Leveling Temples and Tels in Gaza

In 2004, five volunteers from the Ashkelon dig rented a car to go tour some archaeological sites in the Negev. We were barely outside Ashkelon’s city limits when we made a wrong turn and found ourselves approaching a heavily militarized crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, we turned around and got out of the area as quickly as possible.

Today Gaza is frequently in our news feeds because of its clashes with the modern state of Israel, but it also appears in the Bible several times. It was a Canaanite stronghold before it became one of the Philistines’ five capital cities, but it is probably most famous as the site of Samson’s demise.

During the Late Bronze Age, Israel had been under Philistine oppression for a generation when their newest judge, Samson, arose. He was supposed to be a Nazirite, meaning he should never drink wine, cut his hair, or touch anything unclean (such as foreign women and dead things). But Samson married a Philistine, abandoned her, got mad when she remarried, and then killed 1,000 Philistines with nothing but a dead donkey’s jawbone (Judges 14-15).

At some point and for some unknown reason, Samson was in Gaza one day and decided to visit a brothel. The Philistine men plotted to murder him, but Samson slipped out of the brothel at midnight, picked up their city gate, and moved it from the edge of the city where it had been of use to the very center of the city. The Philistines knew he was a tough guy, but now they had witnessed his superhuman strength (Judges 16:1-3).

One last time, Samson “touched” a foreign woman. This time it was Delilah from the Valley of Sorek (the border between Israel’s tribe of Dan and Philistia). Philistines bribed her to find out the source of Samson’s strength–which was his uncut hair that resulted from his Nazirite vows–so they could capture him, torture him, and take him down to Gaza. The Philistines celebrated his capture at the temple of their god, Dagon, where Samson then killed them all (Judges 16:6-30).

No tumbled columns, collapsed Bronze-Age temples, or ill-placed gates have been found in Gaza yet. There are no well-funded, university-led archaeological expeditions to the area, as you will find in the other 4 cities of the ancient Philistine Pentapolis. Any artifacts that have been uncovered (too often by bulldozers) find their way onto the black market or are stored by history-loving Gazans who hope for a day when they can be properly studied and displayed. Archaeologists can’t even get the excavating tools they need through Israeli security and into Gaza for fear that militants would turn them into weapons.

The lack of archaeological excavation in Gaza is a result of complex and emotionally-charged political conflicts that have persisted for centuries. In brief, the 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority, which was intended to govern both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one Palestinian nation. But the territories are physically separated by Israeli land, and the PA did not exercise its political power or serve its citizens in remote Gaza as it did in the West Bank where it is headquartered. A power vacuum developed in Gaza, where over 1.8 million people live in an area that is only 130 square miles. (That’s like taking the entire population of Phoenix and cramming everyone into one-quarter of the city limits.) As Gazans struggled with failing or absent infrastructure that the PA was not addressing, Hamas seized political power by doing the civic projects the PA had ignored. In 2007, Hamas was officially elected to power in the Gaza Strip. Today there is concern that they might win wider elections in the West Bank and gain control of the entire PA.

In addition to being cramped and poverty-ridden, the Gaza Strip is physically and militarily blocked off from the rest of the world. Situated only 13 kilometers south of Ashkelon, Hamas’s rockets can (and frequently do) hit the Israeli city, but Gaza’s citizens cannot so easily go to Ashkelon themselves to shop, work, vacation, or worship.

Today Gaza is rich in archaeological artifacts but poor in livable space, so the city leaders and developers continue to level tels in favor of new construction. Preserving and improving the lives of the living takes precedence (as it should), but valuable information and historical context about the Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, and later inhabitants are being permanently lost so long as Gaza is isolated.

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Series

cover.pngIn February 2019, I was sitting in a Eugene, Oregon-coffee shop with my editor. Mary Mag was moving smoothly through editing and heading toward the printer, so Kathleen and I were reviewing a rough proposal for my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist: Digging Israel (as it was titled at that time).

I had spent the previous two days in high-energy, encouraging meetings with almost everyone who worked at Harvest House, so I was ready to start my next project ASAP. Squinting at a complex-looking calendar-matrix of all her acquisitions, she told me, “It looks like my next slot is in Winter 2021.”

I went quiet, thinking about how far away that date seemed to be. Kathleen quickly assured me that the years would fly and the project would benefit from the extra time. Of course she was right. (Kathleen is always right!)

In February 2019, my next book was planned to be your typical 250-page black-and-white nonfiction paperback. I intended to write about archaeological discoveries and how they can impact our readings of Scripture.

In February 2021, I will present to you a still-pretty-typical 250-page black-and-white paperback; but this one has original photographs, history lessons, travel adventures, and cultural encounters…in addition to explaining how archaeology can illuminate Scripture!

The change in the book’s tone from scholarly to conversational and the expansion of its content from artifact-focused to culture-conscious are the direct results of the time I spent digging and traveling in Israel last summer. Fifteen years had passed since the last time I’d been similarly immersed in Israeli(te) history and culture, and I realized quickly that the book I had planned–which was initially based on what I had learned and experienced in my last years at Harvard–would not accurately reflect today’s practice of archaeology or the current inhabitants of the Land.

In Israel, ancient history and modernity coexist in ways they do not in Western nations, largely because the struggle for control of the land has never ceased. Thousands of years of wars and regime changes gave us the ancient tels we excavate, and they continue to define political boundaries and spheres of influence today.

All of this is simply too much to contain in one black-and-white book. Therefore, I’ve been working during our mutual COVID-containment time to develop a website. On February 23, 2021, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel will release and https://redhairedarchaeologist.com will launch. There you will find color photographs and “deleted scenes” that didn’t fit into the book and links to Season 2 of The Red-Haired Archaeologist Podcast, all of which will enhance your reading experience. In the future, it will also be the home of all things RHA, including future adult titles, children’s books, and more!

We are still five months away from my long-awaited Launch Day, but I can’t wait to share my love of ancient and modern Israel with you. Visit https://redhairedarchaeologist.com today, and sign-up to receive my monthly “journal entries,” publishing updates, and early access to the book’s online supplements.

When Truth and Tradition Collide

CoverSince my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow. There are some questions everyone asks me, such as, “How did you come up with that title?” Around Christmas time, everyone wanted to talk about the not-a-barn where Jesus was born, and a particularly fun interviewer wondered what kind of music I choose when David isn’t in the car.

At some point in every interview–often after some levity and laughter–the host gets serious and asks me, “Why did you write this book?” That should be an easy question, but I break into a sweat every time I start to answer because it is impossible to edit my life into a five-second sound bite. (Or an entire blog post, as it turns out!)

I was a “good kid.” I grew up in the Bible Belt and experienced Believer’s Baptism twiceat ages 8 and 9–because my family switched denominations. From the fourth grade, I attended church Sundays and Wednesdays, did my “quiet time” every night before bed, and followed every rule every day. Such societal structures reinforced my Type-A personality, set me up for academic success, and gave me a constant awareness of and connection to God.

My spiritual foundation was first shaken in my late teens. I took religious studies courses at Rhodes College, and for the first time I was learning from people who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God–but who knew more about it than any Sunday School teacher I’d ever met. In my first semester, my eyes were opened to everything that is “wrong” with my beloved Bible, all the contradictions, textual errors, and historical inaccuracies.

For the next several years, I described my faith as schizophrenic. In class I was learning and regurgitating biblical facts that threatened to undermine my biblical faith. Many of my classmates abandoned Christianity as they learned there was no apple in Eden, Moses parted a reed sea, Jericho was destroyed long before Joshua got there, Goliath (probably) wasn’t nine feet tall, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah, and Jesus was three years old when the Wise Men showed up. But I still had my quiet time every night in my dorm room. My faith in God never wavered, although my understanding of Him did.

After four years of keeping my academic side separate from my spiritual side, a conservative Jew put me back together. While studying Exodus 19 (where Moses goes up and down Mt. Sinai umpteen times with the speed of The Flash), Dr. Schultz highlighted all the places the Hebrew text repeats itself. The class already knew he would say the copied lines are evidence of multiple authors being involved in the creation of the text, but we didn’t expect him to then use those so-called errors as evidence in favor of God’s presence in the creation of the chapter.

His logic was simple: no writer or editor would ever “make the mistake” of including contradictions, errors, or inaccuracies in the final version of any text, let alone a divine one. There’s no way the thousands of scribes who followed them would then leave the “mistakes” uncorrected. God must be responsible.

This is a bold stand for a PhD to make because the first question anyone would ask him is, “Why did God do that?” No matter how many theories anyone ever proposes, the answer will always be, “I don’t know.” And that’s an uncomfortable statement for any human.

Maybe there’s a little Type-A in all of us. We like to know what is true and what is false. How things work, and why things happen. To that end, we humans might prefer that God have an annual conference call with all of us where He answers questions, gives instructions, and maybe chastises those who disagree with our personal opinions.

But that isn’t how God has chosen to interact with us. He is a God of relationships. He wanted to walk with us in the Garden of Eden forever; He did walk with us for awhile two millennia ago. He wants us to know Him, and that means reading His words, spending time on the hard parts, discussing them with Him in prayer, and debating them with others in fellowship.

Sadly this very quest for truth and the heart of God can lead to dissension in the churches. We must hold lightly to our own revelations because the stubborn adoption of one human’s idea over another’s causes denominations to divide. These Christians  insist those Christians aren’t Christians. A nine-year-old girl wonders why a dunk is better than a sprinkle when she knows her God hasn’t changed.

God wants us to study His word for ourselves, but remember that the mystery is in the text by His design. It helps us to keep coming back to discover more about Him, and as we know Him better, we want to share Him more. So that is why I wrote my book(s): I love God and His Words, and I want to share that with everyone. I want people to know they are as empowered to study the word of God as any theologian, and that it is okay to ask questions of His text and our traditions. (He can take it, and the church needs to be more self-reflective anyway!)

In time we will all be right and wrong about nonessentials, but disagreement must not divide us. As Jesus said, we are to

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes. (Matthew 22:37-40)