An Archaeological Mystery

I have been on the road.  Blogging while traveling is something I haven’t figured out yet.  Since I am retired and one of the benefits of that includes more freedom to just pack up and go, blogging  will get sparse occasionally.

When I returned, my November/December issue of Biblical Archeology Review was waiting for me.  I have a love-hate relationship with this magazine.  I love it because of the pictures and because it deals with a big interest of mine.  I hate it because it sometimes sells by being overly controversial and sensational. (OK, if you have a popular magazine on a nerdy subject, maybe you have to do this.)

The editor, Hershel Shanks, has often annoyed me.  But in this issue, he writes a report on the finds at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud that I can’t fault.  This site in the wind-swept, hostile Sinai desert was excavated in the mid 1970s.  But the final report on the excavation has just been published.

The excavation recovered artifacts from about 800 years before Christ.  These included inscriptions with several references to YHWH, the personal name of Israel’s God.  Some of these echo the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6:24, “YHWH bless you and keep you.”

All the artifacts recovered in the 70s were turned over to the Egyptian government in 1994 as part of a peace agreement.  The Egyptians have apparently stored them somewhere and forgotten about them.  The recent turmoil in Egypt included the theft and partial recovery of some boxes of Sinai artifacts.  It is hard to know what has become of the material from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud.

For a long time scholars have had only photos and drawings of what the excavators found.  This is one of the reasons the report on the excavation has been delayed.  The other reason is that the finds are, as Shanks says, “darn” hard to interpret.

The most sensational thing in the inscriptions is that they refer to YHWH and his asherah.  There was a Phoenician goddess by that name.  This has led to books and articles about the wife of God. This interpretation would not contradict the Bible, which shows popular religion in ancient Israel to have mixed in paganism.  But it is only one of the possible interpretations.  The new report leaves the question open.

More interesting to me is that the inscriptions connected YHWH with the locations Samaria and Teman–YHWH of Samaria and YHWH of Teman.  Samaria was a name for the Northern Kingdom of Israel at that time.  Teman, in old Hebrew poetry, was synonymous with Sinai (see Habakkuk 3:3).  The names could mean both a specific place and a whole region.  The inscriptions could refer to specific sanctuaries or to wider areas where YHWH reigned.

The mention of Samaria and several other features connect this far southern site to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

“The excavator explains the Israelite identification as the result of an internecine conflict in which Joash (or Yoash [802-787 B.C.E.]), king of Israel, defeated Amaziah, king of Judah.  As a result of Amaziah’s defeat, Israel dominated Judah.  The excavator suggests that Joash established the site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud to demonstrate his control and authority of the kingdom of Judah (see 2 Kings 14:8-14; 2 Chronicles 25:17-24).” (Biblical Archeology Review, vol. 38 no. 6, p. 37)

But what was this site?  Why did people live in this inhospitable wilderness at all?  The excavation team in 1975 and 1976 had a terrible time dealing with the elements there.

The site is built in the shape of of a fortress, a rectangle with towers at the corners.  But it lacks other features of a fortress.  Almost all the material found there looks religious, but it seems to lack features of a sanctuary.  There doesn’t seem to be an altar.  It was near the road from Gaza on the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aqaba.  Possibly it was a way station for pilgrims going to Mt. Sinai, wherever that was thought to be.

There are lots of questions nearly 40 years after the excavation.  The fitting title for the article is “The Persisting Uncertainties of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud”.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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