What Israel’s tels teach disciples about excavating the Bible
You might be surprised by what archeology and Bible study have in common. This session of our virtual Israel tour tells all about tels. A tel is an artificial mound created by ancient cities that were built one on top of the other throughout antiquity. Every ancient city in the Middle East had three things in common. First, ancient communities were generally built on the crest of a hill. This allowed the inhabitants to maximize the productivity of the surrounding land for agricultural purposes outside its walls. Second, every city needed a dependable water supply, both for its inhabitants and for irrigation purposes. Therefore, cities were always built near fresh water supplies, either adjacent to springs or where wells could be dug down into the water table. Finally, the elevation of a city built on a hill provided for defensible security during times of war. Attacking armies would be forced to fight uphill on a killing field before attempting to break the city’s fortified walls.
Picture a layer cake, each layer separated by icing. When one cuts a slice out of the cake all of the various layers are revealed. The top layer is supported by the layers below. The potential height of a layer cake is determined by how effectively the cake maker lays the foundational layers.
When a telis being excavated, it is critical that the archeologists have a plan for excavating it. Simply using a bulldozer to cut a huge swath in the top of a tel destroys the artifacts hidden beneath the surface. Sure, that approach produces lots of data to sort through. A huge amount of pottery, bones, coins, and building material will likely become visible. But all of that data is removed from its context. Context is the key to understanding data of any kind.
The larger story of a site is only understood when a systematic plan of excavation is adhered to. Let’s connect this discussion to how one excavates biblical truth from the Bible. Most believers know that understanding the Bible is the key to living a life that glorifies God. But where and how should one start his or her own excavation of the truths contained in this matchless book? We believe that starting at the beginning of God’s grand story is the only logical answer to that question.
Our tours approach Bible education in the same way a good archeologist approaches the excavation of a tel. They are designed to unfold along the chronological timeline of the Bible. Starting with Genesis, there are seventeen books containing the historical narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are five narratives in the New Testament (Gospels, Acts). Finally, there is one prophetic narrative that reveals the events of the future, the book of Revelation.
The problem as we see it is that much of the Church has a bulldozer approach to studying the Scriptures. Most of us start our journey of faith by attempting to read the Gospels, Acts, and the rest of the instructive books of the New Testament. We try to analyze what they say with little realization that they were not written directly to 21st Century followers of Jesus. They were written to 1st Century followers of Jesus who at the beginning were all JEWISH! That fact alone should cause us to slow down and carefully look at the layers of history which set the stage for New Testament teaching.
Genesis 1-3 detail the origins of the earth and mankind. By the time one has finished reading through Genesis 11, four great events (Creation, Fall, Flood, Nations) have been unearthed. Genesis 12 focuses on the call of a single worshipper of the One God who left his home in Ur of the Chaldees to go to a land that God would show him. Along the way, God unconditionally guaranteed Abraham that he would have many physical descendants, become a great nation, that He would give them a land of their own as a permanent inheritance, and that through Abraham all of the nations of the earth would be blessed. Of course, we know that this blessing has already been given to all the world in Yeshua HaMashiach, Jesus the Messiah.
Driving the storyline of the entire Bible are the biblical covenants established by God in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. The number and names of these covenants is a much debated subject by theologians. Some, like Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum (Ariel Ministries), have identified eight biblical covenants (Edenic, Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Land, Davidic, and New). Others, like Dr. Seth Postell (Israel College of the Bible) see God’s covenantal program for history as having five covenants beginning with the Abrahamic and including the Mosaic, Land, Davidic, and New). Still others identify only two or three. Disciple Daily recognizes substantive arguments for the first two options. We reject the third because it leads to a convoluted systematic theology known as Replacement Theology. More will be discussed on this problematic interpretative system later.
It should be clear to all readers of the Hebrew Scriptures that in Genesis 12:1-3, 7, 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-21, 22:15-18 God unconditionally promised to give Abraham all of the land known today as Israel. Until the day he died, Abraham never took possession of any of it, except for the burial cave he bought for his family at Machpelah.
Tel Be’er Sheva
Our first full day in the land of Israel began at Tel Be’er Sheva. When the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures wanted to speak of the Promised Land, they frequently would do so by identifying its northern and southern boundaries with the phrase “from Dan to Be’er Sheva.”
Tel Be’er Sheva lies east of the modern city of Beersheba. Sitting atop a mound that contains nine layers of strata, the site was occupied by Canaanites when Abraham, Sarah, and Lot arrived in the Negev about 4,000 years ago. Negev means “dry.” In the desert, having a dependable water source is critical to survival. Just outside the city gates a deep well still exists. Many speculate that this could be one of the wells Abraham dug to water his extensive flocks. The name of the city supports this idea. Be’er means “well” and/or “oath.” Sheva means “seven.” Genesis 21:25-34 describes an agreement made by Abraham and Abimelech that established Abraham’s ownership over a well he had dug. The agreement was sealed when Abraham gave Abimelech seven ewe lambs as a sign of their understanding, a symbol of their oath.
Gates were an important feature in the walls of the ancient cities of the Middle East. They provided easy access to the city in times of peace. They remained open during daylight hours. Weary travelers and merchants were free to enter and exit the city as they wished. When threatened by invaders and armies, the gates were closed and guarded. Vaults on either side of the entrance street provided protected areas to position squads of defenders.
Most of the excavations on this site have focused on the city during the 120 years of the United Kingdom period of Saul, David, and Solomon followed by the Divided Kingdom (Israel / Judah) period of 400 years. Perhaps the most incredible find from this period is an ancient water system that channeled huge amounts of surface water from the infrequent but powerful winter rains into underground cisterns for use during the driest times of the year.
Following our visit to Tel Be’er Sheva we headed south towards Israel’s only Red Sea port, Eilat. Enroute we experienced the barrenness of the Negev and Aravah. The Aravah is the extremely remote and arid desert region extending from the southern edge of the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. The Aravah is a strangely beautiful area bordered by rugged mountain peaks and crisscrossed by dry riverbeds known as wadis and colorful canyons. This is part of the area where Israel wandered for forty years for taking the advice of ten of the twelve spies sent to check out the land God promised to His chosen people. The spectacular Ein Avdat and Makhtesh Ramon were highlights of our second day in Israel. By mid-afternoon we were delivered to the border with Jordan where we were met by a Jordanian guide who took us to a hotel near the rose-red capital of the Nabatean kingdom, Petra. Something To Ponder
The unconditional covenant first given to Abraham was reconfirmed with Isaac and Jacob. Like their father before them, neither one procured a stake-hold in the Promised Land. No Hebrew would take ownership of a property allotment in Eretz Yisrael until Joshua led the twelve tribes into the land after forty years of wilderness wandering under Moses. What does this say about God’s commitment to accomplish all that He says He will do? Is He trustworthy?
While there is a starting point for our lives, we will continue to exist forever after our physical death. That means that Abraham is still waiting on the complete and full realization of all that God promised him concerning the land. Anything less calls into question God’s credibility concerning His unconditional forgiveness of our sins… past, present, and future. God always keeps His promises, even when we do not. Next Up – Petra!