Ancient ruins in the biblical imagination
In Book 8 of the Periegesis, written by the ancient Greek historian Pausanias, we come across an extended description of the city of Megalopolis located in the territory of Arcadia. More than 500 hundred years before Pausanias visited the site in the second century C.E., the location, as its name reflects, had been founded as one of the largest cities of the Peloponnese. Yet though it was built with the “highest hopes of the Greeks” to curb Spartan power, Pausanias writes, the city is “mostly in ruins in our time,” having lost its “former beauty and prosperity” over the centuries.
Megalopolis’s fate, Pausanias remarks, was shared by other impressive locations that had also fallen into disrepair. For “all things,” he writes, “strong or weak, what is rising or what is in decline, are being changed by Fortune, who drives them with forceful necessity according to her whim” (Periegesis 8.33.1). Pausanias then applies this law of fortune and ruination further, citing the ancient city of Mycenae made famous by Agamemnon, destroyed six centuries previous to Pausanias’s travels, and even the faraway cities of Nineveh and Babylon to which he had never been, but which were also, according to reports, “utterly ruined and desolate” (Periegesis 8.33.2–3).
Pausanias’s work provides fascinating insights into how individuals in antiquity thought about the ruins they encountered. In the case of the Periegesis, the material remains Pausanias describes are accorded particular significance because of how they testified to the height of Greek power before the region came under Roman rule, the dilapidated temples and theaters, agoras and acropolises, calling to mind a golden age that, by the era of Pausanias many centuries later, was now lost.
A number of studies have explored Pausanias’s writings in order to draw out the ways in which material remains conveyed meaning within these writings. But relatively few studies have investigated how the biblical writers thought about the ruins that remained in the regions they occupied.
The biblical writers lived amid a landscape of ruins, the ruins of ancient settlements that bore the material remains of peoples who had lived long before. Their awareness of these ruined sites is evident across the texts they produced. References to ruins are widespread in the Hebrew Bible, appearing in poems (Psalms 9:7; 79:1), prophetic texts (Micah 3:12; Isaiah 44:26), discussions of law (Leviticus 26:31), and in narrative stories (Joshua 8:28; 11:13).
The language of ruination found in the Bible is rich and variegated, marked by a diversity of terms and phrases, such as “ruin mounds,” “heaps of rubble,” or “sites of wreckage.” The “ruins of old” are mentioned in Isaiah 58:12 and 61:4, while “enduring ruins” are named in Psalm 74:3. In Jeremiah 44:6, the “waste and ruined” spaces from Jerusalem’s downfall are said to persist into the present, and in Amos 9:11, the promise is made that certain ruins would be rebuilt so that their restored structures would appear “as in the days of old.” Like Pausanias, the individuals behind the Hebrew Bible occupied a world that was already ancient when their texts were composed. And like their Greek counterpart, this ruined landscape is reflected in the documents they produced.
The biblical writings invite us, then, to consider how encounters with ruins shaped these texts and the ideas about the past found within them. When we enter the world of the biblical writers, we find a terrain that had amassed ruins over thousands of years, leaving the regions of Israel and Judah populated by the remains of both distant and more recent societies.
Certain locations that would have been visible to the biblical writers, for example, consisted of remains left behind from the period archaeologists today call the Early Bronze Age, when, around 3100 B.C.E., permanent and fortified cities first appeared in the southern Levant. At Tel Beth Yerah, located just southwest of the Sea of Galilee, a massive mudbrick wall enclosed an impressive urban settlement that included planned and paved streets. At Tel Arad in the Negev, a double-gated city with grand towers guarded a lucrative trade route that connected Egypt and the southern Levant. And at Tel Yarmuth (biblical Jarmuth), there existed a massive, 130-foot-wide rampart that dominated the city and its surroundings. Since all of these sites were abandoned around 2500 B.C.E. and never fully reoccupied, their ruins would have survived into the first millennium when the biblical writers were active.
A similar phenomenon occurs with the monumental remains of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 B.C.E.). In this era, immense constructions carried out by local Canaanite rulers resulted in the transformation of the region’s landscape. In part, these changes were produced by the erection of new city walls that were frequently constructed on elevated earthen ramparts, creating towering fortifications that were observable across the horizon. At Shechem (Tel Balatah), a massive earthen rampart was created that still stands to a height of more than 30 feet. At Hazor, the city expanded to an unprecedented 200 acres in size, with its new rampart rising 100 feet above the surrounding plain.
The impression left by these monumental cities on the later biblical writers is evident in their stories. Though Jarmuth was only a small, modestly inhabited site during the first millennium, the Book of Joshua characterizes it as one of the great Amorite cities of Canaan (Joshua 10:3, 5, 23; 12:11). This perspective was most likely predicated not on the Iron Age town but on the Early Bronze Age ruins that were still visible when these stories were told. Such is also the case with Arad (e.g., Numbers 21:1; 33:40; Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:16) and Ai (Joshua 7–8), whose Early Bronze Age ruins had long been abandoned by the time the biblical writers told stories about them. In the case of Ai, the memory of those who had built the great city had clearly faded, as had its original name, replaced centuries later by the simple designation Ai, Hebrew for “the ruins.”
What is apparent, then, is that those behind the biblical writings would have encountered ruins with some frequency in the lands they inhabited, a result of the long occupational history of the southern Levant that left behind material remains from a number of peoples that had long since vanished. Certain remains, such as those that existed at Jarmuth or Arad, were well over a millennium old when biblical allusions to them were first written down. Others, such as the Late Bronze Age ruins on Hazor’s acropolis or the ruins of the Late Bronze Age palace at Aphek, both of which appear to have been intentionally preserved for centuries, would have also been quite venerable.
Interestingly, there is much in common between how the biblical writers describe their encounters with ruins and our own experience of them. Both in the remains that were then still visible (i.e., buildings, city walls, monuments) and in the writers’ awareness of the antiquity of certain sites (i.e., being “of old” or “persisting to this day”), the ruins described in the Hebrew Bible are something that we would also recognize as ruins today. There are even instances when we can be reasonably confident that certain ruins now in view—for example, the Middle Bronze Age wall of Shechem or the Late Bronze Age remains of Hazor’s acropolis—were visible during the centuries when the biblical writings were being composed.
But when we begin to examine more closely the sense of time that ruins register for the biblical writers, differences begin to emerge. Rather than locating ruins in distinct ages (i.e., Early Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age) that stretch back through history and time, as is our practice, the biblical writings instead tend toward a more uniform vision. In large measure, the ruins that arose over these millennia are portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as the outcome of one epoch, the time of Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan in the final centuries of the second millennium B.C.E. In Pausanias, we find something similar, where the referenced ruins stem from those affairs “most worthy of remembrance,” (Periegesis 3.11.1), as he puts it, which for Pausanias means events that are connected to the Classical and Hellenistic eras (fifth–second centuries B.C.E.) that matter to him most.
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The way we situate ruins in time, however, is distinct from these ancient authors. And the reason why we do so is that archaeologists have demonstrated with increasing sophistication the antiquity of ruined locations, their excavations reaching back through the layers of time into eras the biblical authors and Pausanias did not know existed (i.e., Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Early Bronze, etc.). This observation raises a further, unresolved question, a question that touches on something that lurks deeper in the assumptions we hold about the past and our relationship to it.
For though it is clear the biblical writers lived among a landscape of ruins, and though it is evident that they were acutely aware these remains were from peoples who had preceded them, why did they express so little interest in digging among the ruins they encountered? Why is there no mention in the Hebrew Bible of any attempt to unearth and explore these remains in an effort to learn about those who lived long before?
But perhaps this question can also be posed in the reverse, and therefore asked of us: why do we excavate when others before us did not?
About the Author
Daniel Pioske is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. His research explores how the individuals behind the Bible experienced and wrote about the past. He is the author of David’s Jerusalem: Between Memory and History (Routledge, 2015) and Memory in a Time of Prose: Studies in Epistemology, Hebrew Scribalism, and the Biblical Past (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018). His forthcoming book, The Bible Among the Ruins (Cambridge Univ. Press) explores themes of time, ruination, and biblical storytelling.
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