A recent discovery at the Abel Beth Maacah archaeological dig site on the Israeli border has ignited debate among the region’s historical scholars. The find has huge potential implications for the archaeological community’s understanding of the ancient Kingdom of Israel. In fact, it may redraw the map completely on how far north the Kingdom stretched during the 10th and 9th centuries B.C.E. [Before the Common Era].
Abel Beth Maacah is located on the northern border of modern-day Israel, at the very top of Galilee. It is close to Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon. However, 3,000 years ago, the landscape was different. Then, it was located between three areas, which were all controlled by different geopolitical entities.
To the west there was Tyre and Sidon, wealthy Phoenician city-states. To the east lay Damascus, the centre of the Aramean kingdom. Finally, to the South, there was Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. Being so close to these three differing entities has led historians to debate the true nature of the people who lived in Abel Beth Maacah, which at the time was a busy trading hub.
During this time period, control over the northern end of the Kingdom of Israel changed hands a number of times. Therefore, there has always been uncertainty over who ran Abel Beth Maacah. Archaeologist Dr. Yahalom-Mack of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that, “The allegiance of this city and the identity of the population in the 10th – 9th centuries B.C.E. are a big debate.”
“What was their connection to Israel? Were the religion, the language, and the culture the same as in Israel?” he asked. “We are looking for evidence of Abel belonging politically to one entity or another, while it is also possible that it was an independent city-state.” Thus far, the archaeological dig has not yielded any easy answers to these questions.
To gain a better understanding of the findings at Abel Beth Maacah, one must first understand the history of ancient Israel. According to Owen Jarus of science news website LiveScience, “When scholars refer to ‘ancient Israel’, they often refer to the tribes, kingdoms and dynasties formed by the ancient Jewish people in the Levant.” This is the area that now covers Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan.
In order to construct an idea of the history of ancient Israel, scholars use three main sources: the Hebrew Bible, archaeological digs and various texts outside the Hebrew Bible. Due to the mythical nature of some stories in the Hebrew Bible, however, some scholars dispute the use of it to understand real history. This has led to great debate between historians over the years.
The Hebrew Bible posits that the Jewish people, in a mass exodus, fled Egypt and arrived in the Levant with help from God. Then, David rose to become the King of Israel after his defeat of the giant Goliath. King David led Israel through several successful military campaigns which transformed it into becoming a powerful kingdom with Jerusalem at its center.
In opposition to this, some scholars have said any real evidence for the existence of this supposed vast kingdom is in short supply. In fact, Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein maintains that Jerusalem was barely populated 3,000 years ago. He believed King David’s kingdom, in reality, was much smaller than the Hebrew Bible made it out to be.
In a 2010 academic paper, Finkelstein stated his theory with conviction. “Over a century of archaeological explorations in Jerusalem — the capital of the glamorous biblical United Monarchy — failed to reveal evidence for any meaningful 10th-century building activity,” he wrote. Perhaps King David controlled Khirbet Qeiyafa instead, an ancient hilltop city west of Jerusalem which has been excavated by archaeologists who insist that they’ve found one of his palaces.
By the time 930 B.C.E. had rolled around, King Solomon (the son of David) had died and the kingdom split into two separate entities. The northern kingdom remained Israel, but the southern kingdom took on the name Judah. The Hebrew Bible points to objections over taxes and free labor enforced by the state as contributing to the split.
Subsequently, Israel and Judah existed side by side for around 200 years, but often engaged in costly wars with each other. At one point, the Assyrian Empire, which stretched from modern-day Iraq to Egypt, joined with Judah to combat Israel, which had the aid of the Aram kingdom. Eventually, Judah fell to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II.
As a border town, Abel Beth Maacah, is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The name means “the meadow of the house of Maacah.” It covers about 10 hectares (100,000 square meters) and sits on top of the Nahal Iyyon, a headwater of the Jordan River. Its location, and the fact that it was close to a source of water, means the town was exposed to foreign invasions.
Strangely, though, despite its historical and geographic significance, Abel Beth Maacah wasn’t the subject of a full archaeological dig until 2012. Any study of the site before this was relatively minimal. For example, the British and Israeli Departments of Antiquities merely conducted surveys in the 1950s and 60s and published their historical/geographical analysis.
However, in summer 2019, archaeologists on the Abel Beth Maacah excavation made a discovery that may shed new light on the true limits of ancient Israelite territory. They found five destroyed storage jars, one of which featured a surprising inscription. It read, “leBenayau” which in Hebrew means “belong to Benayau.”
The dig, which began in 2012, is run by two universities. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack and Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen are leading the dig in tandem with the Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles’ Professor Robert Mullins. Dr. Yahalom-Mack told Haaretz that her people initially didn’t even notice the inscription.
She revealed, “I’ll admit that we didn’t see the inscription when we washed the finds.” Luckily, though, Adrianne Ganor, one of the restorers, did notice very faint remnants of ink on one of the jars. It was sent to the lab at the Israel Museum that is famed for studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. Multispectral imaging enabled the inscription to become legible enough to be translated.
But what exactly was contained within the jars that belonged to Benayau? Well, even though the jar with the inscription was empty, one of the other four jars contained the pip from a grape and what was thought to be wine residue. Researchers therefore believed that they had accidentally unearthed Benayau’s wine cellar!
According to Dr. Panitz-Cohen, the jar is the first item discovered at Abel Beth Maacah with an identifying piece of writing on it. The team believe the inscription was written over 2,900 years ago. This date makes the inscription particularly interesting, as it could potentially be key to our understanding of the Kingdom of Israel’s boundaries.
Before discovering the wine jars, the archaeologists had found Phoenician pottery, carefully adorned with attractive colors. However, they were found along with other pots representative of more Southern areas. Furthermore, they also discovered animal knucklebones, known as astragali, in several rooms filled with items that may point to the existence of some kind of cult.
Dr. Yahalom-Mack and Dr. Panitz-Cohen went on to write an article about this cult, that they believed worshipped the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah, in October 2019’s Biblical Archaeology Review. In the Bible, this woman appears as an advisor to Joab, in a story connected to King David. Historians have long wondered if she should be viewed as a female ‘seer’ or ‘oracle’ figure.
In the rooms they excavated, the archaeologists uncovered 425 astragali; bones belonging to sheep, deer and goats. They were contained in a jar that took pride of place on a podium. Yahalom-Mack and Panitz-Cohen posited that the bones could have had a number of different uses. “They may have been used as game pieces, or they may have been used in ritual activities, such as divination, as well as in political advisory,” they explained.
These findings fit in perfectly with Yahalom-Mack and Panitz-Cohen’s theory of Abel Beth Maacah as a place of wisdom. They believe it was somewhere people went to receive answers to their questions. In fact, in the Bible, the Wise Woman tells Joab, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter.”
Yahalom-Mack and Panitz-Cohen were careful in their article to avoid definitively stating that the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah functioned as a spiritual leader or had a cult of followers. But they do theorize that this may have been the case. They believed she held political authority in this society, at the very least.
Another important find came in 2017, when a volunteer came across a small sculpture of a head, which many believed to be a depiction of a king. Scholars believed it was a royal figure, due to the fact that the bearded head was wearing a crown. But no one could accurately say which king from the period it was supposed to represent.
The sculpture was so well preserved that it was immediately put on show at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “In the iron age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality,” said Evan Arie, the museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology. “And this is of exquisite quality.”
Dr. Yahalom-Mack theorized that the sculpture could have been modelled after several different kings from the period. It could be a depiction of Damascus’ Ben Hadad or Hazael, but equally it could be Jehu or Ahab of Israel. It could even be Ithobaal of the Phoenician city of Tyre, or it could be someone entirely different. She admitted they were playing a guessing game, with no certain answers.
With each discovery at Abel Beth Maacah bringing up a wide selection of questions, it is perhaps no surprise that the jars and inscription have done the same. For example, the archaeologists don’t know whether the jars were produced in the town or imported from somewhere else. To determine this, they are conducting a petrographic tests on the clay used to make the jars.
“When we find storage jars at sites like this, they are usually for local goods,” clarified Dr. Panitz-Cohen, “although the possibility that this was a storeroom for jars that reached it via trade cannot be ruled out.” She believed that the inscription alone did not confirm Abel Beth Maacah as an Israelite town. However, it did connect it “to the Israelite sphere.”
Certainly, the theories of the archaeologist Avraham Biran have been strengthened by the discoveries at Abel Beth Maacah. He researched the ancient city of Dan, almost four miles from Abel Beth Maacah, for more than 30 years. He believed that the city was heavily populated around 3,000 years ago, but later researchers challenged his belief.
In the Bible, the Israelites’ territory is repeatedly described as encompassing, “Dan to Beersheba”, and Biran’s research agreed with this biblical assertion. However, later scholars argued that there was little evidence of any inhabitants of Dan, at least until the Aramean king Hazael conquered the city around 2850 years ago. These scholars maintained that, until then, Dan was uninhabited.
However, the findings at Abel Beth Maacah definitely point to the region, including Dan, being very much inhabited at the time. The key will be in accurately carbon dating the inscription jar. “If the inscription is from the 8th century B.C.E. then it’s still important but not a big surprise, because we know that in that period, the Kingdom of Israel reached until Dan,” explained Eran Arie, a curator at the Israel Museum.
He added, “But if it’s really from the 9th century B.C.E. it reopens questions on the connection of this area to Israel and may force us to rethink some of our conclusions.” Arie believes this change in thinking could actually be beneficial. “This is not a bad thing,” he said, “it’s always important to adjust our interpretation when new evidence emerges.”
The name “Benayau” is also a clue, in and of itself, about the place this person would have called home. Benayau means “God has built” and has its roots in the Hebrew language. It is a combination of the verb “banah”, which means “to build” and the suffix “yod-waw”, which refers to Yahweh (YHWH), the God of the Israelites.
Benayau is therefore a theophoric name, meaning its construction features the name of the divinity worshipped by the named person. Theophoric names were very prevalent in the Near East in this time period. Benayau is also known as a Yahwistic name, which denotes him as a worshipper of Yahweh and an Israelite. All in all, it points to Benayau being a citizen of the Kingdom of Israel.
Dr. Mitka Golub-Ratzaby, an archaeologist and expert on ancient Hebrew names from the Hebrew University, speculated on the implications of the inscription. He said that, if the inscription is confirmed to have dated back 3,000 years, it will be highly significant. This is because Benayau would be one of the first ever Yahwistic names in archaeological record.
On the other hand, Dr. Yahalom-Mack has admitted that Benayau being a theophoric name is not conclusive enough evidence to say Abel Beth Maacah was part of the Kingdom of Israel. It could simply mean their leadership spoke Hebrew. “This inscription could be evidence that the city’s administration was in the hands of people who spoke Hebrew with Yahwistic names,” she said.
She continued, “It was found in a warehouse that apparently belonged to a local and he had a Yahwistic, Israelite name: this can give us a hint of who this city belonged to at this time.” So, essentially, Benayau may have had an Israelite name and the city might have been run by leaders with Israelite names. But that still leaves too much uncertainty to state anything definitive.
Regarding Benayau’s personal status, experts believe it is likely he was someone of wealth and power. After all, in order to acquire wine jars and other goods in large quantities, he would undoubtedly have had the financial means. However, there were still some unusual aspects of the find that confounded the archaeologists.
On the jar’s handle, a star (or a cross) was carved into the clay. An owner stamping their seal on a clay jar was common at the time, but this particular image of a star or cross has no known parallels, according to Dr. Yahalom-Mack. It was also unusual for inscriptions to be written in ink during this time period, rather than carved into the clay itself.