Stone tablet found in ancient 'temple' might be linked to Ark of the Covenant

Ark of the Covenant for the Tabernacle replica at BYU in this photo from October 16, 2017.
Ark of the Covenant for the Tabernacle replica at BYU in this photo from October 16, 2017. | (Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered a stone tablet that somewhat resembles a description in the Old Testament that played a role in the story of the Ark of the Covenant, an Israeli newspaper has reported. 

A 3,100-year-old temple uncovered near Jerusalem in the ancient settlement of Beth Shemesh has been under excavation since 2012 and workers at the site recently found a stone tablet that might be linked to the Ark of the Covenant. 

The Ark of the Covenant is a gold chest believed to have carried the stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments received by Moses from God on Mount Sinai. 

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Tel Aviv University archaeologist Zvi Lederman, who is leading the Beth Shemesh dig alongside his colleague Shlomo Bunimovitz from Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz the find could align with the biblical narrative.

The structure being excavated dates back to the 12th century B.C. and is a perfect square over 9 yards (8.5 meters) long.

“There is a lot of evidence that this was indeed a temple,” Bunimovitz told Haaretz. “When you look at the structure and its content, it’s very clear that this [is] not a standard domestic space but something special.”

The archaeologists believe the building was destroyed in the mid-12th century B.C. and converted into an animal pen. The archaeologists also discovered that the building was covered in ancient animal feces. 

“To me, this is an act of hostility, an intentional desecration of a holy place,” Lederman was quoted as saying. 

Lederman suggested that the Philistines could have been responsible for destroying the temple as their closest settlement was just over 7.6 yards (7 kilometers) away. Evidence also suggests that Beth Shemesh was a border town that was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. 

Inside the temple structure archaeologists found a stone tablet resting horizontally on two smaller rocks. 

“At the beginning, we thought it was a massebah that had fallen over,” Lederman told Haaretz. “But soon we realized that it was meant to be a table.”

Lederman further explained that the object fit the profile of a “large stone” described in the Old Testament’s book of 1 Samuel where the Ark of the Covenant rested when it was brought to Beth Shemesh after being recovered from the Philistines who captured the ark in battle. 

The passage from 1 Samuel 6:13-15 states that the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their harvest in the valley when they saw the ark being carted back and rejoiced. 

“Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there,” the biblical passage reads. “So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone.”

The biblical account goes on to explain how God struck down residents of the town who looked inside the ark. The ark was then taken to Kiriath Yearim for 20 years before it was taken by King David to Jerusalem. 

As Lederman notes, it is almost impossible to prove that the Ark of the Covenant ever sat on the stone tablet he and Bunimovitz discovered. He also noted that there seems to be inconsistencies between the biblical account and the stone discovered in Beth Shemesh.  

One discrepancy, he said, was that the stone was supposed to be located in a field in a valley, not inside a temple.

“It’s not easy to unpack all the twists and turns of the story that ended up in the Bible and figure out what people remembered, what was historical and what was added later,” said Bunimovitz. 

But the archaeologists believe the discovery suggests the author of the Ark of the Covenant account hundreds of years later was aware that a large stone in Beth Shemesh held some cultural function as a focus of worship and incorporated it into the biblical account.

Bunimovitz admitted that most scholars believe the Bible is “not a historical document” but rather an “ideological one.” He asserted that the author’s inclusion of the large stone in 1 Samuel might have been to make the Ark of the Covenant story more realistic.

“But in every ideological narrative, if you want it to be believed and accepted, you have to insert some real elements,” Bunimovitz told Haaretz

Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein told Haaretz that he is skeptical about the possibility that the find in Beth Shemesh could be linked to the Ark of the Covenant narrative. 

“The ark narrative depicts realities from the eighth century B.C.E.,” Finkelstein said. “It is difficult to assume that a memory from the 12th century B.C.E. was preserved until the eighth century with no continuous writing tradition.”

Meanwhile, Avraham Faust, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, told the newspaper that the finding in Beth Shemesh supports the archaeologists' theory that there are “very early traditions that made their way into the Bible.”

Faust warned that people shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that the stone tablet could have some connection to the Ark of the Covenant. 

“It’s an automatic and sometimes justified suspicion, but I don’t think this is the case here,” Faust said. “This is a noticeable stone, placed in a conspicuous position within what looks like a temple, at sort of the right time, so there are many dots that can connect this find to an old tradition that may have found its way into the biblical story.”

“I don’t know if they are right or wrong, but I think it should be examined carefully,” he added. 

This is not the first time in the last year that an archaeological discovery has been linked to the Ark of the Covenant. Earlier in the year, a man-made platform was discovered at a Catholic convent in Central Israel that might have served as an ancient shrine to the Ark of the Covenant. 

Also, it was reported earlier this year that archaeologists digging in Kiriath Yearim might have discovered the biblical town of Emmaus, where Jesus was said to have appeared before two disciples after His resurrection. Finkelstein is among the archaeologists who led the study at Kirath Yearim. 

“Finkelstein and [Thomas] Römer have a good case archaeologically, geographically, and topographically,” Benjamin Isaac, emeritus professor of ancient history from Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz in September. “However, it is a hypothesis and remains a hypothesis.”

Also in September, researchers say they discovered evidence of the emergency of the biblical kingdom of Edom, which was previously considered by secular scholars to be mythical. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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