A gate-shrine from the First Temple period (eighth century BCE) uncovered in the Tel Lachish National Park is hailed by the Israel Antiquities Authority as “an important and unusual discovery” providing compelling evidence for the biblical account of King Hezekiah’s efforts to abolish worship there.
The northern part of the 24.5-by-24.5-meter (80×80-foot) gate — the largest ever found in Israel from that era — already was uncovered decades ago by archeologists from Great Britain and from Tel Aviv University.
The IAA conducted the current full excavation from January to March this year at the initiative of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, to further develop Tel Lachish National Park, about 45 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem.
“The size of the gate is consistent with the historical and archaeological knowledge we possess, whereby Lachish was a major city and the most important one after Jerusalem,” said IAA excavation director Sa’ar Ganor.
“According to the biblical narrative, city gates were the place where everything took place: the city elders, judges, governors, kings and officials would sit on benches in the city gate. These benches were found in our excavation.”
The Lachish city gate, now completely exposed and preserved to a height of 4 meters (13 feet), consists of six chambers — three on either side — and a main street that passed between them.
In the first chamber were benches with armrests; jars; scoops for loading grain; and stamped jar handles bearing the name of the official or a lmlk (belonging to the king) seal impression. Two of the handles have the seal impression lmlk hbrn (belonging to the king of Hebron).
The word lmlk is written on one of the handles together with a depiction of a four-winged beetle (scarab), and another impression bears the name lnhm avadi, probably a senior official during the reign of King Hezekiah. These jars probably were related to Hezekiah’s military and administrative preparations for the war against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, in the late eighth century, which resulted in the destruction of Tel Lachish in 701 BCE.
The continuation of the building is the gate-shrine with plastered walls. “Steps to the gate-shrine in the form of a staircase ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed,” said Ganor during a press event on September 28 introducing the find.
“An opening was exposed in the corner of the room that led to the holy of holies; to our great excitement, we found two four-horned altars and scores of ceramic finds consisting of lamps, bowls and stands in this room. It is most interesting that the horns on the altar were intentionally truncated. That is probably evidence of the religious reform attributed to King Hezekiah, whereby religious worship was centralized in Jerusalem and the cultic high places that were built outside the capital were destroyed.”
In the book of II Kings, verse 18:4 describes how Hezekiah “removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.”
A stone latrine was placed in the holy of holies, apparently as the ultimate desecration of the forbidden gate-shrine. This is the first archaeological evidence of such a practice, which is described in the Bible (II Kings 10:27). Laboratory tests suggest the latrine was never used and was therefore symbolic.
The excavation revealed destruction layers from the war with Assyria, including arrowheads and sling stones indicative of hand-to-hand combat in the city’s gatehouse. Evidence of Sennacherib’s military campaign in Judah is known from the archaeological record, the Bible (II Kings 18 and II Chronicles 32), and the Lachish wall reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, depicting the story of the city’s conquest.
Shaul Goldstein, director-general of the Nature and Parks Authority, said the planned visitor center at Tel Lachish “will include the relief that was found in the private room of the King of Assyria which depicts our forefathers in their war and as they entered captivity that led to a life of exile that continues to this day. The altar from the time of King Hezekiah constitutes another sacred link to this important settlement.”
The gate is temporarily covered for conservation purposes as the Nature and Parks Authority and the IAA continued development and conservation work at the site in preparation of opening it to visitors.
“The fascinating new discovery at Tel Lachish is a typical example whereby excavations and further research of heritage sites show us time and time again how biblical tales that are known to us become historical and archaeological stories,” said Ze’ev Elkin, Minister of Jerusalem and Heritage and Environmental Protection.