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Now the Lord said to Avram, "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee I will curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."
The history of the Israelites begins with the story of a family, the personal odyssey of Abraham, his wife Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca, their grandson Jacob, and Jacob's twelve sons. Throughout the Bible, but especially in its first five books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy we follow every detail of their increasingly complex lives, sharing their betrayals, deceptions, and multitude of sins. Only much later, after a miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt, a forty-year sojourn in the desert, and their conquest of Canaan, is it clear that somewhere along the way this family has become a dynasty and, finally, a nation.
Many of the most widely known stories in the Bible, including the story of Abraham's journey from his father's house in Ur, in Mesopotamia, to the Promised Land in Canaan, date to ancient times, some as far back as three thousand years ago. Despite the chronological gap that exists between Abraham's life and days and our own, part of the Bible's power throughout the centuries has been the writers' ability to convince us that these events are as real as thosethat occurred only recently.
More than any other patriarchal figure, Abraham remains a vivid, living presence, a familiar part of the daily life and daily politics of the Middle East. Virtually every country through which Abraham passed en route to Canaan has its own holy site and legend associated with him, and a tourism industry eager to promote it. In Urfa, a city near the border between Turkey and Syria, locals venerate and regularly visit a cave where the infant Abraham and his mother are popularly believed to have hidden for three years after the king of Ur decreed that all newborn males were to be killed. Another tradition in Urfa says that when this same king heard of the young Abraham's refusal to pray to idols he ordered him thrown into a fiery furnace on a mountain summit. Water from a pool below the mountain miraculously rose up and extinguished the fire, and the fish living in it carried Abraham away to safety. To this day, no one will touch the carp swimming in the site designated as Abraham's pool out of the conviction that they are the descendants of the fish that rescued Abraham. Anyone who harms the fish, it is said, will go blind.
In downtown Baghdad, in Iraq, a mosque stands in the place where Iraqis believe Abraham's childhood was spent, and the faithful gather there five times a day to pray to him. On the Israeli-Syrian border, Druze Arabs maintain a site they hold sacred as the place where God and Abraham established their covenant, and where today barren women of all religions make pilgrimage with prayers for a child. On the outskirts of Hebron, in the West Bank, members of a Russian hospice carefully tend an oak tree in their courtyard garden. They believe that it was here that Abraham rushed out to greet and offer hospitality to the three angels of God who came to visit him and tell him that his wife Sarah soon would give birth. In the coffee shops of downtown Hebron, the waiters still serve steaming bowls of a lentil dish called Abraham's soup, and in Damascus, street vendors hawk Abraham's juice, made from the fruit of the tamarisk tree, which the Bible records was planted by Abraham in Beersheba. At the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where the Bible says Abraham and Sarah are buried, Israelis and Palestinians still battle over Abraham's legacy, praying in separate sections of the divided sanctuary at the cave both claim to own.
Despite Abraham's continuing hold on the lives of so many people, a vastly different situation exists among Bible scholars, archaeologists, and historians where Abraham is concerned. They still debate vociferously the extent of David's empire and argue passionately about whether Solomon built a certain building. They mine historical texts searching for additional clues about Omri and Ahab in order to reconstruct the lives and reigns of these lesser-known kings of Israel, and parse the later books of the Old Testament in order to determine whether the writings of Ezra and Nehemiah jibe with Persian records of the same events. In their many acrimonious disagreements exists the conviction that biblical history remains open to interpretation and is a worthy subject of vigorous academic debate and scholarship. The one glaring exception to this breadth of inquiry is Abraham and his times. There is virtually no interest at all in investigating what used to be called the patriarchal age. "Most Bible scholars and archaeologists have abandoned the question of the patriarchs altogether," says Ronald Hendel, himself a Bible scholar. "They don't regard Abraham as having anything historical to say."
Until the 1970s archaeologists were bent on proving the historical accuracy of the patriarchal narratives. But the belief that it was possible for archaeology to validate such an ancient religious story instead led to serious mistakes. In 1975 Italian archaeologists digging at Tell Mardikh, the site of the ancient city of Ebla, about 34 miles south of Aleppo, Syria, stumbled upon sixteen thousand cuneiform tablets, a spectacular find. Most of the tablets seemed to be routine administrative records of the palace, including receipts for purchases and ledgers of income and expenditures. But the Ebla tablets, as they soon came to be called, caused a sensation after an Italian Assyriologist began translating them and announced that they contained the names of biblical sites such as Hazor, Megiddo, Gaza, and Sodom and Gomorrah. They even featured a creation story that read very much like the one in Genesis, at least according to a translation that was soon published. Not everyone was thrilled with the discoveries. Syrian officials asked the archaeologists to downplay the tablets' possible biblical connections, particularly the growing suggestion that the Eblaites might have been ancient Hebrews. But the major backlash came later, and from a more scholarly quarter, when more careful translations revealed that the tablets did not in fact mention biblical cities; the translation of the creation poem was also rejected.
During the same period two influential books were published by American bible scholars, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, by Thomas L. Thompson, and Abraham in History and Tradition, by John van Seters. Both works examined the biblical text and concluded by questioning the historical validity of the patriarchal narratives. These scholars suggested that the stories surrounding Abraham and the other patriarchs had been invented as late as the fifth century b.c.e., a thousand years after the patriarchal age, when the Bible's writers wanted to explain the origins of the emerging Israelite nation-state.
Before the 1970s scholars and archaeologists had argued for the patriarchal narratives' historical accuracy based on the fact that many of their details appeared to correspond to practices recorded in cuneiform archives found in the ancient city of Nuzi, in Mesopotamia, which dated from the second millennium b.c.e. But this theory met the same fate as the Ebla tablets when it turned out that some of the putative parallels between the biblical stories and the Nuzi archives, such as personal names and family law customs, were the result of scholarly misinterpretations of the documents, or would have been equally true of later historical periods. "By the time the dust cleared from the academic battle," Hendel recalls, "people had moved on. They never looked back."
But for the first time, we now have the ability to piece together with a reasonable degree of certainty at least parts of Abraham's world. From archaeological excavations and surveys in the Judean hills of Israel, a richer reconstruction has emerged of the economic, social, and agricultural development of Hebron over a period of thousands of years, illustrating how the current political conflict over Abraham has its roots in the biblical era. New research being conducted on the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 B.C.E.), the period of time to which scholars still date traditions about a figure named Abraham, reveals that Abraham's actions can be best understood in the context of the changing conditions in the Middle East. Textual criticism of the patriarchal narratives further illuminates the way much of Abraham's story evolved over time.
The significance of this cannot be overestimated, especially in an area of the world where the past still has such a hold on people. Archaeology helps us understand not just the Bible, but what the Bible left out. Biblical interpretation is an ancient phenomenon, something that occurred almost simultaneously with the writing of the narratives. The scribes responsible for insuring the survival of the stories, histories, psalms, and regulations that we read today, the ones who painstakingly copied the texts as parchments aged and disintegrated, didn't simply transfer the texts word for word, comma for comma. The stories were changed, their meanings shifting slightly, or sometimes more dramatically. "By omitting some things and adding others, [an] author reshaped the past and so made it into a more perfect model of what he himself wished to prescribe for the future," writes the prominent Bible scholar James L. Kugel about the ancient biblical interpreters. He might as well be talking about the modern interpreters too. Archaeology recovers what was omitted and adds things that were never considered; in the process, it reshapes history and its consequences.
Yehuda Yaniv, an Israeli documentary filmmaker, is one of these new interpreters. He has followed the progress of the latest research and its implications for the patriarchal narratives, visiting the sites of a few digs in Israel and Jordan. In 1994, firmly believing that the Abraham who was slowly emerging from the work could be used as a bridge between Jews and Muslims, Yaniv decided he wanted to make a film about Abraham. "I was looking for a way to explore what links us, rather than what separates us," he says.
This wouldn't be an easy task, he recognized, despite the fact that both faiths venerate Abraham as a prophet. The narratives concerning Abraham that developed over the years and now appear in both the Bible and the Koran seem virtually irreconcilable. There is the famous Bible story of the sacrifice of Isaac. After years of their praying for a child, a son, Isaac, is born to Abraham and Sarah. One day God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son as an offering, proof of his ultimate fealty to his faith. Abraham is strangely silent in the face of this demand he doesn't even plead for his son's life. He silently sharpens his knife and sets out with Isaac to the place God shows him. When they arrive at the designated spot, Abraham methodically binds Isaac, then in a chilling scene, raises his knife. At the very last moment, God stays his hand, sparing the boy and providing a ram for a sacrifice instead. In the Koran's version of this story, it is Ishmael, Abraham's older son, the child of his wife's handmaid Hagar, who is commanded to be sacrificed and then saved. After Ishmael's miraculous deliverance, he and Abraham build the Kaaba, the Islamic holy shrine at Mecca to which millions of Muslims go on pilgrimage every year. Muslims praying there walk around the Kaaba seven times, in remembrance of Hagar's circling in the desert seven times in order to find water for her child after she and Ishmael are banished by Abraham at the insistence of the jealous Sarah. The Koran says that Muhammad developed the faith that Abraham initiated, and Abraham is considered Islam's first prophet, the first Muslim.
Despite this divergence in tradition, Yaniv persisted in the notion of establishing a common religious ground. Shortly after the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994, he teamed up with a Jordanian film company and set out to retrace the route Abraham takes in the Bible. Unlike scholars who preceded him, the filmmaker wasn't interested in determining if Abraham actually stopped at every single place on the biblical itinerary. Instead, his intention was to search for Abraham the man. He wanted people to understand what it might have been like to live in Abraham's time. Yaniv hired two actors to be the narrators, a famous Jordanian comedian and stage performer named Hisham Younis, and an Israeli radio and television personality, Alex Ansky. At the Allenby Bridge, the main crossing point between Jordan and Israel, the two men greeted each other warmly, calling each other Isaac and Ishmael. They read passages related to Abraham's story from both the Koran and the Bible. For the most part, however, it wasn't easy making the film. Very few Muslim religious leaders wished to appear on camera in a joint Israeli-Jordanian project. No Jordanian professors or religious leaders took part, and only one Palestinian lecturer working in the West Bank agreed to be filmed. The majority of contributors were Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs. Yaniv followed Abraham's route at great expense, journeying as far as Haran, on the Turkish-Syrian border, in order to visit the village from which Abraham sets out for the Promised Land after leaving his home in Ur. It was difficult for Yaniv to obtain permission from the Turks for the trip, due to the tensions with the Kurdish resistance groups that opposed the Turkish government, and goverment officials feared he might be kidnapped or killed. On his way to the village, Yaniv's driver fell asleep at the wheel of the jeep, just as a man was driving a tractor across the treacherous road. The driver was killed, the jeep went off the road and flipped over, and Yaniv and his wife were both injured. Still, he persisted, filming mosques, caves, tombs, and synagogues all over the Middle East, filming anywhere the Bible or other traditions and legends said Abraham had stopped along the way to Canaan.
The movie he ultimately prepared, called Abraham's Odyssey, is a fascinating document, though perhaps even more interesting is what Yaniv ended up having to leave on the cutting-room floor. The original film featured one scene in which Younis and Ansky stood together on Mount Nebo in Jordan, where the Bible says Moses viewed the land promised to Abraham. The two men began to argue, Ansky insisting that the promise was most important to the Jewish people. Younis protested that it had been made to all the children of Abraham, Ishmael as well as Isaac. "The expression Promised Land was too charged, and we had to throw the whole scene out," says Yaniv.
Other scenes had to be cut as well. The Jordanian producer insisted that a picture of Younis, a Muslim, wearing a traditional Jewish head covering at the Western Wall in Jerusalem be left out in order not to offend Islamic fundamentalists. A visit to a mosque in Amman that ended when a group of Islamic fundamentalists gathered and started shouting, "Kill the Jews!" was likewise dropped.
Yaniv professes to be uninterested in politics, and he gave an interview to a French newspaper after the Abraham movie was shown at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. In the interview the reporter described him as an atheist. Members of the Islamic movement in the Jordanian parliament cited the interview during a debate calling for the Jordanian film company that participated in the project to back out of the coproduction deal and the plans to translate the film into Arabic in order to widely distribute it in the Arab world. Since then, Yaniv has been reluctant to try to characterize his religious views. Today he admits he is not certain whether Abraham really lived. But after working on the film, he came to the conclusion that answering that question didn't matter, and could produce no fruitful avenue of scholarly inquiry. "If Abraham was historical or he wasn't historical is really no longer relevant," says Yaniv. "The important fact is that Abraham lives today."
Abraham lives, but it still remains extraordinarily difficult to determine conclusively the origins of such an ancient religious figure based on archaeological evidence. In 1975, around the same time of the Ebla discoveries and the publication of the books questioning the patriarchal narratives, two American professors, R. Thomas Schaub and Dr. Walter Rast, led an expedition to the southeastern section of the Dead Sea in Jordan in the hope of finding the lost cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are probably two of the most famous biblical cities, destroyed by God because of the hedonism and abominations of the people living there. Abraham's nephew Lot lives there, and Abraham pleads with God to spare the cities if ten righteous men can be found. God saves Lot, largely on the strength of his kinship tie to Abraham, but decides to destroy the cities. "Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities....And Abraham went early in the morning where he had stood before the Lord and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace," the Bible says in Genesis 19.
Over the course of the next fifteen years, Schaub and Rast out-lasted all the academic disputes, managing to excavate and identify over thirty sites, from walled towns to huge cemeteries, dating from the earliest historical period through the Islamic era. The two cities that they speculate might be Sodom and Gomorrah are Bab edh-Dhra', the largest of the towns that grew up along the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, and its neighbor, Numeira.
Both date to the Early Bronze Age, around 3300-2100 b.c.e. This dating places them far earlier than the traditionally accepted time period for when Abraham might have lived. At an earlier time, the archaeologists probably would have insisted that despite the chronological discrepancy, the sites were the Bible's Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, in their report about the early work at the sites, Schaub and Rast had made just such an argument. Over the years they tempered their initial enthusiasm and became much more cautious about drawing conclusions.
The digs at Bab edh-Dhra' and Numeira offered an unprecedented look at the life and demise of villages thousands of years ago. The two had similar layouts, and both were built on top of hills overlooking the sea, close to freshwater sources. Although Bab edh-Dhra' had already been inhabited for a thousand years, it wasn't until the Early Bronze Age period that its citizens began burying their dead in tombs in a cemetery located at its outskirts. The cemetery has been the source of some of the richest finds, with many objects found surrounding the bones, including pots, clay figurines and beads, wooden tools, and food offerings. Most of the skeletons that have been unearthed there are incomplete, and archaeologists have speculated that the deceased were buried elsewhere at the time of their death, then brought to Bab edh-Dhra's cemetery for reburial in what was probably a family or clan tomb. At first the cemetery was used only seasonally, probably by nomads who came to take advantage of the water there and buried any that had died during their trips. But the settlement nearby gradually developed into a permanent village. The residents built simple homes from mud bricks atop stone foundations. These structures were the first indication to archaeologists that there was eventually a continual presence at the site. A variety of crops were raised there, including wheat, barley, grapes, olives, lentils, and chickpeas. Bone remains indicate that there were also sheep and goats, lizards, donkeys, and camels. Then, around 2350 B.C.E., the city came to a sudden and violent end. No one is certain what precipitated the community's demise it could have been an earthquake, a military attack from outsiders, or some sort of natural disaster or plague. The Numeira site contained even more dramatic evidence of destruction. The archaeologists found thick ash layers all around the city, burned roof timbers, and walls that had collapsed. There were even freshly picked grapes with their skins still intact. These had been carbonized by the conflagration that destroyed the town, and helped establish that it had come to an end in the late summer or early autumn. The doorways in Numeira were blocked with stones, which was interpreted as possible evidence that its inhabitants might have anticipated some kind of earthquake or natural disaster and evacuated, perhaps expecting to return at a later date. Indeed most of the homes had none of the small items that are typically found at a dig, such as jewelry, and no human remains were located in the debris. There was nothing in the sites themselves that might conclusively link them to the biblical traditions, but Schaub points out that Bab edh-Dhra' and Numeira had not been inhabited again after they were destroyed. The ruins were right there on the surface. "People passing by could have seen it, the desolation would have been evident to all," says Schaub. He says it is not hard to imagine the kind of history the Bible's authors could infer from such dramatic wreckage. The valley must have seemed cursed by God. The tradition of Sodom and Gomorrah "probably does go back to some historical event," says Schaub. "But at this stage we will never know what it was."
Still, in the shadow of this doubt, some progress is slowly being made. David Ilan, an archaeologist who digs at Tel Dan, a huge site that sits on the border of modern Israel and Lebanon, specializes in the Middle Bronze Age. He calls this period "the dawn of internationalism" in the Middle East, because it marks the first time when encountering a stranger outside one's tent was the normal course of events. People were on the move in great waves throughout the region, and their mobility led to the creation of intricate trading networks that stretched from one city to another. Throughout Tel Dan, there was evidence that people who came from cities in Mesopotamia, including Abraham's birthplace, Ur, really did have an important impact on both the settlement pattern and the character of the area.
During a tour he gave me of the Jerusalem-based Skirball Museum, which houses artifacts from a number of important digs in Israel, Ilan pointed to a replica of the Tel Dan mud-brick gate, the only complete Bronze Age arched structure that has survived intact in the southern Levant. According to Ilan's research, the gate hadn't been used for very long, and apparently had been filled in intentionally with soil soon after its construction. The reason for its abandonment was clear: evidence revealed that soon after its completion the gate had started falling apart. Its north tower began to detach from the base, and an attempt to put up a stone buttress as a support for the collapsing mud bricks had failed. Inside the gate the damage was even worse, as the earthern rampart collapsed into the street leading to the town. Every time it rained, mud and debris would break off and pile up in the main passageway. "If Abraham came riding through that gate on his donkey, he would have had to detour a huge pile of debris." Ilan laughed. He speculated that the townspeople had probably tried to clear the debris away initially but eventually conceded defeat to the elements and filled in the whole structure before building another gate at a different site in the city. In fact, archaeologists had found a stone gate just a short distance from the mud-brick one.
The question that concerned Ilan was the reason for the failure of the gate. "Didn't its engineers realize that in an area that receives relatively large amounts of rain, that gate was going to collapse?" he asked. It puzzled him too that they hadn't used local stone and timber, in ample supply in the surrounding countryside, an oversight that was especially glaring given that these materials had been employed successfully in constructing stone gates during the same time periods at nearby sites like Megiddo and Hazor. Ilan's explanation for these anomalies was that the engineers came from Mesopotamia. "Mud brick was really the only material easily available in Mesopotamia," he explained. "The same kind of vaulting technique at Dan was commonly used in places like Ur for spanning gateways, where precipitation was much lower than in northern Canaan. The architects at Dan simply maladapted the technique they knew from home to this region. Once they saw it wasn't working, they quickly abandoned it." Ilan made his way around the museum's display cases, past stone coffins, pottery, and other material. Following the finds from Dan was like traveling along the trail the migrants from Mesopotamia had taken into Canaan, bringing their own habits and customs with them as they moved. At Dan and in a small number of northern Canaanite cities, they introduced new burial practices that supplemented traditional practices. Studies of human skeletal remains from the period also showed significant changes in the demographics of the cities that could not be explained by environmental or evolutionary factors, but indicated that new groups of people had lived and died there. At Dan, Ilan and some of his colleagues had also unearthed a particular kind of painted pottery whose style and technique seemed to originate far to the north.
The new research has led to other tantalizing clues about the Middle Bronze Age. In the few cuneiform tablets found dating from this period in Palestine, including in Hebron, are names believed to be of Hurrian origin the Hurrians were a shadowy ethnic group that dominated northern Mesopotamia and parts of Syria and Anatolia during the second millennium B.C.E. yet another indication that northern groups mixed with the local population. Other archaeologists are examining food remains, like those of a legume called the Spanish vetchling, consumed in the Aegean but not native to the eastern Mediterranean or to the Near East. The legume contains toxins that can cause paralysis and nerve disorders if not removed through cooking before it is consumed. The people who brought the plant to Canaan or ate it, the archaeologists argue, would have had to know about this preventive treatment. None of this explains how or why immigration took place, Ilan points out, or confirms the historical accuracy of Abraham's journey. But in archaeology's ability to suggest the history of forgotten cities and nomadic peoples, the biblical record is slowly being transformed.
In this past lie the beginnings of the modern political conflict. According to the account in Genesis, it was in Hebron that Abraham was living, across the Dead Sea from his nephew Lot, when his wife Sarah died at the age of 127. Abraham goes to speak to the towns-people about buying a burial place, having already set his eye on the cave of Machpelah (known in English as the Cave of the Patriarchs), at the end of a field owned by Ephron, who is described as a Hittite who lives in the city. Ephron first offers to give the cave and land to Abraham, then states a price when Abraham insists. The price is steep, 400 shekels of silver, but Abraham weighs out the coins and takes possession of not only the cave but the entire field. Eventually he will be buried here too, by his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, in one of the few recorded acts that they perform together.
It is hard to imagine this event occurring in modern Hebron, where some of the most extremist elements on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict live. In 1929 Arabs in Hebron turned on their Jewish neighbors during nationalistic riots and massacred 67 Jewish inhabitants, many of whom they had known all their lives. In a small museum set up by the current Jewish residents of Hebron, there are photographs showing a woman's cut-off hand and people with gashes in their backs. The city's Muslim community has its own suffering and memorials stemming from the 1994 massacre by Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli Jew who burst into the Cave of the Patriarchs during prayers in Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, and shot and killed at least 29 men worshipping there, wounding about 150 others. Since then, the sanctuary to Abraham's memory has been divided by a wall, and the Israeli soldiers who control the site have set up a more stringent praying schedule so that the two sides are never together.
Hebron's history has emerged largely through the efforts of an Israeli archaeologist named Avi Ofer, and it turns out that Hebron has always been a city of radicals, a refuge for those who disdain compromise. As part of his graduate work in archaeology in the early 1980s, Ofer had begun the most comprehensive and important survey yet conducted of the entire Judean highlands area, about 800 square kilometers of territory comprising the heartland of Judah (including Hebron) and extending all the way down to Beersheba in the south. The survey had involved combing the hills, collecting pottery shards, and examining the remains of houses and other architecture in the hope of creating a settlement history of the area through every possible historical period, starting in the fourth millennium B.C.E. and ending in the Ottoman age directly before the founding of the modern state of Israel. As an outgrowth of that work, Ofer decided to spend several years digging at Hebron. He was interested mainly in the biblical period there, the Bronze and Iron Ages, particularly the city's association with the patriarchs and its role as King David's capital for seven years before David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and moved the center of his growing kingdom there. Ofer's preliminary investigation indicated that during these periods Hebron was a key center in the area for trading and commerce, but perhaps more interesting, that it had always been a self-contained community, distinct socially, economically, and politically from Judah's larger centers like Jerusalem, even when it was formally considered a subdistrict.
Despite Hebron's historical significance, it wasn't easy for Ofer to obtain funds to dig there. Hebron had been a political hot spot since shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which had left Jordan's West Bank in Israel's control. A group of Jewish settlers had moved into a hotel in its downtown area, ostensibly to spend Passover in the city of the patriarchs. But after the holiday they refused to leave, and eventually the government backed down from a confrontation and approved the establishment of a small Jewish settlement there. When Ofer began his excavations, political tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were even worse than usual, eventually culminating in the 1987 outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel's continued military presence.
Ofer was finally able to get the financial support he needed to dig largely due to a political stroke of fortune. The Jewish settlers of Hebron had recently decided to expand their foothold there and set up a neighborhood in Tel Romeideh, a hilly section of the city. Ofer's investigations confirmed that Tel Romeideh was the center of biblical Hebron, and so he, along with his advisers and colleagues, the prominent Israeli archaeologists Benjamin Mazar and Moshe Kochavi, approached the minister of defenseat that time, Yitzhak Rabin and argued that they urgently needed funding to dig before the settlers established an entire neighborhood on the mound and destroyed the archaeological materials located below. In fact, temporary caravans had already been set up on a small section of the mound, and Ofer was ultimately never able to excavate there. But with the 20,000 shekels Rabin authorized for the dig, Ofer was able to study other areas of Tel Romeideh.
Throughout its history, Hebron had been relatively poor compared to other cities in Judah. Situated in a remote and hard-to-reach location, the settlement was in an agricultural frontier zone, bordering the desert. Hebron's fortunes changed for the better in the tenth century B.C.E., when a new wave of settlement began. There is evidence of more impressive construction, and as time passed, fortresses were built and the city expanded, until it eventually became the most important and largest center in southern Judah. Ofer believes that King David's coronation in Hebron, as recounted in the Bible, and the seven years the town served as his capital before he moved to Jerusalem, took place during the period that the archaeological record shows Hebron at its peak. But he is quick to point out that even at that time, it remained the richest city in an impoverished, distant section of Judah. Although Hebron was David's capital, it was the capital of a very circumscribed region. "According to the Bible, David left for Jerusalem as soon as he could, and you can't blame him," said Ofer in a 1999 interview. "You can't control any significant part of Judah from Hebron, it's not in the center. And after David leaves, the Bible hardly mentions Hebron again."
The city continued to haunt David, though. David's plans to expand his holdings were almost derailed by his rebellious son, Absalom, who chose Hebron as the place to attempt a coup. There is a story in Second Book of Samuel in which Absalom comes to his father and asks for permission to go to pray in Hebron. David gives him his blessing, telling him, "Go in peace." But Absalom has other plans and once in Hebron foments rebellion against his own father. "As soon as ye hear the sound of the horn, then ye shall say: 'Absalom is king in Hebron,'" he tells his followers, whom he places as spies throughout David's kingdom. Absalom's rebellion is eventually defeated and Absalom killed, but not before he forces David out of Jerusalem and nearly takes over the kingdom. Ofer thought it likely that Hebron's economic and demographic decline after the capital moved to Jerusalem had led to bitterness and resentment among many of the city's residents, who gave Absalom the support he needed to oppose Jerusalem politically.
From the biblical texts as well as administrative records, it became apparent that Hebron had been treated differently by the central authorities. Its tax and population records were listed separately from those of Jerusalem, under whose jurisdictional umbrella it technically fell. To Ofer, this fact seemed to indicate that Hebron had a unique character, that its people saw themselves as both part of the larger Judean entity and somehow separate from it. Ofer could speculate about why that was the case. The cultic material he found indicated Hebron was a self-contained religious center, with its people not dependent on traveling to Jerusalem to worship. That meant that they did not have to pay tribute to the priests in Jerusalem or follow their line of preaching. The lack of any sort of flourishing local agriculture,combined with the city's remote location, must also have resulted in a particular kind of personality being able to thrive there, Ofer theorized.
Little seems to have changed in modern Hebron, with its hard-scrabble existence and residents bent on conflict rather than compromise. Its sad, difficult history hangs over the city. And yet within the city's past lies also potential salvation. Unlike in Jerusalem, where David managed to establish a strong political dynasty that continued for many generations after his death, no one group in Hebron has ever been able to control the city for any length of time. Life there was difficult and the winds of fortune were particularly capricious. "Its residents would stay as long as they could," said Ofer. Then they would move on, relocating to nearby communities when ecological or political circumstances changed, waiting for a chance to return.
Archaeology has enabled a more complete reconstruction of Hebron's development, but textual criticism of the patriarchal narratives reveals something unexpected: Abraham's association with Hebron is not an original part of the patriarchal tradition, but was added at a later date in order to reflect changing political circumstances inside Judah. It is widely accepted among Bible scholars that the composition of the Bible was an ongoing process that took place over the course of several centuries, and many of its stories underwent considerable alteration from the time they were first written down to the time the editing of the Old Testament works was under way, probably in the fifth century B.C.E. Many examples of this abound. The Bible scholar Kyle McCarter Jr. has argued that the twelve tribes of Israel who appear in the stories about Jacob and Joseph that we now read in the Bible represent the tribal list as it stood at a later point in the editing process. As proof, he cites a passage recorded in the Book of Judges describing the victory of the Israelite tribes over a Canaanite foe. This passage contains a different list, one that doesn't mention the southern tribes of Judah and Simeon. McCarter speculates that this discrepancy indicates that when this text was written southern Canaan, which later writers would associate with Abraham himself, was not yet considered part of the territories of Israel and therefore remained outside the list.
In the earlier versions of the stories, Abraham is reported to have settled in the Jezreel Valley, in north-central Israel, and his nephew Lot in Transjordan, while Hagar, Sarah's handmaid and the mother of Abraham's son Ishmael, is associated with a tribe located in northern Arabia. But when the tribe of Judah under David later became the dominant force in Israel, its scribes assumed responsibility for the editing of the Scriptures. They subsequently revised these traditions, McCarter argues, so that in later versions Abraham, along with the rest of the family, was relocated south, to the Judean hills. When Abraham parts from Lot he settles not in the central highlands area, but near the oaks of Mamre in Hebron. He pays the 400 shekels to Ephron in order to buy the family burial plot there too.
Although there is a fairly broad consensus that Abraham's association with Hebron was a later addition to Scripture, exactly how late is still a matter for debate. McCarter suggests that the stories were modified in part out of political motivations, in order to reflect the way the writers viewed matters when King David was in power, in the tenth century B.C.E. But other Bible scholars have staked out even later dates for the final shape of the Abraham traditions, perhaps after the fall of Israel to the Assyrian army in 722 b.c.e. and the subsequent rise of the Judean monarchy and its attempt to create a pan- Israelite national identity. One of the most interesting theories about the dating of the Abraham story has been proposed by Oded Lipschits, a young historian working at Tel Aviv University and specializing in the so-called Babylonian Captivity, the fifty-year period of Babylonian rule in Palestine, beginning with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E.
Lipschits believes that many of the geographic and other references in the Abraham narrative argue for its having been composed during the Babylonian period, and that the story of Abraham's buying a burial plot and land in Hebron had a specific political function. "Hebron had been a traditional center of the Judeans, one of the capitals of Judah, and an important city. But at the time the Judeans started to move back to Jerusalem from the exile in Babylonia, Hebron was no longer part of Judah," he says. "The Babylonians had changed the borders when they took over, and the Persians retained these same borders when they took over from the Babylonians. So the Bible's writers and editors shaped the story to show that Hebron belonged to the Judeans, despite the fact that they didn't control it anymore. They were establishing a claim in case political circumstances changed in the future."
The folk traditions associated with the cave continued to evolve even into the Second Temple period. Jewish sages of the second century B.C.E. wrote that not just Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah were buried in Abraham's tomb, but all of Jacob's sons as well. The sages also added some biblical characters whose tombs were not associated with Hebron by earlier tradition, including Moses and his brother Aaron, according to research by historian Steven Fine. One rabbi reported having seen Adam wandering in Abraham's tomb during a visit to the site. Eventually, Fine argues, the cave became a kind of national burial ground for all biblical heroes.
These legends are of little interest to Hebron's mayor, Mustafa Abdel Nabi Natsheh. "This has always been an Arab city," he says, dismissing the subject. Just as Jewish ties to the city are ignored by Hebron's Muslim community, so is the last seven hundred years of Muslim rule there by the Jewish settlers. "And the title to the field and the cave in it was made over to Abraham," David Wilder, the spokesman for the Jewish community living in Hebron counters. The biblical quotation, stamped on the back of commemorative coins the settlers sell along with other Abraham-related products to support the Jewish community, is often cited to explain why fifty or so families who depend on the protection of Israeli soldiers in order to live amidst 120,000 Arabs will never leave the city. But even the architectural changes at the Tomb of the Patriarchs over the centuries make a mockery of both sides' claims. Each of Hebron's conquerors and religions has added to the structure, which has become a reflection of the competing traditions that have grown up around Abraham over the years. No one is certain who built the original monument that now houses the tomb, although it is usually attributed to the Jewish king Herod the Great (ruled 37-4 B.C.E.) himself. The building was constructed at some point during the thirty- or forty- year period when the Herodian style of architecture was prevalent, most likely on top of some earlier structure traditionally associated with the site of Abraham's burial. Today the site is a crazy quilt of different styles. There are huge Herodian-style walls, with the well-carved ashlar masonry common in Jerusalem. The Romans built a church over the cave, and when the Arabs conquered Hebron in 638 C.E., they converted the church into a mosque. In the twelfth century, Crusaders captured the city and turned the mosque back into a church, until the Mamluks, who were Muslims, retook Hebron, made the church a mosque, and for good measure prohibited Jews and Christians from entering either the sanctuary or the cave. Non-Muslim worshippers were prohibited from ascending any higher than the seventh step on the external staircase leading to the tomb, from where they could look through a hole in the wall over the entrance to the cave.
Jutting out from the enclosure below one of several minarets erected on the building by Saladin is a domed mosque. The Bible records that Joseph's remains were taken from Egypt when Moses and the Israelites escaped and then buried in Shechem (contemporary Nablus), but later Muslim and Jewish legends state that the bones were buried in the tomb in Hebron. In the tenth century C.E., one story goes, the Muslim caliph sent workers to the tomb to try to clear up the mystery. The workers found a huge boulder, cracked it open, and discovered therein the body of Joseph. The caliph promptly built the domed mosque to mark the site. Saladin, the Muslim conqueror who took the tomb in 1188 C.E. after fighting the Christian Crusaders, added the minarets and the crenellations that can still be seen along the building's rooftop. A Crusader column remains standing next to a marble one erected by the Mamluks, who ruled from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries c.e. The Israelis have also made changes. When they took over Hebron after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, the stairway to the tomb was partly removed and the hole through which Jews and Christians used to stare into the sanctuary since the days of the Mamluks was cemented over. Despite the best efforts of all these competing groups, no one has ever succeeded in completely obliterating the contributions of his predecessors.
The biblical text and the city's recently recovered archaeological history belie the idea that Hebron or Abraham can ever belong exclusively to one group. Abraham for one seems to have recognized this and acted accordingly. God gives him a divine promise that all the land of Canaan will be his and that the obligation to obtain this land is absolutely critical. But when Abraham and his nephew Lot realize they can no longer live together in peace, it is Abraham who suggests that they divide the land between them, even offering Lot the chance to choose first which portion he wants. "Let there be no strife, I pray thee....Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me; if thou wilt take the left hand then I will go to the right; or if thou take the right hand, then I will go to the left," Abraham tells Lot in Genesis 13, hardly the words of a man willing to conquer at any cost. Later, when Abraham wants to buy the Cave of the Patriarchs in which to bury Sarah, he presents himself as a sojourner, humbling himself before the locals rather than citing God's promise to him or brandishing his historical and divine rights in the city like a weapon. The Bible records his gesture of humility with these simple words: "Abraham bowed down before the people of the land." It would take another four hundred years or so, much of it spent as slaves in Egypt according to the Bible, before Abraham's descendants would improve their circumstances.