Monthly Archives: August 2009

Origin of the northern kingdom of Israel

Sharing here what I’ve found of interest in an alternative view to Finkelstein’s account of the rise of the kingdom of Israel.

While Finkelstein sees the rise of Samaria and Omride dynasty in the context of cyclical demographic-economic patterns within the central hills area of Palestine and as an outgrowth of an ethnic unity and a former united kingdom, Thompson argues that a survey of a broader range of evidence (and without presuppositions of a united kingdom) suggests Samaria was built as a capital of a kingdom in response to the region being drawn into the wider world of international trade.

Finkelstein’s views are widely known through his popular books written in collaboration with Neil Asher Silberman. Hence my focus here on a digestible summary of Thompson’s views, in particular from his Early History of the Israelite People. The book is available free in Google books online — but legal matters prevent the publication of all its pages.

Climate change preparing the way for a northern kingdom

From around 1050 – 1000 b.c.e. the “great Mycenaean drought” came to an end. This drought period (ca 1200 to 1050 b.c.e.) forced populations from Palestinian lowlands to seek livelihoods in new areas and for the first time the highlands of “Ephraim”, (with their semi-steppe areas, fertile plateaus and valleys, and rugged western slopes) were opened up to small villages and agriculturalists and pastoralists.

This was the beginning of settlement of what was to become the kingdom of Samaria.

1050 to 850 b.c.e. sees throughout all Syria-Palestine

  • improved climate
  • population explosion
  • transformation from regionally and subregionally based markets to interregional and international markets
  • increased demand for oil, timber, wine, meat, dairy products

Part of the evidence for the above involves the expansion of population and farming in terraced areas of the central hills area that are more suited to cash crops (nuts, fruits, wine, oil) than subsistence agriculture.

[T]heir development necessarily involves regional trade. Their disproportionate expansion . . . suggests an even greater economic development of extra-regional trade, and with that an involvement in increasing centralization. (p.232)

With widening commerce comes increased importance of access to trade routes.

These were the conditions that existed before the rise of Samaria as the capital of a northern kingdom.

At Samaria, the establishment of a political base of power is logically prior to the actual building of the city. (p.408)

Rise of a Kingdom, not an imperial city-state

In my previous post I mentioned Thompson’s interpretation of Jerusalem’s late rise and expansion of power as being that of an imperial city-state coming to dominate surrounding regions. Palestine had until Samaria’s appearance known only city-states as dominant centres of power — “i.e., essentially agriculturally based market town[s] with an indigenous Hinterland supporting  . . . ” But Samaria was something new.

What was established here was new to Palestine. Moreover, the lack of geographically unifying factors in the geographical structure of the central hills, and the development of numerous subregional centers throughout the central highlands militated strongly against an expanding dominance of a single city over such a diverse population. . . . (p. 408)

The inevitable origin and fate of Samaria:

The motive force behind the development of Samaria was the end result of the rationalization of trade to accommodate the rising demands of markets external to the central hills, a development that small scale trade simply could not foster. This led to the formation of a region-wide agricultural cartel with an autonomous center free of any single subregion’s dominance. Samaria was built to monopolize and funnel oil production, timber and other products to the trade routes of the Jezreel, linking Samaria’s fate inexorably to the Jezreel and to the greater world of politics, caravans and soldiers. (pp. 408-9 – my emphasis)

Samaria was built “as a capital city with dominant public structures”, although it did additionally develop the economy of a city-state as well.

Assyrian texts provide further evidence that Samaria was the capital city “of much of the region of the central highlands”.

Thompson comments that these texts suggest that Samaria found itself in competition with Tyre and Damascus for control of the Jezreel and Galilee regions.

A Moabite text also points to a struggle between Moab and Israel (Samaria) over the Gilead area. Damascus and Ammon may also have sought influence here.

The ethnic gulf between Samaria and Jerusalem

Variable Linguistics

It’s easy to think of biblical Hebrew having been around since Adam, but Thompson addresses some interesting questions about the linguistic variations throughout Palestine in the Bronze and Iron age periods. See pp. 336-339. Biblical Hebrew is a relatively late development, and it has been argued (Knauf) that it is an artificial literary construct. Thompson refers to E. A. Knauf’s studies of the branches of Canaanite languages, and the distinction between “core Canaanite” (Phoenicea, Israel), and “fringe Canaanite” (Judaean, Ammorite, Moabite and Edomite).

Divergent Origins

Israel developed out of the population dislocations of the great Mycenaean drought.

Judah originated out of the expansion of the olive industry (to meet demands of international trade) that brought about the enforced sedentarization of pastoralists and nomadic groups.

Assyrian Dominance: less unified than ever

It was Assyrian imperial policy to “systematically [destroy] the coherence of the population and the economic and political infrastructures  that had been the foundation of Israel’s solidarity and the source of its strength.” (p. 414)

They did this, of course, through mass deportations of populations.

Not only were the elite deported, but craftsmen, corvee laborers, women for the slave trade and men for the army, and indeed entire villages and towns were moved across great distances of the empire.


[T]he conclusion becomes difficult to avoid that just as the origin of the ninth and seventh-century states of Israel and Judah were wholly separate, they were also unlikely to have any more common an ethnic base than had any other two neighbouring states of the Southern Levant. (p.412)

Jerusalem’s rise to power: 2 views

This post is an extension of an earlier one, Jerusalem unearthed.

Israel Finkelstein describes Jerusalem’s rise to power in the seventh century b.c.e. as a result of integrating itself within the Assyrian imperial economy after the fall of Samaria. He writes of Jerusalem being the capital of a politically integrated kingdom of Judea.

Thomas L. Thompson likewise argues that Jerusalem rose to power with Assyria’s blessing. Jerusalem did not extend its influence to the north or any other Assyrian conquered areas, but to the southwest and south, the Shephelah and the Negev. Further, Judea was not a politically integrated kingdom or nation, but was dominated politically by city-state Jerusalem imposing its hegemony over other city states like Hebron.

Jerusalem’s population multiplied greatly at this time, and for the first time “acquired the character of a regional state capital. One must doubt Jerusalem’s capacity for such political aggrandizement at any earlier period.” (Thompson, p.410)

King :en:Sennacherib of :en:Assyria from http:...

Jerusalem’s growth

For background to this, see earlier post, Jerusalem unearthed.

Commercial rival Lachish had been destroyed, never to be rebuilt, and this opened up the possibility of more of the southern area’s resources to Jerusalem.

But the Assyrians had also, led by Sennacherib, diminished Jerusalem’s influence when they invaded parts of Judea.

Thompson suggests that given Samaria had been a longstanding enemy of Jerusalem, it is unlikely that refugees from Samaria would have sought refuge in Jerusalem. They would more likely have gone to allies in Phoenicia. Moreover, Jerusalem would have been drawn into “the direction of a hopeless confrontration with Assyria” had they accepted large numbers of Samarian refugees.

Here Finkelstein and Thompson part. Finkelstein sees Jerusalem’s population swelling primarily as a result of refugees from the northern kingdom rather than those of the Shephelah area. Finkelstein argues for cultural-historical affinities between the peoples of the northern and southern “kingdoms” but Thompson sees no archaeological evidence for these. Thompson sees the various geographical regions of Palestine as a hotch-potch of ethnic and cultural groups until the Persian era at the earliest.

The size of Jerusalem — a great city in the seventh century — time meant it could no longer be economically sustained “solely by the Jerusalem saddle and the Ayyalon Valley.” Thompson sees Jerusalem as a city-state compelled to secure itself by dominating the resources of neighbouring areas to the south and south west.

Comparing Ekron — a mirror to Jerusalem’s rise?

At the same time Ekron expanded its influence to dominate the coastal plain lands and cities. Ekron was able to do this as a result of cooperation with the Assyrian empire. Ekron served Assyria’s interests by establishing itself as a centre of a vassal state in Judaea.

Assyrian reorganization of Judea under Jerusalem

Assyria destroyed Lachish and other towns of the Shephelah and these were not resettled. “Rather, during the seventh-century, Judaea, and with it the Shephelah, was reorganized around a number of new fortified towns, apparently subject to Jerusalem . . . ” (Thompson, p.411)

According to Thompson, Jerusalem’s growth and expansion was that of an imperial city state over subject peoples and cities like Hebron. Unlike the erstwhile northern kingdom of Israel, Judea was not a politically integrated united kingdom. It maintained its hegemony as an imperial city state only.

Jerusalem expanded southward to the Judaean highlands, the Shephelah and perhaps the northern Negev. “It is unlikely, however, that the exercise of this warrant was carried out in opposition to the firmly established Assyrian authority in the region.” (Thompson, p.411)

Finkelstein concurs that Jerusalem benefitted from cooperation with Assyria, but sees Judea becoming an integrated kingdom, not merely an area under the hegemony of a newly giant city-state. “The question is, where did this wealth and apparent movement toward full state formation come from? The inescapable conclusion is that Judah suddenly cooperated with and even integrated itself into the economy of the Assyrian empire.” (Finkelstein, p. 246)

Where Finkelstein and Thompson part

Finkelstein’s interpretation of the evidence hinges on his belief that much of the biblical literature, in particular the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah beginning with the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, was the product of the pre-exilic Kingdom of Judah.

Thompson instead argues that the themes of the biblical literature find no basis of origin before the Persian period. The archaeological evidence is against the existence of a united kingdom of Israel or large-scale influx of a new ethnic-cultural-religious group dominating Palestine in the Iron Age. It is not until the Persian era that Palestine is united politically and religiously, and this with the migration of a new group of peoples at the behest of the Persian imperial authority.

Such a development [the creation of a Jerusalem led “nation-state”] came about only with the ideological and political changes of the Persian period, centered around the Persian supported construction of a temple dedicated to the transcendent elohe shamayim, identified with Yahweh, the long neglected traditional god of the former state of Israel, who, in his new capital at the center of the province of Yehud, might, like Ba’al Shamem of Aramaic texts, be best described as a Palestinian variant of the Neo-Babylonian divine Sin and of Persia’s Ahura Mazda. (Thompson, pp.411-2)

I think that both Thompson and Finkelstein would agree that history tells us as much or more about those who wrote it as it does about the past.

Finkelstein sees the biblical history being concocted by propagandists of King Josiah’s court to justify his presumed interest in expanding his kingdom north to incorporate Samaria. This history supposedly exaggerated events of the past to justify Josiah’s ambitions:

Yet it is clear that many of the characters described in the Deuteronomistic History — such as the pious Joshua, David, and Hezekiah and the apostate Ahaz and Manasseh — are portrayed as mirror images, both positive and negative, of Josiah. The Deuteronomistic History was not history writing in the modern sense. It was a composition simultaneously ideological and theological. (Finkelstein, p. 284)

Personally I don’t understand why such propagandists would create negative images of Josiah.

While agreeing that the biblical history was ideological and theological, Thompson sees the biblical history being concocted by propagandists among the the leaders of those deported by the Persians to settle in Palestine. This history was apparently inspired by themes of settlement among an indigenous population who did not welcome the newcomers, of a new state arising out of peoples migrating from Mesopotamia, and even from a (Persian created) political entity stretching from Euphrates to the Nile  — compare Genesis 15:18 and 1 Kings 4:24.

I consider this the more plausible explanation.


Hungry Ghosts and Holy Ghost : cultural perspectives

Lately I have seen many Chinese here in Singapore offering food and joss sticks and burning “ghost money” for hungry ghosts. It’s the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival — there are other specific Singapore explanations here and here. The ghosts come out every seventh lunar month. One Chinese colleague explained to me that it is believed there are more accidents than usual in this month. That would explain why so many offerings and joss sticks are placed at road intersections and stairways. When I mentioned this to some relatives back in Australia they thought the whole idea was “crazy” or “a bit peculiar”. And so it seems to westerners. But I could not help thinking of Christian Pentecost and western celebrations commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost and how churches also mark this day with fruit and candles, and some with babbling tongues.

So a Hungry Ghost is weird but a Holy Ghost is normal? One is superstition but the other is religious faith?

There has also been an unfortunate story of a Moslem woman in Malaysia being sentenced to caning for imbibing a drug (alcohol) in public. Another work colleague made the interesting observation that in some western countries individuals can suffer degrading treatment and even ruin through their legal systems for being caught with a different brand of drug.


Table of food for ghosts at a food court


Encouraging ghosts to be kind to people traversing the stairway


Making ghosts happy where the pedestrian pathway meets the road


Burning (offering) lots of ghost money


Time for quiet reflection

Archaeologist A. Mazar argues for a strong Jerusalem, biblical David and temple of Solomon

Archaeologist Amihai Mazar writes that studies over the past twenty years that have cast doubts on “the historical validity of the biblical descriptions” have “gone too far” (p. 117 in The Quest For the Historical Israel, a book in which he debates Israel Finkelstein chapter by chapter.) In this post I choose to discuss what appear to me to be the strongest of nine overall arguments in Mazar’s chapter titled The Search for David and Solomon: an Archaeological Perspective. I use Mazar’s headings.

The Importance of the Sheshonq I (Shishak) Raid

Mazar writes:

The lack of external sources relating to a kingdom like that of David and Solomon should not surprise us, since there were no empires or major political powers during the tenth century b.c.e. that could leave behind substantial written documents. The only external source relating to this period is the Sheshonq I inscription . . . . (p. 123)

Mazar reasons from the fact that Sheshonq’s list of conquests mentions cities north of Jerusalem (Beth Horan and Gibeon) that the Pharaoh was following “an exceptional route” for a campaign (no earlier Egyptian New Kingdom campaigns mention such cities) and that “the only sensible” reason for this must have been the existence of a powerful Solomonic kingdom to the south of those cities. (Mazar later comments that southern cities like Arad are also listed by Sheshonq’s scribes.) How to explain the absence of Jerusalem from the list?

The fact that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the inscription does not mean much — if the city surrendered, perhaps there would have been no reason to mention it; or alternatively, its mention could have appeared on one of the broken parts of the inscription. (p. 124)

(In other words, if there is no evidence for the biblical account, then the historian is entitled to speculate reasons to account for the missing evidence for what is “known” to have existed or happened?)

Jerusalem of the Iron I-II Period

The strongest evidence Mazar points to in this section is the Stepped Stone Structure in Jerusalem. This structure “is enormous and was most probably intended to support an exceptionally large monumental building.” (p. 125)

In terms of their magnitude, neither the Stepped Stone Structure nor the building recently discovered to its west has a parallel anywhere in the land of Israel between the twelfth and early ninth centuries b.c.e., and this is, in my view, a clear indication that Jerusalem was much more than a small village. (p. 127)

The other building Mazar refers to is one known as the “Large Stone Structure“, part of a complex excavated by a relative of Amihai Mazar, Eilat Mazar. Eilat announced that these remains belonged to King David’s palace!

One might expect that if such monumental edifices has been recovered from the tenth century then one might also find significant supporting artefacts from the same time. But no, and this situation is explained by Mazar:

The latter situation is probably the result of the bad state of preservation of structures on the steep slope at this peculiar site, and of the continuous reuse of buildings over the centuries. (p.127)

(Yet subsequent layers of evidence of other eras — the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine periods — are abundant. And the early tenth century four hectare area of Jerusalem can be seen to have grown dramatically by the seventh century.)

Unfortunately Mazar’s chapter was published in 2007, the same year as a rebuttal of Eilat’s and Amihai’s interpretations (“Eilat Mazar’s archaeological, chronological and, in fact, historical conclusions have unreservedly been endorsed by Amihai Mazar— Finkelstein et al.) of these remains dating earlier than Hellenistic and Roman times was published — by Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog, Lily Singer-Avitz and David Ussishkin — and for this reason Mazar was presumably unable to address its discussion. Their article (Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?) can be read by anyone online, but I will highlight a few of its points here.

  1. When Eilat Mazar pointed to 11th/10th century foundational layers to the edifice, Finkelstein et al pointed out that the dating was only valid if the soil was originally “in situ” and not a fill for construction brought in from elsewhere. They give reasons for observing that the latter is more likely the case.
  2. When Mazar drew attention to a particular form of pottery that was known to have been found at earlier sites, Finkelstein et al pointed out that the accompanying picture also showed that later forms of pottery were found with that earlier type.
  3. Finkelstein et al point out that some of Mazar’s finds — including Herodian pottery between and under the spaces in the “Davidic” walls! — point to the “palace” being built in post-Iron Age times.
  4. Finkelstein et al further remark on the walls of a Hasmonaean ritual bath being built in the same orientation and at the same elevation (strata) as the “palace of David”.
  5. Finkelstein et al finally note that a Byzantine wall was built directly on a flattened part of the wall of “David’s palace”.
  6. Finkelstein et al conclude that the best explanation for all the evidence is that the “palace” was not built as a single unit, but was begun in the late Hellenistic (Hasmonaean) time, and later added to in Roman times.

So much for the evidence that Jerusalem was a monumental city in the tenth century.

And the evidence for Solomon’s temple? Mazar does not shrink from declaring that he believes it for no reason other than that the Bible says it:

The temple and palace that Solomon supposedly built should be found, if anywhere below the present Temple Mount, where no excavations are possible. If the biblical account is taken as reliable, Solomon’s Jerusalem would be a city of twelve hectares with monumental buildings and a temple. Should Solomon be removed from history, who then would have been responsible for the construction of the Jerusalem Temple? There is no doubt that such a temple stood on the Temple Mount prior to the Babylonian conquest of the city, but we lack any textual hint for an alternative to Solomon as its builder. (pp. 127-8)


Amihai Mazar next turns to “the supposed low settlement density and lack of urbanization in the tenth century.” (p. 134) He attributes this perception to “methodological problems”.

Nonetheless, Mazar accepts the evidence that points to “a gradual increase in settlement” and concludes that 20,000 people in Judah in the tenth century “appears to be realistic”. He continues:

If we add to this the unknown population numbers in the Israelite territories of northern Israel and parts of Transjordan, we may estimate the population in the Israelite territories at somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand people. (p. 134)

How he arrives at such figures despite the “methodological problems” he discusses he does not explain. But I am not clear on the significance of these figures anyway. Surely a — the — significant figure would be that of the apparent power base from which a united Palestinian kingdom could be established, extended, controlled and sustained. I doubt a 4 hectare Jerusalem could fit the bill.



The few inscriptions incised on stones or pottery vessels for daily use from a tenth century context hint at the spread of literacy already in this time, and thus it can be assumed that some officials and professional scribes did exist in the tenth century. (p. 135)

Not knowing the specific evidence to which Mazar is referring (and hence unable to cross check with other views and finds) my only comment is that literate officials required for basic book-keeping and legal matters are a long step from a critical mass of literates from which historical, religious and other forms of literature can be sustained.


Mazar writes:

A talented, charismatic, and politically astute leader in control of a small yet effective military power could, in my view, have taken hold of a large part of a small country like the land of Israel and united diverse population groups under his leadership. (p. 139)

Apparently forgetting for a moment about the need to account for the Solomon legend adjunct to the Davidic one, Mazar goes on to comment that “short-lived political and territorial achievements like those of David may be beyond the capability of the tools of archaeology to detect . . . .”

Anyone who has followed Jared Diamond’s studies (e.g. Guns, Germs and Steel) knows that even the most talented, charismatic and politically astute leaders are powerless without the geographic tools and base at their command.

(Or for the videos try:



The strongest argument for revised histories of Israel & Judah

Finding this or that new artefact or foundation of fort or shrine in Iron Age Judea and Jerusalem may make headline news in relation to the Bible story, but it is unlikely in the extreme to change the basic geographic facts we do know about Jerusalem and the area of the supposed kingdom of Judea as outlined in my previous post, Jerusalem unearthed — 1000 to 700 b.c.e.

The facts of Jerusalem’s size, relative isolation, and political and economic position position in relation to Lachish, Ekron, Hebron and Arad, as well as in relation to the greater neighbouring kingdoms of Israel, Syria, etc, make any notion of it having the power base to dominate a Judean kingdom before the seventh century b.c.e. completely implausible.

Such a village could not have the critical mass of educated elites required to preserve a noble history, quite apart from the fact that such a village simply lacked the economic and political and cultural backgrounds from which such historical notions are necessarily spawned. These facts belie the biblical history of Jerusalem as the major power centre of a united kingdom of Israel, or even a dynastic hub controlling Judea.

Sensationalized news about discoveries of new artefacts are unlikely to result in any significant changes to these facts.

Jerusalem unearthed – archaeology and Jerusalem 1000 to 700 b.c.e.

Updated 9.00 am (UTC+8) 27th August 09

The biblical legend:

1000 to 700 b.c.e. covers the biblical time from the reign of Solomon to the fall of Jerusalem’s neighbouring northern kingdom of Samaria. According to the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings Jerusalem in the early part of this period was

  • the administrative capital of a kingdom of fabulous, even legendary, wealth;
  • after the breakup of this kingdom Jerusalem remained the centre of the southern Kingdom of Judah and power base of the descendants of David and Solomon.
  • a base from which kings amassed armies of hundreds of thousands;
  • the centre of an empire “from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt” and influential alliances were made with neighbouring kingdoms and wars waged.

This Jerusalem-led kingdom of Judah was said to be an ethnically cohesive society tracing its ancestors back to three sons of Jacob – Judah, Benjamin and Simeon.

And of course Jerusalem retained throughout this period the capital to support and maintain epic royal buildings and the famous Temple. Even when Egyptian invaders plundered the temple and royal treasury, the king of Jerusalem still had the resources to replace the losses with other metal, especially bronze.

The down to earth reality:

Archaeologists have uncovered a very different Jerusalem throughout this period. The following outline of the status of Jerusalem throughout most of the first three hundred years of the first millennium is taken from the archaeological findings extensively surveyed by Thomas L. Thompson in Early History of the Israelite People : from the Written & Archaeological Sources.

Mudmap is mine, not Thompson’s, of course.

Correction: EKRON should not be indicated as part of the Shephelah

Relative size of Jerusalem

Jerusalem was “a small provincial town at best.” “[I]t was not a very large town, and was by no stretch of the imagination yet a city.” (p.332)

It was comparable in size to Lachish and Gezer.

Geographic location of Jerusalem

Jerusalem was isolated from other comparable urban areas in the Negev to the south and the Shephelah area (Lachish and Gezer) east and south-east and, given its size, very unlikely to have had the resource base to have exercised any controlling influence over them.

“Its relative isolation protected its independence in a period absent of any great political power in Palestine. This same isolation restricted its power and political influence largely to its own region, and the small subregions contiguous to it. The limited excavations in Jerusalem confirm the picture of a small provincial commercial center, substantially removedi from the international trade routes and their centers of power.” (p.332 — citing Jamieson-Drake)

Jerusalem did have easy access, however, to the small settlements in the hills area immediately south (the northern part of the Negev).

Hill settlements and forts

The hill area south of Jerusalem was a target of commercial rivalry among Jerusalem, Hebron and cities in the east such as Lachish.

Centres like Hebron were responsible for constructing strings of forts in the south. These appear to have been constructed as part of attempts to increase security for the growing olive oil industry in particular by putting an end to nomadic or seasonal pastoral incursions into the Judean hill and Negev areas. The forts can be interpreted as evidence of an attempt to protect scarce agricultural resources from irregular pastoralists. As these nomadic groups were forced to settle the populations of the hill areas — and numbers of villages here — grew. So did exploitation of the hill areas timber, pastoral and horticultural resources.

Commercial relations of Jerusalem

The hill area south of Jerusalem was dotted with smaller villages that sprang up in response to pastoral and horticultural activity. This hill area, with its timber, pastoral and crop resources, relied on larger towns to the south, such as Hebron, and those to the east, like Lachish, and Jerusalem in the north, to sell their produce. These larger towns can be presumed to have been in commercial rivalry for the resources of the hill areas — especially olive oil, but also timber, pastoral and horticultural products.

Olive producing villagers in the hill area could bypass Jerusalem and trade directly with Ekron and Lachish, and of course Hebron — which was a major source of the commercial rivalry among centres like Jerusalem, Lachish and Hebron.

There is no reason to believe that Jerusalem had the means to dominate any but the closest villages in the hills and Negev to her south. These were more likely dominated by Jerusalem’s competitors like Hebron and the Shephelah towns of Lachish and Ekron.

Jerusalem ignored by the surrounding evidence

A letter from Arad indicates that Arad was politically independent from Jerusalem.

A text from Kuntillet Ajrud refers to Yahweh of Samaria and Yahweh of Teman, but there are no references to a Yahweh of Jerusalem.

Pharaoh Shoshenk (biblical Shishak) plundered towns in southern Palestine, including the Ayyalon valley adjacent to Jerusalem, but makes no reference to Jerusalem among the town he cited to boast  his victories.

Comparing Judea with other regions, and Jerusalem with Samaria

Especially in the ninth century b.c.e. “the primary agricultural regions of greater Palestine developed significantly centralized regional forms of government (e.g. Phoenicia, Philistia, Israel, [Syria], Ammon . . . ) and . . . Arab controlled overland trade began to make a major economic impact in the emerging capitals of these states.” (p.290)

This was not the case in the Judean area — the Shephelah and Negev and hill regions around Jerusalem. Here each city, like an independent city-state, vied for commercial-imperial type dominance in the surrounding areas, as outlined in the note on commercial relations above. [T]he political development of Jerusalem as a regional state, controlling the Judaean highlands, lagged substantially behind the consolidation of the central highlands further north.” Samaria, for example, established complex regional associations, making itself the capital city of the entire region. The power base in Jerusalem never extended politically beyond Jerusalem itself.

Dramatic changes to Jerusalem from around 700 b.c.e.

721 b.ce. Assyria destroyed Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel came to an end.

701 b.c.e Assyria moved further south and destroyed Lachish, a leading commercial rival of Jerusalem. Assyria further took charge of the coastal trade that had been based around the oil-processing centre of Ekron.

It is from this time that the population of Jerusalem begins to multiply. From the time of these two events, especially the destruction of Lachish, that “Jerusalem begins to take on both the size and character of a regional capital.” Citing Jamieson-Drake and E. A. Knauf, Thompson adds:

The radically altered political creation in greater Palestine, and the need to absorb a considerable influx of refugees to its population transformed Jerusalem from a small provincial, agriculturally based regional state . . . into a stratified society, with a dominant elite (and perhaps a temple supporting a state cult), in the form of a buffer state lying between two major imperial powers: Egypt to the South and Assyria to the North. These changes, and the radical alteration of the political map of Palestine, brought — at least for Jerusalem’s new elite — considerable growth in wealth and prestige . . . . (pp.333-334)

The rise triggers the fall

Thompson continues:

This growth in wealth and prosperity of its elite, as Jerusalem became increasingly involved in the international politics of trade, ultimately led Jerusalem into direct confrontation with the Assyrian army and its final destruction and dismemberment by the Babylonians. . . . The devastation [by the Assyrians and Babylonians] itself brought to southern Palestine a physical impoverishment and economic depression that ravaged the region. Assyrian and Babylonian military and political policies of administration systematically destroyed the region’s infrastructure and brought about the collapse of the entire society. (p. 334)

The Bible Unearthed, but still covering its nonhistorical tracks

Finkelstein and Silberman in their popular The Bible Unearthed assert that the biblical narratives of the conquests of David and the united kingdom of Solomon were fabricated in King Josiah’s time in order to build support for Josiah’s supposed dream of ruling all Israel from Samaria to Jerusalem. This interpretation is built up from two bases:

  1. the absence of any archaeological evidence for the conquests of David and the united kingdom of Solomon
  2. the belief that the bulk of biblical literature, in particular Deuteronomy, was composed before Babylon’s conquest of Judah

Unfortunately for Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s argument, there is also a complete absence of archaeological evidence for the biblical story that Josiah removed all the idols from the land, and there is no suggestion in the biblical story that Josiah had any political or military ambitions to unite the former northern kingdom of Israel with Judah under his rule from Jerusalem.

But an interesting thing happens when we do re-read the biblical narrative of David-Solomon and the succeeding kingdoms with the awareness that the story was to a large extent a fabrication, or at least with the awareness that there are no archaeological remains to indicate it really happened as told. Read with this awareness, certain narrative details jump out and tell the astute reader that the author darn well knew he was making it all up.

After having created the mythical reign of Solomon — for which there is no hard evidence in the ground — the author had to somehow bring the story back to something closer to reality as he prepared readers for a tale that took them up to their own day. Look at the fantasy balloon he had to burst:

  • a kingdom stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile (1 Kings 4:21);
  • a man so renowned the kings from all nations of the earth came to visit Jerusalem (1 Kings 4:34);
  • a kingdom of fabulous wealth (1 Kings 10:14-29); 
  • a king who worthy of inviting the very glory of God to earth (1 Kings 8:10-13);
  • 700 wives and 300 porcupines (1 Kings 11:3); 
  • idyllic peace and harmony — under a king whose name coincidentally meant “peace” (1 Kings 4:25);
  • a mathematically and symbolically  tidy 40 year reign (1 Kings 11:42).

 (It is amusing to read Israel Finkelstein’s observation that it is “the astute reader” who will notice that the story of Solomon is an idealization lying beyond the borders of reality!)

But reading on in the knowledge that there is no historical basis for this fabulous kingdom, one notices the devices the author deploys to explain away his fabrication and inform his readers why no sign of such a kingdom remains to their day.  

How to plausibly remove such a widespread and unprecendently wealthy empire from the scene and restore a narrative of a people of more modest dimensions by magnitudes?

Firstly, the northern kingdom that had in reality never been related to a southern kingdom had to be explained as an offshoot from Solomon’s empire. This was done by means of creating a story of an intrigue by one of Solomon’s servants who was also an Ephraimite (northern Israelite).

Secondly, the author brings in an anonymous prophet to make pivotal pronouncements that will tie the beginning of the northern kingdom of Israel with events in its final era.

 Thirdly, and most vitally, the narrator brought in the Egyptian armies of Shishak (or Shoshenq 1) to strip the Jerusalem of Solomon’s wealth.

 Now it happened in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. And he took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house; he took away everything. He also took away all the gold shields which Solomon had made. (1 Kings 14:25-26)

It goes without saying that the Egyptian monument commemorating this Pharaoh’s invasion fails to mention Jerusalem, which archaeology informs us was an insignificant village at the time.

But sure this invasion would serve to explain Judah’s poverty status in comparison with the kingdom of Egypt (and explain away the imaginative Solomonic wealth), but the author also had Syria to take care of, too. Syria also had long been known to far surpass Judah as a power. But the author takes care of  this detail by having Judah pay out all that was left after Shishak’s plundering:

Then Asa took all the silver and gold that was left of the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house, and delivered them into the hand of his servants. And King Asa sent them to Ben-Hadad . . . king of Syria, who dwelt in Damascus, saying, “Let there be a treaty between you and me, as there was between my father and your father. See, I have sent you a present of silver and gold . . . . (1 Kings 15:18-19)

With that double whammy the creator of Solomon’s empire has brought readers back to the diminutive reality of small-time Judah.

But what of Josiah’s kingdom near the time of the fall of Judah to Babylon and the story of the captivity? Here the author/redactor/compiler has saved the best for last.

Even more extensively than Hezekiah before him, Josiah cleanses the land of all traces of worship not endorsed by the Jerusalem Temple and “the law of Moses” — not only in Judah but even from among the cities of Samaria!

 4. Then the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the doorkeepers, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.
5.  He did away with the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah and in the surrounding area of Jerusalem, also those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and to the moon and to the constellations and to all the host of heaven.
6.  He brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD outside Jerusalem to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and ground it to dust, and threw its dust on the graves of the common people.
7.  He also broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women were weaving hangings for the Asherah.
8.  Then he brought all the priests from the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba; and he broke down the high places of the gates which were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on one’s left at the city gate.

10.  He also defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech.
11.  He did away with the horses which the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nathan-melech the official, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.
12.  The altars which were on the roof, the upper chamber of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, the king broke down; and he smashed them there and threw their dust into the brook Kidron.
13.  The high places which were before Jerusalem, which were on the right of the mount of destruction which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the sons of Ammon, the king defiled.
14.  He broke in pieces the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with human bones.
15.  Furthermore, the altar that was at Bethel and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he broke down. Then he demolished its stones, ground them to dust, and burned the Asherah.

19.  Josiah also removed all the houses of the high places which were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made provoking the LORD; and he did to them just as he had done in Bethel.
20.  All the priests of the high places who were there he slaughtered on the altars and burned human bones on them; then he returned to Jerusalem.

(2 Kings 23:4-20)

One would expect some evidence of such a total progrom to be uncovered by archaeologists, but no. Albright student William Dever makes this clear in Did God Have a Wife? The first time evidence “from silence” emerges to establish a land free from “idols” is the Persian period. Dever and others concede that there is no evidence for the success of these purported reforms of Josiah.

The author has once again, as he did after creating the fanciful empire of Solomon, bring the story back to realistic dimensions. In this case it was a simple matter of having Josiah killed off in mid-term in battle with the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho, and being succeeded by less worthy progeny who “did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done.” (2 Kings 23:37)

He had used the same device in covering up the fancy of Hezekiah’s reforms. In that case the son of good king Hezekiah, Manasseh, acted as “abominably” as all the wicked Canaanites whom Israel had originally replaced in the land (2 Kings 21:2). God was so offended by Manasseh’s return to evil that not even Josiah’s reforms could mollify his anger and determination to wipe out Judah (2 Kings 23:26-27).

Israel Finkelstein reads into 2 Kings 23 some evidence that Josiah sought to expand his kingdom to include the former northern kingdom of Israel. But there is nothing in the text to suggest anything like this. The text of 2 Kings 22 and 23 is entirely about religious reforms. The entire story, from the fortuitous discovery of the Book of the Covenant in the Temple to the application of its orders throughout Israel and Judah is an attempt to establish some historical credibility for a newly written theological treatise, the Book of Deuteronomy.

In my earlier post, Forgery in the Ancient World, I referred to other case/s where a newly concocted text is claimed to be ancient and miraculously discovered in strange circumstances. We all know from the modern case of the Book of Mormon that the practice is still as good as new. So the story of the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy, and then the soon-to-be-followed failure of its reforms, smacks every bit of an authorial invention that sought establish credibility for a newly introduced text in his own day.

I’ve outlined this argument from Philip Davies in more detail at In Search for Ancient Israel.

Two other details further speak against Israel Finkelstein’s argument that Josiah was attempting a genuine new political and social unification of Israel and Judah:

  1. One is that it makes absolutely no sense, in my view, for a ruler to attempt to “unite” peoples by clashing head on with their long-held religious customs.
  2. The other is Thomas Thompson’s argument that there is no clear or indisputable evidence that the peoples/kingdoms of Israel and Judah had at any time before the sixth century b.c.e. had any history or notion of being a united people or administrative entity. There was nothing for Josiah to appeal to. The story in 2 Kings is about justifying a new theological text at the time of the author — nothing more. Simply creating a theological story of David and Solomon (and one which even illustrates the moral theme of Deuteronomy) after the fact could hardly make a difference to “facts on the ground” in the historical time of Josiah.

Archaeology and Israelite origins – the good news about the Book of Joshua

Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan
Image via Wikipedia

The good news is that there was no military invasion of Canaan and no mass genocide of Canaanites by the Israelites under Joshua. God is off the hook on this one.

Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, writes in The Quest for the Historical Israel (2007):

The progress in archaeological and anthropological research between the 1960s and 1980s brought about the total demise of the military conquest theory. (p.53)

He sums up 5 strands of archaeological evidence against the biblical conquest story.

  1. Key sites in the Book of Joshua’s conquest account — such as Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Heshbon, Arad — were either uninhabited or insignificant small villages during the time of the Late Bronze Age.
  2. The collapse of the Canaanite Late Bronze Age city system was a gradual process over several decades — according to new finds at Lachish and Aphek, and reevaluations of the evidence from the older studies at Megiddo and Hazor.
  3. The collapse of the Late Bronze Age Canaan was part of a wider phenomenon that embraced the entire eastern Mediterranean.
  4. Egypt’s control of Canaan through the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages was strong enough to have prevented the sort of invasion depicted in the Book of Joshua.
  5. The rise of villages in the central hill country of Palestine has been found to have been “just one phase in a long-term, repeated, and cyclic process” of an alternating nomad-settlement pattern of Palestine’s inhabitants. It was not a unique event signalling the influx of a new ethnic group.

Our Unintelligent Design

Robyn Williams is a widely recognized and highly honoured (United Nations Media Peace Prize, Australian Humanist of the Year, various honorary doctorates, etc etc) science journalist in Australia. I can never resist his radio programs and nor could I resist a book title of his I stumbled across, Unintelligent Design: Why God isn’t as smart as she thinks she is.

I’d rather quote a few passages than ditch his style with my own summaries.


Take guts. The plan in mammals was to have a table-like arrangement: four legs set at each corner, with the belly horizontal to the ground. The digestive system — long for herbivores, shorter for meat eaters — is then slung from the spine. Works well. But then our ancestors, for some daft reason best known to themselves, decided to stand up. Horrors: the peritoneum, the bag of membrane containing our guts and reproductive organs is now hanging from a vertical broomstick, with pressures at the lower end, where there are too many exits and entrances and they are compromised by gravity. Result: piles, hernias, prolapses and squashed babies. (p.60)

The female pelvic girdle

Take the female pelvic girdle, which needs to be narrow enough for walking and to excite the admiration of men, but wide enough to allow a baby’s melon-sized head through. A system for inducing pliability via hormones is the compromise, and it works quite well, but it also fails rather often. Fistulas, caused by rips during childbirth, lead to leaks from the bowel into the vagina. They may last for years. Not nice. (p.60)


Here Robyn Williams cites another quoting Gray’s Anatomy. “The normal opening of the maxillary sinus is high above its floor and is poorly placed for natural drainage.” Sinuses give so many so much trouble because the drainage outlet is at the top! Gravity can’t do much to help compensate for that design.

Bad backs

Then there are bad backs. You and I are supposed to have been created in the image of God, so I presume He’s got one. I hope He’s a little better at looking after His than the vast number of us mortals happen to be. When mine is really bad it takes me twenty minutes to get out of bed, so severe are the muscle spasms. According to different accounts, we originally stood up: to peer over the tall grass, as meercats do; or to be able to wade through streams; or, the latest theory, to provide a smaller target for huge predatory eagles hunting for our ancestors. I suspect God did not have to go through the standing-up process and so has a back designed for upright living . . . . Backs can’t be an example of ID. They must, like Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, be a triumph of compromise. (pp. 61-62)

And finally

Halitosis, farting, vaginal discharge, reflux, snoring, rheumatism, warts, smelly armpits, varicose veins, menopause, brewer’s droop . . . these are not the marks of a designer at the top of his game. They are the trademarks of a natural process giving us only as much as we need to stay alive. (p. 71)

The compromised koala

Williams writes that his favourite example of compromise is the koala — with the female’s pouch for its young placed upside down! The explanation is that the koala evolved from a wombat like marsupial ancestor. Wombats are built to dig underground tunnels furiously. The flick dirt backwards with their front paws. An open pouch facing frontwards would be inviting the mothers to bury their young with dirt.

So backwards it was and, when one day the creature moved up a tree, perhaps to exploit a fresh food source, the ‘design’ came with it, too complicated to change. Yet in a few squillion years’ time adjustments may be forthcoming, if they are important enough. I suspect koala pouches may well stay as they are: as humans do with piles and hernias, koalas simply put up with the inconveniences and get on with life. (p. 63)

Koala Pouch - photo from
Koala Pouch - photo from

7 predictors of belief in God; and the different reasons why “I” and “They” believe

Why Darwin Matters contains several sharable nuggets of dot-points findings and here’s one more. In 1998 Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer surveyed 10,000 Americans about their beliefs in God. Here are the summaries (pp. 34-37):

The seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:

1. being raised in a religious manner
2. parent’s religiosity
3. lower levels of education
4. being female
5. a large family
6. lack of conflict with parents
7. being younger

They also asked respondents whey they believed in God and the top 5 reasons were as follows:

1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (8.2%)

But an interesting thing happened when they were asked why they thought others believed in God. What had been the mainly rational reasons for each respondent believing (concluding design required a designer, thinking about life experiences) were dropped to last and third places when asked why they thought others believed in God. Others — not themselves — were mainly thought to believe for emotional (nonrational) reasons.  Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%)

  1. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
  2. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
  3. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (13.0%)
  4. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
  5. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Related post — Why people do not accept evolution


Why people do not accept evolution

The simple answer is “Fear”. Creationist arguments are very often bracketed with gospel messages, and ever since Darwin’s day the lines have been starkly drawn. Religious fundamentalists fear that “belief in” evolution leads to a rejection of God, a rejection of godly values, a loss of any higher meaning or purpose for human existence, an ethic of bullying and of a “me-first” struggling for survival. The scientific arguments are secondary, if they matter at all. Hence popular fallacies about evolutionary theory are still proclaimed as facts by Creationists regardless of their having been established as fallacies ever since the days of Darwin himself. What really is at stake is the fear that evolution means there is no need for God or biblically prescribed morality, and that faith and purpose are all lost.

Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters quotes extensively from William Jennings Bryan of Scopes trial fame in support. One example:

The real attack of evolution, it will be seen, is not upon orthodox Christianity or even upon Christianity, but upon religion — the most basic fact in man’s existence and the most practical thing in life. If taken seriously and made the basis of a philosophy of life, it would eliminate love and carry man back to the struggle of tooth and claw. [Closing statement of WJB in Scopes trial, 1925 — p. 23 of Why Darwin Matters]

Shermer cites the syllogistic reasoning thus (p. 24):

Evolution implies that there is no God, therefore . . .

Belief in the theory of evolution leads to atheism, therefore . . .

Without a belief in God there can be no morality or meaning, therefore . . .

Without morality and meaning there is no basis for a civil society, therefore . . .

Without a civil society we will be reduced to living like brute animals.

This is what bothers people about evolutionary theory, not the technical details of science. Most folks don’t give one whit about adaptive radiation, allopatric speciation, phenotypic variation, assortative mating, allometry and heterochrony, adaptation and exaptation, gradualism and punctuated equilibrium, and the like. What they do care about is whether teaching evolution will make their kids reject God, allow criminals and sinners to blame their genes for their actions, and generally cause society to fall apart.

Where did they get such an idea?

The fact is, of course, that belief in God and the Bible or Koran or any other religion does not guarantee moral behaviour, and “accepting evolution does not force us to jettison our morals and ethics” (p.29). The Bible Belt of America is notorious for its violent crime rate and premarital pregnancy statistics. International crime statistics do not show special favours for Christian nations. I lived many years in country town Toowoomba which is dominated by very conservative Christian stakeholders, yet is also the unfortunate recorder of child abuse and domestic violence statistics among the worst nationally.

Believe in God, but Accept Gravity . . .

Michael Shermer suggests that one of the obstacles to accepting evolution for some people is that they feel they are being asked to make a choice between “believing in” God or evolution. Shermer comments:

evolution is not a religious tenet, to which one swears allegiance or belief as a matter of faith. It is a factual reality of the empirical world. Just as one would not say, “I believe in gravity,” one should not proclaim, “I believe in evolution.” But getting hung up on the idea that one is supposed to “believe in” evolution just as you “believe in” God is just one brand of resistance to evolution. (p. 30)

Shermer lists five specific reasons he believes people resist the theory of evolution (pp.30-32) — the comments are a mix of Shermer’s and my own:

1. A general resistance to science

People generally choose their religion over science, especially if they think they must opt to “believe in” one or the other. If they generally use the findings of science as supports for their religious beliefs, many religious opt to reject any scientific finding that does not support their beliefs.

2. Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets

Many religionists dismiss the geological evidence that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and reinterpret other evidence to support their belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

3. Fear that evolution degrades our humanity

Shermer observes that it is one thing for science to discover that the earth is not the centre of the universe and that is one of many planets orbiting countless suns,  but it is quite another order of consciousness to think that humans might be subject to the same natural laws and natural history as other animals.

4. Equation of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration

Some people who rely on hope and revelation from higher beings for a sense of purpose and moral direction cannot imagine a meaningful and ethical life unless without a belief in God.

Comment: On the other hand many find a deep sense of purpose and basis for moral behaviour by seeing themselves as part of humanity alone. The fact that life is so temporary and unpredictable is strong incentive to make the most of our time here and now, and that includes finding a rewarding and worthwhile life through promoting and doing whatever might enhance the well-being of our fellow-beings. By identifying ourselves with our species lifts us out of more parochial self-identities based on race or any other narrow grouping. Species-identity (or what was once in less politically correct days called “the brotherhood of man” idea) gives us a higher view of our place in the world, and encourages a life in pursuit of humane causes and actions.

Evolution also explains good and evil, and offers sure foundations of ethical behaviour. People are both selfish and unselfish as a result of how each attribute has equipped us for survival as a species. Selfishness has enabled us to protect ourselves and our families or groups to survive against enemies and competitors, while unselfish acts have enabled us to cooperate as larger social units, from families to village communities. And we also have the ability to reflect on our behaviours and work at modifying or controlling them. All societies have prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing and lying. This is because no society would be possible otherwise. And humans are among the most social of animal species. Murder obviously cannot be tolerated if people are to live together; and trust must be established between people for communities to thrive. Religions may have codified such innate views of right and wrong behaviour, but the fact that such ethics are found across all societies shows that no particular religion is necessary to inform people that such things are right or wrong.

Fundamentalists will generally point to all the negative news and behaviours in our midst, often as a sign that we are now in “the last days”. Yes there is much evil in the world, but the fact that we can view the world from within stable communities demonstrates that evil is not the whole story. For every rude person on a train who does not give up his seat for an elderly or other needy person, I have seen dozens who do give up their seats. For every time I have been spoken to rudely by strangers or colleagues, there are scores of times I have been treated with friendliness. Most people really do like to help others when given an opportunity. And it has nothing to do with their religious or nonreligious beliefs. Or at least the same is found among people whether they be Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, or “Other”.

5. Fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature

There is also a common fear that acceptance of evolution will mean that criminals can plead responsibility lay with “their genes” for their actions. Personal responsibility will be a thing of the past.

Comment: But people will always be held responsible for their actions, and this is a basic fact of all societies. (See “why oppose . . .“). Science may well discover certain inherited conditions that predispose a person to a certain type of behaviour (e.g. to be quick to lose one’s temper) but societies always hold each member responsible for their actions. Awareness of predispositions enables both individuals and a society to assist in treating such conditions and avoiding catalyst situations, as well as in deciding the most appropriate punishment or other response to intolerable behaviours.

The urge to rape may in our distant past have had some value to enhance the survival of our species, but we have — through our social natures — reached a point where we have been able to reflect on our actions and their consequences, and learn to control our feelings and build up social fences that encourage (or threaten) members of our community to fall into line, too.

(Related post The Voyage That Shook the World)

The Voyage That Shook the World

2009, the 150th anniversary year since the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, Creation Ministries International have released a documentary film on Darwin, The Voyage That Shook the World, through Fathom Media, their specially created “nonreligious-looking” front organization. A Christian fundamentalist friend asked me to view it, which I eventually did. Unfortunately, predictably, there is nothing new in it as far as creationist anti-evolution arguments are concerned.

Deceptions from childhood?

The film is bracketed by references to Darwin’s own admission that he loved to fabricate (“lie”) tall stories as a child and his ability, or “gift”, to create an illusion that a simple story of origins could explain all there was to know about nature. In between (approx 45 minutes) there are numerous references to Darwin being so fixated on Lyell‘s uniformitarian ideas that he simply failed to see, or ignored, or “shoehorned” evidence that did not support what he was “looking for”. In other words, the film’s tenor portrays Darwin as entrapped by self-deceit. This is entrenched from the outset with references to both Charles Darwin’s grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, as “free-thinking rationalists and humanists”, and regular reminders that Charles was influenced by Erasmus’s writings on evolutionary ideas. And finally it is noted that a notable contribution of Darwin was his ability to tell a story that could appeal to the public, and an ability to persuade readers to at least entertain some of his ideas for a while.

This, of course, is calculated to imply that the whole theory of evolution is itself grounded in delusion and denial. There is little if anything in this film to remind or alert audiences that scientific enquiry itself is all about constantly examining and questioning the assumptions underlying its interpretations of the evidence, let alone taking on board new evidence for testing.

Genesis more scientific than science?

Rather, the film attempts to convince viewers that it is the creationists who are the more scientific than evolutionists. Twice the film asserts that scientists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traced back to Greek philosophers their conviction of fixity of the species. Against these it is claimed that anyone who believes in the story of the Flood and Noah’s ark is also likely to believe in the adaptation of species. The message is that the wisdom of science, grounded in pagan philosophy, had either no explanation for the variation of species across geographical spans, or could only erroneously deduce that each variation had its own discrete origins. The Bible, on the other hand, is said to oblige one to believe that since all animals today originated from Noah’s ark, all the variations of species that we see “proves” that species are not fixed but can and do adapt. Within limits, of course.

The Debate rages?

The film also strongly implies that the primary debates over evolution within the scientific community are currently “raging” between those who support evolution and those who do not. Firstly the narration boldly claims that just such a debate “rages” today. The film also presents mainstream scientists who believe in evolution alongside other “doctors” and “professors” who are Christian creationists, yet without informing viewers of this distinction. Against this obfuscation it is amusing to compare the film’s consistent description of Charles Lyell as “a lawyer”, as if that disqualified him from being taken seriously as a geologist in his day!

Thus when an evolutionist (Peter Bowler) is quoted as saying that the evidence for Darwin’s theory today “stands up pretty well — with lots of additions and modifications”, another name (Cornelius Hunter) with similar academic titles is quoted to make his words sound like an indirect admission that the substantive evidence on which evolution was originally founded has since crumbled into uncertainty. The audience is left with the impression that it is the mainstream scientific community that is struggling in self-deception — evidence supposedly failing to support evolution is said to be euphemistically circuited by describing it all as “research problems” — in order to continue upholding the theory.

Mainstream scholars who are interviewed have protested that they were initially misled into appearing in a Creationist film. See their public statement in the History of Science Society Newsletter. They were unaware of the context through which their statements were being filtered and presented.

Additions and modifications are bad signs?

The film is similarly deceptive towards its viewing audience for conveying the impression that “lots of additions and modifications” to a theory represents serious foundational trouble for a theory. They are not presented with the evidence for evolution that has emerged in truckloads since Darwin. They are not, for example, informed of the predictive power of the theory of evolution and how such power establishes its superlative strength as a theory. Shubin, for example, discusses this in his recently published Your Inner Fish (to which I referred in another recent post). The similar pattern in limb bone structures across different species today, if interpreted according to evolutionary theory, means one is entitled to predict that the same structures will be found back in the fossil record in species that predated those with limbs. This is indeed the case, as with the bone structures of fins in the earliest fish. Conversely, inefficiencies in mammalian design today, such as the wastefully convoluted nerve path from the rear of the brain to the eye, for example, can be shown to be the result of gradual “stretchings” as species adapted further away from the simplest and most direct pathway in earlier marine species.

Further, although the mechanisms of the evolutionary process are debated today, this is the inevitable result of deeper understanding of cell structures and behaviours that were simply unavailable in Darwin’s time. Further explorations, discoveries and questions about processes do not undermine the substantial evidence for the fact of evolution.

Randomness again?

The idea of “randomness” makes a solitary appearance through creationist and biochemist, Matti Leisola. To the less well informed, one would be left with the impression that evolution itself is based on the notion that all changes are random. (“We cannot change bacteria into anything other than bacteria.”) Randomness is, of course, only a part of the picture. And the creationist notion that evolution is comparable to a Jumbo jet being assembled by chance from junkyard materials is simply misinformed. (Not saying Leisola himself drew this comparison but it is common enough among creationists, and his discussion of randomness was surely enough to remind creationist audiences of such arguments.) Without further qualification I found this snippet in the film conveying yet another misleading message.

Uniformitarianism versus catastrophism?

Uniformitarianism takes a heavy beating. Darwin is chastised for not taking more account of catastrophic changes that can be introduced by earthquakes or “dam bursts” from the transition from the glacial eras. But it is misleading to suggest that one must choose between the basic ideas of uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Both have played their parts in the shaping of the earth. And there can be no doubt that the former has been at work over spans of “deep time” despite punctuations of major instabilities in the earth’s crust.

Getting personal

Finally, The Voyage addresses Darwin’s deep conflicts over the idea of suffering in nature (from the loss of three of his own children to the wasp that lays its eggs in a living caterpillar it has paralyzed) and the notion of a good God. The film makes the point several times that Darwin was seeking to remove God from the workings of nature, as if his motivation was in some sense anti-theistic or anti-biblical. No suggestion is made in the film that his motivation could have been “pro-science”. It is a pity that the film did not take up the discussion we find in Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer that Darwin made a point of avoiding public religious debate. One major reason was that he had no wish to cause personal offence to religious members of his own close family — his wife in particular.

Such a positive personal trait would have made a nice balance to the film’s readiness to elaborate on some remarks of Darwin that today are racially offensive against nonwhite races. It is also regrettable that the film neglected to point out that the modern falsification of the notion that “race” is a manifestation of core biological differences has been the work of biologists who are themselves predominantly evolutionists.

Among other reviews online are:

The Lippard Blog review

By PZ Myers – Pharyngula

The Dispersal of Darwin