“Lot was sitting in the gates of Sodom,” relates the book of Genesis. To modern ears, the description “in the gates” sounds curious, but in biblical times a gate (or "gates") was not just a passageway through the defensive wall surrounding the city. It was typically a massive and often complex structure, consisting of an outer gate and an inner one providing a second line of defense, with a space in between.
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It was the space between those two gates – sometimes just a corridor with recessed guardrooms, sometimes a more spacious courtyard – that the Bible calls “in the gates.” Much life took place within that gate area. Based on biblical references and archaeological finds, that space served as a combination of town hall, ad hoc law court, Hyde Park Corner, marketplace and park bench.
Witnesses in pre-literate societies
It was in the city gate, through which people constantly flowed, that agreements were verbally sealed in the presence of witnesses, a necessity in an era before the written contract.
In Hebron, south of Jerusalem, sometime in the 2nd millennium B.C.E., the Hebrew patriarch Abraham negotiated the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as a tomb for his wife Sarah: And “it passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city” (Genesis 23). The agreement was witnessed; the deal was done.
The Hebrew Bible records another negotiation, in the gate of nearby Bethlehem of Judah, several centuries later. A certain Boaz wished to exercise his familial right to marry Ruth, the young Moabite widow of a kinsman.
But Boaz was not first in line, and the match was only possible if another male relative, closer on the family tree, publicly waived his prerogative. “Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city” and sat them down in the gate. When the exchange between the two kinsmen ended to Boaz’s satisfaction, – Boaz addressed the crowd: “Today you are witnesses . Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses” (Ruth 4).
Half a country away, the Israelite gate at Tel Dan – the site of the biblical city of Dan – has an ancient stone bench with, tellingly, seating for precisely ten people.
'Justice in the gate'
The gate of the city was also a podium for the Israelite prophets of old, the feisty social reformers of their day. “Hate evil and love good,” declaimed Amos, “and establish justice in the gate.”
As the maxim has it: not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done. And for the ancient Israelites, the one place in the city where transparency was guaranteed was the city gate.
It was an extraordinarily progressive judicial system for its day, but apparently could not entirely prevent official corruption. “They hate the one who reproves in the gate,” Amos scathingly noted, presumably referring to himself; and he raged against those “who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5).
The Israelite gate at Dan
A well-preserved example of the city gate can be found at Tel Dan, a huge 70-acre mound in northern Israel, near the Lebanese border. Excavation of the site, conducted over decades by the late Dr. Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College, exposed an impressive Israelite city-gate complex.
Biran dated the Israelite gate to the early 9th century B.C.E., the time of King Ahab.
From outside the city, a cobblestone approach-way ascends to the outer gate. Beyond the door-jambs, threshold and door-stop is the courtyard, on the far side of which is the inner gate, similar to the first. There seem to have been upper-story structures overlooking the vulnerable entrance to the city, presumably part of its defenses.
The Israelite gate at Tel Dan has another interesting feature: a raised square platform, with two steps ascending to it. Round, decorated stone sockets at the corners of the platform were possibly designed to hold the poles of a canopy.
While it is possible that the platform had a cultic function – alongside it is an unadorned “standing stone,” often understood as an abstract representation of a deity – scholars are inclined to see it as the base of the king’s seat in the city gate. Here he might sit in judgment, or simply to demonstrate his majesty.
Remarkably for the period, the Israelite king – almost a constitutional monarch in an age of absolutism – would go out to see and be seen by his subjects.
By the way, ancient Dan also has a famous Canaanite-era gate, one of the oldest of its kind still standing in the world, dating from the Bronze Age:
King David 'in the gate'
An intriguing biblical example of this royal phenomenon – though it did not take place in Dan – concerns the rebellion against King David by his son, Absalom, in the early 10th century B.C.E.
Absalom’s initial success forced David to flee across the Jordan River and find refuge in Mahanaim. At the climax of the revolt, loyalist and rebel forces clashed in the forest of Ephraim, where David’s army carried the day.
The king “was sitting between the two gates” of the city (presumably Mahanaim), anxiously waiting for news from the battlefield. The victory is complete, a runner tells him; but Absalom is dead: “The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept.”
David’s troops were dispirited, the Bible relates, their victory “turned into mourning.” Joab, David’s general, angrily burst in on the king, upbraiding him for indulging his personal sorrow and ignoring his men, and warning him of disaster unless he reasserted his royal presence.
“Then the king got up and took his seat in the gate. The troops were all told, ‘See, the king is sitting in the gate’; and all the troops came before the king” (2 Sam 18 & 19). Allegiance was restored; and the rest, as they say, is history.