Archaeologists find table where Ark of Covenant once sat - report

The table was uncovered within a temple dating back to the 12th Century BCE, a time when the Israelites and Philistines were warring.

The site of an archaeological dig near Beit Shemesh (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
The site of an archaeological dig near Beit Shemesh
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
A 3,100-year-old temple uncovered near Beit Shemesh may hold a link to the Ark of the Covenant, archaeologists have said.
The archaeological site at a tel on the outskirts of Beit Shemesh, 20km west of Jerusalem, which has been under excavation since 2012 has now recently yielded a fascinating discovery: a stone table, which echoes Biblical narratives of a slab on which the Ark of the Covenant is said to have been placed.
The table has been found within a structure thought to be a temple thanks to its construction - the building was a perfect square, with walls 8.5m long, whose corners aligned with the cardinal points - and because it contained two large concave stones with gutters which may have been used for libation offerings, as well as a vast array of pottery and animal bones, indicative of ritual activity.
“There is a lot of evidence that this was indeed a temple,” Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz of Tel Aviv University told Haaretz. “When you look at the structure and its content, it’s very clear that this not a standard domestic space but something special.”
The table structure, a huge dolmen-like rock slab resting upon two smaller rocks, posed more of a challenge.
“At the beginning we thought it was a massebah that had fallen over,” Dr. Zvi Lederman, who leads the dig, said (a massebah is a type of standing stone commonly associated with cultic activity in the Levant). “But soon we realized that it was meant to be a table.”
The find is significant because it ties in with the time frame of the 'large stone' the Ark of the Covenant was said to have been placed upon when brought to Beit Shemesh after being returned by the Philistines, as recounted in the book of Samuel.
According to the Bible, “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. Then the cart [sent by the Philistines] came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone.” (1 Samuel 6:13-15).
The era referenced in the Biblical narrative was clearly one marked by warfare between the Israelites, led by judges like Samson and Deborah, and their neighbors, the Philistines. The site bears evidence of this struggle out: not only is located just seven kilometers from Tel Batash, a Philistine settlement, but more importantly the structure itself shows evidence of having fallen foul of warring between the nations.
It is clear that at some point in the mid-12th Century B.C.E. the temple was desecrated; the pottery within it smashed to bits. When uncovering the remains, the archaeologists had to dig through a thick black layer which they initially thought was ash, but turned out to be animal dung: the site had been turned into a byre after being captured.
“This would be a rare case in which we can merge the biblical narrative with an archaeological find,” says Lederman.
But he shies away from linking the stone table directly with stone mentioned in the Bible, pointing out that such a conclusion would be almost impossible to prove archaeologically.
He also points out that there are some inconsistencies between the narrative and the evidence. For one, the stone was said to have been located in a field below the town, not at the temple atop the tel.
It’s not easy to unpack all the twists and turns of the story that ended up in the Bible and figure out what people remembered, what was historical and what was added later,” Bunimovitz said.
Rather, it is likely that whoever wrote the Biblical text was aware of the significance of a stone at Beit Shemesh and incorporated in into the narrative.
The Bible is “not a historical document, but an ideological one,” Bunimovitz said. “But in every ideological narrative, if you want it to be believed and accepted, you have to insert some real elements.”
Modern scholars believe that the Ark Narrative was originally a separate story which was later incorporated into the wider Biblical narrative. According to Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who has led digs at sites associated with the Ark, including Shiloh and Kiriath Yearim, the Ark story originated in the 8th Century B.C.E, some 400 years after the destruction of the temple at Beit Shemesh.
Finkelstein is skeptical that the stone table is that referenced in the Bible, telling Haaretz: “The Ark Narrative depicts realities from the 8th century B.C.E.. It is difficult to assume that a memory from the 12th century B.C.E. was preserved until the 8th century with no continuous writing tradition.”
But others are more open to the possibility. Avraham Faust, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University said: “I don’t think anyone would take this literally and conclude that this is the stone from the biblical story. Obviously the story was written much later, but this find might support the theory that there are some very early traditions that made their way into the Bible.”
Faust pointed to a tendency in the past to stretch archaeological finds to fit Biblical narrative, a trend which he says has led to a reverse tendency to dismiss Biblical links out of hand.
“It’s an automatic and sometimes justified suspicion, but I don’t think this is the case here,” he says. “This is a noticeable stone, placed in a conspicuous position within what looks like a temple, at sort of the right time, so there are many dots that can connect this find to an old tradition that may have found its way into the biblical story. I don’t know if they are right or wrong, but I think it should be examined carefully.”