But as both Israels came of age, the adolescent state won the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors in less than a week, in effect pushing the boundary of exploration to the Jordan River. That opened the way for a new generation of Israeli archaeologists to dig into the history of ancient Israel for the first time.
Suddenly, the sojourns of Abraham, the kingdom of Saul, the escapades of David – all were encapsulated in a theater of history that their descendants rushed in to explore. Many hoped to find archaeological evidence that would support the biblical narrative, and solidify the modern state's claims to the land.
True, the Zionist movement that spearheaded Israel's establishment was largely secular. But it also drew heavily on the Bible. Founding father David Ben-Gurion pushed aside the image of bespectacled Jews poring over rabbinical teachings and championed instead the brawny heroes of the Bible, who overcame insurmountable odds to conquer Israel's enemies. These included David and Solomon, who, according to the Bible, joined the tribes of Israel and Judah into a kingdom known as the United Monarchy.
"For Ben-Gurion, the image of a great United Monarchy with territorial expansion ... establishing a nation, establishing a big administration with monumental architecture – this was an image that played back and forth, between that David and this David, between King David and David Ben-Gurion, in a way," says Finkelstein.