A rare gate shrine dating to the First Temple period (8th century BCE), unearthed in Tel Lachish National Park, near Mount Hebron, may prove King Hezekiah’s Biblically-recorded efforts to abolish worship in the region, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.
The excavation, conducted earlier this year by the IAA in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and Jerusalem Heritage and Environmental Protection Ministry, was carried out to further the development of the historic park.
According to the dig’s director, Sa’ar Ganor, the gate is the largest of its kind found in the country from the First Temple period. While the northern section of the gate was uncovered decades ago by a British and Tel Aviv University expedition, the current excavation was undertaken to completely expose the remainder of the ancient structure.
“The size of the gate is consistent with the historical and archaeological knowledge we possess, whereby Lachish was a major city, and the most important one after Jerusalem,” said Ganor.
“According to the Biblical narrative, the city’s gates were the place where ‘everything took place’: the city elders, judges, governors, kings and officials – everyone would sit on benches [by] the city gate. These benches were found in our excavation.”
Now completely exposed, the Lachish city gate, (measuring 24.50 m. by 24.50 m. and preserved to a height of 4 m.), consists of six chambers, three on both sides, and the city’s main street that passed between them, he said.
“Artifacts discovered in its rooms indicate how they were used in the 8th century BCE,” said Ganor. “In the first chamber were benches with armrests, at the foot of which were numerous finds including jars, a large number of scoops for loading grain, and stamped jar handles that bear the name of the official or a lmlk (belonging to the king) seal impression.”
The archeologist added that two of the handles have the seal impression lmlk hbrn, indicating they belonged to the king of Hebron.
“The word lmlk is written on one of the handles together with a depiction of a four-winged beetle (scarab), and another impression bears the name lnhm avadi, who was probably a senior official during the reign of King Hezekiah,” said Ganor.
“It seems that these jars were related to the military and administrative preparations of the Kingdom of Judah in the war against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, in the late 8th century BCE.”
The continuation of the building is constituted by the gate shrine, its walls treated with white plaster. Steps away, a staircase once ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed.
“An opening was exposed in the corner of the room that led to the holy of holies,” said Ganor. “To our great excitement, we found two four-horned altars and scores of ceramic finds consisting of lamps, bowls, and stands in this room. It is most interesting that the horns on the altar were intentionally truncated! “That is probably evidence of the religious reform attributed to King Hezekiah, whereby religious worship was centralized in Jerusalem, and the cultic high places that were built outside the capital were destroyed: ‘He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones, and cut down the Asherah poles… (II Kings 18:4).’” Moreover, besides cutting the horns on the altar, in an effort to further intensify the abolition of worship in the gate shrine, Ganor said a toilet was installed in the holy of holies as “the ultimate desecration of that place.”
“A stone fashioned in the shape of a chair with a hole in its center was found in the corner of the room,” he said. “Stones of this type have been identified in archaeological research as toilets. Evidence of abolishing cultic locations by installing a toilet in them is known in the Bible, as illustrated in the case of Jehu destroying the cult of Ba’al in Samaria: ‘And they demolished the pillar of Ba’al, and demolished the house of Ba’al, and made it a latrine to this day (II Kings 10:27).’” Ganor claimed this is the first time an archaeological find confirms this phenomenon.
“Laboratory tests we conducted in the spot where the stone toilet was placed suggest it was never used,” he said. “Hence, we can conclude that the placement of the toilet had been symbolic, after which the holy of holies was sealed until the site was destroyed.”
Ze’ev Elkin, Minister of Jerusalem Heritage and Environmental Protection, lauded the discovery and analysis as another breakthrough in bringing the Bible to life.
“The fascinating new discovery at Tel Lachish is a typical example whereby excavations and further research of heritage sites show us time and time again how Biblical tales that are known to us become historical and archaeological stories,” said Elkin.
“This discovery is an illuminating example of the verse that described King Hezekiah. Before our very eyes, these new finds become the Biblical verses themselves, and speak in their voice. We in the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage will continue to lead the effort whereby as many Israelis as possible will be exposed to the enthralling experience of ancient stones that speak to us of the Bible in their own unique voice.”
Minister of Culture and Sport, MK Miri Regev, echoed Elkin’s sentiments.
“The uncovering of these finds joins a long list of discoveries that enlighten us about our historic past – a past that is manifested in our country’s soil and in the writings of the Book of Books,” said Regev.
“The Bible – the founding book of the Jewish people, draws the country’s boundaries and the heritage of the Jewish people that was exiled from its country, and returned to its homeland,” she continued.
“It boldly commemorates the way of our forefathers, the prophets, the kings, and the judges, and the Israel Antiquities Authority deserves praise for this important discovery –a discovery that deepens our connection to our ancestors who walked this land.”
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