Tell en–Naṣbeh, Nebi Samwil and the identification of a Biblical site
In a recent issue of BAR (“Nebi Samwil: Where Samuel Crowned Israel’s First King,” May/June 2008) and in several other recent publications, Yitzhak Magen, argues for the identification of Nebi Samwil with Biblical Mizpah of Benjamin, and against its identification with Tell en–Naṣbeh (just south of modern Ramallah, about 8 miles north of Jerusalem).1 Whenever one attempts to locate a Biblical toponym one must deal not only with the textual and archaeological data that supports one’s own position, but refute the material in support of rival candidate’s. In his article Magen deals with the scanty archaeological materials from Nebi Samwil and the Biblical texts that support his identification, but largely ignores the data, especially the archaeological data, in support of the Tell en–Nasbeh location.2
The discussion over the proper identification of Mizpah has been going on for well over a century and a half, since the explorations of Edward Robinson and Eli Smith.3 There is no need here to go into all the textual, topographic and archaeological arguments and evidence. A brief summary of the pros and cons for each site will suffice and demonstrate that Tell en–Naṣbeh is still the most suitable candidate. Let’s have a look at the data.4
Whatever one may think of the dating of the literary development of the Israelite–Benjaminite civil war in Judges 20, Samuel’s victory over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7:5–11, and the Saul accession narratives in 1 Samuel 10:17ff, the circuit traveled by Samuel in 1 Samuel 7:16 is thought to preserve an authentic pre–monarchic tradition.5 This suggests that Mizpah was already a well–established Iron Age I village. Magen reports that no Iron I material was excavated from Nebi Samwil, not even sherds from fills. However, for him this is not a problem, because, he argues, most sites in Benjamin that are said to have been occupied in the period of the Judges–Samuel (Iron I), do not contain such remains. However, this is a problem when the only rival candidate to the identification does have remains from this period. Tell en–Naṣbeh has produced some architecture and rock–cut installations, over 50 Philistine bi–chrome sherds, as well as cooking pots and collar rim jars all characteristic of this period. Clearly, if one is going by actual archaeological finds Tell en–Naṣbeh is a far better candidate for the Mizpah of Judges–Samuel than is Nebi Samwil.
The next important passage is the account of the war between Baasha of Israel and Asa of Judah in the early ninth century B.C., as recounted in 1 Kings 15:16–22. The crucial point here is that Asa takes the supplies Baasha had used for the purpose of constructing Ramah and with them fortifies two of his own border towns, Mizpah and Geba. Magen treats this passage in his endnote 6. There he asserts that Geba is the same as Gibeah (Saul’s capital) and is located at Tel el–Ful. While in some passages there seems to be confusion and conflation of the two, in other passages they are separate localities (e.g. Isaiah 10:29). Geba, in any event, is clearly associated with the Michmash pass (e.g. 1 Sameul 13:23–14:5; Isaiah 10:28–29), and in most geographical discussions it is located at modern Jaba‘ in the Michmash pass (so identified since the time of Robinson).Thus, Magen’s argument that Tell en–Naṣbeh cannot be Mizpah because it would then be on the same north–south road as Geba is incorrect. Geba guards the secondary eastern approach road to Jerusalem from the north. Since one of the towns Asa fortifies guards one of the march routes from the north, Mizpah likewise should guard such a northern route. In fact, Tell en–Naṣbeh sits squarely adjacent to the main north–south route along the spine of the central hill country and easily dominates it. As most commentators have noted, Nebi Samwil is 3 miles away from the road and can in no way be said to control it the way Tell en–Naṣbeh does.
In Isaiah 10:27–32 an invader advances on Jerusalem from the north. Instead of taking the route along the spine of the hill country, the attacker chooses the secondary route through the Michmash pass. Why avoid the more direct approach? Perhaps the fortifications constructed by Asa at Mizpah were too formidable to be by passed easily? Due to Crusader–era construction, Nebi Samwil yielded only eighth century B.C. and later sherds in fills, with possibly some Hellenistic house walls being reused from the Iron Age. No sign of any fortifications attributable to Asa were preserved. On the other hand, Tell en–Naṣbeh has produced a massive set of fortifications over 2100 feet long. The walls, built in an inset–offset pattern average about 14.5 feet thick. On occasion tower–like bastions protrude from the wall for a width of 21–25.5 feet. In places these walls were reinforced with a sloping stone glacis from 10 to almost 29.5 feet wide, and in several places a moat 6.5 to 16 feet wide was identified. In one place the fortifications reach a width of about 49 feet. The entrance to the town was defended by a formidable inner and outer gate complex almost 200 feet long. All this to protect a settlement little more than 820 feet long by half that in width. Such a fortification system well matches the defenses erected by Asa that made Mizpah such an effective border fortress.
Besides the abundant architectural remains of a fortified Iron II town, Tell en–Naṣbeh has also produced a rich array of Iron II ceramics and other objects of daily life, including the fifth largest concentration of lmlk jar handles known from Judah (88 examples; fifth behind Lachish, Jerusalem, Ramat Rahel and Gibeon—all royal centers; Magen reports that some lmlk impressions were found at Nebi Samwil, but not how many), along with several Rosette stamped handles, indicating its importance as a bastion against attack from the north.
There is no doubt that Mizpah’s most significant historical role was after the 586 B.C. destruction of Jerusalem, when it was made the capital for the Babylonian–installed regime of Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam (2 Kings 25:22–6, Jeremiah 40–41). Nebi Samwil has produced no material at all that can be attributed to the period of Mizpah’s rise to prominence under the Babylonians, nor any remains with Mesopotamian associations, a fact that Magen fails to mention.
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On the other hand, the dramatic change in Mizpah’s function, from border fortress of a small hill country kingdom, to the center of a minor district in a large empire, is well reflected in the material culture record at Tell en–Naṣbeh. The old ring–road settlement of Stratum 3 was filled in and leveled in a massive campaign of urban renewal, which even entailed dismantling most of the old inner–outer gate complex. On top of the newly leveled surface a settlement of vastly different plan was erected: Stratum 2. Gone were the small Iron II houses along narrow lanes. In their place were at least half a dozen four–room dwellings more than double the size and of finer construction than the earlier structures. A large courtyard structure was found on the north side of the site, and fragmentary remains of other large structures dotted the settlement. The beginning and end of Stratum 2 were defined by ceramics found on the floors of two of the houses.
Not only did Tell en–Naṣbeh produce large amounts of architecture belonging precisely to the era of Mizpah’s floruit, but also significant numbers of artifacts from the same period, many with direct Mesopotamian associations. Fragments of three “bathtub”–shaped coffins were found on the tell, indicating burial within the settlement according to Mesopotamian traditions. A bronze beaker of Mesopotamian form, common in burials, was found in the vicinity of one of these fragments. A fragment of a bronze circlet inscribed with a cuneiform dedicatory inscription was found at Tell en–Naṣbeh. While the paleography only allows a general dating in the seventh–sixth century B.C. range, the most likely time for such an object to arrive at Tell en–Naṣbeh is when it was under direct Babylonian control. Similarly, an ostracon was recovered bearing a Mesopotamian name incised in Hebrew characters.
Tell en–Naṣbeh has also produced material related to the local government following the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem. Forty–three examples of M(W)S.H stamp impressions have been excavated in a region roughly corresponding to the tribal area of Benjamin, an area apparently left undamaged by the Babylonians as a base of operations. Thirty of these impressions come from Tell en–Naṣbeh itself (none are reported from Nebi Samwil), showing it was the most important center of their use. The distribution of these impressions, which likely originate from a royal estate at the town of Mozah, strongly suggests that they represent the region upon which Gedaliah (and his successors) could draw for resources to support the local administration.
One should also mention the striking seal of Jaazaniah found in a reused Iron Age tomb. A Jaazaniah was among the military offers who swore allegiance to Gedaliah at Mizpah (2 Kings 25:23; Jeremiah 40:8). While the evidence linking the Tell en–Naṣbeh Jaazaniah with the Biblical Jaazaniah is only circumstantial, it is nonetheless striking that such a seal was found there.
In his 2003 article Magen claims that Jeremiah 41:10–12, which is part of the narrative of the assassination of Gedaliah, supports his identification. The assassin Ishmael and his coconspirators determine to flee back to Ammon, along with some number of hostages. However, they are overtaken by the forces of Johanan the son of Kareah at Gibeon, now known to be el–Jib. It seems that Magen assumes that Ishmael was fleeing east, on a direct line to his final destination in Ammon. However, as others have noted, this text really reveals nothing about the location of Mizpah. The key here is the initial location of Johanan’s forces. Johanan had warned Gedaliah against Ishmael, and Ishmael no doubt attempted to keep a close eye on Johanan. But on the crucial point of Johanan’s location immediately prior to Gedaliah’s assassination the text is silent. Were he and his troops north or east of Mizpah a direct flight east would be folly, no matter which site was the starting point; the initial direction of flight would have to be south and west in such a scenario. Thus, someone fleeing from Tell en–Naṣbeh could be overtaken at el–Jib.
Officials and men from Mizpah are said to have helped in the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls in the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 3:7, 15, 18). Mizpah is one of five district centers mentioned in this section, and so, while it does have some prominence, it is difficult to assess Mizpah’s role during the early to middle Persian Period. Much is made of the Persian/ Hellenistic Period stamped jar handles found at Nebi Samwil. Tell en–Naṣbeh has also produced a significant number of jar handles of this period (24 two– and three–letter Yehud types, five lion). Besides its Stratum 2 architecture continuing to the end of the fifth century, Tell en–Naṣbeh has also produced 29 examples of imported Attic and other Greek pottery, while none are reported from Nebi Samwil. Tell en–Naṣbeh, moreover, has also produced 62 examples of wedge– and circle–impressed pottery. This type begins in the second half of the sixth century B.C. and continues into the Persian Period. This is approximately 39% of all such material known from all of Israel. That such pieces are also found in Jordan and northern Arabia indicates yet another form of international contact at the time involving Tell en–Naṣbeh. No such material is reported from Nebi Samwil which seems to have few international contacts at this time. Thus, even when considering the Persian Period material, Nebi Samwil’s suggested high point, Tell en–Naṣbeh has a produced a far larger body of data indicating its importance then.
Finally we come to 1 Maccabees 3:46. This verse notes that Mizpah was opposite Jerusalem. For Magen this verse is the key textual datum for the identification of Nebi Samwil with Mizpah. There is no doubt that Jerusalem is closer by a few miles to Nebi Samwil and is more clearly visible from there as well, though, as others have noted a distance of approximately 5 miles hardly qualifies Nebi Smawil as being strictly “opposite” Jerusalem either, as compared, for example, to Silwan. Magen attempts to make much of the strategic importance of Judah’s decision to lead his army to Mizpah before battling the Seleucid forces, noting that it was a perfect position to defend Jerusalem against at attack from Emmaus. However, this could be called a subjective interpretation of the text. The passage says nothing about Judah’s intent to defend Jerusalem at Mizpah. Indeed, once the ceremony at Mizpah is over he marches from Mizpah and camps south of Emmaus (1 Maccabees 3:57) Because his army was usually smaller and less well equipped than his foes, one of Judah’s consistent tactical approaches when dealing with the Seleucids was to carry the fight to them, especially if he could work in an ambush or surprise attack. The Emmaus battle is no different. Judah had no intent of awaiting the Seleucids at Mizpah. Instead he took advantage of the enemy splitting their forces, abandoned his own camp, and stormed the Seleucid camp at dawn. Judah’s sole intent in going to Mizpah was to buttress the morale and religious faith of his troops, not to use it for defensive purposes. Thus the strategic location of either Nebi Samwil or Tell en–Naṣbeh is unimportant in this context.
Magen warns about the subjective analysis of the Tell en–Naṣbeh material in comparison with the Biblical record. He would do well to remember this warning when evaluating the comparatively scanty material from Nebi Samwil. Borrowing from Magen’s words about Tell en–Naṣbeh: Based on the available archeological data, “not a single bit of evidence unequivocally proves” Nebi Samwil’s “identification as Mizpah.” In other words both sites have only circumstantial evidence in their favor; no decisive inscription has yet been found to decide the argument. However, when deciding between rival candidates for a Biblical toponym all the evidence must be used. In the end only the 1 Maccabees 3 passage may really be said to favor Nebi Samwil; other passages are neutral or favor Tell en–Naṣbeh, especially 1 Kings 15. Archaeologically Tell en–Naṣbeh has produced Iron I materials, a major set of Iron II fortifications and an entire stratum that belongs to the Babylonian–Persian period. These are non–subjective data that accord well with the Biblical texts that mention Mizpah.
Finally, one must ask what Biblical site Tell en–Naṣbeh is if it is not Mizpah? Clearly it was an Iron II site of some importance given its massive fortifications. It was also a major site during the Babylonian and Persian periods. Given its proximity to Jerusalem it would be odd indeed if it were not mentioned by the Biblical authors. Because of the destruction wrought on the site by later builders, we will never know if Nebi Samwil could have matched Tell en–Naṣbeh’s archaeological qualifications as a candidate for Mizpah. This is an unfortunate circumstance. However, based only on the surviving archaeological material one would have to conclude that Nebi Samwil was founded in the eighth century BC, reached a high point in the Persian Period and was abandoned in the middle of the Hellenistic Period. With that pedigree it could be virtually any Benjaminite village. There is no doubt that important late material comes from Nebi Samwil, but in this world of subjective analysis the bulk of the evidence still favors Tell en–Naṣbeh as the most likely candidate for Mizpah.
For more on Tell en–Naṣbeh, see Jeffrey R. Zorn’s article “Mizpah: Newly Discovered Stratum Reveals Judah’s Other Capital” in the September/October 1997 issue of BAR.
1. Magen, Y., and Dadon, M. 2003. Nebi Samwil (Montjoie). In Bottini, G. C., Di Segnie, L., and Chrupcala, L. D. ed. One Land—Many Cultures: Archaeological Studies in Honour of Stanislao Loffreda OFM. Jerusalem: 123-138.
Magen, Y. and Har-Even, B. 2007. Persian Period Stamp Impressions from Nebi Samwil. Tel Aviv 34:38-58.
2. In order not to weigh down this short article with too many notes, BAR readers are encouraged to visit my research site at www.arts.cornell.edu/jrz3. There they can read PDFs of virtually everything I have written about Tell en-Naṣbeh (and other subjects). For our purposes here articles 7, 10, 19, 20, 25, 27, and especially 28 are the most important. Also available is a bibliography on Tell en-Naṣbeh.
3. Magen cites W. F. Albright’s views on the Mizaph debate and claims that Albright never changed his opinion that Nebi Samwil was the better candidate. This is wrong. In his review of the 1947 Tell en-Naṣbeh report that appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7 (1948): 202-205 Albright concedes on p. 203 that the balance of evidence then favored Tell en-Naṣbeh. Magen remembers Albright’s change of opinion in his Persian Stamp article.
4. Magen begins with the Joshua 18:21-28, the list of Benjaminite towns, and attempts to use it to support the Nebi Samwil identification. There are several problems with this approach. First the only clear geographic division in the list is east and west. All one can say is that Mizpah is in the western part of Benjamin. The arrangements of the towns in each district is not necessarily based on proximity. Second, the identification of many of the locales in the list are unknown or are debated.
5. For many scholars most of the references to Mizpah in 1 Samuel are marks of post-Exilic priestly editing designed to give Mizpah a significant cultic pedigree, such as suggested to them by 1 Maccabees 3:46 where Mizpah is said to have formerly been a place of prayer for Israel. Even assuming that Mizpah was a center of cultic activity from 586 to 539, a mere 47 years, and there are many who have doubted this, it is difficult for this author to see how Mizpah could have risen to a position of such religious importance in so short a time that it had to be written fictively back into Israel’s past. This is especially problematic when considering that those returning from the Exile were so focused on rebuilding the Jerusalem temple and its cultic apparatus. The returning exiles were, if anything, less than sympathetic to the activities of those who remained in the land; hence the virtual silence about local events from Gedaliah’s death until the return, and complete silence on an unequivocal cult site at Mizpah during the Exile. Why create a fictive cultic association for Mizpah in the distant past if such a role for it in the immediate past was not openly acknowledged? Of course if there had been some cultic activity at Mizpah during the Iron Age (though not necessarily exactly as in the Biblical text) then the references to such activities in the time of Samuel, even if exaggerated and embellished at some stage in the ongoing editing of the text, make much more sense than crediting all such references to post-Exilic writers who really should have had no interest in it.
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