KARMEI YOSEF, ISRAEL (BP) — Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God warned His people through Moses to avoid the idols of the Canaanites. Joshua reiterated this strict warning against the Canaanite gods after the people crossed the Jordan.
But the Israelites did not heed these warnings. The idols and false gods of the Canaanites proved to be a snare to the people from the time of the Conquest until the Exile.
This summer, the Tel Gezer Water System Excavation team from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary encountered the remnants of rampant Canaanite idolatry first-hand. The team uncovered a silver pendant devoted to Canaanite and Mesopotamian deities and part of a mold used to fashion clay goddess plaques. Both items appear to provide strong evidence of Canaanite fertility cult activity at Gezer.
The Gezer water system excavation is a joint project of the Moskau Institute for Archaeology at NOBTS and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) along with Liberty University School of Divinity, a dig consortium member. The excavation is directed by Dennis Cole, Jim Parker and Dan Warner of New Orleans Seminary, INPA chief archaeologist Tsvika Tsuk and Eli Yannai.
The primary focus of the excavation is the massive, ancient water system, which provided a water source inside the walls of Gezer. For the past seven years, a team of archaeologists and volunteers have been investigating the site in an effort to determine who constructed the ancient water system and when it was constructed.
The team also excavated in the Canaanite gate and a complex of rooms associated with the city wall in order to understand how the gate and wall interacted with the water system. The silver pendant was discovered, along with a cache of other items, in the complex of rooms associated with the wall. The cache of items had been wrapped in a linen cloth and placed in a clay “container” made of two bowls. The container was then hidden in the foundation of one of the rooms.
Warner believes that the cache represents a “foundation deposit” meant to bless the room.
“Finding a foundation deposit like this one in what appears to be a public storeroom is rare,” Warner said. “Surely it had a religious function; an offering to gods to make sure the structure would remain standing.”
The pendant includes a disk embossed with an eight-pointed star and prominent crescent shape. Irit Ziffer from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) believes the star disk represents the Canaanite fertility goddess Ishtar and the crescent symbolizes the Mesopotamian moon god Sin.
In the cache along with the pendant, the team found a stone scarab set in a gold frame which served as a fitting for a ring or a necklace. A scarab is a beetle-shaped Egyptian amulet engraved with a name or symbol and used to make impressions in clay — the ancient equivalent of a rubber stamp. Another scarab was found in the same complex of rooms, though the second one did not include a gold frame.
Daphna Ben-Tor, the curator of Egyptian Archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and expert on scarabs, analyzed both scarabs after the dig. Based on the design and engraving, Ben-Tor attributed the scarabs to the Hyksos period — a time when foreign leaders ruled Egypt.
“The Hyksos, who are believed to be Semitic and likely coming from the Levant, possibly the area of modern-day Turkey, would have been kinsman with the Canaanites, if not the Canaanites themselves,” Jim Parker said.
“This period is dated by scholars like Ben-Tor to the 15th to 17th Egyptian dynasties, dating 1650-1550 B.C.,” he noted.
“This demonstrates the cross-cultural interaction of the occupants of this part of the world and gives us background to the biblical narrative regarding the travels of Jacob and his sons to and from Egypt and the eyewitness account given in Numbers 13:27-29.”
One of the most important finds in the cache was the linen cloth.
According to organic material specialists Naama Sukenik and Orit Shamir from IAA, only two other samples of Middle Bronze Age II (MB II, 2000-1550 B.C.) linen have been found in Israel to date. The researchers were able to discern the type of raw material used as well as techniques the weaver used to splice the fibers into longer threads.
During previous dig seasons the team discovered multiple broken clay goddess plaques in the water system. This year, the team discovered part of a mold used to make these figures. The clay goddess mold, likely representing the Canaanite goddess Astarte or the Egyptian goddess Hathor, was discovered deep in the water system.
The cache of objects and the mold represent the most important finds to date for the water system excavation team. Team leaders believe the objects will help establish a MB II construction date for the water system.
Gezer water system: a brief history
In the Middle Bronze Age, Gezer grew from a small village into a heavily fortified city-state. The Canaanites built high stone walls, massive towers and a mud-brick gate system to protect the city. Later, King Solomon fortified Gezer along with Hazor, Jerusalem and Megiddo (1 Kings 9:15-17).
The connection between Gezer, Hazor and Megiddo led many archaeologists to argue that the Gezer water system (along with the Hazor and Megiddo systems) was constructed after Solomon, during the reign of Ahab.
When Irish archaeologist R.A.S. Macalister excavated the system from 1906 to 1908, he attributed it to Middle Bronze Age Canaanites. However, his primitive archaeology methods along with persistent theories about the systems in Hazor and Megiddo led many to dismiss his claims about the Gezer system.
Shortly after Macalister’s excavation at Gezer, a retaining wall collapsed and refilled the water system with dirt rocks and debris. It remained untouched for 102 years. Since 2010, the NOBTS/INPA team has removed tons of debris to reach the area where Macalister stopped his excavation. For the past few seasons, the team has been removing datable pottery samples from these untouched areas.
Pottery evidence found there suggests a construction date between 2000 B.C. and 1550 B.C. Warner noted the Canaanites likely built the water system during the height of Gezer’s prominence as a Canaanite city-state. Recent evidence suggests that the Megiddo system may be a product of the same time period.
A biblical parallel to the Gezer system
While a MB II date would place construction between 500-800 years before the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the water system can shed light on the Canaanite people and their culture — a culture which plays such a formidable role in the Old Testament.
The Canaanites experienced a time of cultural decline in the years before the conquest but they were still a formidable foe with heavily fortified cities. The water system, along with the massive defensive walls and gate, illustrate an advanced society with great technical know-how, significant engineering skills and a desire to build things on a large scale, Warner said.
The Bible provides one tantalizing parallel which provides additional dating clues. In 2 Samuel 5:6-9, David’s men utilized a “water shaft” to invade and conquer the fortress of Zion/Jerusalem. The rock-hewn system has been located in the “City of David” area in Jerusalem. Visitors can walk the entire length of that Canaanite system.
Next year’s dig at Gezer will run from May 20 to June 9 and is open to volunteers. For information about Gezer or for details regarding participation in the 2017 dig, contact Jim Parker ([email protected]) or Dennis Cole ([email protected]) at NOBTS. Those interested in the master of arts degree program in biblical archaeology may contact Warner or Cole for more information.