The on-going, often acrimonious controversies within Israel over its true religious history and its mission today has recently taken on a new dimension among archeologists and public leaders over the nation’s proper use of the Bible.
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 21) finds at least three competing camps of interpretation have stirred major debates on whether the Bible can be understood as reliable, literal history. The controversy goes beyond academic polemics, taking on sharp political dimensions overtones as to the future of organized religion within the nation itself.
The first school, centering around Archeologist Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, finds no convincing evidence from past literary or physical records that the Bible’s historical narratives are at all to be understood as literal fact. The Hebrew Bible is not a religious document at all, he claims, but rather the “defining document” of Jewish nationhood. Too many contradictions among the source materials, and too little evidence from remaining archeology exist to lead to any other conclusion.
A second school headed by Mordechai Cogan, a Hebrew University scholar, and colleague Amihai Mazar, think the first school has gone too far in rejecting the Bible as history. They concede it cannot be taken literally as history, but insist enough evidence exists to prove beyond doubt that the Jewish people are the rightful heirs in claiming ownership of the lands of the Old Testament. The political implications of this center around Mazar’s position, “The Jews in Israel no longer need the Bible to justify their presence in the Middle East. We’re here because we’re here. We no longer need excuses — we’re native.”
A third school centered in Israeli universities claims the furor really misses the major thrust of the Hebrew Bible. They insist its authors never intended it to be literal history; it should be revered and promoted for its literary and moral values it espouses. Observers point out that beyond the argument in academia there exists major political implications in the dispute. Can Israel continue to claim that Palestinians have no valid claim to their presence in the disputed territories, if the Biblical record is not literal?
Conversely, isn’t the dispute really over Zionism, the establishment and perpetuation of Israel as a religious state justified in its exclusiveness towards Arabs? One rabbi voices the traditional Zionist view of the controversy: “It’s no coincidence that it is happening now. The attack on the Bible is part and parcel of the general attack on Zionist values that is exemplified by the current Israeli government’s willingness in the framework of the peace process, to hand over parts of the biblical land of Israel to the Palestinians.”
— By Erling Jorstad