SYNOPSIS: New discoveries of smashed idols at the biblical city of Beth-Shemesh point to the religious reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah. A new highway expansion threatens the further exploration of the site.
And they put the ark of the LORD on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.– 1 Samuel 6:11-12 (ESV)
Rescuing Biblical Evidence from a Highway Project
New discoveries from the biblical city of Beit Shemesh are causing Israeli archaeologists to scramble before a proposed highway expansion goes through. Smashed figurines of idols found at the site may be tangible evidence of the religious reforms enacted by Judah’s King Hezekiah and King Josiah.
The general area of ancient Beit Shemesh (written as Beth-Shemesh in many Bibles) has long been known. Ahead of proposed 4-lane highway expansion of Route 38 as part of the development of the modern city of Beit Shemesh, archaeological checking was done in the work zone. What they found was quite a shock; the remains of an expansive First Temple Period settlement from the 7th and 6th centuries BC. This was the last phase of the biblical Kingdom of Judah before the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC.
A rush recovery excavation was put in place to salvage as many artifacts and as much historical information as possible. The effort is headed by Yehuda Govrin, a research fellow at the Hebrew Union College who runs a company called Y. G. Contract Archaeology.
One of the most unique finds unearthed by Govrin’s team so far is a portion of a figurine of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes, never found in this form in the land of the tribes of Israel before. It is thought to have been a talisman for good luck.
“When I understood what I had in hand, I felt tremors of excitement,” said Govrin in an article in the Times of Israel.
Smashed Idols Evidence of Religious Reforms?
Numerous other clay idols and figurines were also recovered in the shapes of women and animals, especially horses. Some scholars associate these with a fertility cult and the Canaanite goddess Asherah. All of the idols were found smashed, which is consistent with the religious reforms enacted by Judah’s kings Hezekiah (726-697 BC) and Josiah (640-609 BC). The books of Kings and Chronicles record they returned to the laws of Moses and destroyed the signs of the pagan religion that was so prevalent in the land.
Before the conquest of Canaan, Moses had ordered the destruction of all forms of pagan worship:
You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.– Deuteronomy 12:3-4
Centuries later, idolatry in the southern kingdom of Judah was rampant when two of its kings sought to return to faithful worship of Israel’s God. See more about the discovery of strong evidence for idolatry at this time in God’s Wife? – Idol Worship in Ancient Israel. At times this was going on side-by-side with the faithful worship as other finds suggest (read more in Evidence For Worship of Israel’s God). The finds at Beit Shemesh from the same period as Hezekiah and Josiah hearken back to their acts.
He [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).– 2 Kings 18:4 (ESV)
For in the eighth year of his [Josiah’s] reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. And they chopped down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and he cut down the incense altars that stood above them. And he broke in pieces the Asherim and the carved and the metal images, and he made dust of them and scattered it over the graves of those who had sacrificed to them.– 2 Chronicles 34:3-4 (ESV)
For more signs of these reforms, see: Toilet at a Holy Site: Evidence of King Hezekiah’s War on Idolatry?
Shemesh in the Bible: An Important Economic Center in Judah
Smashed Idols in the Temple of Dagan after the Ark of the Covenant Was Placed There.
Beth-Shemesh (or En-Shemesh), which was about 15 miles west of Jerusalem, first shows up in the Bible as a town of Judah. It was part of the border between the lands allotted to the tribes of Benjamin, Dan and Judah after the conquest of Canaan. It was also was located in the Shephelah foothills, lying between the coastal plain where the Philistines dominated, and the Judean Mountains.
Beth-Shemesh (meaning “house of Shemesh”) is most famous for the account the Ark of the Covenant being returned to Israel after being taken by the Philistines recorded in 1 Samuel chapter 6. The Israelites had brought the ark to a battle because they thought it would ensure victory. When the Philistines won the day, the ark was brought to their city of Ashdod to be displayed as a trophy. However, when the ark was placed into the temple of Dagan, its idols were later found toppled and decapitated.
When the plague broke out in the city, the Philistine sent the ark to another of their towns. After plague struck each of a series of cities where the ark was placed, the Philistines put it on a cart pulled by two cows and sent it away, up to the broad valley road. It went straight to Beth-Shemesh where the Israelites took possession of it (see passage at top of article).
Excavations Bring New Understanding of Biblical Beth-shemesh
Rescue excavations were begun in earnest at the site In March 2018. Once the extent and importance of the new finds were understood, thousands of Israelis began to demonstrate for their preservation. It appears that a compromise plan for the highway is in the works that would greatly reduce its archaeological impact.
The Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem has opened an exhibition entitled Highway through History that highlights the rescue operation underway at Tel Beit Shemesh. It is designed to foster debate about the need to balance the forces of modernization and the desire to preserve ancient heritage sites. The display will be the world’s first chance to view the new finds firsthand.
Archaeologists had no previous knowledge of this phase of settlement at Beth-Shemesh. They had dug at the crest of the tel (mound) for decades and found Bronze Age material, which has been ascribed to Canaanite culture before the time of Israelite occupation. Curiously, even though the pottery has been assigned as “Canaanite,” the diet of the inhabitants is consistent with Israelite practices (e.g. no swine). Is this yet another sign that the Israelites lived in earlier periods than most archaeologists accept?
Beth-shemesh Reestablished as a Major Industrial Center
Since the earlier excavations had gone to bedrock, it was assumed that there was no major habitation at the site later in Judah’s history. Most believed that the invasion of Assyria’s King Sennacherib in 701 BC had destroyed the site along with many other settlements in Judah. The Book of 2 Kings (chapters 18 & 19) records that Hezekiah sought the Lord and Jerusalem was spared destruction by a miraculous intervention that wiped out most of the Assyrian army and caused them to return home.
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them.– 2 Kings 18:13 (ESV)
Sennacherib’s annals, dating from 690 BC, write about all the cities conquered and booty taken from Judah. He is believed to have demanded that Judah pay ongoing tribute in submission to Assyrian power. The thinking was that Beth-Shemesh was abandoned and Judah was too weak or not allowed to rebuild it.
The discovery of the new area was not at the crest of the tel, but in the lowland below it – right where the highway runs today. It is clear now that the city was reestablished after its destruction as a major industrial center producing olive oil. In addition to the smashed idols discovered, hundreds of jar handles were discovered with stamp seal impressions of “LMLK” meaning “belonging to the king”. These stamps have been found at other sites in the region and were characteristic of royal administrative control from Jerusalem.
Other finds to date include 15 olive presses, large stone basins, and rollers for crushing olives, and storerooms and clay jars for storing oil. What is thought to be a large administrative building was also found. The quantities of olive oil produced at this and other sites were so immense, exceeding local requirements, that they possibly were part of Judah’s tribute payment to the Assyrian empire.
Archaeologists Looking in the Wrong Places
Such findings like these of the smashed idols discovered in an area, and in a period, that were previously thought to be empty, helps rewrite previously held assumptions about Beth-Shemesh and Judah under the Assyrian rule in the 600s BC.
In discovering the unexpected industrial zone and dozens of houses on the relatively small strip of land, “we solved the central mystery of why it was that we didn’t have evidence of the 7th century” BCE Govrin told the Times of Israel — because archaeologists had searched in the wrong places. “Not only did they settle, but there was a massive settlement.”
Looking in the wrong time periods and in the wrong places may be the key reason for skepticism in the Bible’s early accounts. As profiled in the Patterns of Evidence films challenging presuppositions is essential to advancing the understanding of these topics. – Keep Thinking!
TOP PHOTO: The excavation site at Beit Shemesh. (credit: Tal Rogovski)