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Tel Arad Bears Silent Witness

Tel Arad Bears Silent Witness

Tel Arad Bears Silent Witness

A lost city. A mysterious temple. A cache of ancient inscriptions. These might sound like the basis for an adventure movie. In fact, all of this and more lay hidden for centuries under layers of desert sand at Tel Arad, Israel, until archaeologists began digging there.

TODAY, modern Arad strikes many visitors as a typical Israeli town. With 27,000 inhabitants, it is located in the Judean wilderness to the west of the Dead Sea. However, the ancient Israelite city of Arad was located some five miles [8 km] to the west. It is there that archaeologists have carefully stripped away layers of sand, uncovering a wealth of structures and inscriptions.

These inscriptions were found on ostraca, fragments of pottery used as writing tablets. Writing in that way was a common practice in Bible times. The dig at Tel Arad yielded what has been described as the richest collection of such ostraca ever found in Israel. What, though, is the value of this archaeological dig?

The findings at Tel Arad cover a long period of Bible history, ranging from the days of the Judges of Israel down to the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 607 B.C.E. So these discoveries help to confirm the accuracy of the Bible. They also provide enlightening examples of the way people in ancient Israel viewed the personal name of God.

Arad and the Bible

True, the Bible has relatively little to say about Arad. But this strategically located city once controlled a key trade route. Not surprisingly, then, historical records and archaeological discoveries indicate that this ancient site was repeatedly conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt during its checkered history. The constant rebuilding created an imposing tell, or city mound.

The Bible first refers to Arad when recounting the final part of the Israelites’ 40-year wilderness trek. Soon after the death of Moses’ brother, Aaron, God’s people passed close to the southern border of the Promised Land. The Canaanite king of Arad evidently found these wilderness wanderers a target too tempting to resist. He launched an attack. With the support of Jehovah God, the Israelites valiantly fought back, achieved a complete victory, and razed Arad to the ground, though some of the people evidently survived.​—Numbers 21:1-3.

The Canaanites were quick to rebuild their strategic city; when Joshua reached the area a few years later, invading from the north and systematically clearing the Canaanites from “the mountainous region and the Negeb,” one of the opposers facing him was “the king of Arad.” (Joshua 10:40; 12:14) Later, descendants of Hobab the Kenite, who had supportively joined the Israelite camp during the wilderness sojourn, settled in this area of the Negeb.​—Judges 1:16.

Archaeological Finds

When it comes to some later events in the Biblical record, the ruins at Tel Arad offer some interesting support. For example, archaeologists have found a sequence of fortifications. Some of these may well date from the reign of King Solomon, who was known for his extensive city construction projects. (1 Kings 9:15-19) One layer of the dig bears evidence of a fiery conflagration and has been dated to the beginning of the tenth century B.C.E. Such findings line up with the time of the invasion of the Egyptian King Shishak, just five years after Solomon’s death. At Karnak in southern Egypt, a wall relief commemorates that invasion and lists Arad among the many vanquished cities.​—2 Chronicles 12:1-4.

It is of great interest that many of the about 200 ostraca recovered bear Hebrew names that are also found in the Bible, such as Pashhur, Meremoth, and the sons of Korah. Some of these secular documents are of even greater interest because they include God’s personal name. Composed of four Hebrew letters יהוה (YHWH)​—often called the Tetragrammaton—​this proper name is unique to Almighty God. Later, superstition led many to believe that pronouncing or writing God’s name is sacrilegious. However, the findings at Tel Arad, like many others, confirm that in Bible times God’s name was freely used in daily life, in greetings, and in blessings. For instance, one inscription reads: “To my lord Elyashib. May Yahweh [Jehovah] concern himself with your well-being. . . . He is staying in the temple of Yahweh.”

What, though, about that mysterious temple mentioned at the outset? A structure at Tel Arad that has given rise to much conjecture is a temple complex, complete with an altar, from the Judean period. Though much smaller than Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, it bears many resemblances to that sacred structure. Why and when was the Arad temple constructed? How was it used? Archaeologists and historians can only speculate.

Jehovah plainly decreed that the temple in Jerusalem was the only center acceptable to him for celebrating annual festivals and offering sacrifices. (Deuteronomy 12:5; 2 Chronicles 7:12) So the Arad temple was constructed and used in defiance of God’s Law, perhaps during an era when alternative altars and rites were distracting many from pure worship. (Ezekiel 6:13) In such a case, this center of counterfeit worship was probably abolished during the thorough reforms by Hezekiah or Josiah in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.​—2 Chronicles 31:1; 34:3-5, 33.

Clearly, the little of Arad’s past that survived does have important lessons for us. Under the sand of centuries, artifacts have emerged that confirm the accuracy of the Bible, document the rise and fall of a corrupt imitation of true worship, and provide examples of the respectful everyday use of Jehovah’s name.

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Dead Sea


Tel Arad

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Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.

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A detail of the wall relief at Karnak, Egypt

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Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.

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This inscription reads in part: “May Yahweh [Jehovah] concern himself with your well-being”

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Photograph © Israel Museum, Jerusalem; courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

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A section of the temple complex at Tel Arad

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View of the Tel Arad fort from the east side

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Todd Bolen/​Bible