One Man's Quest for the Ark of the Covenant Led to a Completely Different Find

The unusual shape of a hill near Jerusalem prompted an Israeli archaeologist to conduct an excavation there with surprising findings

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Kiryat Ye'arim.
Kiryat Ye'arim. Mentioned in the Bible as the site where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.Credit: Angenis
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Kiryat Ye’arim is a wooded hill with a beautiful church, Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, at its summit. This church on the outskirts of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, is named for the statue of the Madonna and child that rises majestically from its roof. But when archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein visited the site several years ago, his gaze was drawn to an ancient stone terrace that bisected the slope. Oddly, it was straight-edged rather than rounded in keeping with the contour of the hill. He was struck, too, by how well it had held together. There must be a supporting wall stabilizing it, he deduced. Another thing that attracted his attention: Unlike the area’s other hills, this hilltop was flat.

Near the border that once separated the Kingdom of Judah from the Kingdom of Israel, Kiryat Ye’arim (transliterated as Kiriath-jearim in some translation of the Bible) is mentioned in the Bible as the site where the Ark of the Covenant (described in the Book of Exodus as the chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) was kept after the Philistines returned it to the Israelites.

Soon after making those observations in the field, Finkelstein was heading an archaeological excavation at the site, beginning in 2017. Though he didn’t unearth the Ark of the Covenant, a new documentary about the dig, “Ark of the Covenant: The Bible’s Origins” (“Following the Ark of the Covenant” in Hebrew, which aired on Kan 11 channel), shows the discovery of a ritual site where it’s believed the ark was likely placed. It also captures the thrill of an excavation that can change what we know, or think we know, about the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and also the biblical text.

“Ark of the Covenant: The Bible’s Origins” (in Hebrew)

Those who think archaeology is just mounds of dirt and pottery fragments will be surprised to learn how scientific techniques and advanced technology can now produce a vivid picture of history that is millennia removed from us. Viewers follow Finkelstein, a leading archaeologist and scholar of the Land of Israel, and are introduced to some of his work methods. These include using ground-penetrating radar to explore what’s hiding in the places he can’t excavate, and having quartz particles analyzed to determine the age of the structure in which they were found.

All of the findings are fed into a computer program that creates an incredibly realistic 3-D model of the site as it likely looked nearly 3,000 years ago.

The Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant church atop Kiryat Ye'arim. It's situated on the border line that separated the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Credit: Drone shot: Samuel Magal, Amir Terkel

Most interesting of all: The documentary offers a critical reading of the biblical text in light of the new findings, combined with historical information from other sources to construct a theory that could logically reconcile all of these sources.

“I see myself as a historian who comes from the archaeology side,” Finkelstein says in the film. “The form of this or that bit of pottery doesn’t interest me that much, unless it leads to some historical insight. The reconstruction of the ancient history of the Jewish people is based on a combination of biblical materials, ancient records and archaeology – which in recent years has been increasingly aided by scientific methods.”

Don’t call it fantasy

The film, directed by Frenchman Thierry Ragobert, bombards the viewer with information that’s not always easy to digest. However, following the way Finkelstein and his German-Swiss colleague Thomas Römer assemble the puzzle of the historical events is worth the effort.

A comparison of the findings from Kiryat Ye’arim and a similar construction method found at an excavation in Samaria indicates that the ritual compound in Kiryat Ye’arim was built in the early eighth century B.C.E., by King Jeroboam II, at a time when the Kingdom of Israel was ostensibly at its height (and with Samaria as its capital).

But here the plot thickens, since this finding contradicts what it says in 1 Samuel (and later 1 Chronicles): That after 20 years in which the ark was kept at Kiryat Ye’arim, King David brought it to Jerusalem. How can this be? David ruled in Jerusalem at a much earlier time, in the 10th century B.C.E.

Finkelstein explains in a Zoom chat with Haaretz that, to the best of his understanding, there was no large empire that was led by David and then Solomon. “They are historical figures, but they only ruled a small territory around Jerusalem. The idea of a glorious united kingdom that extended from Dan to Be’er Sheva is, I believe, an ideological and territorial manifesto that was written in Jerusalem and promoted the ambitions of the monarchy in the late seventh century B.C.E. – after the Assyrian withdrawal from the Land of Israel,” he says, adding that “the writers of the time are describing a glorious future kingdom.”

'The order of things described by the biblical author derives from his ideology. We’re dealing with history here, not theology'

Prof. Israel Finkelstein

Archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein.Credit: Megiddo Excavation Expedition

So it was written as a future fantasy of the Judeans about a united kingdom?

“I don’t use the word ‘fantasy.’ I’m very careful about language, because I also respect the faith-based approach to the Bible. I think this is a special kind of ideological writing. The ancient Judean authors of this text were essentially the first in the Western world to use the medium that we now call ‘history’ to promote theological ideas. They relied on legends, traditions and fragments of historical memories, and harnessed it all in the service of their ideology. They say: ‘This is the kingdom that will come to be.’

“It all ended in tragedy – with the Babylonian exile – but at the time of writing they didn’t know this would happen. They built an ideology around the kingdom that they thought would arise. They thought that after the Assyrian withdrawal, there was an opening for the fulfillment of their ideas – including the hope of Judah controlling territories that were previously controlled by the Kingdom of Israel.”

What did you think you’d find in Kiryat Ye’arim, and what did you find there? Were there things that surprised you?

An artist's impression of the Ark of the Covenant from the documentary. Credit: Angenis

“At the start, we found large supporting walls that artificially created the flat hilltop. The question was how to date them. We had to prove it was a construction from the period of the kingdom, and then determine which period exactly – a difference of 50 years gives a totally different historical framework.

>>> Dig deeper with these Haaretz archaeology stories:

Israeli Excavation Reveals New Findings About the Ark of the Covenant

Israeli Archaeologists May Have Found Emmaus, Where Jesus Appeared After Crucifixion

Meet the Real King David, the One the Bible Didn’t Want You to Know About

“Trying to identify the time of construction and the purpose of the site was a fascinating intellectual adventure – a serious riddle to decipher. One must always distinguish between archaeological findings and historical interpretation that may be debated. We didn’t find an inscription on the wall stating that King Jeroboam II built it. We reached that conclusion based on a whole array of considerations.”

The archaeological dig at Kiryat Ye'arim. Credit: Drone shot: Samuel Magal, Amir Terkel

Maybe there was also a ritual site in or around Kiryat Ye’arim in the 10th century B.C.E., and David was the one who brought the ark to Jerusalem, as the Bible says?

“I can’t rule out that possibility, but the excavations and archaeological surveys showed that while there was earlier settlement at the site, it wasn’t important. A large ritual site of the kind we’re talking about wouldn’t have been there before the eighth century B.C.E. Also, the order of things described by the biblical author derives from his ideology. We’re dealing with history here, not theology. I understand the author’s need to link David to this story, in order to advance his views, but I’m not certain there’s a historical reason to tie David to Kiryat Ye’arim.”

A brilliant text

Finkelstein and Römer conclude in the film that, for a period of decades beginning in about 800 B.C.E., Israel ruled Judah. “Ultimately, what we found in Kiryat Ye’arim caused me to retreat from the theory that the glorious united kingdom was an ideological territorial idea that first arose in the late Kingdom of Judah,” Finkelstein says.

“It dawned on me that there really was a united kingdom from Dan to Be’er Sheva, but it was ruled from Israel and not from Judah,” he says. “Also, it existed not in the 10th century B.C.E. but in the early eighth century B.C.E. After the fall of Israel, the Judeans inherited this idea and adapted it to their needs.”

A still from “Ark of the Covenant: The Bible’s Origins.”Credit: Ronen Mayo

Finkelstein’s critical approach to the Bible – pointing out contradictions with archaeological findings and viewing the text as a literary work that’s not always faithful to the historical truth – has made him a controversial figure to some, while others hail him as an innovator.

“People don’t really understand that in terms of our culture, we’re all basically the product of the writers who wrote the first nine books of the Bible,” he says. “These books shape our identity. We’re all a product of this formative text. But in research, we have to free ourselves from it. The question is to what degree we do so.

“I have great empathy for the biblical story; it fascinates me and inspires my admiration for the brilliance of the authors,” he continues. “They were better writers than us, better ideologues, geniuses in the way they put together this whole story. I think a critical reading shows greater respect for the biblical authors because it recognizes their brilliance and tries – even if not always successfully – to grapple with their messages.”

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