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Destruction of ancient Joseph tomb ‘needs to be an issue’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A sacred Jewish burial site traditionally regarded as the tomb of the biblical patriarch Joseph has been destroyed by Palestinian vandals, an action one Southern Baptist seminary professor regards as a tragic loss for students of biblical archaeology.

“It’s a travesty to all humankind when traditional or archaeological sites are destroyed — sites that are revered and respected-regardless of who does it in the name of science or war or anger,” said Steve Andrews, professor of Old Testament and archaeology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

This destruction comes in the wake of legislation offered in the 107th Congress by Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., to bar all aid to the Palestinian Authority if it persists in the destruction of Jewish artifacts.

“Connected with such destruction is extreme religious intolerance — contrary to the Jeffersonian principles of the free exercise of religion held dear by all Americans,” Cantor said in introducing his bill — a bill designed specifically to protect the Temple Mount. “Thousands of years of Judeo-Christian heritage is under siege.”

The destruction of the site traditionally regarded as Joseph’s tomb was first discovered in late February. Entry to the tomb has been forbidden since October 2002 due to Palestinian control of Nablus, the city where it is located. A Jewish group known as Bratslav Hassidim continues to enter the site illegally, however, and was the first group of Israelis to discover the destruction, according to The Jerusalem Post.

“The grave was pounded with hammers. The tree at the entrance is broken,” Bratslav leader Aaron Klieger said in the Feb. 21 edition of The Post. Car parts and trash littered the tomb, which has a “huge hole in its dome,” he added.

The incident has left Israeli government officials indignant.

“We are talking about the tomb of one of the fathers of our nation,” Natan Sharansky, Israel’s construction and housing minister, told The Post. “I do not know who should be criticized more here, those who destroyed it, or ourselves for ignoring it.”

Calling for the Israeli government to publicize details of the destruction, Sharansky added, “Imagine for a second that if, God forbid, one of the graves of a Moslem holy man were to be damaged, the Muslims would be on the barricades and the United Nations would pass one resolution after another, and they would be correct in doing so.”

Andrews, who directs Midwestern Seminary’s Morton-Seats Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, sees validity in Sharansky’s assessment, calling for increased protection of all Middle Eastern sites of religious significance.

“I think that this needs to be an issue in the whole peace plan — that traditional sites would be revered and respected so that we’re not going to see New Testament Jericho desecrated or we’re not going to see anyone try and storm the Temple Mount to remove the Islamic people from it. It works both ways,” he said.

Andrews explained that Joseph’s tomb is what archaeologists refer to as a “traditional site” — a site suspected to be associated with a particular biblical event but a site that nonetheless lacks concrete evidence to connect it with that event. Other examples of traditional sites include David’s tomb on Mt. Zion, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus is said to have been buried, and an upper room in Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have observed the Passover with his disciples.

“Joseph was embalmed in Egypt, and the promise was to carry his bones out of Egypt and burry them in Canaan,” Andrews said. “They buried the embalmed body somewhere in Shechem area (modern-day Nablus). We don’t have the evidence to say this is exactly the place where he was buried. It’s just revered by tradition.”

Nevertheless, Andrews emphasizes the archaeological value of the site and its sacred meaning for Jews. “Because it’s a traditional site doesn’t lessen the fact that it’s revered and held to be special by Jews.

“There may be antiquity there, and as such it needs to be studied,” he said.

In an effort to promote the study of such antiquity, Cantor offered The Temple Mount Preservation Act, H.R. 2566, in the 107th Congress, a bill that would have withheld U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians until all unauthorized excavations of the Temple Mount are stopped.

Cantor, who serves as chief deputy majority whip in the House of Representatives, noted that in 2000 Congress appropriated $400 million for the Palestinians over a period of three years. Additionally, the United States provides Palestinians with approximately $75 million in indirect aid each year.

Introducing his bill, Cantor proposed that such aid be suspended until Palestinian authorities halt the destruction of religious artifacts, especially the Temple Mount.

“Anybody with any reasonable perspective would hold that the Temple Mount should be preserved and any disturbance thereon closely monitored,” he said.

“This issue has implications not only for my constituents in Virginia, but for individuals across the globe.”

Ultimately H.R. 2566 failed to reach a vote in the 107th Congress.

Canton nevertheless sees an ongoing need for the legislation — a need fueled by the fact that several key Jewish sites remain under Palestinian control. Such sites, in addition to the Temple Mount and the biblical city of Jericho on the West Bank, include the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Andrews expressed his support of such legislation, noting that a bill to protect Middle Eastern historical sites is “appropriate if it also includes withholding funds from Israel if it destroys Palestinian sites, or any other nation that would seek to destroy the ancient things that would need to be respected as sacred sites or revered sites by any nation.”

In the final analysis, however, the strife in the Middle East is most fundamentally a spiritual issue, Andrews said.

“It underscores our need to really pray earnestly for the peace of Jerusalem,” he said, “… and to help them come to know the Prince of Peace…. [T]he only way I think peace will come is if all the parties concerned would receive the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://bpnews.net. Photo title: STEVE ANDREWS.