Sturman, Etkin and Mossenson were in the back seat. As we drove south past an experimental agricultural station, suddenly, as we passed the corner, I saw a lot of dust in front of us. I didn’t realize what it was. I was still holding the wheel. I stopped and opened the door and started walking; then I saw all three people from the back seat on the ground in front of me. It was a bomb that had gone off. Luckily for me, it was activated by the rear wheels rather than the front wheels. If it had been the front wheels, I would have been killed. The policeman came out with me, and we were going toward the three people when suddenly shots were fired at us. The policeman had a gun and I had a gun, a small revolver, but it was very hot and I had taken it out and left it on the seat beside me. But the policeman had his rifle with him, and he began shooting at the gang, who continued to shoot at us. We ran to the field by the road. Very interesting what you think when you have shots fired at you. I had recently read a book about a newspaperman who was on a plane flying from India to Egypt, and the plane suddenly started to go down. He wrote that he saw sharks in the water and said to himself, “Well, I’m going to die. What am I thinking of?” As we were running around the boulders and the irrigation ditches, dodging the bullets—all of this must have been seconds, of course—I suddenly remembered that book and I said to myself, “Well, I’m going to die. What am I thinking of?” Then I said to myself, “Well, I think I’m not going to die.” We kept on going and I stumbled and the policeman was hit by a bullet that went through his face. He fell down. All of this must have taken only seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. I went to him. Suddenly I saw, from a distance, the supernumerary police tender arriving. They had come back. We didn’t see the tender coming, but the Arab gang saw it and ran away.

Two of the three people in the back seat were already dead. Chaim Sturman was still alive and moaning, so I thought maybe we could get him back and save him. We put the three of them on the tender and drove back to Beth-Shean. There was a British police force in Beth-Shean, but they were barricaded in. We knocked on the door, we yelled at them, we told them there was a gang down there. They finally opened the door. We told them that we were taking the wounded man to a doctor at a settlement near Beth-Shean. But by the time we got there, it was too late- Sturman died. He couldn’t be saved.

I telephoned Ruth and told her to go and see Varda Mossenson, with whom we were friendly. They also lived in Afula. Ruth said, “What happened?” I said, “A land mine, he’s dead.” “Oh, my God.” Then after a second, she said, “How are you?” I was talking to her, so I must have been in a condition where I could speak to her. I did not have even a scratch. There was really no reason for me to be alive. Three people were dead. The back of the car was blown up. Perhaps it’s compensation because my parents died very young. Today in Kibbutz Ein Harod, where Sturman lived, there is the Sturman House—Beth Sturman—a center for culture and a museum. The policeman who had sat next to me was hospitalized and recovered.

Over time, the various district governors changed. An Australian named Lewis Andrews, a wonderful man, very friendly to the [Jewish] settlements, was killed by the gangs on a Sunday morning as he was going to church in Nazareth.

A man named J.H.H. Pollock was governor of the Galilee district. In 1945 he was transferred to Jerusalem. So he said to me, “How about coming with me to Jerusalem and becoming a district officer in Jerusalem?” I was a little bit hesitant. You see, in the Emeq, I was king.

I have a story for you about being king. The Hebrew term for district officer is katzin mechoz. But the people called us moshel, “governor.” One day Dr. [Shlomo Dov] Goitein, one of my teachers at the Reali, came to visit. He later became very famous for his work on the Cairo Genizah.b When he came to Afula, he asked for the house of the katzin ha-mechoz, the district officer. Nobody knew. He asked people. Nobody knew. Finally, he said Avraham Bergman. They said, “Ah, ha-moshel! You want the governor! That’s where he lives.”

So there I was, king in a small pond. Should I go to Jerusalem, with all the problems of Jerusalem? But Ruth said, “Why don’t we try it?” So I did. I had been in the Emeq from 1937 to 1945. So I came with Pollock to Jerusalem.

In 1946 or 1947, the British Council arranged a course for officials from different countries around the world to come to England to study local government. The British government in Palestine decided to send two district officers for this training. At that time, people were already talking about the British leaving the country. I remember talking to Pollock and saying, “I don’t understand. You say you are going to leave Palestine, and you want to send us for a course to England.” He replied, “That’s how we operate in the British Empire. We go on as if nothing changed.” That’s a lesson I learned, and I tried to teach it to others- You carry on with your work no matter what. Anyway, I and an Arab colleague from Tulkarm, another district officer, were chosen to go to this course. When we came back, all of my colleagues here said, “Don’t you dare write a bad report [about the value of the course]. We all want to have a chance to go afterwards!”

HS- You spent eight years in the Emeq. Did you have anything to do with archaeology in those years?

AB- Together with Ruth Amiran [then Ruth Bransteter], we did an archaeological survey of the Beth-Shean Valley, which we published in Hebrew. I remained very close to the Israel Exploration Society. There was a great deal of interest in the land and its ancient history. [Benjamin] Mazar [then Maisler], [Nahman] Avigad and Michael Avi-Yonah all used to come to the Emeq and lecture on the work they were doing—at Beth Yerah, and at Beth Alpha. We would visit the sites.

When I came to Jerusalem, there was no time for that, just for administration. In 1947 Israel accepted the United Nations resolution partitioning Palestine and internationalizing Jerusalem. Today, of course, to revive that resolution is silly. But at that time we accepted the fact that Jerusalem would be internationalized. Dov Yosef, a lawyer from Jerusalem and a member of the Jewish Agency, was appointed military governor because under international law even west Jerusalem was occupied territory. He asked me to be his deputy because I had been district officer and knew the administration. It was only later—in 1949—that the government of Israel decided to make Jerusalem its capital. We moved various ministries to Jerusalem then, including the Ministry of the Interior, and Dov Yosef was appointed to a cabinet ministry. He was actually the Minister of Austerity. He was in charge of the allocations of food and water for the city. Everything was in a terrible state. Then the Ministry of the Interior decided to appoint district commissioners, just like the old days, but they didn’t like the term moshel. The Jerusalem Post didn’t like the translation of ha-memuneh al ha-mechoz as “district commissioner.” They preferred to translate it “district representative.” That’s how I became the first district representative of Jerusalem. But people who remembered the old days when the district commissioner was called moshel still used that term. So at least colloquially I was the governor of Jerusalem.

At the time my name was still Bergman, and I wanted to change it to a Hebrew name. I tried several possibilities. For a time, I called myself Ben Aharon, the son of Aharon. My father’s name was Aharon. Because Berg means mountain, I used the Aramaic word for mountain, tura, but in Aramaic, if you change the tet to tav, it means an ox. I decided not to take that name.

One day Dr. Goitein, my old teacher, telephoned me and said, “I have a name for you.” I said, “What?” He said “Biran.” I said, “Why?” He said, “First of all, it has a B as in Bergman. Secondly, Biran comes from the word birah, “capital.” Jerusalem has been declared the capital, and you are the governor of the capital. Besides that, the kings of Judah built fortifications around Jerusalem, and in the Hebrew Bible the word is biraniot [2 Chronicles 17-12, 27-4]. You are trying to build Jerusalem so it will be safe. So why not Biran?” So the next morning I paid 25 piastres, or whatever it was, and changed my name officially to Biran.

HS- A lot of people were changing their names at that time.

AB- Yes, because [David] Ben Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister] wanted Hebrew names. At that time the Negev was full of Arab names. The army had captured the Negev, but it was very difficult for the Israeli soldiers to follow or remember these names. So Ben Gurion appointed a names committee for the Negev, and he appointed me chairman. We decided to change the names of the mountains and the wadis [dry riverbeds] to give them a historical connotation whenever possible. In the Bible lots of names are mentioned. Way back in the 1920s, the Jewish Settlement Fund had a similar committee to name new settlements. The government decided to join the two committees and called it the Government Names Committee. In 1951 I was appointed chairman of the larger committee. I’m still the chairman of that committee.

HS- When you chose a Biblical name for a site, how sure were you that the name really fit?

AB- We used only names of which we were sure. Take Beth-Shean. When the Romans conquered Beth-Shean, they called it Scythopolis. Throughout the Byzantine period it was called Scythopolis. When the Arabs conquered the country, it became Beisan. Beisan is obviously Beth-Shean. So there was no difficulty in identifying it. There are many such names that can easily be traced.
The Arabs had a Bedouin camp called Ara’ir. Nelson Glueck saw it when he did his survey of the Negev. Obviously, Ara’ir in Arabic is Aroer in Hebrew, the city mentioned in the Bible. After his victory over the Amalekites, David sends the booty to the elders of Judah; among them were the elders of Aroer [1 Samuel 30-26–28].

Or take Dan, where I have dug for 33 years. Over 160 years ago Edward Robinson—an American—identified Tell el-Qadi as ancient Dan because in Arabic Tell el-Qadi means the “Mound of the Judge,” and Dan in Hebrew means “judge.” This has been fairly well accepted, but one young scholar who worked with us at Dan said it could not be Dan. It is true that the identification of a site, applying historical evidence, is often very doubtful. But in our case, if we had any doubts about the identification of Tell el-Qadi as Tel Dan, they were dispelled when we found a bilingual inscription in Greek and Aramaic, which says, “To the God who is in Dan.” That definitely settles the argument.

HS- What about a place like Philistine Gath. You’re not at all sure, are you, of that identification?

AB- To this day, nobody knows Gath’s identity.

HS- You gave a settlement that name.

AB- Yes, a town, because it’s somewhere in the neighborhood. It has to be.

When we came to name the new town of Arad, we had a problem. Yohanan Aharoni and Ruth Amiran were excavating Arad—it includes a beautiful ancient Israelite fortress and an Early Bronze Age town.c The new town was 8 kilometers away from the ancient site. Aharoni suggested we call the new town Arad. I said to him, “Look, it’s 5 miles away.” “So,” he said to me, “You know that names travel.” I said, “But not such a distance!” He said, “Well, this is the Negev, and in the Negev names travel further away than in the hills.” So we named the new town Arad.

A book has now been published by the Government Names Committee giving all of the names that were given since the State of Israel was established.

HS- How long were you governor of Jerusalem?

AB- That went on until 1955. By 1955 the Foreign Ministry had moved to Jerusalem. I was still a member of the armistice commission established after the War of Independence. The relationship between Israel and Jordan had stabilized. We had done a lot of work in Jerusalem—all the new development, all the new neighborhoods. I didn’t think of moving to anything else, but the office of the Foreign Ministry came to me and said, “Look, we have a problem. The American administration is now Republican”—Eisenhower was president—“we would like to appoint you consul general in Los Angeles for the 11 western states so you can go and meet people and try to make friends.” It was an interesting challenge. I thought I had exhausted my possibilities as governor of Jerusalem, so I said, “Fine.” But I said, “I have two grown children. Ronny [Aharon], my oldest son, will be going to the army in two years. I don’t want to be in America when he goes to the army. I don’t want to stay there longer than two years.” They said, “OK.” So we went to Los Angeles, and we developed the consulate there.

The first man I met was Mendel Silberberg, a lawyer in Los Angeles. He was head of a very important law firm and was a great friend of Nixon’s. That’s how I began my contacts with the Republicans. Then I went to San Francisco and met Walter and Elise Haas. Walter was a friend of Senator Knowland. Through him I met Senator Knowland.

Years later, when I was head of the Department of Antiquities and we wanted to excavate at Tel Dan, I went back to Walter Haas and said to him, “I need some funds for the excavation.” The Haas family are actually the ones who started me on the excavation of Tel Dan. Walter Haas has been dead many years, but to this day their descendants still support the dig at Tel Dan.

HS- After 33 years?

AB- Yes, a remarkable thing. Peter and Mimi Haas visited our excavations at Dan and Aroer as well as our museum on campus. Richard and Rhoda Goldman came to Dan and brought their children. So I put them to work on the dig. Their children, now grown, are dear friends. Moreover, they bring their children and are coming to work this summer at the dig.

HS- So that’s three generations?

AB- Actually, four generations if you count Walter and Elise Haas.

Anyway, when my two years in Los Angeles were up, I said, “It’s time to go back.” That was 1957, when following the Russian invasion of Hungary there was a lot of turmoil. The government said to me, “All right, we promised you two years but this is a very new situation. Stay another year.” So we stayed in Los Angeles until 1958.

When I came back, I became director of armistice affairs in the Foreign Ministry. I negotiated with the Jordanians, with the United Nations.

In 1961 [Shmuel] Yeivin, who was head of the Department of Antiquities, resigned to start an archaeology department at Tel Aviv University. When Yeivin went down to head the Department of Archaeology, Mazar, Avi-Yonah, Avigad and others came to me and said, “Why don’t you take over [the Department of Antiquities]?” I said, “It will be really difficult. It has been many years since I was actively engaged [in archaeology].” I remember them saying to me, “Precisely what we need—we want somebody fresh.”

I remember speaking to Albright on a trip to America. I told him, “They are offering me this job. What do you think?” Albright looked at me and said, “You know, with your Arabic and your Hebrew and your background, you’ll do a good job.” So I said, “Fine.” I took the job. I became the director of the Department of Antiquities and Museums. That was really a wonderful opportunity.

The highlight was, of course, the Six-Day War in 1967. In May of that year, I was already digging at Tel Dan. Toward the beginning of June, suddenly all my young assistants were disappearing. They were being called to the army. The war started on Monday, June 5. By the previous Friday, I had decided this was crazy- Everybody’s joining the war. What am I doing up here? So we went to Jerusalem and started helping the Israel Museum move all of the objects down to the cellar for protection. The building itself was not hit during the war, but a shell fired by the Jordanian army fell into the museum compound.

The night of the first day of the war, I got a telephone call from Yigael Yadin’s wife, Carmela. He had been called back into service as adviser to [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol. Carmela said that Yigael had just called from Tel Aviv- “The army is going into the Rockefeller [Museum]. Go down and see if you can find the Dead Sea Scrolls.” So [Nahman] Avigad and [Joseph] Aviram of the Israel Exploration Society and I went down at 7-30 the next morning to the headquarters of the unit that was engaged in the battle of Jerusalem, to [Commander] Motta [Mordechai] Gur, and I said to him, “Motta, we want to go to the Rockefeller.” He gave us a look—these crazy guys. He was trying to capture the Old City, to conquer the Rockefeller. The Arab Legion was on the walls of the Old City shooting into the Rockefeller. This bunch of crazy guys wants to go to the Rockefeller? That was the 6th of June. So I said to him, “Okay, we’ll go away, now. We’ll come back in another few hours. Around 10-30 the three of us came back. I said to him, “Motta, well, can we go to the Rockefeller?” He gives us a look and says, “All right, I’m going now. Come with me.” So we got into a command car, and we drove down to the Mandelbaum Gate and one car blew up on a land mine. But we got to the Rockefeller from the back while the shooting continued from the Old City wall. It wasn’t until the next day that we captured the Old City. Our soldiers were already in the Rockefeller and they were shooting back but you still couldn’t go in. So I told Motta, “Look, I remember there is an entrance from the courtyard, from the back.” So we started to go there. As we approached, we saw a Jordanian officer who was my opposite number in the armistice agreement meetings; he was hurt. He had an assistant with him, so I told his assistant, “Carry him to the Arab Legion headquarters.” Then we went in through the back door and moved along the corridors, where the soldiers were sitting who had been fighting and battling through the night. They were exhausted.

Long before, I had organized something called “trustees of antiquities” in every village and town. These people became the ears and eyes of the Department of Antiquities. They would notify us when there was any encroachment on an antiquity site. We would have regular meetings and give them lectures. As we were walking through the corridors of the Rockefeller hoping to find the Dead Sea Scrolls, a soldier, tired and sleepy—I can still see him—opened his eyes. He looked at me and yelled, “Hey, that’s the director of the Department of Antiquities! Fellows, we’re going to have a conducted tour of the museum!” He was one of our trustees of antiquities from one of the villages.
The Jordanians had an exhibit of gold jewelry at that time. So the first thing I did was to get hold of the Arab guard and ask him, “Where’s the key?” He had the key and I said, “Lock the door [of the room where the gold was displayed].”

Then I said, “Where are your inscriptions?” He took us to another door. We opened it, and there were all of the inscriptions from the Dutch expedition at Deir Alla, the inscriptions that mention the prophet Baalam [Numbers 22–24]. So we locked that door. A few months later, a delegation from Holland came to see me- They had a request from the Queen of Holland. “By all means, what can I do for you?” They wanted us to give them the Deir Alla inscriptions. I remember telling them, “What do you think, that we are barbarians, that we would take the Deir Alla inscriptions that you excavated and publish them ourselves? We’ll give them back to you.” At that time, nobody knew what the inscriptions contained. Deir Alla is in Jordan, so the Deir Alla inscriptions are now in Amman.

Anyway, after we secured the Deir Alla inscriptions, we started looking for the Dead Sea Scrolls, but we didn’t find them. When the battle of the Old City was completed, we went back to the Rockefeller and found a passageway from the first floor down to the cellar, to the underground storerooms, and there we found the scrolls. One of the Arab officials, whom I later took on to work with the Israel Department of Antiquities, told me that the Jordanian government had asked to have the Dead Sea Scrolls shipped to Amman. The staff at the Rockefeller was ready to ship them and had asked the authorities in Amman to send a tender to take them, but the tender never arrived. So they put them down in the basement. Yadin wanted to move the scrolls to the Shrine of the Book [part of the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem] and the publication of the scrolls to appear under the name of the Shrine of the Book. But they remained at the Rockefeller.

When the British built the Rockefeller Museum, they engraved the stone identification plaques on the walls in the three official languages—Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Jordanians had covered the Hebrew. We removed the covering.

HS- [British archaeologist] Kathleen Kenyon was digging in Jerusalem at this time, wasn’t she?

AB- Yes, she had been digging in [the part of] Jerusalem [controlled by Jordan]. After the war she found herself digging in Israel. Soon after the war she and, I believe, Diana Kirkbride published a letter in the London Times saying that Israel had no right to Jerusalem. After all, the Arabs have been here for so long. I read it, and I was a little upset. One day I was informed that Kathleen Kenyon wanted to see me. So she came to my office. I said to her, “You are a historian, you are a scholar. What kind of a letter did you write? What do you mean saying that we have no association with Jerusalem? From David and Solomon!” She didn’t answer. Then she said she would like to continue her excavation. So I said, “Fine. Write an application, and we’ll give you a license.” She asked for a license not for working down near the [Gihon] Spring, where she had made all her biggest discoveries, but for working near the Dung Gate, and we gave her the license. She was cold and stiff, and our relations were correct. She had never been to Israel before ’67, but years later she also visited me at Tel Dan.

HS- When did you begin digging at Tel Dan?

AB- The year before the Six-Day War. We didn’t go there because it was the site of Biblical Dan or even because that’s where we thought it was. It was near the border with Syria and Lebanon, at the source of the Jordan River. The army had been digging trenches and putting ting up gun emplacements facing the Syrian positions. Some kibbutzniks from Kibbutz Dan, a couple of miles from the tell, came and told me that the army was destroying the tell. So we decided to do a quick little excavation to see what we could learn before either the army destroyed much of the evidence or who knows what the result of a war could be. If war broke out, we might not be able to go there. So we rushed to do what we call a rescue dig. Of course, we knew from the Bible that Jeroboam had set up the golden calf at Dan [1 Kings 12-28–30]. We thought it might be interesting to see if we could find the locality where the golden calf would have been set. Could we find the sanctuary or the high place where the cult rituals took place?

HS- Did you think you might be able to find the golden calf itself?

AB- Deep in your heart, you always think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find the golden calf.”

We went to the northern edge of the tell, where the springs are. We wanted to work there, but the army wouldn’t let us because this faced the Syrian positions. The army said that if we started working there and bringing in a lot of people, it might become a cause for war. So we said to the army, “So where can we dig?” They said on the southern slope. Okay, so we went to the southern slope. But it is about 200 yards long—where to begin? We saw two huge rocks—built stones—jutting out of the slope. So we said if we can cut a trench between these two blocks of stones, maybe we’ll learn something without doing any damage. It happened that it was a very fortunate choice because we discovered over the years that these stones were part of the gate from the Israelite period.

HS- Did you make that choice based on your expertise as an archaeologist? Did you have some experience that told you to do that? Or was it simply common sense? Or luck?

AB- Well, I think common sense is a very important element in excavating. Obviously these built stones represented some construction. To remove them would be against everything that you’ve been taught. So we chose an area that was between them.

Whenever you dig, you destroy. All excavation is a destruction. We cut a trench through the southern slope to see whether we could learn something about the construction of the ramparts that protected the city. We could have started at the bottom, at the foot of the rampart. Had we done that, we might have discovered in 1966 the inscription that we found in 1993 that mentions the “House of David.” Who knows? It’s all chance, whatever you do. The trench we cut was a fortunate one because when we reached the bottom, we found a stone pavement. That’s all we knew at the beginning. Then we discovered that the stones we had seen jutting out of the rampart were part of a wall. Next to it was a paved area. I had no idea what this paved area was. But in subsequent years all we did was simply follow the pavement eastward to the threshold of the gate. Later we went west and found that this paved road led all the way to the top of the mound.

After the war the army said we could dig anywhere we wanted. It was only then that we undertook to excavate the area where we thought we might find the golden calf—if you like to be a little facetious. Here again, an interesting thing happened. After removing less than an inch of topsoil, we came upon a platform of beaten white earth. We wondered what it was. The army still had its headquarters in a house they built in that area. They came and said it was built by a regiment long ago; it was not an antiquity. But as we continued working, we found some Roman sherds. We realized that it was a Roman platform. The young archaeologist in charge of that area was a former Greek priest, Vassilios Tzaferis. So everyone said, “Of course, you put Vassilios to work and he finds something Roman.” Then, at the edge of the platform he found a niche facing east. So everybody said, “Ah, Vassilios found a church.” Churches are directed east. Eventually it turned out that this was an area that had been used as a kiln, where they burnt lime during the Muslim period. Vassilios kept on digging, and eventually he found there the remains of an Israelite sanctuary, the beginning of which was dated to the end of the tenth century [B.C.]. It seems to us that we have here the remains of the high place that Jeroboam built 3,000 years ago.

We’ve been digging at Dan now for 33 years. People ask me today, “When are you going to stop?” I say that it reminds me of an old Jewish story of a guy desperately fighting with a bear. His friends keep yelling at him to let go of the bear. “I want to,” he says, “but the bear won’t let me go.”

HS- Why do you suppose Biblical archaeologists have been so heavily criticized in recent years for being biased, for trying to prove the Bible? What’s the source of the anti-Biblical archaeology movement?

AB- It is undoubtedly connected with two things- Liberal-minded people think that Biblical archaeology supports the Fundamentalists. Take, for example, the Israeli archaeologist Emmanuel Anati, now living in Italy, who has been looking for Mt. Sinai. Professor Anati is a real authority on rock art. He did a fantastic job of explaining drawings that he found in Spain, in southern France and also in the Negev. Professor Anati maintains that Har Karkom, a mountain in the Negev with rock drawings, is the traditional Mt. Sinai. He’s sure that it is.d So people who object to Biblical archaeology say, “You are looking for Mt. Sinai. You want to establish the veracity of Moses giving the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.” Archaeologists do not aim to do that.

I cannot refrain from thinking that there is also a little bit of anti-Israel or, if you like, anti-Semitism in some of the anti-Biblical archaeology people.e After all, modern Israel is reestablishing, in a way, the kingdom of David and Solomon. If there was no David and there was no Solomon, as some of them contend, there’s nothing to reestablish. Look what happened to the inscription we found at Tel Dan mentioning Beth David, the House, or Dynasty, of David. The Hebrew consonants are clear—bet, yod, tav, dalet, vav, dalet. Anybody who sees this can only think that it’s Beth David, House of David. It also clearly mentions “king of Israel”; nobody can deny this.f When [Harvard professor] Larry Stager read what the so-called Biblical minimalists were saying against the House of David inscription, he said, “It’s like saying today 150 years after Lincoln, there was no Lincoln.” This inscription dates to less than 150 years after David. It was written by an Aramean king who says he killed the king of Israel and killed the king of the House of David, the king of Judah. Those who deny there was a David take the consonants dalet, vav, dalet and say the D and the V and the D represent the word dod, “uncle” or “lover”; or even doad, which is a big vessel.g

In rabbinic learning there is the pshat and the drash. The pshat is the simple meaning of the words. The rabbis wisely say that you should always look first for the obvious, simple meaning of a word. And the obvious meaning here is David!

What Albright said bears repeating: The Bible as a divine book needs no proof. I am not out to prove that the story about Dan in the Book of Judges [about how Canaanite Laish became Israelite Dan] is correct. I simply tell you that following the rich Middle Bronze and Late Bronze Age civilization at the site identified with Dan, there is a complete change in the physical remains.

I’ll give you an example where maybe I stretch a point of Biblical archaeology, and you can use that against me. We found in the Israelite level of occupation at Tel Dan very extensive remains of metalworks. We found copper slag. We found crucibles. We found the pipes that carried the air to the furnace. Archaeologically speaking, you have some kind of metalworks here. I’m intrigued by a verse in the Second Book of Chronicles in which Solomon asks the king of Tyre to send him experts to work in bronze and iron [2 Chronicles 2:7]. The king of Tyre compliments Solomon on his wisdom and says, “I’m sending you a man who is an expert.” Then he says the man’s mother is “from the daughters of Dan” [2 Chronicles 2:13–14]. Was the king of Tyre interested in telling Solomon that the man’s mother was Jewish, that she’s a member of the tribe of Dan? Why? I don’t think so. Until we discovered the metalworks at Dan, the verse remained a puzzle. Now I believe that the king of Tyre was trying to show Solomon that the man really is an expert, he comes from a tradition of metalworkers. He comes from the tribe of Dan, which had already excelled in metalworks.

HS: Why do you say that that can be used against you?

AB: Because it’s as though I’m trying to prove the veracity of the verse in the Book of Chronicles. I’m not trying to prove it. I’m simply trying to understand the significance of these three Hebrew words.
What is historical in the Bible is not for me to say. As an archaeologist, I will not enter into that. All I will say, for example, is that if there is a reference in the Bible to a city, Dan, which at an earlier time was called Laish [Judges 18], in the second millennium B.C., I have such a city. Whether Abraham came there, I don’t know. Whether he existed, it’s not for me to prove.
As a child I believed in a God with a white beard that sits in a big chair and guards over me. And now, at close to 90, I have no reason to doubt it. I am still able to go out and work, to sit with you and talk to you at length about Biblical archaeology, or, like yesterday, to deliver a lecture in Tel Aviv about the Canaanite city of Laish that became the Israelite city of Dan. Do you want to call it Providence? Do you want to call it fate? I don’t care. I have my God who is sitting there in heaven watching over me

Posted in: Bible and Beyond

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