Category Archives: Biblical Sites

This feature includes photos of biblical sites and a brief overview of the significance of the site.

Five Recent Archaeological Discoveries

Five Recent Archaeological Discoveries

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the latest archaeological discoveries. This post will cover five recent archaeological discoveries announced in the past five months.

Royal Israelite Complex at Horvat Tevet

archaeological discoveries--royal estate of omri
The royal Israelite estate at Horvat Tevet

As frequently happens in modern Israel, new construction often reveals old treasures. Preparations for the new Highway 65 running through northern Israel in the Jezreel Valley has revealed an ancient Israelite Administrative complex dating to the time of Israel’s kings Omri and Ahab. Dr. Omer Sergi, who co-directs the expedition has stated, “When you go inside the main building at Horvat Tevet, you are standing in the best-preserved building of the House of Omri ever found in Israel.” This main building is described as a royal estate and measures 20 meters (60 ft) long and 30 meters (90 ft.) long. Findings, which include kilns for making pottery, storage jars, textile workshops and grinding stones for milling grain into flour,  suggest that this location was part of an administrative complex where officials collected and redistributed agricultural products. For a more detailed description of this discovery see this link at Patterns of Evidence.

Temple Discovered at Motza

archaeological discoveries--Temple at Motza
This massive cultic structure shares a similar architectural design to the Temple in Jerusalem and is located only 4 miles Northwest of the Temple Mount!

Although originally discovered in 2012 (when another highway was being constructed!), Motza has only hit the news recently (although see this article from December 2012 by The Times of Israel). Starting in the Spring of 2019 a fuller study was begun on this interesting place. This is a fascinating discovery. More and more, temples and cultic sites are being discovered in Israel (see my post here and here for example, and see the final item below). This fits in quite well with the Old Testament’s description of high places and unauthorized places of worship. The intriguing part of this recent archaeological discovery is that the temple complex at Motza is only four miles from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem! This temple is believed to have been in use from 900 B.C. through the early sixth century B.C. It is about 2/3 size of Solomon’s Temple and the close proximity to Jerusalem suggests that it operated under the auspices of Jerusalem. It is well known that Solomon sanctioned the building of many temples (1 Kings 11:4-8), and his successors, even the “good” ones are censored by the author of Kings for not removing the high places (e.g., 1 Kings 15:9-14; 22:41-43). Among the fascinating discoveries are some figurines of human heads (see photo below) and some horse figurines with riders. For a more in depth look at this discovery and other photos, click this link on Patterns of Evidence or this link at haaretz. For a more cautious approach about this discovery, see the article at ABR here.

archaeological discoveries--figurines from tel motza
Human head figurines discovered at Tel Motza

Altar Discovered at Shiloh

Tel Shiloh
Tel Shiloh

A lot of exciting discoveries are being found at the biblical site of Shiloh by the team from ABR (Associates for Biblical Research) under the direction of Dr. Scott Stripling. Past discoveries include animals bones of sacrificial animals that are consistent with the type of animals ancient Israelites would have sacrificed. Many coming from the right side of the animal. Why is this important? Leviticus 7:29-32 notes that the right side of the animal was the portion given to priests. A burn layer at Shiloh has been examined and dated by carbon-14 dating to 1060 B.C., plus or minus 30 years. This is the time period the Bible indicates the destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines. A ceramic pomegranate was discovered in 2018. The significance of the pomegranate is that pomegranates were worn on the garment of the High Priest (Exodus 28:31-35). Another interesting discovery is a  large monumental building, dating from the time of the Tabernacle which is in the initial stages of being uncovered. One of the sensational discoveries of the 2019 archaeological season was the discovery of three horns of an altar that is of biblical dimensions. A photo of one of those horns can be seen below. Other discoveries include numerous scarabs and bullae. If you’re interested in watching a two-part series on the recent discoveries at Shiloh hosted by the folks at ABR click here.  For further information on the ongoing excavation at Shiloh by ABR click here.

archaeological discoveries--Altar horn from Shiloh
One of the altar horns excavated at Shiloh in 2019.

Archaeological Discovery of an Ancient Canaanite Metropolis

Ein Esur
Ancient 5,000 year old Canaanite Metropolis

A constant theme of this post is how the construction of new highways in Israel leads to surprising archaeological discoveries. None is more surprising or sensational than the discovery at Ein Esur. In the words of excavation director Yitzhak Paz, “The study of this site will change forever what we know about the emergence [and] rise of urbanization in the land of Israel and in the whole region.” It is being called “the New York City of the Early Bronze Age.” The city dates to about 3000 B.C. and there is another city beneath it believed to date 2000 years earlier. This massive city covers 160 acres and, including outlying areas, stretches to about 700 acres. To quote R. Brian Rickett of Patterns of Evidence: “Despite previous paradigms, land surveys, and scholarly consensus, an ancient and well-established city existed in Northern Israel around the time of the establishment of the first Egyptian Kingdom. Furthermore, the newly discovered city is the largest known city to date from this period anywhere in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. Scholarly consensus is already in transition as this new discovery is reshaping everything that was believed about the ancient urbanization process in the land of Israel.” Discoveries like this demonstrate that there is still much to learn about ancient Canaan and that biblical descriptions of large and ancient cities are more reliable than previously thought by more skeptical scholars and archaeologists. This kind of discovery also illustrates that it is premature to come to conclusions based on a lack of evidence, a practice followed by some scholars and archaeologists. One never knows what is lurking just below the surface, waiting to be discovered! To watch a short video on the discovery at Ein Esur click here. You can also check out two articles at The Times of Israel by clicking here.

Ancient Temple Found at Lachish

Archaeological discoveries--Temple at Lachish
An ancient Temple has been discovered at Lachish.

The archaeologists who have uncovered this new discovery at Lachish are calling it a Canaanite Temple. The reason for this is the numerous artifacts found including two small bronze “smiting gods” who are believed to represent the Canaanite gods Ba’al or Resheph (see photo below). The structure had two columns and two towers which led into a large hall. There was an inner sanctum (a holy of holies) with two standing stones believed to represent the temple gods (for the plan of the temple, see the drawing below). Some of the other fascinating finds include Egyptian-inspired jewelry, daggers, axe-heads, scarabs, and a gold-plated bottle inscribed with the name of Rameses II. A piece of pottery with Canaanite/Hebrew writing has also been discovered. This writing includes the first time the letter samech has been found in an inscription this old (roughly 1130 B.C.). The temple is dated to the 12th century B.C. The interesting thing about this date is that it falls within the biblical period of the Judges. My own thought is that, unless Lachish had somehow fallen back into Canaanite hands during this period (and there is evidence of two destruction layers dated to the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.), it is possible that this temple may further confirm the rampant idolatry of the Judges period, as described in the Book of Judges (Judges 2:11-13). The discovery of the writing on the piece of pottery also provides further evidence that there was an alphabetic system in use during this time (at least in certain areas of Canaan). For further information on this archeological discovery see the article by the Jerusalem Post here, or the very informative article in The Times of Israel here.

archaeological discoveries--the smiting gods
The smiting gods, perhaps Ba’al or Resheph.
12th century Canaanite temple plan
The plan of the a 12th century BCE Canaanite temple at Lachish. (J. Rosenberg)

 

Goliath’s Gath Has Been Found

Goliath’s Gath Has Been Found

Gath, Tell es-Safi
My visit to Gath in the summer of 2008.

The ancient city of Gath (modern Tell es-Safi) has been experiencing the archaeologist’s spade for the past 23 years under the direction of lead archaeologist Aren Maeir from Bar-Ilan University. This excavation has revealed much about the Philistines, the ancient people who lived there. Perhaps, most famously, a piece of pottery was discovered in the excavation that bears similarities with the name Goliath (see my article here and the photo below). Maeir recently stated, “One of the nice things about excavations at this site – and archaeology in general – is that every time you excavate, there are surprises.” One of those surprises, just recently announced, is the discovery of an older city of Gath laying below the one that has been excavated for the past 23 years. This older city dates to the 11th century B.C., the time of David and Goliath, and is even larger and more impressive than the one Maeir and his team have been excavating over the past, almost, quarter of a century!

Goliath’s Gath is Impressive!

Maeir at Gath
Maeir standing by the ruins of the ancient Water Gate in Gath. ( Credit: TELL ES-SAFI/GATH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT)

The Jerusalem Post states, “While archaeologists have known for decades that Tell es-Safi contained the ruins of Goliath’s birthplace, the recent discovery beneath a pre-existing site reveals that his native city was a place of even greater architectural grandeur than the Gath of a century later” (for the full article click here). Digging beneath a previously explored area in Gath, this year (2019) the team discovered a large fortified structure with massive stones. Maeir states that the monumental architecture is larger than almost anything found in the Levant during this time period. As an example of the difference in size, Maeir compares the stones of the upper (later) period of the city (1.6 feet, or 1/2 meter long) with what he calls the “Goliath layer” recently discovered (3.2 – 6.5 feet, or between 1-2 meters). The walls of the older layer are also twice the width of the later walls (13 feet wide as opposed to 6.5 – 8 feet wide). The area covered by ancient Gath is also impressive. Maeir states that it covered about 123.5 acres, more than twice the size of comparable cities in the Levant. By comparison, the city of Jerusalem is estimated to have been about 10 acres in the time of David! For more details on the impressive size of Gath, see the excellent article in The Times of Israel.

Interpretation of the Find and Presuppositions

goliath ostracon
This is the piece of pottery, mentioned in the article above  (known as an ostracon), with names etched on it that resemble Goliath’s name. Discovered at Tell es-Safi, biblical Gath.

As we are all aware, all of us have certain presuppositions in our approach to anything in life. The same is true for archaeologists and biblical scholars. Maeir’s presuppositions differ from mine. He believes that much of the Bible was written at a later time period than the events that are described. Consequently he also believes that the Bible contains various myths, legends, and inaccuracies. As a result, he has suggested that the story of the gigantic size of Goliath (and others) may be related to the size of this ancient city and its walls. He thinks that ancient people would have reasoned that giant walls require giants to build them. Thus he does not believe the story of David and Goliath is literally true but derives from some such supposition.

Although Goliath may not be as tall as some think that he was (see my article here), I do respectfully disagree with Professor Maeir, since I hold to a strong view of the inspiration of Scripture. In my opinion, the power and sophistication of the Philistines and their great city of Gath, which has been revealed through archaeology, only confirms what the Bible has to say about them. They are pictured as a more technologically advanced society than the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam. 13:19-22), as well as a dangerous and powerful foe. Many of the articles announcing this discovery are running with Professor Maeir’s theory. I for one, cannot agree. While we may not always be in agreement with the presuppositions and conclusions of others, we are certainly debtors to the men and women archaeologists who are uncovering the rich history of Israel’s past.

For other articles related to this recent discovery, see the following links:

This is the link to the Tell es-Safi site: gath.wordpress.com

Short article in Bible History Daily 

Has Ziklag Been Discovered?

Has Ziklag Been Discovered?

Map of Ziklag
Although Ziklag is known to be in the southern part of Judah near Philistine territory, this map illustrates the uncertainty of its exact location. (Notice that 2 places are marked as possibilities, neither of which reflects the location suggested by the recent discovery).

Fearing that Saul would one day catch up with him, David, his six hundred men and their families, fled to King Achish, king of Gath (1 Sam. 27:1-4). After spending some time there and pretending to be a loyal vassal, David prevailed on Achish to give him his own city. Achish chose Ziklag and David, his troops and their families, turned a former Philistine town into an Israelite town (1 Sam. 27:5-7).

The exact location of Ziklag has been debated by geographers and archaeologists. Recently, however archaeologists Yoseph Garfinkel, Saar Ganor, Kyle Keimer, and Gil Davis have announced that they believe they have discovered it in their excavation at Khirbet a-Ra‘i (https://www.timesofisrael.com/as-archaeologists-say-theyve-found-king-davids-city-of-refuge-a-debate-begins/).

Lead archaeologists at Khirbet a-Ra'i
The three directors of the Khirbet a-Ra‘i excavation, possibly the biblical Ziklag. (Left to right) Israel Antiquities Authority’s Saar Ganor, Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, Head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Dr. Kyle Keimer of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, on July 8, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

David’s Sojourn in Ziklag

According to 1 Samuel 27:7, David spent 16 months in the land of the Philistines. Presumably, most of that time was spent at Ziklag. From Ziklag, David and his men carried out raids against the enemies of Judah in the South (1 Sam. 27:8). However, when reporting his activities to Achish, he would inform him that he had been attacking areas in southern Judah associated with Israelite allies and inhabitants (1 Sam. 27:10-12).

When the Philistines gathered their troops to fight against Saul, Achish expected David, as a loyal vassal, to accompany him (1 Sam. 28:1-2). However, the other Philistine commanders did not trust David and his men and sent them packing back to Ziklag (1 Sam. 29:1-11). During the time that David and his men were absent from Ziklag, the Amalekites, a perennial enemy of Israel (and among those whom David had attacked—1 Sam. 27:8), captured the defenseless city of Ziklag. They set it on fire and took all of the families of David and his men captive (1 Sam. 30:1-4). The story turns out well for David and his men as they pursue the Amalekites and are able to save their families (1 Sam. 30:18-20).

Identification of Khirbet a-Ra‘i as Ziklag

Khirbet a-Ra‘i
Aerial view of Khirbet a-Ra‘i. Photo by Emil Ajem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The dig at Khirbet a-Ra‘i commenced in 2015. The leaders of this excavation include archaeologists who also excavated Khirbet Qeiyafa. Khirbet a-Ra‘i is located between Kiryat Gat and Lachish.  Keimer, one of the lead archaeologists states that three elements must exist for a city to qualify as the location of Ziklag. 1. 12th-century BCE Philistine habitation; 2. 10th century settlement, and; 3. a destruction layer. All of these are present at Khirbet a-Ra‘i. Regarding other possible candidates for the location of Ziklag Keimer stated, “Each candidate had a problem — the sequence, the geography, no destruction layer. But Khirbet a-Ra‘i seems to check all the boxes.”

Other archaeologists are not as convinced. Bar Ilan University Professor Aren Maeir, director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project for the past 23 years, is against the identification. In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Maeir said, “This suggestion of Yossi Garfinkel is so unacceptable, it’s unbelievable. There is simply no basis for this. I don’t know how he got to it.” Another prominent archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, agrees. One of the main arguments by these archaeologists is that the ancient city of Ziklag must be farther south than Khirbet a-Ra‘i. One reason for this is that Joshua 19:5 states that Ziklag was part of the inheritance of the tribe of Simeon, which was given a southern portion of the tribe of Judah. In the map at the top of the page the reader will notice that guesses as to possible locations for Ziklag are much further south of Gath. This isn’t the first time that Maeir and Finkelstein have had disagreements with Garfinkel over biblical sites (e.g., Khirbet Qeiyafa). Only time will tell if Khirbet a-Ra‘i may be ancient Ziklag. Meanwhile, it is certainly another interesting excavation in a land full of fascinating archaeological sites!

For more information on this discovery see the following links:

https://www.timesofisrael.com/as-archaeologists-say-theyve-found-king-davids-city-of-refuge-a-debate-begins/

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-town-of-ziklag-may-have-been-discovered/?mqsc=E4072404&dk=ZE9A7XZ42&utm_source=WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium=BHDDaily%20Newsletter&utm_campaign=ZE9A7XZ42

https://www.israelhayom.com/2019/07/08/archaeologists-announce-discovery-of-the-biblical-city-of-ziklag/

The following link from the Jerusalem Post also includes a short video showing the excavation.  https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Biblical-city-of-Ziklag-where-King-David-took-refuge-found-594955

 

Shechem: Insights From Biblical Geography

Shechem: Insights From Biblical Geography

Ancient Shechem
Aerial view of the ancient city of Shechem

In my previous two posts (here and here), I have sought to demonstrate how learning biblical geography can be a helpful way of studying the text of Scripture. The ancient city of Shechem, located near modern Nablus, is another example of what can be learned by studying biblical geography. The city of Shechem is mentioned 54 times in the OT, not counting an additional 13 times where it refers to an individual by the same name. It is specifically mentioned twice in the NT (both in Acts 7:16), however, the mention of Sychar in John 4 may be the same city. It is certainly the same geographical area (see discussion below). Because of its frequency, we will only examine the most significant occurrences of this city in Scripture.

Shechem and the Patriarchs

Shechem
Shechem is located in the heart of the Land of Canaan.

The first mention of Shechem occurs in Genesis 12:6 when Abram enters the land of Canaan. We’re told that the Lord appeared to Abram and promised him that the Land of Canaan would be given to his descendants. As a result Abram built an altar. Thus our initial introduction to Shechem involves the Lord revealing Himself to Abram and Abram’s grateful response by building an altar.

Simeon and Levi
Genesis 34 tells the story of how Jacob’s sons destroy the inhabitants of Shechem for the rape of their sister.

Shechem plays a significant role in the story of Jacob after his return to the land (having spent 20 years with his uncle Laban in Haran). It is only the second place in Canaan where one of the patriarchs purchased a part of the land (the other was the cave of Macpelah and surrounding land where Abraham buried Sarah–Gen. 23:16-20). We are told that Jacob purchased some land near Shechem, and then, like his grandfather Abram, he built an altar there which he called “El Elohe Israel” (God, the God of Israel–Gen. 33:18-20). Thus, the first two mentions of Shechem in the Bible represent God’s promise of the land, along with Jacob’s purchase of some of that land, followed by both patriarchs worshipping the true God by building an altar to Him.

Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a man named Shechem (Gen. 34). Shechem was the son of Hamor, the ruler of the city at this time, and for whom, apparently, the city was named. Outraged at the treatment of their sister, the brothers (led by Simeon and Levi) devise a plan that leads to the destruction of the people of Shechem. Jacob fears retaliation by the surrounding inhabitants and God appears to him at that time telling him to go to Bethel. Before leaving, however, Jacob has his household put away all their foreign gods and purify themselves (Gen. 35:2).

As an interesting sidenote: In Hebrew the name “Hamor” means “donkey.” The inhabitants of Shechem are referred to as the “sons of Hamor” or “sons of a donkey.” While excavating the city under the lowest floor of the outer guardroom, what appears to be a donkey was found buried there [Toombs, L. E. (1992). Shechem (Place). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 1182)]. The reason this is interesting is that Canaanites are known to have ritually slaughtered donkeys in dedication to their gods and buried them in the foundation of the city gates. See the following article: Bronze-Age Donkey Sacrifice Found in Israel.

Joshua

Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal. The vicinity of ancient Shechem.
Mounts Gerazim and Ebal provide the backdrop to the city of Shechem.

The Book of Joshua informs us that Shechem was both a city of refuge (Josh. 20:7), as well as a Levitical city (Josh. 21:21). Shechem was located near two mountains–Gerizim and Ebal. Before entering the Promised Land, Moses had commanded the people to build an altar on Mount Ebal and to divide the tribes between the two mountains. Half were to pronounce the blessings of the Law from Mount Gerizim, while the other half were to pronounce the curses of the Law from Mount Ebal. The fulfillment of this command is recorded in Joshua 8:30-35.  Shechem is also the setting for Joshua’s famous speech that includes the words, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. . . But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15; see Josh. 24:1). These important events recall the patriarchal stories, especially the story of Jacob. Just as Jacob had called on his household to put away their foreign gods, so Joshua, centuries later, challenged the nation of Israel to do the same. Except for the horrendous crime committed by Jacob’s sons in the slaughter of the people of Shechem, its early history left a legacy of commitment to God and a repudiation of foreign gods. Shechem was also the place where the bones of Joseph were laid to rest (Josh. 24:32), a reminder of the promise given to Abram at Shechem that God would give his descendants the Land of Canaan. Not too bad of a start for this geographical location. But all that was about to change!

Abimelech

Death of Abimelech
Abimelech was killed when a woman threw an upper millstone on his head, crushing his skull.

The story of Abimelech, the son of Gideon by a concubine, is recorded in Judges 8:30-9:57. Although at one point Gideon had broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah pole (Judg. 6:27-28), leading Israel away from idolatry, by the end of his life he was responsible for leading Israel back into idolatry. Abimelech’s mother was from Shechem (Judg. 8:31) and he was able to convince the leaders of Shechem to make him king (Judg. 9:1-2) and destroy the other sons of Gideon (also known as Jerubaal). Abimelech hires 70 “worthless men” to do the job of slaughtering the 70 sons of Gideon. He hires them by using money from the temple in Shechem dedicated to the god Baal-Berith (Judg. 9:4-6). It is unclear how many temples existed in Shechem. Later in the story a temple dedicated to El-Berith is also mentioned (Judg. 9:46). Many scholars believe that these are two names for the same temple. El, which means god (or God), was the head of the Canaanite pantheon. According to Canaanite religion, Baal was a son (or possibly a grandson). There is also a sanctuary mentioned in Joshua 24:26. After Joshua wrote some words in the book of the Law, we are told that he set up a large stone “under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.” Ironically, this may be the same place later called the temple of Baal-Berith. In other words, a place that was known for turning from foreign gods to worship the true God had become a place where Baal was now worshipped. Another irony of the Abimelech story is that he destroys this temple when he demolishes the city of Shechem (Judg. 9:46-49)–the very temple whose funds had been used to install him as king!

Temple of Baal Berith in ancient Shechem
This photo, the same as the one above, points out the Temple and standing stone discovered at Shechem

Archaeologists have uncovered a temple in ancient Shechem (see the photo above). The destruction dates to the 12th century BC, the same time period as Abimelech’s destruction described in Judges 9. A standing stone was also discovered, part of which is still standing. It is probably this stone which is referred to in Judges 9:6 which states that Abimelech was made king “beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem.” Some also believe that this may be the same stone mentioned in Joshua 24:26. Archaeologists have also uncovered a statue of Baal at Shechem providing firm evidence that Baal was worshipped there. For further information click on the following link: Abimelech at Shechem.

Shechem and The Divided Kingdom

The disappointing history of Shechem continues as it becomes the scene for the coronation of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1). On this occasion, however, the northern tribes presented their grievances and when Rehoboam answered them harshly, the ten northern tribes made Jeroboam their king and created a permanent separation that lasted until the Exile. In fact, Shechem was fortified by Jeroboam and became the first capital city of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 12:25). If the reign of Abimelech emphasized the spiritual apostasy of Israel, the dissolution of the United Monarchy at Shechem was a precursor to the troubles that would plague Israel and Judah eventually leading both kingdoms into exile. Thus bringing to an end (at least momentarily) the promise made to Abram to give the Land of Canaan to his descendants.

The New Testament

Jacob's well at the foot of Mount Gerizim near ancient Shechem
Jacob’s well, now housed inside a Greek Orthodox Church in the area near Mount Gerazim and ancient Shechem is the location of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman.

By the first century A.D., the area around Shechem had become part of Samaritan territory. In fact, archaeologists tell us that Shechem ceased to exist in the first century B.C.. The only direct reference to the ancient city of Shechem is found in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:16, when he is recounting the history of the patriarchs. However, the NT knows another very important episode that happened in the vicinity of ancient Shechem. This is the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well near Sychar (John 4:5). Whether Sychar refers to ancient Shechem or to a nearby town (known today as Askar), is disputed by scholars. One thing that is certain is that the well that Jesus meets this woman at is the well of Jacob and is near the parcel of land given to Joseph (John 4:5). Today a Greek Orthodox Church has been built over the site (see the photo on the left) which sits near the foot of Mount Gerizim. Anyone familiar with the ancient site of Shechem from the OT would immediately recognize that this conversation takes place in the same locale by the reference to the mountain on which the Samaritans worship (John 4:20). The ruins of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim can still be seen today. This Temple, built around the middle of the 4th century B.C., was destroyed probably sometime in the 2nd century B.C. (either by John Hyrcanus, or Simeon the Just).

While Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman has many implications (including her own salvation, as well as those in the town), for our purposes it creates the perfect ending to the sorted tale of the city of Shechem. Jesus’ response to the woman at the well concerns worship that is “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). How fitting that Jesus speaks of the meaning of worship that pleases the Father in a place where Abram and Jacob had built altars to the true God, and where Jacob and, later Israel, had put away their foreign gods in order to worship the God of Israel. How fitting also that Jesus brings the gift of the Kingdom of God to this woman and the people of her town in the very area that had witnessed the division of the Kingdom of Israel! Knowing the stories about Shechem in the OT and understanding that Jacob’s well and the first century village of Sychar is in this same geographical area brings a satisfying conclusion to a city with a mixed spiritual and political heritage. How good of God to bring this region full-circle through providing the living water that only Jesus can give!

For more on Shechem see the excellent article entitled: The Geographical, Historical & Spiritual Significance of Shechem at bible.org.

Mahanaim: Insights From Biblical Geography

 Mahanaim: Insights From Biblical Geography

Mahanaim
Mahanaim was located in ancient Gilead near the Jabbok River. Its exact location is questionable. See the black arrow above.

Mahanaim is certainly not a household word. Even if you are a student of the Bible it may not be a familiar place to you. Don’t feel bad, my spell corrector doesn’t recognize it either! In spite of its relative obscurity, Mahanaim is an excellent example of important lessons that can be learned when biblical places are traced through the Bible (as advocated in my previous post Using Geography to Study the Bible). Mahanaim is mentioned thirteen times in the Bible (Gen. 32:1; Josh. 13:26, 30; 21:38; 2 Sam. 2:8, 12, 29; 17:24, 27; 19:32; 1 Kgs. 2:8; 4:14; 1 Chron. 6:80; and possibly Song of Songs 6:13). As this list shows, nearly half of the references occur in 2 Samuel.

Mahanaim in Genesis 32

Jacob meets Esau
Jacob’s meeting with Esau is dramatized in this painting by Frans Francken II dating from the 1620s.

The first occurrence of Mahanaim occurs in Genesis 32:1 in the story of Jacob’s return to the land after having spent 20 years with his uncle Laban in Haran (located in modern Syria). Jacob had fled to Haran because of his brother Esau’s threat to kill him for stealing the blessing from their father Isaac (Gen. 27:35-45). Jacob was fearful and apprehensive on his return, wondering if his brother still desired revenge (Gen. 32:6-7). The word “Mahanaim” is a dual form of the Hebrew word “Mahaneh,” which means “camp.” Therefore, Mahanaim means “two camps.” The meaning of this word is played on throughout the text. In Genesis 32:7 we are told that Jacob divided his family into two camps, hoping that if Esau attacked one part of the family, the other might escape (Gen. 32:8). The idea of two camps is also played upon by the mention of “God’s camp” which refers to Jacob’s encounter with some angels as he enters the land (Gen. 32:1-2). Jacob’s camp and Esau’s camp is yet a third reference to the idea of two camp’s in the story. The main point of this story, which extends into Genesis 33, is the reconciliation of two estranged brothers. The emphasis on two camps throughout suggests division and estrangement, but Esau’s warm and gracious welcome of his brother Jacob (Gen. 33:4), brings this reunion to a happy conclusion.

Jacob wrestles with the Angel
Jacob wrestles with the Angel–a painting by Gustav Doré 1885.

God’s place in the story is noted, not only through the mention of God’s camp (32:2), but also in Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel (Gen. 32:24-32). During this wrestling match, which happens at a place Jacob names Peniel (face of God–more on this below), Jacob receives a new name (Israel), which is suggestive of the change that has taken place in him. The theme of brother reconciled to brother in the sight of God is brought together in Jacob’s statement in Genesis 33: 10: “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God.” The word “face” occurs throughout Genesis 32-33, sometimes referring to God (as in Peniel) and other times referring to Esau. The point of this story can be summed up in a statement made by the apostle John in another context where he writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).

The Jabbok River
Located in modern Jordan, the area around Mahanaim contains the Jabbok River (the modern day name is the Zarqa River). Photo from BiblePlaces.com

Mahanaim in the Books of Joshua and Samuel

Mahanaim is not connected with any particular story in the Book of Joshua, but we do learn several important things about it.  First, it was located on the border of the tribes of Gad and Manasseh (Josh. 13:24-30–Recall that Gad, Reuben, and 1/2 the tribe of Manasseh settled on the eastern side of the Jordan). Joshua 21:34-42 also informs us that it was a Levitical city, as well as a city of refuge.

2 Samuel contains two important stories in which Mahanaim plays a key role. Both stories in 2 Samuel concern a civil war within Israel. In 2 Samuel 2 David becomes king in Hebron of Judah, but rather than unite the kingdom under David, Abner (the commander of Saul’s army) takes Ish-bosheth (Saul’s son) and makes him king in Mahanaim (for more details on this story see my post here, or check out my book Family Portraits chapters 11 & 12). Abner and Ish-bosheth’s move to Mahanaim is probably a strategic one. It puts some distance between them and the Philistines (who have taken over a lot of Israelite terrritory–1 Sam. 31), and it also puts distance between them and David. The Lexham Bible Dictionary also suggests two other advantages: 1) It was in close proximity to Saul’s closest allies (the people of Jabesh-Gilead; see 1 Sam. 11); and 2) it gave them control of the iron ore industry which this area was famous for.

Mountains of Gilead
Although the exact location of Mahanaim remains uncertain, we do know that it is located in the mountainous area of ancient Gilead. Photo by Jim Greenhill at thebiblejourney.org.

Mahanaim becomes important later again in 2 Samuel chapters 15-19, when David’s son Absalom rebels again him. Ironically, Absalom has himself proclaimed king in Hebron (where David was originally anointed), and when he marches on Jerusalem, David flees to–you guessed it–Mahanaim. Eventually David’s forces defeat Absalom and David returns to take up the throne again in Jerusalem. But it is in the chamber over the gate in Mahanaim where the memorable scene of David weeping for his slain son occurs. There we read of his gut-wrenching grief over the death of his son as he cries out, “O my son Absalom–my son, my son Absalom–if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33/Hebrew text 19:1).

When one recalls the story of the reconciliation of brothers at Mahanaim told in Genesis 32-33, the sad stories of 2 Samuel become even more poignant. Both stories about civil war in 2 Samuel emphasize important family language and connections. When Joab pursues Abner and the forces of Israel in 2 Samuel 2 after inflicting a severe defeat on them, Abner pleads, “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that it will be bitter in the end? How long will it be then until you tell the people to return from pursuing their brethren?” (2 Sam. 2:26). Notice the key word “brethren.” This is not simply a battle between two enemies; it is a family battle between brothers of the tribes of Israel. This same tragic message is enhanced further when David’s own son rebels against him. When the dust settles there is no victory celebration for David, but only the anguished cries of a father bereft of his son. The legacy of Mahanaim has turned from the shining legacy of brothers reuniting under God, to the nation of Israel and the family of David torn apart by hatred and enmity. It is making the geographical connection in these stories that highlights this important theme.

The Remaining Occurrences of Mahanaim

As a way of summarizing the other occurrences of Mahanaim, the reference in 1 Kings 2:8 refers back to the story of Absalom’s rebellion, while the reference in 1 Kings 4:14 notes that it was the seat of one of Solomon’s districts (he had 12 in all). The mention of Mahanaim in 1 Chronicles 6:80 is another geographical list stating that it belonged to the tribe of Gad. Finally, the use of “Mahanaim” in Song of Songs 6:13 (Hebrew text, 7:1), seems to be a reference to a particular kind of dance. Therefore, it is uncertain whether there is a reference to the city here. Before concluding this article, there is one more story we should look at.

Peniel, Succoth and Gideon

Peniel and Succoth
Gideon pursues the kings of Midian and goes through Peniel and Succoth. Photo taken from slideplayer.com

Although Mahanaim is not specifically mentioned in the story of Gideon, Peniel and Succoth are. We should recall that when Jacob prepared to meet his brother Esau, he was at Mahanaim. However, he wrestled with the Angel at Peniel close by. After reconciling with his brother, Genesis 33:17 tells us that Jacob moved on to Succoth. Being aware of this information demonstrates another way in which a knowledge of biblical geography (and biblical stories) can aid us in interpretation. In the story of Gideon, following his initial victory over the Midianites, he continues to pursue two of their kings. His pursuit takes him across the Jordan River into Gilead and the cities of Peniel and Succoth (Judg. 8:4-9). There he asks for supplies to feed his hungry and tired army, but the men of Peniel and Succoth refuse to help. Gideon states that upon his victorious return, he will deal with the men who have refused to support him and his troops. When Gideon does return victorious, he takes 77 elders of the town of Succoth and “teaches them a lesson” with thorns and briers. He then proceeds to Peniel (also spelled “Penuel”) and tears down a tower in the city, killing the men of the city. This is yet another tragic story related to this area that had begun with the reconciliation of brothers and the reconciliation of Jacob with his God. Here again we have fellow-Israelites who do not get along. The men of Succoth and Peniel refuse to support Gideon and in return he takes vengeance on them! So ends another sad story of disunity among brothers, who fail to see that they are each a reflection of the image of God and should, therefore, treat one another with loyalty and faithfulness. However, once again, it is the geographical information that links all of these stories together–stories with a common theme. The stories about Mahanaim (and the surrounding region) are just one example of how biblical geography can give us deeper insight into the Scriptures.

Using Geography to Study the Bible

Using Geography to Study the Bible

Map of ancient Israel
Using geography to study the Bible can add a new dimension to Bible study.

Where is Shechem, or Shiloh located and what did they look like in various times of biblical history? Is this a question you ever asked yourself as you read through the biblical text? I know that in times past I often read over place names in the Bible without ever giving them a second thought. Not only were they sometimes difficult to pronounce, but where they were and what they looked like didn’t seem that significant to the story. In other words, using geography to study the Bible never occurred to me. I think my experience is similar to many others. Ask yourself, “How many times have I looked up a biblical city in a concordance, then, after finding all of its occurrences in the Bible, read the various stories connected with it in both Old and New Testaments?” After all, how important can the ancient geography of the Bible be to my life?

Books on Using Geography to Study the Bible

John Beck’s book is a good introduction to using geography to study the Bible

Some books and articles that have appeared over the last few years argue that using geography to study the Bible can make a big difference in your understanding of Scripture, which, in turn, will have an impact on your life. One such book Along the Road: How Jesus Used Geography to Tell God’s Story, by John A. Beck, encourages using geography to the study the Bible. Beck is an adjunct faculty member at Jerusalem University College in Israel and has led many excursions to various biblical sites to teach the lessons that can be learned through the geography of the land. He notes that Bible study often uses different systems of organization such as chronological, or theological, but invites the reader to take a different approach. His challenge is to…”think how your reading and study might change if you organized the contents of the Bible geographically” (p. 20).

Anyone who’s been to the lands of the Bible knows how valuable it can be to see the places where certain events took place. Using geography to study the Bible comes quite naturally when visiting Israel. Anyone who has been on a biblical tour of Israel will have, in a sense, studied the Bible the way Beck (and others) are advocating. For example, a visit to the City of Dan (for more about Dan see my articles here and here) will usually lead to discussions that include the time of Abram (Gen. 14:14), the time of the Judges (Judges 18), and the beginning of the kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam I (1 Kgs 12-14). Similarly, when touring Jerusalem stories about David, Jesus, and the early Church will dominate the discussion, even though some of these people and events are separated by centuries. The biblical geography has a way of tying people and events together.

Last year I did a review on another book which advocates using geography to study the Bible. My review of the Lexham Geographical Commentary on the Gospels can be found here. Editor Barry Beitzel points out that the Bible is unique among holy books for its concern with geography. He writes, “This tendency to incorporate the spatial dimension into a narrative actually sets the Bible apart from most other holy writings” (xiii). Along this same line, Paul H. Wright states, “Its sacred and literary contexts notwithstanding, the Old Testament is a text about people living in real places (i.e., geography) over time (i.e., history). These are realities that impact our understandings of the meaning(s) of the text, and it is from them that points of relevance for modern readers, including theologians, arise” (“Introduction to Historical Geography,” p. 6 in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, eds. Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton, 2018). 

How Using Geography to Study the Bible Works

But how does a knowledge of biblical geography aid me in understanding the Bible? In my post on the Lexham Geographic Commentary I referenced a couple of quotes by Emily J. Thomassen. She asserts, “In biblical narrative, authors often mention place names in order to communicate a message of theological importance.” Again she notes, “In the ancient world, authors strategically used, reused, and nuanced geographic references in order to impact the reader” (p. 248). John Beck has some practical questions that every reader should ask when using geography to study the Bible.

1. Other than place, what do the passages have in common? Think in terms of people, events, and the words and phrases that make up the text.

2. Do the passages that share a place also share a theme?

3. Do the geographically linked passages of the Bible build on one another, teaching a lesson God wants us to learn?

The best way to illustrate the significance of using geography to study the Bible is to give some practical examples. I plan to do this in future posts on this blog. However, I also want to take the opportunity to announce that some of the upcoming episodes of the podcast, Beyond Reading the Bible, hosted by myself and Lindsay Kennedy, will also address this subject. So if you’d rather listen than read, then check out our podcast! You can also check us out on Facebook right here. The episodes are slated for sometime later this Spring. You can catch the announcement of these episodes by following me on Facebook, Twitter, and  Linkedin, or you can follow me and Lindsay at the above links for Beyond Reading the Bible. Until then, let me encourage you to break out your concordance and check out all the occurrences of a particular place in the Bible (Hazor, the Wilderness, Gaza, etc.). Then use Beck’s questions above as your guide and see what you learn!

The other books mentioned in this post are listed here. Check them out for more in-depth study.

Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament
Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament is available at Amazon USA / UK
Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels
The Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels is available in hardback or digital format at logos.com, or Amazon USA / UK

Ring of Pontius Pilate Discovered?

Ring of Pontius Pilate Discovered?

Pilate ring
Views and cross section of the ring discovered at Herodium. Drawing: J. Rodman; photo: C. Amit, IAA Photographic Department.

More evidence has been found confirming the historical existence of Pontius Pilate, the infamous Roman governor who ordered Jesus’ execution. A ring that has the Roman Prefect’s name inscribed on it has come to light. The ring, along with thousands of other artifacts, was actually uncovered in a dig 50 years ago led by Gideon Forster from the University of Jerusalem. The excavation took place at Herodium in 1968-1969, but no one knew the significance of the ring until recently. The (re)discovery of the ring is due to a thorough cleaning and technological advances in photography which revealed a Greek inscription with the name “PILATO” surrounding a wine vessel (see photo on right). The letters “PI”  (ΠΙ–Greek) are on the right as one looks at the ring, while the letters “LATO” (ΛΑΤΟ–Greek) are on the left. There seems to be little doubt that the ring is in someway connected with Pontius Pilate.  Professor Danny Schwartz in an article in haaretz states, that the name was rare in the Israel of that era. The fact that the ring was discovered at Herodium, one of King Herod’s ancient palace fortresses, also suggests it was connected with a government or administrative official of the time.

Herodium
Herodium from an aerial perspective. For this photo and further information see vicbethlehem.wordpress.com

One of the intriguing features of the ring is the way in which the name is spelled. Robert Cargill, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, in a recent post points out that when a name was inscribed on an ancient coin or ring it was usually done in the nominative or genitive case. The name in the nominative (subject) case in Greek would read “PILATOS” (Pilate). In the Greek genitive (possessive) case, it would read “PILATOU” (belonging to Pilate). In other words, the form of Pilate’s name as “PILATO” is unusual. Cargill notes that one explanation of this form, offered by Cate Bonesho of UCLA, is that “PILATO” is a Greek transliteration of the Latin dative form (Latin of course being the language of Roman officials such as Pilate). The dative form denotes an indirect object.  Therefore, this form of Pilate’s name would suggest something that is being sent to him. In other words, it would be used by someone working for Pilate (an administrative official) who would use the ring to stamp the goods (taxes) being sent to Pilate. Therefore, whether the ring was worn by Pilate or by an official who sent goods to Pilate–which seems more likely– it still acts as an authentication of the historical existence of Pilate

Pilate Stone
The first line of the Pilate stone reads “Tiberium”. The second line contains the name Pilate (Pilatus).

The ring, however, is only one of two physical evidences for the historical Pilate. In 1961 an inscription was discovered at Caesarea Maritima that contains the name Pilate. When Pilate commissioned this inscription in the first century it served to honor his benefactor and current emperor Tiberius. The stone was reused centuries later and became part of the nearby theatre in Caesarea. As a result, it suffered damage and the inscription is only partially readable. The final letters of Pontius (the “us”) and the name Pilate (PILATUS–the common Latin nominative form, see discussion above), along with the name Tiberius are clearly visible. For more information on Caesarea see my article here and for further information on this inscription see Pilate Stone.

 

Abel Beth Maacah: The Face of a King?

Abel Beth Maacah: The Face of a King?

Head sculpture from Abel Beth Maacah
This royal face was unearthed at Tel Abel Beth Maacah during the 2017 excavation season. Archaeologists are still searching for it’s identity.

An exciting new discovery has recently been announced regarding the discovery of a small (2 inch/5 cm) sculpted head at Abel Beth Maacah. The discovery is exciting for at least two reasons. First, no human likeness like this has ever been discovered in Israel that dates to this time period. Eran Arie, the Israel museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology states that it is one of a kind. “In the Iron Age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality. And this is of exquisite quality.” Second, the likeness appears to be that of a king.  More on that below, but first, where is Abel Beth Maacah and what is its significance? (For a YouTube video that shows a fly-over of Abel Beth Maacah click here).

Location and Biblical Significance of Abel Beth Maacah

Location of Tel Abel Beth Maacah

Abel Beth Maacah is located on the northern border of present-day Israel (bordering Lebanon), at the northern end of the Huleh Valley. This ancient tell, lies 4.5 miles (6.5 km) west of Tel Dan and a little over 1 mile (2 km) south of the modern town of Metulla. It is one of the largest tells (a little over 24 acres or 10 hectares), that remained unexcavated in Israel until a few years ago. Although this important archaeological site was initially identified in the 19th century as the probable site of ancient Abel Beth Maacah, an extensive survey of the mound was only conducted in 2012 with excavations beginning in 2013 under the auspices of Robert A. Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, Los Angeles and Naama Yahalom-Mack and Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The site consists of a large lower mound on the south, a smaller upper mound on the north, and a moderately high “saddle” that connects them. Evidence of settlement begins in Early Bronze II and continues through the Iron Age (I & II), and includes the Persian, Hellenistic, Medieval, and Ottoman periods. Continuing into the modern era, an Arab village existed on part of the site until 1948.

The Bible refers to Abel Beth Maacah in three places. The first occurrence is found in 2 Samuel 20:14-22. Following Absalom’s revolt against David, a man by the name of Sheba son of Bichri attempts to draw Israel away from David. His rebellion is not nearly as successful as Absalom’s (which ultimately ends in failure also) as he retreats to Abel Beth Maacah. Joab, David’s commander, in hot pursuit besieges the city. A wise woman intervenes and saves the city by having Sheba’s head cut off and thrown over the wall. One of the interesting asides of this story is the wise woman’s characterization of Abel Beth Maacah as “a city and a mother in Israel” (v. 19). Furthermore, she claims that Abel was known as a place for seeking wisdom and ending disputes (v. 18). The wise woman’s words testify to the ancient significance of Abel Beth Maacah, which the size of the tell also suggests. The next mention of Abel is found in 1 Kings 15:20. It is this reference that may be the most significant regarding the discovery of the sculptured head. The story in 1 Kings 15 tells of Asa king of Judah asking for the help of Ben Hadad I of Syria (Hebrew–Aram) against his rival from Israel, Baasha. War had broken out between Asa and Baasha and it appears that Baasha had the upper hand. As Baasha fortified the city of Ramah (the prophet Samuel’s hometown)–a city only a few miles from Jerusalem–Asa sent treasures from the Temple to enlist the aid of Ben-Hadad. According to 1 Kings 15:20, Ben Hadad came against Israel and among the cities he attacked was Abel Beth Maacah. The head sculpture fits roughly within this period of time. We shall return momentarily to discuss the significance of this. Finally, Abel is also mentioned in 2 Kings 15:29 among a list of cities conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pilesar III. As a border city (bordering the kingdoms of Israel, Aram, and Phoenicia), Abel was always vulnerable to attack by foreign enemies.

Is This a Royal Face and Can We Identify Him?

Excavations at Abel Beth Maacah
Part of the excavations at Abel Beth Maacah wear the royal face of a statue was uncovered.

The sculptured head discovered in last summer’s excavation is made of faience, a glass-like material that was popular in jewelry and small human and animal figurines in ancient Egypt and the Near East. According to Yahalom-Mack, “The color of the face is greenish because of this copper tint that we have in the silicate paste.” There are several reasons why the archaeologists at Abel Beth Maacah believe this is the face of a Semitic king. First,  the hair-do is very decisive for suggesting this is an ancient Near-Eastern king (see my article on the significance of Absalom’s hair and Niditch’s quote regarding hair here). Second, this is the way ancient Egyptian art depicts its Near-Eastern neighbors. Yahalom-Mack states, “The guy kind of represents the generic way Semitic people are described.” Third, the striped golden diadem that surrounds the head seems to clinch the idea of royalty. But who is this bearded wonder? Can archaeologists identify him?

The royal head has been dated to the 9th century B.C. There are two reasons for the dating. First, carbon dating has placed it in the 9th century B.C., but cannot pinpoint it more exactly. Second, after digging through the floor of a massive Iron Age structure, the head was found in the layer underneath dated to the 9th century B.C. Because, the head cannot be dated more precisely than sometime in the 9th century, and because Abel Beth Maacah was a border city and changed hands several times in the 9th century, it is not possible at present to identify what royal figure the head may represent. There are a number of candidates. If it is an Israelite king, the archaeologists suggest either Ahab or Jehu as possibilities. Because Abel was conquered by the Arameans during this time Ben Hadad I and his son Hazael are also candidates. Finally, because Abel was also on the border of Phoenicia and because Ahab was married to the infamous Jezebel (who was from the city of Tyre in Phonecia), her father, Ithobaal I is also considered a possibility. What is interesting about each of these candidates is that they are all mentioned in the Bible (1-2 Kings). Those excavating at Abel Beth Maacah remain hopeful that this summer season (2018) may reveal further evidence regarding this enigmatic (but exciting) find. Perhaps another part of the statue, or some other evidence will one day unravel the mystery. If further news comes to light, be sure that I will be informing the readers of this blog!

For other articles related to this discovery click here, here, here, and here.

For information on the story of Abel Beth Maacah in 2 Samuel, or the characters of Absalom and Joab check out my book: “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” Available at Amazon USA / UK, Barnes & Noble, or WestBow Press.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Archaeological Evidence for the Prophet Isaiah?

Archaeological Evidence for the Prophet Isaiah?

This bulla (seal impression) reads “[belonging] to Isaiah nvy.” Is it the signature of the Prophet Isaiah? Photo: Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar.
In the latest issue of BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review), archaeologist Eilat Mazar announces what may be a find of great significance. A bulla (clay seal) has been discovered that may be the seal impression of the prophet Isaiah. In an excavation conducted in the Ophel (the area southeast of the Temple Mount staircase, see photo below), Mazar discovered 34 bullae, among other objects. Included in these finds was the bulla of King Hezekiah which I have written about previously (click here). As most readers of the Bible are aware, the Prophet Isaiah was a close personal advisor to King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18-20; 2 Chron. 32; Isaiah 36-39) and played a pivotal role in Jerusalem’s deliverance from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.

As one can tell from the photo on the right, the bulla has been partially damaged. The upper end is mostly missing and the left side of the bulla is also damaged. Enough of it can be seen, however, to note that it consists of three tiers. The top tier reveals the remnants of a grazing doe. According to Mazar a grazing doe is “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah.” This motif is known on another bulla from the same area. The second tier reads “leyesha‘yah[u],” which translated means, “belonging to Isaiah.” The letter represented as a “u” in the brackets is missing due to the damage on the left side. It represents the Hebrew letter vav (ו) and is a certain reconstruction. Therefore, there is no doubt that the name on this seal impression reads “Isaiah.” The bottom line is where the main problem of interpretation comes in. It reads“nvy” (Hebrew: נבי–pronounced nahvee). It is possible that the damaged portion of the seal (recall that Hebrew is read from right to left) also once contained the Hebrew letter aleph (Hebrew: א). If this is the case, then the Hebrew word would mean “prophet.” In which case, the bulla would read, “belonging to Isaiah the prophet.”

Isaiah the Prophet or Isaiah the son of Nvy?

Isaiah bulla drawing on the left with the real image on the right. In the top tier you can see the legs of a grazing doe. The middle tier has the name “Isaiah,” while the bottom tier reads “nvy”. The letters in blue are the conjectural missing letters.

The other possible interpretation is that the letters “nvy” are a personal name and would refer to Isaiah’s father. In that case the inscription would read “belonging to Isaiah the son of Nvy.” This would mean the Isaiah mentioned on the bulla wold be a different Isaiah, since we know that the father of the biblical prophet was named “Amoz” (Isa 1:1). The inscription does not have the words “son of,” but Mazar points out that other seals, due to space considerations, do not always include the word for “son.” One argument in favor of this word not being a proper name is that Mazar states there is plenty of room on the bulla to have written the Hebrew word for “son.” Therefore it can’t be argued that it was left off due to space considerations. However, for this word to mean “prophet,” not only should it have the Hebrew letter aleph at the end, but one would expect the Hebrew word for “the” (Hebrew: ה, just one letter pronounced like our “h”) before “prophet.” There is plenty of room on the bottom line to have included this Hebrew letter. Mazar points out, however, that the Hebrew letter meaning “the” could have appeared on the middle line which is damaged on the left side. Although one would normally expect the word “the” to be connected to the word prophet in Hebrew, Mazar points out that other bullae often divide words in strange ways. For example, the bulla of Hezekiah’s father, king Ahaz, divides Ahaz’s name by putting the “z” on the next line. It is also true, however, that the Hebrew letter for “the” is not always found on inscriptions.

The Prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah Laying Side by Side

The area circled in the picture is the Ophel.
Artist’s conception of the area of the Ophel with the City of David below.

Another interesting feature of the Isaiah bulla is that it was found less than 10 feet from the bulla of Hezekiah! It is interesting that two men who are associated so closely in the Bible, would have bullae laying this close to each other. Their close association in life, makes this placement of the bullae logical. If this bulla is from the prophet Isaiah, then it is understandable that something with his signature would be in the same area as that of King Hezekiah. We would expect that those of Hezekiah’s court would have documents or items kept in a royal storage area. So while this doesn’t prove that the bulla definitely belongs to the prophet Isaiah, it is a piece of circumstantial evidence worth considering. Mazar writes, “Finding a seal impression of the prophet Isaiah next to that of King Hezekiah should not be unexpected. It would not be the first time that seal impressions of two Biblical personas, mentioned in the same verse in the Bible, were found in an archaeological context.” I’ll conclude with another quote from Mazar regarding the mystery of this bulla. She writes, “Could it therefore be possible that here, in an archaeological assemblage found within a royal context dated to the time of King Hezekiah, right next to the king’s seal impression, another seal impression was found that reads “Yesha‘yahu Navy’ ” and belonged to the prophet Isaiah? Is it alternatively possible for this seal NOT to belong to the prophet Isaiah, but instead to one of the king’s officials named Isaiah with the surname Nvy?” Perhaps further study of this artifact, or future discoveries will reveal the answer to Mazar’s questions. For now, it is a tantalizing discovery that might have come from the prophet Isaiah himself.

(The quotes and information for this article, along with the pictures of the Isaiah bulla are taken from Eilat Mazar’s article entitled, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?,” in the March/April, May/June 2018 issue of BAR [vol. 44:2]). If you have a subscription to BAR you can read Mazar’s article here. You can also sign up for “Bible History Daily” on the BAR website and read a companion article by Megan Sauter entitled, “Isaiah’s Signature Uncovered in Jerusalem.”

Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?

Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?

111816_bb_ancient-alphabet_main_free
This is one of 18 inscriptions from Egypt believed to contain the oldest Hebrew script.

Is it possible that ancient Hebrew writings over 3800 years old exist from Egypt? In other words, writings that date to the time that Joseph was reputed to be there? Is it also possible that these writings mention the biblical names Joseph, Asenath (his wife), Manasseh (son of Joseph), and even Moses? And could it be that the oldest Hebrew writings have been right under our noses for the past 150 years? These are some of the assertions of Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Petrovich is an archaeologist and epigrapher (one who studies ancient scripts). Petrovich made these claims in a paper presented at the recent ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) meeting in San Antonio (Nov. 17).

In total, their are 18 inscriptions from 4 sites in Egypt and the Sinai that Petrovich has translated and identified as ancient Hebrew. Scholars are well aware that the language is some form of ancient Semitic script but until now positive identification has eluded them. In the ASOR abstract (a summary of the session’s contents), Petrovich states, “After stumbling across the writing of the word “Hebrews” in a text that features the earliest attestation of a proto-consonantal letter, the present writer successfully has identified Hebrew as the language of the proto-consonantal script and translated 18 inscriptions of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras.” Not all scholars are convinced however. According to Semitic language expert and Bible scholar Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, Petrovich’s identification is “starved for evidence.”

Petrovich’s Conclusion and the Exodus

Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai is one of the Egyptian sites believed by Petrovich to contain the oldest Hebrew writing.
Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai is one of the Egyptian sites believed by Petrovich to contain the oldest Hebrew writing.

Petrovich is not the first to suggest this ancient script is Hebrew. A German scholar in the 1920s made the same identification, but he did not have enough evidence to back up his claim. According to an article in ScienceNews, “Petrovich…combined previous identifications of some letters in the ancient alphabet with his own identifications of disputed letters to peg the script as Hebrew.” Unfortunately, any identification of anything Hebrew dating from 1800-1400 B.C. is going to be met with skepticism by the scholarly community. Part of the reason for this is the skepticism related to the Exodus. Many believe there was no Exodus, and others maintain that if there was, it consisted of a small number of people and was nothing like the event depicted in the Book of Exodus. Another scholarly dogma holds that if there was an Exodus, it probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.). However, investigations by Bimson, Rohl, and others, recently highlighted in the film Patterns of Evidence, suggests there’s more evidence that needs to be considered (see my related article HERE). If Petrovich is correct in deciphering this script as Hebrew, it would have major implications for the biblical story of the Exodus.

What Does This Alphabet Look Like?

Reading from right to left, this chart shows the modern Hebrew letters with the ancient pictographic letters beneath.
Reading from right to left, this chart shows the modern Hebrew letters with the ancient pictographic letters beneath.

This alphabet, which Petrovich calls “proto-Hebrew” (others call it “proto-Canaanite,”) makes the step from pictures (like hieroglyphics) to letters. However, the letters themselves are pictoral in nature (see the photo at right). The beginning of this form of the alphabet dates from somewhere around 1800-1500 B.C. (depending on who you ask!). By the time of Israel’s united monarchy (Saul-David-Solomon), the Hebrew alphabet had changed again. Four such inscriptions have been found so far in Israel dating from 1200-1000 B.C. The four inscriptions are the Qeiyafa Ostracon, the Gezer Calendar, the Tel Zayit Abecedary and the Izbet Zayit Abecedary. An Abecedary is an inscription that has the entire alphabet, much like a practice sheet from a child writing their ABCs. Of course it is debated by scholars as to whether these inscriptions are ancient Hebrew or ancient Phoenician (believed to be the predecessor to Hebrew). Once again, Christopher Rollston weighs in concluding they are Phoenician. He believes that the ancient Hebrew Alphabet did not develop until a little later. If, however, Petrovich (or others) can conclusively demonstrate that the writings found in Egypt are Hebrew, it would be revolutionary. It would mean that Hebrew was the first alphabet of the ancient world. It would also mean that the Hebrew writing system didn’t develop from Phoenicia, and it would suggest the four inscriptions from Israel are also Hebrew. In other words, a lot of sacred cows would be knocked over. Don’t expect this debate to go away without a fight! But because Bible believers want it to be so, or because skeptical scholars do not want it to be so, cannot be the criteria. Ultimately, it should not be prejudice, but honest painstaking scholarship that decides whether the inscriptions from Egypt are the oldest Hebrew writings.