What’s More Important, the Biblical King Hezekiah or Expanding Route 38?

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The excavations along either side of Route 38, at Tell Beit Shemesh
The excavations along either side of Route 38, at Tell Beit ShemeshCredit: Studio M.Fishbeia

Unlikely as it may sound for a site sidelined for years, Tell Beit Shemesh in central Israel has suddenly become the arena for an epic wrestling match, pitting archaeologists against traffic planners. The issue at stake: What matters more, the heritage of King Hezekiah of Judah, or Route 38?

Hezekiah ruled Judah from about 727 B.C.E. to 698 B.C.E., though in fact for at least some of that 30-year period he was a vassal king of Assyria. A seal, apparently belonging to Hezekiah and found in Jerusalem, suggests he indicates that he did not shy from bowing to the pagan values of his overlords. As for Route 38, it connects the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway to the biblical town of Beit Guvrin. 

Route 38 has been widened in recent years to accommodate growing traffic, except at one spot. Between Beit Shemesh and the farming community of Yish’i, it remains a two-lane road. That, because of the archaeological remains on either side, which some scholars believe should be preserved, not paved over.

Intensive archaeological investigation of the site bisected by Route 38 began in March, involving dozens of archaeologists and hundreds of volunteers. The digs are categorized as a salvage excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which routinely checks sites slated for development.

A view of Route 38 and the excavationCredit: Zvi Lederenza

However, the very definition of “salvage excavation” implies that after accelerated exploration, the builders will move in. “Salvage” excavations, an archaeologist told me, are actually “eradication” excavations.

The Transportation Ministry has allocated 60 million shekels ($16 million) for the archaeological work in Beit Shemesh. The Israel Antiquities Authority is responsible for the digs, working with archaeologists from Tel Aviv University and the sponsorship of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

All this is normal for sites around Israel. And all would have been well and good if at least some archaeologists hadn’t been absolutely stunned by what they found.

King Hezekiah

Biblical Beit Shemesh (Beth-Shemesh) is nothing less than a time capsule of the First-Temple-era Kingdom of Judah, say Tel Aviv University archaeologists Zvi Lederman, who has been digging at Tel Beth Shemesh for 27 years, and Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz. It also represents the boundary of the Philistine expansion

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Lederman says the Israelite identity was formed partly in border areas, such as Tell Beit Shemesh, which dates to the First Temple era, around 3,000 years ago. Before this salvage excavation, archaeologists had no idea just how important the site is, Lederman says.

The discoveries sprawl out on both sides of the busy road. The town there was a bustling place, featuring dense building and planning, with the purpose of contributing to the wealth and power of the Kingdom of Judah.

A jar handle with royal seal impression in ancient HebrewCredit: studio M.Fishbeia

The finds are changing our understanding of what happened in King Hezekiah’s reign, when the leader of a backwater consolidated his fellow monarchs in a rebellion against their Assyrian overlords.

The assumption has been that little could be found of Judah from that period. When the Assyrian King Sennacherib marched his forces to the Mediterranean coastal region in the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign (701 B.C.E.), to crush the rebellion, he brutally destroyed the rebel cities, mercilessly burning down their fields and vineyards, as the prophet Isaiah  describes so vividly (blaming God’s wrath on the fickleness of the people).

“Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly; they have forsaken the Lord” (Isaiah 1:4).

The prophet goes on to say, “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire.”

Now the exploration amid whizzing cars has shed light on an unknown chapter in Judean history at one of its lowest points, the aftermath of the rebellion against Sennacherib. Archaeologists had assumed the Judean foothills, the Shefela, were laid waste, all its people killed or expelled. Perhaps not.

Hezekiah’s coalition

The Jewish rebellion did not go well. The infuriated Assyrians counterattacked, razing cities up and down the coast and besieging Jerusalem itself in 701 B.C.E.

The Assyrians were in the habit of obliterating rebels from the face of the planet: The kings of cities such as Tyre and Ashkelon were slaughtered. Yet for some reason, Sennacherib spared Hezekiah.

One theory is that while camped outside Jerusalem, the Assyrian forces were struck by rodent-borne plague. Another is that Hezekiah bribed Sennacherib to spare the city and himself. The fact is, Lederman says, we have no idea why the brutal Assyrian leader spared Hezekiah.

“It was very strange and highly uncharacteristic of the Assyrians to let Hezekiah survive,” Lederman says. “The Assyrians had to be cruel: Their wars were very brutal, because they had a huge empire, and it was a small people with a small army, so they had to leave an impression. Having said that, Hezekiah remained king, which is astonishing.

One of the areas that was excavatedCredit: Zvi Lederman

“Sennacherib had been very aggressive. Almost all the sites examined in the Judean foothills (Shefalet Yehuda) had been destroyed,” Lederman tells Haaretz. One of the most famous examples is Lachish, apparently the kingdom’s second-most important city, after Jerusalem. The Assyrian forces razed the city and celebrated the achievement in the annals of Sennacherib and in the famous reliefs, now displayed at the British Museum, Lederman notes. “It is a very hard scene showing the expulsion of the Jews of Lachish.”

At Lachish, there is a destruction layer from the Assyrian attack (level 3) and above it, a later occupation layer (level 2). The million-shekel question is when Lachish was rebuilt, and this is a subject of heated debate, Lederman says. “Clearly there is a gap of decades between Lachish levels 3 and 2. Archaeologists concluded that for a long period, the Judean foothills were empty of people.”

The thinking had been that the ruling peoples, the Philistines and Assyrians, would not let the vanquished and exiled people of Judah return.

“Big surprise,” says Lederman. “Beit Shemesh shows clearly that the settlement returned, big-time, in the very years everyone thought the area had been empty.”

Yes, Sennacherib’s army had destroyed the city of Beit Shemesh too. But the people returned and rebuilt, and Lederman thinks they did so as soon as the Assyrian army moved on. “That is the big new discovery,” he says. “In my opinion, they returned to Beit Shemesh in the second half of Hezekiah’s regime.”

The archaeologists found dense public construction, storage rooms and industrial quarters, and 14 olive pressed from the Hezekiah period. They also found 48 royal seal impressions identified with Hezekiah’s time. Based on the finds, Lederman believes that west of Beit Shemesh were a number of plantations that Hezekiah established, chiefly to produce olive oil.

The area around Beit Shemesh in the Judean plains was the kingdom’s breadbasket, Lederman explains. The Judean Hills had neither suitable land nor adequate water, not to mention trading routes. “Judah needed the lowlands, with its land, water and valleys,” he says.

The excavations along either side of Route 38, at Tell Beit ShemeshCredit: Studio M.Fishbeia

Lederman marvels at Hezekiah’s survival. He had to have been one of the smartest monarchs the kingdom had, and doesn’t get the respect he deserves, the archaeologist argues.

“He lived and ruled during a traumatic period for the people of Israel. In his lifetime, he saw how the city of Samaria, Israel’s capital, was destroyed. He saw the 10 [biblical] tribes sent into exile, saw the refugees, saw the deaths and heard of the Assyrians,” Lederman says. “It must have been terrifying. However, he was a very entrepreneurial king: He seized the moment. He had a special opportunity to turn his little kingdom into something more important and he did it well.”

Hezekiah was a Judean hillbilly, Lederman laughs, ruling a small, poor kingdom with a small capital that played no great role in the history of Middle East. He turned it into a key player in the region by heading the anti-Assyrian coalition.

“Assyria was the superpower of the time, and he united the kingdoms from Tyre to Ashkelon, all these kings under him, in opposition of the Assyrian expansion.”

That is why Sennacherib set out to punish Hezekiah, who nonetheless survived and so, it seems, did ancient Beit Shemesh. By the way, thus the Assyrians became the first people to use the soubriquet “Ya-hu-di” (meaning ”from” or “of Judah”), in documentation, Lederman says.

Build the road

Yet the government hasn’t pulled back from its plan to expand Route 38 smack over this extraordinary site. Will it really go ahead and build over the First Temple-period city?

Yehuda Guvrin, owner of the company excavating the south part of the site, has engaged in contractual archaeology for 25 years and is keenly aware that the main impetus behind hiring him is to get sites approved for development. Since his very living depends on it, what he has to say bears hearing: If there’s one site that should not, repeat not, be handed over to builders, it’s this one. “It’s the only site that I categorically say shouldn’t be zoned for development. A solution has to be found that doesn’t damage the antiquities,” Guvrin says, though admitting that no simple one springs to mind.

The north part of the site is being explored by Tel Aviv University, with 20 archaeologists, students and administrators and 150 workers. Prof. Oded Lipschits of the TAU Archaeology Institute has a different take on the site than Lederman and Guvrin. He thinks the government should go ahead and build the road.

The findings attest to a multilayered site that began in the seventh century B.C.E. and remained occupied until the Ottoman era, Lipschits advised the IAA, in writing; and indeed there are impressive architectural assemblies and underground systems too, but in his opinion, they are nothing unique, not from the scientific perspective and not from the perspective of conservation potential.

The real mistake, says Lipschits, was made five years ago, during sample excavations at the site, and although the digs signaled that there were things to be found there, the IAA approved the road expansion, rather than push for an alternative, such as a tunnel running below the tell.

One of the areas that was excavatedCredit: Zvi Lederman

The issue at stake, explains Lipschits, is the boundaries of archaeological ethics versus the power of the state. “What we found at the tell is simply bigger than we had thought,” he says. “The extent is huge, but there is nothing special there or grandiose that would justify turning the site into a tourist attraction. The site doesn’t even come close to Maresha [Beit Guvrin], for instance. No archaeological park is going to go up in it. The current battle is inter-archaeological politics.”

He feels that if the archaeologists stand firm and refuse to allow the road to proceed, the only thing that will suffer is archaeology itself. “Next time we ask to conduct salvage excavations and then to release the land [for development], they won’t believe us,” he suggests. “They invested 60 million shekels in Beit Shemesh in order to release the land, and now we’re getting cold feet? It will just harm archaeology in the future.”

His worst fear is that if they dig in their heels, the government will amend the antiquities law, which presently gives the power to decide on the fate of sites to the IAA.

At this point, says Lipschits, other engineering solutions won’t work and they should go ahead and expand the road – also he also urges the archaeological community to support the IAA in protecting archaeological assets in the future.

‘Size doesn’t matter’

Meanwhile, in the modern city of Beit Shemesh, everybody did and does know the tell, says city resident Gadi Damari, and he finds the squabble infuriating.

“The place was neglected for years,” he says. “Why isn’t there a Beit Shemesh national park? In what are we inferior to Ashkelon? Why do they want to cover up what they found? Why don’t they come to us, the city residents, and tell us about the importance of the site? The solution must lie in conservation. The state should invest more and ascribe the appropriate respect to the national treasure discovered here. A site of this magnitude could put Beit Shemesh on the tourism map. Let them divert the road westward.”

Who knows. Just this week Beit Shemesh gained a new mayor, Aliza Bloch, who says she will examine the possibility of creating a national park at the site.

Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem district head at the IAA, explains that the Beit Shemesh case is complex and requires delicate balancing. The IAA agreed in principle that the road go ahead because the new road is necessary to developing housing in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and neither a tunnel or bridge would be a relevant solution, he says.

At the time, the initial excavations did give some direction, but they couldn’t predict the sheer size and importance of the site, Baruch says. However, under the circumstances, discussions are being held within the archaeological community, and with the builder too (which is unusual), so the builder and his people will understand the complexity, Baruch says.

Size doesn’t matter, Baruch sums up: only the value, and there are parameters for that.

He feels there is something unique at the Beit Shemesh site, remnants from the First Temple period. It’s rare for salvage excavations to prevail over major development projects, Baruch says, but in this case he thinks the authorities should be looking for alternatives. As he puts it, “the exposure of a settlement from the late First Temple period changes the rules of the game.”

“We realized that the site has values that ought to be preserved. They don’t have to be, but they ought to be,” Baruch says. The Transportation Ministry’s construction company, says it is examining alternatives to road expansion. Where is the prophet Isaiah when you need him?

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