It was a most unusual meeting I had two years ago with NFL legend Jim Marshall, the famed defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings during the 1960s and 1970s (Mr. Marshall deserves to be included in the NFL Hall of Fame, but that is a topic for a different time). It all began before I left for Minneapolis where I was to serve as scholar-in-residence for Shabbat.
My then almost nine-year-old son Hillel, who loves football, asked me that while in Minneapolis if I could meet with either Fran Tarkenton or Jim Marshall, two of the most famous Vikings players. I responded that I had no idea how I would meet these gentlemen but I told Hillel that I would try.
Upon arrival in Minneapolis I was met by a community member at the airport. I told her of the unusual request made by my son and asked if she could facilitate such a meeting. I told her that I knew it was highly unlikely she could do this but that I wanted at least to tell my son that I tried to make the meeting. To my utter shock, she told me that Mr. Marshall lives across the street from her and that she is friendly with his wife!
This I could not believe. I called my son Hillel to alert him that he would be speaking with Mr. Marshall in a few minutes and he was so excited. We entered the house and the Marshalls greeted us warmly. I was excited to meet a football star I enjoyed watching as a boy, but Mr. Marshall was excited to meet an Orthodox rabbi.
After Hillel spoke with Mr. Marshall on the phone, we sat down to talk. While I was excited to talk about football, Mr. Marshall was interested in discussing a passion of his—biblical archaeology! We began to discuss the dearth of material evidence for the presence of Am Yisrael in the midbar for 40 years.
I mentioned that before 1993, academics widely held that David HaMelech was a fable. This all changed in 1993 with the serendipitous discovery of the Tel Dan Stele (and subsequent further archaeological evidence of King David’s reign). We see that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
I noted another instance of a faulty conclusion that “undermined” the authenticity of the Torah that was made regarding the domestication of camels in the ancient Near East. Militantly secular archaeologists had argued that the absence of evidence of domesticated camels in the Near East prior to the 12th century BCE “proved” the inaccuracy of the Book of Genesis, which describes the use of camels during the time of the Patriarchs (approximately 17 century BCE). However, later archaeological findings demonstrate that camels were domesticated as early as the end of the third millennium B.C.E., but that widespread domestication did not occur until the 12th century B.C.E.
I added that this finding sits well with the biblical account, in which camels did not play a central role, and their numbers were relatively small, until the time of the Judges. In the story of Avraham Avinu’s servant and Rivka, the Torah mentions “10 of his master’s camels” (Bereishit 24:10); in the gifts that Yaakov offers Esav, we find “30 milk camels with their young” (ibid. 32:16); and in the account of the sale of Yosef we find a “caravan of Yishma’elim came from the Gil’ad, with their camels carrying gum balm and ladanum” (ibid. 37:25).
We may therefore conclude that camels were not common and were used mainly to carry expensive merchandise. The camels that Avraham Avinu’s servant brought with him apparently represented a factor in the estimation of the avaricious Lavan (ibid., 30-31). In other narratives in the Torah, camels are absent: in the descent of Yosef’s brothers to Egypt we find only donkeys (ibid. 42:26-27, and elsewhere); in the spoils seized from Midian we find “61,000 asses” (Bamidbar 31:34), but no mention of any camels.
In contrast, from the period of the Judges onward we find a great many camels. In the war of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven against the Hagri’im, we find: “And they captured their cattle, [and] of their camels 50,000’ (Divrei Ha-yamim I, 21). Iyov, at the end of his life, had 6,000 camels (Iyov 42:12).
Thus, the evidence that supposedly demonstrates that the bible is untrue wound up fitting very well with the biblical record! We have seen proven in the past 25 years that a conclusion based on the absence of archaeological evidence is hardly a well-founded conclusion!
Finally, returning to the absence of evidence for Am Yisrael’s 40-year sojourn in the desert, I noted that transient communities do not typically leave remnants of material evidence. Thus we should not be surprised at the lack of material evidence for the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert.
We concluded our visit with Mr. Marshall, a very religious man, with his confident assertion that with the progression of technology, more and more evidence corroborating the biblical account will be discovered. Indeed, Mr. Marshall’s prediction has proven correct and we look forward to its continuing to be proven correct in the coming years and decades.
I hardly expected to meet Jim Marshall and I hardly expected to discuss biblical archaeology with him. Hashem certainly has some pleasant surprises in store for us from time to time!
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.