Inside the 2014 excavations of a Biblical site in Northern Israel: Part I
Cornell University professor Lauren Monroe from the second season of excavation at Abel Beth Maacah, directed by Robert A. Mullins and Nava Panitz-Cohen.
Situated at the ancient border between the polities of Israel, Aram and Phoenicia, and the modern countries of Israel, Lebanon and Syria, the large tell of Abel Beth Maacah holds tremendous promise, both for understanding the history of this multi-cultural arena, as well as for refining “Biblical archaeology” methods themselves.
In 2 Samuel 20 Sheba ben Bichri, a Benjaminite, flees to Abel Beth Maacah, seeking refuge from David’s wingman, Joab. As Joab and his army build a siege ramp against the city wall, they are interrupted by the “wise woman of Abel” who admonishes, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter. I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” It is clear from her remarks that Abel has an Israelite history and lore that precedes Joab’s time and is otherwise unknown to him. Whereas Joab is a threat to Abel, Sheba legitimately seeks refuge there. In the pro-David, Judahite perspective of the text in its final form, the city’s allegiance goes with Joab and David, with Sheba’s head handed down to Joab from Abel’s ramparts – hardly what one expects from the “peaceful” in Israel.
There seem to be two competing perspectives on the city in this text: one that preserves a memory of the city as Israelite, but not in any way connected to or invested in David’s political ambitions, and another that represents the city as an active participant in David’s rise to power. A representation of the city as inimical to David may also be preserved in 2 Samuel 10:6-8, but here Abel is associated with the Aramaeans: “When the Ammonites saw that they had become odious to David, the Ammonites sent and hired the Arameans of Beth-rehob and the Arameans of Zobah, twenty thousand foot soldiers, as well as the king of Maacah, one thousand men, and the men of Tob, twelve thousand men… The Ammonites came out and drew up in battle array at the entrance of the gate; but the Arameans of Zobah and of Rehob, and the men of Tob and Maacah, were by themselves in the open country.” If “Maacah” here refers to our site, then this text preserves a memory of the site as Aramaean in the exact same period that 2 Samuel 20 identifies it as “A mother in Israel.” To further complicate matters, 1 Kings 15:20 (1 Chronicles 16:4) lists Abel Beth Maacah among the cities conquered by the Aramaean King Ben Hadad, in the early 9th century, a detail that makes little sense if 2 Samuel 10:6 is to be trusted.
The point here is that none of these Biblical reflections on the city is to be trusted on its own. To privilege any one passage as “historical” is to silence the other contradictory representations, to reduce to two dimensions a multi-dimensional memory of the site that incorporates a number of “truths,” some of which may not be historical, as such.
Such is the nature of the Bible; but what does it mean for “Biblical archaeology” and for archaeology at Abel Beth Maacah in particular? It means that we must first of all be the best archaeologists we can be, treating the material culture on its own terms, independent of Biblical representations of the site. The archaeology cannot simply be a means of clarifying the textual record; rather our first step, as archaeologists, must be to rigorously interrogate every aspect of the material culture, using all of the tools and methods employed by archaeologists who do not have texts to work with. We must set our research agenda based on what the tell reveals to us—indeed what the tell demands of us—and not what the Bible suggests we might find. Once we have a clearer picture of the cultural horizons and phases of occupation at the site, what sorts of activities took place there and what sorts of people occupied its spaces, then we need to consider how the picture of the site that emerges finds echoes in, and correlations with, the Biblical record. It is in these points of connection between the material and the textual record that we may discern something real about the past at Abel Beth Maacah.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 27, 2014.
Lauren Monroe is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and at time of first publication was the director of the academic program/field school at Abel Beth Maacah. She is the author of Josiah’s Reform and the Dynamics of Defilement: Israelite Rites of Violence and the Making of a Biblical Text (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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