Philistines of Gath… Today

Hot as it is, summer in Israel sees an increase in archaeological activity, not least because it’s a great opportunity for students on break to get course credit volunteering at one of the many fascinating dig sites. At Tel es-Safi, archaeologists believe they’ve uncovered the ancient Philistine city of Gath, complete with a pillared temple — great backdrop for the biblical Samson’s heroic last stand. The Philistine presence on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean brought them into proximity, and conflict, with the Israelites. In the Bible’s books of history, they are the quintessential “other,” frequently portrayed as backward and barbaric. The archaeological record does suggest cultural difference, including diet (e.g., Philistines ate pigs and dogs; Israelites, not so much). But the quality of artifacts associated with the Philistines is generally much higher than that associated with the Israelites — finer, more deocrative pottery, e.g. — and shows a more cosmopolitan nature, in keeping with the Philistines’ travel and trade in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, both peoples were subjected to the inexorable strength of Nebuchadnezzar at the end of the seventh, beginning of the sixth centuries BCE. It’s there — in Babylon, especially, that I’m spending my (armchair) archaeological time these days. Back, then, to the “Gate of the Gods.”

Cyrus Cylinder’s Visit Extended

Sept. 10-12, and now Norouz. Is it just coincidence that the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old document sometimes described as the first declaration of human rights and attributed to the founder of the Persian Empire, traveled from its museum home in the West (UK) to the Middle East (Iran) on September 10 (2010) for an exhibit that began on September 12? The deafening silence to my American ears is of course Sept. 11.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad proudly introduced the Cylinder, ascribed to Cyrus II (the Great), at the beginning of its visit to the National Museum of Iran, touting it as a testament to the importance of fighting oppression and championing the rights of individuals for freedom and dignity. The cylinder was due to return to the British Museum today (Jan. 10), but BM officials have extended its visit through the Iranian New Year holidays (Norouz) until mid-April to allow schoolchildren and others to view this object, a piece of historythat is “crucial” for its resonance in the histories of East and West. Simply engaging in this exchange, as Iranians and Brits have done, honors the power of the past to shape our present and future. Relations between nations, a crack in the suspicions that divide us. Happy New Year in the West, and best wishes for the same to our neighbors in the East.

Cyrus Cylinder back in Iran

A small clay object with scratches decipherable by only a few people in the world can nevertheless still move nations. Sometimes called “the first charter of human rights,” this text inscribed on a cylinder of clay comes from Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire and called “messiah” by the biblical prophet Isaiah. It dates back to the sixth century BCE. Cyrus’ extraordinary power and leadership (characteristis that are not always found together) earned him the moniker “the Great.” And now, his most famous declaration has made its way back to Iran for a four month visit. The journey has not been without controversy, since the turmoil of Iran’s recent elections made the British Museum reluctant to release it. The parties resolved matters, and John Curtis, of the British Museum’s curator of the Middle East collection personally escorted the cylinder to Tehran where it will be proudly displayed, a statement recognizing the integrity and freedom of all kinds of people within a greater national community. Ahmadinejad welcomed it as illustration of the importance Iran has given to fighting oppression and recognizing the dignity and rights of all people. My thanks to Dr. Jamsheed Choksy for bringing this news to my attention!

Tut Again

I remember when King Tut was all the rage — the impressive displays of luxury items from Tut’s tomb, the mummy himself, “Walk like an Egyptian”… Well, he’s back in the news, this time in a most 21st century way.  This time archaelogists with their cool cool stuff and rugged outdoorsy romanticism aren’t the prime movers. Rather it’s scientists poking away in their fluorescent lit labs that have shaken things up.

Philistine Temple + Earthquake = Samson?

Archaeologists recently discovered a temple, with two great pillars, in what was once the Philistine city of Gath. And they discovered evidence of a huge earthquake. One of the Bible’s most dramatic stories tells about the not always admirable but surely impressive Samson who, duped by his lover Delilah, loses the secret to his power (his hair) to the enemy Philistines. After a humiliating stint as their blinded prisoner, Sampson’s final tour de force is the dramatic destruction of the Philistine temple. Having regained his strength, he breaks its massive pillars to bring the temple down on the heads of his enemies. Some will likely determine that this find corroborates the biblical story. Others, reading less literally, may appreciate how architecture and natural events from biblical times influenced how the stories were told.

Noah’s Ark — Where’s the Truth?A

Noah's ark discovery.jpgMust something be situated in time and space to be true? Must one believe that somewhere on Earth there’s an old boat that survived a flood sent by God in order to accept that the biblical story is, well, true? Some say yes. Absolutely yes. And so they search for the ark’s remains… and search and search. Most recently, evangelical Christian explorers from China and Turkey who belong to an organization called Noah’s Ark Ministries International claim to have found the boat’s remains on a Turkish mountain called Ararat. Previous claims haven’t held up to scientific scrutiny, as I note briefly in Bible Babel. It all leaves me feeling a bit melancholic. The people involved in such quests are passionate, determined believers whose confidence in their understanding of the Bible — what and especially how it means — is commendable in its way. But the faith of these good people is based on a way of reading the Bible that excludes the rich possibilities of poetry, metaphor, and the great deep truths that exist in the most powerful fiction. Yes, I said “fiction.” Stories are a timeless human vehicle for expressing what defies the limits of language. Stories make room for God. I write this knowing that many readers will now assume that I dismiss the Bible as a collection of silly fairy tales with no enduring significance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.