Sights and Insights: Tel Arad—An oasis of archaeology

No doubt, Tel Arad offers the most abundant, biblical archaeological site in the Negev; no visit to the desert should miss it.

Tel Arad 311 (photo credit:
Tel Arad 311
(photo credit:
Wayne Stiles is an author who has never recovered from his travels in Israel—and loves to write about them from his desk in Texas.
Standing on the ruins of Tel Arad, I gazed across the vast basin of the eastern Negev. It’s no surprise that Arad was continually occupied and resettled through the centuries. As travellers brought bitumen from the Dead Sea or copper from Sinai, they would traverse the main trade route that stretched from Judah to Edom. The ancient city of Arad controlled this highway.
As I walked among the ruins, I was amazed to learn that Arad’s lower area of occupation represented a thirty-acre settlement from the Early Bronze period (3000-2300 B.C.). That is centuries before Abraham! What’s more, because this section of Arad was never rebuilt upon, it offers magnificent insights for archaeologists who need only to remove the topsoil in order to study ruins from the Early Bronze age.
No doubt, Tel Arad offers the most abundant, biblical archaeological site in the Negev. Some of the most interesting finds include houses, the city gate, walls, streets, and towers.
When Moses led the children of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, the King of Arad picked a fight with the Hebrews—and lost (Numbers 21:1-3). After Israel’s victory, they honored the Lord’s faithfulness to them by renaming the city Hormah (“Destruction”). This triumph also represented God’s grace to the Hebrews in light of an earlier defeat they suffered there as a result of their lack of faith (Numbers 14:45).
The descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, would later leave Jericho and resettle “in the south of Arad” (Judges 1:16). This barren wilderness area likely refers to the Judean plateau that lies at the head of the Wadi Seyyal, which drains down toward Masada.
As I walked to the summit of Tel Arad, I wandered through additional ruins that date from the late Iron Age (1000-586 BC). During this time, Arad served as a fortress city that guarded Judah’s southeastern perimeter. This upper city has had six levels of occupation.
The upper city of Tel Arad represents one of the forbidden “high places” referred to in Scripture. In fact, interpretive signs reveal the outline of a temple patterned after Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Here archaeologists found two incense altars and two standing stones that suggest the locals worshipped two deities. A definite breach in faithfulness to the Torah! During either King Hezekiah’s or King Josiah’s reigns, the temple was dismantled (see 2 Kings 23:8).
Later, even the Romans used the site as a means of guarding the border. The city remained strategic until the Islamic occupation of the 7th-century AD.
In an area of Israel that offers fewer attractions to visitors, Tel Arad is like coming upon an oasis of archeology. No visit to the Negev should miss it.
What to Do There: The top of the tell offers a tremendous view of the Negev, revealing the strategic position of Tel Arad as a border town through the centuries. While overlooking the panorama, read Numbers 21:1-3 and 2 Kings 23:1-8. The site offers a number of interpretive signs that help you understand the archaeological finds. Significantly, it helps to remember that the lower city offers a rare glimpse at ruins that pre-date Abraham. The upper city gives the visitor a peek into the idolatrous syncretism of Israel’s pre-exilic divided kingdom.
How to Get There: From Jerusalem, take Route 60 south, then Route 356, then Route 317, then Route 316, and finally Route 80 toward the Tel Arad Junction.
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