Yossi Garfinkel on the “Ark”

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…


11 thoughts on “Yossi Garfinkel on the “Ark”

  1. On your last provocative point, which you raise with the right level of sobriety: What Jacqui, Matt and I were wondering is: The stone object looks like a model of a temple–but of which early Iron Age temple? Since everyone dates this stratum earlier than time that DtrH claim the Jerusalem temple was built, it means the Qeiyafa models reflect Israelite veneration of shrines that were left out of the Bible. If Garfinkel is right that Qeiyafa is connected to Jerusalem, and this is not an abstract model of the general idea of a temple, was there already a temple in Jerusalem? After all, we have nothing but the biblical account here. On the other hand, it might be more proof that the site was Canaanite (or northern Israelite – per Finkelstein).
    If we have a temple model before a temple, then either Solomon didn’t build it or they were familiar with temples before this. This is of course the picture implied by the earliest Israelite law collection, the Covenant code–likely written down at the end of the Iron Age but preserving earlier traditions. Once again the biblical texts hint at a bigger world than we give them credit for!!


    1. Samson

      You asked: “was there already a temple in Jerusalem? After all, we have nothing but the biblical account here.”
      I ask: Why not believe the bible?


  2. Victor Hurowitz

    The models Garfinkel found are temple models, and they should be called either at, or minature temples, mini-shrine. The use of the term Ark is totally misleading and should never have been used, and can’t be justified in any way. But Yossi wants to compare the temple models typologically with the Aron YHWH or Aron ha-berit. He is probably basing him on old theories that the Aron-ha-berit was originally a portable shrine which stored idols, and found among certain pre-Islamic Arabs. Morgenstern held such notions, but I thought that Haran put the to rest. The Aron as described in the Bible is a box, and also, as you indicate, a divine footstool or mount. God was ON the Aron but not IN the Aron.
    The temple models from Yossi’s dig should be compared with well known parallels from Yavneh and elsewhere. In my opinion they resemble the miniature shrines you can find in private houses and on street corners in the far east.. No Temple was found at Keiyafah, and these two models probably came from private homes and represent a family parallel to the official cult. Since they are miniature temples they probably reflect some full size temple standing elsewhere and know by the artisan who created them. Both of them have features found also in Solomon’s temple as described in thh Bible – the interlocking frames which are the mezuzot revi’it and hamishit, and the pillars. I think Yossi’s attempt to identify sela’ot is totally off base and, pull out of a hat (matzutz meha’etzba, as we say here). But the commonality of features does not indicate that they knew Solomon’s temple, something chronologically impossible. But both the mini-shrines and the Biblically described temple are from the same tradition of temple design. The models may have been selective in which features to represent, and the prototype MAY have had both interlocking door frames and pillars. Or each model may be modeled after a different full size structure. These are things for further study, and may never be decided.
    No idol was found in these model temples. There may have been such little idols and they were lost. On the other hand, they may have been empty and represented a shrine of an invisible deity, such as one of the windows on the Taanach cult stand. In any case, they do not indicate monotheism, because even an invisible deity might be one of many, might have a spouse or a business associate, or in deference to Obama, a boyfriend.
    IMHO Yossi has presented objects of extreme importance, but totally botched their explanation, and rather than arguing with his musings we should say, thank you Yossi for such wonderful presents, but we’ll take it from here!


  3. There are many temples that the Israelites or Canaanites would have seen in their day. I think of the migdol temple at Shechem the LB temple at Lachish, or maybe one of the large temples in Jordan at Pella (in existence from the MB through the Iron Age!), Amman Airport, or Deir Allah.


  4. Pingback: Maeir on the Qeiyafa Finds « Roses and Razorwire

  5. Thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts with us. Have you built an “aron” to house one of your new “Safi Vol. 1” books yet? The semi-enclosure would help preserve the lovely fresh smell for members of your excavation cult…


  6. arenmaeir

    Thanks for all the comments – and the very important additions.

    And BTW – just to make sure that this is known – there is no connection between “Aren” and “Aron” …. :-)


    1. ericleewelch

      The lack of connections doesn’t seem to bother some people. I think that’s why we’re having all this discussion… :-)


  7. I think the only option left out by Dr. Garfinkel (and maybe deliberately) is that the models were created by an individual or a public, as a model of the (actual) first temple, which makes the site chronologically later then Garfinkel’s (uncertain) c14 determinations.


  8. Achish Melek Gat

    I will be (finally) a skeptict on this — honestly, I have yet to be convinced that the larger (stone) object is actually an early Iron IIA (10th century BCE) product. I’m going to want to be informed on the stratigraphic and architectural context in which the pieces were found. The architectural styles represented on the stone piece (successive recessing on door posts and lintel) certainly might have been present in a royal palace or temple built during Solomon’s reign, but the parallels for those architectural elements are actually finds from later (9th and especially 8th centuries BCE). Has Yossi’s find demonstrated that these styles were indeed present in the very early 10th (or even late 11th!) century? Or has it demonstrated that the pottery sherds by which he dates his Iron Age strata may be from a century later than he suggests? And what’s more … am I becoming a Finkelstein? :)


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