Did Worship of Yahweh Leave Archaeological Evidence?

I have two books on my desk right now, and both make the same annoying point. One is Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed, and the other is Dever’s Did God Have a Wife. A major premise of the latter and a point made in the former is that according to archaeology, worship of Yahweh only developed in the late period – time of Hezekiah or Josiah. Here’s Finkelstein:

“Yet archaeology suggests quite a different situation—one in which the golden age of tribal and Davidic fidelity to YHWH was a late religious ideal, not a historical reality. Instead of a restoration, the evidence suggests that a centralized monarchy and national religion focused in Jerusalem took centuries to develop and was new in Hezekiah’s day. The idolatry of the people of Judah was not a departure from their earlier monotheism. It was, instead, the way the people of Judah had worshiped for hundreds of years” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 234).

One can hold to this view, but please don’t pretend that it is based on archaeological grounds. These authors seem to miss the most obvious point: worship of Yahweh as commanded in the Bible didn’t leave archaeological evidence. The exception would be the temple, and nothing of that exists thanks to the Babylonians, Zerubbabel, Herod, the Romans, and the Muslims. These authors argue that because they have found Asherah figurines, bull statuettes, high places, and inscriptions related to non-Yahwistic worship, and because they haven’t found the same for “Biblical religion,” then therefore the latter didn’t exist. They date it to the late kings because that’s when they date the text.

Still no archaeological evidence, mind you.

Another common error in these works is reflected in Finkelstein’s comment immediately before:

“The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had sometimes abandoned the faith” (ibid.).

Why do some liberals insist on this mischaracterization? It is patently false. The biblical record is that the Israelites consistently failed to follow the Lord. The exceptions were those who did. That doesn’t make biblical faith less true, real, or required. It does tell us that archaeology should expect to find significant remains of non-biblical religion. When it does, archaeologists act surprised and say, “Aha, I told you the Bible wasn’t telling you the truth.” In fact it is, but like the ancients, moderns refuse to listen.

I’ve only skimmed Dever’s work at this point, but Finkelstein’s is full of similar errors, inconsistencies, and gaps of logic. It’s also one of the best-selling books on “biblical archaeology” in the last decade.


One thought on “Did Worship of Yahweh Leave Archaeological Evidence?

  1. I don’t believe that Dr. Dever is claiming that worship of Yahweh didn’t appear until the 8th century BCE. However, during that time period and earlier there is a great deal of evidence, even within the text of the Bible itself, that the people of Judah and Israel (one really cannot call them Jews yet), were worshiping other gods, in addition to Yahweh. Many biblical scholars feel that the earlier prophets including Amos, Hosea, and Micah, were responding directly to this polytheistic tradition.

    In particular, there is a great deal of evidence for the worship of Ba’al, several of the other Canaanite gods, and possibly Astarte. There is also a body of evidence that suggests that Yahweh used to be worshipped in conjunction with a female counterpart of His own. There are even references within the Bible to the “Queen of Heaven” which might be this consort figure. Whether this was actually a consort, merely a female aspect of Yahweh, or a borrowed feminine deity from another tradition is also up for debate.

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