Archaeological Views: Biblical Archaeology’s Architectural Bias

The dramatic results of recent research in the copper mines of the ‘Arabah Valley call into question the way biblical-era nomadic societies have been treated in biblical archaeology.1

Since the early days of the discipline, the prevailing perception of nomads has been of people who could not form strong political entities and whose influence on the course of history was marginal. Biblical scholars and archaeologists alike have constantly equated the biblical-era nomads to the modern Bedouin of the southern Levant, furthering the interpretation of these groups as simple tribal societies that existed in the geographical and historical periphery of the settled land. Similarly, almost any discussion on the formation of the southern Levantine Iron Age kingdoms, including the United Monarchy of ancient Israel, has assumed that such political organizations could not have developed prior to the entire population’s sedentarization.

Consequently, the identification of these kingdoms in the archaeological record and the assessment of their political organization have been dependent on the existence of substantial stone-built architectural remains. This is exemplified by the most contentious debates in biblical archaeology today, such as the question of Jerusalem’s monumentality in the 10th century B.C.E. or the absolute chronology of the early Iron Age (“High” vs. “Low” Chronologies). In both cases, stone structures are at the core of arguments about the United Monarchy’s size, historical impact, and mere historicity.

To put this simply, archaeologists have focused too much on stone architecture, assuming that if a people hadn’t any, they could not possibly establish a kingdom of any substance.

However, we now have convincing evidence for a strong and centralized biblical-era nomadic kingdom—the biblical Edom, which was centered in the ‘Arabah Valley and achieved a high level of social complexity as early as the 11th century B.C.E.2 The evidence comes from the local copper exploitation that scholars formerly attributed to empires: the Neo-Assyrian in the case of Faynan and the Egyptian in the case of Timna. Radiocarbon dates from excavations in Faynan (headed by Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar) and Timna (headed by me) demonstrate that the local copper industry thrived during the 11th–9th centuries B.C.E. It was the most intense exploitation of copper in the history of the region (surpassing the intensity of the Roman imperial metallum in Faynan).

Several lines of evidence indicate that it was the local (semi-)nomadic (agro-)pastoralist tribes that operated the mines. They established a powerful tribal polity (following the Egyptian withdrawal from the region in the late 12th century B.C.E.), while maintaining their nomadic way of life for several centuries. This polity controlled the most lucrative industry of the time and was in the center of long-distance trade systems. Early Iron Age ‘Arabah copper was identified recently in places as remote as Greece.

Yet the most striking insight gained from these data is that the reconstruction of a powerful kingdom was possible only because of the engagement of the ‘Arabah’s nomads in an archaeologically visible activity, which left thousands of mines and more than 100,000 tons of production waste (“slag mounds”). Had their economy been based on any other practice (including agriculture and trade), this early Iron Age society would have been archaeologically inconspicuous, regardless of its social structure and historical significance because it lacks any substantial stone-built features. Were it not for the copper production, simple forms of nomadic society or even an occupational gap would have dominated historical reconstructions of the ‘Arabah in the early Iron Age, resulting in a completely different understanding of early Edom.

The main reason for misinterpreting the social structure of ancient nomadic societies is the fact that the archaeology of nomadism is intrinsically difficult. Specifically designed surveys (not commonly practiced in biblical archaeology) may identify ancient camp sites, but those are extremely hard to date, and it is impossible to extract from them any meaningful insights on the occupants’ social organization. The latter is the main reason for the prevailing “default” resort to the ethnography of the simple modern-era Bedouin societies. Since this parallelism is so deeply entrenched in biblical scholarship (so much so that the word “Bedouins” is freely used as a substitute for “nomads” or “mobile people”), it obscures the possibility of considering the existence of strong, centralized nomadic polities.

Admittedly, documented cases of highly complex nomadic societies are rare in human history. But the time following the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations was one of the most exceptional periods of history, one that offered a fertile ground for typically marginal groups to accumulate geopolitical power, witnessing also the rise of the tribal kingdoms of Israel and its neighbors.

Since the simplistic view of nomads in biblical archaeology (and biblical scholarship in general) is rooted so deeply, basic components of the biblical narrative itself, in which nomadic populations are depicted as substantial constituents of the emerging local kingdoms (including the United Monarchy), are often overlooked or misinterpreted. There is no textual evidence that the population of the Hill Country was fully sedentarized by the 10th century B.C.E., yet it is the underlying assumption of most scholars and the reason behind the prevailing conviction that archaeology can serve as ground truth for the relevant biblical narratives.

This situation is evidently a manifestation of the common perception that nomads (or, for that matter, a mixed nomadic/sedentary population) could not have achieved a monarchy.3 However, the new understanding that biblical-era nomads could have developed complex societies (“kingdoms,” in the biblical sense)—and that these societies would be largely inconspicuous in the archaeological record—calls into question the archaeology-based and ethnography-supported historical reconstructions of this period that are evidently skewed toward minimalistic interpretations.

More broadly, it raises concerns about the role that archaeology has purported to play in biblical scholarship, especially in the assessment of the historicity of the biblical narratives related to nomads.

Ardent promotion of a positivist approach by biblical archaeologists, which has been propelled recently with the ostensible promise offered by the integration of advanced research methods from the natural and exact sciences, has further cemented the notion that archaeology is the key to revealing the reality of the biblical period. However, when treating nomadic and semi-nomadic societies, a positivist approach is not conducive, as it creates the false impression that the information is in the ground; in reality, its lion’s share is simply lost and could not be retrieved even with advanced scientific methods.

This realization is dispiriting to anyone who regards archaeology as a means to reconstruct history, but it is an important step forward in the arduous quest for the realities of the biblical world, adjusting the role of nomads within it. I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to uncritically accept the historicity of biblical narratives related to nomads, but I would argue that archaeology cannot provide the answer.

Archaeological Views: Missing from the Picture

Women have made important contributions to digs in the Holy Land since the early days of archaeology. Photographs in excavation reports from the late 19th and early 20th centuries attest to large numbers of Palestinian women and girls among the laborers at archaeological digs. Writing in 1902, Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister described the labor pool on their excavations in the Shephelah as largely female: “At first we employed only men and boys, as the women and girls were shy, but after we had gained the confidence of the whole village, the female element predominated.”1

A number of foreign women played a variety of roles on digs in Palestine between World War I and World War II. British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod led a team that included female staff and workers at Mount Carmel in the 1920s and 1930s, and British archaeologists Hilda Petrie, Grace Mary Crowfoot, and Olga Tufnell made important contributions to the excavation and publication of Tell el-Ajjul, Samaria-Sebaste, Lachish, and other sites. Dame Kathleen Kenyon (also British) directed excavations in Jericho and Jerusalem through the 1950s and 1960s. And groundbreaking Israeli archaeologists Ruth Amiran and Trude Dothan worked with Yigael Yadin at Hazor in the 1950s and directed numerous projects in Israel.

These and other archaeologists paved the way for increasing numbers of female students, specialists, and staff on excavations in Israel during the past 50 years.

In contrast, female dig directors from the United States of America are missing in the history of archaeology in Israel until the late 1970s, when Sharon Herbert, of the University of Michigan, directed excavations at Tel Anafa. In BAR’s 2019 Dig Issue, only three of 49 total dig directors and co-directors—a mere 6 percent—are women based in U.S. institutions.a While this is not a complete list of digs in Israel, other sources, such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s list of affiliated projects and the list of licenses granted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, confirm that only a small percentage of research excavations are directed by women based in the U.S.

Why did it take until the late 1970s for the first American woman to assume a leadership position on a dig in Israel, and why are there still so few women at the helm of digs in Israel today? The answers lie in the history of American biblical archaeology (and biblical studies more generally) and in the institutions that have engaged in it.

Most of the research digs in Israel are currently sponsored or co-sponsored by Israeli universities with archaeology departments. All five Israeli women listed in BAR’s 2019 Dig Issue (i.e., 10 percent in total) indeed represent those institutions. The American institutions that sponsor excavations and/or employ American directors and co-directors of digs in Israel, however, have a different character: Most are seminaries and other private, Christian-affiliated institutions. Of the 17 U.S.-based men (including two Israelis who hold academic positions in U.S. universities) listed as directors or co-directors in 2019, more than half are employed or sponsored by seminaries, Christian-affiliated institutions, or the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. At the same time, none of these institutions is supporting U.S.-based female dig directors in Israel.

While both secular universities and seminaries supported digs in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century, only a few American projects were directed by scholars who were also ordained ministers. This changed dramatically with the rise of the “father” of American biblical archaeology, William Foxwell Albright. While director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (now the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research) in the 1920s and 1930s, Albright directed excavations at Tell Beit Mirsim and Bethel with the sponsorship of the American School in Jerusalem and Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary. Albright trained and inspired the first generation of American biblical archaeologists, many of whom followed his lead in using archaeological remains to illuminate, if not prove, biblical accounts.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a number of American biblical scholars and archaeologists who were also Protestant clergymen directed excavations in the Jordan-controlled areas west of the Jordan River, at sites such as ‘Ai (Joseph Callaway), Bethel (James Kelso), Gibeon (James Pritchard), Shechem (G. Ernest Wright), Ta’anach (Paul Lapp), and Tel er-Ras (Robert Bull), many with seminary support. Besides the excavators’ wives, who would work as dig administrators, registrars, and support staff often without compensation and much acknowledgment, few women took part in these projects.

Only with the establishment, in the 1960s, of the first American excavation to use student excavators rather than hired workers—the Hebrew Union College-Harvard Semitic Museum Excavations at Gezer—did American women have the opportunity to learn archaeological field methods alongside men in Israel. More than a decade passed before one of these women—Carol Meyers, Professor Emerita of Duke University and an area supervisor at Gezer in 1964–1967—served as associate director of the Meiron Excavation Project (in 1978). Fast-forward to 2019, and the U.S.-based women directing excavations in Israel are faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Jodi Magness, at Huqoq)b and Pennsylvania State University (Ann E. Killebrew, at Akko).

One need only look through BAR dig issues from the past decade to see a clear pattern: American women who direct excavations in Israel are supported by secular institutions (most of them large research universities), while many U.S.-based men are supported by private Christian-affiliated institutions.

In his 1995 BAR article, William G. Dever described the passing of the classical era of biblical archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s and the inability of the seminaries and church-related groups, which had once dominated Palestinian archaeology, to maintain a foothold in a now secular and professional discipline.c Archaeologists affiliated with the Israel Antiquities Authority and archaeology departments at Israeli universities surely dominate archaeology in Israel today, but the 2019 BAR dig list reveals that American Christian-affiliated institutions maintain more than a mere foothold in archaeological projects in Israel. This, among other factors, has limited the ability of American women to rise through the ranks in archaeological projects in Israel.2

The photos in BAR’s annual dig issue and the names on the list of scholarship winners clearly show that women participate in digs in Israel each summer. In fact, on some excavation projects, female staff and team members outnumber male staff and team members. This, after all, reflects the trend in world archaeology.3

I call on members of BAR’s informed and educated readership to advocate on behalf of the many qualified, experienced, and talented female archaeologists who have lacked the opportunities and advantages available to their male colleagues. It is time for those American institutions that have so generously and enthusiastically supported male directors and both male and female students on digs in Israel to step up and support female leadership on the projects they sponsor.

Archaeological Views: Herod the Great Gardener

Everyone familiar with the palaces of Herod the Great (r. 47–4 B.C.E.) has seen their stunning locations in the most extreme landscapes of ancient Judea. From the surf of Caesarea to Wadi Qelt at Jericho to the precipices of Masada, Herod’s building projects defied nature. Controlling nature for ancient kings was a way to show their subjects that they had the power to rule and, quite possibly, the favor of higher power as well.

Herod claimed the larger landscape with his palaces, but he also brought the landscape inside the palace, in the form of gardens.

But what could be left of a garden to be studied by archaeologists after 2,000 years? Admittedly, we cannot find the remains of lush plantings, beautiful scents, the sounds of birds, or the cooling spray of a fountain. At the same time, gardens are not entirely ephemeral. For example, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. preserved the art and fountains of gardens, the walks, the irrigation systems, and the shape of the planting beds. As the plants decayed, volcanic ash filled in the cavities, and archaeologists are now able to make casts of the roots to determine the location and general size of the plants.

Scholars of Roman gardens have surveyed all of the known gardens around the Roman Empire and located more than 1,200 known or suspected gardens! Many of these gardens are identified by the rich garden soils in courtyards, the remains of pools and fountains, bases for statues, and ceramic plant pots, often preserved in the ground. From this evidence, we can work out the design of the garden and how it related to the architecture of the house or to the wider landscape or town. The gardens of Herod are among the best preserved archaeologically outside of the unique Vesuvian region.

Sadly, it is very difficult to identify the actual plants. However, palynologist Dafna Langgut, Head of the Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments Laboratory at Tel Aviv University’s Nadler Institute of Archaeology, has developed a technique of recovering pollen from the plasters around ancient gardens. Her success at the Persian palace at Ramat Rachel led to an ongoing effort to study the palaces of Herod the Great and contemporary gardens in Italy.

Another approach is to study plant phytoliths, which are microscopic minerals that accumulate in living plants and survive long after the plants decay. Such studies have given evidence for palm trees in Petra, Jordan, and grass turf as well as palms in Stabiae, Italy.

Palace gardens of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. were quite unlike anything we know today. It was a period of intense innovation in garden forms, in the propagation and aesthetics of the plants, and in their role in the space. Aristocrats of the late Hellenistic and Roman world liked to stroll in their gardens for pleasure and while doing business. In a small garden, you might look into a courtyard as you walked around it, viewing it from many angles without ever entering. In a larger garden, you might cross the courtyard along a single path. If you had even more space, you could arrange your walks in parallel rows separated by beds of varied widths offering arrays of plant compositions to admire. Fountains, birdbaths, and—where acceptable—statuary also ornamented the walks. Gardens of these types are known throughout the Roman Empire, although in Judea the tradition was to pave the courtyards.

Herod’s palaces fully engaged—and perhaps even led—the garden trends of his day.

Herod wintered at the old Hasmonean palaces along Wadi Qelt in Jericho. This stunning location was surrounded by the plantations of palm and balsam that made him a very wealthy ruler. What could be lovelier to behold? He built an artificial hill to overlook the scene. Herod outfitted the palace complex with the latest in garden arrangements.

During the Kelso/Baramki excavations, in the 1950s, and the Netzer excavations, after the 1970s, planting pots were found in many complexes of the winter palace. Beside the great swimming pools, rows of pots delineated walkways for strolling. A small peristyle beside the dining hall along Wadi Qelt featured neat rows of flower pots. Crossing a bridge over the wadi lay the greatest of the gardens, a vast terrace with places to stroll at each end. Partially excavated by William Kelso and Dimitri Baramki, this garden is one of the largest, best preserved garden complexes of the Roman world. Its full extent has never been revealed, but one side was a niched wall, enlivened by water and fine ornamentation. A theater was built into the center of this wall, its seats filled not with spectators but rows of flower pots!

It is nearly impossible to imagine gardens on the top of the mountain at Masada, but the evidence for them is considerable and continues to grow. Here plants are preserved through desiccation, and archaeologists found date palm pits dating to Herod’s day (in a rubbish pit rather than the garden). To the world’s amazement, one of the pits sprouted (with the help of some growth medium) a fine male palm known originally as Methuselah.

The North Palace featured luxurious accommodations, some ornamented with wall paintings of bountiful garlands, in stark contrast with the views of the Dead Sea beyond.

On the south end of the mountain, Herod provided swimming pools, a columbarium (dovecote), and other features of a garden watered by the deep cistern nearby, as well as a canal bringing water from the nearby bath complex.

Scatters of potsherds, bits of charcoal and bone, from both Herod’s day and the time of the First Jewish Revolt, are characteristic of fertilized soils in the areas near the pools. So far only test excavations have been undertaken, but the new campaign, by Guy Stibel and Dafna Langgut, is taking a further look at the gardens of Masada with promising results.a

At Herodium, Herod provided gardens for himself in the luxuriant and spacious facilities at the base of the mountain around a large courtyard with a boating pool and pavilion. But, for the event of siege, he also had a fine small peristyle garden within the fortress palace at the top of the hill. Here no pots were found, but a rich brown loam suggests the presence of the gardens. Upon Herod’s death, garden terraces were built into the slopes below what is believed to be his tomb.

Finally, the royal seaside palace at Caesarea Maritima is a particularly inhospitable place for a garden, with its salt-laden air. But Ehud Netzer quickly recognized that cuttings in the rock around the pool of the lower promontory were planters for vegetation, once again defying nature. The huge courtyard of the upper area of the palace saw centuries of use, and it appears to have been paved. Recent studies by Langgut detected pollen in the plaster of the columns surrounding the courtyard. Surprisingly, it featured hazelnut trees, not a traditional garden or orchard plant of ancient Judea, but one popular in Italy.

The best ancient literary description of Herod’s gardens is of his palace in Jerusalem, which we can locate, but it is not sufficiently preserved for excavation. Josephus recounts: “All the courts that were exposed to the air were everywhere green. There were, moreover, several groves of trees, and long walks through them, with deep canals, and cisterns, that in several parts were filled with brazen statues, through which the water ran out. There were withal many dovecotes of tame pigeons about the canals” (Jewish War 5.180–181).

Thus, while Herod is well known for his great architectural contributions, he should be equally credited for his prowess in innovative landscape and garden design—an all-the-more impressive achievement considering the difficult locations he chose for his astounding projects.

Archaeological Views: Jewish Graffiti—Glimpsing the Forgotten Lives of Antiquity

Imagine that you entered a synagogue and saw somebody writing her name on the wall. Or that you visited a cemetery and spied someone with a penknife carving a message into the nearest headstone. How would you—or any reasonable bystander—react? Perhaps you would notify the local authorities. After all, acts of writing graffiti are illegal inside places of worship and burial, as they are associated with vandalism, defacement, and disrespect.

But these same types of behavior resonated differently in antiquity.

Throughout the ancient world, many people, including Jews, carved and painted words and pictures (we might call them graffiti today) in places that would shock modern sensibilities—inside and around holy spaces and shrines, pagan sanctuaries, synagogues, and churches; and throughout cemeteries, necropoleis, and tombs in regions of modern Israel, Syria, Greece, Italy, Malta, Sardinia, Tunisia, and Libya. The ancients also made their marks in other locations: upon cliffs and open-air sanctuaries along desert roads and trade routes of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and Saudi Arabia; and around public theaters and hippodromes (horse racecourses) along the Syrian coast (modern Lebanon) and Asia Minor (the Asian portion of modern Turkey).

Jews and their neighbors did not write these markings to deface, destroy, or vandalize, as modern analogies might suggest. Quite the opposite—the purpose was to express piety, reverence, devotion, commemoration, love, and pride. Unlike in modern societies, acts of graffiti writing were often licit, desirable, and even encouraged.

Most people aren’t familiar with these graffiti, and many scholars and specialists still dismiss them as random and incidental scribbles. Yet examination of Judahite and Jewish graffiti, of which hundreds survive from the seventh century B.C.E. through the seventh century C.E., singlehandedly promises to transform the study of the Jewish past. As I suggest in my recent book,1 they offer unexpected insights into the daily lives and activities of the nonelite Jews who wrote them, alongside their pagan, Christian, and Muslim neighbors.

So what exactly are we talking about when we say “graffiti”? What do they look like? Some include written signatures and messages—in Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Hebrew, or Arabic scripts and languages. Others consist of abstract letters or signs. Still others depict images, such as skeletons, obelisks, quadrupeds, birds, ships, menorahs, and riders astride horses.

And Jews carved and painted these markings in different locations, including devotional spaces. For instance, upon doorways from a third-century C.E. synagogue in Dura-Europos in Roman Syria, a man called Hiya carved “I am Hiya!” multiple times. Other writers, such as a certain Ahiah, wrote prayers and requests for divine remembrance on synagogue surfaces (“remembered be Ahiah … before the Lord in Heaven!”), while still other visitors to the synagogue scratched pictures of horses into the elaborately painted walls of the assembly hall. Some Jews wrote their devotional graffiti in unexpected places, including sanctuaries, shrines, and prayer sites of pagan, Christian, and early Muslim use, throughout Syria, Arabia, and Egypt.

Jews also wrote graffiti inside cemeteries. Indeed, some of the most famous Jewish catacombs known from antiquity are encrusted with writings and pictures, which people scratched and painted during their visits. In Beit Shearim, the largest Jewish necropolis known from Roman Palestine, some writers used graffiti as a means to create public-service messages for the deceased. One person, for example, scrawled a sign around an entrance to the complex to offer well wishes to the dead, proclaiming, “Good luck on your resurrection!” Others painted curses in Greek and Aramaic above and inside of tombs to deter grave-robbers. Their writings condemned to suffer those who would disturb the surrounding graves. (“He who resurrects the dead shall judge him [who violates a tomb]!”)

Throughout these caves, as well as inside and around entrances to cemeteries in Rome, Venosa, Malta, and North Africa, Jews wrote messages and drew additional pictures, including flowers, animals, radiating suns, ships, and menorahs. These markings do not name the deceased, as do epitaphs, nor do they constitute formal modes of tomb decoration. Instead, they document otherwise unrecognized activities that ancient Jews performed inside cemeteries when visiting the graves of loved ones.

Jews in Asia Minor wrote graffiti inside public and civic spaces, such as theaters, hippodromes, and marketplaces. Some Jews who frequented a theater in the town of Miletos, for instance, repeatedly carved the message “[the place] of the Jews” into the backs of seats on middle rows of the structure; they did so to designate their favored places to congregate amidst other theater-goers. Still others carved and painted diagnostically Jewish symbols, including menorahs, around their booths and shops inside the Late Antique marketplaces of Sardis, Aphrodisias, and Tyre. These drawings occupied prominent places inside these civic complexes to proudly declare the Jewishness of their writers, even within societies dominated by pagan and Christian populations.

The historical significance of these disparate markings is remarkable. They retain information for the study of ancient Jewish life that other sources distinctly lack. This is partly because Jewish historiography still draws (nearly exclusively) from the writings and records of ancient Jewish elites. But the voices of everyday people of that period are not di-rectly accessible through their texts. The words of Philo and Josephus, for instance, are essential for reconstructing certain periods of ancient Jewish history, but the idiosyncratic interests of their highly educated authors predict the selectivity in their accounts. Rabbinic texts of the Mishnah and Talmud additionally incorporate critical discussions of Jewish daily life. But the rabbis (scholarly elites from Palestine and Babylonia) edited their works according to their own specific interests, which were often quite different from those of most contemporary Jews who lived—nearly entirely—outside of the rabbinic literary orbit.

Crucial counterparts for these literary discussions emerge from the archaeological record (mostly synagogues and burial spaces), but vestigial forms of monumental architecture, decoration, and inscriptions correspondingly reflect the tastes, decisions, and preferences of the economic elites who funded their construction. Available literary and archaeological data, which figure so prominently in Jewish historiography, can thus obfuscate the lives of nonelite (and nonrabbinic) Jews of antiquity.

Challenges, such as these, highlight the broader contribution of graffiti for the improved study of ancient Jewish history. Unlike many available documents, most (though not all!) examples of ancient graffiti were created directly by Jewish plebeians—artisans, traders, herders, sailors, and merchants—who worked hard to make their livelihoods through the sea and desert by commerce and trade. And these Jews created their drawings and personal dedications during the courses of their quotidian lives: while performing acts of daily prayer or pilgrimage, during visits to family graves, on overland work trips and sailing expeditions, attending sports competitions and theatrical displays, and even in dealings inside local market places. Their writings and drawings, in so doing, attest to associated activities that they once performed—in their own terms, in their own voice. Thus, what makes graffiti seemingly mundane is actually what makes them most significant: They index the daily activities of nonelite Jews, whose lives and behaviors otherwise elude historical report.

Contextual readings of graffiti from diverse places, periods, and contexts thus promise to transform what we think we know about Jews and Judaism throughout the ancient world. Only graffiti can demonstrate that acts of carving messages constituted devotional experiences for some Jews inside pagan sanctuaries, open cliffs, and synagogues alike. Only recurring appearances of graffiti in burial caves throughout the Mediterranean suggest that many Jews engaged in the same types of mortuary activities as their peers, which sometimes defied rabbinic prescription or record.

In many cases, only graffiti can illuminate the functional coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims where contemporaneous writers consistently report their mutual antipathy. These ancient messages thereby retain rare information about the most ordinary of Jews and their neighbors, who once prayed, mourned, celebrated, loved, worked, and played throughout all corners of the ancient world.

Graffiti, of course, cannot fill in all the gaps of our historical knowledge. But more careful attention to neglected pictures and phrases can transform something forgotten into something significant, offering improved insights into the daily lives of Jews in antiquity.

Archaeological Views: Tall Jalul: A Look from Behind the Jordan

The largest ancient site in the central Jordanian plateau, Tall Jalul commands the highest point in the Madaba region in modern-day Jordan. Covering more than 18 acres, the tell seems to have been continuously occupied from the Early Bronze Age through the Persian (perhaps even Hellenistic) period, after which the occupation spilled over to the plain below and south of the tell.

The settlement was well established already in the Early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.E.), but its peak came during the Iron Age (1200–500 B.C.E.). It is for this period that Andrews University’s ongoing excavations of Jalul—together with the contemporaneous sites of Hisbana and ‘Umayrib—have greatly enhanced our understanding of the area, dominated by the kingdoms of the Ammonites and Moabites and settled by the Israelite Gadites and Reubenites.1

Historical data acquired through 17 archaeological seasons are especially relevant for questions about the inhabitants’ identity, identification of the site with settlements named in the Bible, or sustenance strategies and local water management.

Ceramic remains indicate that by the Iron Age IA (1175–1100 B.C.E.), the site was occupied by the Israelite tribe of Reuben, which conquered the previously Amorite territory. Although the ancient name of the place remains unknown, some suggest identifying it with Biblical Heshbon—due to the presence of a sophisticated and extensive water system. However, a case can be made for Bezer, the Levitical city of refuge in Reubenite territory referred to in Joshua 20:1–9 and later referenced by Moabite King Mesha in 840 B.C.E.2 According to King Mesha, the Gadites had already taken over the plains north of Atarot. They may have settled Jalul prior to the time of Mesha, as the Reubenite transition to the northeast most likely took place later, during the reign of King Saul (1 Chronicles 5:10), in the Iron Age IB (1100–980 B.C.E.).

Finds of Moabite pottery corroborate that the Moabites had control of the territory in the middle of the Iron Age II (900–700 B.C.E.). However, the territory was resettled by the Ammonites during the seventh century, as evidenced by Ammonite ceramic forms and inscriptions. This was a high point in Ammonite political and cultural development, with the region experiencing settlement expansion into the Persian period.

While the identity of the inhabitants of Jalul is not definitive, the recovered remains have revealed some interesting facts about their ancient way of life. Inhabitants during the Iron Age and Persian period were agro-pastoralists who engaged in crafts, such as spinning and weaving, and in trade, as evidenced by the bones of imported fish and sherds of imported ceramics. Architectural remains, such as the domestic structures in Field C and a tripartite building in Field A, suggest a society based on kinship relations with some level of social organization. A well-developed roadway has been uncovered leading into and through one of the gate complexes (Field B). East of the acropolis, a central basin and a smaller depression were parts of a vast water system.

Fragments of ceramic cultic shrines attest to a well-developed cultic presence. The site has yielded numerous fragmentary specimens of ceramic figurines representing female and male humans, horses with riders, and lions. Whether the lion figurines are a part of religious iconography as attribute animals of deities or apotropaic forces, or represent kingly power, they are a part of a larger leonine presence in the ancient Near East, where the lion figures as a powerful agent.

The answers to many of our questions regarding the identity of Jalul’s inhabitants and the sophistication of their social organization remain buried beneath the acropolis in the southwestern corner of the site, which has not been excavated, because it is still used as the local cemetery. In an effort to shed light on the role Jalul played in the Madaba region, recent excavations have focused on the roadway and water system instead.

In the latest, 2017 season, we continued excavations in two areas: the Gate Area and the central basin. Opened during the first season at Tall Jalul, in 1992, the Gate Area has so far revealed two superimposed flagstone pavements and associated repavings dating from the Iron Age II, as well as a revetment wall.

The water reservoir was first explored in 2010. According to the dig Co-director Paul Gregor, this Iron Age II open-air reservoir, constructed and plastered during the 10th century B.C.E., is the largest of its kind in the Middle East.3 Preliminary estimates suggest measurements of approximately 82 feet wide, 115 feet long, and about 20 feet deep, with a capacity of up to 210,000 cubic feet of water. The associated water channel that ran along the eastern edge of the reservoir to exit the city at its southeastern corner was built to prevent flooding in the city.

Serving possibly as a partition, an unusual stone structure was discovered sitting directly upon the plastered floor in the southern part of the reservoir (see photo, p. 58). This structure is stepped on its southern face, much like a ramp or dam. The northern face is created by a second stone wall. Interestingly, stones in the lower half are arranged in a herringbone configuration, while the stones in the upper half seem to have no particular design. Tightly packed dirt and stones fill in the area between the two walls, creating a massive structure. Paul Gregor has suggested that it may have been constructed in the late seventh century B.C.E. to corridor off the southern side of the reservoir, which appears to have been damaged, allowing leakage in antiquity. The channel and reservoir then fell into disuse. Subsequent water retention efforts were limited to a small closed cistern north of the reservoir. To date, approximately 50 percent of the reservoir has been excavated.

Future excavations will attempt to uncover the rest of the reservoir and definitively answer questions about the identity of Jalul’s ancient residents. What happened to the Amorites, who lived here before the Israelites? What happened to the Reubenites/Gadites who likely settled this region? What was the function of Jalul during the Persian period? Who governed this ancient city?

Part of the allure of excavation is that answers arising from beneath the spade spawn more questions.

Archaeological Views: Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll?

Why did early Christians prefer the codex, at a time when the bookroll reigned supreme in the wider culture? All through the first three centuries C.E., people overwhelmingly favored the bookroll (“scroll”) for literary texts.1 Indeed, it was the prestige book form of that time. But, from the earliest scraps of identifiably Christian manuscripts onward, it is clear that Christians differed in preferring the codex, especially for those texts that they most prized and used as “scriptures.” This is clear. But scholars continue to explore and debate why. Before we consider scholarly opinions, let’s take account of some key data.

Of all the second-century C.E. manuscripts (pagan, Jewish, and Christian) included in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB), 2,326 (about 95 percent) are bookrolls, and 123 (about 5 percent) are codices.2 Among all manuscripts dated to the third century, the 1,522 bookrolls comprise 78 percent, and the 431 codices 22 percent.3 Clearly, the bookroll was the favored manuscript form for literary texts in these centuries.

Now, let’s look at the figures for identifiably Christian manuscripts of the same period. Of the 32 Christian manuscripts (of all texts) dated to the second century C.E., 22 percent are bookrolls, and 78 percent are codices. Of the 186 Christian manuscripts dated to the third century, 25.3 percent are bookrolls, and 74.7 percent are codices. So the contrast between the general preference for the bookroll and the Christian preference for the codex in these early centuries is clear, indeed, rather stark.

Moreover, this early Christian predilection toward the codex is even more evident if we note figures for manuscripts of those writings that Christians treated as scriptures. This is often overlooked but important. Among identifiably Christian copies of their Old Testament texts dated to the second and third centuries C.E., well over 90 percent are codices.4 As for copies of writings that came to form part of the New Testament, except for a small number on reused bookrolls, they are all codices.5 On the other hand, early Christians were somewhat more relaxed about using the bookroll for other texts, such as theological treatises and writings that we now often designate as “apocryphal.” By my count, about one-third of the extant copies of these various extra-canonical texts are bookrolls. In short, we see a clear Christian preference for the codex for these texts, too, but not quite as strong as with the texts that came to be included in the Christian Bible.

So why did Christians prefer the codex? One might suppose that this simply reflected a wider cultural move. We do, after all, see some growth in the use of the codex across the first few centuries C.E. Whereas codices comprise only about 5 percent of the total number of second-century manuscripts, about 22 percent of all third-century manuscripts are codices, and about 77 percent of all fourth-century manuscripts are codices.

But a closer analysis of the data raises questions. Across the first four centuries, identifiably Christian codices make up an increasingly greater portion of the total number of codices. Of the 431 third-century C.E. codices listed in the LDAB, 139 are Christian codices. If we strip out Christian manuscripts from the total number of third-century bookrolls and codices, bookrolls comprise 83.5 percent and codices only 16.5 percent. As for the undeniable preponderance of codices over bookrolls in the fourth century (and thereafter), this coincides with the “triumph” of Christianity and its pervasive influence on the culture of Late Antiquity. So it looks like the codex came to be dominant under the influence of Christianity in that period.

Another proposal is that Christians favored the codex because of some supposedly practical superiority over the bookroll, but this is hard to sustain. For example, there is sometimes the assertion that the codex was preferred because it could contain a larger body of text. But earliest codices actually contained modest-sized bodies of text, and ancient bookrolls could contain quite large amounts of text. Some have proposed that the codex facilitated finding “proof texts” or particular passages in texts. But ancient Jews were as keen on searching their scriptures, and yet they preferred the bookroll. The basic problem with any notion of some supposedly “obvious” practical advantage of the codex is that, except for Christians, it apparently escaped the notice of nearly everyone in the ancient world!

Another proposal is that Christians were more likely to choose the codex because they largely came from levels of Roman-era society in which workaday texts in codex form were more familiar, and literary texts in bookrolls less common. But this is where quantitative data are important. Christians favored the codex particularly for the texts that they used as scripture, the texts they most highly prized, and were somewhat more comfortable with bookrolls for their other texts. That is, the Christian use of the codex seems to have been intentional, and not simply a reflection of their unfamiliarity with bookrolls.

In the ancient Roman world, the preference for the codex was certainly unusual and distinctive. Christians would have known this, and so would others. I think that it is difficult, therefore, to view it in any way other than a deliberate choice. It seems to me that the more cogent view is that the ancient Christian predilection toward the codex served to distinguish Christian books. Indeed, the particularly strong Christian preference for the codex for copies of scriptural texts suggests that there was a special desire to distinguish Christian copies of these texts. Note that this tendency extended to Christian copies of Old Testament scriptures as well as copies of the Christian texts that were part of the emerging New Testament canon.

In a sense, the Christian preference for the codex was a countercultural stance. It stood on its head the dominant stance of the ancient book/reading culture, in which the bookroll was deemed the preferable and more appropriate form, especially for literary texts. But, to repeat the point, early Christians preferred the codex, especially for their most highly prized texts.

Then, also, as ancient Christians sought to include multiple scriptural texts in a single codex, they invested considerable efforts in devising various ways of constructing codices adequate for this. Indeed, it appears that in the third century C.E. Christians were at the forefront of experimentation with various techniques of codex construction.

The Biblical papyri housed in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin vividly show us this. The Chester Beatty Gospels codex included all four Gospels and Acts; it was made up of folded papyrus sheets sewn together. The Pauline codex, however, was made of 56 papyrus sheets that were stacked and sewn together in one “gathering.” But, eventually, Christians settled upon constructing codices of multiple “gatherings,” each made of several sheets of writing material sewn to form what we now call a “quire”; these then were bound together to form the codex book. This is the basic technique used in making books to this day.

The ancient Christian preference for the codex exhibits a distinctive feature of early Christianity—and also appears to have helped to steer the subsequent history of the book.

Archaeological Views: Christian Amulets—A Bit of Old, a Bit of New

In the ancient Roman world, people would commonly protect themselves from illness and harm by wearing amulets. They would also resort to such devices to drive out a preexisting illness or to remedy an acquired affliction. You may think that the advent of Christianity put an end to the pagan practice, but it didn’t—at least not immediately. Rather, the new faith brought an adaptation of the existing pagan practice.

Much of what we know about the practice of making and using amulets comes from the literature of the time. Sophisticated writers of antiquity mocked people who called upon the help of the “old women,” who traditionally were one of the sources of these amulets. For example, the fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus describes how common-place occult practices put people in danger during a time of heightened political tension. He mentions those who “used some old woman’s charm to relieve pain”a remedy that he considered foolish but harmless.1

With the spread of Christianity, Christian preachers reprimanded the faithful for relying upon amulets. They urged their congregations, instead, to make the sign of the cross or to apply water or oil that had been blessed by a priest or a monk. Athanasius, a fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, comments about a person who would use amulets:

He has made himself instead of a faithful, an infidel; instead of a Christian, a pagan; instead of an intelligent person, an unintelligent one; instead of a rational person, an irrational one. For an old woman pours over you a flood of words (the snake spell), for 20 obols or a quarter of wine, while you stand there as an ass […] nullifying the seal of the cross that brought you salvation. Not only are the illnesses afraid of that seal, but also the whole crowd of demons fears and wonders at it.2

Christian authorities were especially severe in condemning the practice because they regarded amulets as instruments of the devil. Their remarks, however, clearly show that not all Christians, including clergy, saw things the same way. Amulets, according to many, were just a traditional means of warding off evil and healing illness.

So what sorts of amulets did Christians make or use?3

Many amulets were composed of animal or vegetable matter. These, obviously, have perished. But other amulets have survived—in the form of figurines, engraved stones, and texts written on papyrus, parchment, potsherds, wood, and metal. This last group—textual amulets—is especially interesting, because it allows us to see how Christian ways of praying and worshiping began to influence what people wrote on amulets. Due to favorable climate conditions, the largest number of textual amulets have survived in Egypt, many of them in Greek—the lingua franca of the time, as well as the language of the New Testament and the early church.

Christian influences appear in various ways. Sometimes a short, common spell, such as those used to protect against scorpions and snakes, is simply framed with Christian symbols like the sign of the cross. One remarkable example of the fusion of pagan and Christian elements in an amulet is a papyrus now in Oslo (P.Oslo I 5) that reads: “I bind you, Artemisian scorpion, 315 times. Protect this house with its inhabitants from every evil, from all bewitchment, […] from the sting of scorpion and snake.” Accompanied by Christian icons (cross, monogram of Christ, alpha-omega, fish cryptogram), this customary binding spell is then followed by a distinctly Christian doxology, an expression of praises to God: “Give protection, O Lord, son of David according to the flesh, born of the Holy Virgin Mary, O holy, highest God, of the Holy Spirit. Glory to you, O heavenly King. Amen.”

In other amulets, a chant with Christian terms is paired with a Greco-Egyptian chant. For instance, one amulet against fever appeals to both Jesus and the white wolf (the sun god Horus-Apollon) for healing.

In yet other amulets, the structure of the chant may be the same as in non-Christian amulets—commanding, for example, a fever to flee “now, now, now, quickly, quickly, quickly”—but the substance of the chant is entirely Christian. Such chants are addressed to Christian figures (Biblical characters and saints), the stories derive from the Gospels, and the closing words echo liturgical prayers. This type of amulet tends not to use “secret” words and signs commonly found in non-Christian amulets, relying instead on the power of the words and works found in the Christian Bible.

The ways in which writers composed or copied these elements reveal the level of their familiarity with Christian rituals or their association with Christian institutions. A writer who includes a complete doxology addressed to Jesus or a description of Jesus’s work derived from a Christian creed was probably closer to the institutional church than a writer who incorporated a somewhat jumbled excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer or the Eucharistic liturgy. Often, though not always, writers who were more familiar with “standard” Christian material were also more consistent in their use of Christian scribal techniques, such as abbreviations for “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and certain other names (termed nomina sacra, or “sacred names”) that were commonly used by Christians when copying the Bible.

Some amulets consist only or mostly of passages derived from the Bible or liturgical services. Psalm 91, also frequently recited in Jewish amulets, was particularly popular. So was the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13; cf. Luke 11:2–4). Many small pieces of papyrus or parchment inscribed with verses from the Psalms have been found, but we cannot always be sure that they were amulets. Occasionally amulets recite part of the legendary correspondence between Jesus and King Abgar of Edessa. This exchange was evidently cited because of what Jesus promises Abgar in his reply: healing or protection. A few amulets draw on what seems to have been a form of the Christian creed used in rituals to exorcise evil spirits.

Further clues may be gleaned from the handwriting of the texts. Some writers were evidently more trained than others. The range extends from highly skilled scribes to people who could barely write. Most amulets were written in practiced “everyday” hands commonly found in documents, letters, or personal copies of books. Words are often spelled as they would have been pronounced rather than written in proper, standard Greek. This reveals that the writers were probably recalling the texts from memory, which is what we would expect, especially in the case of commonplace chants, such as those against snakes and scorpions, or Christian devotional texts, such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Psalms.

Late antique amulets offer an exciting case study of how emerging Christianity modified rather than erased traditional religious practices. At the same time, the study of amulets reveals how people in different cultural settings or social circles picked up on Christian modes of invoking divine power. Even with two similar amulets, we can observe that some writers were more influenced by institutional forms of Christianity than others. We are lucky that there were many sorts of people in the business of providing amulets and that some of their work has survived to inform our understanding of how writing and wearing protective or healing chants began to change as the religious environment shifted from pagan to Christian.

Archaeological Views: Prehistoric Dining at Tel Tsaf

Before the emergence of Israelites and even Canaanites, other communities established complex societies in the southern Levant. Though some of these groups left behind no written record, they did produce a rich archaeological record with a wealth of material culture. This then allows archaeologists to piece together a picture of their lives, including the diet and environmental conditions long before the establishment of cities.

Located near the Jordan River and the international border between Israel and Jordan 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, Tel Tsaf is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the Levant. It was first reported in the 1940s; excavations began in the late 1970s and were later resumed for four more seasons in 2004. During these excavations, especially the 2004–2007 seasons, approximately 800 square meters of the site were exposed, and two main strata were identified. This revealed a large village dated to c. 5300–4700 cal B.C.1

In the southern Levant, the early shift from simple, relatively egalitarian village societies to socially more complex organizations seems to have occurred during the transition from the Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic period to the Late Chalcolithic period (c. 5200–4500 cal B.C.). This process accelerated during the Late Chalcolithic period and culminated in the Early Bronze Age, when the first urban centers emerged. It remains unclear what triggered the process, causing large groups of people to live in close proximity to one another and wrestle with the many problems inherent to such an arrangement.

A multidisciplinary project launched by the present authors at Tel Tsaf in 2013 seeks to shed new light on the early stages of the transition to complex societies and the origin of the Mediterranean-style diet, which seems to have played a major role in this process.2 The Tel Tsaf project investigates how and why human societies of the ancient Near East developed “simple” villages into more complex and larger settlements—and later into towns and cities. A whole set of scientific methods, such as radiocarbon dating, geomagnetic and aerial surveying, and state of the art bio-archaeological and material culture analyses, supply us with a wealth of information concerning the development of the prehistoric village at Tel Tsaf and the culinary practices there in each of the stages of the transition.

Our excavations suggest that the social and economic organization of village communities changed dramatically during the Neolithic-to-Chalcolithic transition in the Jordan Valley. New modes of economic organization appeared that included superregional trade networks and were accompanied by the introduction of high-temperature technologies, such as metallurgy. The transition from the Neolithic to the Chalcolithic period appears to coincide with the development of the Mediterranean-style diet. In that respect, our project strives to better understand food choices by considering environmental conditions, social and economic factors, and cultural preferences of the local population.

Tel Tsaf is distinguished from most prehistoric sites in the southern Levant by its extensive and well-preserved mudbrick architecture as well as large courtyard structures with round and rectangular rooms, many silos, and cooking facilities. The configuration of structures and installations is without a parallel at any other site from the same period (c. 5300–4700 cal B.C.). A new geomagnetic survey further showed that the site is even larger and denser than previously thought.

Many of the finds from the site are rare within the southern Levant. These include clay vessels bearing the “Tel Tsaf decoration.” Even though intensive research has been going on in recent decades on both sides of the Jordan River, very few sites produced similar pottery—and those assemblages yield only small quantities of decorated pottery—while Tel Tsaf features the highest concentration of this decorative style in the region.

A unique clay silo model was also found at Tel Tsaf, suggesting that the extensive storage of wheat and barley at the site was probably accompanied with ideological foundations and ritual behavior.

Another notable find from Tel Tsaf is a copper awl. This small object from one of the silo burials (of a woman) reflects the earliest presence of metallurgy in the area, a few hundred years before the advanced copper industry of the Late Chalcolithic period (c. 4600–3900 cal B.C.) emerged in the region. Metal finds from such an early time had previously been known in very limited numbers only from the Balkans, southern Anatolia, and Iran. As there is no evidence for on-site metal production at Tel Tsaf, it seems that the awl came from one of these areas.

Other items that reflect the inhabitants’ participation in long-distance exchange networks include dozens of obsidian artifacts from Anatolia (such as beads, tools, and production waste), a few sherds of the ‘Ubaid style pottery (from northern Syria or Mesopotamia), and a shell from the Nile River. Short-range trade was common and is reflected in the presence of shells from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Also recovered were stone stamp seals, dozens of clay sealings, and several stone and clay figurines, as well as many quartzite objects, including spindle whorls and a unique dagger with preserved point. Finally, thousands of beads made of ostrich eggshells (1,668 were incorporated in a belt found on the woman’s waist in the silo burial, accompanying the copper awl) and beads made of various non-local minerals were excavated. Interestingly, we also found raw materials for bead-making as well as beads that were discarded during the production. Notable amounts of local pottery, flint tools, ground stone tools—some unique to the site—and bone tools were discovered.

We also found large amounts of animal bones, most of which belong to sheep and goats; but there were also significant quantities of pig and cattle bones. Wild animals are only marginally represented among animal bones from the site, which is yet another sign of the notable changes that communities in the area underwent—now placing much of their economic wealth on controlled herding of domesticated animals. Notably, some of the wild fauna remains, such as gazelle horn cores, were found in special arrangements and concentrations.

Studies of the microfauna provide important information about the site’s ecology and environmental conditions. Fish and shellfish found at Tel Tsaf reflect mainly species from the Jordan River. Birds were also noted in the faunal collections, and we hope this record can tell us more about long-term changes in bird migrations through the Rift Valley.

Much of our archaeological research has focused on gathering information about the plants that grew around Tel Tsaf and were used by its prehistoric inhabitants. The Jordan Valley’s dry climate allows for the extraordinary preservation of organic remains. Already, we have extracted from vessels and tools thousands of seeds, olive pits, plant and wood remains, as well as pollen, phytolites, starch, and other organic residues. Tel Tsaf’s organic materials and rich faunal and malacological (shells and snails) remains will enable archaeologists in the near future to reconstruct the paleo-diet at the site and food-related traditions.

While the results of the recent excavations at Tel Tsaf are still provisional, it is clear that Tel Tsaf is becoming paramount for studying the transition from the Neolithic to Chalcolithic periods and the origins of social complexity in the southern Levant. Already it has supplied a wealth of information regarding the environmental, social, and economic aspects underlying the transition to a complex society in this area.

Archaeological Views: Performing Psalms in Biblical Times

The Bible does not tell us much about how psalms were originally performed. Archaeology and extra-Biblical texts, however, can shed some light on the music and dance that accompanied psalms in Biblical times.

When the Book of Psalms was compiled, disparate pieces of information got integrated into the psalms’ superscripts or subscripts. These contain rubrics—comments and directions introducing or following a psalm. In these notes, ancient scribes indicated the genre and alleged authorship of individual psalms and their association with King David; they also provided instructions on how to perform the psalms.

Every Bible reader recognizes sentences such as “To the leader: with stringed instruments. A psalm of David” (Psalm 4:1). Similar verses are usually not read aloud—and rightly so, because they are not part of the hymn. Rather, they are remarks of the editors. As such, they are commonly printed as headings, or superscripts, introducing individual psalms—but this arrangement is by no means certain. In antiquity, subscripts were much more common than superscripts. When read as subscripts, these “headings” suddenly make more sense.

One example is Psalm 46, which praises God for his defense of a city and its people. The superscript reads, “According to the maiden. A song.” That sounds odd. But if considered a subscript instead, the note relates to the preceding Psalm 45, which is a song for the royal wedding and contains verses such as “in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow” (Psalm 45:14). The instruction then fits perfectly the content of the hymn.

Most psalm rubrics in the first three books of the psalter are addressed “to the leader.” This seems to indicate that they were sung by a chorister alternating with a choir, which would explain the switching between the first and third person we find in many of these psalms.

Rubrics to Psalm 45, Psalm 60, Psalm 69, and Psalm 80 contain the expression “according to lotuses.” An adequate interpretation of this instruction had until recently been obscured by the fact that the Hebrew al-shoshannim was translated as “according to lilies,” while in fact shushan is an Egyptian loan-word for the lotus flower. Lotus was an important decorative element in both Egypt and the Levant, and it even featured prominently in the Jerusalem Temple. How is this relevant to a musical performance?

The shape of a lotus plant reminded the ancient Egyptians of a trumpet. And indeed, in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (14th century B.C.E.) a copper trumpet was found with its wooden insert designed to protect the soft sheet of metal from accidental deformation when not used; this insert is characteristically decorated with a lotus flower, a symbol of rebirth and long life.1 It is possible that also the silver trumpets made by Moses (Numbers 10:2) bore a lotus décor. If so, the instruction in Psalm 45, Psalm 60, Psalm 69, and Psalm 80 would refer to the use of trumpets. And if, further still, the alleged psalm superscripts are in fact subscripts, “according to lotuses” would belong to Psalm 44, Psalm 59, Psalm 68, and Psalm 79. Two of these psalms (Psalm 59 and Psalm 79) are psalms of vengeance, expressing this plea to God: “Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name” (Psalm 79:6). Psalm 44 is a desperate lament to God: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O LORD? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” (Psalm 44:23). Finally, in Psalm 68 God is called upon to demonstrate his power: “Summon your might, O God; show your strength, O God, as you have done for us before” (Psalm 68:28). In all four psalms, people are trying to awaken God, who seems to be absent or sleeping. In these cases, a trumpet would help to bring the people’s concerns to God’s ear. “According to lotuses” must then be a euphemism for the noise of trumpets aimed at awaking God and making him attentive to the words of the psalmist.

Among the Levantine parallels to the Biblical psalms is the famous text corpus from Ugarit on the northern coast of modern Syria. This collection contains cultic hymns from the 14th century B.C.E. While the Book of Psalms in its final form is the result of much later editorial work, the oldest psalms probably originated in the same period—around 1400 B.C.E. It is then not surprising that the southern Levantine music of the Bible shared many aspects with the northern Levantine cult music. In the Hebrew Bible and Ugaritic texts, musical forms and instruments are called by the same West Semitic words. Like the Ugarites, the Israelites of Jerusalem celebrated their chief god as king. The image of Yahweh as a king residing on Zion is in fact one of the most important in the psalter (e.g., Psalm 24 and Psalm 47).

An element missing from psalms, but present in a Ugaritic hymn for the enthronement of Baal, is a praise of the god as a lover—like in love poetry.2 In the Biblical psalms, the link between love songs and cult songs is less apparent, but not entirely absent. Erotic aspects of the Israelite cult transpire in the festive translation of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, at which King David is portrayed dancing almost naked. A dance—including erotic moves and pantomime—was part of the Levantine cultic tradition. But as the episode of Michal daughter of Saul shows, those rural Canaanite customs were not appreciated by everybody: “Michal … looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, and she despised him in her heart” (2 Samuel 6:16).

Little is known about the personal use of psalms. Festive processions—mentioned in the Psalms, in some Biblical stories, and in the Books of Chronicles—are better documented. Several psalms suggest that the most significant place for festive performances of hymns was a gate (Psalm 15; Psalm 24; Psalm 87; Psalm 118). Large gates decorated with music scenes have been excavated in the northern Levant, especially in the southern Hittite or northern Aramean region. The reliefs on orthostats (base stones of public buildings) from the late Hittite cities display showily dressed musicians with instruments that correspond perfectly to the musical instruments we know from the Bible.

What can archaeology tell us about how ancient musicians performed? Their habitus on the reliefs is varied. Musicians are sometimes marching gravely, as the orchestra on the Karatepe relief, or are static, as on the above relief from Samal. Different reliefs, however, render scenes with playful and even ecstatic elements. Consider also the following Biblical description: “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres (kinnorot) and bass lyres (nevalim) and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (2 Samuel 6:5).

Even outside the Bible, Yahweh was seen as a music lover. Next to the famous invocation of Yahweh and his Asherah on a pithos from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, there appears a depiction of a lyre player.a And a fourth-century B.C.E. Aramaic papyrus from Egypt contains the following exhortation: “Drink, LORD (YHW[H]), from the bounty of a thousand basins; be sated/inebriated, Adonai, from the bounty of men. Musicians stand in attendance upon Lord (Mar): a player of the bass lyre (nevel), a player of the lyre (kinnor). ‘Here is the music of the bass lyre (neve[l]). You have caused me to listen to the music of the lyre (kinnor) and to other things sweet to my ears at the banquets of men.’”3

To fully appreciate the effect and relevance of music in the ancient Levant, we would have to imagine a world devoid of modern noises—a place without cars, airplanes, and any sort of machinery. In such an environment, every sound was a strong sensation. The human voice was a physical expression of one’s life; musical instruments were artful means of amplifying the range of human sounds in order to make joyful noises for the gods. With this in mind, we can better understand the significance of hymns in the Bible.

Archaeological Views: Archaeology, Israelite Cosmology and the Bible

A thorough examination of Iron Age II (c. 1000–86 B.C.E.) dwellings excavated in Israel and Judah reveals a strong tendency to orient houses to the east.1 This preference is even far more noticeable in isolated, self-standing buildings, which had relatively little restrictions on their construction. More than 80 percent of these self-standing structures were oriented east, southeast and northeast.

This preference to orient houses to the east was evident also in nucleated settlements, that is, villages and cities clustered around a center, where any new construction would need to conform to the existing settlement fabric. Even there, some 60 percent of all houses were found to be oriented in this direction. The north and the south were also represented, but the west (including northwest and southwest) were almost completely avoided. These archaeologically detected tendencies cannot be accidental.

Climatic and functional considerations cannot account for this phenomenon. Lighting considerations, for example, would make the north (not the west) the most underrepresented direction, and heat concerns would also influence the north-south axis, rather than the east-west axis. As for winds, it is true that most winds in the Land of Israel are west or northwest winds. In the Middle East, a west wind (breeze) is typically something pleasant that people look forward to, in contrast to the hot, east wind (sharqiyya or khamsin), which is to be avoided. The influence of winds should, therefore, favor the west orientation of houses.

The tendency to direct doorways of structures to the east and to avoid the west impacted not only dwellings but also city gates. It appears that through complex mechanisms this tendency even had an impact on Iron Age urban planning.2

If not practical considerations, what else could account for the easterly orientation of structures and settlements in Iron Age Israel? Many ethnographic studies have demonstrated the strong influence of cosmological principles—that is, the way societies understand the universe, its origin, structure, laws and fate—on the planning of buildings and settlements. Interestingly, in many cases across the globe, it is the east that is indeed the preferred direction. The reasons for this strong tendency to favor the east are obvious: it is the direction of sunrise, which commonly symbolizes beginning or renewal. This preference is contrasted with the west, the direction of sunset, often symbolizing the end or death.

In the complex cosmology of the Toraja people of Indonesia, for example, the east is the direction of life, the rising sun, deities and life-affirming rituals.

The Nuer people of southern Sudan correlate the transition from birth to death with the progress of the sun. They identify the west with death and the east with life. The Nuer use the same verb for burying (a person) and setting (of the sun). For the ancient Egyptians, too, the west was the realm of death.

These are but a few examples. Could such a cosmology influence the orientation of Iron Age houses in ancient Israel? The above examples suggest it is possible, but not more than that.

Ancient Israelites, however, provide us with an additional source of information—their language, which can reveal much about their cognition. The common Biblical Hebrew word for the east is qedma (“forward”; קרימה), while the west is akhora (“backward”; אחןרה). The Israelites, like other ancient societies, viewed the world while facing the east. Additional words for those cardinal directions indicate that the east had a good connotation while the west had a bad one. The common word for west in Biblical Hebrew is yam, literally “sea” (ים), which is the most conspicuous geographic element in this direction. But the word yam, besides designating a large body of water and westerly orientation, had some other meanings as well. In many cases those meanings represent the forces of chaos, sometimes personified in the Leviathan and other legendary creatures equaling the “Anti-God” in Biblical thinking, where God is responsible for “order” (see Isaiah 27:1; Psalm 74:13-14; Job 26:12).

The negative meaning of the word commonly designating the west strengthens the view that the westerly direction was not only at the “back” of the Israelite ego, but was also regarded as inauspicious.

Various Biblical passages betray a worldview according to which God resided in the east. In the Exodus story, for example, the Sea of Reeds is forced to open up for the Israelites by the east wind (ruakh qadim), which is the wind of God. This is not because God needed a “hot” wind to dry up the sea, but because, in Israelite cosmology, God resided in the east, and hence God’s wind is by definition an east wind. No less interesting is the fact that the “bad guy” in the story is the sea (echoing other ancient Near Eastern stories).

The notion that God dwells in the east is even more explicit in various passages in Ezekiel 40–48, where the prophet describes the vision of the new Jerusalem temple. According to Ezekiel’s description, the envisioned temple courts had three gates each: the main one in the east and two more on the south and north. No entrance is described in the west.

Perhaps even more significant is the description of the eastern gate, which is the main gate through which Ezekiel enters the temple (40:4ff): “I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east … The glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east” (Ezekiel 43:1, 4).

In Ezekiel 46, the inner eastern gate is described as being closed except on the Sabbath and the beginning of the new month, when the nasi (prince) enters the court through this eastern gate.

Topographically, the easiest way to approach the actual Temple was from the north (or south). But as the northern edge of the Temple Mount was also the northern edge of the city, this was probably out of the question, and the best way to approach the Temple from within the city was from the south. To the east of the Temple Mount lies the Kidron Valley, which lay outside the city-wall and from which it was very difficult to climb up to the Temple. The orientation of the main entrance in Ezekiel’s vision is therefore not related to the actual geography or topography, and it could have been chosen only for cosmological reasons.

We can conclude that the preference for the east and the complete avoidance of the west are characteristic of both the Biblical description of the envisioned temple and the archaeological reality. In the Bible, the east is the main direction, the south and north are present, but the west is not even mentioned. Archaeological evidence demonstrates the same pattern: the east is preferred, north and south are present, and the west is avoided whenever possible.

Both kinds of evidence are in perfect accord—the Biblical description of the envisioned temple together with other texts and even the language on the one side, and the archaeological data on the other.

It appears that Israelite cosmology is responsible for the tendency to orient Israelite Iron Age dwellings to the east.