Israel digs into the past - The promised land?
Thursday, 23 December, 1999, 10:28 GMT
Israel digs into the past
Israeli desert Israel: The promised land?
By Paul Adams in Jerusalem
Picture one of the Bible's great scenes: Moses, aged 120, looks out over the Promised Land.
For 40 years, he has led his people, the Israelites, on an extraordinary journey from slavery in Egypt across the desert wastes of the Sinai.
Moses glimpsed the ancient city of Jericho - or did he?
With a glimpse of the ancient city of Jericho, the old man dies. His chosen successor, Joshua, goes on to capture the city and conquer Palestine.
What if this never happened?
Jericho - the first walled city on earth - still stands. Archaeologists have poured over its dusty ruins since the 19th century, unearthing evidence of at least 23 levels of occupation.
The ruins have revealed a history of prosperity, decline and conquest.
Despite all of the digging, they have never found any proof that Jericho's fabled walls "came tumbling down" as described by Joshua himself.
Not only that, there is nothing to support the great, miraculous story that precedes the fall of Jericho.
There is no sign of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the slavery in Egypt, or anyone wandering in the desert.
Professor Ze'ev Herzog is an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who has participated in excavations up and down the country.
"All these events are practically contradicted by archaeology," says Professor Herzog.
"Basically, these events did not happen on a national level. Some of these events could have been the local experience of a few families that were later nationalised into one coherent description."
For decades, Israeli archaeologists have attempted to prove that the Bible justified the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.
Digging for evidence was a national obsession and part of the state-building process.
Time to reassess
There is ample proof that the Jewish people occupied the land almost 3000 years ago.
However, their arrival was probably a migration, rather than a conquest. Professor Herzog says it is time to stop looking for what is not there.
"After so many years of development of Israeli culture, we are now mature enough to look at the evidence in a more critical way, and not accept the legendary parts of the Bible as historical ones", he says.
It is hardly surprising that Professor Herzog's conclusions - which coincide with efforts to re-evaluate Israel's modern history - should spark controversy.
Rabbi Rabbi Spiro is concerned that the history of the Bible is being "undermined" Rabbi Ken Spiro, who brings Jewish students from around the world to Jericho, acknowledges that the archaeological evidence is slight, to say the least.
He argues,"lack of evidence does not mean evidence of lack."
He also believes that what Professor Herzog and others are doing is dangerous.
"When you undermine the historicity of the Bible and the veracity of the claim that the Bible is essentially accurate, you are basically saying that it is fiction and that we have no more right to be here than anyone else."
For Jewish settlers, who base their right to occupy Palestinian land on the Bible and evidence of an early Jewish presence, Professor Herzog's findings are particularly problematic.
A large audience assembled recently at the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut to debate the evidence.
The Tel Aviv professor received a polite welcome, but this was the lion's den.
Menora Symbols of the Old Testament are everywhere in Israel Noam Arnon represents the small, militant Jewish community living in the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron.
He says that the Jewish patriarch Abraham will be remembered long after Professor Herzog is forgotten.
'This country is the land of Israel'
"To doubt, or debate some minor facts in the Bible will not change the minds of the people here that this country is the land of Israel and their mission today is to fertilise it and to settle it," says Mr Arnon.
"... an attempt to prove that Zionism is wrong and Israel is wrong." Tommy Lapid, Israeli member of parliament
Some critics go further and smell a political conspiracy to discredit Israel.
The outspoken member of parliament, Tommy Lapid, dismisses Professor Herzog's theories as Jewish self-hatred. He says,
"There is an underlying political motive of very left-wing attitudes towards Zionism."
"The attempt to prove that the Bible is wrong is really an attempt to prove that Zionism is wrong and Israel is wrong."
The debate over what is Jewish historical fact and what is legend is sure to continue