Hebrew Inscription on a 3,000-year-old Jar Could Redraw Borders of Ancient Israel

Archaeologists were surprised to find Hebrew writing in Abel Beth Maacah, which some don’t think was part of the ancient kingdom

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The inscribed jar in situ, in a destroyed Iron Age building in Abel Beth Maacah
The inscribed jar in situ, in a destroyed Iron Age building in Abel Beth MaacahCredit: Robert Mullins
Ariel David
Ariel David

Nearly 3,000 years ago, a scribe inked a single Hebrew word on a large jar filled with wine or something else, which had been stored in a building at Abel Beth Maacah, an ancient settlement at the northern tip of today’s Israel. Now archaeologists have found it. That one word in an “unexpected” place could redraw the map of the ancient kingdom of Israel in the 10th-9th century B.C.E., showing it may have stretched farther north than is currently supposed.

There is a big debate among archaeologists on whether Abel Beth Maacah, which is mentioned in the Bible three times, was under the control of Israel, the Phoenicians, the Arameans, or was independent during this period.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56

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This discussion, and questions raised by the discovery of that one word on a jar, also touch on the broader debates on the historicity of the Bible, especially the true extent of the territory of the Kingdom of Israel and the belief system of the ancient Israelites.

The Hebrew word came to light last summer after archaeologists unearthed five smashed storage jars in a large Iron Age building, say Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack and Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who are leading the dig jointly with Prof. Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles.

“I’ll admit that we didn’t see the inscription when we washed the finds,” Yahalom-Mack tells Haaretz, shuddering at the thought of the near miss. But when restorer Adrianne Ganor began piecing together the broken shards, she noticed faint traces of ink on one of them.

Multispectral imaging brings out the faint "leBenayau" inscription on the jar found at Abel Beth MaacahCredit: Courtesy of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, Israel Antiquities Authority / Shai Halevi

Multispectral images taken at the same lab in the Israel Museum that studies the Dead Sea Scrolls gave experts a clearer view of the text, enabling them to decipher the five-letter word written in ancient Hebrew script, Yahalom-Mack says.

The inscription reads “leBenayau,” simply meaning that the storage jar and its contents “belong to Benayau.”

While the inscribed jar was found empty, one of the broken jars unearthed next to it contained a single grape pip and possible wine residue, leading archaeologists to suspect they may have stumbled upon Benayau’s wine cellar.

Labeling goods with the prepositional “le” (meaning “to” in Hebrew) followed by the owner’s name was a typical administrative practice throughout the ancient Levant. But while the text would have been mundane to its writer, its significance to archaeologists today is anything but.

This is the first inscription unearthed at Abel Beth Maacah, Panitz-Cohen says. Crucially, the archaeologists date the writing to more than 2,900 years ago. This was a tumultuous time in the history of the early Israelites and particularly for the northern reaches of the Kingdom of Israel, which changed hands numerous times, hence the uncertainty about control over the town.

Divination by bones

Abel Beth Maacah is a tel – a mound containing the stratified remains of multiple settlements over millennia of habitation. Since 2013 it has been excavated under license from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, with support from the Israel Science Foundation and private donors.

The site is located at the tip of the Galilee, near the modern-day town of Metula and Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria.

Ancient Israel in Iron Age IIaCredit: , Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Some 3,000 years ago, its situation was much the same, and the then bustling trading town was sandwiched between Tyre and Sidon, prosperous Phoenician city-states on the coast; the powerful Aramean kingdom centered on Damascus;and the Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria.

Because of its location, researchers have long been debating the identity of Abel Beth Maacah’s inhabitants and the geopolitical affiliation of the town and its surrounding region during different eras.

“The allegiance of this city and the identity of the population in the 10th-9th centuries B.C.E. are a big debate,” says Yahalom-Mack. “What was their connection to Israel? Were the religion, the language, and the culture the same as in Israel? We are looking for evidence of Abel belonging politically to one entity or another, while it is also possible that it was an independent city-state.”

When the Bible first mentions Abel Beth Maacah, in 2 Samuel 20, it does so in connection with King David, and makes it clear that the city was part of Israel at that time, which would have roughly been in the middle of the 10th century B.C.E. But most scholars today agree that the Bible was written centuries after the time of King David and should not be taken literally, particularly when describing David and Solomon’s united monarchy, whose very existence and extent are still the subject of acrimonious debate. 

The dig at Abel Beth Maacah has so far painted a complex picture of the town’s cultural identity. Archaeologists have unearthed beautifully colored Phoenician pottery alongside pots that are more typical of areas to the south; animal knucklebones (also known as astragali) that were used for divination and a one-of-a-kind figurative sculpture, possibly depicting the head of a king

Into this mosaic of material culture enters the newly discovered “leBenayau” inscription.

One question that the archaeologists want to clarify is whether the jar was imported or produced locally. For this they are conducting a petrographic analysis of the vessel, which could help them determine the origin of the clay. “When we find storage jars at sites like this, they are usually for local goods, although the possibility that this was a storeroom for jars that reached it via trade cannot be ruled out,” says Panitz-Cohen.

While the archaeologist cautions that a single inscription does not an Israelite town make, it still “connects Abel Beth Maacah to the Israelite sphere,” she says.

From Dan to Beersheba

Benayau’s jar and other finds at the site may prove that an archaeologist named Avraham Biran, who since the 1960s researched the ancient city of Dan – just six kilometers from Abel Beth Maacah – was right all along.

Biran concluded that the Dan area was well populated from nearly 3,000 years ago. This, to some extent, confirmed the biblical narrative that repeatedly describes Israelite territory as stretching “from Dan to Beersheba” (for example, in 1 Kings 4:25) already in the time of David and Solomon, that is, about 3,000 years ago.

Later researchers challenged that, finding little evidence of habitation in this border town until the conquest by the Aramean king Hazael around 2850 years ago.

In other words, recent thinking has been that not only wasn’t northern Israel “Israelite:” it was mostly empty and the Israelite control “from Dan to Beersheba” was a later invention.

The inconsistency has led some scholars, like leading Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, to theorize that the biblical descriptions of the vast United Monarchy were historical anachronisms and were actually inspired by the later expansion of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.

During this time, mainly under the Israelite king Jeroboam II, Israel vanquished the Arameans and demonstrably controlled the Dan-Abel area, within a vast territory ranging from Syria to the Sinai desert, including the Kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem.

But before that, this theory goes, the Israelites were nowhere to be seen in the vicinity of Dan and Abel.

Now the pendulum may be swinging back in favor of Biran’s views.  In Abel Beth Maacah, over the last couple of years the ongoing excavation has uncovered not only the “leBenayau” inscription but a bevy of other finds dated to the time when the region was supposedly empty.

At least two large public buildings, including the one where the jars were found, as well as a massive casemate fortress have surfaced so far and organic finds therein have been carbon-dated to the 10th-9th centuries B.C.E., Yahalom-Mack and Panitz-Cohen say.

So, Abel Beth Maacah was certainly not uninhabited at the time, which may speak of the region in general, they say.

A key to challenging the prevailing paradigm on the status of this region at that time will be confirming and refining the dating of the inscription, says Dr. Eran Arie, curator for archaeology of the Iron Age and Persian Period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Arie did not take part in the Abel dig but is keenly aware of the issue at hand since in 2008 he published a landmark article that identified the proposed settlement gap in nearby Dan.

“If the inscription is from the 8th century B.C.E. then it’s still important but not a big surprise, because we know that in that period, the Kingdom of Israel reached until Dan,” he says. “But if it’s really from the 9th century B.C.E. it reopens questions on the connection of this area to Israel and may force us to rethink some of our conclusions. This is not a bad thing: it’s always important to adjust our interpretation when new evidence emerges.”

The inscription itself cannot be carbon-dated but Panitz-Cohen avers that she is “very comfortable in saying that these kind of jars are from the 9th century, maximum the very beginning of the 8th century B.C.E.”

The inscribed jar found at Abel Beth MaacahCredit: Tal Rogovski

The “Benayau” inscription was also analyzed by Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben Gurion University and Prof. Christopher Rollston, a renowned epigraphist from George Washington University, who gave the same range of dates for the type of script used, Panitz-Cohen says.

Again, she and Yahalom-Mack caution that the discovery of the inscription and other remains are not enough to say that this was Israelite territory as early as around 3,000 years ago – but they do suggest that archaeologists may have to revisit their theory about the Galilee panhandle being depopulated at the time.

Clearly, thousands of people were living in Abel Beth Maacah, including, possibly, at least one Hebrew man named Benayau.

What’s in a Yahwistic name?

Speaking of Benayau, what can be said about the hero of this story? In order to acquire or receive large quantities of goods he was likely someone of means or power, but his name is not known from other records. Some additional important information however can be gleaned from the find itself.

The jar bearing his name is unusual in that its handle carries a seal impression in the form of a cross or star.

Unique cross-shaped incision on the handle of the inscribed jar found in Abel Beth MaacahCredit: Tal Rogovski
Credit: Robert Mullins

Stamping a seal onto a clay vessel was a common way of marking it as property in the ancient world. Many different kinds of seal impressions have been found across the Levant. But this particular imagery doesn’t have any known parallels, Yahalom-Mack says.

It is also uncommon for texts during this period to be written in ink rather than inscribed into the clay, the archaeologist says.

These aspects of the find are certainly intriguing for researchers, but the most interesting and telling part is the name of the man himself.

Benayau means “God has built” and derives from the root of the Hebrew verb banah (to build) and the suffix yod-waw (יו), which refers to YHWH, the God of the Bible. This makes it a theophoric name, because it includes the name of the divinity worshipped by its bearer – or, at least, by his or her family.

Theophoric names were common in the ancient Near East and invoked the protection of multiple Levantine deities, such as Ba’al, Hadad, Chemosh and so on. Benayau’s is what experts call a Yahwistic name, and marks him as an Israelite and a worshipper of YHWH.

It also identifies him as a subject of the northern Kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judah.

Judahite Yahwistic names used the suffix yod-hey-waw (יהו). Had he hailed from, say, Jerusalem, his name would have been Benayahu.

If indeed the inscription dates to 2,900 to 3,000 years ago, his is one of the first appearances of a Yahwistic name in the archaeological record, says Dr. Mitka Golub-Ratzaby, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University and an expert on ancient Hebrew names. (Yahwistic names were also identified in inscriptions found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai, dating to a roughly similar time.) 

Drawing from Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite outpost in Southern Negev, 8th century B.C.E. Credit: Alamy

It is here that Benayau’s story intersects with another burning question in the history of Judaism: when and how did the ancient Israelites come to abandon paganism and become worshippers of YHWH

The Bible implies that the twelve tribes of Israel turned into a Yahwistic people pretty much overnight after escaping bondage in Egypt and receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Of course, they frequently sinned by making idols or turning to pagan deities, but overall they are described as a monotheistic people since the time of Moses, centuries before the birth of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

No monotheists they, the earliest Jews

Restorer Adrienne Ganor poses with the inscribed jar found at Abel Beth MaacahCredit: Nava Panitz-Cohen

However, archaeology and biblical scholarship tell a very different story. The very word Israel, itself a theophoric name, indicates that these people were initially worshippers of El, the main deity in the Canaanite pantheon. Also, there are very few Yahwistic names in the biblical stories of the early Israelites: think of Saul, David, Solomon or the prophet Samuel (there’s that El again) – none are Yahwistic.

Only in biblical chapters that are set from the 9th century B.C.E. onwards do Yahwistic names become a common motif. The first Israelite kings to bear Yahwistic names were Jehoshaphat of Judah and Ahaziyah of Israel, both of whom are supposed to have reigned in the 9th century B.C.E.

Archaeologically, the first certain extrabiblical mention of the god YHWH himself occurs in the Mesha stele, a Moabite inscription dated to the late ninth century B.C.E. 

And indeed it is only at the end of this century that Yahwistic names begin to appear in ancient Hebrew inscriptions, even as theophoric names invoking other gods remained common, explains Golub-Ratzaby.

Up to the end of the 8th century B.C.E., only about half of theophoric Hebrew names reference YHWH. That percentage grew to 70 percent in the 7th-6th century B.C.E., says the archaeologist, who has created an online database of Hebrew names from the Iron Age found in inscriptions across the Holy Land.

All this suggests that the spread of Yahwism was a slow process that took centuries, during which YHWH progressively assumed a greater importance in the national pantheon but continued to be worshipped alongside other deities, such as Asherah, who was probably believed to be YHWH’s spouse

In other words, until the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., the Hebrews were not monotheists. They adopted a belief system focused on a single, universal god only after the exile in Babylon, during the Second Temple period. 

All this of course happened centuries after Benayau’s death, but the discovery of his name in Abel Beth Maacah, so far from the heartland of the Israelite nation, is certainly powerful testimony to the slow but inexorable spread of Yahwism, which, for reasons still unknown, probably began to pick up not long before his own lifetime.

The theophoric component of Benayau’s name further strengthens the link between Abel Beth Maacah and ancient Israel, while still not being enough to clinch the argument that this was an Israelite town, say the archaeologists behind the find.

“This inscription could be evidence that the city’s administration was in the hands of people who spoke Hebrew with Yahwistic names,” concludes Yahalom-Mack. “It was found in a warehouse that apparently belonged to a local and he had a Yahwistic, Israelite name: this can give us a hint of who this city belonged to at this time.”

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