Thursday, December 16, 2010

Archaeology and the Bible

What comes to mind when you hear the word archaeology? For some, the word conjures up romance and excitement—Indiana Jones galloping after the ark of the covenant. Others stifle yawns as they mentally wander through dusty museums filled with artifacts. Still others picture sun-bronzed archaeologists on a “dig”…gently brushing away dirt to expose treasures from the past.

Archaeology is a study of a civilization’s material culture that seeks to explain how people lived. Sometimes the work is exciting; most of the time it is tedious. But much of the archaeology done in the Middle East has helped us understand more clearly God’s Word. Specifically, archaeology helps us in three ways.

Archaeology helps interpret God’s Word

Some archaeological finds have served as keys, unlocking the message of God’s Word. Archaeologists discovered an ancient city in northern Syria named Ugarit. During the excavations they uncovered clay tablets containing stories about the god Baal and a stone monument to Baal. The tablets and the monument pictured Baal as the god of lightning and rain. He was the storm god responsible for bringing fertility to the land.

These archaeological discoveries help us understand the ministry of the prophet Elijah. King Ahab of Israel “set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria” (1 Kings 16:32). God’s response was to announce through Elijah, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives...there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). God challenged Baal in the very area that was supposedly Baal’s strength—the ability to bring rain.

Several drought-filled years later Elijah summoned Baal’s prophets to a contest at Mount Carmel. Each group would prepare a sacrifice. “Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). This seemed fair...since Baal was supposedly the god of lightning.

The archaeological finds at Ugarit help us understand why rain and fire are so important in God’s contest with Baal. God’s withholding of rain—and His sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice—are clear proofs that He, not Baal, deserved Israel’s worship as God.

Archaeology helps illuminate God’s Word

I vividly remember the first time I ever looked closely at a high definition television screen. I was walking through an electronics store, and I wanted to see if all the hype concerning these new televisions was really true. I realized the difference when a car commercial came on…and I could actually read the fine print at the end explaining the details of the “special offer”! The higher screen density brought out details that were lost on our regular television at home. Archaeology can have the same effect on the Bible, highlighting details that would otherwise not be so obvious.

In the Book of Ephesians, Paul wrote to Gentiles who were once “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Paul announced that Christ’s death “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) that had excluded Gentiles from God’s place of blessing.

Paul used the temple standing in Jerusalem to illustrate his point. Gentiles were permitted into the outer court, but they were prohibited from entering any further into the temple by a low wall that marked the limit of their access to God. In 1935 a portion of a stone from this wall was discovered. An inscription on the stone warned Gentiles of the severe consequences of trying to go beyond this barrier. “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure around the temple area. Anyone caught doing so will bear the responsibility for his own ensuing death.”

This archaeological discovery adds vividness and depth to Paul’s words. The barrier in the temple was a visible reminder that Gentiles had been excluded from the blessings God had given to His people, Israel. But Christ’s death on the cross shattered the barrier and gave all believers “access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:18).

Archaeology helps validate God’s Word

Sometimes archaeology has helped defend the accuracy and reliability of God’s Word. Many scholars have criticized the unity of the Book of Isaiah. Instead of accepting Isaiah as the author, they assign different parts of the book to multiple authors over several centuries. They assume Isaiah 1–39 and Isaiah 40–66 were written at different times and were joined together at a still later date.

In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd found several ancient manuscripts on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. These manuscripts became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The final collection contained portions of nearly every book of the Old Testament. The scrolls were 1,000 years older than any previously known copies of the Old Testament.

Scholars were excited because they hoped these scrolls would shed light on their theories as to how the “pieces” of the Old Testament had come together. A complete copy of the Book of Isaiah was discovered in almost perfect condition. Would this archaeological find prove, or disprove, the unity of the Book of Isaiah?

In this manuscript, the text of Isaiah 39 ends one line from the bottom of a column. Isaiah 40 begins on the very next line—with absolutely no evidence of any division! This archaeological discovery supports the unity of the Book of Isaiah.

And in conclusion . . .

The Bible does not depend on archaeology for its authority. It is authoritative because God is the author. But archaeology can help interpret, illuminate, and validate God’s Word. It’s encouraging to know archaeological discoveries support biblical facts.

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