The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced today (Tuesday March 16, 2021), the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll. The scroll is 2,000 years old and contains portions of the 12 minor prophets. It is not intact but consists of over two dozen fragments. and was written in Greek. Interestingly, the name of God is written in paleo-Hebrew script.
The scroll contains parts of Nahum and Zechariah and is thought to be a missing part of a Minor Prophets scroll discovered in 1952 which included parts of Micah. One of the fragments reads, “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.” These words from Zechariah 8:16-17 seem like a particularly appropriate admonition for our world today.
A New Intensive Search for Dead Sea Scrolls
This recent discovery is the result of a new intensive search for Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists have long believed there are other scrolls yet to be discovered. The number of caves in the Judean Wilderness is vast and many remain unexplored. The cave that yielded the recent finds was explored in 1960 by the famous Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin. It was dubbed “the Cave of Horror” because of the remains of the skeletons of 40 men, women, and children discovered there. No scrolls were recovered at that time, however, a Greek copy of the Book of the Twelve (the Minor Prophets) was discovered later. This is why it is assumed that the recent discovery is part of this same scroll. To date, only about 50% of the caves have been investigated. There is a renewed urgency in examining these caves and finding any potential scrolls before antiquities thieves discover them and seek financial gain from their sale.
Antiquities Forgery is Big Business!
It is important that the scrolls, and any antiquities for that matter, be found in a legitimate archaeological context by professional archaeologists. When items appear on the antiquities market, there is always the danger of forgeries. The 16 Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D. C., all revealed to be forgeries this past year, is a painful reminder of this reality. (See my former article here when these scrolls were thought/hoped to be original.)
Other Recent Discoveries in the “Cave of Horror”
The cave has also yielded other interesting finds, including the skeleton of a child, dated 6,000 years old and a weaved basket in excellent condition, carbon-dated to 10,000 years old (see below). Finally, some coins from the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 A.D.) were also discovered (see photo above).
The beheading of John the Baptist is a well-known story. Even many who aren’t familiar with the New Testament have heard the story of the dance of Salome that cost John his head. Artists throughout the ages have dramatized the grizzly scene of John’s head being brought on a plate by the young girl (see above). Recently, Győző Vörös, director of the excavations at Machaerus, announced that he has pinpointed the area where Salome’s deadly dance took place.
Herod’s Palace Fortress at Machaerus
The death of John the Baptist is not only recorded in Scripture, it was also recorded by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In fact, it is Josephus’s account that locates John’s execution at Machaerus, one of Herod’s mountaintop fortresses. The fortress was originally built during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, one of the Hasmonean rulers (more popularly referred to as the Maccabees). Herod the Great refurbished and strengthened it. Machaerus was Herod’s most eastern fortress and is located in present-day Jordan. The map that follows shows the location of Machaerus and Herod’s other palaces/fortresses.
The Gospel accounts of John the Baptist’s Death
In order to avoid any confusion, I would point out that, although Herod the Great had refurbished the palace, it was Herod’s son, known as Herod Antipas, who figures in the story of John’s beheading. The Gospels record that John accused Herod (Anitpas) of violating the Law of Moses by taking his brother’s wife. Herodias was previously married to Antipas’s brother Philip (Mark 6:17-20). Antipas arrests John and throws him in prison, not willing to kill him for fear of the people who regarded John as a prophet. However, when Salome, Herodias’s daughter, dances for Herod, he promises her anything, up to half his kingdom. Her request is for the head of John the Baptist, which Herod reluctantly grants.
Josephus’s Account of John the Baptist’s Death
As noted above, Josephus also provides an account of John the Baptist’s death. Josephus’s account differs in some particulars. His account compliments the Gospels by adding additional information. I have provided an abbreviated version of his account below:
But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing join in baptism. . . . When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Josephus Ant 18.5.2 §116–19).
Josephus’s mention of the destruction of Antipas’s army relates to the defeat he suffered in 36 AD at the hands of the Nabatean King Aretas IV. Anitpas had divorced his daughter in order to marry Herodias.
Where Did Salome’s Dance Take Place?
Within the ruins of the palace, a courtyard has been uncovered, along with a niche which Vörös believes to be the place where Antipas’s throne was located. The photo above shows the niche where the throne may have been. In an article for BAR (Sept/Oct 2012), Vörös writes, “Herod’s palace also included a courtyard with a small royal garden, a Roman-style bath, a triclinium for fancy dining and a formal peristyle courtyard enclosed by porticoes on four sides. This final area was the most imposing area of the palace, and it was there that Salome must have danced for Herod Antipas. We even know where the king sat: A semi-circular apse marks the space for King Herod’s (and later his son Tetrarch Herod Antipas’s) throne in the axial center of the peristyle courtyard.”
As with any archaeological reconstruction, 100% certainty is not possible. Some archaeologists have agreed with Vörös’s conclusions, while others are not convinced. In any case, Salome’s dance certainly happened within this palace in a place where Herod would have entertained guests. This seems to be the most likely spot. The work at Machaerus continues and perhaps even greater clarity about where this biblical event took place will be forthcoming.
We all enjoy and appreciate being able to get food on the run. Fast food restaurants are a mainstay of modern life. If you thought they were unique to the modern world, however, you would be wrong. Pompeii, the famous city buried by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius exploded, had up to 80 fast food establishments! One of these establishments, the Thermopolium (snack bar) of Regio V, has recently been excavated in its entirety. The excavation revealed vivid art work. Furthermore, examining residues in food containers revealed the kind of food sold at the snack bar. Other discoveries included storage vessels, the bones of two humans, and the bones of a dog.
Ordering at Regio V in Pompeii
If you were hungry in ancient Pompeii and walked into Regio V for a snack, what would you find there? The photo of the snack bar above, offers a few ideas. Two mallard ducks hung by their feet (left panel), and a rooster (right panel), suggest some of the delicacies that a hungry client might choose from. In fact, examination of the containers, or dolium, lining the counter (see photo above), produced the following residues: goats, fish, swine, snails, and even a fragment of duck bone.
Was the menacing looking dog in the picture above, a warning to guests to beware of hassling the workers, or another item on the varied menu at Regio V? Another interesting feature of this picture is the graffiti in the black area above the dog’s head. If you blow up the picture, you can barely make out the words of an unsatisfied customer. I won’t quote here what the graffiti says. Suffice it to say, the customer had a real potty mouth (quite literally). For a translation of the graffiti, and additional information about the snack bar, see the article at pompeiisites.org. Speaking of dogs, archaeologists found the full skeleton of a small dog between the two doors of the Thermopolium. The dog was only eight to ten inches high, suggesting that the Romans were breeding pet dogs 2,000 years ago.
Pompeii is famous for preserving the images of dying people caught in the ash and poisonous gases of the Vesuvius eruption. The bones of two victims were identified inside the snack bar. Unfortunately, treasure hunters from the 17th century moved the bones around. Excavator’s identified the remains of one man in his fifties, who appears to have died on his bed (the residue of wood and nails still laid underneath the bones). The bones of another man were found inside one of the doliums. The treasure hunters apparently put them there.
Massimo Osanna, Interim Director General of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, states, “The possibilities for study of this Thermopolium are exceptional, because for the first time an area of this type has been excavated in its entirety, and it has been possible to carry out all the analyses that today’s technology permits.” For further information on this discovery consult the link above and also see Pompeii Fast Food Restaurant Uncovered. For interesting video footage click here and here (please be aware this video is in Italian but it gives a good overview of the shop). To read more about the Romans love of fish check out, Fish Sauces–The Food That Made Rome Great.
Administrative Site of the Kings of Judah Uncovered
The IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) has recently uncovered a 2700 year old administrative site dating to the time of the biblical kings Hezekiah and Manasseh. This administrative site is located in a neighborhood of Jerusalem where the US Embassy now resides. The neighborhood, known as Arnona, is only 1.8 miles outside the Old City located between Talpiot and Ramat Rachel (where another ancient administrative site also exists). While preparing for a new residential complex two year ago, the discovery was made. As always in Israel, before any building activity can commence, an archaeological survey must be carried out by the IAA. Prior to excavation, the only ancient remains known consisted of a giant hill of flint stones. Excavating led to the discovery of a monumental concentric structure. The size of the site and the other objects discovered has led to the conclusion that it was an administrative site. The announcement about its discovery was released this past week (July 22, 2020).
An Administrative Site for Storage and Collecting Taxes
One of the discoveries includes a large collection of royal Judah seal impressions. The impressions on the handle of storage jars are known as LMLK seal impressions (see photo above). The letters LMLK in Hebrew mean “belonging to the king” (pronounced lam melech). About 120 of these stamped jars were found. Only about 1300 are known from various sites throughout Judah. The jars were normally used for tax collection purposes and included various agricultural items such as olive oil, and wine. The jars also include the names of four cities in Judah: Hebron, Socho, Ziph, and Memshat. Three of these are known from Scripture. The location of the fourth, Memshat, is still a bit of a mystery. These, and other finds, date the site to the eighth and seventh centuries–the time of Hezekiah and Manasseh, kings of Judah. One of the interesting observations to be made is that somehow this site survived the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 BC (Isaiah 37). It continued until the Babylonian destruction in 586 BC and began to be reused shortly after that up through the period of Persian rule.
What Else Was Discovered?
Seals impressions bearing the names of a number of individuals were also found. These individuals are believed to be governmental personnel or wealthy land owners who held economic clout in the area. None of the names are known from the Bible, but they are found on jar handles at other sites in Judah. For the stout of heart who don’t mind reading ancient Hebrew names, here is the list: Naham Abdi, Naham Hatzlihu, Meshalem Elnatan, Zafan Abmetz, Shaneah Azaria, Shalem Acha and Shivna Shachar. Among the other items found are female and animal figurines which the excavators equate with idolatrous practices. This is not a surprise, since this is a well-known feature of ancient Judah. Although Hezekiah sought to rid the land of idolatry (2 Kgs. 18:1-6), his son Manasseh brought it back with a passion (2 Kgs. 21:1-10).
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
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
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.
Altar Discovered at 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 Discovery of an Ancient 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
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.
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!
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
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:
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).
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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!
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!
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
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!
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.