Where Issachar Bent His Shoulder

In Genesis 48, Jacob told Joseph that God appeared to him and told him that “I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.” Jacob followed this act by saying how Joseph’s sons were as his own children to him and then blessing Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim.

Manasseh and Ephraim’s importance is reflected in the importance of their territories, which are delineated in Joshua 16 and 17. These territories stretched from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and encompassed the northern central hill country, the heartland of the northern Kingdom of Israel.

In Genesis 49, Jacob blessed his sons. One of those blessings was for Issachar. “Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down among the sheep pens. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor.

Joshua 19 lists Issachar’s territory. “The fourth lot came out for Issachar according to its clans. Their territory included: Jezreel, Kesulloth, Shunem, Hapharaim, Shion, Anaharath, Rabbith, Kishion, Ebez, Remeth, En Gannim, En Haddah and Beth Pazzez. The boundary touched Tabor, Shahazumah and Beth Shemesh, and ended at the Jordan. There were sixteen towns and their villages. These towns and their villages were the inheritance of the tribe of Issachar, according to its clans.”

Leading off this list is Jezreel and the land that encompassed the Jezreel Valley. With its natural springs and drainage it was fertile land, just as in Jacob’s blessing “how pleasant is his land.” But this land was also in service to the more powerful territories of the central hill country, for which this land was in service to in the 9th century BCE.

An indication of this is at a location within Issachar’s biblical territory, at Horvat Tevet.

Horvat Tevet is a ruin outside the city of Afula. At the site archaeologists unearthed a well preserved pillared building, roughly 65’ x 100’ in size. The building had two entrance rooms and a central hall separated by stone pillars, some over 6’.The foundations of the building were made of limestone blocks, which had to have been transported from elsewhere, as the area stone is basalt. The floors to the building were paved, an unusual feature for the time. The building also contained a four-horned stone altar. Storage jars onsite were typical of those of the 9th century BCE.

While the area is mostly a rural one, this structure was surrounded by industrial works. Digging produced pottery kilns, grinding stones which would have been used to produce flour and objects used in textile manufacture.

This site appears to have been an administrative center for the Israelite kingdom that was ruled from Samaria in the north central hill country. At this location, the royal powers could collect agricultural surplus from the fertile planting grounds of the region for redistribution and trade, especially as the ability to collect surpluses becomes the basis for economic power and by extension military power.

This building was eventually caught up in Israel’s conflicts, likely with the Arameans in the latter half of the 9th BCE. The building appears to have been sealed in advance and then burned during an attack. In the subsequent iteration of building at Horvat Tevet, a fortress was built adjacent to this ruin.

The image above is of the fertile plains of the Jezreel Valley.

Jezebel and Jezreel

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Israel

In Genesis 44, Joseph set up his brother Benjamin, to make it appear that Benjamin had stolen his drinking cup. In 1 Kings 21, the northern Kingdom of Israel’s King Ahab, advised by his wife Jezebel, conspired to take Naboth’s entire vineyard at Jezreel. It was for this act of murder that the prophet Elijah told Ahab that “Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.” In 2 Kings 9, Jehu went to Jezreel and Jezebel’s officers threw her out the window. She plunged to her death and her body was devoured, fulfilling the prophecy.

Jezreel is located at the northern edge of the Samarian hill country, on a spur in the foothills of Mount Gilboa. The city faces the hills of Mount Moreh and the mountains of the Lower Galilee beyond it. Between the two ranges lie the fertile plain of the Jezreel Valley.

In ancient times, this area of the Jezreel Valley was important for a number of reasons. A perennial spring provided water for agriculture. The region was also important because of its location along the trade routes. The “Via Maris” coastal route connected the major food producing areas of Egypt and Mesopotamia through the Jezreel Valley. Merchants (and armies) could enter through a pass astride Megiddo and then turn east to pass Jezreel, into the Jordan Valley and then north in the direction of Syria, which following the Euphrates and Tigris into Mesopotamia. Jezreel also sat at the edge of the Ridge Route, the north-south road that cut across the central hill country. Importantly, it could also serve as the vanguard to protect the Israelite capital at Samaria.

At the summit of Tel Jezreel, archaeologists unearthed a large rectangular compound enclosed by a casemate wall. Towers were exposed in two corners and are presumed to have been present in the remaining two corners. The entrance featured either a four- or six-chambered gate. The date of the construction is disputed, but pottery dating can support an Iron IIA 9th century BCE date.

The enclosure was further protected by a glacis, an artificial slope created to hinder attackers, that was over 8 feet thick. Below the glacis was a moat along the eastern, southern and western sides that was over 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep. No moat was needed on the northern edge as this naturally sloped down into the Jezreel Valley.

Within the casemate walls, fill dirt was used to flatten the surface. It has been difficult for archaeologists to ascertain the exact degree of development due to erosion and later settlement that disrupted the soil below, but the site appears to have not been densely settled. The lack of densely packed structures suggests that the site was used for state purposes, including as a royal residence, perhaps a second residence for the Israelite kings or a fortress.

Surveys have shown that the area outside of the compound above also appears to have covered a large area and was well settled. And they also demonstrate that the site may have once been the home to vineyards.

Below the structure above, on the eastern side of Jezreel there appears to have been a winery. There numerous wine and olive presses were found, to go along with vats to store wine carved into the bedrock. Soil analysis showed that the land to the east of Jezreel was better suited for grapes, while the land to the west was preferable for olives.

The confluence of evidence validates the idea of an Israelite king, possibly guided by his wife, seeking to control a strategically significant location, with it is wine production, and establishing a royal enclosure on the site.

The image above is of grapevines at Tel Jezreel. A map showing the Via Maris through the Jezreel Valley, which passed Jezreel, can been seen via the following link: http://www.crivoice.org/phototour/pjezreel.html

Israel’s Capital City

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Samaria, Israel

In Genesis 41, the “Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh,” presumably to his palace. Joseph so impressed the pharaoh that “Pharaoh said to Joseph, I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, Make way! Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt.”

As Egypt’s viceroy, Joseph would likely have been housed in a royal residence.

In 1 Kings, the northern Kingdom of Israel began with the secession of the Israelite tribes from Rehoboam’s Davidic monarchy, and began a merry-go-round of dynasties and capitals. Jeroboam started his reign from Shechem and moved his capital to Penuel on the eastern side of the Jordan. Baasha killed King Nadav the son of Jeroboam and moved his capital to Tirzah. Zimri killed Elah ben Baasha, then Omri defeated Zimri to become king. “In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned twelve years, six of them in Tirzah. He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver and built a city on the hill, calling it Samaria, after Shemer, the name of the former owner of the hill.”

The site that Omri chose, Samaria, which has become a term to describe the northern central hill country, is today known by its Roman name, Sebastia. Samaria/Sebastia is located northwest of Shechem, strategically positioned overlooking the roads to the Sharon Plain and onward to the Jezreel Valley.

Samaria is set on the top of a hill. The site has been a difficult one in which to assign periods due to ancient construction on the site having frequently cleared the dirt layers down to the bedrock. From what archaeologists are able to determine, in the Iron I period Samaria was home to a small settlement, consistent with the Bible’s civilian Shemer preceding the royal Omri.

Atop the hill was the acropolis, a leveled enclosure four acres in size. The acropolis was shaped by a four meter high scarp, a very steep slope, across its northern, western and southern sides. The site revealed a large palace complex along the southwestern edge. This royal building contained ashlar masonry, with the stones dressed into smooth surfaces. The exposed area of the palace alone would suggest that this was one of the largest Iron Age buildings in the entire Levant.

The palace was surrounded by administrative buildings. The area was surrounded by casemate walls, with rooms built up against the defensive wall. The gate was on the eastern side, where proto-Ionic capitals, the crowning parts columns, were found, and there was a protective tower.

At this site archaeologists found a large collection of ivories. These demonstrate the considerable level of wealth of the inhabitants.

There are debates about which kings built what on the acropolis, whether structures could be assigned to Omri or Ahab. There are also debates about how large the city was in the 9th or 8th century BCE, whether it included only the royal compound or if it also included of the lower city below the acropolis. Regardless of the correct allocating of time and size to the site, the idea that this was Omri or Ahab’s palace is considered secure, given the references to the Omride dynasty in Assyrian records and the similarities to other construction at Jezreel, another royal site in the biblical account.

The image above is of the Samaria acropolis, with its visible scarp around the edges of the acropolis.

A Lesser Known Capital

In Genesis 37, Joseph went to see his brothers who were tending their flocks near Shechem. When he arrived he discovered that they had moved on to Dothan.

In 1 Kings, the northern Kingdom of Israel got off to an unstable start. Jeroboam established the kingdom and settled at Shechem, and then moved the capital to Penuel in the Transjordan. Jeroboam was followed as king by his son Nadab. Nadab was killed by Baasha, who ruled from Tirzah. Elah the son of Baasha continued his father’s rule from Tirzah. When Zimri killed Elah, he too continued ruling from Tirzah.

The exact site of Tirzah is disputed. Town names tend to be sticky, continuing from antiquity. Cities such as Damascus, Jerusalem and Gaza carry the same names they have used for millennia. This has led to suggestions that ancient Tirzah is at one of the sites that today have similar sounding names. Talluza is located 6 km northeast of modern day Nablus, ancient Shechem. Tayasir sits 22 km northeast of Nablus. The consensus however is that ancient Tirzah is located at Tell el-Farah, which is 11 km northeast of Nablus.

The site itself appears to be a logical one for a new capital. It sits on a plateau, with an area of 18 hectares. The plateau offers natural defenses. It is located next to two natural springs. And the site sat along the trade route to the east of Shechem.

Excavations at Tirzah show a fluctuating pattern of habitation. The Late Bronze Age – Early Iron I site produced a good amount of artifacts, demonstrating the city’s activity during that period. The bulk of the Iron I layer shows it to be sparsely built, with the site then recovering and becoming more densely settled in the later Iron IIA, the period associated with the rise of the Israelite kingdom.

Tell el-Far’ah still has not offered up signs of monumental construction, such as a palace or temple, typical of royal rule. This may be partly due its serving as a capital of a nascent state. Despite the lack of large-scale buildings, the biblical story is generally considered reliable for this series of episodes because the inclusion of Tirzah in the story would otherwise be a strange addition. Unlike Shechem, which plays a prominent role in stories across the Bible, Tirzah does not. And Tell el-Far’ah is not a site of major importance that would be inserted into a story without reason.

Thus despite a lack of obvious signs of royalty, other signs do point to Tell el-Far’ah serving as a home for kings of Israel.

The image above is of Tell el-Far’ah taken from the south, with natural defenses visible along its side.

Shechem’s Turbulent Past

In the Bible, the city of Shechem has a long and sordid history. In Genesis 34, it was there that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped, and then after an agreement was reached with its populace, Dinah’s brothers Shimon and Levi slaughtered the town’s inhabitants. In Judges 9, at Shechem, Abimelekh gained the support to go and murder his 71 brothers. In 1 Kings 12, when Jeroboam led the secession of the northern tribes of Israel from the united monarchy of the Davidic kingdom, he immediately established himself at Shechem.

The city of Shechem is known from ancient Egyptian sources. Ancient Egypt was the dominant political power of the 2nd millennium BCE, and has left us a vast set of records. These show that already in the 19th century BCE, the ‘land of Shikmu’ was perceived as a danger to Egypt. In the 14th century BCE Amarna Letters from Egypt’s short-lived capital of Akhetaten, today’s El Amarna, those in the southern Levant aligned with Egypt ask for assistance against an invader “Labaya, king of Shikmu,” who is attempting to undermine Egyptian rule. It is assumed that Shikmu is one and the same as Shechem.

The exact location of the ancient town of Shechem is unknown, but archaeologists have settled on Tell Balata as the most likely site. Tell Balata is located in the mountain pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, with the Askar Plains sitting to the east. The site is at a strategic point. From there, it could control access to and from the west, as travelers were funneled into the mountain pass, before they could continue on to the important trade routes.

The site has a fluctuating pattern of habitation, indicating that it too underwent periods of turmoil. The city grew to become a sizeable fortified city in the Middle Bronze Age into the Late Bronze Age, one that per the Egyptian records had designs on expanding its sphere of influence. The city declines significantly in the Iron Age I, but recovers in the Iron Age II, the period that could include Jeroboam’s settlement within the city.

The image above is of the site of Tell Balata, taken from the vantage point of Mount Gerizim.

Joseph’s Northern Territories

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Israel

In Genesis 29-30, Jacob produces eleven of the twelve progenitors of the tribes of Israel. The last of these was Joseph, who later bore Manasseh and Ephraim, who would each become founders of tribes within Israel.

In 1 Kings, King Solomon’s son Rehoboam ignored his senior advisors’ advice to ease the tax burden on the tribes of Israel that constituted his kingdom, and instead followed his junior advisors’ advice to increase the tax burden. This act motivated the tribes to secede from Rehoboam’s kingdom. “When all the Israelites heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David.”

The act of secession created a series of divisions between the two kingdoms. The two sides became military rivals. Jeroboam established rival temples to Jerusalem at Bethel and Dan. He made golden calves, built shrines and high places, appointed non-Levite priests, and added a new festival on the 15th day of the 8th month. The new kingdom struggled with palace intrigue, with acts of murder by Baasha and Zimri and fighting that led to Omri leading Israel.

The lands of Ephraim and Manasseh, as allotted in Joshua 16, served as the heartland for the new northern Kingdom of Israel. The area of Ephraim included the northern central hill country, and Manasseh the northern Samarian hills plus the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean across the Jezreel Valley and Lower Galilee.

Extensive surveys of the land that approximated the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh have been undertaken. These surveys show that in the 9th-8th centuries, these regions experience a sharp rise in the number and size of sites. The majority of these sites were dedicated to farming, and cities account for about 20% of the observable and estimable population.

This rise in number of sites and observable population is not uniform across the entire territory ascribed to the Kingdom of Israel. The upper Galilee appears to have a seen a reduction in identifiable sites. But the heartland region of the Kingdom of Israel does appear to have risen sharply in the late Iron IIA period.

This area displays features of a kingdom with a royal elite and cultic activity. The sites surveyed feature new fortifications, public architecture, palaces, royal enclosures and high places, all indicative of a stratified society and an established kingdom.

The image above is of fields near Shechem, modern day Nablus, in the heartland of the 9th century Kingdom of Israel.

All Aram

The region of Aram figures prominently in the Isaac and Jacob narratives. In Genesis 25, “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.” Genesis 27, Rebekah warned Jacob, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran,” located in Aram. In Genesis 28, “Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah.”

The region of Aram covers an area that today includes primarily Syria and encroaching into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. In the Iron Age it included a number of different Aramean states, such as the larger Aram with its capital at Damascus, Hamath, and the smaller states of Bit Zammani, Nasibina, Bit Bahiani, Bit Adini, Laqe, Bit Agusi, Yu’addi, Hamat, Bit Rehob.

The Arameans spoke Aramaic. The importance of Aramaic in trade would eventually allow it to replace the Mesopotamian language of Akkadian, to become the most widely spoken language in the region. The Aramaic language does find its way into Genesis, when Jacob and his family fled Paddan Aram. “So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. He said to his relatives, “Gather some stones.” So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Yegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed.” For the naming of the location, Laban and Jacob reverted to their native tongues.

The Aramean tribes were separated by political divides, but united by language, culture and gods. As such, they could be grouped into one entity. The Sefire steles are 8th century BCE stelae, written in Aramaic, discovered near Aleppo, Syria. The first Sefire Stele contains a treaty amongst different groups, but refers to the area as “All Aram,” indicating Aram could be thought of as one unified region.

The image above is of Mount Hermon, the highest peak in the lower portion of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, which today separates modern Syria from Lebanon and once separated Aram from the Phoenician/Canaanite kingdoms of the Lebanese coast.

Northern Coastal Canaanite

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Museums

In the patriarchal narratives, Canaan and the Canaanites feature prominently. In Genesis 23, Abraham purchased a plot of land to bury his wife Sarah. Yet while God sent Abraham to Canaan, and he lived in Canaan, when it came time for choosing a wife for his son, Abraham looked elsewhere: He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” Abraham’s servant thus set out for Aram Naharaim, in the area of Syria today.

One area Abraham’s servant did not go was to the region of Lebanon. For archaeologists, the inhabitants of Iron Age Lebanon, and the northern coastal plain and the Galilee of today’s Israel were culturally the same people, the Canaanites.

Where Abraham did not choose a Canaanite wife for his son, in 1 & 2 Kings, kings from the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah did take Canaanite wives, with damaging consequences. King Omri’s son Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and she was said to have been behind his decisions to build shrines to Baal and Asherah, and the murder of Nabath and confiscation of his vineyard. Jehoram the King of Judah married Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah. When her son King Ahaziah died, Athaliah attempted to wipe out the entire Davidic line.

The Ahiram Sarcophagus is of the more impressive archaeological finds in the Lebanese coastal region. Its inscription states that it was built by the king of Byblos for his father Ahiram, presumably a king himself. The impressive stone coffin indicates the wealth of the region, built on coastal trade that with Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia. Unlike other older royal coffins which were found nearby and contained Egyptian prestige goods inside, the Ahiram Sarcophagus did not feature any Egyptian influences. The coffin is typically dated to either the 10th or 9th century, a period in which Egyptians did not control the Levant.

One interesting element of the Ahiram Sarcophagus is the similarity between the name Ahiram, and Hiram, the king of Tyre who the Bible says provided materials for Solomon to build his temple. This is a name with a non-biblical source. In Josephus’s book ‘Against Apion’ he refers to Menander of Ephesus’ record of the length of a king Hiram’s reign.

The image above is of the Ahiram Sarcophagus, on display at the National Museum of Beirut.

Cisjordan and Transjordan Rivals

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Jordan, Museums

The region of biblical Israel can be referred to as the Cisjordan, meaning ‘on this side’ of the Jordan. The region to the east of the Jordan River is referred to as the Transjordan, meaning ‘across’ the Jordan. During the Iron Age, the Transjordan was home to the nations of Ammon, Moab and Edom, running from north to south, respectively.

Genesis 19 tells the origin story of the nations of Ammon and Moab. Lot’s daughters got their father drunk and slept with him, “The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab, he is the father of the Moabites of today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi, he is the father of the Ammonites of today.”

The region of Edom is also discussed in this week’s Torah reading. In Genesis 21, “While Ishmael was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother Hagar found him a wife from Egypt.” In Deuteronomy 1, the Desert of Paran is in the vicinity of Edom: “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan, that is, in the Arabah, opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab.”

Ammon was led from modern day Amman, Jordan, and it was centered on a series of hills that included the Amman Citadel. The Amman Citadel Inscription, dated to the 9th century BCE, is the oldest recovered inscription that is written in the Ammonite language, a language closely related to ancient Hebrew.

Archaeologically speaking, a normal state would typically have a multi-tiered settlement pattern of a large city flanked by smaller villages and smaller agricultural settlements. In the 9th BCE, these appear to be missing in Moab and Edom, but there is evidence of their existence.

The Mesha Stele is a 9th century BCE monument that records the battles of King Mesha of Moab. The extensive inscription demonstrates the existence of a ruler, of literacy and of conflict with neighboring states, demonstrating Moab was an independent entity in the 9th BCE.

The evidence for Edom is weaker and pushes our understanding of ancient nations. The Wadi Faynan Copper Mine appears to have been managed by a nomadic group. So while Edom appears to have lacked the large cities, monumental structures and records more typically seen in ancient kingdoms, the ability to run a complex mining operation could only have been done by an entity capable of some of the other features of a kingdom, the ability to marshal and direct large manpower resources towards a project.

Evidence for Edom in the 9th century BCE is solidified in the records of the Assyrian king Adad Nirari III who records conquering “the land of Edom” in the Nimrud Slab.

Based on the archaeological evidence, in the 9th BCE, Israel’s Transjordan rivals appear to be in place.

The image above is of the Amman Citadel Inscription, on display at the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The Return of Trade with Egypt

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Walters Art Museum

In Genesis 12, a famine in Canaan drove Abram to travel to Egypt. In this story, Egypt served its role as an important producer of food for the ancient Near East.

In the late 13th through early 12th century BCE, the ancient Near East endured the Late Bronze Age collapse. The largest kingdoms of the time were either reduced or disappeared entirely. By the 11th century BCE, the New Kingdom of Egypt had collapsed, ushering in the Third Intermediate period, a period in which Egypt experienced a decline in centralized authority and various dynasties ruled different parts of its land mass. The loss of the great powers led to a reduction in cross-border trade and record keeping, making the period somewhat of an archaeological dark age.

In the 9th century BCE, Egypt was ruled by primarily by two dynasties, the 22nd Dynasty and the 23rd Dynasty.

The 22nd Dynasty was led by a dynasty of Meshwesh rulers, descendants of a Libyan tribe. Their rule may have originated at Bubastis, but in the main they ruled from Tanis in northern, or Lower Egypt. The first pharaoh of this dynasty was Shoshenq I, who in the 10th century BCE attempted to take control of Canaan, an invasion that is recorded in the Bible. Ultimately the Egyptians could not hold Canaan, freeing it to be led by local rulers.

The 23rd Dynasty was an offshoot and rival of the 22nd Dynasty and it ruled over southern, or Upper Egypt. The reigns of these 22nd and 23rd Dynasty kings were challenged at times and their control of territories waxed and waned, contributing to this period in Egypt’s history being described as an ‘Intermediate’ period.

An interesting artifact from this period is Padiiset’s Statue. Padiiset’s Statue was originally carved in the 18th century BCE. The statue was of a government official. The original inscription was later erased and replaced in the 9th century BCE with an inscription that identified it as being of Padiiset, an envoy for Canaan and Peleset.

The Peleset would refer to the Philistine region in the southwestern corner of the southern Levant. The naming of Canaan is notable as it is the first known mention of the Cisjordan for 300 years, since before the Late Bronze Age collapse, indicating a resumption of trade. It is also the last known mention of Canaan, a land area that would come to be known by its other inhabitants, Israel and Judah.

Padiiset’s Statue is housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore it is shown in the image above.