The early history of Israel is an elusive thing for historians and archeologists. Many consign it to the realm of myth.
But it should be remembered that myth is not falsehood or untruth. The eminent Harvard University classical scholar, Gregory Nagy, once defined myth for me as “society’s way of defining universal truth.”
For some, Israel’s earliest history is confined to the realm of myth, yet others seek historical evidence of that history. As sentient beings, we have a desire to know about our past. As the so-called “people of the Book,” we Jews have an even stronger desire to probe into our origins.
The great American biblical scholar and archeologist, William Foxwell Albright, and his disciples thought that they had found evidence of our early past going as far back as Abraham. In the four decades since Albright’s death, that evidence has been eroded.
There was a brief flurry of activity in support of the Albrightian view when a major archive was found at the city of Ebla on the upper Euphrates dating from the latter third to the first half of the second millennium BCE. The first epigrapher of the excavation, Giovanni Pettinato, even claimed that some of the names found in the archive corresponded to those in the book of Genesis.
Leading the charge in support of this interpretation was my friend, the late Prof. David Noel Freedman, who at the time held the A.F. Thurneau Chair in Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, closer examination of this material by a number of other epigraphers challenged Pettinato’s interpretation of the material and once again consigned Abraham and his ancestors to the mists of prehistory.
Although we have not had any major discoveries in the area outside of Israel, some surprising new developments have occurred the Holy Land itself.
The initial discovery of an inscription in northern Israel at Tel Dan in the early 1990s began to turn things around. The inscription, ascribed to the Aramaean, King Hazael of Damascus, mentioned the “House of David” for the first time outside of the Bible.
More recently, in 2008, an inscribed pottery shard was found at Tel Qeiyafa, west of Jerusalem, which has been dated by some scholars to either the late 11th or early 10th century BCE. Scholars such as Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem see it as a dispatch marking the accession of Saul as Israel’s first king. The document is also seen as having moral overtones, with such concepts as looking out for the orphan and protecting the poor contained within it. Unfortunately, the inscription is physically not in very good shape and open to differing interpretations, with a number of scholars doubting whether it is even written in Hebrew.
However, what is crucial about this document is that it indicates something much more important than the existence of a historical personage. It already shows our commitment to the ideals of morality and universal justice – arguably our greatest gift to the world.