More nonsense from biblical archaeologists: turning a Taliban text into a proclamation of human rights and dignity!

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by Neil Godfrey

Two archaeologists, one Israeli (Israel Finkelstein) and one American (Neil Asher Silberman), have bizarrely managed to repackage a Taliban-like ancient biblical legal code into a modern enlightened expression of human rights, human liberation and social equality.

Presumably this is done in order to preserve some (mythical) legitimacy for traditional claims among certain Jewish quarters that it is Jewish heritage that has been the harbinger of humanity’s modern spiritual values. One wonders if there is also a need to legitimize the claims of modern Jews to the land of Israel by appealing to a historic presence that must be justified in spiritual as well as mere ‘genetic’ terms.

The “Bible’s integrity”, they write, “stems from being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of people’s liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality. It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive.” (The Bible Unearthed, p. 318)

Finkelstein and Silberman write this sort of stuff as a compensation for the fact that archaeology refutes many of the Biblical stories, such as those of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the glorious united kingdom of David and Solomon. They console those who have long cherished such biblical myths as narratives of their genuine historical identity: “Yet the Bible’s integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful historical “proof” of any of its particular events or personalities, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the trumpet blasts that toppled the walls of Jericho, or David’s slaying of Goliath with a single shot of his sling.”

Indeed, Finkelstein and Silberman claim that the biblical narrative of the death of Josiah “set the pattern” for the even more enlightened Christian and rabbinic myths and values:

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the rise of Christianity, the independent power of the Bible as a formative constitution — not just a brilliant work of literature or a collection of ancient law and wisdom — proved itself. It was the basis for ever-expanding elaboration in the Mishnah and Talmud of Rabbinic Judaism and was recognized as the “Old Testament” of formative Christianity. The consciousness of spiritual descent from Abraham and the common experience of the Exodus from bondage became a shared mindset for ever-growing networks of communities throughout the Roman empire and the Mediterranean world. The hope of future redemption, though no longer attached to the extinguished earthly dynasty of David, was kept alive in Judaism’s prophetic and messianic expectations, and in Christianity’s belief that Jesus belonged to the Davidic line. The poignant death of the would-be messiah Josiah so many centuries before had set the pattern that would survive throughout history. (p. 317)

“Brilliant work of literature”? There may be some eloquence in portions of the King James translation, but the more I read of ancient literature the more suspicious I become that claims to the Bible’s “literary brilliance” are exclusivist nonsense or romantic wishful thinking.

A repository of ancient law and wisdom it is, but no more wise or “enlightened” than anything one can read in the wisdom texts of Egypt or the legal codes of Mesopotamia.

How enlightened?

Finkelstein and Silberman make some far-reaching claims for Deuteronomy:

it is important to note that the book of Deuteronomy contains ethical laws and provisions for social welfare that have no parallel anywhere else in the Bible. Deuteronomy calls for the protection of the individual, for the defense of what we would call today human rights and human dignity. Its laws offer an unprecedented concern for the weak and helpless within Judahite society. . .


  • Lend to the poor to ensure he can meet his basic needs
  • Don’t pervert justice against orphans
  • Don’t take a widow’s garment as a pledge
  • Don’t move boundary stones
  • Legal protection for the inheritance of divorced wives
  • Farmers to give a tithe to the poor every third year
  • Don’t extort hired labour, whether they are Israelites or resident aliens (F&S read this as “resident aliens are protected from discrimination”)
  • Slaves to be freed after 6 years

Unparalleled anywhere else in the Bible? It appears these authors have forgotten Exodus 23:1-9 with its injunctions against false gossip, bribery, injustice towards foreigners, the poor, etc are all laid out; and also Leviticus 19 with its commands to love your neighbour as yourself, to avoid slander, to judge rich and poor equally by the same standards of justice, to avoid adding to difficulties for the deaf and blind, to not even hate your brother, etc.

Compared to the ethical standards of other ancient Mid East peoples I see nothing distinctive here. Compare some of the ethics and values of Israel’s pagan neighbours: Wisdom and Ethics of Israel’s Pagan Neighbours; compare also other ancient law-codes, several linked here.

Finkelstein and Silberman almost make Deuteronomy sound a bit like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man:

Even the king was to be subject to the laws of the covenant . . . (p. 286)

In reality this is as far from any assertion of the rule of “natural law” as is a Taliban code for all civic powers to submit to Sharia law. There are many good principles in Sharia law, as in any law-code. But to pick out the cherries and ignore the rest is a complete nonsense and distortion of reality.

Finkelstein and Silberman quote a Hebrew inscription possibly from around the time of Josiah that they claim is “the single most evocative archaeological artifact seemingly exemplifying this new consciousness of individual rights”. The text of this Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon can be found on Wikipedia in one translation, and in another translation with more scholarly notes here. The text is a complaint to an official that someone has stolen a worker’s garment.

Finkelstein and Silberman interpret this plea as evidence of a “revolutionary” development:

Here was a personal demand that the law be observed, despite the difference in social rank between the addressee and the petitioner. A demand of rights by one individual against another is a revolutionary step away from the traditional Near Eastern reliance solely on the power of the clan to ensure its members’ communal rights.  . . . The laws of Deuteronomy stand as a new code of individual rights and obligations for the people of Israel. They also served as the foundation for a universal social code and system of community values that endure — even today. (p. 287)


Maybe some ultra-orthodox and/or right-wing Jewish sects see them “even today” as relevant for their narrow tribal outlook. But today’s legal codes owe more to the concept of natural law that emerged from the Enlightenment, and this is essentially the expression of nothing other than the values that are more correctly viewed as human universals.

Even Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s own translation of the final lines of the ostracon text demonstrate that any sense of modern “human rights” had nothing to do with the plea:

If the official does not consider it an obligation to return your servant’s garment, then have pity upon him and return your servant’s garment.

The suppliant appeals to the official’s sense of obligation or duty to administer justice (not to his own “human rights”). The suppliant then concedes the official may not respond to this plea. He does not call on his “rights” to be recognized. He instead begs for human pity in the heart of the official.

There is nothing here at all that comes within a whisker of any “revolutionary” values or concepts. All law codes — even all ancient ones — address the administration of justice to the poor and those of lower ranks.

The barbarisms Finkelstein and Silberman overlook

The Book of Deuteronomy is a Taliban like code that demands total submission of all civic life and public officials (including the king) to the authority of the priests.

  1. It calls for the genocide of the Amalekites (Deut 25:17-19)
  2. It orders the genocide of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites (Deut 20:16-17)
  3. It orders the slaughter of all males of all ages in conquered cities outside Palestine (Deut 20:10-15)
  4. Women who were found not to be virgins at time of their marriage were subject to death by stoning (Deut 22:20-21)
  5. A woman who did not scream while being raped was to be stoned to death (Deut 22:23-24)
  6. A woman and man who committed adultery were to be executed (Deut 22:22) (Presumably many Christians and Jewish peoples are appalled at the possibility floated that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani death sentence in Iran may be by hanging instead of the requisite stoning.)
  7. If a Mormon comes to your door, or if someone puts up a poster inviting interested parties to attend a Hare Krishna meeting, or if an evangelical Christian preaches on a street corner in Israel, they are to be stoned to death (Deut 13:6-10)
  8. If anyone living among you has a different religion that person is to be stoned to death (Deut 17:1-7)
  9. A rebellious son was to be stoned to death (Deut 21:18)
  10. Women captured in war could be made to “marry” their conquerors (Deut 21:10-13)
  11. Flogging up to 40 lashes was a normative punishment (Deut 25:1-3)
  12. Barbaric eye for eye, hand for hand, life for life, was the standard (Deut 19:21)

On this last point, the lex talionis, the original meaning was clearly and inflexibly literally the requirement for physical mutilation without pity:

If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deut 19:16-21)

Later readers (rabbinic and Christian) were embarrassed by this relic from a more barbaric era, so they found “exegesis” a most useful tool for contradicting its plain meaning while claiming to strengthen its original “spiritual intent”. In fact, the biblical law clearly distinguished between crimes against a person, whether bodily injury or perjury (e.g. Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:17, 19-21; Deut 19:16-21), and crimes against property damage or theft (e.g. Exod 21:36, 37; 22:3, 4, 5, 6, 11, 13). The latter involved financial compensation; the former required eye for an eye.

In Leviticus 24:17-21 the two systems of punishment are “mutually exclusive and explicitly contrasted”:

If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death.

Deuteronomy does not change this. Later rabbinic exegesis did:

Rabbinic exegesis confutes the plain meaning of the scriptural text and rules that “an eye for an eye” means rather “[the financial compensation for] an eye for an eye.” (Bernard M. Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, p.15)


A seventh-century book?

Finkelstein and Silberman are in no doubt that the Book of Deuteronomy is a seventh-century book. They accept as essentially historical the story of its discovery in the temple during the reign of Josiah, though as outlined in a previous post they can offer virtually nix evidence in support of this assumption. They additionally point to its literary form being “strikingly similar to that of early seventh-century Assyrian vassal treaties that outline the rights and obligations of a subject people to their sovereign”; and further to Deuteronomy’s similarities to early Greek literature in its “expressions of ideology within programmatic speeches, in the genre of blessing and cursing, and in the ceremonies for the foundation of new settlements.” (p. 281)

[I]t seems safe to conclude that it was written in the seventh century BCE, just before or during Josiah’s reign.

I would have been more convinced by this assertion, perhaps, had Finkelstein and Silberman engaged the arguments of those scholars who find more compelling reasons to date the book even later. But reading The Bible Unearthed one could easily conclude that there is no alternative case to answer. All their evidence suggests is a possible earliest date. This is the same methodological fallacy we find among New Testament scholarship that seeks to establish an earliest possible or likely date for the gospels and assumes that as the default or “consensus” view. Other possibilities are generally not invited into the discussion.

The Assyrian connection to Deuteronomy: a two-edged sword

Perhaps Finkelstein and Silberman consider such a “late” date for Deuteronomy to be consistent with what they wish to see as its progressive character.

But by calling on comparisons with Assyrian texts in support of their date, they are really exposing the primitive nature of the book. Here is Bernard M. Levinson’s comment on this book’s similarity with Assyrian documents:

In chapter 13, the text’s authors clearly drew upon the neo-Assyrian vassal treaties and transferred the penalty of disloyalty from the Assyrian overlord to Yahweh, just as they strove to replace the vassal treaty that bound Judah to Assyria with Deuteronomy itself as a new covenant binding Judah to the Great King. The common punishment for enticing others into acts of disloyalty, with political sedition now reconfigured as religious apostasy, is capital. In circumstances where, by definition, there are no witnesses, even immediate summary execution — taking the law into one’s own hands — is mandated: only so does the subject establish his absolute allegiance to the lord, political or divine. (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, p. 134)

Attempting to create a new myth for Israel’s religious heritage

In a recent post I expressed my disappointment with reading Silberman’s and Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed. That also means I am dismayed at the frequency with which I seem to run into glowing praises for this book. I found nothing in it that added to what I did not know previously about what the archaeological evidence indicates for the history of Palestine as a result of reading Davies, Lemche, Thompson and (their nemesis) Dever, and a few others (e.g. Mazar, Whitelam, Garbini). Had their book been a synopsis of what we can know of the history of this region from the primary evidence (in this instance, archaeology), that would have been fine.

But Finkelstein and Silberman go way beyond that little endeavour and attempt to write a new myth of the superior (and modern) contributions of the ancient forebears of the modern Jews to the ethical, religious and spiritual life of humanity through the Hebrew Bible.

The trouble is, they write this myth without any clear anchoring to the historical evidence. But I suppose that’s what myths are all about. If you try to tie a myth down to the facts and nothing but the facts you lose your myth.

I trust(?) that none of this post will be misinterpreted as anti-semitic.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “More nonsense from biblical archaeologists: turning a Taliban text into a proclamation of human rights and dignity!”

  1. Come on, how secular can’t you get? Neil, this is so insanely out of context that it beggars belief… Look at the difference between your headline and your opening phrase for a start!

    If Finkelstein is a bent and bereft as you quote in dribs and drabs without any statement of context than he must be a nutter (which i doubt very much). That would collapse your entire argument; either he is a nutter and not worth blogging about ot you have a majorr axe to grind (akin to ex christian monotheists bagging their old religious practices).

    There is a sequence that is established, stick to it and then comment on departures by major authors and discuss.

    These are becoming rants David Icke

  2. The context is here: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/josiahs-reforms-where-is-the-archaeological-evidence/

    “The Bible Unearthed” is an attempt to create a myth of enlightened spiritual origins of the Hebrew Bible as an apparent substitute for the patent demise of the old myths of historical patrirachs, exodus and Davidic kingdom.

    Its thesis lacks any clear supporting evidence. It is a continuation of the same ideological and circular methods of Albrightian scholarship that once found historical evidence for biblical claims under every tel.

    F and S console those upset with the demise of the Laws given at Sinai by attempting to rewrite Deuteronomy and Josiah’s reign as the new paradigm for the Jewish heritage.

    The book’s apparent popularity means it ought to have a spotlight thrown on its lack of substance and ideological agenda.

    If you see specific flaws with my argument then do single them out.

  3. Good post Neil.
    As I said in your previous thread on F & S this book of theirs was quite a disappointment to me.

    In other sites I saw it praised as the best layman/amateur treatment of the lack of archaeological evidence for the pre exile era alleged ‘history’ of the Jewish region.
    And while some still say that, it is really an indictment of the paucity of quantity and quality of books that cover that era rather than deserved praise for F & S.

    But I found its treatment ‘problematic’.
    However the two authors had my sympathy because they became the subject of much animosity and smearing from the maximalists [using that term loosely], even being accused, oh the heavy irony, of ‘anti-semitism’.
    I think the controversy was carried on pretty heavily at BAR for a while.

    So its reassuring to find someone else who shares my opinion that whilst this book has served a purpose [its put the lack of evidence for the exodus and conquest into the public arena] it really should have been much better.

    Laughlin [see previous thread], Thompson and Jonathan Tubb: “The Canaaanites’ are, IMO, better books on the same topic.

  4. I think you are right about F&S walking a tightrope in today’s political and religious environment. The political, ideological and religious biases distorting genuine historical inquiry seem to me to be just as strong among Jewish biblical scholarship as they are among “Christian” biblical scholarship. And we haven’t even begun to address that third wing of “Abrahamic” religion.

  5. (1) “And we haven’t even begun to address that third wing of ‘Abrahamic’ religion.”

    Professor Sven Kalisch, a German convert to Islam, taught Muslim theology at the University of Munster from 2004 to 2010. After proposing that the Prophet Mohammed never existed, it became impossible for him to keep his professorship. He is now a professor of philology, and he has left Islam.

    (2) “I would have been more convinced by this assertion, perhaps, had Finkelstein and Silberman engaged the arguments of those scholars who find more compelling reasons to date the book even later.”

    Ingrid Hjelm (Copenhagen) describes the year 164 BCE as a “rotation point” within a larger chronological framework, which is reflected in the Masoretic text. (The Temple was rededicated under Judas Maccabaeus in 164 BCE.) I have absolutely no background in this field, and I find it difficult to discern what conclusions follow from her argument. But she does seem to suggest that the books from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings were edited in final form after 164 BCE.

    1. Ha, it would be interesting to compare the structures and politics of Mohammad-mythicism and Christ-mythicism. Maybe after I retire I will find the time.

      The 164 bce as the final form of the Primary History at least (Genesis-2 Kings) is based on the chronologies having been doctored so that there are 4000 years from the creation of Adam to the rededication of the temple under the Maccabees:


      This sort of editing meant King Saul was two years old when he began to reign and he only reigned one year, but let the technicalities of the narrative take care of themselves so long as the big picture of the Great Platonic Year is discernable as the guiding principle of Providence.

      1. Thanks for helpful links to further reading. The Danish text by Ingrid Hjelm makes mention of two 400-year periods, which are somehow connected to the year 164 BCE. Your text looks like a good starting point for anyone just trying to get the feel for this.

        For the sake of completeness, here are the references:

        (1) Ingrid Hjelm, “1 Makkabæerbogs helte mellem fortælling og virkelighed,” in: Thomas L. Thompson & Henrik Tronier, eds., Frelsens biografisering (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2004), 63-78; p. 75.

        (2) Ingrid Hjelm, Jerusalem’s Rise to Sovereignty: Zion and Gerizim in Competition (London & New York: T & T Clark International), pp. 287-288.

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