A remarkable archaeological find revealed a Bible-era Temple and its amazing story of the conflict that brought the Ark of the Covenant to Beth Shemesh.
Archeologists have been digging at the site in Beth Shemesh about ten miles west of Jerusalem since 1990. They and knew from the outset that the city played a significant role in the Bible and the archaeological evidence portrays a border community living in the shadow and facing, on a daily basis, the behavior of their aggressive neighboring Philistines.
Nothing of the above prepared the team archaeologists for the surprise when they discovered a 12th century BCE structure. The building had exceptionally thick double walls on three sides and was separated from nearby residential areas. The walls formed a perfect square, 28 feet on each side and were aligned with the cardinal points.
The eastern wall, the only single layer wall, opened onto a raised platform. Inside the building were two large concave stones with channels carved into them.
Dr. Zvi Lederman, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist who is co-leader of the Beth Shemesh excavations project, believes the building was used as a temple. He theorized that the stones were used for wine libations and/or presses for producing olive oil to be used in religious ceremonies.
“Decorated pottery was in the building but it was not of the type for domestic use,” Dr. Lederman said. “There were no cooking pots, no oil lamps. Just goblets and bowls. I don’t know if the people of Beth Shemesh at that time were Jewish, Israelite, Hebrew, or something else,” Dr. Lederman said. “There is no evidence to determine that.”
One artifact did give a compelling glimpse into the spiritual life of the people of Beth Shemesh: a pile of animal bones.
“The primary investigation showed that there was not even one single bone from a pig,” Dr. Lederman said. “The neighboring village just six kilometers away was Philistine. They really liked their pork. Analysis of the animal bones from that village showed that 16-19% of the animal bones were from pigs.”
“The people of Beth Shemesh were different than the Philistines; their cultural origin was rooted in the Canaanite tradition and region. There is nothing that separates the people of Beth Shemesh from the early Biblical period from the people of Beth Shemesh in the late Canaanite period. These are the same people who went through a process of the crystallization of their own self-identity. At the end of the process, they were the Israelites.”
The archaeologists believe that the temple stood at a time and place of conflict between the Philistines and pre-Davidic Israel when the 12 tribes were being led by Judges like Samson and Deborah. At sites in the region corresponding to the 12th-11th centuries BCE, they identified four distinct villages built on top of each other, indicating that the same place may have been built up and then conquered or abandoned multiple times.
Despite its ‘special’ religious nature, the building had a disturbing story. To access the ruins of the structure, the researchers had to dig through several layers of black material they thought was ash, produced when the building was destroyed in the mid-12th century BCE. All the pottery was smashed. Surprisingly, the analysis revealed the black layers were composed of animal dung.
“Very shortly after it was conquered, the most sacred place of Bet Shemesh was turned into an animal pen,” Dr. Lederman said. “My interpretation is this is an act of hostility, an intentional desecration of a holy place. It is not entirely unexpected since religion and politics go hand in hand.”
Dr. Lederman noted that the desecration of holy places is still taking place as expressions of political conflict.
“Beth Shemesh was a border site with the Philistines. There were always fierce rivalries, economic and spiritual, going on. The Philistines were newcomers to the area. They came from who-knows-where: South Greece, West Turkey or Cyprus. They were called the peoples of the sea. One out of their five centers was Ekron, about 16 kilometers west of Beth Shemesh.”
The researchers were perplexed as to why the religious building held such spiritual significance that the conquerors went to great lengths to desecrate it. They now believe they found a clue to the site’s importance. Last summer, the researchers discovered a large stone they believed, at first, was a mazzebah (a standing stone). But when they further unearthed it they found out that the large flat stone sat upon two smaller stones, to form a very large stone table.
“This is the only temple that had such a table,” Dr. Lederman said. “The table clearly had some significance but its purpose is impossible to determine since there are no artifacts or evidence that could conclusively determine what it was used for. One of the possible options is that it was used as a base to hold the aron habrit (ark of the covenant). Not all archaeologists agree with me but in any case, that possibility cannot be ruled out.”
If this was true, it would be consistent with a section of the Bible that describes the aron habrit being returned to Israel by the Philistines.
“And the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. And the cart came into the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, and stood there, where there was a great stone; and they cleaved the wood of the cart, and offered up the kine for a burnt-offering unto the LORD. And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD, and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone; and the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the LORD. And when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day.” I Samuel 6:13-17
“I did not set out to find the ark and I did not find the ark. What I found was a table, and this table may have once held the ark. Hypotheses are a necessary part of the archaeological process but we must stick to the tangible evidence,” Dr. Lederman said. “In this case, the Biblical narrative and the archaeological proof may merge together but we need to do so with great caution. The ark may have been here but there is no proof either way.”