About the Bible

by David P. Stern (prepared 6.12.02 for a lecture)          



  1.   Introduction
  2.   What exactly is the Bible?
  3.   The 5 Books of Moses
  4.   First Prophets
  5.   Latter Prophets
  6.   The Writings
  7.   The Apocrypha
  8.   The Lettering of the Bible
  9.   Scrolls
  10.   Repetitions and Duplications
  11.   How much History, how much Legend?
  12.   Where do Bible and Archeology meet?
  13.   Conclusion


    I am no Biblical scholar, and what follows is just an informal overview, not based on any learned studies. In particular, any speculations are strictly my own. Still, having grown up in Israel, where the Bible is taught in school and is very much part of the cultural scene, I am moderately familiar with the Bible. For broader scholarly sources, see

      "Bible" here always refers to the "old testament" books, written (mostly) in Hebrew, not to later Christian scriptures, written in Greek. The Hebrew bible forms the main foundation of the Hebrew language, and daily speech in Israel uses biblical phrases much as English speech uses phrases from Shakespeare. The books of the Bible are the foundation of Jewish faith and of much of Christianity, but they are also a sample of some very early literature, opening a window to the way the ancient world lived and a source of insight on our own culture.

      The word "Bible" means "book," and a modern translation exists titled simply "The Book." However, the version most familiar in the US is the so-called King James bible--thus named because it was assembled during the reign of King James 1 of Britain and dedicated to him in 1611. A committee of more than 50 scholars oversaw the translation, but actually much of it followed earlier English translations. Its text can be found on the web, e.g. at http://www.classicreader.com/booktoc.php/sid.2/bookid.4/

      Being fairly familiar with the Hebrew text, I can vouch that in the whole that is a very good translation, preserving poetic style though inevitably adding some length. Some of its translations can be questioned--"Where there is no vision, the people perish" rather than "grow unruly"--but then again, many passages in the Hebrew bible are unclear or ambiguous. Today we regard informal pronouns such as "thou" and "thine" as "biblical," but actually they were retained by the translators for greater precision. The polite plurals "you" and "yours" have since then displaced those words (but not in German or Russian, where "Du" and "Ty" express a familiar tone), losing the distinction between singular and plural second person, preserved in the Hebrew.

      I could recommend the King James Bible to anyone, but actually any widely used modern translation would do just as well. Along with that, however, let me recommend another book, to guide your reading. That would be Isaac Asimov's "Guide to the Bible" which covers not only the usual Jewish and Christian scriptures, but also the Apocrypha, the "external" books which failed to make the regular grade, e.g. the Books of the Macabees. Asimov is remembered for his science fiction, but his most long-lasting contribution may well be popularizations of a wide range of subjects, a type of writing in which his mastery is undisputed.

      What exactly is the Bible?

    One can characterize the bible as an anthology, a collection of writings selected for their special qualities. The Hebrew Bible has 3 or 4 major divisions: (1) The 5 books of Moses, or "Torah" to Jews, also known as "the Law"; (2) "Prophets", further subdivided into "First Prophets" and "Latter Prophets"; and (3) The "Writings". A few words about each will set the framework.

      The 5 Books of Moses

    These are the main sacred writings of the Jews; the high point of the worship service on each Sabbath or holiday is reading part of them, in an annual cycle which covers all five. The first is Genesis, starting with the creation of the world and the story of Adam and Eve (by the way, nowhere is the forbidden fruit identified as an apple!). The genealogy starting from Adam is given, with benchmarks of birth and death, and from it Irish Bishop Ussher in the 1600s concluded the world was created a bit over 6000 years ago; Jewish tradition, from the same sources, reckon the fall-winter of 2001 and spring-summer of 2002 as the year 5762.

      The book continues to the story of the flood, which wiped out all humanity save Noah and his family, to the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and ends with Joseph and his family settling in Egypt.

      The next book, Exodus, starts with the enslavement of Jews in Egypt (1600 BC?) and their miraculous deliverance from there, celebrated by Jews every year in Passover, the main holiday of the year. It continues to their journey in the desert to Mt. Sinai, where God spoke to them and delivered His 10 commandments.

      The rest of the book, and the three that follow, tell about their wandering in the desert of Sinai and southern Jordan for 40 years. The books end with the death of Moses, leader of the Jewish tribes, just before they crossed the river Jordan to the land promised to Abraham.

      First Prophets

    This segment consists of 6 books which actually have rather little to do with prophecy. They are essentially narrative accounts of the Jewish settlement in the land--then called Canaan, but let me call it by its modern name Israel. They start with the crossing of the Jordan by the 12 tribes which came from Egypt--date uncertain, say 1200 BC--and end with the Babylonian conquest and exile to Babylon, generally placed in 586 BC.

      Six books: Joshua is named for the successor of Moses, who according to the book led the conquest of Canaan, and Judges is about the disordered and splintered state of affairs after Joshua died. Samuel 1 and 2 tell how the nation rallied under a king named Saul and later under his successor David. And 1st and 2nd Kings chronicles the kingdom of David's successor Solomon, which then split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom "Israel" and the southern kingdom "Judah" or as later called by the Romans, Judaea (the word "Jew" derives from that). Israel was conquered by Assyria--northern Iraq today--in 722 BC and its people, the "lost 10 tribes" were exiled and never heard of again (their descendants are now probably Syrian Arabs). Judaea barely managed to hold its own against the Assyrians, but was conquered by their successor Babylon (central Iraq) a century and a half later. The Judaeans were exiled to Babylon, but managed to keep their cultural identity in exile, and 50 years later, when Persia defeated Babylon, were allowed to return and rebuild their land.

      So much for the history.

      Latter Prophets

    In the annals of history, the story of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (above) is not unusual. Kingdoms rose and fell, tribes were subjugated or even exiled. The Kingdom of Israel, like many others, vanished from history and left no cultural heritage. The Kingdom of Judah, on the other hand, left a lasting legacy--the Bible and Jewish culture. What made the difference was that during the last century or so of its existence, literature and poetry in Judah blossomed forth. The torchbearers of that trend were priests and prophets.

      Let there be no mistake: similar trends started elsewhere, too, especially in Greece. The Illiad, the Odyssey and Greek mythology were already old and classical, and Greek culture followed by creating of sports (the Olympic games), history (Thucydides and Herodotus), theatre (both comedy and tragedy), classical sculpture and much more. If you want to know more about that, a very good book exists on Greek culture (unfortunately, out of print) written by ... yes, Isaac Asimov. It was almost inevitable that the two cultures should clash--that is the story of Hanukkah, beyond the scope of this review--and they later created a hybrid growth, Roman Christianity.

      The tradition of prophecy may have started with court soothsayers: King David had Nathan the prophet, and many other examples in the "Early Prophets," e.g. chapter 22 in the first book of Kings, tells of prophets retained in the king's service. In Judah, however, prophets turned literate, and their writings were preserved. Many of their prophecies had political overtones; some prophets, such as Isaiah, were the friends of the king, while others--such as Amos and Jeremiah--were persecuted (see Amos, Ch. 7, v. 12-17). And their style was poetic, which made their writing inspiring--and often, difficult to interpret.

      Some prophets cannot be reliably placed in the biblical chronology. We do know, however, that Ezechiel lived in the Babylonian exile and that Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi lived afterwards. The book of Jonah, almost completely narrative (rather than poetic) looks like a later story more appropriately placed with "writings" such as Ruth and Esther.

      The book of Isaiah presents a particular puzzle, as it almost certainly contains the work of two separate authors. The historical Isaiah is identified as the author of chapters 1-39, most of them poetic but ending with a some narrative sections which mesh with corresponding chapters of the 2nd book of Kings. But then at Chapter 40 a new poetic style begins, whose tone of consolation seems to place it in the period after the return from Babylon. The name of the prophet being unknown, scholars refer to the author as "the second Isaiah."

      Isaiah is also interesting because an ancient scroll containing much of the first part of Isaiah was found in caves overlooking the Dead Sea. The contents overlap, but differences exist in wording and in the order of subjects, suggesting that the editing of the biblical anthology was still actively pursued when the scroll was written, roughly around the time of the birth of Jesus. For instance, in the consecration of Isaiah as prophet--it seems like a very vivid dream--he hears the angels chanting "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts." Both Jews and Christians attach significance to this triple repetition--yet in the "Scroll of Isaiah" the word is only repeated twice. You can see that scroll, by the way, in the "Shrine of the Book" museum in Jerusalem. The lettering is not too different from that of modern Hebrew (more about that, further below) and although the light is rather dim to prevent fading and words run together, if you know modern Hebrew you can read it,.

      The Writings

This is the most diverse part of the Jewish bible, a true anthology of writings dating to the time after the return from exile. It opens with the book of Psalms--150 of them, though a few more are preserved in translations. These were prayers, said in the Jerusalem Temple, and it is no accident that many appear today in both Jewish and Christian prayer books. It ends with the two books of Chronicles, which cover roughly the same period as the books of Kings. This may have been an independent record of that time, and although the editors of the bible apparently preferred the books of Kings (which indeed make better reading), they were (fortunately) reluctant to consign this record to oblivion.

      Each of the intervening books may be viewed as one of a kind. Proverbs is a collection of aphorisms--ending in a beautiful acrostic poem (the first letters of verses follow alphabetical order--confirming how ancient that order is) praising a "Woman of Valor." Ecclesiastes is somewhat similar, but in a more philosophical vein and more order; it ends with a graphic but cryptic poem on the ravages of old age. The Song of Solomon combines the erotic and the poetic, quite beautifully; Jewish and Christian scholars alike have proclaimed it an allegory, but it reads better as a love poem. Lamentations may be one of the more poetic books of the bible, filled with complex acrostics--but it is not pleasant reading, describing as it does the destruction of Judaea in the hands of Babylon. Jewish tradition ascribes its authorship to Jeremiah. And Job (Hebrew "Eeyov") is a philosophical treatise on suffering, quite obtusely worded.

      That leaves two groups. Ezra (in part in Aramaic--more about that, later) and Nechemia tell about the return from Babylonia. And a series of short narrative books--Daniel (in Aramaic), Esther and Ruth give samples of the literature of the centuries that followed the return from the exile.

      The Apocrypha

The process of deciding, which books merited inclusion in the canonical Bible and which failed to make the grade, took a long time. We know about a fair number of books which did not make the Bible, but whose Greek translation was preserved by the Christian Church. They are collectively called the Apocrypha, Greek for "the hidden (books)"; Jews call them "the outer books." They include the Books of the Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, The Wisdom of Ben Sirah (or "Ecclesiasticus," a poetical work), additional books of Daniel and a few more. Some additional psalms are also preserved in translation.

      Those translations were included with the first Greek translation of the Bible, commissioned by King Ptolemy II of Egypt in the 3rd centure BC. Greek in those days was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean basin, Egypt included, and Ptolemy's domain included many Jewish citizens. The synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, was reputed to be so large that a flag was used as signal to the congregation to say "Amen" at the end of prayers.

      The Greek translation is known as the "Septuagint," in Hebrew "The translation of the 70," because by legend 72 sages collaborated on it. It might be inferred from this that all books of the bible (plus Apocrypha) were in place by the 3rd century BC, but in fact, parts of the Septuagint may have only been added at a later date.

      The Hebrew originals are not known, except in one case. Jews hold the holy writ as sacred, and old religious writings are therefore not supposed to be discarded or burned. Instead, they are given an honorable burial (often in a cemetery), in a vault known as genizah (treasury). The old Ezra synagogue in Cairo, almost as old as the city itself, had a room which served as genizah, and over the centuries many discarded pieces of writing and printing ended up there. The bone-dry climate of Egypt preserved them, and in the19th century some relics from there ended up with dealers in antiquities, attracting notice abroad.

      A Jewish scholar, Solomon Schechter (who later founded the Conservative Movement in Judaism) heard about the genizah and in 1896 convinced the trustees of the synagogue to allow him access to it. He found a fragment of "The Wisdom of Ben Sirah" in Hebrew, and gradually about 2/3 of the Hebrew material was found, along with many important post-biblical writings. The collection is now preserved at the University of Cambridge and at other institutions

      The Lettering of the Bible

    We have no clear evidence when the Bible was written, but clues exist. The exile in Babylonia (for which other sources exist) is usually placed 586-537 or so. Woefully little evidence about that time exists--mainly, the book of Ezechiel, and the later book of Daniel--but we know that the Jews underwent a huge change.

      Before that, they spoke Hebrew (or "Judaean"--see 2nd Kings 18, v. 26) and used an angular Hebrew alphabet, similar to the Phoenician one (and to ancient Greek writing). They came out speaking Aramaic, the language of Babylon, and for the next 1200 years or so--up to the Arab conquest--they continued speaking Aramaic. Some parts of the Bible (e.g. the book of Daniel) are in fact in Aramaic. The use of Hebrew continued in religious services, but not everyone knew it. The "Kadish" prayer of praise in Aramaic is used to this day, to signal the end of one part of the service and the beginning of another, because that used to be the language everyone knew. It is also used as a prayer recited by lay people in memory of the departed--again, because at one time everybody spoke Aramaic. It is ironic that today Hebrew is widely spoken, while only a few congregants understand all the words of the Kadish.

      The languages are similar, though, and most words of the Kadish are easily recognized or guessed. Both are Semitic languages, follow a similar grammar and use equivalent alphabets. The same holds for Hebrew and Arabic: though Arabic letters use a flowing (cursive) script, each has an equivalent or relative in the Hebrew alphabet. And those squarish letters we today call Hebrew are really Aramaic, adopted in the Babylonian exile. Scholars call them "Babylonian letters."

      The Torah scrolls used in Jewish services and all their forebears (including the Dead Sea scrolls) are all written in such letters. And an interesting fact about them: traditionally, some letters--generally, in random spots--are written extra large or extra small. For instance, the famous line "Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6, v. 4) has two extra-large letters; it is as if one wrote

    Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one        

with 4th and last letter in a larger font. Sages have offered various explanations, but the likely explanation is that at one time there existed some "master scroll" from which scribes copied others, and they tried to follow faithfully the irregularities of the master script (even today the Torah scribe works from a printed master script, known a tikkun).

      The fact that these letters are Babylonian suggests that this "master scroll" was produced during the exile--probably from older material. Who did that we do not know, although Ezra the Scribe is a strong suspect.


    It is also interesting to note that the Books of the Law used in synagogue services are hand-written on scrolls. Scrolls, on specially prepared animal skins, were widely used in the Near East (though Egyptians used papyrus, a primitive form of paper, while Babylonians and Assyrians used clay tablets, a cheaper but less portable writing material). By the methods known in those days, skin offered only one side fit for writing, so a scroll (in which only one side is read) was the logical choice.

      Around 190 BC a new treatment was discovered in the city of Pergamon, in what is now Turkey, for separating thin sheets of skin on which, when dry, letters could be written on both sides. It was named after the city parchment ("Pergament" in German). Parchment continued to be used in scrolls for centuries (e.g. the Dead Sea scrolls), but they were gradually displaced by the "codex" format, of books bound the way today's books are. The oldest known copies of the Jewish Bible, the Aleppo Codex (early 900s) and the Leningrad Codex (1009) are bound books.

      Repetitions and Duplications

Duplications in the Bible suggest that often several versions of earlier scriptures were on hand, and the editors of the Bible, in the centuries that followed the exile, often compromised by including both. Already mentioned is the fact that the books of Kings and the books of Chronicles overlap to a large extent, but many other examples exist.

      Consider the story of Abimelech king of Grar, taking Abraham's wife Sarah after Abraham lied (for his own safety), saying that she was his sister (Genesis 20). After hardships befell his land, Abimelech relented and returned her unharmed. But Genesis 26, describing events which occurred about 70 years later, has a story about a king of Grar named Abimelech, essentially the same one, only here it involves Rebecca the wife of Isaac. And not only that, a very similar story is found in Genesis 12, only there it involves Pharaoh king of Egypt. A coincidence? Or did the editors encounter all these stories, and not knowing which to keep, kept them all?

      Other duplications can be pointed out. Chapter 22 of the second book of Samuel is repeated almost exactly as Psalm 18--the only difference being one word in the last verse, whose translation starts, in King James "A tower of strength to his king...". The translation is generally accepted as correct and is the source of the expression "tower of strength" used in English. However, "tower" in Hebrew is "migdal", whereas the word in one version is "migdol" (ungrammatical "from greatest") and in the other "magdil" ("increases"). Vowels in Hebrew have a secondary role and change in grammatic conjugations, and if only full-size letters are considered, "migdal" also fits. The Jewish grace after meals includes this phrase--but which version to use? A compromise was struck--one is used on weekdays, the other on Sabbath.

      Perhaps the best known duplication is that of the ten commandments, God's pronouncements to the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. They are listed in Exodus ch. 20, and again in Deuteronomy ch. 5. Other ancient sources (not considered here) are the holy scriptures of the Samaritans and the "Nash papyrus," fragments purchased in Egypt around 1900 by a Mr. Nash, probably dating to the time of the Macabees.

      The two versions in the bible are similar but are not the same. In the 5th commandment, did God utter "Remember the day of Sabbath" (Exodus) or "Keep the day of Sabbath" (Deuteronomy)? Jewish sages invoked a miracle of sorts: it was one word, which to its listeners meant both "remember" and "keep." That is why the hymn "Lechah Dodi" (Shlomo Alkabetz, 1541) sung on Friday night to welcome the Sabbath, begins its second stanza with "Keep and remember, in one divine word..."

      The reasons for remembering (and/or keeping) the day of Sabbath also differ. In Exodus the commandment states:

          "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it."

Very clear and explicit, though quite different from what modern geology suggests. If it weren't for these words from Mt.Sinai--if the story of creation were only found at the beginning of the book of Genesis--one might argue that this was just a symbolic story, not to be taken literally. Taking these as words uttered by God raises a problem which even today divides our society.

      But wait! None of this appears in the second version! In Deuteronomy quite a different reason is given:

          ...in order that thy man-slave and woman-slave may rest as well as thou. And thou shalt remember, that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt, And the Lord thy God brought thee out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day.

Quite a different reason: you were a slave in the land of Egypt, where slaves never got a day of rest. Now that you are free, you shall not do likewise, but shall keep the day of Sabbath, so that your slaves and animals can rest as well.

      And how does one divide the commandments into ten distinct items? Different traditions exist on this point. Are coveting your neighbors wife and coveting his possessions part of the same items or are they separate? And anyway, why the number ten?

      Actually, the Bible only mentions "ten words", in Exodus 34, v. 28 and in Deuteronomy, 10, v. 4, from which comes "decalogue" (ten words), the scholarly term for the commandments. All sorts of ingenious explanations have tried to reconcile this with the actual commandments, e.g. the tablets of the law contained only ten words, an outline of the longer commandments which the people heard at Mt. Sinai. Maybe that is why artistic depictions of the tablets (e.g. in synagogues) tend to have only one word per commandment, or maybe two (not counting linking words). Sometimes Roman numerals are used, or Hebrew letters standing for them.

      How much History, how much Legend?

While the first three sections of the Jewish Bible may have originated from a "master copy" in the Babylonian exile, it contains much older material. For instance, the story of Noah and his flood has many parallels in the story of Ut-Napishtim, in the Sumerian book of Gilgamesh, which at that time was already about 2000 years old.

      Trying to disentangle historical fact from legend is confusing and inconclusive. For example, biblical scholars have been long frustrated by the absence of any reference to the Exodus in Egyptian chronicles. Of course, one may always argue that such chronicles tend to dwell on victories and successes, and that the Exodus of the Jewish tribes was something Egypt would rather forget.

      Similarly, Israeli archeologists are frustrated by the lack of evidence for the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. They have looked for signs of fire, of a great number of cities burned down and destroyed in a short time span, and nothing stands out. The great Canaanite city states apparently continued to exist throughout that era.

      Take the city of Gezer, roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a large fortified city whose remains were studied by archeologists. The 1st Book of Kings tells how Pharaoh conquered it and gave it to King Solomon as a present for his wedding of Pharaoh's daughter--and that conquest seems to be confirmed by archeology. Before that, however, the existence of this great Canaanite state is only mentioned once, briefly listing Gezer among the cities Joshua did not manage to conquer.

      How can such gaps be explained? History in general progresses from the vague to the definite, from legend to historical fact, from hazy dates to well established ones. Genesis starts legend-like and vague, then with Abraham the focus grows sharper, and the descriptions of the Exodus and the 40 years of wandering in the desert is quite detailed.

      But in the second half of the book of Joshua the focus gets blurry again. The book of Judges is once more filled with hazy legends, becoming more detailed in the story Samuel, Saul and King David, and meshing with history (as discussed further below) in the books of Kings. Could that be the real record, gradually evolving from legend to history, while the books of Moses are a later reconstruction, based on legends?

      Some hint in the books of Kings (and Chronicles) is the prominence given to celebrations of Passover. When a king decreed a national celebration of Passover, it was noteworthy enough to be written about--suggesting it was not always a big annual event. Here, as with many other things, one must resort to guesses. In the days of the 2nd Temple, Passover was a national day of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with which the story of Jesus is intimately bound. Contrary to the comandments in the books of Moses, it might not have been as prominent in the time of the 1st Temple..

      If the books of Moses are a later reconstruction, who wrote them? Based on the quote below, Jewish sages have maintained that every single letter came from the hand of Moses. Even the words at the end "and Moses died .... and no one knows the place of his burial to this day"? Even those, they say. Moses knew the future since God revealed it to him. Obviously, a miracle.

      What is the alternative? The 2nd book of kings--ch. 22, starting with verse 8, and in more detail Chronicles II, 34, v14--tells how the Book of the Law was rediscovered during the waning years of the Judah kingdom. The Temple in Jerusalem was badly in need of repairs, and King Joshiah took money from the Temple treasury for a big renovation project. And...

          "When they were taking out the silver which had been brought to the house of the Lord, Hilkiyahu the high priest found the book of the Torah of the Lord (written) by the hand of Moses." Hilkiyahu gave the book to Shafan the scribe, who read it.

Was this book known before? Orthodox Jewish tradition claims the priest only found the last of the 5 books--Deuteronomy--but the above suggests this could well have been ALL of the Torah. In any case, if written by Moses, it must have been 600 or more years old. Can a scroll of writings be preserved that long?

      In Jerusalem that would be very unlikely. The Dead Sea scrolls were preserved in bone-dry desert caves, and even they had to be opened very carefully--you can't unroll such scrolls and read them, just so, as Shafan did. Ancient papyri were preserved in the dry deserts of Egypt. Jerusalem, however, gets generous amounts of rain, as well as humidity from clouds which brush its mountaintop location. A hidden scroll would succumb to mildew within a century or so.

      Therefore one suspects that "book of the Torah" was assembled not too long before being "discovered," probably based on older stories and writings, about which one can only guess. That makes it likely that the priests near the end of the kingdom of Judah, the prophets of that era and of the exile, and others like Ezra the scribe, were the ones who assembled the books of the Torah and Prophets.

      Where do Bible and Archeology meet?

In the view suggested above, the "First Prophets," Joshua to Kings, is where early Jewish records emerge from misty legend and gradually become history. Archeological evidence meets the bible in two pieces of biblical text.

      The first is in Ch. 3 in the 2nd Book of Kings and provides good evidence to the problem in interpreting ancient records. Verse 5 (repeating the first verse of the book) tells how Mesha (or Meysha), king of Moab, paid tribute to Ahab king of Israel (the northern kingdom). When Ahab died, Mesha rebelled, and an alliance of three kings--of Israel, Judaea and Edom (Moab's neighbor)--launched a campaign against Moab.

      The chapter describes how the attacking army ran out of water in the desert, and how the prophet Elisha interceded to bring an unexpected flood, providing water to all. The allies then advanced, despoiled the land and laid siege to the capital city. But the chapter ends on an uncertain note:

          "And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land."

Question: Who won?

      Difficult question, but additional information was obtained in 1869, when French archeologists found a black monolith covered with ancient script in the remains of the city of Dibon in the land of Moab, east of the Dead Sea. They left it in place while they looked for a way to transport the stone to France, but luckily they also produced a plaster cast. Luckily, because local inhabitants grew suspicious--why were those foreigners so interested in an ancient slab of stone? They concluded that there must be a treasure inside. They broke up the monument by heating it over a fire and then cooling it suddenly with water, making it crack and shatter. The archeologists could only collect the pieces, which were carefully reassembled and supplemented, using the plaster cast; the "Moabite Stone" is now on display in the Louvre museum in Paris.

      Its script was found to be very similar to the old Hebrew script, and its language was Moabite, also a close relative. When decoded, it turned out to be a victory monument of King Mesha, celebrating his triumph over the king of Israel. It thus appears as if Mesha was the victor at the end--though the picture isn't clear, some feel that the Bible referred to a different campaign. Still... those last lines in 2nd Kings do sound strange. Adding to the uncertainty is the 2nd Book of Chronicles, where the above story does not appear at all--instead, Moab and its allies are the aggressors, attacking Judaea and being repelled at the last moment (chapt. 20). In any case, King Mesha seems to have existed, and that is one early link between archeology and the biblical narrative.

      Another link is related to King Hezekiah (Chizkiyahu), during whose reign Judaea barely survived attacks by the Assyrians. The 2nd Book of Chronicles, Ch. 32, v. 30, wrote:

          "This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper spring of the waters of Gihon. and brought them straight down on the west side of the City of David."

What this refers to is a water tunnel, a feature in many biblical fortified cities. To make a city withstand a siege, it was not enough to give it strong walls: a source of water was also important, and it was customary to dig a tunnel to a well or a spring. Old Jerusalem--the "City of David", on a low spur south of today's walled city--got its water from a reliable spring, the Gichon (also called Shiloach or in Europe, Siloam). However, the spring was outside the walls, and King Hezekia therefore ordered a tunnel to be dug (in 701 BC?) to connect it with a pool inside the city, after which the spring itself was walled off.

      Over the centuries the tunnel silted up, but in the late 1800s archeologists gradually cleared it out. And in 1880 an inscription was found there, commemorating the successful completion of the tunnel. It is now in a museum in Istanbul (Jerusalem was under Turkish rule in those days) and it states (http://www.varchive.org/tac/siloam.htm):

          [.. when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through: >_ While [. ..] (were) still [..] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap [crack?] in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.

The actual length of the tunnel is 533 meters (a cubit is about 1.5 feet or 45 cm). The inscription tells the work was conducted simultaneously from both ends. Contrary to the implication of the book of Chronicles, it was not at all straight, but bent and twisted to avoid harder rock formations. It is still open and can be followed from the spring (which is now opened up again) by wading.

      Other Hebrew inscriptions from the time of the Bible were found, but their connection to words of the bible is less clear. For instance, one of the chief fortified cities in Judaea (after Jerusalem) was Lachish west of Hebron, at the meeting of the coastal plain and the foothills. When the Assyrian king Sennacherib attacked Judaea, he captured Lachish and stayed there (2nd Kings ch. 18, v.14). Lachish was studied by archeologists and in the ruins of the guardhouse of the gate they found a collection of letters written on potsherds (ostraca), apparently sent by the commander of one of the outlying forts, presumably during that campaign.


I hope you will take time to read some of the Bible, even if you feel skeptical about its miracles. Perhaps some trip will take you to a hotel room far from home, where you will find the Gideon Bible in a drawer by the bed. The Gideon society is a Christian organization, dedicated to spreading the bible by making it available to travelers. Read through it--you may find it more interesting than the TV.

      Rumor has it that the Gideons do not mind their Bibles being stolen, since it helps spread interest in the book. That rumor is probably false. However, bibles are fairly inexpensive, and buying one saves you the embarrassment of explaining to your kids how a Gideon Bible came into your possession.

      Not all parts of the bible are easy or of general interest, especially short sections read in isolation. Some short parts, however, make interesting reading. Among them

  •  Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar (X-rated)
  •  Genesis 37, 37-45, the story of Joseph
  •  Ten commandments, Exodus 20, v. 2, Deut. 5 v.6
  •  Deuteronomy 30, 11-14, short poetic section.
  •  Judges 13-16, the story of Samson
  •  The Book of Ruth
  •  1st Samuel, ch 17, the story of David and Goliath (may start by reading 16)
  •  2nd Samuel, 11, the story of David and Uriah (which continues on and on)
  •  1st Kings 18-19 the story of Elija
  •  2nd Kings, Ch. 5, the story of Na'aman
  •  Isaiah 6 --Consecration of the prophet.
  •  Isaiah 2, v. 1-4 A vision of the end of the days.
  •  Ezechiel, 37, v. 1-14. the vision of the dry bones.
  •  Psalms 15 and 23
  •  Book of Jonah
  •  Proverbs 31, v. 10-31, acrostic poem "A Woman of Valor"

      As noted earlier, Asimov's companion to the bible is a perfect guide. He too approached the bible as literature, although his views are somewhat more conservative than the ones presented here. Enjoy.


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Author and curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Last updated 14 June 2002