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

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

Jars found at Abel-Beth-Maacah. (photo credit: ROBERT MULLINS)
Jars found at Abel-Beth-Maacah.
(photo credit: ROBERT MULLINS)
How far north did the biblical kingdom of Israel extend?
A newly-discovered Hebrew-language inscription might confirm that the border of ancient Israel reached areas that some archaeologists were previously skeptical about, thus confirming the Bible’s account.
The inscription was discovered at the site of Abel Beth-Maacah, archaeologists Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack and Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post.
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 Ljon, 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 tell was discovered in the 19th 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 al-Qameh that was located on top of it and the ancient biblical name. It is located on the border with Lebanon, 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 3,000 years ago the city was also 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 Abel Beth-Maacah has yielded several important discoveries over the years, including a unique piece of artwork shaped like the 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 city’s political affiliation 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[E], shared many cultural traits,” Panitz-Cohen said.
At the very end of the excavation period last summer, the team, led by the two archaeologists from Hebrew University and Prof. Robert Mullins from Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, found five crushed jars in an Iron Age building.
Only much later, when Antiquities Authority restorer Adrienne Ganur was working on them, did she realize one of the jars featured an ink inscription, quite rare for that time. After further studies, Prof. Christopher Rollston from George Washington University in Washington said that the inscription included 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 the theophoric ending “yahu” – referring to YHWH, the God of the Israelites.
Yahalom-Mack and Panitz-Cohen explained that more work is needed in order to prove that Abel Beth-Maacah was part of the Kingdom of Israel. The jar could have been brought from afar and the name written on at a later stage, or the city might have been home to people having different cultural and ethnic identities.
Some answers will come from further research on the artifact, which is underway. For example, testing the source of the clay from which the jar was made.
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 BCE, or the beginning of the 8th at the latest. If this proved to be true, the inscription would be one of the earliest examples of this type of 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 has emerged at other sites in the area.
Answers to these issues might be found this summer when the team is returning for another excavation season.
“This coming summer, we are going to be excavating again for another month, focusing on the area and the building where we found the jars, among other intriguing Iron Age contexts,” Yahalom-Mack concluded. “If it turned out to be a destroyed building, it will be the first Iron Age II destruction we encounter.”