Tel-Arad: The Home of Judah’s Other Temple
Did you know that Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was not the only temple that existed in Judah during the divided monarchy period? In a discussion of top biblical sites, Tel-Arad is unlikely to make the list with most people. In fact, some of you may be saying, “Tel-what? I’ve never heard of it. Where is it?” This is probably because it is not frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, and it is not connected with any particularly memorable story. In spite of that, it is a mistake to sell Tel-Arad short as it has some of the most interesting archaeological finds in Israel, including another temple!
Tel-Arad is located in the southeastern area of Israel known as the Negev, 22 miles east-northeast of Beersheba and 15.5 miles west of the Dead Sea. Although this area experiences little rainfall, Arad is situated in a strategic geographical location by ancient trade routes coming from the south and southeast. The Canaanites were the original settlers of this area and established a large city here between 3000-2300 B.C. Numbers 21:1-3 says that the King of Arad attacked Israel while they were making their way toward Canaan. The Israelites achieved an overwhelming victory and named the place “Hormah” which means “utter destruction.” Joshua 12:14 also mentions the defeat of a king of Arad. According to Joshua 19:1-8 this area was given to the tribe of Simeon (Arad appears in v. 4 as “Hormah”). Judges 1:16 tells us that the Kenites (the relatives of Moses’ father-in-law) also settled in this area, as did the infamous Amalekites (1 Sam. 27:8-10).
The Fortress at Tel-Arad
Although there was a small settlement during the time of Solomon, it was during the divided monarchy period that a fortress was established at Tel-Arad. The fortress would have served to protect Judah’s southern border against its enemies, in particular, the Edomites. That this was a dangerous area is evidenced in the fact that the fortress was destroyed 6 times during the divided monarchy period! One of those destructions may have been the result of the great earthquake of 760 B.C. (see Amos 1:1 for a mention of this earthquake). Three of the destructions of the fortress came during the eighth century B.C. According to the Bible, the Edomites were a constant problem during this time (2 Kgs. 15:7; 16:6). It is likely that one of the destructions of the fortress occurred during Hezekiah of Judah’s rebellion against the Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 B.C., who is said to have destroyed all the fortified cities of Judah (2 Kgs. 18:13). However, the fortress was rebuilt, but was finally destroyed as a result of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah in 586 B.C. Inscriptions from Arad (which we will talk about below) indicate that the Edomites may have been responsible for the destruction, as it is well known that they assisted Babylon at this time (see the Book of Obadiah).
The Temple at Tel-Arad
Although Bible students are aware of the temples erected in northern Israel by Jeroboam I (see my articles on Tel-Dan), and that Judah continued to have problems with the “high places” (e.g., 2 Kgs. 14:1-4), most, are not aware that Tel-Arad sported a complete temple that included all of the ingredients of Solomon’s temple. I had the opportunity to visit Arad in the summer of 2008 and walk through this temple complex. Since it is not possible to excavate the ruins of Solomon’s (or Herod’s) temple, it is fascinating to get a first hand view of what an ancient Israelite temple looked like. The altar of burnt offering in the courtyard is made of unhewn stones and follows the specifications laid down in Exodus 27:1. The temple itself consists of two rooms, as described in Scripture. The first, (the holy place) is a broad room resembling the same layout as Jeroboam’s temple in Tel-Dan. In contrast, the holy place in Solomon’s temple consisted of a long room. After entering the broad room one can then approach and enter a square room which would have been the holy of holies. It was fascinating to stand in this room and think about what would have taken place here. Who would have entered this room and when? Since there was no Ark of the Covenant here, what was done in this room? Was the Day of Atonement ritual practiced here? Did the high priest come down from Jerusalem, or did another appointed priest have access to the holy of holies in Arad? Many questions, but not many answers!
There are a couple of other fascinating things about entering the holy of holies at Tel-Arad. One is the altars of incense placed on either side of the entrance, and the other is the two “standing stones” (masseboth in Hebrew) inside. These stones (which I am crouching between in the photo below) supposedly represent Yahweh and his Asherah, or wife! This is an excellent example of the corruption of true Yahweh worship and why the Scripture insists that God was only to be worshipped at the place which He chose (Deut. 12:1-8). This sanctuary was covered over before Sennacherib’s destruction in 701 B.C. and never reused. It is thought that this is probably due to the reforms of King Hezekiah mentioned in 2 Kings 18:1-6. (For another recent discovery of a Judean Temple at Tel Motza, see my post Five Recent Archaeological Discoveries.)
The Tel-Arad Ostraca
Ostraca are pieces of broken pottery that were often used in ancient times as writing material. Archaeologists have discovered 88 Hebrew ostraca at Tel-Arad. This is an amazingly large quantity and, along with the temple complex, is evidence that Arad was a regional administrative and perhaps religious center. Among the 88 pieces, 15 are whole. The inscriptions date from the eighth to sixth centuries B.C., with the possibility of some being as old as the tenth century B.C. No other archaeological site has ever yielded ostraca that date from different periods in Israelite history. These ostraca not only provide insight into various stages of Judah’s history, but they help biblical scholars note the development and change of the ancient Hebrew language. A few of the ostraca mention the Edomites as enemies. It is this evidence that suggests the Edomites played an important part in the final destruction of Arad. Another ostracon (sg.) seems to be a “royal” inscription. It only exists in part, but it appears to be a letter from the king of Judah announcing his accession to the throne, with a reference to the “King of Egypt” as well. If this is correct, then this letter may be from Judah’s new king Jehoahaz who became king after the Pharaoh of Egypt (Necho II) killed his father Josiah at the battle of Megiddo in 609 B.C. (2 Kgs. 23:31). Another important ostracon mentions a priestly family (the family of Keros) who are referred to in Ezra 2:44 and Nehemiah 7:47. This same ostracon mentions “the house of Yahweh” which is the only nonbiblical reference to any preexilic temple to Yahweh (unless it is one day proven that the Jehoash inscription is authentic–for more info see the following link at bibleplaces.com). Tel-Arad is indeed a fascinating site with a lot to offer those who are interested in the history of ancient Israel. Ask your tour guide to add it to your itinerary the next time you go to Israel! For more information on ancient Arad, and examples of translations of some of the ostraca go to the following link: jewishvirtuallibrary.
All photos, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Randy & Gloria McCracken and are only to be used for educational purposes.
Note: Some of the information from this article was taken from Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books, eds. Bill T. Arnold & H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), pp. 39-41, 372-373. You can order a copy of this dictionary at: