Archaeology refutes the Bible's claim to history
(Top Posts - History - 043002)

The following provides a detailed analysis of a book
which provides details on why the fundamentalist/
literalist interpretation of the pentateuch, the christian
bible, and the quran, fall far short when it comes to
the historical claims made in those documents.

In essence, aside from the problem many have with
all of the miracles claimed in those documents, when
it comes right down to it, many of the historical claims
of people / places / events in those documents are mere
fabrications and inventions of superstitious peoples in
a day and age in which creativity in explaining unknowns
was indistinguishable from the manner in which tribes
and groups of people bowed to gods.

Once you understand that "In the beginning ..." is not
only full of myths about gods/other-worlds/spirits -but-
also full of myths about people/places/events in early
history, of what utility are any of the myths built upon
the early myths? In other words, once "god" evaporates,
how can there be anything but a mythical "son of god"
called Jesus or a mythical "prophet of god" called Jesus
or Mohammed.

Even if a Jesus man or Mohammed man existed upon
which religions were based, anyone treating them as con-
tacts with the "god" of the pentateuch, christian bible, or
quran has the unsettling task of dealing with documents
originating in myth - if you claim to be a son of myth or
to have contact with a myth or to be a prophet of a myth,
you can be nothing more than a mythmaker your own
self. You cannot undo the myth-spin-machine, once you
start with "In the Beginning..." being little more than myth-
making for political gain.

- - - begin complete article - - -

Harper's Magazine, March 2002

Archaeology refutes the Bible's claim to history
By Daniel Lazare

Not long ago, archaeologists could agree that the Old
Testament, for all its embellishments and contradictions,
contained a kernel of truth.

Obviously, Moses had not parted the Red Sea or turned
his staff into a snake, but it seemed clear that the Israelites
had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the
vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated
first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following
some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled
into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure
who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a
high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult
had been overthrown in a palace coup.

Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confi-
dent that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these
few basic facts.

That is no longer the case.

In the last quarter century or so, archaeologists have seen
one settled assumption after another concerning who the
ancient Israelites were and where they came from proved

Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into
the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been
an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan
River around 1200 B.C.

Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have
been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.

The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought
as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an inven-
tion of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth
centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national

The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into
the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most,
a product of the mid-first.

This is not to say that individual elements of the story are
not older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive
worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did
not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian
conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722
B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern king-
dom of Judah in 586.

Some twelve to fourteen centuries of "Abrahamic" reli-
gious development, the cultural wellspring that has given
us not only Judaism but Islam and Christianity, have thus
been erased.

Judaism appears to have been the product not of some
dark and nebulous period of early history but of a more
modern age of big-power politics in which every nation
aspired to the imperial greatness of a Babylon or an

Judah, the sole remaining Jewish outpost by the late
eighth century B.C., was a small, out-of-the-way king-
dom with little in the way of military or financial clout.

Yet at some point its priests and rulers seem to have been
seized with the idea that their national deity, now deemed
to be nothing less than the king of the universe, was about
to transform them into a great power.

They set about creating an imperial past commensurate
with such an empire, one that had the southern heroes of
David and Solomon conquering the northern kingdom
and making rival kings tremble throughout the known

From a "henotheistic" cult in which Yahweh was wor-
shiped as the chief god among many, they refashioned the
national religion so that henceforth Yahweh would be wor-
shiped to the exclusion of all other deities. One law, that
of Yahweh, would now reign supreme.

This is not, of course, the story that we have all been led
to believe is, at least to some those who hold degree,

This is not the story told; for instance, in such tomes as
Paul Johnson's 1987 bestseller, A History of the Jews,
from which we learn that Abraham departed the ancient
city of Ur early in the second millennium B.C. as part of
a great westward trek of "Habiru" (i.e., Hebrew): nomads
to the land of everything Canaan.

"[T]hough the monotheistic concept was not fully devel-
oped in [Abraham's] mind," Johnson writes, "he was a
man striving towards it, who left Mesopotamian society
preciseiy because it had reached a spiritual impasse."

Now, however; we know that this statement is mainly

Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as
Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there
is no way such a figure could have lived given what we
now know about ancient Israelite origins.

A few pages later, Johnson declares that "we can be
reasonably sure that the Exodus occurred in the thirteenth
century B.C. and had been completed by about 1225 B.C."

Bosh as well.

A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border
defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites suppos-
edly camped, etc. indicates that the flight from Egypt did
not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never
occurred at all.

Although Johnson writes that the story of Moses had to
be true because it "was beyond the power of the human
mind to invent," we now know that Moses was no more
historically real than Abraham before him.

Although Johnson adds that Joshua, Moses's lieutenant,
"began and to a great extent completed the conquest of
Canaan," the Old Testament account of that conquest
turns out to be fictional as well.

And although Johnson goes on to inform his readers that
after bottling up the Philistines in a narrow coastal strip,
King David "then moved east, south and north, establishing
his authority over Ammon, Moab, Edom, Aram-Zobar and
even Aram-Damascus in the far north-east," archaeologists
believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power
was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a free-
booter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in
the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron.

Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays
is between those who hold that David was a petty, hilltop
chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles
in any direction and a small but vociferous band of "bib-
lical minimalists" who maintain that he never existed at all.

In classic Copernican fashion, a new generation of arch-
aeologists has taken everything its teachers said about
ancient Israel and stood it on its head.

Two myths are being dismantled as a consequence: one
concerning the origins of ancient Israel and the other
concerning the relationship between the Bible and science.

Back in the days when archaeology was buttressing the
old biblicaltales, the relationship between science and
religon had warmed considerably; now the old chill has
crept back in.

The comfy ecumenicism that allowed one to believe in,
say, modern physics and Abraham, Isaac, et al. is dis-
appearing; replaced by a somewhat sharper dividing line
between science and faith.

The implications are sweeping--after all, it is not the Song
of the Nibelungen or the Epic of Gilgamesh that is being
called into question here but a series of foundational myths
to which fully half the world's population, in one way or
another, subscribes.

So how did such a glorious revolution come to be? As is
usually the case, we must first look to when cracks started
developing in the ancient rigeime.

Ironically, the new archaeology represents something of
a circling back to what was once known as the "Higher
Criticism," a largely German school of biblical study that
relied solely on linguistic and textual analysts.

By the late nineteenth century members of this school
had arrived at the conclusion that the first five books
of the Old Testament--variously known as the Five
Books of Moses, the Torah, or the Pentateuch--were
not written by Moses himself, as tradition would have

Rather, they were largely products of a "postexilic
period" in which Jewish scribes, newly released from
captivity in Babylon, set about putting a jumbled col-
lection of ancient writings into some sort of coherent

The Higher Criticism did not topple the Old Testament
as a whole, but it did conclude that Abraham, Isaac, and
the other tribal founders depicted in the Book of Genesis
were no more real than the heroes of Greek or Norse

As the German scholar Julius Wellhausen put it in the
1870s: "The whole literary character and loose connection
of the .... story of the patriarchs reveal how gradually its
different elements were, brought together, and how little
they have coalesced into a unity."

Rather than a chronicle of genuine events, the history that
Genesis set forth was an artificial construct, a narrative
framework created long after the facts in order to link
together a series of unconnected folktales like pearls on
a string.

If the linguists of the Higher Criticism were generally skep-
tical in regard to the Old Testament, modern biblical arch-
aeology as it began taking shape in the early nineteenth
century was something entirely different.

The first modem archaeologists to set foot in the Holy
Land were New England Congregationalists determined
to make use of rigorous scientific methods in order to
strip away centuries of what they regarded as Roman
Catholic superstition and prejudice.

As the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson, who
first came to Palestine in 1838, put it, he would accept
nothing until it was absolutely proven.

And yet, as a dutiful Calvinist, Robinson assumed from
the outset that whatever he uncovered would broadly
confirm what he had learned years earlier in Sunday

Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly
sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored.

British archaeologists set sail a generation later with an
even more explicit set of preconceptions. As the Arch-
bishop of York told the newly created Palestine Explor-
ation Fund in London in 1865,

This country of Palestine belongs to you and to me, it
is essentially ours. It was given to the Father of Israel
[i.e., Abraham] in the words: "Walk through the land in
the length of it, and in the breadth of it, for I will give it
unto thee." We mean to walk through Palestine in the
length and in the breadth of it, because that land has
been given unto us...

The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the
most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing
the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them
into a preconceived theoretical framework.

Another layer of political mystification was added in the
twentieth century by Zionist pioneers eager for evidence
that the Jewish claim to the Holy Land was every bit as
ancient as the Old Testament said it was.

In 1928 members of a settlement known as Beth Alpha
uncovered an ancient synagogue mosaic while digging an
irrigation ditch. Since the settlers were members of a left-
wing faction known as Hashomer Hatzair, it was inevitable
that some would argue that the find should be left to the
dustbin of history and that the work of building a modern
agricultural settlement should continue uninterrupted.

But others recognized its significance: the more evidence
they uncovered of an ancient Jewish presence in the Holy
Land, the more they would succeed in legitimizing a modern
colonization effort.

As the number of digs multiplied and turned into a national
passion, what the Israeli archaeologist Eliezer Sukenik
described as a specifically "Jewish archaeology" was born.

The result was a happy union of science, religion, and pol-
itics that by the 1950s would eventually bring together
everyone from Christian fundamentalists in the American
heartland to the Israeli military establishment.

When David Ben-Gurion, the founder of modern Israel,
spoke of a sweeping offensive in the 1948 War of Indepen-
dence, he did so in language purposely evocative of the
Book of Joshua.

The armies of Israel, he declared, had "struck the kings of
Lod and Ramleh, the kings of Belt Naballa and Deir Tarif,
the kings of Kola and Migdal Zedek..."

Yigael Yadin, Eliezer Sukenik's son, who was not only
Israel's leading archaeologist but a top military commander,
referred to an Israeli military incursion into the Sinai by
quipping that it was the first time Israeli forces had set
foot on the peninsula in 3,400 years.

All assumed that the ancient events Israel claimed to be
reenacting had actually occurred.

The politicization of archaeology reached something of
a climax in the early 1960s, when Yadin was put in com-
mand of the excavation of Masada, a hilltop fortress
where nearly 1,000 Jewish warriors had committed sui-
cide rather than surrender to the Romans in A.D. 73.

In Yadin's hands, Masada emerged as Israel's preeminent
nationalist shrine, a place where military recruits were
assembled to take an oath of allegiance in dramatic night-
time ceremonies--this despite complaints on the part of a
few scholars that evidence for a mass suicide was lacking
and that there was reason to believe that ancient accounts
of the event were deliberately falsified.

Around this time, the pop novelist James Michener summed
up the state of official belief in his heavy-breathing bestseller
The Source (which this writer savored as a teenager).

Using a fictional archaeological dig to weave a series of
tales about Palestinian life from prehistoric times to the
modern era, Michener briskly laid out the middlebrow ortho-
doxy of the day: i.e., that God had entered into a pact with
the ancient Israelites early in the second millennium B.C.,
that Jews had dominated the Holy Land for some 2,000
years thereafter, and that with the birth of modern Israel
they were claiming their birthright.

"Deuteronomy is so real to me," Michener has a fictional
Israeli archaeologist declare, "that I feel as if my immediate
ancestor --say, my great-grandfather with desert dust still
in his clothes-- came down that valley with goats and
donkeys and stumbled onto this spot."

Michener says of another fictional archaeologist, an Amer-
ican who has just been reading the Torah,

This time he gained a sense of the enormous historicity
of the book.... He now read the Ten Commandments as
if he were among the tribes listening to Moses. It was he
who was coming out of Egypt, dying of thirst in the Sinai,
retreating in petulant fear from the first invasion of the
Promised Land. He put the Bible down with a distinct
sense of having read the history of a real people....

Yet it was precisely this "historicity" that was beginning to
come under fire. Resurrecting a theory first proposed in the
1920s, an Israeli named Yohanan Aharoni infuriated the Israeli
archaeological establishment by arguing that evidence in sup-
port of an Israelite war of conquest in the thirteenth century
B.C. was weak and unconvincing.

Basing his argument on a redating of pottery shards found at
a dig in the biblical city of Hazor, Aharoni proposed instead
that the first Hebrew settlers had filtered into Palestine in a
nonviolent fashion, peacefully settling among the Canaanites
rather than putting them to the sword.

Although archaeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncov-
ered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the
Book of Joshua said they had, a British archaeologist named
Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based
on Mycenaean pottery shards found amid the ruins, that the
destruction had occurred no later than 1300 B.C., seventy
years or more before the conquest could have happened.

Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling
down, it was not Joshua's army.

The enormous ideological edifice that Yigael Yadin and
others had erected was weakening at the base.

Whereas formerly every pottery fragment or stone tablet
appeared to confirm the biblical account, now nothing
seemed to fit.

Attempting to pinpoint precisely when Abraham had
departed the ancient city of Ur, the American scholar
William F. Albright, a pillar of the archaeological establish-
ment until his death in 1971, theorized that he had left as
part of a great migration of "Amorite" (literally "western")
desert nomads sometime between 2100 and 1800 B.C.
This was the theory that Paul Johnson would later cite
in A History of the Jews.

Subsequent research into urban development and nomadic
growth patterns indicated that no such mass migration had
taken place and that several cities mentioned in the Genesis
account did not exist during the time frame Albright had

Efforts to salvage the theory by moving up Abraham's depar-
ture to around 1500 B.C. foundered when it was pointed out
that, this time around, Genesis failed to mention cities that
did dominate the landscape during this period.

No matter what time frame was advanced, the biblical text
did not accord with what archaeologists were learning about
the land of Canaan in the second millennium.

This was not all. As Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at
Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, a journalist
who specializes in biblical and religious subjects, point out
in their recent book, The Bible Unearthed, the patriarchal
tales make frequent mention of camel caravans.

When, for example, Abraham sent one of his servants to
look for a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac, Genesis 24 says
that the emissary "took ten of his master's camels and left,
taking with him all kinds of good things from his master."

Yet analysis of ancient animal bones confirms that camels
were not widely used for transport in the region until well
after 1000 B.C.

Genesis 26 tells of Isaac seeking help from a certain "Abim-
elech, king of the Philistines." Yet archaeological research
has confirmed that the Philistines were not a presence in the
area until after 1200 B.C.

The wealth of detail concerning people, goods, and cities
that makes the patriarchal tales so vivid and lifelike, arch-
aeologists discovered, were reflective of a period long after
the one that Albright had pinpointed. They were reflective
of the mid-first millennium; not the early second.

In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. An ancient text pur-
porting to be a record of events centuries earlier--how
could it not fall short of modern historical standards?
How could it not reflect contemporary events more than
events in the distant past?

Beginning in the 1950s, doubts concerning the Book of
Exodus multiplied just as they had about Genesis.

The most obvious concerned the complete silence in
contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass
escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550
Hebrew slaves. Such numbers no doubt were exaggerated.

Yet considering how closely Egypt's eastern borders were
patrolled at that time, how could the chroniclers of the day
have failed to mention what was still likely a major security

Old-guard academics professed to be untroubled. John
Bright, a prominent historian, was dismissive of the entire
issue. "Not only were Pharaohs not accustomed to cele-
brate reverses," he wrote in A History of Israel, long con-
sidered the standard account, "but an affair involving only
a party of runaway slaves would have been to them of alto-
gether minor significance."

The scribes' silence concerning the mysterious figure of
Moses, Bright went on, was also of no account. Regard-
less of what the chronicles did or did not say, "The events
of exodus and Sinai require a great personality behind them.
And a faith so unique as Israel's demands a founder as
surely as does Christianity--or Islam, for that matter."

This was dogma masquerading as scholarship.

Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concern-
ing the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the
slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the
Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus
as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wander-
ing in the Sinai.

Not so much as a skeleton, campsite, or cooking pot had
turned up, Finkelstein and Silberman noted, even though
"modem archeological techniques are quite capable of
tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers
and pastoral nomads all over the world."

Indeed, although archaeologists have found remains in the
Sinai from the third millennium B.C. and the late first, they
have found none from the thirteenth century.

As with Abraham, the effort to nail down a time frame for
the departure created more problems than it resolved.

Archaeologists had long zeroed in on a relatively narrow
window of opportunity in the thirteenth century B.C.
bounded by two independently verifiable events--the start
of work on two royal cities in which the Book of Exodus
says Hebrew, slaves were employed ("and they built
Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh ... ")
and the subsequent erection of a victory stele, or monu-
ment, that describes a people identified as "Israel" already
existing in Canaan.

Hence, the flight into the Sinai had to have taken place either
during the reign of a pharaoh known as Rameses or shortly
after the death of Ramses II in 1213 B.C.

Once again the theory didn't add up.

The Book of Numbers states that, following their escape, the
Israelites came under attack from the "Canaanite king of Arad,
who lived in the Negev," as they were "coming along the road
to Atharim." But although excavations showed that a city of
Arad existed in the early Bronze Age from roughly 3500 to
2200 B.C., and that an Iron Age fort arose on the site begin-
ning in roughly 1150 B.C., it was deserted during the years in

The Pentateuch says the Hebrews did battle with Sihon, king
of the Amorites, at a city called Heshbon, but excavations
have revealed that Heshbon did not exist during this period
either. Nor did Edom, against whose king the Old Testament
says the ancient Jews also made war.

Then came a series of archaeological studies conducted in
the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Previously archaeologists had intensively studied specific
sites and locales, digging deep in order to determine how
technology and culture had changed from one century to
the next.

Now they tramped through hills and valleys looking for pot-
tery shards and remnants of ancient walls in order to map out
how settlement patterns had ebbed and flowed across broad
stretches of terrain.

Whereas previously archaeologists had concentrated on the
lowland cities where the great battles mentioned in the Bible
were said to have taken place, they now shifted their attention
to the highlands located in the present West Bank.

The results were little short of revolutionary.

Rather than revealing that Canaan was entered from the out-
side, analysis of ancient settlement patterns indicated that
a distinctive Israelite culture arose locally around 1200 B.C.
as nomadic shepherds and goatherds ceased their wanderings
and began settling down in the nearby uplands.

Instead of an alien culture, the Israelites were indigenous.

Indeed, they were highly similar to other cultures that were
emerging in the region around the same time--except for one
thing: whereas archaeologists found pig bones in other sites,
they found none among the Israelites. A prohibition against
eating pork may have been one of the earliest ways in which
the Israelites distinguished themselves from their neighbors.

Thus there was no migration from Mesopotamia, no sojourn
in Egypt, and no exodus. There was no conquest upon Israel-
ites' return and, for that matter, no peaceful infiltration such
as the one advanced by Yohanan Aharoni.

Rather than conquerors, the Hebrews were a native people
who had never left in the first place. So why invent for them-
selves an identity as exiles and invaders?

One reason may have been that people in the ancient world
did not establish rights to a particular piece of territory by
farming or by raising families on it but by seizing it through
force of arms.

Indigenous rights are an ideological invention of the twentieth
century A.D. and are still not fully established in the twenty-
first, as the plight of today's Palestinians would indicate.

The only way that the Israelites could establish a moral right
to the land they inhabited was by claiming to have conquered
it sometime in the distant past. Given the brutal power politics
of the day, a nation either enslaved others or was enslaved
itself, and the Israelites were determined not to fall into the
latter category.

If the Old Testament is to be believed, David and Solomon,
rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 1005 to
about 931 B.C., made themselves masters of the northern
kingdom of Israel as well. They represent, in the official
account, a rare moment of national unity and power; under
their reign, the combined kingdom was a force throughout
the Fertile Crescent.

The unified kingdom is said to have split into two rump
states shortly after Solomon's death and, thus weakened,
was all too easy for the Assyrian Empire and its Babylon-
ian successor to pick off.

But did a united monarchy encompassing all twelve tribes
ever truly exist?

According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder
and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden gob-
lets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained
a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a
harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen
years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to
house the Ark of the Covenant.

Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to
indicate that such a reign existed.

If David and Solomon had been important regional power
brokers, one might reasonably expect their names to crop
up on monuments and in the diplomatic correspondence of
the day.

Yet once again the record is silent.

True, an inscription referring to "Ahaziahu, son of Jehoram,
king of the House of David" was found in 1993 on a frag-
ment dating from the late ninth century B.C. But that was
more than a hundred years after David's death, and at most
all it indicates is that David (or someone with a similar name)
was credited with establishing the Judahite royal line. It hardly
proves that he ruled over a powerful empire.

Moreover, by the 1970s and 1980s a good deal of counter-
vailing evidence--or, rather, lack of evidence--was beginning
to accumulate. Supposedly, David had used his power base
in Judah as a springboard from which to conquer the north.
But archaeological surveys of the southern hill country show
that Judah in the eleventh and tenth centuries B.C. was too
poor and backward and sparsely populated to support such
a military expedition.

Moreover, there was no evidence of wealth or booty flow-
ing back to the southern power base once the conquest of
the north had taken place. Jerusalem seems to have been
hardly more than a rural village when Solomon was report-
edly transforming it into a glittering capital.

And although archaeologists had long credited Solomon
with the construction of major palaces in the northern cities
of Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo (better known as the site of
Armageddon), recent analysis of pottery shards found on
the sites, plus refined carbon-14 dating techniques, indicate
that the palaces postdate Solomon's reign by a century or

Finkelstein and Silberman concluded that Judah and Israel
had never existed under the same roof. The Israelite culture
that had taken shape in the central hill country around 1200
B.C, had evolved into two distinct kingdoms from the start.

Whereas Judah remained weak and isolated, Israel did in fact
develop into an important regional power beginning around
900 B.C. It was as strong and rich as David and Solomon's
kingdom had supposedly been a century earlier, yet it was
not the sort of state of which the Jewish priesthood approved.
The reason had to do with the nature of the northern king-
dom's expansion.

As Israel grew, various foreign cultures came under its sway,
cultures that sacrificed to gods other than Yahweh. Pluralism
became the order of the day: the northern kings could manage
such a diverse empire only by allowing these cultures to wor-
ship their own gods in return for their continued loyalty. The
result was a policy of religious syncretism, a theological pas-
tiche in which the cult of Yahweh coexisted alongside those
of other Semitic deities.

When the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians, the Jewish
priesthood concluded not that Israel had played its cards
badlyin the game of international politics but that by toler-
ating other cults it had given grave offense to the only god
that mattered. Joining a stream of refugees to the south, the
priests swelled the ranks of an influential political party ded-
icated to the proposition that the only way for Judah to avoid
a similar fate was to cleanse itself of all rival beliefs and de-
vote itself exclusively to Yahweh.

"They did wicked things that provoked Yahweh to anger.
They worshiped idols, though Yahweh had said, 'You shall
not do this.'" Such was the "Yahweh-alone" movement's
explanation for Israel's downfall.

The monotheistic movement reached a climax in the late
seventh century B.C. when a certain King Josiah took the
throne and gave the go-ahead for a long-awaited purge.
Storming through the countryside, Josiah and his Yahwist
supporters destroyed rival shrines, slaughtered alien priests,
defiled their altars, and ensured that henceforth even Jewish
sacrifice take place exclusively in Jerusalem, where the
priests could exercise tight control.

The result, the priests and scribes believed, was a national
renaissance that would soon lead to the liberation of the
north and a similar cleansing there as well.

But then: disaster. After allowing his priests to establish a
rigid religious dictatorship, Josiah rode off to rendezvous
with an Egyptian pharaoh named Necho in the year 609

Although Chronicles says that the two monarchs met to
do battle, archaeologists, pointing out that Josiah was in
no position to challenge the mighty Egyptian army, suspect
that Necho merely summoned Josiah to some sort of royal
parley and then had him killed for unknown reasons.

A model of pious rectitude, Josiah had done everything he
thought God wanted of him. He had purified his kingdom
and consecrated his people exclusively to Yahweh. Yet he
suffered regardless. Judah entered into a period of decline
culminating some twenty-three years later in the Babylonian
conquest and exile.

Does this mean that monotheism was nothing more than
a con, a ruse cooked up by ambitious priests in order to
foul a gullible population?

As with any religion, cynicism and belief, realpolitik and
genuine fervor, all came together in a way that we can barely
begin to untangle. To say that the Jerusalem priesthood inten-
tionally cooked up a phony history is to assume that the
priests possessed a modern concept of historical truth and
falsehood, and surely this is not so.

As the biblical minimalist Thomas L. Thompson has noted,
the Old Testament's authors did not subscribe to a sequen-
tial chronology but to some more complicated arrangement
in which the great events of the past were seen as taking
place in some foggy time before time. The priests, after all,
were not inventing a past; they were inventing a present and,
they trusted, a future.

Monotheism was unquestionably a great leap forward. At
a time when there was no science, no philosophy, and no
appreciable knowledge of the outside world, an obscure,
out-of-the-way people somehow conceived of a lone deity
holding the entire universe in his grasp. This was no small
feat of imagination, and its consequences were enormous.

Monotheism's attempt at a unified field theory--a single
explanation for everything from the creation of the universe
to the origin of law--failed, but in failing it ensured that peo-
ple would try doubly hard to come up with some new
"theory of everything" to take its place.

The monotheistic revolution continued to build because it
enlisted a larger and larger portion of the population in its
great totalizing effort.

The Book of Kings tells of the discovery, during Josiah's
reign, of a sacred book, filled with rules and regulations
that the Jews had so far failed to follow, deep within the
recesses of the Temple. In other cultures, the king might
have huddled over the book with his advisers and priests.
But not Josiah. He

called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He
went up to the temple of Yahweh with the men of Judah,
the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets--all
the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their
hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which
had been found in the temple of Yahweh. The king stood
by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of
Yahweh.... Then all the people pledged themselves to this

This was all quite novel. Whereas formerly the king and the
priests alone were responsible to the national deity, now "all
the people from the least to the greatest" took the pledge. The
people had been transformed from mere onlookers into active

Arguably, the people of Judah were less free as a consequence
of Josiah's reforms. Under the old pluralistic order they could
sacrifice to other gods, and now they could sacrifice to just
one. Yet with the new system's responsibilities to uphold the
sacred covenant came the makings of a voice. No longer could
the masses be counted on to remain silent.

Was the purpose of all this merely to pluck one tiny nation
out of obscurity and elevate it above all others? If the Yahwists
were groping for some concept of ethics to go with their uni-
versalism, for the most part they seem to have fallen woefully
short. To quote Julius Wellhausen on the Jewish scriptures:
"Monotheism is worked out to its furthest consequences, and
at the same time is enlisted in the service of the narrowest

A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts,
and the process of composition and codification that led to
what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and
continued well into the Christian era.

"Canonization" of this sort concentrated rather than dispelled
questions of nationalism and universalism. A framework for
faith, the Bible was equally a machine for generating heresy
and doubt, and out of this debate eventually arose Christianity,
Islam, Protestantism, and a great deal else besides.

The new universalism had enormous energy, encompassing as
it did the entire cosmos and enlisting the entire population, but
the new democratic spirit ran aground over the issue of univers-
alism versus narrow nationalism.

What, after all, was the point of mobilizing such a broad popu-
lation in this manner? So that they could slaughter their neighbors
all the more thoroughly? How could Moses prohibit murder and
then, in Numbers 31, fly into a rage because a returning Israelite
war party has slaughtered only the adult male Midianites? ("Now
kill all the boys," he tells them when he calms down. "And kill
every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves
every girl who has never slept with a man.")

Was murder a crime only when it involved members of the in-
group? Or was it a crime when it involved human beings in
general, regardless of nationality? Did an emerging concept of
a more equitable social order apply only to Israel or to other
nations as well?

In one form or another, these questions have been with us ever

Daniel Lazare is the author of America's Undeclared War:
What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It (Harcourt)
and The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court,
and the Decline of American Democracy (Verso). His essay
"Your Constitution Is Killing You" appeared in the October
1999 issue.

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