Archaeologists excavating a 3,100-year-old temple in the ancient settlement of Beth Shemesh, near Jerusalem, have uncovered an unusual stone table that eerily recalls one described in the Bible as playing a role in the story of the Ark of the Covenant.
The find could be interpreted many ways, but one possibility is that the site is linked to the biblical narrative of the fabled ark, which is traditionally believed to have contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai.
“This would be a rare case in which we can merge the biblical narrative with an archaeological find,” says Dr. Zvi Lederman, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist who leads the Beth Shemesh dig together with his colleague, Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz.
If their hypothesis is correct – that this unusual stone table is connected to the biblical story of the ark – the find would be evidence that the Bible contains kernels of historical truths from much earlier periods than most experts previously thought.
Sacrifices and mini-olive presses
First things first: how do we know that the building that contained the mysterious find was in fact a temple?
The structure, dated to the 12th century B.C.E., is located on a tel – the stratified remains of multiple ancient settlements – just outside the modern Israeli city of Beth Shemesh, 20 kilometers west of Jerusalem. This particular building was isolated from the residential areas and had sturdier walls, Bunimovitz explains. Also, it was a perfect square, each side 8.5 meters long, whose corners aligned with the cardinal points.
Facing east, where the sun rises, the structure opened onto a bamah, a platform commonly used for religious ceremonies.
Inside the putative temple, archaeologists found two large round concave stones into which gutters had been carved. These may have been used for libations of wine or were perhaps miniature olive presses to produce sacred oil, Lederman theorizes.
The researchers also found a treasure trove of decorated pottery jugs and cups as well as a pile of animal bones – again, signs of ritual activity, Bunimovitz says.
“There is a lot of evidence that this was indeed a temple,” the archaeologist says. “When you look at the structure and its content, it’s very clear that this not a standard domestic space but something special.”
Desecration by dung
If this was indeed a temple, there is also evidence that someone had a serious beef with the place. At some point in the mid-12th century B.C.E. the building was destroyed, and the above-mentioned pottery vessels smashed to bits.
To uncover the temple, the archaeologists had to dig through multiple layers of a thick black material, which they initially thought was ash that formed when the building was torched.
But when the material was analyzed, the truth turned out to be much ickier: the whole building had been covered in heaps of animal dung.
“Very shortly after it was destroyed, the entire place was turned into an animal pen,” Lederman tells Haaretz. “To me this is an act of hostility, an intentional desecration of a holy place.”
As for who might have been responsible for such a sacrilege, the archaeologist points a tentative finger at the Philistines – whose closest settlement, Tel Batash, was a mere seven kilometers from Beth Shemesh.
Based on the biblical chronology, the 12th-11th centuries B.C.E. correspond to the era of pre-monarchic Israel, when judges like Samson and Deborah ruled over the loosely united twelve Hebrew tribes. Beth Shemesh is described as a border town between the Israelites and the Philistines, in a region where the two peoples often clashed.
While the accuracy of the biblical narrative is a major question (more about that later), the archaeology of Beth Shemesh does bear out that the settlement was indeed a flashpoint border location, Lederman says. In the space of those two centuries, archaeologists have identified four distinct villages built = atop one another. This means the place was conquered, abandoned or destroyed, and rebuilt multiple times in the space of 200 years, he says.
It was during one of the periods in which Beth Shemesh changed hands that the temple was destroyed. So it seems likely that those responsible for the desecration were the conquering Philistines.
But why would this sanctuary have been so significant to the local inhabitants, and so reviled by their enemies?
While the temple has been under excavation since 2012, it was only last summer that the archaeologists unearthed a possible clue to its importance: a massive stone slab resting horizontally on two smaller rocks.
“At the beginning we thought it was a massebah that had fallen over,” Lederman says, referring to the standing stones commonly associated with cultic activity in the ancient Levant. “But soon we realized that it was meant to be a table.”
The installation looks like a small-sized dolmen, the prehistoric stone monuments that can be found around the world – including the Golan Heights – but which date to hundreds or thousands of years earlier.
Dolmen-like tables were not found in early Iron Age temples, where Lederman explains.
Even more intriguingly, the enigmatic table fits the timeframe and profile of the “large stone” on which, according to the First Book of Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant rested when it was brought to Beth Shemesh after being recovered from the Philistines, he notes.
According to the Bible, after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the ark was placed in Shiloh, north of Jerusalem, but was later captured by the Philistines in battle. God then punished the Philistines for their arrogance, afflicting them with illness and plagues until their leaders placed the holy artifact on a cart and led it back to the Israelites along with gifts of gold to appease the rival deity.
And here is where Beth Shemesh enters the story of the ark:
“Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone.” (1 Samuel 6:13-15).
The story goes on to tell how God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh who had dared to look inside the ark (so no, the Indiana Jones movie didn’t come up with that idea). It was then taken to Kiriath Yearim, where it stayed for 20 years before being taken to Jerusalem by King David.
A distant memory
Could the discovery made in Beth Shemesh prove that at least that part of the biblical narrative is a true story? Can we say that the ark physically rested on this particular stone table?
Such an assertion is almost impossible to prove archaeologically, warns Lederman, noting that there are also several inconsistencies between the biblical story and the find in Beth Shemesh. For example the stone was supposed to be located in a field in the valley below the town, not inside a temple at the top of the tel.
“It’s not easy to unpack all the twists and turns of the story that ended up in the Bible and figure out what people remembered, what was historical and what was added later,” Bunimovitz adds.
However, the discovery suggests that whoever wrote the story of the ark, probably centuries later, was aware of a tradition of a large stone in Beth Shemesh that functioned as an important focus of worship back in the 12th century B.C.E., and incorporated it into the biblical text, the archaeologists say.
It is generally believed by scholars that most biblical traditions were constructed much later than the 12th century B.C.E. and that the holy text is “not a historical document, but an ideological one,” Bunimovitz avers. “But in every ideological narrative, if you want it to be believed and accepted, you have to insert some real elements.”
If the memory of an important cultic center in Beth Shemesh managed to survive for so long in local traditions, it would make sense to reference it in relation to the ark’s passage in the town to make the story more realistic, the archaeologist concludes.
This postulation is bound to cause huge controversy among researchers, because it would mean that the Bible contains historical memories that are much older than what most modern scholars believe.
Mainstream researchers today agree that the Bible was written by different hands in different times, likely centuries after the events that that the holy text purports to relate. However, there is no agreement on how much historical truth was passed down in the oral traditions that were compiled into the Bible and from which centuries those traditions originate. Did David’s and Solomon’s fabulous kingdom really exist? Are there kernels of truth in the story of the Exodus from Egypt? When did the Israelites become a people and begin to worship the deity known in the Bible as YHWH?
All these questions and many more are the center of the longstanding debate over the historicity of the Bible. In the case of the Ark of the Covenant, many contemporary biblical scholars believe that the so-called Ark Narrative was originally a separate text that was edited and incorporated into the Bible at a later stage.
The Ark Narrative probably originated in the 8th century B.C.E. in the northern kingdom of Israel (as opposed to the kingdom of Judah, which had its capital in Jerusalem), says Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who has led digs at Shiloh and Kiriath Yearim, two of the other locations that supposedly hosted the ark.
The story of the ark was then edited in Jerusalem and compiled into the Bible probably in the late 7th century B.C.E. in a format that reflected the religious reforms carried out under the Judahite King Josiah.
Josiah was determined to stamp out the worship of all deities other than YHWH and centralized the worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem. The story of the ark being unsuccessfully settled in different locations – in Shiloh, Beth Shemesh and so on – likely reflects the desire of the Jerusalemite scribes to establish the primacy of their city (and temple) over all other sacred places.
Finkelstein is skeptical that the discovery of the temple and stone table in Beth Shemesh can be linked to the reference to this town in the Ark Narrative, Finkelstein tells Haaretz.
“The Ark Narrative depicts realities from the 8th century B.C.E.,” he says. “It is difficult to assume that a memory from the 12th century B.C.E. was preserved until the 8th century with no continuous writing tradition.”
Other researchers think we should not be so quick to dismiss Lederman’s and Bunimovitz’s interpretation.
“I don’t think anyone would take this literally and conclude that this is the stone from the biblical story,” says Avraham Faust, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. “Obviously the story was written much later, but this find might support the theory that there are some very early traditions that made their way into the Bible.”
In the past, archaeological evidence has often been stretched to fit the biblical narrative, so researchers today tend to reject any such possible link out of hand, Faust tells Haaretz.
“It’s an automatic and sometimes justified suspicion, but I don’t think this is the case here,” he says. “This is a noticeable stone, placed in a conspicuous position within what looks like a temple, at sort of the right time, so there are many dots that can connect this find to an old tradition that may have found its way into the biblical story. I don’t know if they are right or wrong, but I think it should be examined carefully.”
Enter the Israelites
Whether or not a kernel of history survived some four centuries of oral transmission and ended up as part of the biblical text, the newly discovered temple with its enigmatic stone table raises other important questions about the earliest roots of the Israelites.
Who were the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh during the 12th century B.C.E.? Would they have identified as “Israelites,” or were they a local iteration of the Canaanite population? And which deity did they worship in their temple?
The answers to these questions are fuzzy.
“All we can say is that these were local people, Canaanites, whose culture was the same as that of the people who lived here centuries before,” Lederman says. “There is no indication that this was a foreign group.”
We do know that by the end of the 13th century B.C.E. there was a group in Canaan known as “Israel” and was mentioned as such in a stele of the Pharaoh Merneptah.
But we have no idea whether this people’s culture looked anything like the descriptions in the Bible (written much later), and whether their territory included Beth Shemesh.
The town’s name, Beth Shemesh, means “house of the sun” and implicitly suggests that the earliest settlers there were devoted to the Canaanite solar deity.
On the other hand, the animal bones found in the temple – and across the ancient Iron Age settlement itself – do not include pig, echoing the very Jewish prohibition against eating pork.
The near absence of pig bones in highland settlements across the Levant has long been identified by archaeologists as one of the early distinguishing cultural traits of the Canaanites or early Israelites at the beginning of the Iron Age. This taboo likely served to distinguish the local inhabitants from their Philistine arch-nemeses, who definitely enjoyed a bit of bacon.
But on its own, the aversion for pig is not enough to conclude that the locals should be identified as Israelites, Bunimovitz and Lederman say.
“We can’t say that in 1150 B.C.E. they were Canaanites and by 1120 B.C.E. they were Israelites. We don’t see any such sharp cultural transition. All the archaeology of Beth Shemesh and of the highlands of Canaan shows that this was a slow process of construction of identity that took centuries,” Bunimovitz says. “So we cannot call them Israelites, but their identity had already started to evolve, partly as a reaction to Philistine culture, into what we would eventually call the people of Israel.”