What Have They Discovered at Jezreel?
FOR centuries the site of the ancient city of Jezreel has lain desolate. At one time it was prominent in Bible history. Now, stripped of its former glory and covered by layers of earth, it has been reduced to a mound, or tell. In recent years archaeologists have begun to examine Jezreel’s remains. What do these ruins reveal about the Bible accounts?
Jezreel in the Bible
Situated in the eastern portion of the Jezreel Valley, Jezreel was in one of the more fertile areas of the ancient land of Israel. Directly across the valley to the north lies the hill of Moreh where the Midianites camped while preparing to attack Judge Gideon and his troops. Slightly to the east is the well of Harod, at the foot of Mount Gilboa. It was here that Jehovah reduced Gideon’s army of thousands to a mere 300 men in order to demonstrate his ability to deliver his people without a mighty military force. (Judges 7:1-25; Zechariah 4:6) On nearby Mount Gilboa, Saul, the first king of Israel, was defeated by the Philistines in a dramatic battle, during which Jonathan and two of Saul’s other sons were killed and Saul himself committed suicide.—1 Samuel 31:1-5.
Biblical references to the ancient city of Jezreel provide striking contrasts. They tell of the abuse of power and the apostasy of Israel’s rulers and also about the faithfulness and zeal on the part of Jehovah’s servants. It was in Jezreel that King Ahab—ruler of the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel in the latter half of the tenth century B.C.E.—set up his royal residence, although the official capital was Samaria. (1 Kings 21:1) It was from Jezreel that Jehovah’s prophet Elijah received death threats from Ahab’s foreign wife Jezebel. She was angered because Elijah had fearlessly executed the prophets of Baal, following the test of true Godship that Elijah had performed on Mount Carmel.—1 Kings 18:36–19:2.
Then at Jezreel a crime was committed. Naboth the Jezreelite was murdered. King Ahab had coveted Naboth’s vineyard. When the king demanded to receive the land, Naboth loyally responded: “It is unthinkable on my part, from Jehovah’s standpoint, for me to give the hereditary possession of my forefathers to you.” This principled answer greatly displeased Ahab. Seeing the king’s sullen mood, Queen Jezebel arranged a mock trial, accusing Naboth of blasphemy. Innocent Naboth was found guilty and stoned to death, and the king took possession of his vineyard.—1 Kings 21:1-16.
Because of this wicked deed, Elijah prophesied: “The very dogs will eat up Jezebel in the plot of land of Jezreel.” The prophet further declared: “Anyone of Ahab’s that is dying in the city the dogs will eat up . . . Without exception no one has proved to be like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was bad in the eyes of Jehovah, whom Jezebel his wife egged on.” However, because Ahab humbled himself when Elijah pronounced Jehovah’s judgment, Jehovah declared that this punishment would not come in Ahab’s lifetime. (1 Kings 21:23-29) The Bible account goes on to relate that in the days of Elijah’s successor, Elisha, Jehu was anointed to be king of Israel. As he rode into Jezreel, Jehu commanded that Jezebel be thrown out of her palace window, and she was trampled underfoot by the horses. Later, it was found that scavenger dogs had left only her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands. (2 Kings 9:30-37) The final Biblical event directly related to Jezreel follows the execution of 70 of Ahab’s sons. Jehu piled their heads in two great heaps at Jezreel’s city gate, after which he struck down other leading men and priests involved in Ahab’s apostate reign.—2 Kings 10:6-11.
What Have Archaeologists Found?
In 1990 a joint project of excavating the site of Jezreel began. Participating were the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University (represented by David Ussishkin) and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (represented by John Woodhead). For seven seasons (each season lasting six weeks) during the years of 1990-96, between 80 and 100 volunteers worked on the site.
The modern approach to archaeology is to examine the evidence at a site on its own merits, without reference to preconceived ideas and theories. Therefore, for the archaeologist studying the lands of the Bible, the Scriptural account is not the final word on the subject. All other sources and physical evidence must be considered and carefully weighed. However, as John Woodhead relates, there is no ancient written evidence regarding Jezreel outside of a few chapters in the Bible. So the Bible’s accounts and chronology should be part of any investigation. What have archaeologists’ efforts revealed?
As fortifications and pottery were unearthed, it became clear from the start that the ruins went back to the so-called Iron Age, placing them squarely within the time period of the Biblical Jezreel. But as the excavations continued, there were a number of surprises. The first was the size of the site and its massive fortifications. The archaeologists were expecting a site with fortifications comparable to those of ancient Samaria, the capital city of the kingdom of Israel. However, as the dig continued, it became clear that Jezreel was far larger. Measuring some 1,000 feet [300 m] by 500 feet [150 m] along the length of its walls, the total area within its fortifications was more than three times that of any other city discovered in Israel from that period. It was surrounded by a dry moat, creating a 35-foot [11 m] drop from the fortifications. According to Professor Ussishkin, this moat was an unprecedented feature for Biblical times. “We don’t find anything else like this in Israel until the period of the Crusaders,” he said.
Another unexpected feature was the absence of extensive structures within the center of the city. Large amounts of reddish-brown soil brought in during the construction of the city had been used to create an elevated level surface—a type of large raised podium, or platform—within the enclosure. The Second Preliminary Report on the excavations at Tel Jezreel comments that this prominent podium could be evidence that Jezreel was more than a royal residence. It said: “We would like to raise the possibility that Jezreel was the central military base for the royal Israelite army at the time of the Omride [Omri and his descendants] kings . . . where the royal chariotry and cavalry were kept and trained.” Judging from the size of this raised podium, as well as that of the enclosure itself, Woodhead speculates that this could have been a type of parade ground for showing off the military might of the largest chariot force in the Middle East at the time.
The unearthed remains of the city gate are a feature of special interest to archaeologists. They show an entrance of at least a four-chambered gate. However, since many stones at the site have been pillaged over the centuries, the finds are inconclusive. Woodhead is of the opinion that the remains point to a six-chambered gate similar in dimensions to those found at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer.*
The archaeological findings point to a surprisingly short-lived existence for a city so ideally located, both militarily and geographically. Woodhead emphasizes that as a great fortified city, Jezreel was a single-period site—in use for only a few decades. This stands in stark contrast with many other key Biblical sites in Israel, such as Megiddo, Hazor, and the capital city Samaria, which were repeatedly rebuilt, expanded, and inhabited during various periods. Why did this ideal site fall out of use so quickly? Woodhead conjectures that Ahab and his dynasty had nearly caused an economic collapse because of their squandering of the nation’s resources. This was evident in the excessive size and strength of Jezreel. The new regime under Jehu likely wanted to disassociate itself from the memory of Ahab and therefore abandoned the city.
All the evidence unearthed thus far confirms that the site of Jezreel was a major Israelite center in the period of the Iron Age. Its size and fortifications agree with its description in the Bible as a prominent royal residence for Ahab and Jezebel. The signs of its limited habitation during this period agree with the Biblical accounts of the city: It quickly rose to prominence during Ahab’s reign and then, at Jehovah’s command, was apparently brought down in disgrace when Jehu “went on to strike down all who were left over of the house of Ahab in Jezreel and all his distinguished men and his acquaintances and his priests, until he had let no survivor of his remain.”—2 Kings 10:11.
The Chronology of Jezreel
“It’s so difficult in archaeology to get an exact anchor for dating,” admits John Woodhead. So as the archaeologists survey the results of the seven years of excavations, they compare these with findings on other archaeological sites. This has led to reevaluation and debate. Why? Because ever since Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin’s excavations at Megiddo during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, it was considered confirmed by many within the archaeological world that he had discovered fortifications and city gates that date from the period of King Solomon. Now, the fortifications, pottery, and gates found at Jezreel are causing some to question these conclusions.
For example, the pottery found at Jezreel is identical to that of the stratum at Megiddo that Yadin associated with Solomon’s reign. The gate structure and dimensions of the two sites are similar, if not identical. Says Woodhead: “All the evidence either puts the Jezreel site back to the Solomonic period or lowers the dating of these features at the other sites [Megiddo and Hazor] to the period of Ahab.” Since the Bible clearly associates the Jezreel site with the period of Ahab, he views it as more reasonable to accept that these strata reflect the time of Ahab’s rule. David Ussishkin concurs: “The Bible says that Solomon built up Megiddo—it doesn’t say that he built those exact gates.”
Can Jezreel’s History Be Known?
Do these archaeological findings and the ensuing debate cast doubt on the Bible’s account of Jezreel or Solomon? Actually, the archaeological controversy has little direct bearing on the Bible account. Archaeology examines history on a different basis from that of the Biblical narrative. It poses different questions and has a different emphasis. One could compare the Bible student and the archaeologist to travelers on roughly parallel routes. One traveler is driving in the street, the other is walking on the sidewalk. Their focus and concerns are different. Yet, their perspectives are often complementary rather than contradictory. Comparing the two travelers’ impressions can lead to fascinating insights.
The Bible contains a written record of ancient events and people; archaeology tries to recover information about these events and people by examining whatever traces of them can be found still remaining in the soil. However, these remains are usually very incomplete and open to various interpretations. In this regard, in his book Archaeology of the Land of the Bible—10,000−586 B.C.E., Amihai Mazar comments: “Archaeological field work . . . is to a great extent an art as well as a combination of training and professional skill. No rigid methodology can ensure success, and flexibility and creative thought by field directors are mandatory. The character, talent, and common sense of the archaeologist are no less important than his training and the resources available to him.”
Archaeology has confirmed the existence of a major royal and military center at Jezreel, a center that existed for a surprisingly short time during the historical period that coincides with Ahab’s rule—just as the Bible relates. Many other intriguing questions have been raised that archaeologists may be studying for years to come. Yet, the pages of God’s Word, the Bible, continue to speak out with clarity, providing for us the full story in a way that archaeologists never can.
See the article “The Mystery of the Gates” in The Watchtower of August 15, 1988.
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Archaeological excavations in Jezreel
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Canaanite idol found at Jezreel