News from the Field: The Jezreel Expedition, Part I
This is a useful summary of the Ebling/Franklin 2012 surface survey. There are some real handy photos that go with it.
Why Was Jezreel So Important to the Kingdom of Israel?
By Norma Franklin
The Zinman Institute of Archaeology
University of Haifa
The Omride dynasty was founded by Omri circa 880 BCE. It provided the northern kingdom of Israel with four memorable kings—Omri himself, Ahab, Ahaziah, Jehoram—and one notorious queen—Jezebel (see Why was Samaria made the capital of the Kingdom of Israel?). Although Omri established his capital in Samaria, the important string of events that eventually led to the demise of the dynasty after only four decades took place not there but in the city of Jezreel.
The beginning of the end of the Omrides revolves around a story in I Kings 21– the story of Naboth of Jezreel and his prized vineyard. Naboth’s vineyard adjoined the property of King Ahab and the king wished to purchase the vineyard. Naboth, however, refused to sell on the grounds that it was a family inheritance. The thwarted king fretted over the matter until his wife, Jezebel, concocted a devious plan to have Naboth falsely accused of treason. Naboth was then condemned, executed as a traitor and the vineyard was forfeited to the crown. It was this ignoble series of events that prompted the prophet Elijah to forecast the death of Jezebel and the downfall of the Omride dynasty.
The story resumes in 2 Kings 9. Ahab has died, his son Jehoram has ascended the throne of Israel, and Jezebel has become queen mother. The Israelite army is entrenched at Ramoth-Gilead fighting the Arameans. Jehoram, wounded earlier in battle, is recovering from his injuries at Jezreel. He is being attended by his mother, Jezebel, when his cousin, King Ahaziah of Judah, makes a sick call. While the three are at Jezreel they hear that Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army, whom everyone thought was out fighting the Arameans, has instead staged a coup and is now driving furiously towards Jezreel. The two kings ride out to meet him at which point Jehu murders Jehoram and throws his body into the famous vineyard that once belonged to Naboth. Jehu then fatally wounds Ahaziah and proceeds triumphantly into Jezreel. Confronted by Jezebel from an upper room, he orders her thrown out of the window and tramples her to death under his horses’ hooves. He leaves her body unattended, to be eaten by dogs—an ignoble death.
The final blow to the dynasty is related in 2 Kings 10 when Jehu orders the annihilation of the remainder of the Omride dynasty. The 70 sons of Ahab, all resident at Samaria, are killed and their severed heads are brought to Jezreel to be stacked up at the city gate.
But why did this chain of events take place at Jezreel and not in the capital city Samaria? In order to answer this question we must first look at the geographical location of Jezreel and how this played a part in its long history.
The ancient city of Jezreel was perched on a rocky spur in the foothills of Mount Gilboa, 100 meters above sea level. It overlooked the valley that was named after it, and was located opposite the south-facing slopes of Mount Moreh and the city of Shunam, at the valley’s narrowest point. The summit of Jezreel affords an amazing panorama, from the hills of Nazareth in the northwest to Beit-Shean and the Jordan Valley in the east. Running through the valley below is the Via Maris, the ancient “Way of the Sea,” the main highway that linked Mesopotamia with the land of Egypt. And it was at Jezreel, too, that another ancient highway, the biblical “Way of the Patriarchs,” or Ridge Route, branched off south, connecting Jezreel with the central sites of Shechem, Samaria, Bethel and Jerusalem. The adjacent perennial spring of Jezreel, which provided water for both city dwellers and travelers, was guarded by a still-enigmatic lower city of Jezreel. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Jezreel—with its strategic location and plentiful water—was the scene of many important battles throughout history. Saul’s last encounter with the Philistines in this setting is portrayed in l Samuel 29-31; the fact that Jezreel was an important site well before the Omrides came to rule is also hinted at in 1 Kings 4:12. In the 4th century CE, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, refers to Jezreel as Esdraela, a strategic waypoint on the Via Maris, while in the medieval period the Knights Templar renamed it Le Petit Gerin and built a fortified tower and a church there, turning it into an important way-station on the long road from Galilee to Jerusalem. In 1187, Jezreel was the scene of a decisive conflict led by Saladin as he drove the Crusaders from the Holy Land. In 1260 a new enemy, the Mongols, entered the Jezreel Valley from the northeast, taking the same route as Jehu had some 2,000 years before. The Mamluk forces led by Baybars, although vastly outnumbered, soundly defeated them in the plain between the spring of Jezreel and the spring of Harod (Ayn Jalut in Arabic). In the modern era Jezreel’s strategic location was exploited by the British forces during WWI and fought over by the fledgling Israeli state in 1948.
The above brief account of the strategic importance of Jezreel throughout history serves to illuminate the biblical narrative and confirms that Jezreel functioned as a mighty military center for millennia. Yet this fact was not always obvious to scholars who, concentrating on the story of Naboth’s vineyard, sought a very different reason for the Omrides’ partiality for Jezreel. Alt (1954) argued that early Israel had two capitals, one Israelite and one Canaanite. Morgenstern (1941) suggested that Jezreel, with its mild climate, was the winter capital of Israel while Samaria, high in the mountains, was the summer capital. Consequently, the idea arose that there must have been a royal palace at Jezreel, and although there is no mention in the biblical narrative and no historical or archaeological evidence, the idea proved very popular and is still cited today. The fact that its strategic location and not its climate dictated Jezreel’s importance was proposed by Olivier (1987); this was confirmed by excavations on the summit led by David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and John Woodhead of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (Ussishkin and Woodhead 1992, 1994, 1997). The TAU/BSAJ team revealed the remains of a large rectangular Iron Age II enclosure. Two towers, in the southeast and northeast corners, were exposed; two more towers are presumed to have stood at each of the other two corners, a six- or possibly four-chambered gate opened through a surrounding casemate wall and on three sides there was a protective rock-cut dry moat. The enclosure complex was attributed by the excavators to the Omride dynasty, ca 880 B.C.E., mainly on the “basis of biblical evidence” (Ussishkin 2007: 301). Below there was evidence of a pre-enclosure phase that existed in a slightly earlier phase of the Iron II; unfortunately, neither phase could be accurately dated by pottery. Consequently, there is uncertainty about which of these two Iron Age phases represents the city of Ahab and Jezebel (Franklin 2008).
In 2012 a series of intensive surveys was undertaken by a new expedition to Jezreel led by Jennie Ebeling of the University of Evansville and Norma Franklin of the University of Haifa (Ebeling et al. 2012). The results of the survey immediately showed that the city or, rather, the many successive cities of Jezreel, extended over a much larger area than previously thought (see Jezreel Expedition Update July 2012).
In 2013, based on the results of the survey, three very different strategic areas were chosen for excavation (see Preliminary Report of the 2013 Jezreel Expedition Field Season). Additional areas will be opened in future seasons. Thus, slowly but surely, Jezreel will begin to yield its secrets.
However, one thing is certain. It was Jezreel’s strategic importance that brought the Omrides to Jezreel. Jezreel was no mere hamlet, the site of a winter palace where the Omrides could enjoy the balmy air of the Jezreel Valley away from the harsh winters of Samaria. Rather, Jezreel was a strategic military center, the mustering station for the Israelite army during the years when the enemy lay to the east, whether Aramean or Assyrian. Therefore, in times of war the king and his troops had to be stationed at Jezreel, for Jezreel was the springboard to the east. The road south to Samaria began at Jezreel, and that road had to be protected at all costs. For if Jezreel fell, Samaria would fall, and if Samaria fell then the kingdom would fall.
Alt, A. 1954. Der Stadt Samaria. Berlin. Reproduced in: Alt, A. 1959. Kleine Schriften zur Geschicte des Volkes Israel, III. Munich:258-302.
Ebeling, J., Franklin, N., and Cipin, I. 2012. “Jezreel Revealed in Laser Scans: A Preliminary Report of the 2012 Survey Season,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 75/4: 232-239.
Franklin, N. 2008. “Jezreel: Before and After Jezebel,” in: Lester L. Grabbe, ed. Israel in Transition: From Late Bronze II to Iron IIAs (c. 1250-850 BCE): 1 The Archaeology. An Arts and Humanities Research Council Conference: 45-53.
Morgenstern, J.1941. Amos Studies, I. Cincinnati.
Olivier, H. 1987. “A Tale of Two Cities: Reconsidering Alt’s Hypothesis of Two Capitals for the Northern Kingdom”. Nederduitse Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif 28:2-19.
Ussishkin, D. 2007. “Samaria, Jezreel and Megiddo: Royal Centers of Omri and Ahab,” in: Lester L. Grabbe, ed. Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty: Old Testament Studies 421:293-309.
Ussishkin, D., and Woodhead, J. 1992. “Excavations at Tel JezreeI1990-1991: Preliminary Report,” Tel Aviv 19:3-56.
Ussishkin, D., and Woodhead, J. 1994. “Excavations at Tel Jezreel 1992-1993: Second Preliminary Report,” Levant 26:1-71.
Ussishkin, D., and Woodhead, J. 1997. “Excavations at Tel Jezreel 1994-1996: Third Preliminary Report,” Tel Aviv 24:6-72.