Mystery in the desert

The excavations at Kuntillet Ajrud provided the largest assemblage of textile finds from the Iron II period discovered to date.

Image of pottery 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Image of pottery 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A solitary hill, surrounded by bare desert even Beduin nomads no longer frequent, lies in eastern Sinai, some 50 km. south of Kadesh Barnea, on the very edge of the territory of the ancient Kingdom of Judah, close to an ancient road that leads from the north to Eilat and Southern Sinai. There are a few perennial wells at a ridge; hardly suitable for an agricultural settlement. But it was precisely this isolation that preserved for centuries the traces of a short-lived, mysterious settlement set up by the King of Israel (not Judah), secrets that Israeli archeologists are now uncovering.
The Arabic name “Kuntillet Ajrud” means “the solitary hill of the water source.” The Hebrew name “Horvat Teman” was assigned by Israeli excavators, due to the appearance of this biblical name, meaning “far south,” in some of the inscriptions discovered at the site.
There were three short excavating seasons during 1975-76, led by Dr. Ze’ev Meshel on behalf of the Institute of Archeology at Tel Aviv University, the Institute for Nature Conservation Research and the Department of Holy Land Studies of the Kibbutz Movement. Archeologists and volunteers, mainly from kibbutzim, bravely dared the difficult ascent, heat and crude desert conditions. Liora Freud, the volume’s editor, and 23 archeologists participated in the publication of the finds discovered at this fascinating site.
THERE ARE remains of two buildings at the top of the hill. One was thought to have been a fortress, but as the excavations progressed, it became clear that this was not the case, and that nor had it been a way-station, caravanserai, inn, shrine, cult center, trading post or school. Rather, it was a religious center unparalleled among known excavations.
It was like a temple “heichal” with a bench room, with the second building serving as an entrance, the “debir,” both representing a unique case in Palestinian archeology.
Meshel concluded that the site was a biblical bama (high place), with a bench room, of distinct religious character, constructed on the orders of King Joash of Israel (about 801-786 BCE), who had defeated King Amaziah of Judah, entered and robbed the Temple of Jerusalem, and taken control of his southern territory to secure the road to Eilat and a profitable Red Sea trade.
King Joash settled a group of priests and Levites from Israel at this site, people “who will fulfill his commands as well as the commandments of God for every matter pertaining to God and the King” (I Chronicles 26:32). A number of inscriptions referring to “YHWH of Shomron [Samaria] and his Ashera” and “YHWH of Teman and his Ashera” were found at the site. Two of them, written in Hebrew script and orthography on a pithos (a large jar) read: “Message to Amaryav – Say to my lord, are you well? I have blessed you by YHWH of Teman and his Ashera.
May He bless you and may He be with my lord [forever?].” This was the longest and the most complete inscription. The second was: “Message of... M.K. ... Speak to Yaheli, and to Yoasce, and to... I have [b]lessed you to YHWH of Shomron [Samaria] and to his Ashera.”
There was also an inscription on wall plaster in Hebrew, but in Phoenician script: “[May] He lengthen their days and may they be sated... recount to [Y]HWH of Teman and his Ashera.”
These inscriptions expressing blessings in the name of “YHWH and his Ashera” are conclusive proof of the deadly struggle in the Kingdom of Israel between worship of the Lord of Israel and the Canaanite cult of Ashera, known as a “grove” or a “pole.” Ashera, the Canaanite fertility and mother goddess, is mentioned 40 times in the Bible, always with a negative connotation.
“You must never set up an Asherah pole beside the altar of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 12:3). King Solomon “went after Asherah, goddess of the Zidonians” (I Kings 11:5). According to the Bible, King Manasseh even placed one inside the Temple (II Kings 21:7), from where it was removed by reforming King Josiah (II Kings 23:6).
The native religion of the Canaanites centred on El, the male creator god and his wife Asherah, while Baal was the son of this union. Baal later replaced El and became the chief deity of Canaan. Judges 3:7 tell us that the Israelites did evil because they abandoned the Lord and served Asherah and Baal. Elijah chose 7,000 Israelites “that have not bowed to the Baal, and every mouth that had not kissed him” (I Kings 19:18).
FROM AN ARCHEOLOGICAL perspective, we know all the artifacts originate from the same period and therefore are of the same Israelite Iron II culture. The site provided the largest assemblage of Iron II textile finds discovered to date. There were 120 scraps of linen, only a few of wool, reflecting a skilled craftsmanship, surprising at the desert site, but confirming the northern origin. Three pieces of mixed linen and wool in fabrics and one linen item decorated with colored wool threads – “sha’atnez” – were significant since they were permitted to the high priests only, and this proves their presence at the bama.
This was also indicated by storage vessels marked with the Hebrew letters alef and yod, abbreviations for offerings and tithes (trumot and ma’asarot) that were collected in Israel to supply the needs of priests, and apparently in this case sent by order of the king of Israel to the site.
Every item at the site was thoroughly investigated. The dates were determined by radiocarbon analysis, ceramic typology and paleographic analysis. All inscriptions, drawings, murals, pottery, textiles, cords, wooden objects, fauna and flora, botanical remains and stone artifacts supported Meshel’s ultimate conclusion that the site was a Northern Israel creation, set up for a definite purpose.
However, we still don’t know much about the true religious character of “Horvat Teman,” which unfortunately lies outside Israel’s borders today. The presence of Ashera at the site may indicate the extent of the influence of Canaanite civilization on the unique – in those days – Israelite faith, and helps us to better understand the deadly and unyielding struggle of our prophets against pervading pagan influences.
But the excavations, as presented in this research, do offer an intimate glimpse of life in Israel in the eighth century BCE, and are an authentic confirmation of the biblical background to the stories told in I and II Kings.
The book’s author and editor, the team of 23 archeologists, each of whom contributed separate studies for the volume, and the Israeli Exploration Society ought to be congratulated on producing this beautifully printed and bound, most fascinating volume.
The excavations at Kuntillet Ajrud provided the largest assemblage of textile finds from the Iron II period discovered to date, but the true religious character of the site is still unknown