By William G. Dever
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), x + 158 pp., 24 maps and drawings, $25.99 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Jennie Ebeling
Fifty years since the death of William F. Albright, the “father” of American biblical archaeology, the aims of archaeological research in Israel and the surrounding areas have changed almost beyond recognition. This is due less to the many technological developments in field archaeology, I would argue, and more to the fact that very few professional archaeologists working in Israel, Jordan, and elsewhere today claim to dig with the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other. Albright and his contemporaries—most of them Protestant biblical scholars and ordained ministers—believed that the primary (if not sole) value of archaeological work in the Holy Land was to provide physical confirmation of biblical events and people. Twenty-first century archaeologists, however, engage with a broad range of historical and anthropological questions in a similar way to their colleagues working in other parts of the world, where the historicity of the Bible doesn’t enter the equation.
As many scholars have noted, Albrightian-style biblical archaeology began to fade away in the second half of the 20th century, as its practitioners adopted the standards of professional archaeologists in North America and Europe. In addition, many came to realize that archaeology had failed to offer evidence for the historicity of certain pivotal biblical events that Albright and his contemporaries had said it would: the migration of Abraham and Sarah from Mesopotamia to Canaan, the giving of the law and covenant to Moses at Mt. Sinai, the Exodus and Israelite conquest of Canaan, the establishment of divine kingship in Israel, and the unique and divinely ordained development of ancient Israel’s religion and culture. Since faith (for some) was dependent upon whether or not these events had actually occurred, archaeology’s inability to provide physical proof of these events led to disillusionment. How, many wondered, could archaeology inform on theological questions given its failure to shed light on these central events?
Meanwhile, the public remains keenly interested in how archaeology can inform on the world of the Bible. Archaeologists leverage this specialized interest to raise financial support and awareness while also distancing themselves from the narrow kind of biblical archaeology practiced a century ago. And although some American archaeologists working in the region might find their personal beliefs supported by their research, few would likely admit to digging with the explicit goal of revealing moral lessons and truths by which to live in the 21st century. This is what makes William G. Dever’s recent book Has Archaeology Buried the Bible? so surprising.
In this book, the prolific and outspoken archaeologist who played an important role in orienting biblical archaeology away from the concerns of its early parochial practitioners boldly asserts that archaeological discoveries can serve as moral guides. In addition to its value for illuminating the biblical world in general and ancient Israel in particular, Dever argues, archaeology can help modern readers “find things that they can still believe in reading the Bible—things for which they need to offer no apologies” (p. 144).
Rather than recount archaeology’s failure to reveal biblical truth as the title playfully suggests, Dever elevates archaeology’s profile in biblical interpretation and religious belief. In this concise and clearly written volume, Dever is careful not to claim that the Hebrew Bible is an essential basis for moral values, but he also argues that it remains the primary source of authority for most in the Western world. In my view, if we are not to reject the Bible altogether as a source of moral lessons due to its many problematic elements (genocide, misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc.), then we must read it critically with new eyes using knowledge unearthed by archaeologists of the recent generation.
Dever illustrates throughout the book how archaeological discoveries offer a more authentic portrait of ancient Israel in all its complexity and diversity by shedding light on the everyday lives of the non-elites, who comprised 99 percent of its population—giving voice to those “who sleep in the dust” (Daniel 12:2). Archaeological discoveries, Dever argues, have brought about a revolution in our understanding of the Bible, although not in the way that Albright and others envisioned a century ago. Readers can determine for themselves if this new understanding enriches their spiritual lives by offering answers to questions that early biblical archaeologists would not have even thought to ask.
Jennie Ebeling is Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Evansville. Her research focuses on ancient food technologies and women in Canaan and ancient Israel. She co-directed the Jezreel Expedition.
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Has archeology buried the Bible? It just as well be said that it uncovers what we don’t understand. Writing in 2022, this is just as true as ever. It was reported this week:
IAA archeologist were examining vessels that were exposed in the Rameses II cave uncovered in Palmahim National Park. “An exceptional discovery from the time of Rameses II, the Pharaoh associated [ by some ] with the Exodus.”
The findings date to the reign of Rameses II, who controlled Canaan, a territory that roughly encompassed modern day Israel and the Palestinian territories. Ramses II, living 90 years ( 1303 – 1213 BC) reigned from 1279 BC. Now if he is associated with the events of Exodus, especially as the reigning pharaoh, as many popular sources suggest ( from Thomas Mann to Cecil B. DeMille), then Ramses II era living quarters in a bustling Egyptian town just outside Tel Aviv…. These things pose significant questions. Such as: Does that mean Moses and the Israelites wandered 40 years (say to 1173 BC) in the neighboring deserts only to return to Egyptian territory? What’s more, the mummy of Ramses II is on display in an Egyptian museum and not at rest in the Red Sea or the “Sea of Reeds”.
Let me be the first to say that I don’t know how all this can be sorted out. But we are left with much more mystery than literal interpreters of the text would lead us to believe. At the very least, if Ramses II was not the monarch of an Exodus, then arrival in Canaan or the Promised Land would be pushed into more recent times. Or, to cite the example in the book of Joshua of the sun being stopped in its tracks in the sky to allow the Israelites to complete a rout in battle, to which we are also referred to a no-longer extant text as a reference – it didn’t happen that way. In a heliocentric system, the Earth rotates on its axis and in turn revolves around the sun.
At some point we are still faced with the issue of determining which stories are fully or in part fables and which are true. And since we are not perfect, in many cases, we might change our minds – several times.
We just have to keep digging.
If the inerrancy of scripture is easy or the 21st century diggers to grasp, then I guess you don’t need the money from us old dinosaurs anymore. Dever has been at the head of that movement and while he has a few…VERY FEW..good points, I prefer to listen to Jesus when He says “It is written.” The facts of history that Dever ignores are pretty obvious. That conquering factions have ALWAYS did their best to destroy conquered civilizations and bury them under mounds of not only dirt, but planted artifacts from their own cultures in hopes of fooling those who come after to try to get to the truth. But it seems the climate today wants us Bible believers to just die so Scripture may be deemed irrelevant. But prophecy still holds the high ground. The world blames everything on climate change while the Bible told us that the viles would be poured out on the world. The longest lasting pandemic in history kind of proves that, so I’ll stick with Biblical eschatology!
Dr. Ebeling states “if we are not to reject the Bible altogether as a source of moral lessons….” Perhaps, she should read my book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (JPS & Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2017), to understand exactly how ethical the Hebrew Bible was – not only in the ancient Near East but, also, in comparison to even modern democratic societies. I don’t claim that the Hebrew Bible was ethically perfect – it was not – but on many levels it was incomparably better than what was and what is.
A common human trait is to believe what one wants to believe, which produces the common human tendency to prejudiced reasoning, that is, reasoning skewed by preconceived notions and concepts that one unwittingly has accepted as true, especially in one’s formative years, without ever examining the basis for them. No more stark proof of this human condition could be found than in the success of bona fide liars like Hitler and Trump. When it comes to the Bible, likewise, people have had their minds made up–for them. Take the biblical account of the Exodus, for example. If its details are true, Mt. Sinai cannot possibly be in the Sinai Peninsula, but would have to be east of the Gulf of Aqaba, which, by the way, is clearly identified in the Bible by the same name applied to the body of water of the Exodus miracle. However, tradition misleads honest inquiry, and so vain is the search for proof of Mt. Sinai’s existence in the Sinai Penîsula..
i just finished reading this book via my Kindle. Am a loong time reader of BAR. Jennie Ebeling’s summary & review is superbly well-written, as well as spot-on while delicately avoiding offending the Faithful as best one can in light of the Science. Well Done!!!