Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Were Early Israelites Literate?

fter 1948, the "Israeli School" of Palestinian archaeology, epitomized by Yigael Yadin, (the Israeli general, political leader and renowned archaeologist), gained influence. But Dr. Bunimovitz writes in How Mute Stones Speak (Biblical Archeology Review March/April 1995) that even though the Israeli School followers viewed their work from a modern, secular perspective, "... despite its new scientific arsenal, biblical archaeology during the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s was still parochial, highly pragmatic and bound to traditional interpretative frameworks. Slowly, however, as previous interpretative concepts were discarded, exciting new cultural/historical insights gradually came into view, even through old research strategies."

In the 1970s, a "new archaeology" became predominant. Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 opened Judea and Samaria to a unified archaeological survey, with some, but not much, exploration in the field. Environmental factors like plant and animal remains, economic factors and sociological currents created a multi-disciplinary approach with a cultural and ecological orientation. Architecture and pottery (and the Bible itself) lost influence as the new disciplines became popular. The emphasis became more cultural and less historical, which led to pragmatic conclusions instead of the traditional ones. The new archaeology emphasized mundane social history instead of traditional political history, which involved only the deeds of great men and public events. This led to the growing consensus on the emergence of Israel from varied groups of pastoral nomads, sedentary farmers and possibly even urban families, mainly of local Canaanite origin. Nevertheless, this "sensible" conclusion didn't diminish the importance of the Israelite's impact in Dr. Bunimivitz's opinion.

In concluding his article, Bunimovitz approved the contention that the "professionalization and secularization of biblical archaeology during the last two decades has gone too far in severing the archaeology of Palestine from literary sources." He agreed with Dr. William Dever's (Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University) claims that the present generation of Palestinian archaeologists had failed to achieve a proper balance. "An explanation of 'what happened in history' cannot be reduced ... [to] such factors as environment, technology or subsistence, and ignore the role of symbol, ideology and even religion, in the shaping of society and in culture change. Dever argues that 'an explanation of what really took place in ancient Israel in the Iron Age must look not only at the material remains of that culture, but also at those ideals, spiritual and secular...that motivated those who were the bearers of that culture.'"

With a better understanding of the differing trends in archaeological research, the biblical-historical versus the secular-ecological, let's return to Dr. Tawil's lecture. He contended that ancient inscriptions found on walls or stone tablets, in languages pre-dating the language of the earliest existing Biblical texts, provided linguistic proof for the truth of the Bible. His conclusion is based on his encyclopedic knowledge of some of mankind's most archaic languages. Though Dr. Tawil admitted that the Bible is not a history book, he feels that it is an historical narrative, that is an estimation of historical events.

Dr. Tawil took us through an explanation of Genesis 11:1-9 to prove his point. "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and lime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off building the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

The professor pointed out that this fragment should be read as a polemic against paganism: the impossibility to reach up to the sky to find God, resulting in the dispersion of mankind from Mesopotamia with the loss of the single culture and language that had been in place. He proved this by explaining the derivation of the words from the original languages in which the story was written and later re-written. According to Dr. Tawil, the one language = Indo-Aryan; Shinar = Sumer, an ancient city in Mesopotamia; the tower whose top reached into heaven = a pyramidal Ziggurat (pagan temple to Marduk); Babel = the city of Babylon; and so on.

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