From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible

Contrary to what some fanatics may say, the Bible does not have all the answers. In fact, a number of questions arise from its pages, particularly when we compare the biblical portrait to our world of today. Many Bible stories end with a bit of mystery. We are told that Noah’s Ark came to rest on a mountain after the flood, and then we never read of its whereabouts again in scripture. The Ark of the Covenant is said to have been kept in the temple, but did it survive the temple’s destruction in the 6th century? From Eden to Exile goes in search of some of the Bible’s great mysteries, giving us a glimpse into what archaeology reveals about the biblical tales.

Eric H. Cline is Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at The George Washington University. He holds degrees in classical archaeology, Near Eastern archaeology, and ancient history, and is the associate director (USA) of ongoing excavations at Megiddo, Israel. Dr. Cline has been featured in National Geographic TV series like Science of the Bible and Is It Real? Some of his other books include The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age (2002), Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel (2005), and Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (2009).

I. A Brief Survey of the Old Testament

Seven biblical stories form the center of the investigation in From Eden to Exile: the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and the battle of Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant, and the ten lost tribes of Israel. A chapter is devoted to each of these mysteries, along with some additional commentary on other related biblical tales and passages. Cline begins every individual case with a brief summary of the Bible’s statements, followed by a discussion of the historical evidence, a few interpretations of the evidence, and then delivers his own judgment. As such, this book may be described as using a survey method of sorts.

On first seeing the Garden of Eden on Cline’s list, I couldn’t help but think: “…what?” Even among creationists, the idea that Eden still exists on Earth is not something that seems to crop up much. The Bible also provides very little detail that might be taken into account for a location. However, Cline lays out the theories of a few educated scholars who apparently do think the garden was a real place. Their theories rest entirely on speculation about four rivers present in Eden, as mentioned in Genesis 2. I have to agree with Cline, who notes that the evidence is just too scarce to seriously entertain a historical Garden of Eden. Francesca Stavrakopoulou has recently and persuasively argued in the series The Bible’s Buried Secrets that the garden may have been symbolic of the Jewish temple.

The chapters on Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, and the Ark of the Covenant will be familiar if you have kept up with biblical archaeology at all over the last few decades. Cline brilliantly asks why we continue to search for Noah’s Ark and not the ark of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, or Utnapishtim, whose stories all pre-date, and influenced, the Bible’s flood myth. He explodes the contention that the Hebrews were the infamous “Hyksos” in Egyptian inscriptions and observes the absence of evidence for the exodus. Perhaps somewhat disappointing, though, is that Cline remains neutral on the exodus, despite pointing out that the Hebrews were allegedly in Egypt for 430 years from Joseph to Moses (Exodus 12:40). Surely, the complete absence of any surviving Israelite artifacts in Egypt from that time counts for more than argument from silence.

To me, the most interesting chapter is the one on the ten lost tribes. I have not encountered this in many resources on biblical archaeology, so while I knew the myth, I was unaware of the evidence. Cline reveals a startling picture of the Assyrian deportation of the Israelites, explaining how it has recently been found that only about 20% of the population was deported. The remaining Israelites either stayed in Israel or fled to Judah. In short, the lost tribes are not lost at all. This effectively undermines the Mormon belief that Native Americans are descended from one of the tribes.

II. No Stone Left Unturned

I was initially somewhat surprised but pleased to see that Cline covers both professional and non-professional claims in several of his surveys. Not only are the views of scholars dealt with for a mystery like the Ark of the Covenant, but even the views of uncredentialed authors like Graham Hancock are engaged. Cline is indiscriminate in asking questions about how an interpretation fits the evidence, regardless of who, or where, it comes from. While I can certainly sympathize with professionals who don’t wish to give any attention to crackpots like the late Ron Wyatt (who claimed to have discovered three of the mysteries in this book, as well as the Tower of Babel, Mt. Sinai, and other biblical sites), stopping the spread of misinformation is never harmful, and some of these nonsensical ideas have unfortunately taken root among a lot of people.

In fact, Cline uses these amateur expeditions to make some invaluable points about critical thinking. We must be wary of those who promise to have solved more than one mystery, because what looks too good to be true is probably not true. Cline himself does a commendable job of illustrating the importance of objectivity, as he declines to speculate on some of the biblical mysteries that are still open to interpretation, such as the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the epilogue, he describes six components of good methodology, among which are truly wise principles like, “Do not minimize problems or stretch interpretations of data to explain things away,” “Do not make claims beyond what the data can support,” and “Take the history of the Bible seriously, but do not place upon archaeology the burden of ‘proving’ the Bible.”

The last principle applies to skeptics as much as it applies to biblical literalists. Just as it can be all too easy to accept the stories of the Bible at face value, we can also sometimes dismiss those stories with little thought. No, the Bible is not a flawless textbook of history, but it does still deal with history in many of its books, and in a few instances, it constitutes the only historical record we have. The mysteries of the Bible endure because the Bible is a complicated collection of materials – one that deserves to be seen as more than a tome of fairytales. In one of the highlights of From Eden to Exile, Dr. Cline sums up the real import of the Bible:

People need stories, not just data, to make sense of their lives… We make sense of our lives and of our history with narratives, and the Bible is one of the greatest stories ever told. People read the Bible to find themselves in it, and many people don’t just read the story, they live it. They don’t just watch history unfold on stage, they see themselves as actors under the lights. As such, even if the Bible cannot always be taken as literal history, its words can still speak a certain truth – and can transform people’s lives in the process.1

The value of a good story is tremendous, whether it comes from Homer or from the Bible, and whether it took place in time and space, or merely in the mind of a creative human being.

III. Unearthing the Bible’s Mysteries

A review of this book would not be complete without reference to The Bible Unearthed. Finkelstein and Silberman exposed the mistakes of pre-modern biblical archaeology and painted a new historical picture of Old Testament times. Their work is not fringe scholarship, but it shows quite a gap between what current archaeology tells us and the public’s impression of biblical accuracy, which generally seems to be stuck in the days of William F. Albright. The Bible Unearthed is cited several times by Cline, who recognizes its importance, and Finkelstein even contributes a blurb to the jacket of Cline’s book.

How do these two works differ? Firstly, From Eden to Exile is six years more recent, which, in a few cases, means that it contains more current information and sources. Secondly, Cline covers some subjects that Finkelstein and Silberman do not – like the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark – while Finkelstein and Silberman go into much greater detail on subjects like the patriarchs and the Canaanite origins of the Israelites. The two books contain some overlapping material, but they are really very different, especially in their target audience.

If I had to give just one bit of praise to From Eden to Exile, it would be the clear, accessible, engaging, and scholarly writing style of Eric Cline. While The Bible Unearthed reads more like a doctoral thesis, this book is something that can be enjoyed by a person of any age and any level of interest. In some ways it reads like a detective novel, though it makes no sacrifices in the name of entertainment. Cline has a very impressive gift of getting straight to the point, mincing no words, keeping speculation to a bare minimum, and still writing a fairly gripping book. Each chapter ranges about 20-30 pages, but is packed with information and well reasoned conclusions, not to mention plenty of intriguing pictures.

Though there are doubtlessly many great books of biblical archaeology that I have yet to read, this one will currently be my top recommendation to anyone interested in the subject. It is a perfect introduction, but can also serve as a concise resource for those who are well-read in history and the Bible.


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1. Eric H. Cline, From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible (2007, National Geographic), p. 185.

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