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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