By Jackie DesForges
My first thought when Editor-in-Chief Brendan Van Son offered me the chance to go Israel this September? This is ridiculously cool. My second thought? It probably won’t be possible to write anything about Israel without mentioning the ‘religion’ aspect.
I am not a religious person. When I travel, I usually stop at a church or two out of habit – I appreciate them more for the things I studied in Art History than anything I learned during my thirteen years of Catholic school. Religion is something that makes me uncomfortable because I never really know what to say about it – and for this reason, I never write about it. This tour throughout Israel, organized by the student group DigIsrael, was designed to focus on the history and culture of the region based on various archeological sites, and so I knew I wouldn’t have to bring up religion as the main focus of any of my articles, but at the same time – it’s Israel. You can’t pretend that the religion aspect isn’t always there.
Archeology is fascinating to me for a lot of reasons, but mainly I love it for the stories. It amazes me that there are people who can pick up a piece of ancient pottery and know (after a few hours, days, or months of studying it, of course) how old it is, who used it, what it was used for, and maybe even the color it had been painted. On the one morning we spent digging at an ancient Philistine site, we uncovered a completely intact bowl lying face down in the dirt, and the scientists noted with almost absolute certainty that the bowl had probably fallen off a shelf when this town had been invaded, and it had then been lying there for three thousand years, exactly like that, until we found it.
I tried to force myself to stare at the bowl and appreciate it for how old it was, how remarkable of a condition it was in, and how rare of an experience it was for me to actually get to hold such an object in my hands – but all I could think about was the story. What else had fallen off the shelf? How had it fallen and not completely shattered? Maybe it hadn’t even fallen – maybe someone had dropped it before they’d run away?
On the bus ride home from this dig, our guide elaborated on the story of David and Goliath from the Bible. He said it was possible that Goliath, a Philistine, had been born and raised in the ancient site that we had just been excavating. My instinct in cases such as these – whenever someone tries to prove that something in the Bible is a historical fact – is to argue. Our guide, as if anticipating this reaction, went on to say that we obviously couldn’t prove for certain that Goliath was from this town. We couldn’t prove that the story of David and Goliath actually happened. But in his experience, he’s found that many people just don’t care if it’s actually true or not. It isn’t the point.
They appreciate these stories for the sake of storytelling. They look at a site like this ancient Philistine town and they remember the characters from the David and Goliath saga, a story they have probably known and loved since they were very young. This is an ancient archeological site, yes – but it is also a setting from a story. And if it turns out that the story of David and Goliath actually happened, and the site on which we dug was really where Goliath came from – well, all the better.
It reminded me of the way people go from site to site in Dublin on Bloomsday, appreciating each placed mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses not because the story is true, but because it is meaningful.
This new approach to the Bible as a guidebook enthralled me. Our guide actually carried a Bible around with him and would reference various quotes from time to time. When we were walking around the streets of Jerusalem, I noticed signs on the walls and ground that also referenced Bible passages, pointing out that this place was mentioned here, or that this was the place where Jesus might have met this person. As I looked at each of these signs and watched others doing the same, I tried to appreciate them from this new perspective – as markers of traditions, stories, and characters that people have loved and defended for longer than I can even fathom, not as stubborn attempts to prove that this thing actually happened in this exact spot in this exact way.
This is where I believe that the stories of archeology and the stories of the Bible intersect – you can’t entirely prove that these stories are real, and yet we keep reading them, researching them, referencing them, and trying to get closer to them in every way we can. Archeology at least has science on its side – we can be pretty sure that certain artifacts have come from certain years and were used for certain activities. When we’re lucky, we have written accounts from people living during those times. But the fact that we can’t actually go back there and see it for ourselves leaves room for interpretation. It leaves room for a story.
These stories from the Bible fill in some of the mystery, and they help us imagine these ancient, mysterious times in a way that becomes personal to us. They take a site and make it a setting; a nameless group of bones becomes a protagonist. They also provide an opportunity for non-religious persons such as myself to give these stories a second chance, to see them as something more than texts that were drilled into my memory during elementary school.
I guess you could say that this trip to Israel instilled in me a new type of faith – just not necessarily the religious kind.