Two archaeologists independently review Israel Finkelstein's The Forgotten Kingdom in the July/August 2014 issue of BAR
We present here two reviews of Israel Finkelstein’s recently published The Forgotten Kingdom.
The first review is by William G. Dever, one of America’s leading archaeologists. Finkelstein is one of Israel’s leading archaeologists. I am not enough of a scholar to assess the validity of some of Dever’s judgments. Both Dever and Finkelstein are not only highly respected archaeologists but also long-time friends of mine.
My primary devotion as editor of BAR, however, is to our readers. Most of them, like me, are not scholars. They probably do not feel entirely competent to judge all of Dever’s conclusions—either pro or con. After reading this review, I asked myself, what would they tell me to do? I concluded that most of them would say something like this: “Dever’s review sounds quite convincing, but I would like to hear what another scholar has to say about Finkelstein’s book.”
So I asked another highly regarded scholar and archaeologist, Aaron Burke, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, to write a second review of Finkelstein’s book. Professor Burke was told that his would be a second review, but he was not told who the first reviewer was, and he was not told any of the views or conclusions reached by the first reviewer. Both reviews are presented below.—H.S.
It is impossible to summarize Israel Finkelstein’s latest book, The Forgotten Kingdom, in a brief review because its numerous errors, misrepresentations, over-simplifications and contradictions make it too unwieldy. Specialists will know these flaws, since all of Finkelstein’s pivotal views have been published elsewhere. Here I can only alert unwary BAR readers that this book is not really about sound historical scholarship: It is all about theater. Finkelstein is a magician, conjuring a “lost kingdom” by sleight-of-hand, intending to convince readers that the illusion is real and expecting that they will go away marveling at how clever the magician is. Finkelstein was once an innovative scholar, pioneering new methods; now he has become a showman. A tragic waste of talent, energy and charm—and a detriment to our discipline.
This book is such a good read, so drama-filled, so clever that it took me—a specialist—a bit of time to see through it. For example, Finkelstein reconstructs an early Israelite “sanctuary” at Shiloh (where he excavated) to give it the necessary prominence in Israel’s formative period (pp. 23–27; 49, 50). He makes three arguments: (1) Although he now admits that he found no archaeological evidence (as he claimed in his original excavation report on Shiloh), the Bible’s “cultural memory” nevertheless requires that there must have been such a cult-place there. (2) In Iron I (1200–1000 B.C.E.—Israel’s formative period) there “was not a single house” at Shiloh, only public buildings. (3) Shiloh was later destroyed, just as implied in the Hebrew Bible.
What are the facts?
(1) All of Finkelstein’s evidence of a “cult-place” at Shiloh is circumstantial; he himself admits this.
(2) He interprets the well-known Iron I pillar-courtyard House A at Shiloh that was originally excavated by a Danish expedition and later reinvestigated by himself as a public building only because it contains “too many” storejars (as many as 20). Yet his own Iron I house excavated at Megiddo (o/K/10)—published explicitly as an “ordinary private house”—contained more than 40 large storejars. And he can presume the absence of other private houses at Shiloh only because few other areas have been excavated, and where they have been excavated other houses are known.
(3) As for reliance on the Hebrew Bible’s “cultural memory” (the latest fad in Biblical studies), Finkelstein has famously rejected this “cultural memory” as unreliable. And he has castigated other archaeologists for invoking it! Yet here (and elsewhere) he does not hesitate to appeal to Biblical tradition when it suits his purposes. As for evidence of Shiloh’s destruction c. 1050 B.C.E. at the hands of the Philistines, Finkelstein cites not archaeological evidence, but only Jeremiah 7:12–14; 26:6–9, which he admits refers rather to Shiloh’s destruction by the Assyrians in the late eighth century B.C.E. (impossible even then, since the site was deserted). He himself is driven to fall back on the Bible’s “cultural memory.”
In sum, Finkelstein’s “early cult center at Shiloh” is a fantasy, a product of his imagination.
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Fundamental to Finkelstein’s entire reconstruction of the history of the northern kingdom of Israel is a “Saulide polity,” from its center at Gibeon all the way up to the Jezreel Valley (pp. 37–43, 52–61).
Again, what are the facts? (1) The stratigraphy and chronology of James Pritchard’s excavations at Gibeon (Tell el-Jib) are notoriously flawed, so much so that the scant evidence for the Iron I period cannot be dated within a margin of less than a century; it cannot be used for any historical reconstruction (there are not even any stratum numbers in the excavation reports). (2) Finkelstein’s only evidence for an administrative center at Gibeon is the supposed plan of a casemate wall (Fig. 11:2, drawn up by a student). Yet even a casual glance reveals nothing but a short stretch of a broken single wall abutted by two ephemeral wall fragments. (3) With regard to the claim that Saul ruled from a sort of capital at Gibeon, the only Biblical references are to his having visited there once, and being remembered in David’s day as having slaughtered its inhabitants, who were not even Israelites (cf. 2 Samuel 21:1ff.).1
Finkelstein has simply invented out of whole cloth a “Saulide polity at Gibeon.”
The real point of this book is to argue that the Biblical “United Monarchy” of David and Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E. is a later fiction, concocted by the southern, Judahite-biased Biblical writers. The real “Israelite state,” according to Finkelstein, is the northern kingdom of Israel, and even this arose only in the ninth century B.C.E., that is, in the days of the Omrides (as Finkelstein has claimed for some 20 years).
Just look at what Finkelstein’s “Saulide polity” would actually imply, using his own assumptions and assertions: (1) Saul was a Judahite, a southerner of the tribe of Benjamin. (2) Gibeon was a southern site, only 6 miles from Jerusalem. (3) Saul is rightly regarded as a historical figure, a king, dated correctly to the early tenth century B.C.E. at latest. (4) Saul’s effective rule extended through Samaria (!) up to the Jezreel Valley in the north. Thus there was a tenth-century kingdom that embraced both Judah and Samaria, ruled from a Judahite capital. In other words, Finkelstein’s “Saulide polity” is in fact much the same as the Bible’s “United Monarchy”—established even before the time of David and Solomon. The irony is that this time Finkelstein has been so clever that he has outwitted himself. With his imagined “Saulide polity,” his oft-repeated claim that the northern kingdom of Israel is a late development, independent from Judah, unrecognized until he discovered it, falls apart. So does this book.
The other pillar on which Finkelstein’s rediscovered northern kingdom rests is his vaunted “low chronology,” in which he down-dates the previously accepted dates for the origins of Israel by as much as a hundred years. Yet this, too, is regarded by most mainstream archaeologists as without substantial foundations. First suggested some 20 years ago, Finkelstein has tirelessly championed his “low chronology” ever since. Here he presents it without so much as a single reference to its numerous critiques, some of them devastating (as Kletter 2004; Ben Tor and Ben Ami 1998; Dever 1997; Mazar 2007; Stager 2003; and others).2 In numerous publications over 20 years, Finkelstein has relentlessly reworked the stratigraphy and chronology of site after site, not only in Israel and the West Bank, but even in Jordan, in order to defend his “low chronology.”
In fact, there has never been any unequivocal empirical evidence in support of the “low chronology.” Only some carbon-14 dates offer any evidence at all, and many other dates support the conventional chronology (as at Tel Rehov, which Finkelstein never cites here). At best, the low chronology is a possibility for a 40-year, not a 100-year, adjustment. Even this is not probable, and it is certainly not proven.
Yet on this flimsy foundation Finkelstein rests his entire elaborate reconstruction, with far-reaching implications for southern Levantine and Israelite history. Set that scheme aside, and Finkelstein’s claim to have discovered a “lost kingdom” disappears in smoke—a book without any rationale.
What’s going on here? It took me a while to figure it out. What Finkelstein is doing is gradually distancing himself from the extremes of his low chronology—without ever admitting he is doing so—and counting on the likelihood that readers will not check his “facts.” Even he now realizes that a Judahite state did exist in the tenth century B.C.E. and that it could have extended its rule to the north. He cannot bring himself to admit that David and Solomon were real tenth-century kings since he is on record as denying the existence of any Judahite state before the eighth century B.C.E. (or lately, the ninth century). So he does an end run around the impasse by distracting attention to their predecessor Saul as king!
Ever since the discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa a decade ago, where Judahite state-formation is clear by the early tenth centurya (and Finkelstein accepts this early date), his “low chronology” has been progressively undermined. It should be abandoned.3
In this book Finkelstein has not “discovered a lost kingdom”; he has invented it. The careful reader will nevertheless gain some insights into Israel—Israel Finkelstein, that is.
Monumental discoveries from the excavations at the fortified site of Khirbet Qeiyafa have redefined the debate over Judah’s early history. In “Khirbet Qeiyafa and Tel Lachish Excavations Explore Early Kingdom of Judah,” learn about new evidence of an extensive civil administration during the time of King David and why the Qeiyafa archaeologists are heading to Lachish.
Israel Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom invites us to reconsider the archaeology and history of the northern kingdom of Israel in an effort to integrate the most recent textual and archaeological approaches. It is an ambitious work that few would attempt—or be capable of. Such an effort is commendable; this might be the first book-length treatment to try to give us an archaeological and Biblical text-critical synthesis of ancient Israel’s history.
Prior works on the archaeology of ancient Israel, which are now more than 20 years old, largely sought to catalog archaeological finds without rewriting or recasting the accepted historical narrative of the Bible for the Iron Age. Such approaches are unsatisfying for a lack of rigorous engagement with a wide range of methodologies common in Biblical studies. As he explains in the introduction, Finkelstein instead seeks to use archaeology to provide a sense of the historical development of the northern kingdom of Israel (the “forgotten” kingdom of his title), which lost much of its identity to Judah in the Biblical account. To do this, Finkelstein musters not only a wide geographical scope of data, but he also takes a longer historical perspective. He draws heavily on his own personal accomplishments, which are highlighted as “the personal perspective”—not only his excavations and surveys but more recently his “Exact Sciences” research initiative.
At the outset Finkelstein describes what we might call the background of power in the northern highlands. This is an important starting point for Finkelstein’s entire premise, namely the independent character of the northern kingdom of Israel. The underlying goal is to articulate an evolutionary trajectory for Iron Age political organization in the northern highlands that is independent of the traditional understanding of the northern kingdom’s relationship to a United Monarchy of Israel, as depicted in the Biblical narrative, which is centered instead on Jerusalem. Finkelstein reconstructs a so-called Shechem polity during the Late Bronze Age, which is intended to reveal a long historical trajectory of political and socio-economic developments that evolves into the Iron Age kingdom of Israel, long before the appearance of the southern kingdom of Judah.
The Egyptian 14th-century B.C.E. Amarna letters, from a time when Egypt controlled Canaan, play a central role in Finkelstein’s discussion. The problem, however, as Finkelstein recognizes, is that although “the land of Shechem” appears prominently in the Amarna correspondence, it is impossible to identify it with any certainty as the central and strongest polity in the northern highlands, particularly since neither Labayu, the leader of an insurgency against Egyptian rule, nor his sons is ever identified as ruler of Shechem and its territory.
Consequently, this central tenet of Finkelstein’s argument in support of the prominence of a polity in the northern highlands (and all of Finkelstein’s speculation therefrom) does not follow from the evidence he adduces. Indeed, it seems that Finkelstein’s Labayu tradition here serves only as a surrogate to support the origin of the Iron Age northern kingdom of Israel. Finkelstein simply uses Labayu to replace the role of the United Monarchy in the tenth century as the origin of Israel (and Judah). This reconstruction, while entirely plausible, does not replace the explanatory framework provided by the Davidic tradition in the Bible. The fact is that we know next to nothing about the northern highlands in the early Iron IIA, as Finkelstein’s own review makes plain.
The textual record for this early period is very limited; therefore, archaeological evidence and a wider regional perspective are essential to the reconstruction Finkelstein is attempting here. Nevertheless, his treatment remains entirely textual. Only passing references are made, for example, to pre-Iron Age settlements at Judahite Shechem, Jerusalem and Hebron, each of which experienced comparable, developmental trajectories as Shiloh, as revealed in their archaeological records. Only Shiloh, which is never identified as a Bronze Age polity and is important only as a cult center in later Biblical tradition, receives any substantive discussion by Finkelstein.4
From the Iron Age I onward, Finkelstein’s discussion centers largely on an acceptance of the lowest version of his famous “low chronology.” For those who may not recognize immediately what is at stake here, to put it simply, if one shifts the dates of archaeological phenomena later in time, one will be required to identify different sets of events to which these phenomena correlate. Consequently, if one cannot accept these dates, there is little basis to accept most of the nuances of Finkelstein’s ensuing analysis. Unfortunately, his chronology continues to rest exclusively on Megiddo, his own site, with very limited acknowledgment of the results of his discussion with Amihai Mazar, Bronk Ramsey and others from sites such as Rehov, Khirbet en-Nahas and Tel Dor. This is strange since the book’s framework otherwise concedes a less-than-fully-realized “low chronology.” Indeed, Finkelstein’s positions in this book are sometimes tortuously maintained in the face of contravening data.5
I conclude by turning to Finkelstein’s persistent minimizing of the role played in the northern kingdom’s development by a historical David and a United Monarchy, however short-lived it may have been. Finkelstein must do this, however, to create a lacuna that can then be filled by the northern kingdom of Israel, despite the absence of evidence for any such process occurring in the northern highlands until the ninth century B.C.E. Since Finkelstein is unable to demonstrate an unequivocal basis for the indigenous origins of political power in the northern highlands, his central argument fails.
Few Biblical archaeology discoveries have attracted as much attention as the Tel Dan inscription, the first historical evidence of King David from the Bible.
Even if one adopts a more limited view of David’s accomplishments than the Bible gives him, he remains a foundational figure of the United Kingdom. Finkelstein’s analysis, both textual and archaeological, cannot be reconciled with a founding Biblical figure (David), whose existence is already corroborated by extra-Biblical inscriptional data, that is, the Tel Dan inscription.b This inscription evidences not only David’s existence but also the dynasty he established.
Concededly, a clear fingerprint of David’s patrimonial kingdom may be elusive, contrary to earlier scholarly expectations, but how is this any less the case for what is lacking in the north to illustrate the legacy of political legitimacy in the northern highlands, as Finkelstein asserts? Finkelstein makes allowances in his reconstruction of an early Iron IIA polity in the north, but he is unwilling to do that for the southern highlands. This is a major weakness of his work.
Although Finkelstein’s greatest career achievement may be the demonstration of the value of hard sciences to traditional Biblical archaeology, in this book he wades deep into the morass of traditional text-critical studies of the Bible only to demonstrate how unsatisfying the results can be. The book is replete with speculative reconstructions that depend on a series of assumptions about chronology and Biblical history that cannot be substantiated. Thus his book lacks an articulated methodology. His effort here to integrate Biblical text-studies with archaeology only reveals both how difficult such an enterprise is and fundamentally how uncertain the results will be. Most of all, it reminds us that we must take a more evenhanded approach to the application of the assumptions and the allowances we make when attempting historical reconstructions of the Biblical periods.
For the French edition of The Forgotten Kingdom, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has recently been awarded the prestigious Delalande-Guérineau prize by the Paris-based Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
William G. Dever is professor emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. Prior to that he served for four years as director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (now the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research). A world-renowned archaeologist, Professor Dever has dug at numerous sites in Jordan and Israel. He served as director of the major excavations at Gezer from 1966 to 1971. His most recent book, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel, was published in 2012 (Eerdmans).
Aaron Burke is associate professor of the archaeology of the Levant and ancient Israel at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the codirector of the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project, which coordinates the research and preservation of the archaeological site of Jaffa, and is the author of “Walled up to Heaven”: The Evolution of the Middle Bronze Age Fortification Strategies in the Levant (Eisenbrauns, 2008).
a. See Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil, “An Ending and a Beginning,” BAR, November/December 2013; Christopher A. Rollston, “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” and Gerard Leval, “Ancient Inscription Refers to Birth of Israelite Monarchy,” BAR, May/June 2012; Hershel Shanks, “Newly Discovered: A Fortified City from King David’s Time,” BAR, January/February 2009.
1. As for Finkelstein’s additional claim that Gibeon ceased to be a district center when it “paid tribute,” but was destroyed in the mid- to late tenth century raid of Pharaoh Shoshenq, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for such a “destruction.” And while Gibeon is mentioned in the Shoshenq list (no. 23), there is no reference there (or in the Bible) to either tribute or a destruction (the mention of tribute in 2 Kings 14:25, 26 refers only to Jerusalem).
2. See the following works, none cited by Finkelstein: Amnon Ben-Tor and Doron Ben-Ami, “Hazor and the Archaeology of the Tenth Century B.C.E.,” Israel Exploration Journal 48 (1998), pp. 1–37; William G. Dever, “Archaeology, Urbanism and the Rise of the Israelite State,” in Walter E. Aufrecht, Neil A. Mirau and Steven W. Gauley, eds., Aspects of Urbanism in Antiquity, From Mesopotamia to Crete (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), pp. 172–193; Lawrence E. Stager, “The Patrimonial Kingdom of Solomon,” in William G. Dever and Seymour Gitin, eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism and the Power of the Past: Canaan, Ancient Israel and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age Through Roman Palaestina (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003), pp. 63–74; Raz Kletter, “Chronology and United Monarchy: A Methodological Review,” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palastina-Vereins 120 (2004), pp. 13–54; Amihai Mazar, “The Spade and the Text: The Interaction Between Archaeology and Israelite History,” in H.G.M. Williamson, ed., Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 143–171.
3. Among the book’s many other distortions, I can list here only a few: (1) Finkelstein claims carbon-14 dates have corrected the dates of Ramses III (p. 24). Actually they are exactly the same. (2) Finkelstein claims Shechem was destroyed at the end of the Late Bronze Age (p. 22). The excavators have emphasized that it was not. (3) Finkelstein claims that Tell Keisan, Tel Kinrot, Tel Reḥov, Yokneam and Dor were all “Canaanite city-states” (p. 30). But “city-state” is never defined, and at least two that are so claimed are Phoenician, one is probably Aramaic, and none would actually qualify as a city-state. (4) Finkelstein claims that there are dozens, even hundreds, of carbon-14 dates supporting the “low chronology” (p. 33); in the latest Megiddo report (Megiddo IV), there are three published for the pivotal Stratum VA/IVB, and if anything they support the conventional chronology. (5) Finkelstein claims that Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C.E. was a poor village with no monumental architecture (p. 43). Even Finkelstein’s colleague Nadav Na’aman disagrees with him, as nearly all archaeologists do. (6) Finkelstein radically challenges conventional dates by putting the Iron I/IIA transition in the second half of the tenth century B.C.E. (p. 64). That’s scarcely later than most, and even earlier than Amihai Mazar’s “modified” conventional chronology. Finkelstein claims that Hazor X was destroyed in the late ninth century (840–800 B.C.E.), as confirmed by carbon-14 dates (pp. 75, 122). But no evidence is cited for this, and excavator Amnon Ben-Tor disagrees. (8) Finkelstein claims that those scholars who see Jerusalem as an early state capital are “desperate,” Bible-based people (p. 80). That tells us who is really desperate. (9) For the view that the Field III city gate at Gezer dates to the ninth century B.C.E., Finkelstein cites me (William G. Dever et al., “Further Excavations at Gezer, 1967–1971,” Biblical Archaeologist 34 , p. 103). I never said anything of the sort—quite the opposite. (10) Finkelstein says that Megiddo in the ninth century B.C.E. was “set aside for breeding and training horses” for chariotry (pp. 113; 133–135). Some of his own staff members (and others) dispute the famous “stables” in Megiddo IV. (11) Finkelstein claims that Tel Masos near Beersheba was the center of a far-flung “desert polity” in the tenth century B.C.E. (p. 126). But the relevant Stratum II follows a massive destruction of the walled town, and the scant remains consist of only a few tattered houses. There hardly seems any point in continuing. Finkelstein simply does not care much about facts, as many have long since concluded.
4. While Finkelstein acknowledges that Hazor, a major site in his analysis of the Iron Age northern kingdom, was “probably the most important city-state in the north” (p. 21), neither its Late Bronze Age nor Iron I phases are discussed, presumably because it would complicate the highland-centered interpretive framework he offers. The weakness of this analysis is the mistaken assumption that chapter one establishes a Braudelian longue durée perspective (as explicitly stated but only in the concluding chapter), when in fact this analysis does not meet those criteria.
5. For example, at the start of one particular paragraph we are told that the transition from Iron I to Iron IIA “should probably be fixed … in the beginning of the second half of the tenth” century (i.e., 950 B.C.E.; p. 63). This is, however, substantially later than Finkelstein’s low chronology start date of 920 B.C.E. by 30 years, or it is half the distance between the start date for Iron IIA in the so-called Low Chronology date (920 B.C.E.) and that of the Modified Conventional Chronology (980 B.C.E.). (Keep in mind that such seemingly small decadal shifts in the chronology is what we are fundamentally talking about, whether in connection with the shortening of David and Solomon’s reigns as raised by the Biblical tradition—to less than the 40 years each assigned to them—or in the shifting of the start dates of Iron IIA later.) However, at the end of the same paragraph we are asked to accept that Finkelstein would place the transition between 940/930 B.C.E. (a figure seemingly grabbed out of thin air), conceding 10 to 20 years on the 920 date for no explicitly stated reason (p. 94). Attentive readers will wonder what they are missing, given that three different dates are suggested for the start of the Iron IIA (i.e., 950, 940/930 and 920). The answer would be a litany of relevant publications that are not discussed.
“Divided Kingdom, United Critics” was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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