Recently, I again viewed The Bible’s Buried Secrets, Nova’s video exploration—first broadcast in 2008—of the origins of the Israelites, Jewish monotheism and the Bible. It is a skillfully assembled production that reflects recent archeological research. I found it well worth the two hours of viewing time.
It states there is no archeological evidence of a mass exodus by the Israelites from Egypt.
But there is archeological evidence that the Israelites emerged from Canaanite serfs and peasants who gained their freedom during a period when Canaanite city-states atrophied and declined. This hypothesis suggests some of these have-nots settled in the nearly empty hills of Canaan; later, they were joined by a small group of former slaves who had escaped from Egypt. Over time, this motley mix developed a distinct identity related to their worship of a god who opposed imperial power and called for simplicity, an egalitarian social structure and autonomous, inter-dependent communities. As signs of their separation from other Canaanites, they adopted a pork-free diet and the practice of circumcision.
When we read the second book of the Bible, Exodus, we find a story that reflects similar values. It includes a strong critique of empire, YHWH coming down to the top of Mt. Sinai to speak to all the people, criticism of fancy alters made with cut stones and practical rules for a just society (see pages 60-61, 69-70 and 72-77 in If Not Empire, What?).
But then The Bible’s Buried Secrets moves into the David-and-Solomon controversy. Did they really exist as kings? If so, how large was their kingdom and how grand their monuments? These questions consume over a quarter of the Nova production and completely eclipse any further consideration of the egalitarian social and political vision that gave birth to the Israelites.
This is the same error many people make today when they read the First Testament. They miss the fact that the David-and-Solomon story (whether true or not) betrays the original vision of the Israelites. And so they forget that YHWH, god of the Hebrews, is not a god of empire and kings, but of servants and slaves.
We say in pages 99-108 that we think David and Solomon existed, but that their kingdom did not amount to much. Also, we say that the David-and-Solomon story was imperial propaganda.
I expect we will lose some potential readers on that point alone.
Why take the risk of upsetting people in this way? It does not seem wise until we reflect on the fact that the grandeur of the David-and-Solomon story led Israel into a distorted understanding of YHWH and a form of political organization that failed them completely.
To avoid their fate, we need to get back to the anti-imperial god described by the authors of Exodus, the biblical prophets, Jesus and the early Christian leaders. Taking on the David-and-Solomon story is a promising way to begin.