Was the Bible right? Inscription may confirm ancient Israel’s borders

Almost Heaven

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A Hebrew inscription was in fact discovered for the first time in the site of Abel Beth-Maacah, as explained to the Jerusalem Post in a phone interview by archaeologists Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack and Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen, from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Abel Beth-Maacah is mentioned in the Bible several times.

“Ben-hadad responded to King Asa’s request; he sent his army commanders against the towns of Israel and captured Ijon, Dan, Abel-Beth-Maacah, and all Chinneroth, as well as all the land of Naphtali,” reads the first reference in I Kings 15, 20 (translation by Sefaria.org).

Later, in II Kings 15:29, the city is listed among those conquered by the King of Assyria.

As explained by the researchers, the prominent site was first discovered in the nineteenth century and identified with the city mentioned in the Bible because of its location and the resemblance between the name of the Arab village Abil el-Qameh that was located on top of it and the ancient biblical one. It is located on the border with Lebanon and not far from the border with Syria.

“It is a very large and prominent site and before we started our project eight years ago it had never been excavated, possibly because of its border location,” Panitz-Cohen told the Post.

The archaeologists pointed out that also 3,000 years ago the city was at the crossroad between different political entities, namely the kingdom of Israel, the Aramean kingdom and the Phoenicians, who were not part of a unified state but lived in several independent cities along the northern coast.

Although over the course of the years Abel-Beth-Maacah has offered several important discoveries, including a unique piece of artwork in the shape of a finely-chiseled head of a bearded male as well as figurines, seals and jars, no finding so far has allowed the archaeologists to understand the political affiliation of the city in the Iron Age.

“The question archaeologists ask is to whom they paid their taxes. This though doesn’t necessarily change the culture, the cults, pottery and the cuisine of the city. Maybe it means that the Israelites, the Arameans and the Phoenicians at that time, 10th and 9th centuries BC, shared many cultural traits,” Panitz-Cohen further said.

At the very end of the excavation period last summer, the team, led by the two archaeologists from the Hebrew University and Professor Robert Mullins from Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, found five crushed jars in an Iron Age building.

Only much later, when IAA restorer Adrienne Ganur was working on them, she realized that one of the jars featured an ink inscription, quite rare for that time. After further studies, Professor Christopher Rollston from George Washington University said that the inscription read the word Lebenayau, or “belonging to Benayau,” a name formed by the root Bana, which in Hebrew and many Semitic languages refers to the concept of building and a theophoric ending referring to YHWH, the God of the Israelites.

Yahalom-Mack and Panitz-Cohen explain that much more is needed to prove that Abel Beth-Maacah was indeed part of the Kingdom of Israel: the jar might have been brought from afar and the name inked in at a later stage, or the city might have been home to people belonging to different cultural and ethnic identities.

Some answers will come from further research on the artifact which is underway: for example, testing the origin of the clay the jar is made of.

A crucial question about the inscription is also related to its dating: the archaeologists think that it likely dates back to the second half of the 9th century, or the beginning of the 8th at the most. If this proved to be true, the inscription might represent one of the earliest examples of this northern theophoric ending.

Other mysteries surround Abel Beth-Maacah.

For example, the fact that they “have identified cultic activities some of them unique, that differ from archaeological expressions of religious activities at contemporary sites” Yahalom-Mack pointed out. Or that so far the site does not present any sign of the late 8th century BCE destruction brought by the Assyrian conquest which is mentioned in the Bible and emerged in other sites in the area.

New answers to these issues might be found next summer when the team is going to be back for new excavations.