It is said that archaeologists lay out the corpse of history. The remains may be recognisable as those of once-living entities, but by definition a corpse is lifeless. The passage of time brings decay and increasing difficulty with interpretation.
However, archaeology is not just concerned with dead people, ancient monuments and buried objects. It also helps future societies understand how human actions, or climatic and environmental changes, can alter or destroy whole communities.
Archaeology has the same problems as forensic science in ‘reconstructing’ what is decayed and often incomplete. There is a great temptation to invent reconstructions, and make assumptions that have no historical basis.
What constitutes ‘history’ is often a matter of choice, depending on which facts are considered to be significant. In the case of remote periods, history is often little more than guesswork.
When there are few data, it is usually unsafe to make great claims about an ancient people and their beliefs and lifestyle. The more distant the period, the larger the degree of speculation.
Archaeology and the Bible
In spite of this, archaeology (if used correctly) can furnish the Christian with illuminating background details and insights regarding the Bible.
We have to understand, however, that the information provided by archaeology is illustrative and not theological. The Bible presents historical events in the light of God’s plan of salvation and needs no separate corroboration for legitimacy.
Monuments or artefacts must not be given greater emphasis then they deserve – lifeless objects out of context prove little. God’s Word alone is ‘living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword’ (a reference to the Gladius, a Roman weapon two feet long and two inches wide; Hebrews 4:12).
Nevertheless, archaeology can breath new life into Bible texts and show afresh the wonder of God’s Word – and its relevance both for the original reader and ourselves.
The following illustration might help us see how archaeological information can bring greater understanding to specific incidents and their outworking in Scripture.
Genesis and Exodus
The book of Genesis, while it describes the origin of all things and the activity of people-groups, majors on specific individuals. In contrast, the book of Exodus mentions individuals in passing and majors on specific people-groups, especially the Hebrew nation.
Yet the two books are both part of the uninterrupted history of salvation. For in the original Hebrew, the book of Exodus begins with the word ‘And’ (omitted from English translations for reasons of grammar).
‘And’ is a bridge-word, alerting the reader that the account of God’s working in the world flows on from Genesis to Exodus.
Whoever wrote Exodus was familiar with life and belief in Ancient Egypt. Despite many theories to the contrary, all the evidence points to Moses as author – after all, his knowledge regarding the land of his birth was second to none!
As archaeologists, Egyptologists, linguists and historians have worked on various monuments and texts, greater light has been shed on Moses’ time – and on the drama that was unfolding along the banks of the river Nile.
The house of Jacob
The drama in question was the conflict between Pharaoh and Moses which issued in the Exodus. The key to understanding the biblical significance of this conflict lies in the name ‘Pharaoh’.
Archaeology has shown that the name comes from the hieroglyphics standing for Per–aa, meaning great house (‘Pharaoh’ is the Greek translation). Whoever ruled the ‘great house’ or palace was king over the land of Egypt.
But there was also in Egypt another ‘household’ – that of Jacob. Exodus opens with an apparently mundane piece of information: ‘these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household’ (Exodus 1:1).
With greater archaeological understanding the significance of these words has become apparent, for they speak of the households or houses of Jacob, i.e. God’s people.
Not only were there two paradigmatic houses in Egypt, but they were in conflict – for ‘there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know [of] Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). Joseph, the former advisor to Pharaoh, probably Sesostris III, was long dead, of course.
But God’s people lived on, now led by Moses. He would become God’s messenger and means of judgement on the land of Egypt and another Pharaoh – probably Amenhophis II.
The great war
The conflict between Jacob’s house and Pharaoh’s house in Egypt has wider implications, for it was just a new phase in the great war that had begun in the Garden of Eden – between the serpent and the seed of the woman.
Satan, who had tried to destroy man at the outset, now seeks to eliminate an entire people. The Puritan William Gurnall wrote: ‘The whole world is engaged in the quarrel, either for God against Satan, or for Satan against God’ (from the dedication in The Christian in complete armour.)
The ongoing conflict between the households of God and of Satan can be traced throughout Scripture.
We see it in Abel and Cain; in the ‘sons of God’ and ‘the daughters of men’ (Genesis 6:4); in Isaac and Ishmael (see Galatians 4:29); in Jacob and Esau; in Israel and the Philistines; in Esther and Haman; in the Jews of the restoration and their adversaries (Ezra 4:1); and so on.
It is a conflict that re-emerges in the New Testament and continues down the history of the church.
Jesus and two houses
During the recent Christmas season many no doubt remembered the flight into Egypt of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus. What irony that the former land of bondage and slavery proved to be the land of safety and refuge for this small family!
There are many legends connected with the journey of the ‘holy family’. Most if not all are far-fetched and fanciful, but it is fairly safe to assume that if they journeyed down to the region of modern Cairo then they would have passed close by the Pyramids on the Giza plateau, with the famous Sphinx.
Archaeology has revealed that the shape of the pyramids is probably connected with one of the Egyptian creation myths – concerning the Ben-Ben stone, the primal mound on which the sun-god was thought to have been born. The triangular tip of the obelisk (tall columns such as Cleopatra’s needle) also represents this belief.
The flight into Egypt meant the eternal Son of God was passing beneath the pyramids, sometimes called ‘houses of eternity’. He had come to fight for the truly eternal house – that of God and his people. He would triumph over the house of Satan through his death and resurrection.
A house on the rock
Once, when accused of being devil-possessed, Jesus referred again to the two houses, saying: ‘How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?’ (Matthew 12:29).
Jesus also used the theme of two houses most effectively in Matthew 7:24-27 where belonging to the right house is shown to be of crucial importance. ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them’, he said, ‘will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock’ (Matthew 7:24).
Those words apply primarily to the believer, of course. But how much wiser is Jesus Christ himself, who is building his house (the church) on the Rock of his own person and work (Matthew 16:18)!
He rules as ‘a son over his own house – whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end’ (Hebrews 3:6).
There is a great conflict taking place between two houses and only one will be victorious. Which will it be? Read the answer in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26.