Telling the 'Tel Shiloh' story

Archeology is not a science of the past, but a platform for the future.

Twenty-nine years ago, permission was granted to establish a civilian presence near Tel Shiloh. It was termed an archeological excavation team; its arrival followed a Gush Emunim effort the previous Succot, in September 1977, codenamed "Twelve Tribes," which saw 12 settlement groups set out to Bet El, Neveh Tzuf, Bet Horin and another nine sites, including Shiloh. Then prime minister Menachem Begin allowed himself to be persuaded by Moshe Dayan, his foreign minister, to permit only those groups that had arrived at army camps or police stations to stay. The others were forced to leave. But the families who had joined the effort to reestablish Shiloh - 45 kilometers directly north of Jerusalem, midway between Ramallah and Nablus - persisted. Education minister Zevulun Hammer, with the help of deputy defense minister Mordechai Tzippori, facilitated the upstart archeological enterprise. Twenty-nine years later, archeology still remains a centerpiece of Shiloh, underscoring it as a legitimate place of Jewish revenant residency. Shiloh was, and is, an archeological location of the first order, identified by Edward Robinson in 1838. Digs were conducted there by a Danish expedition under the direction of Hans Kjaer in the 1920s and 30s, unearthing Greek, Byzantine and early Islamic artifacts. Dr. Israel Finkelstein excavated Shiloh from 1981 to 1984 and found Late Bronze pottery. That is usually associated with the period of the Judges - but Finkelstein claimed the pottery had just been dumped there. It's his opinion that Shiloh was not occupied during the period of the Judges. FINKELSTEIN'S other opinions are even more controversial. He maintains there is no archeological evidence for the existence of Abraham, the other Patriarchs, Moses, or the Exodus, and that the monarchies of David or Solomon were much smaller than the Bible implies. He bases himself on a method called "low chronology," which essentially rearranges the dates of biblical events. That approach is criticized by, among others, Michael Coogan, editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, who contends that Finkelstein and his colleague "move from the hypothetical to the improbable to the absurd." For Finkelstein, biblical narrative is little more than folktales, and legends: Thus there was no conquest, as presented in the Bible, of Jericho and the area of Beit El. In a Haaretz interview, Finkelstein suggested that there were no desert nomads who invaded rapidly west, only groups of a local population that moved around the land in circular processes over hundreds of years. Finkelstein's archeology tells him there are no historical grounds for the Ark of the Tabernacle, Hannah and Samuel, and no tribal distribution of land by Joshua, as recounted in Judges XVIII. LET US, though, return to what has been discovered at Shiloh. The most numerous and visibly obvious signs of previous occupancy are the basilicas. The first one unearthed, nicknamed the "Pilgrims' Church," now serves as the visitors center, its mosaic hidden away beneath concrete paving stones. The second, the "Danish Church," is significant for the attempt made by the Danes to reconstruct it, utilizing floor plans which later digging proved incorrect. This last summer's clean-up operation at a "new," third church revealed a magnificent mosaic floor with many geometric designs as well as illustrations of fauna and flora. There are crosses too. The church itself, probably built circa 380 CE, attests to the spiritual significance Shiloh exudes for religions other than Judaism. But more importantly, an inscription was found which specifically referred to "Seilun [Shiloh] and its Inhabitants." For us, the modern-day inhabitants of the former capital of the Israelite tribal federation, this 1,700-year-old reminder of the history of our people, the sacredness of our land and the theological significance of our presence - even if from a rival religion - is more than satisfying. Theories such as Finkelstein's are but a temporary academic fad and only strengthen our determination that the digging must go deeper. We cannot afford to be lax in the sphere of science as we face fierce - and false - competition from an ethnic community which created a past for itself, then set out to destroy ours. THE OSLO Accords fixed a mechanism for guarding holy sites. Article 32 of the Interim Agreement assigned responsibility over sites of religious significance to the Arab side. Both sides were to respect and protect the religious rights of all, rights that include protection of the sites, free access to them, and freedom of worship and practice. The Arabs have been singularly unfaithful in this regard, as the travesties of Joseph's Tomb and the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue in Jericho have shown. There are Muslim sites at Shiloh, and those of Christian significance as well. The crosses and the mihrabs are well guarded. The Jewish artifacts and treasures are also preserved - now that we are there. Archeology is not a science of the past, but a platform for the future: a Jewish future in the national homeland of the Jewish people. The writer, who lives in Shiloh, comments on political, cultural and media concerns and blogs at