Having a passport stamped with the names Judea and Samaria reminds me of a trip my family made to Disneyworld, where I got a passport stamped Neverland. That day I met Peter Pan and Wendy. Getting my passport stamped for the West Bank these days, I can hope to stand before the graves of Biblical characters in Samaria and Judea.
What actually can we glean about the area of Samaria from the Hebrew Scriptures? Samaria was a region in the land of Israel with geographical limits that were never clearly defined in the Bible. Originally it was the territory of the tribe of Ephraim and half tribe of Manasseh: its eastern boundary was the Jordan River, the western boundary was the Mediterranean coast. Not surprising since natural boundaries, such as mountains, rivers, deserts, or lakes formed boundaries long before they were hand-drawn by the winners of wars.
After the campaign of Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BC, Samaria became a province of the Assyrians. The Biblical authors understand this loss of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) as God’s punishment of his people for worshipping other deities and breaking the Covenant that had bound them to God. “And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel [Samaria] unto Assyria and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (II Kings 18:11).
The triumphant Assyrians settled some of their subject populations there and in Syria to mingle with the Palestinian people. The Hill Country of Samaria remained a province during the Persian period. Then, Samaria, along with Judea, became the property of the Babylonians, from 539 until 333 BC, and subsequently was ruled by the Hellenistic Greeks, and then the formidable Roman Empire. The land was never owned by the Jewish people, except in minds that were nourished by the Biblical narratives.
Israel’s history of salvation
Why am I providing such specific historical data for these vague geographical areas? Because there has always been an intertwined narrative between Israel’s religious history and a so-called objective history that must be maintained. To reject the historicity of Israel’s salvation history has been considered an attack on the faith itself. A fundamental basis of Biblical faith is that, unlike other ancient deities living in some faraway realm, the Israelite God acts within history, prodding and protecting his chosen people from the threats and attacks of its enemies. When Israel breaks its Covenant with God, the land and the power revert to their enemies, often for as long as 400 narrative years of repentance. Then God relents. What could reassure Israelis of the historicity of the biblical narratives, and their everlasting bond with God, more than actual physical proof that they earned every hectare of land from righteousness. Stepping right out of the pages of the Bible, today’s faithful can flash that Biblical truth in the form of a current passport stamp. Samaria and Judea.
What better way to prove the veracity of the events narrated in the Bible than by discovering tangible, visible proof embedded on shards, stele, inscriptions and other archeological treasures. So with the Bible in one hand and a shovel in the other, Western and Israeli archeologists began to dig up the Holy Land to prove the land holy. Official versions of a nation’s past are commonplace: think of Columbus discovering America. But what is different about the attempt to recover the history of ancient Israel is that this history has been shaped in the context of the modern European nation state. It has been translated and interpreted as the history of a united group of people, divided into tribes. There are no other people except for enemies, the generic “Canaanites.”
A different kind of salvation
In the past 25 years, scholars have begun to argue, following the lead of Niels Lemche of the University of Copenhagen, that the gap between the first written fixation of the Biblical texts, beginning some time after the Exile in 587 BC, and the occurrence of these events is too great to accept the tradition as a primary source for the reconstruction of the Israelite past. Why is this statement so central to our continuing study of this land today? Because it frees the Western scholarly “search for ancient Israel” to examine the history of the entire region, including the all-important search for a Palestinian history that has been overshadowed, intentionally erased, by those who ignored the social history of the indigenous people of Syro-Palestine.
In her important book Facts on the Ground (2002), anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj argues that the strong Zionist collective memory has been strengthened by the Eurocentric model that created the cultural construction of Orientalism, the Western depiction of Arab cultures with all its negativity. Since the first-generation of Israeli archeologists came from Europe, they saw through eyes trained by the last generation of scholars of the continental empires. Like all subject peoples, the hope of these Jewish archeologists was to create and privilege their national “ethnic” majority over the indigenous people of Palestine. To create a visible ancient Israel has resulted in dismissing the large Canaanite mounds. In searching for Judea and Samaria, these archeologists have shown little interest in the lowlands, understood to be Canaanite.
Thus, during the British Mandate period, these archeologists set out to create and preserve a solid historical link from the Biblical narratives to the world of the Zionists. A new nation set to work to revive the old Biblical history from every hillside and wadi. By the time of the 1967 War, the continuum between the past and the present, linking the modern state of Israel to the intentional creation of ancient Israelite history, had been forged. Even tourists visiting the State of Israel could visit Rachel’s tomb, breathe the air in the cave of Machpelach, which Abraham had purchased as a tomb for himself and Sarah. I have been shown the very well the Bible says Abraham dug to water his flocks. Not to be a spoil sport, but these Biblical characters survived in story form through a minimum of 800 years of oral transmission before their stories were ever written down. And one can still find a well dug by a mythic patriarch?
Finally the Zionists have their modern state, theirs by means of an ancient tradition superimposed on a Western nation-state model. And the West, lead by the United States, has displayed no inclination to question the eradication of Arabic place names, that the Zionists have replaced with Biblical names. Comfortable with the celebration of Biblical values ascribed to our own national cultures, how could we not have been Israel’s natural allies? Only recently have historians begun to argue in impressive numbers that the problem with the historical model of ancient Israel is that it denies validity to any attempt to produce a history of ancient Palestine. Zionist allies have allowed Israel to play the largest board game in the world. But the roll of the dice is getting more dangerous for Israel.
As Tony Judt argued almost a decade ago, the idea of a Jewish state was already too late in 1948. “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”