While archaeology has often verified the historical records provided in the Bible there are also a number of anomalies. So it is important to consider these in preparation for investigation into what archaeology offers.
The Biblical record does not aim to be a book of world history. It has a very specific focus. It follows a specific history of God’s dealings with mankind, through the descendents of a particular family lineage.
The joke goes that a young man announced to his pastor that he felt called to Israel. When asked why, he explained that, “Every time I open my Bible I find a passage about Israel. So God must be directing me there!”
The greater part of the Bible deals with Israel and the history of the Jewish nation, so what would you expect to find in the Bible?
Because of this specific focus on Israel many other historically significant events are minimised or even ignored altogether. As Dr Clifford Wilson puts it, “Right through the Scriptures individuals and nations are put to one side if their history is not relevant to the Covenant People, Israel.”
Those who are looking for clear historical breadth and detailed time-lines will be frustrated at times. The Bible does not set out to meet man’s agendas, but to serve the purposes of Almighty God, who wrote it.
Not only is the Bible narrow in its focus, principally watching selected people from the Jewish nation, but it is also selective in its details. At times the Bible skims over centuries of time, yet at other points it bogs down in minute detail. The Bible is not time sensitive nor does it give equal weight to events. God, in His wisdom, has selected certain events for close inspection, while sweeping past decades of time and huge historical landmarks.
The Bible’s tendency to summarise history leads to statements which are true, but which could be seen as naive or uninformed. If the Bible were an historical textbook then omissions would be a serious matter. But the Bible makes not pretensions to be a human historical record. It is God’s Word. God’s chosen messages to us as His creations are packed into an amazing book from antiquity. That book contains rich historical information, but defies those who wish to tie it down to that task.
And He Begat
I am fascinated by an amazing Biblical summary of four thousand years of human history, given to us in the New Testament. The family tree from Abraham to the birth of Christ is given, summarising the entire life achievements of each key individual with the phrase “and he begat” – See Matthew 1:1-16.
It is as if God is denigrating all the personal grandeur of each person in their own time and place, by respecting only that they gave birth to one child in the continuum of God’s family lineage. Then, in Luke 3:23-38 a similar summary lists the family tree from Jesus Christ back to Adam, with the repeated words “which was the son of”, linking each generation. This is an amazing compression of time and detail.
Human History in Verse
In the same spirit of the Bible’s compression of time, consider this verse which I penned back in 2001, as part of a poem for my parents.
What years of vanity and pain,
What lives of joy and peace and gain
Have passed since Adam first saw light
And Eve was his for his delight.
Each generation came and went.
Energies aroused and spent.
Great things were won and then undone.
While others quietly passed on.
God simply summarises that
By writing down “and he begat”.
The Bible is an intriguing book too because it is written from God’s perspective, not man’s. Historians, archaeologists and researchers all come to the Bible with certain expectations or hopes. They may then denigrate it because it confuses them at points or fails to meet those hopes.
The Bible, however, was written from God’s point of view, about things of importance in God’s economy. The void in terms of historical information is simply because the omitted events, significant in human reckoning, are of little or no consequence from God’s point of view. Some details are left out altogether, yet man might see those details as of utmost importance. In God’s assessment, for the purposes of the divine revelation He gave to man, they are not as important or may be completely irrelevant.
In the book of the prophet Isaiah the term “my servant” is reserved for references to Israel as God’s chosen nation. But in the book of the prophet Jeremiah the term “my servant” is used to refer to King Nebuchadnezzar in invading Israel and taking it captive.
“Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the LORD, and Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations.” Jeremiah 25:9
From God’s perspective the King of Babylon was His servant.
With these considerations in mind, along with other qualities of the Bible, we can see that archaeology will not always interface seamlessly with the Biblical record. What may seem to be an uneventful time or a short time span in the Biblical account may be a turbulent historical period spanning many years.
Alternatively, events which loom large in the Bible, such as the Ten Plagues on Egypt, may have little historical record. The Egyptians are unlikely to record their humiliation, and the events took place in a relatively short span of time.
From the abundance of archaeological discovery there may only be isolated items which relate directly to the Biblical account. This is not because the Bible is deficient, but because it has a much grander purpose than to record events from antiquity.
Wonderfully, the resounding voice from the stones of time is that of resonance and confirmation that the Bible is a real historical account, rich in detail that affirms first-hand observation by people in the very places being described. So archaeology is the Bible’s friend, even if it only maintains a casual relationship.
I am thankful to Dr Clifford Wilson and his wife Dr Barbara Wilson for their inspiration and guidance in my own exploration of Biblical archaeology. As friend, academic supervisor and mentor, Dr Clifford has keenly encouraged my interest in archaeology, as he has for many others in decades past.
In honour of his on-going work and his world-wide impact I am compiling various posts on archaeology, based on the excellent work of Drs Clifford and Barbara, while adding my own personal style and insights. Drs Clifford and Barbara Wilson are building a website to present their work. You can visit the website at http://www.drcliffordwilson.com