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The dramatic new finds at Tel Beit Shemesh

The impressive discoveries shed light on a core biblical concept: brit, or covenant
Tel Beit Shemesh. (Wikipedia)
Tel Beit Shemesh. (Wikipedia)

It is a highway through time. Route 38, just before the southern entrance to Beit Shemesh, cuts right through what is currently the largest archaeology dig in the country. To the right and the left of the road, literally hundreds of laborers have been moving earth for more than six months. And what they have uncovered teaches us more than just archaeology and history. It gives us insight into the ways in which the prophets of Israel spoke about a core theological concept: brit — covenant.

Let’s start with the archaeology and history. Standing over the site, you look out at an expanse of hundreds of buildings. Look more carefully, and you see that many of the structures have interlinking pipes carved into the ground. On a display table are some of the 44 handles of massive jugs with the inscription la-melekh, to the king. Recently, Dr. Yehuda Guvrin, one of the lead archaeologists at the site explained the significance of the finds to a group of Beit Shemesh residents. The finds are all from the seventh century BCE, from the reigns of Hezekiah, Menasseh and Amun, kings of Judah. The piping is evidence of olive oil production on an industrial scale, the likes of which are without parallel in Israel in ancient times. The total picture is that at no time in biblical history was Beit Shemesh larger or more prosperous than it was at this time.

But here’s the catch — all this prosperity flourished at a time when Judah was subjugated to the Neo-Assyrian empire, in Mesopotamia — a fact attested by both the Bible and by Neo-Assyrian writings. Prosperity had come to Beit Shemesh only because Judah had forged a vassal treaty with that superpower to the East. The region of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers is known as the Fertile Crescent, but the essential staple of olive oil cannot be grown and produced there. To get their oil, Neo-Assyrian kings needed to colonize regions like ours. In Beit Shemesh, great jugs would be filled with olive oil and sent to la-melekh, the king. But that ultimately meant tribute tax to the king of Assyria. The king of Assyria offered Judah a deal it could not refuse: you keep the oil flowing, and we will safeguard your security from any local threat. Under these terms, vassalage was downright cushy.

All this sheds light on how the prophets of Israel understood and spoke of the concept of brit — covenant. The covenant that God establishes with Israel at Sinai is patterned after the ancient Near Eastern concept of vassal treaty. The idea was simple: when a weaker king fell into distress — such as siege, or famine — he would call out to a greater king to provide salvation. When the greater king did so, both kings understood that they would enter an alliance of unequals — sovereign and vassal. The vassal would pledge loyalty and tribute to the sovereign, and in turn the sovereign would vouchsafe the vassal’s security. The idea is carried over into the Torah, where the political is transformed into theology. Israel cries out from Egypt. God delivers them, and establishes with them a treaty: if Israel is loyal to God, and offers tribute — observance of the commandments — God will vouchsafe her security and prosperity. Scholars have identified many aspects of the Sinai treaty with God as theological reapplications of political terms and ideas from these vassal treaties (For more, see here).

The central most component of the ancient Near Eastern vassal treaty was that the vassal had to pledge loyalty to the sovereign king alone. He could not simultaneously strike another pact with a different power. Here, too, we see how the prophets of Israel converted a political idea into a theological one. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel insisted that when Israel and Judah established treaties with foreign powers, they were, in fact, betraying God. They preached that Israel had to know that her security and prosperity depended upon one source alone — her faithful commitment as a vassal to the sovereign, the King of Kings.

The new finds at Tel Beit Shemesh vividly show us why these prophets were so dead-set against the establishment of vassalage with foreign powers. Just imagine all those residents of Beit Shemesh in the seventh century BCE, filling up those oil jugs with the word “melekh” (king) on them. Every time they saw the word “melekh” they would be reminded that their security and prosperity were safeguarded by the Assyrian king.  When your day-to-day reality is that you are dependent on the King of Assyria, what hope is there that you will really feel dependent on God?  And so for the prophets of Israel, vassalage to a foreign power was a “cushy” spiritual trap, for dependence on a foreign sovereign clouds over dependence on the true sovereign, the King of Kings.

About the Author
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College and a fellow at the Herzl Institute, Jerusalem. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.
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