Archaeology and the Bible, Part 3
by j. k. eakins

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In my previous article, I stated that archaeology helps break down barriers of time and culture and thus can enhance our study of the Bible. This role of archaeology is especially fruitful in providing information about the larger context of the biblical world, particularly that of the Old Testament. As individuals and as a nation, the people of Israel did not live in isolation. They were very much influenced by the peoples and cultures of the ancient Near East. The more we know about this larger context, the better we are able to understand the Scripture.

The Bible itself does contain, of course, some helpful information about the culture in which the Hebrew people lived. This, however, by its very nature is reactive and often polemical. It is usually helpful to hear "the other side of the story," even if false. Thanks to archaeology we now have a large body of literature--primary source material--produced by neighbors of the Hebrew people, which presents the other perspective. These data often illuminate portions of the Bible. I have chosen a few illustrations from the time of the patriarchs and also from a later period.

Many of the biblical stories involving Abraham are rather opaque and difficult to understand. Consider, for example, the unusual events related in Genesis 15. In this chapter, God reaffirms the covenant established earlier with Abraham. Then, as part of an attendant ceremony, the patriarch is instructed to cut a number of animals into halves and later "a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces" (v. 17, RSV). This rather strange episode becomes more clear in the light of texts recovered from Mari in northern Mesopotamia which date from the eighteenth century BC (a bit later than Abraham). Here we learn that parties entering into a covenant would seal the agreement by cutting a donkey in half and then walking between the severed pieces. Now we are in a position to understand that God chose to use a ceremony with which Abraham was familiar. And since the covenant was unconditional, God alone (symbolized by fire) passed between the two halves. It is also interesting to note that in the Hebrew idiom one did not make a covenant, one cut a covenant--perhaps reflecting an influence from this ancient practice.

Another Mesopotamian site, Nuzi, has yielded a group of slightly later texts (fifteenth century BC) which contain records of ancient customs which are of interest to the student of the Bible. Two examples. We learn that childless couples would often arrange to have a child by proxy. Careful laws were drawn up to protect the interests of all concerned. This custom clarifies (but doesn't condone) the actions of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar found in Genesis 16. In having a child by proxy (Ishmael, born by Hagar) Abraham is simply following a common practice in the land.

An interesting story involving Jacob (Abraham's grandson) and his wife Rachel is related in Genesis 31. At great risk to herself, Rachel steals her father's "household gods" when she and her family leave Haran to return to Canaan. Many suggestions concerning this theft have been made, but have not been convincing. More recently, texts from Nuzi appear to indicate that these "gods" had more than religious significance--the holder of these items was to be recognized as the chief heir of family property. Perhaps Rachel, who (along with her sister Leah) felt that she had been defrauded by her father (vv. 14-16), was seeking by this rather drastic means to redress this wrong. One can now also see why her father was so anxious to recover this stolen property.

During the period of the Judges and the early monarchy, one of the chief problems confronted by the Hebrews was Canaanite religion, particularly Baalism. In fact, this problem would continue to haunt the people throughout their history as related in the Old Testament. Baalism became a snare and the prophets often spoke out against this cult--for one example, see the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18.

Recovery of the Ugaritic texts (see the Summer, 1996 issue of the Servant) provided biblical scholars for the first time with a large body of literature (primary source documents) describing the pantheon, the faith, and the practice of the ancient Canaanites. Now we can see more fully the nature of the religion against which the prophets reacted so strongly. Canaanite religion was nature-based and the cult of fertility was a central feature. Baal was felt to be the source and authority for abundant harvests and the growth of flocks and herds. The temples were staffed with male and female prostitutes whose "religious" vocation was to gain the favor of Baal and insure the fertility of the land. With its popular appeal both to the economy and to the sensual side of human nature, it is little wonder that so many Israelites succumbed to the attractions of this religion.

Hebrew religion often became syncretistic with persons attempting to give their allegiance both to the Canaanite deity (Baal) and the God proclaimed by the Hebrews (Yahweh). After reading the Canaanite texts, one can easily see why the prophets warned as they did against this grave danger. If you would like to read some of these Canaanite texts, I recommend the excellent translation (and helpful notes) by Michael D. Coogan in this book Stories From Ancient Canaan. Very readable and very interesting.

If these three very brief articles on archaeology have whetted your appetite to learn more about this subject, I am glad to say that there is an abundance of helpful books and periodicals in this field.

Part 2 | HCC Magazine