Early this month, on the eve of Purim, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced with some fanfare that an inscription from the time of the Persian king Darius I had been found at Lachish, once a major city in southern Israel.
During the Persian period (c. 550–330 BCE), following the Babylonian exile, a major administrative center was built in Lachish atop a former Judean building. What’s not to like about finding a pottery shard with the Aramaic inscription “Year 24 of Darius” scratched into it?
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the authority initially announced that the ostracon was found in December by Eylon Levy, a media adviser to Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Pottery sherds can commonly be found lying on the surface.
An excited Levy, who had been climbing around in the ruins of a monumental building usually identified as a Judean palace, brought the sherd to Sa’ar Ganor of the IAA. Ganar showed it to epigrapher Haggai Misgav, who had no trouble reading the inscription, as all the letters were clear.
Tests were run, the authenticity of the inscription was confirmed, and the artifact was prepared for publication. Since the Jewish festival of Purim grows from the story of Esther, which claims to have occurred during the time of Darius, the eve of Purim must have seemed a good time to announce the find.
Reporters gushed and excited posts hit the internet. Fortunately, one person who saw the news was an unnamed expert in ancient Aramaic who had been part of an international group working at the site the previous year. As a demonstration to students, she had picked up a Persian period pottery sherd and scratched “year 24 of Darius” in Aramaic letters into its surface.
Then she tossed it aside, where it remained face down for the next six months. The ground was muddy for part of the time, and the incised letters picked up a patina that made them appear old enough to fool a variety of experts.
She contacted officials to explain, and the IAA owned up to the mistake, walking it back two days later in a press release that focused mainly on criticizing the professor for altering the ancient sherd and then leaving it on site. Meanwhile, various scholars found fault with the IAA for failing to vet the inscription carefully enough.
And why should we care about an arcane kerfuffle over a tiny inscription that wasn’t what it appeared to be?
The lesson I take home isn’t about a bunch of specialists misjudging an artifact, but our tendency to misjudge other people and the stories we hear about them.
We like to believe what we want to believe. That’s why so many people are eager to lap up conspiracy theories, no matter how ridiculous they are, and spread them like butter despite their total speciousness. Many refuse to back away from the lies despite clear and abundant evidence to the contrary.
That’s easy to criticize, but now for the hard part: all too often, I find myself guilty of prejudging other people based on their appearance, their background, or their actions in the moment.
When a speeding driver pulls a NASCAR move, weaving in and out of traffic, some immediate thoughts about their character come to mind, but it’s possible that a passenger is having a medical emergency.
When a bearded dude wearing leather and tattoos dismounts his Harley and swaggers into a restaurant, I may think I know something about his approach to life, but I don’t.
When a student habitually fails to turn in assignments on time, I may assume they are unfocused or undisciplined, but they may be working two jobs and caring for an ailing parent or child on top of their schoolwork.
I sometimes remind students – mainly because I need to remind myself so often – that we never know what someone else has gone through in life, or what they’re dealing with now. It’s better to keep an open mind than to put others in a stereotyped pigeonhole.
I can’t assume someone is a racist or a homophobe based on their looks or their age or the place that they live. I can’t assume someone is lacking intelligence because their political views are different from mine or lacking in compassion because we’re on opposite sides of various social issues.
We all are products of our childhood, our life experiences, and how carefully we think about them. I know that my attitudes are very different now than they were 30-40 years ago, or even 10-20 years ago.
Cultural influences that shaped my early years are alien to people born in the 1980s or 1990s, and the digital world to which they are native is often unfamiliar to me.
We can’t assume that someone has a particular attitude because they’re white or Black, male or female, Gen-X or Boomer.
We can’t surmise that people who happen to have been born in Russia or China agree with their government leaders, any more than we always agree with ours.
It’s an old saw, I know, but we are better followers of Jesus when we forgo our prejudgments and take a closer look at where others’ shoes have taken them.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.