Tag Archives: Bible

Evidence from Lachish Confirms Bible Story

Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city's 8th century BCE gate.
Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city’s 8th century BCE gate.

According to the Bible, Lachish was once the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judea. But after the land was conquered by the Babylonians, it disappeared. There was a local tradition that a certain massive hill about 40 km southwest of Jerusalem was the location of ancient Lachish. Those who believed the Bible recounted historical truth, needed no proof that Lachish had actually existed. Non-believers in the Bible’s historical truth took the stories with a grain of salt.

Looking for the Assyrian Palace

About 2600 years after the city’s disappearance, European archaeologists in Iraq began excavating an area they thought was ancient Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Sir Henry Layard wanted to uncover the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. During Sennacherib’s reign, the empire grew southward, almost to Egypt. The Bible describes how his army captured the Kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. This expulsion ultimately led to the disappearance of the ten northern tribes.

Sennacherib went on to conquer, by his count, 46 cities in Judea. Lachish was the last.

The Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital. It must have been a frightening sight, to stand on the newly built city wall and look out at the enemy. Thousands of soldiers covered the hills as far as the frightened Judeans could see.

And then, in one night, the Assyrians vanished (Kings II, 7:6-8).

Lachish Frieze in Iraq

No evidence had ever been found to corroborate the Biblical story. Then in 1845 Layard uncovered Sennacherib’s palace. Much of the remains were in good condition. One reception room had a large frieze carved on its long wall. The carving depicted the conquest of Lachish. It shows Assyrian preparations, the battle itself, and the captured Judeans going into exile. The detail of the stone carvings is fascinating. The double wall of Lachish is clear as are the gates. Five battering rams stand on the Assyrian siege ramp and two more stand near the city gate. The weapons, including well as the bows and arrows, spears, and others are clear.

Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib's Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.
Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib’s Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.

Like all proper nineteen century archeologists, Layard carefully removed the frieze from the palace wall and took it home. The original is now in the British Museum in London. A replica hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

When I visited Lachish more than fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand its significance. Having studied Kings II in high school, I knew a little about its history. But it was one of the first tels I had seen, and I had little to compare it to.

Tel Lachish Today

Today, looking at the large hill in the middle of the level farmland, I understand just how large Lachish was. I now appreciate its strategic importance. It had been part of the line of fortresses between the Israelites and the Philistines. It helped protect the Israelites, the people of the mountains, from the sea people who invaded from the west.

The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE
The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE

From the parking lot the height of the tel is impressive. There must have been layers upon layers of cities built and rebuilt in this spot to make it so tall. The sides of the tel are almost vertical, except on the southwestern side. Here is the ramp, built by the Assyrians to them to break through the walls into the city. Archeologists estimate it contains 13,000 to 19,000 tons of stones. When they excavated the ramp, they found spears and iron arrow heads dating from the 8th century BCE. These ancient weapons supported both the Bible story and the illustrations in the Lachish frieze.

The Judeans rebuilt Lachish, adding another layer to the tel. The new city lasted less than 150 years. The Assyrian empire itself had even fewer years left. It was conquered by Babylonia, the new power in the Middle East.

We did not follow in the Assyrian footsteps up the siege ramp. Instead we walked up the nearby modern path to the outer city gate.

In 1935, James Starkey, the first archeologist to excavate here, found many letters in one chamber of the gate. The letters offer eyewitness testimony of the battle against the Babylonians. After conquering Nineveh, the Babylonians gobbled up the rest of the Assyrian empire. The most famous of the Lachish lettersis from Hoshiyahu, probably a military commander stationed in the area. He wrote to Ya’ush, probably the commander of Lachish. The letter reports on the Babylonian progress. It says that Hoshiyahu’s people are “watching over the beacon of Lachish, according to the signals which my lord gave, for Azekah is not seen.” One by one, the fortresses were falling, and only Lachish remained standing..

But not for long. Lachish was destroyed again, and this time Jerusalem did not escape. The Babylonians conquered the capital city and destroyed it in 586 BCE.

City Gate

Lachish was a large city. After entering the outer gate, we walked about a hundred meters, still outside the main city wall, to the inner gate. Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pulled aside a wire fence to let us walk into a restricted area. I’m used to going into restricted areas with the archeologists from Ir David, so I didn’t find this unusual. We were not supposed to be there. I thought that if the archeologists didn’t want tourists wandering around, they would have secured the gate with a padlock. At least they would have hung a “Danger! Excavations!” sign on the fence. But perhaps they don’t feel it is necessary because Lachish is in such an out-of-the-way place.

The inner gate consists of six chambers, three on each side. It’s the only six-chambered gate found in Judea (so far). David Ussisskin excavated the three chambers on the northern side of the gate. The other side was excavated more recently. The remains of these chambers revealed evidence of daily activities at the gates of the city.

The innermost of the three chambers must have been a reception chamber for merchants. Benches line the room, where the new arrivals could sit while the tax collectors inspected and evaluated their merchandise. The archeologists found measuring scoops of varying sizes and clay jug handles with the word lmelekh (for the King). Some jug handles were stamped with the name Nahum Avi, who may have been the tax collector. Jug handles bearing his stamp have also been found at other First Temple period administrative centers.

The Altar in the City Gate

Not much of interest was found in the middle chamber. The outermost chamber, however, may be the most interesting for Bible scholars. The gate was built during the time that sacrificial worship was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were clearly Jewish altars. A traveler arriving safely after a dangerous journey, as all journeys were at that time, would naturally want to offer a sacrifice. However, sacrifices outside of the Temple were forbidden. Nonetheless, the practice prevailed throughout the land. Most of these sites were in cities on the frontier, the edge of civilization. It didn’t matter where they were; such worship was prohibited. That’s why the Bible prophets traveled the land denouncing the shrines and berating the people who frequented them.

In Kings II, King Josiah of Judea who ruled between the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, instituted religious reformation. He ordered all the priests of Baal be killed and the altars and idols in Jerusalem destroyed. Inspectors went through the land, searching for, and destroying, all unauthorized altars. The altar in Beer Sheva was dismantled and hidden in a basement; the one in Arad was buried. In Lachish, however, the people desecrated the altar. They cut off the horns at its corners.

Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.
Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.

But, removing the horns of the altars was not enough. A toilet was placed in the room with the desecrated altars, which shows no evidence of ever having been used. Simply putting a toilet in the room was sufficiently sacrilegious to invalidate any prayer that might be offered.

Throughout history some things just do not change. Although today’s bathroom fixtures may be connected to running water, they still look almost the same as the ancient Judean one. And we still do not pray in the same room as a toilet.

Understanding Water and Water Bills

One of the secondary water clarifiers at the Shafdan water reclamation plant near Ashkelon, Israel.
One of the secondary water clarifiers at the Shafdan water reclamation plant near Ashkelon.

Our first water bill was a complete mystery. With the help of a dictionary, I managed to translate it, but knowing what the words meant didn’t help. On one page the amount we used was classified according to “Apartment” (16) and “Main” (305). Below that, it listed the sum of all the water we used in the two month billing period: 17.167. It was broken down as Private: 16 m3), Joint: 1.167 m3. I understood that “Apartment” equaled “Private,” but “Main” (305) certainly did not equal “Joint.” But at least now I knew what measurement I was dealing with–mare cubic meters.

After a few questions, I learned that “Joint” was our share of water used for the grass & trees in the courtyard and washing the stairs and hallways.

But on the next page of the bill, I found a different story. Although the total amount we used was the same, it was divided differently. Price 1: 13.81, Price 2: 3.36. The only things I understood about the bill were that the tax was 17% and that I had to pay 147.15 NIS within three weeks.

I’m not the only new oleh (immigrant) to find my bill confusing. When my ulpan teacher asked the class if we would like her to explain our utility bills, everyone in the class said, “Yes!”

That’s when I found out that pricing is one part of the country’s program to manage the water supply.

We are a desert country. The lack of rain in the land of Israel is an ancient problem. The Bible describes it dozens of times. The book of Genesis describes how Abraham lived here only a short time before a drought caused him to move temporarily to Egypt. In Deuteronomy, God threatens to withhold rain as a punishment if the Israelites did not obey his laws. Elijah the prophet declared a drought in Kings I that lasted three years.

The passage of millennia did not solve problem. Lack of drinking water caused the Crusaders to lose the Holy Land to the armies of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. The Christians took what should have been a good defensive position at the top of a hill. They neglected to check one thing in advance. They had no water source. It was summer. Although Muslim history declares the battle of the Horns of Hattin a great victory, they did not have to fight very hard. The Crusaders were defeated by the heat, sun, and dehydration.

During the mandate period, the British were so worried about water, they commissioned a special study of the situation. The report concluded that the land would never be able to support more than 1,000,000 people. The aquifers were too small and the rainfall was too unreliable.

Today, rain is still unreliable. The level in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), the main source of fresh water for over 50 years, is frequently so low, an emergency is declared. So much water has been pumped from the coastal aquifer, sea water has infiltrated. What remains is undrinkable. Yet Israel now has enough water to support a population of 8,000,000. If you include Gaza, as the British did, more than ten million people, live in a land that the British said could not support a tenth of that number. Additionally, Israel has a thriving agricultural economy and exports water to Jordan.

How is all this possible?

The first measure was a national emphasis of saving water. Every child in Gan learns the slogan “Kol tipa khashuv” (Every drop is important). A friend told me that on a family visit to Niagara Falls, the adults stood amazed at the power of all the water. Their five year old stared at the falls only a moment before declaring ”Azeh bizbuz mayim!” (What a waste of water).

After our aliyah, we soon learned how to wash our hands and take showers: Turn on water, get wet, turn off water, apply soap, turn on water, rinse, turn off water, dry. I even learned to wash dishes in a water-saving manner, with the help of Maya’s blog post, “How to wash dishes like an Israeli.” 

The pricing of water plays a large part in water-saving. You can use as much as you want, as long as you are willing to pay for it. The key is the graduated cost. As my ulpan teacher explained, each person is assumed to need a certain amount of water per month, for which you pay “Price 1.” Given the evidence of my bill, I assume my personal allotment is about 6.9 m3/month (a little more than 1800 gallons). To make sure that each dwelling unit is charged appropriately, the water company requires a copy of the official ID of every resident. One of the first things new parents do is send notice of the birth of a baby to the water company.

If you exceed the basic allotted amount, as almost everyone does, larger amounts of usage are charged a higher price. At this time, Price 1 is 6.546 NIS/m3 and Price 2 is 10.536 NIS/m3. If you use more than you are allotted at this second level, there is a third level of pricing. In her explanation of the water bill, my teacher only said Price 3 was extremely high. Although we still don’t know how much “extremely high” is, we hope we never are so profligate with water that we find out.

Another way Israel lessens its dependence on rain is by recycling. As I learned when I toured the Shafdan water reclamation plant, Israel reclaims 85% of its wastewater. Spain, the country with the second highest reclamation record, recycles about 19%. At Shafdan, the tour guide said their output meets drinking water standards. However, the water from Shafdan remains separate from the drinking water stream. Drinking water flows throughout the country in white pipes; reclaimed water flows in pink or purple pipes.

Pink color of drip irrigation hose signifies it carries reclaimed (recycled) water to garden.
Pink color of drip irrigation hose signifies it carries reclaimed (recycled) water to garden.

Reclaimed water is used only for agriculture and gardens. To eliminate any danger from effluent contamination, it is not used for crops that water touches directly, such as strawberries and cucumbers. Rather, the pink and purple drip irrigation pipes carry water to fruit trees and other crops that do not touch the ground.

The third factor that has increased the country’s supply is desalination. We have five desalination plants which together supply 55% of our drinking water. Israel is the world leader in desalination technology. IDE, our largest builder of desalination plants, has installed plants in forty countries, including several in China. The Israeli-designed Carlsbad Desalination Plant near San Diego produces 190,000 m3 of water daily, supplying 10% of that city’s needs. And here in Israel, five desalination plants discharge about 600 million m3 per year.    

This sign was the only thing inside the desalination plant that we were allowed to photograph.
This sign was the only thing inside the desalination plant that we were allowed to photograph.

Fresh water production is so important, each plant observes strict security procedures. On a recent tour of the Sorek desalination plant in Ashkelon, we were instructed not to take any photographs. And in case we forgot that instruction, signs in several languages remind visitors that no photography is allowed.

Thus, our reliance on the limited rainfall is nil. Because of these factors, we have enough water to meet the needs of the whole country. Additionally, Israel supplies Jordan with one hundred million cubic meters of water yearly.

But despite our abundant supply, newspapers still regularly report the Kinneret level. Every two months our bill reminds us that we live in a desert country, where water is so precious we must pay for every drop. And, God forbid, if we use more than is deemed appropriate, we’ll pay “Price 3” for those excess drops.

Seeing the Temple

The Levite statue at the entrance to Machon Hamikdash, the Temple Institute
The Levite and me

At the entrance to Machon HaMikdash, the Temple Institute, stands a statue of a Levite dressed in his work clothes—a white robe and head covering, red belt, and no shoes. He holds his long trumpet near his mouth, as if ready to provide the musical accompaniment to the next Psalm. As we entered the museum, several of us stopped to take pictures with him. It isn’t everyday you see a fully dressed Levite in the streets of Jerusalem.

In 1967, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel was a paratrooper, one of the first to pray at the liberated Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. He interpreted that experience as being the start of the Geula—the final redemption of the Jewish people that would be completed with the rebuilding of the Temple on Har Habayit, the Temple Mount. If temple worship was to be reinstated, appropriate instruments and utensils would be needed. He and a group of like-minded people began to study the Bible, Mishna, and Gemara for descriptions of how these were originally made and what they looked like. And then they set out to make them.

It was a complicated process, requiring much study and interpretation of the original texts. Some of the details were argued over, back and forth among the scholars, until a final decision was made. And then they had to find craftsmen with the necessary skills to actually do the work. Many of Temple furnishings and tools were pure gold or silver.

My Tour with Text class on the Second Temple period spent an hour at the Temple Institute this week viewing these objects and learning about the Temple’s operation. It’s one thing to read about the Temple service in the Bible or Talmud. It’s another thing entirely to see the pitchers and bowls and spice altar in front of you, exactly as they looked in the Temple over 1900 years ago.  Every item in the museum is authentic, made to the original specifications.  As we walked through the museum, we saw silver trumpets, gold pitchers for olive oil, the copper washing station, a gold incense altar. They are all ready to be used tomorrow should the Moshiach arrive today. All authentic, except for two things that Shulie Mishkin, our guide, would be careful to point out.

Painting of Solomon inaugurating the First Temple in Jerusalem
King Solomon inaugurating the First Temple in Jerusalem, as the ark is carried in by Levites.

A large model of the Second Temple made of marble, copper, and gold, stands in the middle of the first room. It is surrounded of paintings depicting scenes in its history. The paintings are interesting because of their historical accuracy according to traditional commentators. They also show some creativity in their artistic interpretation of the events. It was easy to identify what each one depicted. One shows the tabernacle in the desert and at Shilo. King David dances in front of the ark as it enters into Jerusalem in another painting. A third shows King Solomon dedicating the Temple.

In the next three rooms, additional paintings depicted aspects of the Temple service. In the second room we saw paintings of them arrayed on fifteen steps as they would have been when playing and singing the Psalms of ascent. Two Cohen Gadol (High Priest) mannequins stood in a glass case near the entrance. One was dressed in the Cohen’s daily clothes and the other wore the all white Yom Kippur clothing. Shuli pointed out the small bells and pomegranates attached to the hem of the everyday blue tunic. “Just a few years ago,” she said, “we found a small bell in the old Roman sewer leading down from Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). So we know this is what they actually looked like.”

The High Priest, dressed for Yom Kippur (left) and for all the other days of the year (right), as specified in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, at Temple Institute, Jerusalem
The High Priest, dressed for Yom Kippur (left) and for all the other days of the year (right), as specified in the books of Exodus and Leviticus

I examined the clothes carefully. My father was a Cohen, as were his father and grandfather before him. Had I been a boy, I too would have been a Cohen, and worn these linen clothes to work. In those days before bleach and washing machines, how would we have kept those robes, hats, and sashes so white? Linen wrinkles easily—would our clothes ever have looked as neat as those on the mannequins? I wondered if the families were responsible for care of the priestly garments, or was there a special laundry on the Temple Mount.

A related question came up when we entered the third room, the one devoted to the inner sanctuary, menorah, and the Holy of Holies. Here we saw models of two items: the menorah and the ark. The Temple Institute commissioned a Temple menorah, more than six feet tall made of 43 kilos of pure gold. It stands in a clear case on one of the landings of the long stairway leading from the Jewish Quarter down to the Kotel, where almost anyone who visits the Kotel can see it.

The simulated ark sits behind a red curtain designed to hang in the sanctuary, in

Shulie Mishkin explains the Holy of Holies in front of a model of what the ark looked like, at the Temple Institute in Jerusalem
Shulie Mishkin explains the Holy of Holies and the ark

front of the Holy of Holies. The Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, was the only person to ever walk into the Holy of Holies, which he did only on Yom Kippur. The Holy of Holies was a dangerous place; if the High Priest was not worthy of his office, he would die. There was a custom to tie a rope around the Cohen’s foot, so if he did die, the other priests would be able to pull him out. In the last years of the Second Temple, when the High Priesthood was often achieved by bribery or political machinations, this situation supposedly occurred regularly.

Which raises the question: How did they clean the Holy of Holies? Jerusalem is on the edge of the desert and experiences regular dust storms in addition to its normal dusty condition. If you fail to clean your house for a week, you’ll notice the dust. If the dust settles on our bookcases so quickly even when the windows are closed, it surely was filtering into the Temple. And that’s in addition to the smoke of the incense the High Priest brought in on Yom Kippur, and perhaps spilled bits of the incense itself.

Apparently, the holiness pertains only to the floor. If you could enter without walking through the doorway, you were safe. On the roof of the building were two trap doors. Young priests would sit on a platform that was lowered down into the Holy of Holies, and they would reach over and clean it. In the Temple as it was remodeled by Herod, the ceiling was very high. Cleaning it must have been a pretty scary job.

In the last room, where groups can sit to discuss what they’ve learned of the past and the future, one last painting hangs on the wall. The rebuilt Temple looks just like the models of the Second Temple, and the city behind is full of large buildings. In the lower right corner, a tram pulls into the Temple light rail station.

As we were leaving, a large group of boisterous five and six year olds came down the street and into the building. The Temple Institute is not only a museum, but an educational institution. It makes the Bible come alive. These school children were excited to be coming here to see it all as it was, and will be.

I overheard two little boys talking as they approached. “Look,” said one, pointing to the statue at the top of the entrance stairs, ”There’s a Cohen.”

His friend corrected him. ”No it’s not. That’s a Levi—a Cohen wouldn’t have a trumpet.”

These children, they already know.

Ein Kerem’s Holy Hill

St. John of the Mountains Church, Ein Kerem       photo: biblewalks.com
St. John of the Mountains Church, Ein Kerem
photo: biblewalks.com

When the second Temple stood in Jerusalem, Ein Kerem was part of the belt of towns around Jerusalem that supplied the city. Each small town had its specialty: wood, oil, animals, grain. As its name—the Spring of the Vineyard–suggests, Ein Kerem’s specialty was grapes for wine.

When the Muslims conquered the land from the Persians in 614 CE, wine production ceased. Alcoholic beverages of any kind are forbidden to them, and growing wine grapes was forbidden. Vineyards throughout the country were uprooted and wine production ceased. But even though there were no more grapes, the name of the town persisted.

Ein Kerem is no longer an isolated town, a long four and half mile hike through the mountains away from the city. It has become another neighborhood within today’s Jerusalem. Like many other neighborhoods, however, it has retained its unique character.

Mary's Spring, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem
Mary’s Spring, Ein Kerem
photo: Yehudit Reishtein

The spring from which the town took its water as well as its name is a holy site for Christians. The story is told in the book of Luke how Mary, pregnant at the time, came to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. When they met near the spring, Elizabeth’s baby moved in response to Mary’s presence. Elizabeth then blessed Mary and her child. Elizabeth’s baby was John the Baptist; Mary’s baby was Jesus. Because the women met here, and John the Baptist grew up here, many Christian groups have built churches and monasteries in the area. The golden domes of the Muskovia, a large Russian Orthodox church on the hill just beyond the spring, can be seen for miles. When we went to Castel, more than four miles away (by car, 5.3 miles), it was easy to see the sunlight reflecting off the Muskovia’s domes. Just below the Muskovia stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation.

Muskovia Church, Ein Kerem      photo: Yehudit Reishtein
Muskovia Church, Ein Kerem

Holy sites retain their holiness even when the dominant religion changes. Just uphill from the spring in the other direction stands the Franciscan church St. John of the Mountains. Ein Kerem’s history goes back to Canaanite times; this church stands on the hill where Ba’al was once worshiped.  After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, his mother Queen Helene, visited the holy land to identify the sites holy to Christianity. She identified this hill as the place where Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah had lived, over three hundred years after their deaths. The hill was therefore holy; she built a church here and named it for Elizabeth.

The church stood for less than two hundred years, before being destroyed in the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantines. Another six centuries passed. When the Crusaders came to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, the Hospitallers built a new church on the ruins of the Byzantine one and named it for St. John. When the Muslims reconquered the area, they once again destroyed the church.

The sultan gave permission to Franciscan monks to buy land and settle in the area in the late 17th century. They completed the monastery about 120 years later, but the modern church was not completed until 1920.

The church has a large courtyard, which the British took advantage of during World War II to station tanks. The treads of the heavy tanks made a mess of the courtyard paving. What was left of it needed to be dug up and replaced after the war. The Franciscans decided to use the opportunity to excavate the courtyard and under the nearby portion of the church. As frequently happens with archaeological excavations in the Middle East, they found much more than they expected.

They had expected to find the remains of the Byzantine church. But in addition to that, they found several Roman statues, including several of Aphrodite. And they found a second Temple period wine press. Like any good scientist, the priest in charge of the excavations, Father Saler, wrote up what he found. His report languished in the Franciscan library for about half a century until a Jewish woman, interested in the history of the Ein Kerem, pulled it out.

Father Saler had been able to identify everything he found under the church and its courtyard, but one structure puzzled him. He found a square hole, whose walls were plastered, which made them watertight. He did not think it had been used to store water, because stairs led down into its pool. As Shulie, the tour guide, read the priest’s description, I thought it sounded like a mikve.

Shulie continued the story. The woman went to the abbot of the monastery, and asked if it was possible to see this structure. At first he said no, it was inaccessible under the church. However, when questioned further he said that although it had been built over, it was possible to get to it through a small passageway under the church. She was persistent, and eventually he gave her permission. She crawled through a tight dusty passage under the church to the chamber. She examined the square plastered hole, the stairs into it, and found the small hole in its wall that would have connected it to the larger pool of fresh water necessary for a kosher mikve. She took several photos of the mikve and left.

Shulie passed copies of the photos around. What had puzzled Father Saler was obvious to the observant Jews and the archeology buffs in our group; he had found an ancient mikve, proof of Jewish presence in Ein Kerem in Second Temple times.

Perhaps some trace of the holiness of the ritual bath still radiating through the ground had attracted Queen Helene to this site. As a Cohen serving in the Temple, Zachariah would have been very concerned with ritual purity. Even if he and Elizabeth had not lived in this exact spot, he may have used the mikve.

No matter where you go in Israel, there are almost always Biblical connections.

Ein Kerem in relation to the rest of Jerusalem:

Studying the Bible at Herzog College

Registration are at Michlelet Herzog of Bible Study Day
Registration area at Michlelet Herzog of Bible Study Day

About two weeks after we made aliyah, two women I had met at synagogue started talking about some classes they had recently taken. One turned to me and said, “Next year, you really have to go to Herzog.”

The only details I could glean were that Michlelet Herzog, a religious college in “The  Gush” had a week-long series of classes about the Bible. They were always held in the first week of the Hebrew month of Av, and were well worth the time and money invested.

The next summer I traveled south to the town of Alon Shevut in Gush Etzion to Herzog College for two days, to hear lectures on the Bible in English. So often when we anticipate something, the event does not quite meet our expectations. Not so at Herzog–reality lived up to the hype. I’m not sure what I had expected that first year, but whatever it was, I had found more. 

This year, for the third year in a row I attended the Yimei Iyun Tanakhi–the Biblical Study Days–for both days of English lectures. Once again, I came away with many pages of notes, overwhelmed by the depth of what I had heard.

The Yimei Iyun attract people from almost everywhere. Every morning of the week chartered buses deliver students from all over the country. I even met people from the US and Australia who schedule yearly trips to Israel for July or August in order to attend these classes.

Directional signs at Herzog College. Top sign wishes people  a safe journey and points to parking lots on the right and buses on left.
Directional signs at Herzog College. At top it says, “May you go in peace, and have a safe trip,” and pints to parking to the right and buses to the left.
Bottom sign points to synagogue and social hall.

The buses disgorge participants in front of the main entrance to the college building. Registration tables staffed by Herzog students  stretch across the wide plaza, with signs indicating spots for almost every letter of the alphabet–19 lines in all. Picking up one’s registration materials takes only a few minutes, even on the busiest mornings.

The halls are filled with people streaming in many different directions. Sooner or later, everyone stops in the “Drink Corner” to pick up a free cup of coffee or tea, and a cookie or piece of fruit. That’s where I met several people I knew from ulpan class, a fellow English tutor, a woman from my writing group, and two people I remembered from last year.

I should not have been surprised at seeing people I knew–about 7,000 people attend lectures during the course of the week. They all seem to be what in the US would be called “Modern Orthodox.” Most of the men wear knit kipot on their heads, and the women cover their hair and wear skirts. But not everyone fit into that category. I saw some men wearing the white shirt, black slacks, and black kipa uniform of the very religious, and I saw some women wearing slacks.

The teachers, all top educators, also come from all over. Many teach at Herzog or the Har Etzion Yeshiva, with which Herzog is affiliated. Some lecturers teach elsewhere in Israel, and a few live and teach in the US, England, or other places.

In religious settings, men and women do not sit together for serious learning. So every classroom had signs designating an area for men and one for women. But unlike other places, here the signs were ignored–men and women sat together with no complaints. The only time gender segregation was evident was after lunch, when the men gathered in a classroom to recite the afternoon prayers, and the women stood in the doorway waiting for them to finish so we could find seats for the next lecture.

I had chosen my classes based on my notes from the last two years. I had put a star next to the names of excellent lecturers to guide my choices. When I checked those notes, I realized that almost everyone I heard had a star next to his or her name, except for one teacher who spoke too fast. Because of the wide range of courses, inevitably I end up listening to lectures about many different parts of the Bible, from Breishit (Genesis) through Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles).

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom spoke on what he called the “Hand-Switch

Book sales area in Herzog College lobby during Biblical Study Days
Book sales area in Herzog College, in Alon Shvut Israel, lobby during Biblical Study Days

Blessing,” when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons the end of Breishit. Jacob crosses his hands to place his right hand on Ephraim’s head, giving him precedence over his older brother Menashe. In his introduction, Rav Etshalom pointed out that well known stories such as this one are the hardest to teach, because when something is so familiar we do not notice how strange it is. We do not even ask questions about it anymore.

That comment could apply to the episodes analyzed in any of the classes I attended. For example, why didn’t G-d accept Cain’s sacrifice? What was the nature of Eli’s sin at Shilo that he, and his family, deserved a curse of such unprecedented severity? What did Elimelech do in the beginning of the Book of Ruth when he left Bethlehem in Yehuda that he and his sons deserved to die in Moav?

Last Shabbat we read the opening chapters of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) in synagogue. Very close to the beginning, Moshe recounts the story of the spies first related in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). What is most striking about this retelling are the differences between the two versions of the story–16 of them in less than 22 verses. In his lecture titled, “Truth, Perception or Lies,” Rabbi Gadi Dishi reviewed, line by line, the two versions of the incident. It does not seem as if both versions can be accurate reports, so which version is correct? In trying to reconcile the differences, what do we need to understand better?

For example, in Bamidbar, the spies are described as princes of tribes, and each one is listed, by name, as a leader of his tribe. Yet in Devarim, Moshe describes them simply as “twelve men, one from each tribe.” He also leaves out the bad report of the land that ten of the spies brought back.

Rav Dishi reminded us that only two people listening to him had been alive at the time of the incident. Each was a Prince, his tribe’s representative within the delegation of spies: Calev ben Yephunneh of Judah, and Joshua ben Nun of Benjamin. In Devarim, Moshe wanted the people to understand not only what had happened during the forty years in the desert, he also wanted his listeners to take away lessons for the future. Among these lessons were the importance of trusting in G-d and the leaders of the nation.

In not mentioning that most of the spies said the land of Canaan destroyed its people, and that the inhabitants were invincible giants, Moshe emphasizes that the people are going to a good land. Similarly, when he says the spies were ordinary men, he avoids disparaging the leadership of the time. If he reminds them that Joshua had been one of the spies, they might think that Joshua had actually misread the situation in Canaan, that the ten spies saying bad things about the land had been right. Or they might come to the conclusion that Joshua was a failed leader, that he had not been able to sway the other spies to his view that because G-d was with them, they could conquer the land.

Thus in stating the group of spies had been ordinary men, Moshe strengthens the new leadership of the tribes of Israel. In stating that the spies said the land is good, and not mentioning the derogatory report, Moshe strengthens the resolve of the people to leave the security of the desert for the uncertainty of a land they did not know.

Rav Dishi concluded that Bamidbar is a factual account of what happened. Devarim is a powerful speech, in which Moshe tells a new generation their history in way that will prepare them for their future in the land G-d had promised to their forefathers, and to them.

To summarize the whole lecture on the differences between the accounts of this episode in the two books would take pages. This is simply a taste of the learning during the Biblical Study Days. To say I was impressed by what I had heard would belittle the quality of the learning that goes on during the week.

This year, I introduced a friend to Herzog. A week later, she is still thanking me for taking her. She is already planning to go back again next year.

So am I.

Alon Shevut is south of Jerusalem, west of the Dead Sea
Alon Shvut is south of Jerusalem, west of the Dead Sea

Har Eval: The Mountain of the Curses

Near the top of Har Eval, where Joshua built an altar
Near the top of Har Eval, where Joshua built an altar

From where we were standing, near the top of windy barren Har Eval, we could not see any towns, houses, or farms. All we could see were the gently sloping ridges of the mountain top. It was noon, and we could hear the muezzins’ calls to prayer in Nablus.

“Listen,” said Eve Harow, our guide. “Standing up here, as B’nai Israel did when they entered the land with Joshua, you can hear what is happening in the valley on the other side of the mountain.”

I had always read the story about the blessings and curses in the Book of Joshua with skepticism. How could people standing on two mountains hear and respond to what priests were declaiming in the valley between them? Yet I was standing on one of those mountains, listening to the sounds from that valley.

We had driven an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on this One Israel Fund trip into the territory once held by the tribe of Menashe (Menassah). In Shavei Shomron we had stopped to meet up with our army escort. Har Eval, on the outskirts of Nablus, is within Area A which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Because we would be traveling on roads which are both illegal and dangerous for Israeli cars to drive on, we had received permission from the IDF for our excursion and would be accompanied by an IDF escort.

Nablus was originally built by the Romans on the site of ancient Shechem, the town near which Jacob and sons lived and pastured

The Old City of Nablus, from Har Eval.
The Old City of Nablus, from Har Eval. Joseph’s Tomb, which can’t be seen from this spot, is in front of building with gold-colored dome.

their sheep. Joseph’s grave is located there, in the oldest part of Shechem. In the 1980s a yeshiva was established at Joseph’s Tomb but it came under attack by the Arabs during the Al Aksa Intifada. When violence erupted, it became increasingly difficult to protect the students. The Yeshiva was evacuated. After the Palestinian Authority, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, guaranteed police protection for the tomb, the IDF also left. That very day, the Palestinian Authority police watched a mob burn the tomb. Today, Jews can visit what is left, as long as they do so in a protected group escorted by the IDF. 

Like almost all Israelis, Allen and I had never seen Har Eval. All I knew about it was from the Bible. It was first mentioned in Deuteronomy (11: 29) when Moshe tells B’nai Yisrael that when they enter the land, blessings and curses would be read to them by the priests standing between two mountains. Half the tribes would stand on Har Gerizim. When they heard a blessing, what would happen when they obeyed G-d’s commands, they would answer “Amen.” The other half of the tribes would stand on Har Eval. When they heard the curses, the consequences of flouting G-d’s laws, they would answer “Amen.” 

The Book of Joshua describes the people crossing the Jordan, walking up a broad valley, arranging themselves on the two mountains, and hearing the blessings and curses. Joshua then had an altar built (8:30), sacrifices were offered, and the people left.

The mountains themselves were neither blessed nor cursed by the ceremony. Nevertheless, somehow the tradition arose that the mountain on which the people stood to answer “Amen” to the curses was itself cursed. The two altars built there, one on top of the other, were each used only one time. There is no archaeological evidence of any settlement, building, or farm anywhere on Mt. Eval.

As we drove towards the mountain, we could see much of the town of Nablus. It spreads out in the valley and winds around the feet of the mountains, and up the slopes of Mt. Gerizim. Nablus looks prosperous, with large well built houses featuring intricate stone walls that let light on to the patios and balconies, yet prevent passersby from seeing any women who might be sitting on them.

And then we were on a narrow winding dirt road ascending Har Eval. Fairly high up, a turn took us to the other side of the mountain, and Nablus disappeared. Our escort stopped and the bus parked in a small area cleared of rocks.

The hill around us was littered with large stones. Between them were smaller stones, pebbles, and small plants and grass. We older people carefully walked down the dirt track towards the altar, while the children with us raced down the hill, sure footed as gazelles. 

We saw down to the flat green Tirza Valley, winding through the rocky mountains toward the Jordan River. Tirza is the only valley wide enough to enable thousands of people to walk from the Jordan to the mountains in one day, and it leads directly to Har Eval and Har Gerizim.

Although pagan altars were always built on the highest place around, Jews were commanded to build their sacrificial altars in lower places. Whenever the ancient prophets wanted to turn straying people back from idol worship to the worship of G-d, they cried out to destroy the Bamot, the high places.

Remains of Joshua's altar on Har Eval
Remains of Joshua’s altar on Har Eval

So we walked from a high place on Mt. Eval down towards what is believed by some to be Joshua’s altar. Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who, with his students, discovered this altar, is sure of its identity. It is definitely a Jewish altar, made of unhewn stones. approached by a ramp. Only bones of kosher animals—sheep, goats, deer—have been found in its vicinity, despite the plenitude of wild boar in the area at the time of its construction. It was used only two times, around 1250 and 1200 BCE, which puts it in the period of the entrance of the Jews into the land. The pottery shards found here date from that time or earlier.

The evidence against this being Joshua’s altar? It faces the wrong direction. Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritans, is on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the city of Nablus.

This does not bother Zertal. He says the traditional Mt. Gerizim is not the actual site of the blessings. According to him, despite their unbroken tradition going back to First Temple times, the Samaritans offer their Passover sacrifices on the wrong hill top. Zertal claims that Tel Kabir, the mountain that can be seen from the Mt. Eval altar is the real Mt. Gerizim.  

Others have suggested that the traditional Mt. Gerizim is correctly identified. The Bible does not say that Joshua’s altar was built where the people stood to listen to the curses. They could have listened while facing Mt Gerizim across the valley, and then walked to the other side of Har Eval to build the altar and offer the sacrifices.

Until further evidence is uncovered, the question remains unresolved. It is likely to remain so for a long time. The two mountains are in Palestinian Area A. No Muslim authority will grant an archaeologist permission to conduct a dig which might support the authenticity of the Jewish Bible or evidence that might support Jewish claims to the land.

Even if the authenticity of the altar is in question, seeing places like Mt. Eval makes them real. When reading the stories in the Bible, we believe them because we want to believe. Actually seeing an altar that Joshua may have built helps make a visceral connection—it makes the story physically real. Seeing the valley that probably served as a highway for the Jews crossing the Jordan into Canaan and hearing the Muslim calls to prayer from a valley far below us turn the Bible story into an event that actually could have happened the way it is written.

Which is why we go on so many trips around the land. Having seen so many Biblical sites, I read the Bible with different eyes than I used to, eyes more open to how the stories unfolded. It is endlessly fascinating.

Walking on Tel Dan

Dan River flows on Tel Dan
The Dan River at the end of a good winter

Allen and I went to Tel Dan with my class on Kings I to see one of the religious centers for the people of the Kingdom of Israel. After the death of Solomon, the Davidic kingdom was split in two. His son Rehavam ruled Judea in the south and Yeravam I (Jeroboam) ruled Israel in the North. Yeravam established two cultic centers to keep the people in Israel from returning to Jerusalem to pray at the Temple. One of the cultic centers, with a golden calf and an altar, was built in the city of Dan, which sat on high place along the Dan River.

For most of the year, rivers in Israel are small sluggish streams. But we were at Tel Dan in late March, at the end of a winter of good rain, and the Dan River was noisily rushing. We walked along the river for some distance and I was amazed. It was the first time I had ever seen a rushing stream, flowing through woodlands, in all my time in Israel. It felt more like the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania than the foothills of the Mount Hermon.

Looks more like Pennsylvania than northern Israel
Looks more like Pennsylvania than northern Israel

The Dan rises from the largest karstic spring in the Middle East, in the highlands of the northern Galil. Even in dry years it has a decent flow–approximately 230 million cubic meters a year. That’s close to 608,000 gallons, enough water to supply six average American households for a year. The Dan joins the Banias and Hasbani Rivers to form the Jordan just north of the Hula Lake. The Jordan then drops below sea level to flow into Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). It remains below sea level for the rest of its length, down the rift valley into the Dead Sea.

The city of Dan has a long history. It was built on the site of the earlier city of La’ish. La’ish or Dan is mentioned several times in the Bible, in the books of Joshua and Judges, as well as in Kings.

After 1948 Tel Dan was within Israel, on the Syrian border. Because of the danger of Syrian attack, archeologists did not explore the site. But in 1966 people who lived in the area noticed the IDF digging defensive trenches near the Dan River. They called the archeology department at Tel Aviv University and notified them, pointing out that the IDF did not care about antiquities. If the past was to be uncovered and saved, some trained archeologists needed to come north quickly.

Avraham Aviram organized the 1966 excavation and continued to explore the archaeological site at Tel Dan for the next 40 years, until his death. Even today, we do not know exactly how large the city was at its peak. Dan was probably not a government center, but it was an important city on the border, and a cultic center. But excavations are continuing, and the city’s borders may yet be discovered. Even without knowing the city’s size, we have learned many fascinating things from the digs here.

In one spot, a deep pit reveals the first layer of the city, from the era of settlement in the time of Joshua, about 1400 BCE. Part of a victory stela (inscribed stone slab) was also found, carved in ancient script. The stela dates from about 50 years after King David (around 850 BCE). Although much of the inscription is missing, what remains is significant. On the stele, the King of Aram boasts of having beaten the armies of his two southern neighbors, and killing the kings of Israel and Judea. According to current thought, the stele celebrates the victory of Hazael of Damascus over King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah. What makes the stele important is that is the first written reference to the Davidic dynasty outside the Bible.

The major importance of Dan lies in its role a cultic center. Cultic centers tend to retain their holiness even when the governing culture and religion change. For example, the Temple Mount, has successively housed the Jewish Temple, a Roman temple, a mosque, a church, and today another mosque. At Megiddo, several different types of altars have been found in one small area.

So too at Tel Dan. Today the cultic site is a symbol of idolatry and the breakup of David’s kingdom. Archeologists have uncovered layers at this high place from the time of King Yeravam I, King Ahav, and the Greeks. We saw the foundations of a large square altar, topped by the metal outline erected to show the dimensions of the original altar. It was much larger than the other altars I’ve seen in Tel Arad,

Shulie Mishkin, our guide, at the Jewish altar on Tel Dan archeological stie
Shulie Mishkin, our guide, at the Jewish altar on Tel Dan

Tel Sheva, and the Israel Museum. It stands within a square courtyard, surrounded by small rooms whose function is unknown. Perhaps the small rooms were where the sacrifices were prepared. Or maybe the priests changed their clothes in them. On one side of the altar complex are earthworks and stone steps on which the people probably stood to watch sacrifices. It is also on the east end of the tel, as altars were in those days.

From the high place we turned and walked south to the Israelite period gate. Like many remains from ancient times, the gate shows an amalgam of history. Part of what can be seen today is the original gate and part of it is from King Ahav’s rebuilding (both from First Temple period). Part of the gate dates from the Greek (Second Temple) period.

Gates were significant places in earlier time. Much of the life of the city occurred here. They were a major site for commerce—we read of Abraham buying the Cave of Machpelah at the Hevron city gate. This is where the Judges and elders sat, as we read in the Book of Ruth. Traders conducted their business at the city gates. As evidenced by a small altar nearby, gates were also religious sites. Travelers could offer a small sacrifice to thank the city’s god for bringing them safely to their destination.

From the Israelite gate we walked downhill and to the east until we arrived at the older Canaanite gate. This section of the archaeological site was discovered only ten years ago. It was identified as being of Canaanite origin from two characteristics. It is outside the Israelite gate. It is built of the Canaanite mud bricks common in the 18th century BCE. When the Israelites built their gate, they filled in the opening of this one because it was no longer needed. Thus it was preserved through the centuries of earthquakes and neglect.

3800 year old Canaanite arched gate  at the archeological site on Tel Dan
3800 year old Canaanite arched gate

The most remarkable thing about the Canaanite gate is its shape. It is an arch. Until this gate was discovered, intact, many people thought the Romans invented the arch. (The Romans may have learned about arches from the Etruscans.) But here at Tel Dan, stands an arch built between 1550 and 1800 years before the earliest Roman one. Canaanite arches had previously been found in Ashkelon and Gezer, but the Dan gate is the first complete arch that has been found.

In unearthing the past of this land, archaeologists are changing our understanding of the past as well. History does not remain static. In walking the land, our conception of the past continuously changes.

Where the archaeological site is located:

Tel Megiddo’s Archaeology

Jezreel Valley, from Megiddo, site of Armegeddon as described in Christian Bible
The Jezreel Valley, as seen from Tel Megiddo

The three most important factors in valuing real estate, as any realtor advises, are location, location, and location. It’s not a recent phenomenon; the ancients knew it as well.

The most important thing to consider before building a city was proximity to a source of fresh water. Additionally, from the site, they had to be able to see people approaching from a distance, so overlooking a valley was good. And if that valley was trade route, all the better.

Megiddo meets all these criteria, which is why it was almost continuously inhabited for over 4000 years, from the Neolithic period (about 6000 – 7000 BCE) to the end of the Israelite period in 732 BCE.

For much of its history, Megiddo overlooked one of the major trade routes in the Middle East. The two big powers in the area were traditionally Egypt to the southwest and the Hittites, Assyria, and Babylonia. The Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians were ascendant during different periods, and held different territories, but they were all to the northeast. They used the land bridge along the Mediterranean to wage war against Egypt. Commerce between the east and west was conducted on two north-south routes: the Via Maris (sea route) near the coast or the Kings Way, along the Jordan River Valley. The best way to get from one of these routes to the other was through the wide flat Jezreel Valley, in the Galil.

And overlooking the Jezreel Valley sits Megiddo, with its own water supply, in a spectacularly beautiful location.

Because of its strategic location, it had both economic and military significance. Thus, many battles have been fought here. It is the site of one of the earliest battles in recorded history , when Pharaoh won a decisive victory in the 14th century BCE. The Bible reports Deborah and Barak beat Sisera at Mount Tavor on the other side of the valley (Judges 4-5). King Saul fell in battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (Samuel I: 31). General Allenby beat the Turks and Germans here; when knighted by the King of England, he chose Viscount Megiddo as his title. And according to Christian tradition, the last battle at the End of Days will occur here. It doesn’t take much of an accent make Har Megiddo sound like Armageddon.

With all that history, it has lured multiple archaeologists to its heights. In the 14th century, this particular hill at the edge of the Jezreel Valley was identified as the site of a Roman army camp. But it was not identified as Biblical Megiddo until the mid 19th century.

The first modern excavations took place under the auspices of the German Society for Oriental Research (1903 – 1905). Gottlieb Shumacher, the expedition’s leader, discovered a palace and tombs from around 1000 to 2000 BCE.

John Rockefeller sponsored the next important expedition. It was mounted by the Institute of Oriental Research in Chicago. Their goal was to excavate the whole site, down to bedrock, which was too ambitious for them to accomplish. The site is vast, and there are 30 layers of different civilizations within it. But in the 14 years they dug at the Tel, they uncovered many significant finds. Unfortunately, in their zeal to uncover the site, they also destroyed many things. Like many early archaeologists, the Chicago group took some of their best discoveries home with them. Most ancient cities in the Middle East had four-chambered gates. The outside Canaanite gate at Megiddo

Stairs leading to Canaanite gate at Megiddo
Stairs leading to Canaanite period four-chambered outer gate

has four rooms, as do Tel Sheva and Tel Arad. But Megiddo also once had a six-chambered inner gate dating from the Israelite period. We viewed one side of this city gate; the other three rooms are in a museum in Chicago. (At one time, archaeology was practiced not to uncover history, but to further enrich a country or organization rich enough to finance it. Thus, most of the marble frieze from the Parthenon in ancient Greece is in London. The ancient Egyptian obelisks known as Cleopatra’s needles are in Paris, London , and New York.)

This gate is one of the pieces of evidence in a long controversy in interpretation of archaeology. One of the biggest questions still outstanding is the nature of the Israelite kingdom. Were David and Solomon rulers of a large kingdom or were they small tribal chieftains? How literally should we take the Bible?

Yigal Yadin, a famous military leader and archaeologist of Israel’s early years, is famous for his work on the Dead Seas Scrolls. He also excavated at Masada, Hatzor, and here at Megiddo. He notes that six chambered gates have been found at Hatzor and Gezer, cities dating from the time of Solomon. Thus, the similar gate at Megiddo is evidence that it also dates from Solomon’s time. The inner gate is evidence that Solomon’s kingdom was large.

Because the foundations of the gate rest within earlier layers of the tel, it is hard to date them exactly. They could have been built during the same period as the palace, or from the same period as the stables, several hundred years later. David Feinstein, from Tel Aviv University, holds that the gate is not from the early period. Rather, it is part of the building done at Megiddo later, in the period of King Ahav.

We walked past the half gate to the eastern corner of the Tel, to the cultic area. In this spot remains of many altars belonging to several different cults, from different times,  were found. One of the largest altars is a huge round platform with steps leading to its

Cultic site at Megiddo where many ancient altars were found
Round pagan altar at Megiddo

top, clearly not used by Jews to sacrifice to G-d. No square Jewish altar with horns, with a ramp leading to the top, has been found here, not even from pre-Temple times.

On the other side of the cultic area is an open trench, dug down to bedrock. It was left exposed to show the 30 layers of civilization built up here over the centuries. I could see several layers, identifiable by the different shades of beige and brown/ However, I could not count all of them. Either my color discrimination or my appreciation of archaeological details is deficient. It’s enough for me to know that that those who do appreciate the subtleties can count them.

We then walked across the site to the stable area. The stables are also used as evidence in the dating controversy. If the palace at Megiddo is from the time of King Solomon, as Yadin believed, then the stables were built by King Ahav. But if, as Feinstein claims, the palace was built by King Ahav, then the stables date from King Yeravam II. Today the stables are easily identifiable—black iron horses stand in several spots. But when it was being excavated, the experts were not sure what it was. One day a college aged volunteer mentioned that she was working in the stables.

The veteran archaeologist told her she should not say that; they were not yet sure what the area had been used for. The stone troughs could have been used for other purposes, such as kneading troughs in a large communal bakery.

“Oh, no,” the young volunteer replied. “I grew up on a farm. We had many horses, and those marks on the edges of the stone troughs are the teeth marks of horses.”

The archaeologists looked more carefully at the marks. The young inexperienced volunteer was right. They set the troughs in rows between the stone posts, which they now realized the horses had been tied to. Later someone added the wrought iron horse silhouettes to the area. Now visitors who can’t identify horse teeth marks or kneading troughs can easily see what the area once was.

No city can exist without a source of fresh water, but so far we had not seen any water on the tel. We walked towards the south and came to a large open pit, 25 meters (82 feet) deep, with steel stairs winding down around its inner edge. We’ve been to enough Biblical sites to know what we were looking at. This was the access within the city walls to the source of water located outside the city walls. The steps are narrow and the descent steep. But it was only 183 steps down and 80 back up at the other end, according to the sign at the top, and most of us still had energy left. Besides, it was hot. Walking through the ancient stone tunnel was bound to be cooler than walking back down the path we had taken to the top of the tel.

As we entered the stone tunnel itself, a few people made expected comments about the “original Israelite period electric lights.” We walked through the tunnel on a boardwalk, built to allow tourists a safe path above the rough stone floor. The original chisel marks on the walls and ceiling were easily visible. This tunnel, like the access tunnels to the water sources in Jerusalem, Tel Sheva, and Hatzor, had been dug out by hand, by men using chisels and hammers. It would have been slow painstaking work, a few inches a day, through the solid bedrock. But it enabled the cities to survive for hundreds of years, withstanding sieges and droughts.

The only water in the tunnel today stands in a small pool at the far end. Over the centuries the water has found new paths. Earthquakes changed the original outlets. Debris has blocked feeder channels. New settlements and cities have tapped upstream sources. None of these factors, however, changes the achievement of the ancient engineers and builders, who managed, without today’s science or technology, to build the water tunnels. As I took a sip of water from my bottle after emerging from the tunnel, I once again marveled at the ingenuity and ability of the ancients to provide for their needs.

Elijah on Har HaCarmel

Eliyahu statue 1
Statue of Elijah at the Carmelite Monastery on Mount Carmel

“Would you invite that man to your Seder?”


Shulie Mishkin’s question was moot. We do invite that man—Elijah the prophet—to our seder every year. And to every Brit Milah (circumcision ceremony). Elijah is beloved in our folklore as the helper of the desperate. But the statue of him on top of Mount Carmel, the site of his greatest triumph, does not depict him as beloved or even lovable. 

This is Elijah at his most zealous for G-d, fire in his eyes, a sword raised over his head, his foot on the shoulder of a man lying under him. This is Elijah triumphant over the prophets of Baal. This is Elijah who brought on a three year famine. This is Elijah who orchestrated a dramatic confrontation with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah on this spot, and showed that G-d is more powerful than the most popular pagan god worshiped at the time. This is the Elijah who stood up against the warrior king Ahab and against the his wife Jezebel.

My class on Kings I had studied the stories about Elijah (chapters 17 – 21). Today we were visiting the sites where some of the major events of his life took place. We could not visit Gilad in Jordan, Mount Horeb in Egypt, or Sidon in Lebanon, although significant events in Elijah’s happened in these places. They were too distant to travel to, both geographically and politically.

If you’ve studied a topographical map of Israel, you probably noticed that Mount Carmel is not one mountain, but more like a small mountain range running north-south between the coast and the Jezreel Valley. So how can we be sure that this peak of the Carmel, where the Carmelite monks have built their monastery, is the site of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal?

We went up to the top, and looked around. This is the highest point in the Galil, and we could see much of the land spread out before us. Since it is early Spring, the green hillside was sprinkled with red anemones, yellow wild mustard, and purple lupines; pale pink blossoms cover the almond trees by the road sides. The Jezreel Valley below was dozens of shades of green, crossed by the gray lines of roads linking the towns and farms. Because of the height, the wind was brisk, which negated the warmth of the bright sun. I was glad for both my jacket and sunglasses.

The Jezreel Valley, looking east from the tourist site at the top of Mount Carmel
The Jezreel Valley to the east of Mount Carmel, as fertile and beautiful today as it was described in the Bible

The spot is called “Muhraqa” and Arabic word that means “burning.” Like many Arabic names of places in the north, it stems from an earlier Hebrew or Aramaic name for the place. “Burning” refers to Elijah’s sacrifice which was burned by fire from G-d.

From this spot on the mountain, it is possible to see north into Lebanon, the land Ba’al worship came from. Jezebel, daughter of the Etbaal, king of Sidon, had brought priests and prophets of Baal with her when she married Ahab, and sought to establish Baal worship in Israel. Baal was powerful because he was the god of rain, all important in lands which depend on winter rain for all their water. So when the people stood on Mount Carmel to witness the confrontation between the prophets and priest of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of G-d, they also could see the choice before them as the choice between their own tradition and the the tradition of the country to their north.

The Biblical text refers to the priests of Baal running down towards Kishon Brook and being killed there. This side of Mount Carmel is steep, and the Kishon Brook runs along at its foot. It was easy to imagine the priests running down the hill in panic as the fire from heaven burned even the water around the altar. They heard the people cry “The Lord is G-d,” and heard Elijah’s cry not to let them escape. And indeed, not one was allowed to escape.

In the book of Kings, after the prophets of Baal are destroyed, Elijah sits near the mountain ridge, and sends his servant up to see if the rain clouds are coming. Even today, in the winter, standing on this mountain peak, you can see rain clouds approaching from the Mediterranean. When the first cloud is sighted, Elijah tells King Ahab to go back to his palace, before the roads become too muddy and impassable. And so Ahab rides across the valley at the base of the Carmel to his city of Jezreel. We could see the Jezreel valley from there, but Ahab’s city and palace no longer exist.

It was very windy on top of the mountain, and despite the sun, it felt cold. So after taking dozens of pictures of the beautiful Galil, we walked back down to the bus. On our way we stopped in front of the statue of Elijah again. The inscription on it in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew is from the book of Ben Sirah, also called Ecclesiasticus: “And the prophet Elijah got up as fire, his words like a burning torch.”

This is not the first statue of the prophet that has stood in the monastery courtyard. The original statue was carved by a Carmelite monk in Bavaria and sent to the monastery in the late 19th century. The Turks did not believe it was just a statue. Before delivering it from the port where it arrived, they cut off one arm looking for contraband. When they found no weapons or ammunition in the statue, they allowed the monks to take possession of it.

The statue stood in the courtyard for many years. But in May 1948 the Syrian army attacked. The Syrian soldiers, however, were superstitious. They did not believe they could conquer the Galil if Elijah stood on the top of Mount Carmel, protecting the Jews. So they destroyed the statue of the prophet. It didn’t help them. The brand new Israeli army fought harder than any of the Arab leaders thought was possible and the Galil remained in Israel.

Statue In the courtyard of the Carmelite Monastery, one of the tourist sites in the GalilIt’s a great story, a story of the prophet protecting his people thousands of
years after his death. Or perhaps, it’s the story of the power of myth, that even a statue of a charismatic leader has power over the enemy. There’s just one problem: it’s not true.

The old one-armed statue of Elijah stands today in Nazareth, in someone’s garden. And perhaps the statue protects the garden from invasion by Baal-worshiping beetles and snails.

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