Southwesterners unearth a destruction of biblical proportions
FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – During the third year of excavations at Tel Gezer, Israel, archaeologists and volunteers from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary surveyed the destruction inflicted upon the ancient city during the lifetime of the biblical prophet Isaiah.
“We knew we had nearly four to five feet of collapsed, fired mud-brick, so we knew that there was a fierce conflagration and massive destruction,” said Steven Ortiz, associate professor of Archaeology and Biblical Backgrounds at Southwestern. Ortiz is the principal investigator at Tel Gezer and co-directs the excavation alongside Sam Wolff of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
According to Ortiz, the devastation was most likely the work of Tiglath-pileser III, an Assyrian king who boasted of the city’s destruction in an ancient record in his palace of Nimrud. According to the Bible, God used Tiglath-pileser III to inflict punishment upon the northern kingdom of Israel for plotting against the southern kingdom of Judah. Foretelling this impending doom, Isaiah prophetically gave one of his children a name meaning “Swift is the booty, speedy is the prey” (Isaiah 8:1-4, NASB). Tiglath-pileser sent his armies against the northern kingdom in 733 B.C., subjecting it to his power and deporting many Israelites. His son, Shalmaneser V, was responsible for the kingdom’s final destruction 11 years later.
In 734 B.C., one year before the Assyrian armies overpowered the northern kingdom, Tiglath-pileser led a campaign along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, putting Gezer to the sword along the way. The archaeological team at Tel Gezer first unearthed his destructive handiwork during the 2007 season. They reached the bottom of the destruction layer at the end of this year’s excavation, finding about 15 complete store jars and other artifacts.
Meanwhile, volunteers in another sector of the excavation uncovered a hint of the city’s existence before the reign of the biblical King Solomon—and a sneak peak of the work to be accomplished in the 2009 excavation. During the past two seasons at Tel Gezer, archaeologists and volunteers examined an ancient fortification system associated with the time of King Solomon. According to 1 Kings 9, the Egyptian pharaoh conquered Gezer and gave it to his daughter as a dowry when she married Solomon. The Israelite king then fortified the city. This year, a student uncovered the base of a pillar, nearly 3 feet in diameter, while clearing away a portion of this fortification system.
“We know a lot about Gezer in the Canaanite period, about 2000 B.C., but we don’t know about the period just before Solomon built the city,” Ortiz said. “And this pillar gives us evidence that there was something there before Solomon.” The pillar suggests that a “massive pillared building, either a temple or some type of administrative center” lies under the fortification system. “So that has changed our strategy for next season, and we hope to attract enough students and volunteers to open up a wide area” around the pillar.
The 2008 excavation drew more than 65 students and staff, with the ages of volunteers ranging from 14 to 70. While most students traveled to Gezer from the United States, others came from Denmark, Canada, Korea, Palestinian territories and Israel. The project also consists of several consortium members: Lancaster Bible College, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Marian Eakins Archaeological Museum, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Lycoming College.
“We’re trying to team up with Palestinian archaeology students, and this season we had our first Palestinian student working with us,” Ortiz said. He said this creates a good opportunity for Southwestern Seminary students to interact with students from the region.
Southwestern Seminary provided eight student volunteers and four excavation staff members. The project serves as a field school for the seminary’s Master of Arts program in archaeology and biblical studies. According to Ortiz, the program trains students “in the science of archaeology and archaeological method and theory, with the hope that they will be able to coalesce this with their biblical training.”
“The irony is that while most digs in Israel attract evangelical students, there are very few evangelical archaeologists or supervisors working at these sites,” he added. “We hope our M.A. program will provide a pool of well-trained students who can not only take leadership positions in field archaeology but also have authoritative voices in debate.”