Every archaeologist’s dream is to excavate a Tell. What is a Tell? This Hebrew word has entered the English language as a technical term for a mound that is different from an ordinary hill, in that it is man-made. It is the result of a long sequence of cities and civilizations -- one built upon the ruins of the other. In some instances, as in the case of Hatzor, you may find 20 layers, or strata, one upon the other, representing hundreds or thousands of years of history.
The best known case of such a "stratigraphically" studied Tell was that of Troy in Asia Minor. The German archaeologist Schliemann was sure he would find the Troy of Homer’s days by excavating a certain mound. But in fact it turned out that there were some seven civilizations inside the mound. It took quite a while until he found the right stratum that he was looking for: the city of Helen of Troy.
In Israel there are some 270 unexplored Tells, each holding in its bosom secrets of yet undiscovered towns and places that made up Jewish history. Since the advent of biblical archaeology, some very important Tells have been opened up through careful excavations. We must thank the early archaeologists, such as Sir Flinders Petrie and in particular my teacher, the late Professor William Foxwell Albright, who developed the scientific techniques for approaching the excavations of ancient sites and how to date each layer or stratum, to tie them in with the historical events of the Bible Land.
In the Tenach, a Tell is pictured as a totally desolate place, never to be inhabited again; hence the expression "Tell Olam" ("Eternal Tell") in Devarim 13:17 and Joshua 8:28. Therefore, the best way to describe the prophetic promise of rebuilding the Jewish land is through its return on the Tells, as found in Jeremiah 30:18: "Each city will be rebuilt on its Tell" ("Ve’nivnetah ir al Tillah."). From having been a desolate, never-again-to-be inhabited mound, each city will be rebuilt in the end of days on top of its ruins, which are contained inside its Tell.
We find a similar meaning in the name Tel Aviv, found in Ezra 2:52; the idea of spring returning to the desolate Tell is the best way to describe the hope of ultimate redemption. (It is interesting that the Arabs seem to sense this meaning in the name of modern Tel Aviv, too. Their maps ignore the name Tel Aviv and instead use the name "Jaffa," one of the oldest city names in the world. When recently the Peace Now extremists dragged the otherwise peaceful head of the El Khadr village to the hills of Efrat and enticed him to mouth the anti-Zionist slogans of the "peace" leftists, the leader of El Khadr announced: "We want also Haifa, Jaffa and Ashkelon!" Nobody noticed that by the use of the code word "Jaffa he really meant that the PLO wants Tel Aviv!)
The largest of all the Tells in Israel is that of Hatzor, in Northern Israel, north of Lake Kinneret, sandwiched in the valley between the Golan Heights and Mt. Lebanon. This strategic location made it a logical site throughout history for rulers who wanted to control the link between the two superpowers, Babylonia and Egypt, to control the approach to the Holy Land. The size of the Tell that now covers the old city of Hatzor is enormous by ancient standards -- 200 acres -- which made it not only the largest city in Israel, but also in the entire Near East, east of the Nile. Hatzor is estimated to have had a population of about 40,000 inhabitants. No wonder that the great Jewish archaeologist of our time, Yigal Yadin, was tempted for years to excavate Hatzor and explore its hidden secrets.
Yigal Yadin was his nom de guerre, as army commander in the War of Independence. His real name was Sukenik, and his father, Eliezer Sukenik, was a great archaeologist in his own right. Yadin entered university after the war to study archaeology, as well as military history, which his army experience led him to explore. Hatzor became an obsession with him. He had studied the Tenach thoroughly and had found very telling references to Hatzor in the books of Joshua and Judges. Joshua describes Hatzor as "the head of all the nations" (Joshua 11:10). Because of Hatzor’s key position in the strategy of capturing the Land, Joshua exerted every effort to capture the city and burn it to the ground (Joshua 11:11,13).
After its capture and destruction we find Hatzor again in a powerful position in the Book of Judges, when Deborah and her army face Yeivin King of Hatzor and his army commander, Sisera, who, with his 900 chariots, oppressed the Jews for 20 years. Eliminating the threat from the north meant tremendous relief for the Jews. Deborah’s victory over Yeivin and the death of Sisera are dramatically and poetically described in chapters four and five of the Book of Judges.
What happened to the city thereafter? This was one of the questions Yadin tried to solve. Since Hatzor was burned by Joshua, Yadin was eager to find evidence of fire in the ruins of the city. Once the date of such burnt stones and beams was fixed, the entire biblical account from the Exodus to the conquest of the Land, could be determined!
By the mid-1950s, Yadin’s crew of workers -- all recruited from recent Jewish immigrants -- started their work. As every seasoned archaeologist does, Yadin first drove a vertical shaft into the side of the Tell and thereby obtained a cross section of the various towns and civilizations that history had piled one on top of the other for almost 4,000 years. It became apparent that the Jews had settled in Hatzor after the city had been burned by Joshua. It is interesting that whenever Jews entered history, the quality and style of their material artifacts and belongings dropped sharply. Since Jews are commanded to shun graven images, art in general was neglected. Therefore, while the Canaanites before them, and other pagans, decorated their homes with all kinds of figures and designs, Jews lived in a very Spartan way. Statues and other artistic creations stopped immediately, which in itself is science’s best proof, in my opinion, of the observance of the Torah by the Jews in our earliest times.
Yadin excavated a huge area of Hatzor and found indeed layers of burned materials, suggesting that the city had been burned down. Archaeologists to this day debate whether the fire took place about 1,400 BCE or about 1,230 BCE. In either case the evidence points to Joshua’s conquest as the source of the fires. From that chronological anchor point we can reckon backward to the years of the desert sojourn and the years of the Egyptian slavery, to establish a biblical chronology.
From the early, pagan periods of Hatzor, Yadin found unique stone figures and slabs, evidently used for pagan religious rites. Yadin was particularly intrigued by the occurrence of the crescent of the moon on many of the pagan statues. Perhaps this is the origin of the Moslem Crescent, which until this day is the symbol of Islam. Therefore, Islam may have its roots in ancient paganism.
Many of the figurines found have their heads chopped off. In fact the most recent season of Hatzor excavation yielded a large statue, measuring 1.3 meters, but without a head. It is likely that the Jews, practicing the Jewish laws on paganism, deliberately destroyed and decapitated the graven images they found among the ruins of the captured city.
During excavations after Yadin’s death, a remarkable discovery was made: A few tablets bearing Babylonian cuneiform text were found in Hatzor. It is believed that Hatzor had extensive royal archives with hundreds of such tablets. Their discovery would be a sensational find, since they undoubtedly contain rich historical material covering the patriarchal age. We must be patient until this archive is found.
Already the name Yeivin, the biblical name of Hatzor’s king, has been found in the inscriptions. Another rich find was the large masses of pottery of all sizes. They are the best keys to dating the layer or stratum in which they are found. Experts can easily fit each jar or even broken jar into a "sequence dating" chart. Many of the jars found at Hatzor seem to have come from the Greek sphere, including Crete. This points to worldwide commerce carried out by the merchants of Hatzor.
Besides the enormous fortifications, which were excavate at Hatzor, Yadin also found something that looked like a stable for horses. The controversy among scholars still rages: Were these stables used by King Solomon or King Ahab? Future excavations will give us the answer.
The interest in Hatzor is so strong that new archaeological campaigns are mounted again and again. This year’s season saw a large number of mostly non-Jewish students of archaeology spend their summer under the guidance of seasoned Israeli archaeologists. Their finds were a rich reward for their toil. They found a bamah, high place, often mentioned in the Tenach as the rejected and forbidden pagan shrine for worship. They discovered new walls, from the days of the Jewish monarchies. As mentioned above, the find -- on the last day of the season -- of a large, headless statue caused a great sensation among scholars.
The lessons from the point of view of biblical history, since many are tied in with the fate of Hatzor, are enormous. But from the present political-military point of view, the history of Hatzor proves that Israel cannot afford to have a threatening neighbor who can, at will, attack. Hence Joshua and Deborah knew that Hatzor and its King Yeivin had to be destroyed. His 900 chariots were like today’s Scuds possessed by Syria. This threat had to be eliminated so Jews could live in security and tranquillity.
Israel’s present day leaders need to learn this lesson. Unfortunately they callously invite such aggressors as today’s Yeivin -- Hafez Assad -- to maintain their military strength and even increase it by giving up strategically needed territory, such as the Golan Heights. Let us hope that soon Israel’s leaders will come to their senses, or that the people of Israel will replace them with leaders who can fulfill our historic destiny, and give strength and security back to Israel. Meanwhile, we can marvel at the rich rewards that archaeology gives us and promises to give us in the future. In fact, the Tells of Israel are an inexhaustible source of knowledge of our glorious past -- a past we will always be proud of.
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