Following my brief comments on what I had read about the news conference this week on the finds from Kh. Qeiyafa, Yossi Garfinkel wrote to me and asked to please post the following text of his regarding his interpretation of the finds as the “Ark of Elohim”.
I have posted his text, as sent, and then this is followed by some general comments of mine:
A pottery item and a stone item, both in a shape of a closed box, were found at Khirbet Qeiyafa during the 2011 excavation season. Here I ask a simple question: what was the name of these items in antiquity? Today we call them in various names: “Building models”, “Shrine models”, “portable shrines” or “naos”. However, I don’t think these names were used by the Canaanite, Israelite or the Judean people, as they did not speak English or Greek. I proposed that the technical term of such items, in their own time, was “Aron Elohim” (box for keeping god symbols). Each religion kept different gods or goddesses in such boxes. In Middle Bronze Ashkelon such example was found with a small calf figurine inside it. The bible described a portable shrine (“Aron”) in various traditions and it was translated into English as: “The Ark of the Covenant”, “The Ark of the Lord”, and other names. I am not talking about this ark, or any other specific ark mentioned in the biblical tradition, but that the term “Aron Elohim” was used to describe this category of objects. In the same way, there were many temples in the ancient Near East, and one temple in Jerusalem. There were many arks, and one of them was in Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, my suggestion demystify the term “Ark”.
And here are some thoughts and comments about this:
The term ark in the biblical text refers to various things, in different contexts, periods and locations. This includes the “Ark of God” (Aron Elohim) and the “Ark of the Covenent” (Aron haBrit/haEdut/Brit Adonai). The latter supposedly had the tablets of the ten commandments in them.
While one can claim that the well-known “temple models” were called “arks” in ancient Israel – that is a possibility – but nothing else.
There is simply no supporting archaeological, biblical and ANE textual sources that imply this directly (and as far as I know, even indirectly). To this one can add that if “Ark/Aron” was the term used for these and various other types of objects, I think one should expect some extra-biblical mention of this term. Even if these small models were called “arks” – it is clear that the “Aron Elohim” referred to in the biblical text was envisaged as something quite different – see the Aron Brit Adonai that the Philistines capture in the battle of Eben Ezer and moves around Philistia – would it be moved around in a wagon drawn by oxen if so small?
Also – from some biblical texts it would appear that the ark in the temple served as a “throne” for the Israelite god – not a place where he was “kept”.
The suggestion that the terminus technicus for this item as “Aron Elohim” is problematic. Do we know that the Israelites worshipped “Elohim” at this time? Or perhaps their god(s) had other names at this time? (not to mention the possibility that the people at the site were not Israelites, or not all of them were Israelites). Also – since this is an object found in adjacent cultures of the same period (Philistine, Phoenician, etc.) – did they also call this “Aron Elohim“? If so – evidence of this?
The use of English and Greek terms to describe this type of object does not imply that this is the original name! Suggestions have previously been made to the name of these objects – such as Hammanim – and based on the current evidence is as valid a suggestion as Aron.
Another important point is the validity of “cherry picking” terms from the biblical text and identifying them with archaeological finds without a close textual study. Does this term appear in early biblical narratives? Does “Elohim” fit in with such an early period?
While one can take an ideological stand against “minimalism” – there nevertheless is a wide and well-based body of mainstream biblical research which deals with this and related issues, and at least from what the initial discussions imply, there does not seem to be much “interface” with these studies in this suggestion. I hope that in the scholarly publication of this idea, more attention is paid to earlier studies of these objects from various ancient cultures (ANE, Egyptian, Greek, etc.) – such as by Bretschneider, Muller, de Mirsoschedji, etc. In addition, close attention should be paid the mainstream biblical studies on the relevant biblical passages used for this interpretation.
These objects are well-known from the ancient near east in temple and other formal cultic context. There is a lot of evidence of household cult in Israelite, Canaanite and other ANE religions, including the use of these models shrines. This clearly was a common facet of ancient near eastern religion. BUT – to say that the finds from Qeiyafa are in anyway clearly and decisively specific to the Israelite culture, and/or that we can without a doubt identify this object as an “Aron” as mentioned in the biblical text is far from warranted. Not to mention that the claims before and during the conference of ground breaking evidence on the dating of the biblical text, the organization of cult in the Davidic kingdom, etc.
And finally – referring to something that Yossi also mentions: while the claim in certain biblical texts that there was only one temple in Jerusalem is well-known, was this the actual situation during various stages of the Iron Age? In fact, other biblical texts (and the archaeological evidence from Jerusalem and other sites) seem to indicate that there was a lot of cultic activity in Jerusalem outside of the temple.
These are just some initial thoughts – and there are much more…