Archaeology is an interpretive science. Everything that comes out of the ground must be interpreted by archaeologists and assigned meaning. Sometimes items are pulled from the ground and experts have no immediate understanding of the original context or purpose of the item. Artifacts can be interpreted in very different ways and used for very different purposes. This principle is demonstrated in the history of ancient Israel and two artifacts, already ancient by the time of the divided kingdom, that were employed in very different ways.
The Bronze Serpent
The first ancient artifact was the bronze serpent that the Lord had Moses make in the wilderness (Nm 21:4–9). At that time, it was graciously created so that the grumbling and complaining people of Israel who had been bitten by fiery serpents could look at the bronze serpent and live. Hundreds of years pass before the bronze snake appears again in 2 Kings 18:1–4:
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).
This ancient artifact (almost seven hundred years old at the time of Hezekiah) had as its original purpose being a symbol of the Lord’s mercy and salvation toward the Israelites in spite of their sin. It would also be used seven hundred years after Hezekiah’s day by Jesus as a symbol of the salvation He would provide through His crucifixion: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14–15).
But in between Moses and Jesus, the significance of the bronze serpent had been distorted by wicked Israelites, and the object was being used during Hezekiah’s time as an idol, an abomination. Relics can be misused by the unbelieving so that the meaning and purpose of such objects are distorted and ultimately corrupted.
Some archaeologists have misrepresented artifacts to mean things that they were never intended to mean, and have used fallacious reasoning in interpreting the realities of artifactual evidence. Often this comes in the form of the “absence of evidence” fallacy. A hundred years ago it was in vogue to criticize the biblical text for speaking of some figures, like David or Pontius Pilate, as historical when there had been (at that time) no extra-biblical evidence of their existence. Similarly, some scholars in the late twentieth century who could be classified as biblical minimalists have argued that the biblical text is really just a fictional story of Israel’s creation and early life. Their interpretations of archaeological data have been a barrier to the faith of many in the reliability of the biblical text. Israel’s idolatrous worship of the bronze serpent demonstrates that, when misinterpreted, archaeology can be a hindrance to faith for unbelievers and a detriment to spiritual growth for followers of Christ.
The Scroll of the Law
After Hezekiah, his son Manasseh reigned 55 years in Jerusalem (2 Kgs 21:1). Manasseh’s son, Amon, reigned for two years in Jerusalem (21:19). Both were incredibly wicked in the eyes of the Lord. So, for 57 years, no one cared to look at the Book, the Word of God. Josiah, the son of Amon and heir to Judah’s throne, was raised into this morally bankrupt southern regime. For the first 18 years of his reign (see 2 Kgs 22:3), things continued much as they had during Manasseh’s and Amon’s reigns. That’s a total of 75 years where the law of the Lord was neglected!
Then one day Josiah commissioned his secretary of finance, Shaphan, to go up to the temple and gather money from the priests to pay for repairs to the temple of the Lord.
And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.” Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. (2 Kgs 22:8–11)
Upon the recovery of this ancient artifact, the scroll of the Torah of Moses (perhaps eight hundred years old at the time of Josiah), the king was convicted of the sin of his family, his administration, and his people. He believed the word of the Lord, repented of the sin of Israel, and turned from the wicked practices of his fathers to tear down all the abominations throughout the southern kingdom of Judah. The author of Kings would later say of Josiah, “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kgs 23:25).
Discovery of ancient artifacts, when they are rightly understood and interpreted, can lead to spiritual awakening and revival. Archaeology can be a tool that God uses to convict His people and call them to repentance, and even call the unbelieving to faith in Him. This is why the work of organizations like ABR is so very important. Our organization speaks truth into a discipline that would otherwise be overrun by liberalism, secularism, atheism, and agnosticism. And if similar Christian apologetic organizations did not exist, the void created would not be left vacant. It would be filled by those seeking to use archaeology to discredit and disprove the Word of God.
Serpent or Scroll?
Two different artifacts: a serpent and a scroll. Both originally given by and used of God. One misappropriated to create false worship. The other rightly understood and the source of spiritual reinvigoration. Archaeological artifacts do not remain neutral. They will always be interpreted by someone. If archaeology is not interpreted accurately according to the truth that is in God’s Word, it will be used in distorted, corrupted, and depraved ways by those who do not believe God or His Word. That’s why Christian archaeologists are greatly needed today. When the physical evidence is rightly interpreted through the lens and light of God’s inerrant Word, artifacts can become important tools in the hands of the master Designer to draw individuals to faith in Jesus and to revive the hearts of His people toward renewed commitment to His Word.
Would you pray for the important work that ABR is doing in standing in the gap between secular contemporary culture and God’s inspired Word? Pray that the Lord would be pleased to call many to faith in Christ through the discoveries that biblical archaeology yields in the coming days and years. And pray that the hearts of God’s people will be convicted and revived through accurate interpretations of the archaeological data that testify to the accuracy and reliability of the biblical text.