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Bible's Buried Secrets: A personal review E-mail
Written by Dr Jeremy Corley   
Monday, 11 April 2011 13:07

This review covers the three interesting and well-produced programmes in the BBC2 series on the Bible’s Buried Secrets (15th, 22nd, and 29th March 2011). The first programme dealt with King David, the second with monotheism, and the third with the Garden of Eden. All three programmes were presented by the respected Exeter University biblical scholar, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou. She helpfully included interviews with scholars of diverse views, both for and against her point of view. Overall the programmes offered new historical angles on the biblical stories, but it is not always clear that they captured their “real meaning.”

It is good that the BBC chose to produce programmes on the Bible, pitched not at specialists or firm believers but at a general audience. The programmes offered the audience a window into some of the current debates among biblical scholars and archaeologists. While the intention was good, I would here like to review the contents of these programmes.

Their overarching idea was that the Hebrew Bible has distorted historical fact by developing a legendary figure of King David, by presenting Israel’s monarchical period as monotheistic when in fact people believed in various gods (including Yahweh’s wife Asherah), and by creating a story of human origins based on a Garden of Eden that was originally the Jerusalem temple.

In the first programme, many BBC2 viewers will have been surprised by the conclusion that King David’s empire did not exist. Dr Stavrakopoulou suggested that the biblical stories about King David were possibly created to take over and replace the achievements of Israel’s King Omri a century later.

The programme did present later archaeological evidence testifying to King David. Viewers were shown an Aramaic inscription found in 1993 at Tel Dan in northern Israel. This inscription, from the mid-9th century BCE, speaks not only of a “king of Israel” but also of a “[kin]g of the House of David.” So within a century and a half of David’s death—usually reckoned around 970 BCE—the Davidic dynasty held power in parts of the Holy Land.

Dr Stavrakopoulou also visited the Louvre Museum in Paris to see the Mesha Inscription, dating from the mid to late 9th century BC. The importance for her is its mention of “Omri king of Israel.” Omri was a powerful king, known even to the Assyrians, though he is only briefly mentioned in the Bible. But she did not mention that this inscription also refers to the “House of [Da]vid.” Thus, within a century and a half, two texts from Israel’s neighbours testify to a royal dynasty known as the “House of David.”

The programme offered interesting glimpses of various archaeological sites within modern Israel. It showed three fortresses with monumental gateways that were once claimed to date from the time of David, but which are now thought to come from the following century. Viewers were also shown excavations at the supposed citadel of David in Jerusalem, a site whose dating is disputed by archaeologists.

What emerged from the programme was that the biblical picture of David controlling a mighty empire reaching far beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land may well be exaggerated. Dr Stavrakopoulou noted the area’s rather small population and the lack of monumental buildings from that time. However, to suggest the possibility that King David himself never existed seems like a leap too far.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the programme was her interview with an American scholar, Dr Baruch Halpern, author of a literary and historical study of King David. He made the point that if the character of King David had been invented, why did the Bible have so many chapters dealing with David’s faults and the rebellions of his sons?

What this programme clearly showed was the wide divergence possible in the interpretation of both the Bible and the archaeological evidence. Does absence of archaeological evidence of David from his lifetime mean that he never existed?

Archaeological discoveries indicate that in the 150 years following his death, two neighbouring states referred to the “House of David.” Lengthy narratives in the Bible also describe David’s rise and his family problems with details that seem very lifelike. In my view, the balance of probability is that King David indeed existed, even if some of the later accounts of his empire have been exaggerated.

The second programme focused on the theme of monotheism in ancient Israel. According to Dr Stavrakopoulou, this belief only became prevalent among the Jews during the Babylonian exile. In the previous monarchical period, she says, there was a plurality of gods worshipped by the Israelites. Most radically, she asserts that it was widely believed that Yahweh had a consort or wife named Asherah.

She referred to Canaanite religious texts from around 1500-1200 BCE, found at the Syrian archaeological site of Ugarit. These texts mention the chief god El and his consort Athirat (a name related to Asherah). In Israel also, God is often known by the name El (e.g., Gen 33:20). The question is whether Israel’s God was also believed to have a wife, Asherah.

Dr Stavrakopoulou justly pointed to an archaeological discovery from 1975-76 from Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai desert. Two inscriptions have been understood to say: “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and by his Asherah,” while a third seems to say: “I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah.” (Teman refers to a place in the southern desert.) But in biblical Hebrew it is unusual to see a personal name with a suffixed personal pronoun, such as “my Abraham” or “his Sarah.” Hence various scholars have suggested that the word “asherah” here refers to a cultic symbol, perhaps a sacred tree or pole (as in Deut 16:21 and Judg 6:25).

She also referred to the opening of Moses’ final canticle in Deut 33:2. The Hebrew text is not entirely clear, but it may be translated: “Yahweh came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir for him/them. He shone forth from Mount Paran, and came from the holy myriads. At his right hand was/were ESHDAT for him/them.” The puzzling word ESHDAT has traditionally been understood to mean: “fire was law,” but the term “law” (DAT) is a Persian word from the postexilic era. With different vowels the word could be ASHEDOT: “there were hills.”

According to Dr Stavrakopoulou, however, the text has slightly corrupted two consonants of the original word, ASHERAH. If so, the text would refer to Yahweh’s consort: “At his right hand was Asherah for him.” While this is a possible emendation of a difficult text, it is by no means compelling.

In the programme Dr Stavrakopoulou noted that the Bible uses the term Asherah or “asherah” forty times. The word seems to denote either the Canaanite goddess Asherah or a wooden pole or tree representing her. Most clearly, 2 Kings 21:7 reports the action of the 7th-century BCE King Manasseh, who set up a carved image of Asherah in the Jerusalem temple. So it is evident that Asherah was indeed worshipped in the temple during the monarchy, even if the biblical authors frowned on this cult.

This is hardly a “secret,” though the recent inscriptions mentioning Yahweh and “his asherah” may not be well known to the non-specialist public. While the Hebrew Bible is essentially a document of Yahwistic faith rather than a neutral history, it does not deny that during the monarchy many gods other than Yahweh were worshipped. The preaching of several biblical prophets makes this clear. Evidently monotheism developed gradually within Israel, being seen much more clearly after the Babylonian exile.

While Asherah was clearly worshipped as a goddess at certain points in Israelite history, a question arises: why does her name not appear in Israelite personal names or place names? By contrast, the names of other pagan gods appear fairly frequently. The name of the Canaanite god Baal appears, for instance, not only in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 18:21), but also in the name of King Saul’s son Ishbaal (1 Chr 8:33) and in the place Baal-gad (Josh 11:17). The goddess Anat, known from the Ugaritic texts, appears in the place name Beth-Anat (= temple of Anat, Judg 1:33), while the judge Shamgar had the designation “son of Anat” (Judg 3:31).

By way of contrast, I am not aware of any Israelite personal name or place name using the term Asherah. Admittedly, two seals from Tel Beit Mirsim, southwest of Hebron, bear the name Asher-hai (= Asher lives), while another from this site has the name Asher-yahat (= May Asher terrify). The form is similar to a Phoenician name Asher-shelah (= Asher has sent). The reference may perhaps be to a god of fortune named Asher, whose name is preserved in Jacob’s son (Gen 30:13).

It is possible that some Israelites may indeed have believed that Yahweh had a consort Asherah, parallel to the consort Athirat of the Canaanite chief god El at Ugarit. However, it is hard to know how widespread this cult of Asherah was during Israel’s monarchy. Apart from a couple of suggested textual emendations, there is not much evidence of Israel’s prophets speaking frequently against the cult of Asherah to the same extent that they spoke against the god Baal. Historical reconstructions are always fraught with uncertainty.

The third programme offered a reinterpretation of the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden. Instead of the traditional understanding of the narrative as explaining the origin of human sin and death, Dr Stavrakopoulou views the story as arising out of a specific event in Israelite history—the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and the end of the monarchy in Judah.

Dr Stavrakopoulou pointed to an Assyrian relief in the British Museum, showing the Mesopotamian king presiding over a sacred garden attached to his palace. She also showed the huge fantastic beasts that protected the entrance of ancient Near Eastern temples, often situated within a palace complex. Such a figure, often a winged bull, was known in the Akkadian language as “kuribu,” related to the biblical term “cherub” (Gen 3:24).

She also noted that the Bible speaks of Solomon’s temple being decorated with plant motifs such as palms and flowers (1 Kings 6:29-32). Hence she considered that the Jerusalem temple could be regarded as a kind of Garden of Eden, presided over by the king and queen as Adam and Eve figures.

She then referred to Ezekiel 28, a prophetic message from the time of the fall of Jerusalem but directed to the king of Tyre: “You were in Eden, the garden of God…. With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God…. So I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the stones of fire” (Ezek 28:13-16).

For Dr Stavrakopoulou, God’s expulsion of the king of Tyre from Eden parallels the divine punishment of the last king of Jerusalem (Zedekiah). Hence, for her, the Garden of Eden story is really about the sin of Judah’s last king that led to the fall of Jerusalem and the exiling of the people to Babylon. Thus, Eden represents the temple mount, while Gihon (Gen 2:13) is a spring on the southern edge of Jerusalem (as in 1 Kings 1:45).

On this understanding, Eve symbolizes a queen who led the king astray, just like Jezebel or the wives of Solomon. Moreover, the tempting serpent is a downgrading of the image of the serpent Nehushtan, worshipped in the temple during the Israelite monarchy (2 Kings 18:4).

It seems likely that themes from the Garden of Eden story were indeed taken up to reflect on the tragedy of the Babylonian exile. But whether this event is the origin of the story is questionable, especially since Dr Stavrakopoulou ignored the most obvious element in the narrative—the theme of creation.

For more than a century, scholars have noted similarities between the Genesis narrative and creation stories from Babylon and Egypt. To take one example, Genesis 2—3 has echoes of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh. According to Gen 2:7, “Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This motif echoes the Gilgamesh Epic, which tells of the making of the primeval warrior Enkidu by the goddess Aruru (I:34-35): “Aruru washed her hands, pinched off clay, and threw it on the steppe; valiant Enkidu she created.”

While the Hebrew word for “rib” can refer to a “board” or “sidepiece” used in the temple construction (1 Kings 6:15), it is evident that Gen 2:21-22 describes God’s creation of the first woman out of Adam’s rib or side. Moreover, the motif of the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden is hard to understand in reference to the Jerusalem temple, since nakedness was regarded as a sign of shame throughout the biblical tradition (e.g., Amos 2:16; Hos 2:3).

Dr Stavrakopoulou rightly states that the Genesis story does not mention Satan nor speak directly of original sin. For her, the serpent is not the villain, equivalent to Satan as in the NT Book of Revelation (Rev 12:9). Indeed, it is true that the idea of the “fall” of Adam first appears in 4 Ezra (3:21-22; 7:118) at the end of the first century CE.

But throughout history, the biblical story has been reapplied to subsequent situations, so as to express later theology. Such reapplication is the mark of good literature, which is able to speak afresh to later generations. To be sure, the full Christian theology of original sin is not found in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, but rather develops motifs found in that story. In a different way, post-biblical Jewish tradition also developed themes drawn from Genesis 2—3.

To be fair to Dr Stavrakopoulou, at each major point of divergence she interviewed a speaker who presented a more traditional viewpoint within Christianity or Judaism or Islam. However, it is disappointing that she could not seem to allow scope for the legitimacy of later theological developments from the biblical story and instead insisted only on the supposed original historical meaning—which is often hard to determine beyond all doubt.
Any reasonable attempt to present biblical material on television is to be welcomed, even if it sometimes involves ruffling some feathers. The problem lies in the contrast between two approaches to the biblical text: the committed approach of faith (emphasizing theology and spirituality), and the dispassionate approach of reason (employing techniques of historical investigation). Historical study certainly has an important place, even if believers wish to place stress on the role of faith.

In general, it is a pity that television programmes seem to favour an adversarial model of discovering truth (e.g., Labour party versus Conservatives). It is also a pity that television producers often push a serious documentary into the genre of a quest for hidden treasures, lost documents, and suppressed evidence. The truth is more often a case of “both A and B.”

I can accept that archaeological evidence for David’s kingdom is weak—does that mean it never existed? I can accept that monotheism became the customary belief only gradually in ancient Israel—does that mean there was no monotheism before the Babylonian exile? I can accept that the Garden of Eden story had something to say to the Jewish exiles banished from their homeland to Babylon—does that mean that no story of the Garden of Eden existed beforehand?

Dr Jeremy Corley teaches Biblical Studies at Ushaw College, Durham. In 2009 he edited New Perspectives on the Nativity (T & T Clark).