Ancient Toilet Reveals the Unique Way the Judeans Fought Idol-worship

Toilet placed to defile site of pagan worship 2800 years ago backs of biblical accounts of King Hezekiah's battle to abolish idolatry.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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An ancient bench found in a biblical temple in Tel Lachish, September 2016.
An ancient bench found in a biblical temple in Tel Lachish, September 2016.Credit: Sa'ar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Remnants of a small temple from the days of the Kingdom of Judah have been discovered at Tel Lachish, including the first physical evidence of a toilet - which had been purposely installed on a site of pagan worship, to defile it, even if the toilet never was used.

The temple, which had been located near the city's gate, had been deliberately destroyed. Whoever demolished it went out of their way to place a toilet there, to ensure the holy site would never again be used, archaeologists speculate.

The findings fit with biblical descriptions of rituals aimed at abolishing idol worship by King Hezekiah in the 8th century B.C.E.

Many see Lachish as the second most important city in Judea during the First Temple period, after Jerusalem. The city gate in Lachish, where the main street ran, was uncovered near where the temple was found. It is the largest find in Israel of its type from that period.

British archaeologists excavated the gate about 80 years ago, followed 40 years later by an Israeli group, led by Prof. David Ussishkin.

An ancient toilet found in a biblical temple in Tel Lachish, September 2016.Credit: Igor Kreimerman

The latest dig, by the Israel Antiquities Authority, found the six-chamber structure of the gate, as well as three southern rooms. The northern chambers had been excavated previously.

“According to the biblical narrative, the cities’ gates were the place where ‘everything took place’: the city elders, judges, governors, kings and officials: everyone would sit on benches at the city gate. These benches were found in our excavation,” Ganor said.

The gate is temporarily covered for conservation purposes and is not now open to the public, but there are plans to do so as part of the national park’s archeological site.

Sa’ar Ganor, the IAA's director who also headed the excavation, said the height of these rooms, about three meters, was around the height of the gate structure.

Nahum was here

Items found in the first chamber testify to the bureaucratic function of the gate: benches with armrests, numerous jars, scoops for loading grain and stamped jar handles that bear the name of the official or a “belonging to the king” ("lmlk") seal impression.

Two of the handles bore the words, “Property of the king of Hebron.” The implements are believed to have been used as part of the taxation system.

The handle of a container used to store wine, Tel Lachisch, September 2016.Credit: Yuli Schwartz

The letters "lmlk" are impressed on one of the jar handles, with a picture of a four-winged beetle scarab. Another impression is a form of the name Nahum (lnhm avadi), who was probably a senior official in Hezekiah's time.

Ganor links the jars to the kingdom's military and administrative preparations for the war against Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, in the late 8th century.

Monkeying with the altar

The walls of the temple at the gate were covered in white plaster.

“Steps to the gate-shrine in the form of a staircase ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed. An opening was exposed in the corner of the room that led to the holy of holies; to our great excitement, we found two four-horned altars and scores of ceramic finds consisting of lamps, bowls and stands in this room," Ganor said.

"It is most interesting that the horns on the altar were intentionally truncated. That is probably evidence of the religious reform attributed to King Hezekiah, whereby religious worship was centralized in Jerusalem and the high places that were built outside the capital were destroyed," he added.

In addition to the altar's horns, a toilet was installed inside the holy of holies as the ultimate form of desecration aimed at stopping idol worship at the shrine. A stone fashioned in the shape of a chair with a hole in its center was found in the corner of the room.

Stones of this type have been identified in archaeological research as toilets. Evidence of abolishing sites where idols were worshipped by installing a toilet there is a familiar theme from the Bible. But these are the first archaeological finds to confirm the phenomenon.

Laboratory tests suggest the toilet was never used.

The excavation at Tel Lachish, September 2016.Credit: Sa'ar Ganor/Israel Antiquities Authority

“Hence, we can conclude that the placement of the toilet was symbolic, after which the holy of holies was sealed until the site was destroyed,” Ganor said.

The gate was destroyed by the army of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. The excavation revealed the burnt layers of destruction from the defeat, including arrowheads and stones used in slingshots, suggesting evidence of the hand-to-hand combat that took place there.

It appears as though the Assyrians managed to breach the gate and set the area on fire. "They burned everything, made sure everyone was dead, and moved on," Ganor said.

Other evidence of Sennacherib’s military campaign in Judah has been found at his palace in Nineveh, where wall reliefs depict the story of the city's conquest.

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