Dr. David Ilan Presents 2013 HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation Address

Friday, June 28, 2013

Dr. David Ilan, Director, Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, presented the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Cincinnati Graduation address on Sunday, June 9, 2013, at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati.  The text of Dr. Ilan’s address is below.

Click here for further information about HUC-JIR Graduation and Ordination.

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Biblical Archaeology: The Gift That Keeps Giving (If We Do It Right)

Dear Graduates, Families, and Colleagues,

I come to you today from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Jerusalem, specifically from the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology.  Two of this year’s graduates worked under my supervision and many more have participated in the summer graduate program in Israel directed by Professor Nili Fox, myself, and Professor Jason Kalman. 

This program puts an emphasis on the historical geography and archaeology of ancient Canaan and Israel, though modern Hebrew has been another component and our students cannot help but be exposed to the fascinating phenomenon of modern Israel.  Over a period of seven weeks the students visit Israel's ancient sites, listen to daily lectures and finish up with a four-week stint at an archaeological excavation, usually the HUC-JIR flagship project at Tel Dan.

Why did we initiate this program in the year 2000?  It has long been recognized that biblical historiography cannot be effectively studied without an intimate, face-to-face knowledge of ancient Israel’s geography.  And over the past three decades or so it has become increasingly clear that archaeology, too, is a crucial tool for elucidating the biblical past; even, or especially, when the archaeological data appear to contradict the biblical narrative.  No biblical historiographer worth his or her salt can do their job without knowing the archaeological method, the material culture of ancient Israel and the ancient Near East, and without knowing the lay of the land.  Even those scholars whose approach is literary or theological must take into account the Sitz-in-Leben of the biblical writers.

Alas, we never promised you a rose garden.  Students of all stripes—graduate, rabbinical, Jewish, and Christian—have all encountered that moment when the text and the archaeological finds don’t correspond.  (Actually, you already encountered this in textual study, when, for example, Joshua describes the complete conquest of the land of Canaan and then Judges proceeds to give a detailed account of the land not taken).  For many of you—most of you—this has been a challenge to your religious belief.  The bottom line is that our textual heritage is the product of a brilliant, but fallible, human agency.  Where is God in all of this? 

I will not give you the answer to this question tonight.  Sorry to disappoint.  But these are precisely the kinds of questions that modernity and science force us to confront.  Some seminaries narrow the options of inquiry and hire faculty members that aren’t interested in existential quandaries; that prefer to keep within the confines of received wisdom.  But in the long term, this is a losing strategy.  Better confront the hard questions than defer them. 

For those of you who become pastoral professionals you’ll have many congregants who’ll ask the same kinds of questions and have the same kinds of doubts.  I’m guessing that having dealt with these issues as scholars, you will have a better tool box to work things through with them.  For those of you who go on to academia, you'll be doing the same with your own students. 

For all the challenges posed by the rational, skeptical inquiry you have embraced, always keep in mind that the traditions and teachings of the Hebrew Bible have a pedigree that goes back more than 3000 years, deep in the wellspring of ancient Near Eastern culture.  I'll give you one example from our own work.  Yesterday's Torah portion, from the Book of Numbers, describes the role of the Levites, a tribe without territory, and the portions of the various kinds of sacrificial offerings to be given to the priests. It’s one of those portions that makes most people's eyes glaze over.  Here's a brief bit from Number 18:

17 But the firstling of an ox, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they are holy: thou shalt dash their blood against the altar, and shalt make their fat smoke for an offering made by fire, for a sweet savour unto the LORD.

18 And the flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave-breast and as the right thigh, it shall be thine. 

So this is the portion of the meat sacrifice designated for the priests.  This text is generally assigned to the biblical writer termed "P" for priest or priestly writing, thought by many scholars to be an effort to preserve the minutae of priestly ritual for posterity in a time when priestly ritual was no longer carried out, because there was no longer a temple.  Most scholars feel that P is of an exilic date, the Exile in Babylonia, say 6th or 5th century BCE.

So along comes Jonathan Greer, a grad student at Penn State, whom some of you met at Tel Dan.  He has come to our lab in Jerusalem to sample the animal bones from the temple complex at Tel Dan; he wants to look for patterns in sacrificial behavior at an Israelite temple.  (By the way, if you want to learn about Israelite worship there's nothing left in Jerusalem and we don't even know exactly where the ancient sanctuary of Beth El was.  Only at Tel Dan can you see a national, central cult place of Israel.)  Working in the lab with the archaeological documentation Jonathan discovers that a large proportion of the animal bones are found in a series of pits around the large altar compound which is assumed to have accommodated the olah, or meat, sacrifice.  It's all sheep, goat, beef, and a smattering of deer and gazelle—all kosher animals.  Out of thousands of bones there are only two pig bones, probably residue from earlier periods.

But when Greer carries out a statistical analysis of the body parts represented, guess what he comes up with?  The overwhelming proportion of the bones derive from the chest and right forelegs.  These were the priestly portions, found in contexts of the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.  That boring Torah portion suddenly got more interesting, right?  There's lots more where that came from, and we should be using it.

Sometimes the archaeological data conflicts with the text, but sometimes it corresponds beautifully.  And the beauty of our scholarly pursuit lies in trying to explain both phenomena.  And then…and then, we should be engaging the wider public about the larger meaning of what we've found.

I have to tell you that I am very proud of you graduates.  I have worked with many students over the years from different countries and from the world's best universities.  You can compete with the best.  You have proven yourselves dedicated, hard-working and smart.  You have learned to overcome the egos that deflate when your supervisors give you back your theses and dissertations with pages of corrections and demands for rewrites.  And you have triumphed.  You have learned that criticism is often constructive and that we really can’t progress without it.  This knowledge is a great tool for life, no matter what you do.  You yourselves have also learned to be critical--to take nothing for granted, at face value.  Most things come in shades of gray.  And the world needs its critical scholars to remind the wider public that recognizing complexity and ambivalence is a key to solving problems.  It’s easier to think in terms of black and white, and, yes, some things are either just right or wrong.  But polarized thinking is also where demagoguery and injustice reside. 

By now, most of you have spent some time in Israel.  The Middle East is one of those places where thinking in absolutist, polar terms exacerbates conflict.  You've witnessed the wonder of Israel’s prosperity and intellectual power, despite adversity.  And you have also witnessed the injustices that accompany these achievements.  Those of you who dug at Tel Dan with the Jewish and Palestinian kids from the Galilee were exposed, up close, to the complexity of Jewish-Arab relations, but you also got a glimpse of a better future.  If we listen to each other and understand that our narratives may never completely coincide, but focus on building (or digging) something together, for the future, we will extract ourselves from the current swamp of belligerence.  This too, I believe, is a lesson of universal application.

And now, go out and write your articles and books (don’t put it off), make names for yourselves as educators and scholars and show the world what you learned at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Thank you.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu