Israeli Excavation Reveals New Findings About the Ark of the Covenant

Excavations at Kiryat Yearim may show the handiwork of King Jeroboam and suggest that the Ark was a symbol of unity between rival kingdoms

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Archaeological excavations at Kiryat Yearim.
Archaeological excavations at Kiryat Yearim.Credit: The Shmunis Family Excavations
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In one of the rounds of fighting between the Israelites and the Philistines, the Israelites decided to deploy an unconventional weapon – the Ark of the Covenant. According to 1 Samuel, the ark was brought to the battlefield, but the outcome was catastrophic. The Israelite army was defeated and the ark fell into enemy hands. The Philistines took it to Ashdod and placed it next to a statue of their god, Dagon.

But the ark was to have its revenge: The statue fell, its hands were cut off, and the Philistines were struck with a plague of hemorrhoids. In their despair, they sent the ark back up north to Israel. The people of Kiryat Yearim were summoned to pick it up: “And the men of Kiriath-Yearim came, and fetched up the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:1). The ark remained on “the hill” until King David brought it to Jerusalem decades later.

Scholars are almost certain that the biblical site of Kiryat Yearim is the hill on which now stands the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant and the convent of a French order, on the outskirts of the village of Abu Ghosh.

Prof. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.Credit: Joel Finkelstein

Archaeological excavations conducted there last year suggest that the hill was used by the kingdom of Israel to control the kingdom of Judah, and not, as the Bible has it, the other way around. Research now shows that the story of the Ark of the Covenant that found its way into the Bible was apparently intended to be a symbol of the kingdoms’ unity.

About two weeks ago, Prof. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, presented his findings from the excavations at Kiryat Yearim to a meeting of the national academies of science of Israel and France. Finkelstein is known as the leader of the camp that opposes the biblical approach in archaeology. He vehemently opposes the view that the unified kingdom of David and Solomon existed and controlled extensive parts of the land of Israel.

The Bible, according to Finkelstein, is a religious and political text combining various traditions. It was written in Jerusalem in the seventh century B.C.E and onward, during the reign of the kings of Judah, and therefore it glorifies the kingdom of Judah and belittles the kingdom of Israel in the north, whose capital was in Samaria. Finkelstein believes that it was actually the northern kingdom that was the stronger of the two. In fact, he says, Judah was a small vassal entity under the northern kingdom, and evidence of this can be seen among other places at Kiryat Yearim.

Archaeological excavations at Kiryat Yearim.Credit: The Shmunis Family Excavations

The excavation at Kiryat Yearim was carried out together with Thomas Romer and Christophe Nicolle of the College de France and supported by the Shmunis family of San Francisco. The archaeologists began their research by observations on the site itself and of present-day and historic aerial photographs.

“Even before we started excavating I saw that the hill was not natural; it was manmade,” says Finkelstein. His main argument is that the top part of the hill is in fact a mound that was artificially raised by four massive retaining walls that created a kind of platform, which was filled with earth. This is the “hill” mentioned a number of times in the Bible and it was Kiryat Yearim’s government center. Small parts of these massive walls were revealed during the excavations.

Finkelstein discovered that the walls were built with great precision. “It’s 110 by 150 meters, and six to seven meters high. It goes from north to south and from east to west in a completely straight line, with an error in the range of one degree. That’s no coincidence,” he says. The huge investment and the care the ancient builders took in creating this giant platform hints that this was a large and important cultic center in the area. Eight hundred years later, King Herod would build a similar platform on a much bigger scale – the Temple Mount, one of whose retaining walls is known as the Western Wall.

After the hill was proven to have been manmade, the scholars sought to date this huge project. To this end, they used a method called optically stimulated luminescence, which dates the last time quartz particles in the soil were exposed to sunlight. The results showed quite a broad range, from 1150 B.C.E. to 770 B.C.E. That is, theoretically, King David could also have constructed the hill.

Archaeological excavations at Kiryat Yearim.Credit: The Shmunis Family Excavations

But the archaeological finds from the site, especially the potsherds, show that the hill lay abandoned at the time of David, and most of the activity there took place in the first half of the eighth century B.C.E., the period of the reign of King Jeroboam of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam, according to Finkelstein, is the most likely candidate to have built the site.

Finkelstein reached this conclusion by ruling out others. Judah would have been the most natural candidate, but it was too weak and there is no other example of such construction in Judah during that period. Another candidate is Assyria, which built similar compounds in Transjordan, but it was too far away at that time (until the campaign of Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E.).

And so Finkelstein is left with the most logical candidate – the northern kingdom of Israel. Finkelstein finds support for this theory in similar compounds that the kingdom of Israel built in its capital at Sebaste and elsewhere. The site at Kiryat Yearim, in his opinion, was a place of worship but also served as an administrative center for control over Judah and Jerusalem. “It is not baseless to say this,” he says, adding: “If we go into a time machine and move 800 years forward, we’ll see that the center of the Roman government of Jerusalem was also here.”

The purpose of the Ark of the Covenant story, according to this idea, was intended to give religious legitimacy to Kiryat Yearim. It was told and written in the northern kingdom of Israel, was passed on to Jerusalem through the refugees who arrived there after the destruction of the northern kingdom, and from there it found its way into the Bible. Many other “northern” traditions can be found in the Bible, such as the stories of Jacob, the Exodus and the stories of King Saul.

Finkelstein believes that the story of the ark reflects an ideology of unification between the two Hebrew kingdoms, but that Israel was controlling Judah and not the other way around. “The kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam developed a system of key shrines that were connected to its important traditions. The Bethel shrine was associated with the stories of Jacob, the Samaria shrine with the Exodus. Here, in Kiryat Yearim, was the shrine to the ark of the Lord that was connected to Kiryat Yearim.” It was located on the border between the two kingdoms, and situating an administrative center on that border was a “symbolic act of unification,” Finkelstein says.

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