Tel Dan: Ancient Insights May Lead to New Hope

 

After seeing pillboxes from the 1967 Israeli conquest that expanded southern Israel into the Sinai peninsula and northern Israel into the Golan Heights, I felt impelled to research the Six Day War, the conflict between Israel and her neighbors: Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria that has political ramifications that certainly last even in our present day.

As I continued to read my little screen on those winding mountain roads, we soon found ourselves filing off the tour bus at Tel Dan, a hilltop fortress in the heart of the mountainous far north of Israel. Genuinely, what we discovered was even more compelling than I had hoped. First, we visited the temple complex. Here, our beloved professor Dr. Jonathan Greer guided us through these ancient places of cultic worship.

One may ask why they were worshiping here, for surely there was a magnificent temple available in Jerusalem. Indeed there was, and there was a time during which faithful Jewish worshippers who were able to make the long journey on foot would have made their pilgrimage to their city, Zion, the still-influential city “on a hill” (literally, it is on a hill!) in the south. 

Unfortunately, Tel Dan exists in part because the fabric that had held Israel together as a united nation soon ripped apart near the end of the 10th century BCE. I Kings 11 outlines the foibles of King Solomon, ruler of Israel, and his descent into impure worship. He sets up places of worship for his various wives and essentially appends other deities to the list that should have begun and ended with Yahweh alone. The next chapter of I Kings reveals how Jeroboam, inspired by Ahijah the priest, leads the ten northern tribes of Israel in direct rebellion against what became known as Judah, the southern kingdom. Rehoboam, the angry king of Judah, wanted to preserve his kingdom, and prepared to fight, teaming up with a contingency of Benjamites. But a prophet, Shemiah, spoke into the situation and assuaged concerns, helping the kingdom to divide peacefully. 

Soon after, around the end of the 10th century, the people in the northern kingdom, Israel, were worshiping at Bethel in the south of Israel and at Dan in the far north. They sought new ways to practice faith and to sacrifice to God in their newly formed kingdom, and in so doing they needed new priests. These they found, and this is where the archaeological findings at Tel Dan intersect with the literary contours of Scripture. 

Walking into what remains of the temple complex at Tel Dan, I found myself taken aback with the sheer size: the structure’s footprint is massive. Its design seems to have been almost entirely influenced by Pentateuchal instructions; the archaeology teams have unearthed a temple base that almost perfectly matches the Solomonic Jerusalem temple that Rehoboam inherited in the parallel yet rival kingdom of Judah. As we walked through the structure, we discovered one fascinating place for cultic practices after another. In front of the broad stairs that lead to the holy place, there was a massive altar where non-Levite priests prepared sacrifices to God. There were places for ritual washing, for placing animal skins, a garbage area for animal bones, and a well-organized design flow for all of it. Dr. Greer carefully detailed how some of the findings, including a full set of altar utensils, reveals rather orthodox Jewish worship. He even expected mixed worship before the dig, but the findings showed that these Israelites seemed to be following the ancient rites for Yahweh worship. One hope for the discoveries at Tel Dan is to help make sense of the cultic worship at Jerusalem. Not only is the larger Jerusalem temple obscured by several rebuilds and ensuing hypothetical archaeological confusion, it is presently buried under an enormous mosque. Political tensions will almost certainly prevent research efforts for generations to come. The Tel Dan explorations will shed light on how worship was simultaneously proceeding in Jerusalem. 

The temple was not on its own on the hilltop. The hilltop’s natural entry points were well reinforced with thick (10ft+) surrounding walls and watchtowers, all of which are in unbelievably great shape, especially when one considers their age-easily 2800 years. There is a massive gate that allowed in the residents and screened the wrong visitors, and the walls and gate worked in tandem with the natural defense the city’s hills provide. 

As we left the site, which many researchers believe was destroyed in 732BCE under the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III, my thoughts returned to my reading on the Six Day War of 1967. I was reminded that wars have cyclically consumed the people of this land for millennia. Kingdoms rise and fall. Throughout, the strategic places remain the same, for certain valleys and ridges offer superior regional defense. The instruments of war have changed, to be sure, but the patterns of human motive have not. And in the West in the 21st century, we are certainly not immune to these capricious impulses. America has its own skeletons in the closet: slavery, genocide, unjust wars and civilian casualties over several centuries. How does this ancient temple connect to our desire for peace and justice-the challenge of Israel’s prophets?

The temple at Tel Dan was a place originally meant to honor the true God, Yahweh, the God who revealed himself in the Patriarch and who reveals himself in creation and who sustains all things. Though flawed in many ways, God’s grace toward his covenant people, Israel, paved the way for his personal and incarnate entrance into the world through Jesus. At the right time, God sent his Son, Jesus, into our world, into the mess in which we have preserved it. Indeed, there are messy patterns I my own life that do not promote life and peace and hope and the greatest virtue, love. Even so, while we were sinners (a great biblical word for those who do things that harm others and our connection to God), yes, even as we continued in rebellion, God reached out: Christ died for us. For this reason, we are liberated to put our minds to work and do our best, God helping us, in making sense of the details and nuances that give shape to the narrative of our faith. Will the work being done at Tel Dan pave the way for deeper faith in the lives of Christians? This far in the dig, it clearly has that possibility. 

***

If you find yourself interested in the dig, whether from the funding standpoint or whether you discover an interest in personally helping with the dig, see more at http://www.teldanexcavations.com. 

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