Overview of Tel Arad
You can’t drive for five minutes in Israel without seeing a sign directing you to a “tel.” Tel is Hebrew for an archaeological hill. When a civilization died off or deserted an area, the new inhabitants built their town right on top of the old one. This pattern continued over thousands of years, leaving us with an archaeological gold mine; keep digging, and you will remnants of older and older civilizations.
One of the most intriguing of these sites may not be a tel at all. Tel Arad, located west of the Dead Sea, is located near the modern-day city of Arad. “Arad” first appears in the Bible in Numbers 21, as the Israelites are ending their 40-year sojourn in the desert. The “King of Arad” hears that they are approaching and attacks them; the Israelites fight back and destroy Arad. Arad is mentioned later in Judges 1, as the place where the Kenites settled. However, some archaeologists that Tel Arad is not an authentic tel, because two separate settlements have been found at the site, rather than one atop the other.
The upper settlement was an ancient Canaanite settlement. First inhabited around 4,000 BCE, it was an important trading post, due to its strategic location at a crossroads. Much trade was conducted with Egypt, as attested to by the Egyptian pottery shards found at the site. Bitumen, a material found in abundance in the Dead Sea, was useful as a sealant for ships and storage jars, and many conjecture that it was also used in the mummification process. The bitumen brought in much business from Egypt, and Arad prospered. Remains of houses were found, all built in a similar style. A larger structure, believed to be the temple, was also discovered.
After the destruction of the Canaanite city, the area was deserted for a while. Then, during the time of Kings David and Solomon, Arad was rebuilt – not on top of the Canaanite city, but rather in the “lower city.” Arad may have served as a military outpost needed to strengthen Israel’s borders. Indeed, Israel faced the constant threat of incursion from nomadic tribes and from the neighboring Edom. Among the ostraca (pottery shards) found, one contains an explicit warning about an invasion from the Edomites.
The most fascinating discovery, however, is an Israelite sanctuary. It is the only known Israelite temple found outside of Jerusalem. Ostraca found at the site support the belief that this was an active temple during Israelite history – on some, names of priestly families are inscribed; on others is inscribed “the House of God.” (The most ostraca ever found from the Biblical period were found in Tel Arad.) Scholars believe that during the time of the Divided Kingship, Israelites living outside of Jerusalem constructed their own place of worship. In fact, the temple is strikingly similar to the description in the Torah of the Mishkan, the tabernacle which accompanied the Israelites in the desert. And naturally, it bears a strong resemblance to the temple in Jerusalem. It functioned as a sanctuary until the time of King Hezekiah. According to Torah law, it is forbidden to create other houses of worship aside from the one in Jerusalem, and during his religious reformation of the land, King Hezekiah destroyed all sanctuaries outside of Jerusalem. However, even after its destruction, it was considered a sacred place by the local population.
The Arad sanctuary was divided into three parts, again, similar to the Jerusalem temple. Within the holy of holies, the innermost section, archaeologists discovered two incense altars and two slabs of stone (called stela, or stelae in the plural). The doubling is mysterious. Are they meant to represent the masculine and feminine aspects of God? Or was one meant to serve God, and the other Ashera – in other words, a corruption of the monotheistic theology of the Israelites?
The Jewish civilization of Arad was eventually razed during the Roman conquest, in 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews. Today, the modern city of Arad entices Dead Sea tourists – high above sea level, the air is relatively cooler and many tourists spend the night there after a day of Dead Sea treatments. There are many artists and galleries in the town, and nearby is the Yattir Forest, a lush oasis in this arid region. The forest even boasts vineyards and a nearby winery.
“Tel Arad” may not be on popular “Top 10 Sites in Israel” lists, but despite lacking the glamour of Masada, the Dead Sea, the Western Wall, or the Sea of Galilee, this little tel (or not-tel, as the case may be), boasts some fascinating archaeology and a unique glimpse into the history of the people who lived here before us.