Archaeology reminds us that the Bible speaks of real people, places, and events. Admittedly, archaeology does not interest everyone, and some aspects of archaeology may be tedious. I suspect that I don’t want to be the person who moves dirt away from an ancient artifact with a small brush. But I am thankful for the people who do such research. Many of the results of archaeology are exciting for the student of the Bible and are helpful in a number of ways.
Background. Archaeology has helped us understand ancient customs and the background to certain passages. The Nuzi tables, for example, contain marriage contracts which obligate a childless wife to give her husband a female servant who would bear children for her. This doesn’t make the practice moral, by the way, but it helps us to better understand the actions of Sarah in giving Hagar to Abraham (Genesis 16:1 ff.) and of Rachel in giving Bilhah to Jacob (Genesis 30:1-3). They weren’t dreaming this up on their own but were following the established customs of the times.
Translation. The meaning of the Hebrew word pim was unknown in 1611. The KJV translator conjectured from the context of 1 Samuel 13:21 that it meant “file.” The KJV reads, “Yet they had a file for the mattocks ….” Archaeologists have found small weight stones in Palestine with the word pim on them. The name of the weight was evidently the expression of the price for sharpening plowshares, making a pim about 2/3 of a shekel. The ESV has “and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks” (1 Samuel 13:21, ESV). They also provide a footnote indicating that “two thirds of a shekel” is the translation of pim.
Defense. The criticism of alleged inaccuracies in scripture have been refuted by certain discoveries. For example, the Hittites were unknown outside the Old Testament, and many thought this was a case of historical error in scripture until the discovery of the Hittite city of Hattusas. Before the ivory finds in Samaria, some skepticism was expressed over the phrase “houses of ivory” in Amos 3:15. We now know that ivories were used either to adorn the walls as paneling or were inlaid in furniture. “Houses of ivory” were houses decorated with ivory not built out of ivory.
Archeology has limits. Grant Osborne notes the fragmentary nature of material remains, “Yamauchi estimates that being supremely optimistic we could have one-tenth of the material in existence, six-tenths of that surveyed, one-fiftieth of that excavated, one-tenth of that examined, and one-half of that published. This means that we have only .006 percent of the evidence.”1 So gaps in knowledge from archaeology should not surprise us. But the information we do have reinforce the reality of the biblical world.
1Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 159