Sermon: What if none of it really happened?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 November 2012

One of my favourite places in the whole of London is the short stretch on the upper floor of the British Museum that consists of Rooms 57 to 59.

It is never as busy as the Ancient Egypt section that nestles next to it, with the edgy appeal of ancient mummies.  It is not as dramatic as the ground floor – the massive awe-inspiring artefacts – heads of ancient Pharaohs, room-filling Assyrian reliefs, the Easter Island Statue.  It has none of the intrigue of the Rosetta stone, the controversy of the Elgin Marbles, the financial value of the Fishpool hoard.

But unlike all of these, it somehow feels like it is mine.  This is the section devoted to the Ancient Levant – the archaeology of Ancient Israel and the surrounding areas.  And the items there connect to me in a way that the Sutton Hoo ship burial, interesting as it is, never will.

The thrill begins near the top of the West stairs: There you find the reconstruction of a cave, excavated near Jericho in the 1950s by the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon; technically it is the reconstruction of a shaft-tomb; known as tomb P19.  The tomb contains pottery vessels, wooden platters and skeletons – those of seven people, including that of an elderly woman.  The tomb is dated to the Middle Bronze Age – the early second millennium BCE – which is also, as it happens, the same period in which the narratives of the Patriarchs are set.

The tomb has, of course, been scrutinised by scholars – seeking to work out what it reveals about the lives and beliefs of those living in that area at the time.  Who are these people?  What happened to them – especially as the remains seem to attest to violent deaths?   What else can this tell us – does the presence of vessels and platters attest to belief in life after death at the time – and if so, what was the nature of the belief?

And Tomb P19 has also been stared at and wondered upon by thousands of readers of the bible.  Anyone familiar with Genesis who views this tomb is immediately transported to the portion of Torah which Michal just chanted for us so beautifully – the familial burial plot of the patriarchal line, the ancient funeral of Sarah – a story brought to life by a museum exhibit.

For this exhibit suggests that the story of Abraham acquiring a cave to bury his beloved wife, really might have happened, as described.  The semi-nomadic peoples of this period did indeed bury multiple generations in caves.  The story does not contain obvious mistakes, it doesn’t jar.  The story fits the setting.

But magical as this exhibit is, beyond this information it is silent. It can tell us only that there are no obvious anachronisms in the tale.

A generation ago, scholars from the school known as biblical archaeology had hoped for more.  They confidently predicted that archaeology would be able to prove the historicity of the biblical narrative, jumping on findings such as Kenyon’s tomb as supporting the biblical account.  They claimed they were well on the way to proving the accuracy of the bible as history book.  But this was not to be.

Biblical archaeology soon became discredited as the hopeful over-interpretation of new discoveries to make them fit the biblical narrative, making claims way beyond the evidence.  In fact, as things stand, there is no proof of the historicity of, well anything, in the Torah.  Not a single thing.  There are artefacts like Kenyon’s tomb which verify aspects of the setting, but nothing to verify the events.  No evidence of patriarchal wanderings, of Joseph in Egypt.  No proof of the Exodus.  No evidence of a gathering at Mount Sinai, let alone a moment of divine revelation.  The early books of the Prophets with their historical, or pseudo-historical narrative of conquest, of judges, of poor King Saul and unification under great King David, all of these are the source of debate among archaeologists due to the lack of extra-biblical verification.

There is some evidence that a David may have existed – if you visit the Israel museum you can see a stele – a stone inscription – which may contain a reference to a ‘house of David’ – but even this is an obscure reference in a fragmentary text, and not contemporaneous with David’s supposed reign.  And there is no evidence of a great influx of people to Canaan in the early iron age.

It is only in the ninth century BCE, when the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah came into contact with the large empires of Assyria and Babylon that we have extra biblical evidence supporting any of the events described in the bible, including, in the British Museum the earliest extant picture of an Israelite – on an Assyrian obelisk.  But even where there is corroborating evidence for these interactions – diplomatic and military – there is a great difference between the archaeological accounts and the heavily theologised tale in our text.

Of course, as the refrain always goes – absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.  We do not know what historical nuggets may lie behind the Torah text – nor, in most likelihood will we ever.  I would not be bold enough to say that they never happened – though some scholars, perhaps even scholarly opinion, now view the story of Wandering, of Exodus, of Conquest presented in Torah as the folk narrative of an indigenous people who grew up in the hill country of Judea, who would come to form two small kingdoms with a shared mythological account of how they came to be.

The question is.  Does it matter? Do we need the bible to be grounded in history?  Do the absence of verification, do these challenging new theories fatally undermine our relationship with the Torah text?

My answer, as you would probably have guessed, is no. To read bible as history is to utterly miss the point.  Though written in places as if it were a historical account, the bible is not a history textbook.  If we treat it as such then we need to allow its ‘truth’ to be judged by historical method.  But if we do that, then we also need to almost put our relationship with the text on hold until we get that much sought after verification.

And even if the core events it describes can then be verified, like some of the later material, then we know that the biblical account and the archaeological account are still always like two train tracks running side by side – occasionally far away from each other, occasionally almost touching, but ultimately never the same – different routes, going different ways.

But, if we read the text for what it truly is – the narrative, the formative myth, of our people – a deeply theological and personal work, then its truth is not in the historicity of the events it describes but in the values, obligations and relationships that the narrative presents.  Whether the story happened makes no difference to the connection that holds us to one another, the grappling with God that it represents, and the bond to the text itself that is the mark of our Jewish life.  If anything, it makes it stronger, it makes it more honest, because it does not require us to believe the unbelievable.

So, when I can, I like to go to the British museum.  Among the exhibits I stare at is Tomb P19.  And as I do, I think about the Cave of Machpelah which we read about this morning.  In those three small rooms in Central London is some of the soil from which the bible grew – are glimpses of the human world the bible represents.  Items shaped, touched, written by the very people whose experiences would come to shape the foundations of Jewish life. But as I sit there, I never ask it to prove the historicity of the text – because it can’t, it won’t and I would be wrong to ask it to.