It is hard to imagine it was the 1950s and not the 1850s, but the fellows who first worked on piecing together the jigsaw of thousands of paper fragments found by Bedouins in caves in Qumran were smoking cigarettes as they bent over their tables—there are photos. Also, Scotch tape and postage stamp glue were the not-so-high-tech supplies at hand for pulling Isaiah and other biblical books together.
But what surprised me most about the limited-time-only exhibit at our Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia was the commentary on my self-guided tour. There was a lot of quoting of a man named William Dever, who was an archaeologist specializing in the history of Israel and the Middle East, a professor at several colleges, and the director, for some years, of the Harvard Semitic Museum.
As I stared at tall pottery impossibly stitched together from irregularly shaped shards, he spoke into my ear words to this effect: The book of Judges tells us that the nation of Israel was born when Moses brought a multitude of slaves up from Egypt to Canaan. But subsequent evidence suggests that the Israelites were actually a group of Canaanite people who had been displaced geographically from the lowlands, and thus finally displaced ideologically from their moorings, and who came to a new religious vision.
So then—according to Dever—the Israelites were not so much “the chosen people” as “the choosing people,” choosing to launch out into a new faith.
“We want to make the Bible history,” Professor Dever said on the PBS program NOVA. “Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That is a modern discipline. … The Bible is didactic literature: It wants to teach, not just to describe. … They were telling stories. … I like to point out to my undergraduate students that the Bible is not history, it’s his story—Yahweh’s story.”
As I listened to this expert I was reminded of the historical form criticism first heard from a coiled serpent around a tree in a garden called Eden:
“Did God actually say. …” (Genesis 3:1).