Abel Beth Maacah in the Bible

Inside the 2014 excavations of a Biblical site in Northern Israel: Part I

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Cornell University professor Lauren Monroe shares an update from the second season of excavation at Abel Beth Maacah, directed by Robert A. Mullins and Nava Panitz-Cohen. Check back with us for more posts on this new excavation project as the season continues.


 
Digs Map 2014 PNSituated 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.

In this illustration of 2 Samuel 20 from the Morgan Bible, Sheba ben Bichri's head  is handed down to Joab from the ramparts at Abel Beth Maacah.

In this illustration of 2 Samuel 20 from the Morgan Bible, Sheba’s head is handed down to Joab from the ramparts at Abel Beth Maacah.

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.

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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.

Abel Beth Maacah

Tel Abel Beth Maacah. Photo: Courtesy Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations.

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.
 


 
Lauren Lauren Monroe is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and serves as 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) and is currently working in collaboration with Daniel Fleming of NYU on a second book project entitled Between Judah and Joseph: The People of Benjamin and the Development of “Israel.”
 


 

More on Abel Beth Maacah in Bible History Daily:

Gender in Archaeology at Abel Beth Maacah

Were There Arameans at Abel Beth Maacah?

Silver Hoard from Abel Beth Maacah Illuminates Biblical Border Town

Abel Beth Maacah Excavations Uncover Silver Hoard at an Ancient Crossroads
 


 

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  • James says

    Thank you, Professor Monroe, for this interesting Biblical link to your excavation site. It’s set me to thinking, especially about the following paragraph:
    “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.”
    Perhaps the word “trusted” evokes criticism; could “exclusive” capture the meaning better? Couldn’t the claim of being part of the heritage of Israel and the connection with Aramean people both have merit simultaneously? My modern analogue would be “Is the city of Chicago Italian, Polish, Greek, African American, Hispanic, Nigerian, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc.? The answer is clearly “Yes.” Couldn’t people of a cosmopolitan population (perhaps not as large as Chicago!) have claimed heritage in Abel Beth Maacah? Perhaps your thorough archaeological excavations will throw helpful light on the subjects as you progress. I look forward to reading more of your findings!

  • Jim says

    At least Ms. Monroe’s bias is on honest display, so that her conclusions can be weighed against the filter she applied before turning over the first spade of earth. Jeffrey hit it on the head…it is HIGHLY LIKELY that more than one city had the same name. No different from the situation today…consider how many cities in the U.S. have the exact same names.

  • Mr. says

    “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.”

    You already revealed your hand: you don’t trust 2 Samuel, and refuse to entertain the possibility that it was already in print by the dawn of the 9th century. Thus without even finishing the evaluation of the excavation, your conclusions are not to be trusted.

  • Jeffrey says

    I believe you’re forgetting the “if” that you yourself wrote; “If Bait Maacah and Maacah are identical”. Many places had identical names (Beth Lehem in Judea, Beth Lehem in the Galilee, several places named Gilgal, etc.) and here, they are not even identical!


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