Israel has captured the imagination of Bible believers and the religiously curious alike throughout most of the common era. Records indicate that early Christians began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land from almost the very beginning –– a tradition that still continues today among Jews, Christians, and some Muslims. In fact, in 2018, over 4 million people visited Israel, which is almost half of the country’s population.
As a graduate student, I was fortunate enough to study in Israel. The event changed my life forever. I learned more in the first 10 days being in Israel then I had in three years of seminary. Being able to see firsthand the geography and topography really gives you a layout of the biblical narratives. Even more transforming is visiting the locations where the biblical stories unfolded. There is something remarkable about the experience that allows you to understand, relate to, and interact with the biblical text like never before.
While the trip transformed my knowledge and appreciation of the Bible, it also impacted me on both spiritual and personal levels. Spiritually, my heart was drawn toward G-d like never before. My love for Israel and the truth of Scripture radically increased. My faith had been confirmed by the sights, sounds, smells, and touch of the Holy Land. Personally, I resolved that Israel had to be a regular part of my life. It was in Israel that I knew that I had to pursue my doctorate in Hebrew Bible. It was also on this trip where my love for archaeology began.
Archaeology often brings up notions of treasure hunting, dangerous encounters, and adventure. Many people have this overly romanticized image of archaeology which is based much more on movies than it is reality. This misconception isn’t just in the U.S. but everywhere I go. I will never forget the time I was at a Kiddush, and a lady introduced me to her 13 year old daughter, telling her that I was an archaeologist. The girl was greatly amused by this and immediately asked if I carried a gun. She was a bit disappointed when she discovered that the real life work of an archaeologist isn’t filled with so much excitement.
Believe it or not, much of the work of an archaeologist takes place behind a desk. The work often starts by researching certain locations and trying to identify possible biblical sites or sites of some significance. The actual excavations begin much later and typically only last a few months at best (though they may continue every year). The work is resumed and analyzes various finds. This includes not only material remains that were discovered but an analysis of the location, topography, architecture, hydrography, and practically anything that was noticed during the excavation.
The point of biblical archaeology today isn’t so much to find lost treasures. Unlike in the early stages of biblical archaeology where theologians went out to prove the biblical texts, today archaeologist are not trying to prove or disprove the Bible. Instead, they try to learn about the people and the locations within the biblical text. This includes the political climate, the migration patterns, city development, and the lives of the average person in ancient Israel.
You may wonder, “why would anyone care about the lives of people during biblical times.” Typically, any ancient writing is biased. It was written by the cultural elite (who were the only ones who could read or write), often living in big cities, and were male. Therefore, texts are not always representative of the entire population. So, even if we were to use outside sources to understand the biblical text, they are written with those biases. Furthermore, written text, including the Bible, doesn’t mention much about the lives of women or children. We know that they are in the stories, but there are not real details. However, thanks to the work of Carol Meyer, we now have a much better understanding of the lives of women during Biblical times through archaeology. Work is also being done concerning children, as detailed in Kristine Henriksen Garroway’s recent book Growing Up In Ancient Israel: Children in Material Culture and Biblical Text.
Gaining insight into these areas helps biblical scholars better understand the biblical text by enhancing our understanding of the context in which the texts were written and the people it was written to. The Bible is not simply a book that was written thousands of years ago. The Bible tells the story of real people, living in real places, during real periods of time, and their encounters with God and with each other. Biblical archaeology helps us to encounter those people and places on a physical level. And that’s why I dig Israel!