Idealizing the Past

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Recently, as I was preparing for a class on the book of Ecclesiastes in my Introduction to the Bible course, I read this verse, which I don’t think has ever really stood out to me. This time, I was struck by it. It addresses something that many, perhaps all people, experience in their lives; they look to the past and they think that the past was somehow better. In some cases, this motivates people to try to change things back to those glory days. The author of Ecclesiastes thinks otherwise. Now I don’t think we are meant to take this as counsel against ever thinking about the past, but—as I see it—it does warn against idealizing the past as better than the present. Why?

Humans love to think about the past, individually and corporately. Sometimes we idealize it and sometimes we demonize it. However we represent it, we are shaping and being shaped by the memories we form and recast. It is common, when people find themselves in a difficult spot, to look back to their childhood, or more remote past, thinking that if they were only in that time, things would be different. On the more radical side of things, those who are afraid of the downfall of white European civilization try to get back to a more “pure” time. In either case, the impulse to idealize the past and try to recreate it is strong in our species, and it is not always a productive impulse. It can lead us down the path to self-deception, dwelling on something that never existed in the way we recreate it in our mind. Here, the author of Ecclesiastes seems to beckon us to enjoy the now, without comparing it to the past.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2 and 3

The story of the first couple in Genesis 2 and 3 is well-known and often referenced in the lives of religious communities and in culture more broadly. The text of this story is very terse and full of “pregnant silent spots,” as one of my mentors used to say. One aspect of this story that people have often thought about is the meaning of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” that God put in the Garden of Eden. There are many questions: Why did God put it there if he didn’t want the humans to eat from it? Is it still somewhere on the planet? What does “the knowledge of good and evil” mean?

On this latter question, people have come up with a number of ways of thinking about it. Some have said that this turn of phrase means “everything.” Others have suggested that eating of the forbidden fruit is a veiled reference to sex. Still others have suggested that “the knowledge of good and evil” is to be understood as a reference to moral discernment or wisdom, an attribute that distinguishes humans from the rest of the created order.

Each of these answers has something to say for it. If we think of “good and evil” as a merism—like our own phrase “from A to Z”—then what the first couple sought was knowledge that would make them like the gods. Perhaps this is what the serpent means in 3:5 and what the LORD God seems nervous about in 3:22–23 where we hear this: “‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.” God admits that the couple has become like the divine beings and is nervous about the knowledge they have, so limits their lives.

In favor of the story as a veiled reference to sex is the reality in the change of the couple’s perception. Just before the serpent approaches the woman we hear, “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:24). Immediately after, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (3:7). The fact that awareness and shame about their nakedness is the way the author decided to note the change, suggests that we have a story about innocence and discovery of sexuality, or perhaps a story about becoming civilized. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Humbaba is brought into the civilized world through sex with a harlot. Save that, it seems he would have remained in the wild.

These two interpretations certainly have something meaningful to say, but it is the third one that is most compelling to me. The reasons for this are several. First, is that the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to speak of moral maturity or the lack thereof. So, children (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15–16) and old people (2 Sam 19:35) don’t have the knowledge of good and evil. On the other hand, when Solomon asks God for wisdom, he says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (1 Kgs 3:9). While there is one passage that might be understood to favor the interpretation of this phrase as a merism (2 Sam 14:17, 20), and “knowing” is used as a reference to sex (e.g., Gen 4:1), other things in this passage tilt the balances towards the idea of wisdom or discernment.

The first and most direct pointer towards this interpretation is that when the serpent is speaking to the woman, he says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4–5). Here, having open eyes is linked with being like God and knowing good and evil. But what is it to have open eyes? Were the man and woman like baby animals who come forth from their mother’s womb and don’t open their eyes for several days? Or is this a figure of speech?

In 3:6 we hear this: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” But I thought that the serpent said they would gain the knowledge of good and evil. Why did the woman think it would make her wise? And if it is wisdom that is received from eating the fruit, why would God be so unhappy about it? Doesn’t he want humans to wise?

What is meant by wisdom and the knowledge of good and evil is clarified in what happens in 3:7 after the couple has eaten the fruit. We hear that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Wait, what does nakedness have to do with having open eyes? What does that have to do with the knowledge of good and evil or wisdom? And how in the world does that make the man and woman like God?

In Gen 2:25, just before the temptation story begins we find out that the man and woman were naked and not ashamed. Then, after they ate the fruit, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked and move quickly to cover themselves up. So, there is a set of interlocking concepts in this story: nakedness, shame, knowledge of good and evil, wisdom, open eyes, and being like God. I would argue that we are not likely to understand the meaning of these ideas if we take them individually; they are a set. In this story, where we see so many things about human life explained (marriage, fear of snakes, pain in childbearing, hard work, and strife between male and female), we should expect that this part of the story is explaining something too. Using consciousness of one’s body as the groundwork, the story explains how humans reached a sort of species wide adolescence in which they departed from the company of animals to become more like God in that they now had discernment, insight, and recognition of self. And so, God then limits humans by expelling them from the Garden and blocking the way to the Tree of Life so that they will not be able to live forever (3:22–24). God’s concern with limiting human capacity is also visible in the Tower of Babel story in Gen 11. There, God is concerned that if humans remain in one large group “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). And so God confuses their languages so that they can no longer communicate effectively and they have to split up.

While it is a little hard for some to fathom, that God would be threatened or intimidated by humans, both of these stories suggest that for some reason that was in fact the case. The moves God made to limit human abilities help explain some of the things that humans have dealt with for millennia—the problem of death and the recognition that there are many people not like my group.

If this reading is even remotely on target, it suggests that many of the questions we have about the so-called Fall of Mankind are misguided. It is not a story about how Original Sin came into the world. It is not about the Devil or Satan (who are never mentioned). It is about human mortality and the things that separate us from other creatures. In evolutionary terms, we could say that it speaks to the time when Homo Sapiens gained self-awareness.




Reflection on Excavations in Jordan—2017

When I tell people that I am traveling to Jordan for archaeological excavations they tend to respond in one of a couple ways. Some say, “Wow! That’s cool!” Others give a blank stare that communicates “huh?” Others say something like “Is it safe?” Each type of response is entirely understandable and I try respond genuinely to each one. Less often do I get to explain why I participate in archaeological digs, why archaeology is a fascinating endeavor, and how it contributes to our understanding of the past. So, I thought I would take a moment to do so before getting to my fall activities.


As far as I can tell, fascination in general is one of those human traits that is near universal. Fascination with the past, though not quite as widespread, is visible in historical fiction, the search for one’s ancestry, and in documentaries and TV series focused on famous events in the past. I might be odd, but I often find the past more fascinating than the present. For those who know me, that would likely confirm what they already knew…I live in the past. But I am willing to own that because I think the past, and what we think about the past, is crucially important in the present.

As I studied the Bible and ancient Near Eastern history in graduate school, I became more and more interested in what we could reasonably say about the history of ancient Israel and Judah. That interest grew as I realized that the cultures of these two ancient sociopolitical groups was very similar to the cultures of the surrounding groups. The main difference is that those other people did not leave behind a Bible. So, how to investigate them? That question was linked to other questions about how to understand the relationship between biblical texts and the material remains that archaeologists were excavating in the Holy Land. Do archaeological remains confirm or contradict the historiographical recollections presented in the Bible? Or is archaeology essentially neutral on such matters?

These questions and others spurred on my initial fascination with archaeology, but as I began participating in archaeological excavations, there were additional reasons to be fascinated. Think of it this way, every excavation is a mystery; you don’t know what you will uncover. And so, you have to pick and trowel carefully, looking for clues and hoping that you are careful enough not to destroy them along the way. When you do find something, even then you must work carefully, looking for clues to how and when the item was deposited. The mystery is always there with every layer you peel back. It is why one of my teammates—an 87 year old retired hospital administrator—has been participating in excavations in Israel and Jordan every summer since the mid-1970s!

What ancient texts don’t tell

Most people can understand at some level the interest that comes from not knowing what you might dig up. But, then there is the question, “Did you find anything?” This is a perfectly good question, and the fact is that every archaeologist is happy when they come up with an exciting and unique find. However, the reality is that much of what is uncovered is of an ordinary nature. So what’s the deal? Aren’t archaeologists just glorified treasure hunters? Indiana Jones was!

It might be nice to find a full-time job as a treasure hunter, or be independently wealthy so that you could embark on whatever adventures you want. But, that is not how academic archaeology works. I would argue that the academic pursuit of archaeology is less glamorous than treasure hunting in some ways, but more exciting in others. The excitement and interest is in the long-range gathering and analysis of material and the production of new knowledge about things that could not have been known in our time because they have been buried for thousands of years.

In the period of history that I work on—the Iron Age, ca. 1200–500 BCE—this knowledge is really important because we have very few texts describing it, and the ones that we do have (such as the Bible) are only concerned to recount very specific things that are largely focused on kings and temples. The material culture dug up in excavations tells a story that the texts cannot. Let me take one example. The Old Testament presents a story of frequent conflicts between ancient Israel and Judah on the one hand, and their neighbors (the Philistines, Aramaens, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, etc.) on the other hand. From these stories one might be tempted to think of ancient Israel and Judah as totally different from the surrounding peoples. That is where archaeology comes in with its own story. On the ground, there are some regional differences in material culture, but the similarities are much more striking. It would be like looking at the differences in material culture between Niagara Falls, USA and Niagara Falls, Canada. Sure you would find more Tim Horton’s in Canada, along with more metric rulers, but much else is the same. So, one basic thing that the archaeology of the Holy Land tells us that the texts don’t, is that the conflicts portrayed in the Bible are between closely related peoples, not between groups that are totally foreign to each other. Such conclusions open up further questions. Why were such closely related groups in conflict? How did they distinguish their own culture from those of their neighbors? Which aspects of individual, kin group, and political identity were important in making such distinctions? Who would be most interested in exploiting these distinctions? These and other questions emerge from the archaeology in a way that could never come from the texts, and these are the kind of questions that propel me to continue my archaeological pursuits.

Excavations at Khirbat al-Balu‘a 2017

This year’s excavations begin a new chapter for the team I am on. In the past, the team focused its seasons on a site close to Amman, Jordan. That site can no longer be excavated because it is on private land and the owners are no longer willing to allow excavations because it is thought to diminish the commercial value of the land. As a result, the team looked for another site and decided upon a site farther south called Khirbat al-Balu‘a. While the site had minor excavations in the past, it remains largely untouched. The remains date from the Bronze Age (3rd millennium BCE) down to the 19th c. CE and are scattered over a site of some 16 ha (40 acres) that overlooks a deeply cut wadi (seasonal river) that has remains of roads dating to the Iron Age, Roman Period, and even today. The strategic placement of the site along an overland thoroughfare, and the large amount of architecture visible on the surface, make it an ideal site for investigating the sociopolitical and economic history of the region.

Three five-by-five meter squares were laid out in strategic places on the site, one along what seems to be the outer defensive wall, one in a domestic area, and one alongside the remains of some kind of fort or citadel (called a qasr in Arabic). Each square had a small team of about five to six people working carefully to peel back the layers of dirt and rock in order to trace the different occupational levels of the site. Because the chronology of the site is not well-known, the efforts this season were designed to clarify occupational history of the structures we were working on, and specifically to find foundation trenches if possible. Like the foundation of your house or other modern buildings, foundations of ancient buildings were dug into the existing layers of dirt and rock and datable items such as pottery often fell in before they were backfilled. Uncovering such items allows a secure date of the earliest use of a building. Founding layers were uncovered in one of the squares along the outside of the outer defensive wall. Preliminary analysis of the pottery suggests a date in the early part of the Iron Age II (perhaps 10th or 9th century BCE). Pottery found at the qasr suggests a date in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BCE?), though founding levels were not reached. In future seasons, more attention will be given to these areas in order to more fully construct the occupational history of the site.

In addition to this brief summary of the dig, please also look at the dig updates, The BRAP Beat attached to my research page. There is more to come . . .