Grapes were a valued commodity in the ancient world; a vineyard was a prized asset. Naboth’s vineyard, described in 1 Kings 21, had apparently been in Naboth’s family for generations. It sat next to a large building belonging to King Ahab, who wanted to acquire the vineyard. The king offered Naboth money or a different, better vineyard in exchange, but Naboth refused to give up his family inheritance. Ahab was so upset at this that he could not eat. His wife, the Sidonian Jezebel, offered to take care of the situation. And she did: She had Naboth stoned to death.
This is what we know from the Bible. But where exactly was Naboth’s vineyard? Combining modern technology, survey and excavation techniques with Biblical scholarship, we believe we have found the inspiration for the story of Naboth’s vineyard at Jezreel.
Our Jezreel archaeological expedition was founded in 2012 to survey and excavate “greater Jezreel.” Our team commissioned an airborne LiDAR scan and studied maps, aerial photographs and archival material before undertaking a traditional landscape survey that identified 360 features on the landscape, among them 57 wine and olive oil presses and other agricultural installations.
The archaeological site of Jezreel includes an upper tell—Tel Jezreel—that is perched on top of a rocky hill in the foothills of Mt. Gilboa and another, lower tell—Tel ‘Ein Jezreel—that overlooks the spring in the Jezreel Valley below. We have dubbed the approximately one-square-mile area that contains both tells and their agricultural hinterland “greater Jezreel.” The ancient site of Jezreel gave its name to the fertile valley with its rich soil and copious springs that provided ideal conditions for agriculture and grazing. This fertility, combined with the site’s strategic location, ensured that Jezreel has been continuously occupied since the late Neolithic period.
Jezreel is located at the valley’s narrowest point opposite the city of Shunam (2 Kings 4) and midway between the ancient cities of Megiddo and Beth Shean. All were important settlements along the Via Maris, the Biblical “Way of the Sea” that linked Egypt with Assyria. Another ancient highway, the Biblical “Way of the Patriarchs” or Ridge Route, branched off to the south at Jezreel and connected it to the central sites of Dothan, Shechem, Samaria, Bethel and Jerusalem.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Jezreel—with its plentiful water and strategic location—has been the setting of many important battles, from Saul’s last encounter with the Philistines described in 1 Samuel 29-31 to the Mamluk defeat of the invading Mongols in 1260 C.E. In the 20th century, Jezreel’s strategic location was exploited by British forces during World War I and fought over by the fledgling Israeli state in 1948.
Although our recent excavations have confirmed that it was an important site from late prehistory to the present, it is Jezreel in the Biblical period that draws our attention here.
Jezreel is mentioned more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible. Although Omri, king of Israel, founded a dynasty and established a new capital at Samaria in the ninth century B.C.E., Jezreel, not Samaria, was the setting for the tragic end of the Omride dynasty after only four decades (see 1 Kings 21; 2 Kings 9-10).
Excavations conducted in the 1990s by David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and John Woodhead of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem concentrated solely on the upper tell; they revealed a ninth- or possibly eighth-century B.C.E. military enclosure. Our current project, the Jezreel Expedition, directed by Norma Franklin of the University of Haifa and Jennie Ebeling of the University of Evansville, is investigating both the upper and lower tells and their agricultural hinterland. It is next to the fertile agricultural terrace stretching from the hill of Tel Jezreel to Tel ‘Ein Jezreel that the winery referred to in the Bible was exposed.
Naboth, the owner of the sought-after vineyard, was born in Jezreel. His story begins in 1 Kings 21: “Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel …”
If you learned of Naboth and his vineyard in Sunday school, he was probably portrayed as a poor farmer who was cruelly robbed not only of his vineyard, but also of his life, by Ahab, the second Omride king of Israel, and his infamous wife, Jezebel.
But was Naboth really a poor farmer? To answer this question we need to appreciate the economic significance of his vineyard. It is not the plot of land itself that has the value, but the fact that it was planted with mature grape vines capable of producing an abundant harvest that could be turned into wine, which was a prized commodity in the ancient Near East. Assyrian texts inform us that, at the same time Naboth was tending his grapes, King Ashurnasirpal II in the east was given 10,000 wineskins at an inaugural party at his new palace in Calah in northern Mesopotamia, where he wined and dined 70,000 guests. Although we don’t have textual evidence for such lavish entertaining in ancient Israel, wine also flowed freely at the Israelite capital, Samaria. More than a hundred wine dockets in the form of ostraca (inscribed pottery sherds) testify to wine being brought into the city.
Furthermore, between the ninth and sixth centuries B.C.E., wine was not just a luxury item served at Assyrian banquets, it was also a commodity listed among basic military supplies. The Annals of Sargon of Assyria stipulate that soldiers had to imbibe large quantities of wine whenever possible. One of the rooms in Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad was nicknamed “le cellier du palais” by the excavators due to its resemblance to a wine cellar, including the smell! Jezreel in Naboth’s time was a military center and probably the main mustering station for Ahab’s chariot force. For Jezreel to be capable of producing its own wine to provide the troops with their rations would have been a huge asset, one that any king would want to control. Strangely, the Biblical narrative relates that Ahab wanted to purchase the vineyard in order to turn it into a vegetable garden, but this makes no sense when we know the importance of viticulture at that time. Perhaps this was just Ahab’s effort to get Naboth to sell—and cheaply.
According to 1 Kings 21:1-2, Naboth’s vineyard was located next to King Ahab’s heikal. A heikal is a large, important building, possibly of a military or religious nature. Unfortunately in this context, and in this context only, heikal is always translated into English in the Hebrew Bible as “palace.” In all other instances the word armon is used to denote a palace. We know that the Hebrew word heikal is related to the Akkadian ekallu, a military compound. There is now archaeological and textual evidence that many Assyrian cities contained an ekallu. The fact that Jezreel was the mustering place for the Israelite army means that there probably would have been a large military structure here, a heikal.
Knowing the dramatic Biblical accounts relating to Naboth’s vineyard, you can imagine our excitement when our team of archaeologists discovered an area of exposed limestone bedrock with a square feature and smaller round features cut into it. These remains suggested an early winery installation and the likelihood of much more!
This was in 2012. We had to wait until 2013 before we could begin excavating and exposing what proved to be a large winery complex. The excavation was supervised by Philippe Guillaume and Deborah Appler with the assistance of Sheila Bishop and undergraduate archaeology students from the University of Evansville (Indiana).
The excavated winery complex covers approximately 130 square feet and consists of a treading floor 34 square feet and two vats each c. 14 square feet and more than 3 feet deep.
It is not easy to date ancient rock-cut wineries. During periods of use, any pottery or other artifacts that help date archaeological contexts would have been cleared away on a regular basis so as not to interfere with wine production. Therefore, we are primarily dependent on comparisons with other wineries in order to establish the date of its construction.
Gösta W. Ahlström conducted an extensive survey of 117 wineries in the area southwest of Jezreel and found that most of them consisted of a rectangular treading floor connected to a rectangular vat. However, since stone cutting methods do not significantly change over time, these installations are difficult to date. In addition, they could have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years. Fortunately, we were able to obtain a few samples of plaster from the treading floor that yielded carbonized material that could be radiocarbon dated; the results revealed that the plastered surface—which dates the final use of the treading floor—dates to sometime from the mid-first century B.C.E. through the mid-first century C.E. But when was this winery first cut?
Some securely dated Iron Age wineries are from Samaria—Ahab and Jezebel’s capital city. The largest (a complex consisting of a 16-by-33-foot rectangular treading floor that is surrounded by four rock-cut bell-shaped pits) was excavated by the Harvard Excavations to Samaria in the early 1900s. Although the treading floor was originally misidentified as a pool for water, it can be dated securely to the Omride period. It is no longer visible on the site, as the area was backfilled in keeping with the law at that time. However, the poor remains of several other small treading floors were exposed and damaged when the area was being prepared for the construction of the Omride Palace. These can still be seen and dated to a slightly earlier period.
Although we cannot be absolutely certain that the Jezreel winery was hewn during the period of the Israelite monarchy, based on comparisons with nearby wineries and the absence of evidence for a beam or screw press (which were later innovations), we believe that it most likely dates to the Iron Age.
The location of Naboth’s vineyard in Jezreel is not specificied in any exact terms in 1 Kings 21. However, we are provided with an important clue in 2 Kings 9, which is set long after Ahab has died, and his son Joram is king of Israel. In this passage, Israel is fighting the Arameans in Ramoth Gilead, in modern Jordan. The commander of the Israelite army is Jehu. King Joram is wounded and returns to the army’s military base at Jezreel, presumably to be cared for by his mother, Queen Jezebel. His cousin Ahaziah, king of Judah, travels to visit him, and at Jezreel both kings hear that Jehu has staged a coup d’etat and is driving “furiously” toward the site in his chariot.
Jehu would have approached Jezreel from the east by way of the Via Maris in the valley below. Joram and Ahaziah take to their respective chariots and drive out to intercept him; their fateful meeting takes place next to the plot of land that once belonged to Naboth. Jehu kills Joram and orders his body flung into Naboth’s famous vineyard. Jehu then mortally wounds Ahaziah, who flees to Megiddo where he succumbs to his wounds. Jehu triumphantly enters Jezreel and orders that Jezebel be thrown down from an upper window before he remorselessly tramples her to death under his horses’ hooves (2 Kings 9:17-37). This tragic and bloody scene signals the end of the Omride dynasty and concludes the story of Naboth’s vineyard. However, it also provides valuable information regarding the vineyard’s location, as it is described as being situated east of Jezreel and close to the Via Maris.
The Jezreel winery’s location east of Jezreel and near the ancient highway accords with the account in 2 Kings 9 and prompts the question: Have we excavated physical evidence of Naboth’s vineyard? While we can’t make this claim with complete certainty, we suggest that when the Biblical account of Naboth’s vineyard was composed, the writers were familiar with the topographical reality of greater Jezreel and the location of the prominent winery complex northeast of Tel Jezreel. On a more prosaic note, the rich soil of the agricultural terrace just north of the winery was recently analyzed and found to be suitable for viticulture, while in contrast the fields to the west were found to be better suited to growing olives.
Even if it cannot be securely attributed to Naboth the Jezreelite, the excavated Jezreel winery reflects the reality on the ground as described so vividly in 2 Kings.
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Summer is usually marked by archaeological excavations at significant biblical sites. In light of the current pandemic, however, many excavations have canceled or postponed their 2020 seasons. Even if you’re not able to participate in an excavation this summer, you can still dig into the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review and immerse yourself in the biblical world.