Today was day two of our field study exploring the Negev, the southern desert of Israel. We began in Beersheba and ended at Mizpeh Ramon with stops at Arad and Avdat.
Day number two began at Beersheba where we had spent the night at the hostel the night before. We took the bus a couple miles outside of the modern city to the ancient tell of Beersheba.
At Beersheba, you pick up a bright yellow hard hat at the gate which you are supposed to wear when you enter the water tunnel. Right next to the city gates of Beersheba is a well that is approximately 81 meters deep. This takes it down close to the water table. However, when excavations were going on in the well the sides began falling in. So, it has not been completely excavated all the way down to its original depth. According to the sign next to this well as well as the general consensus of scholars, this well dates form the 13th-12th centuries BC. Also according to the sign, this well could have been the one “mentioned in the Patriarchs’ wanderings as described in the book of Genesis.” Unfortunately for who ever wrote the text for this sign, the Patriarchs lived between the 20th and 17th centuries BC. There is no way this well was ever used by Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.
This well is one of the earliest remains of this settlement that have been unearthed. Prior to this well the only remains are from almost 3,000 years early in the Chalcolithic period.
Does this cause a problem for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Where are the remains of the Beersheba they visited? Because the Patriarchs were nomads, they would not have left anything behind for us to find 3,000 years later. Because of that, most all we know about ancient nomadic peoples comes from their tombs.
Birth of Isaac
In chapter 21 of Genesis Isaac is born. As soon as Abraham has an heir he becomes a force to be reckoned with. It is almost immediately that Abimelek, King of Gerar, comes to Beersheba and makes a treaty with Abraham. It is almost certain that the timing is a result of Isaac’s birth.
This treaty is useful to Abimelek because it protects access to his city from the East. Beersheba, where Abraham has settled, is in the Central Negev Basin. It guards the eastern access to the Western Negev Basin. The chief city of that Western Basin is Gerar.
It is at this point in his story that Abraham is no longer simply a desert nomad. He is now a sheik with an heir and land. As a symbol of the treaty between Abraham and Abimelek, they plant a tamarisk tree in Beersheba.
The Horned Altar
Also at Beersheba is a replica of the horned altar Yohanan Aharoni discovered there in the early 1970s. The real one is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Aharoni dated it to the 8th century BC.
Because the animals to be sacrificed were alive until they were slaughtered on the altar there were horns put on the corners of the altar. These were used to tie the animal down. The horns are mentioned many times in the Bible for other purposes (Lev. 4:7, 18, 25; Ex. 29:12, 30:2; 38:2; 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28, etc.). The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled seven times on them. And a fugitive who took hold of the horns of the altar would obtain asylum (1 Kings 1:50).
There is a small problem with there being an altar here in Beersheba. If there was a sacrificial altar here in an Israelite town, then there must have been a temple here. There is nothing in the Bible about a temple in Beersheba, but the altar would not have been set up unaccompanied by a temple. The problem is that there was only supposed to be one temple in Jerusalem where the Lord dwelt. So what is this doing out here? Read the paragraphs that concern Arad and you will find out.
The Grace of the Torah
While on Beersheba we briefly discussed the law as Moses recorded it, and compared it to the law that existed prior to the Torah. Prior to the Torah, and still today, the system of justice in the Middle East is one of revenge. If someone injures you in any way you have the right to exact twice the value of the injury from the offender. What is “twice the value”? That is up for a lot of conjecture.
A decade or so ago, one of the bus drivers of the company we use accidentally ran his bus into a flock of sheep that were crossing the highway, killing about thirty sheep. So what was the value of the revenge the shepherd wanted to exact. He wanted to kill the bus driver! This is the exact same situation that existed across the Middle Eastern civilizations at the time of the Patriarchs and Moses.
What was the system of law put in place by the Torah? An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. This system exacted a 1-1 type of revenge. Also, under Torah, if anyone killed someone accidentally, they could flee to a city of refuge, cling to the horns of the altar there, and in so doing voluntarily exile themselves and save their life. If they ever returned home, they could be killed in revenge for the accidental death. In the context of the culture, the Torah brought grace into a society plagued with fear and violence. The Law is about grace, not condemnation and death. That certainly is not how it is usually portrayed.
From Beersheba we rode east to the tell of Arad. There is lots of material I could talk about concerning Arad. It has been discussed over and over again in my archaeology classes over the last month. But, I will just focus on the synagogue right now because that was the field study’s main focus.
This synagogue is actually not a synagogue, but a temple. There is an altar and a holy of holies here. How can there be another Israelite temple besides the one in Jerusalem? What could be going on here?
On top of the altar is a large stone upon which the iron grill would rest. This stone is known as the ariel (pronounced R-E-L, not like the mermaid). There are incense altars at the entrance to the holy of holies, which was the innermost room of the temple where God was supposed to dwell. The incense burning on the altar is supposed to symbolize the prayers of the saints. These prayers are a pleasing aroma to God (2 Cor. 2:15). The incense altars are situated deeper into the temple than the sacrificial altar because you were only worthy to offer prayers to God once you had offered your sacrifice to Him to atone for your sins.
Why do we no longer offer sacrifices to God before we are able to pray? Because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us so that we might come to the Father at all times! That is so awesome!
Within Arad’s holy of holies there are two standing stones. What are standing stones doing in this space? In the Jerusalem Temple there was one standing stone. Do you know what it was? The Ark of the Covenant was the standing stone. It was the place God dwelt.
So why are there two standing stones at this temple of Arad?
There are three known possibilities:
1. Some suggest that this was actually a temple for Baal and Asherah. The problem is that these were northern fertility gods. There was no fertility around Arad. This was purely a town for trade and caravans. It does not make sense to have a god of fertility here. However, in an ancient military fortress near Arad an inscription was found which said, “To Yahweh and His Asherah”. Does God have a wife? What is this Asherah business about?
2. When the holy of holies was discovered and excavated, both of these standing stones had fallen down. So it is possible that one of them was simply a building block from the walls of the holy of holies and not a standing stone.
3. Perhaps the two stones represent the male and female natures of God.
So, what is the deal with there being temples besides the one in Jerusalem and multiple standing stones within them?
All of these temples were built during the early Monarchical Period. If you remember the stories about the Judahite and Israelite monarchies you may know that there are many stories of kings, especially Judahite kings, who shortly after becoming king travel throughout their kingdom tearing down the high places their predecessors and people had built. That is what the temples at Beersheba and Arad were, high places. These were splinters of the original Yahweh-based religion of Torah which was observed by the Israelites.
From Arad we went to Nahal Zin, and hiked up part of the 75 miles of this canyon. Nadal Zin marked the southern border of the land God promised to the Israelites.
“Your southern side will include some of the Desert of Zin along the border of Edom. Your southern boundary will start in the east from the southern end of the Dead Sea, cross south of Scorpion Pass,continue on to Zin and go south of Kadesh Barnea. Then it will go to Hazar Addar and over to Azmon, where it will turn, join the Wadi of Egypt and end at the Mediterranean Sea.” (Numbers 34:3-5)
Nahal Zin is the largest wadi that begins in the Negev. It consists primarily of eocene limestone. This limestone is so soft that you can easily carve into it with your fingernail. If the stone is so soft what keeps it all from eroding? 1st, a lack of water. 2nd, seams of flint throughout the eocene.
The day ended with a visit to Avdat, which was a city of the Nabateans. The Nabateans were nomads who ran the spice route of the Orient. However, they began drinking wine and after that could no longer be nomads… Why? Because grapes are not something you can raise and harvest in one year. You must settle and spend at least five years caring for the vines before you have grapes for wine. Interesting fact, the mother of Herod the Great, the half-Jew, mother was a Nabatean.
Last of all, we watched the sun set over the Rift Valley from Mizpeh Ramon. We then drove back to the modern city of Arad to spend the night in the hostel there.