One of the highlights of Campbell Divinity School’s 2015 study tour involves a place that’s low and dark: a “Dig for a Day” experience at Tel Mareshah in the Beth Guvrim National Park. Tel Mareshah is located just south of the Valley of Elah, where 1 Samuel 17 says David fought the Philistine giant Goliath. Mareshah itself was said to be the home of the prophet Micah.
Surrounding the tell at Mareshah are as many as 5,000 man-made caves that were dug beneath private dwellings or used as workshops. Beneath a layer of relatively hard limestone called nari, the underlying chalk is soft, so ancient residents learned to dig out large bell-shaped rooms to use for storage, living space, columbariums for raising pigeons, and for other purposes.
After the Jews defeated their Syrian rulers during the Maccabean revolt (167-164 BCE), they forced the residents of Mareshah — who had an Edomite heritage — to convert, die, or leave. Those who left, it is thought, collapsed their homes into the basement caves beneath so their conquerors could not use them. For a number of years, the Tel Mareshah “Dig for a Day” project has been digging in the caves with volunteer labor and professional supervision. Since the material is not stratified as in a typical dig, visitors can assist with very little training. We always find interesting things, and everything deemed “bucket worthy” is added to a bucket of “finds,” while rocks and dirt go into other buckets. After filling all the buckets, we schlep them out for sifting and find additional artifacts. It’s hot and dirty work, but very rewarding.
After a lunch of Israeli style hot dogs (sausage on a hoagie with tomatoes, cucumbers, and hummus), we drove south to Tel Lachish, where Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University is leading a fourth expedition of excavations. Lachish was the second largest city in Judah, behind only Jerusalem, though its greatest claim to fame was being destroyed by the Assyrian army in 701 BCE. The Assyrian king Sennacherib was so proud of the feat that he had reliefs made depicting the battle and lined his throne room with them. Readers will be hearing more about Lachish later, when Susan and I join the dig there for three weeks in June and July.
On our return to Jerusalem, we stopped briefly at Tel Beth Shemesh, where the Ark of the Covenant was returned on a cart by two milch cows after having been captured by the Philistines, according to 1 Samuel 4-6. The story says that the Ark stopped by a large rock in a wheat field belonging to a man named Joshua. The happy Israelites used the cart for wood and sacrificed the cows on the rock, praising God for the return of the Ark — before someone showed disrespect to the Ark, a number of people died, and the frightened Israelites persuaded a man named Abinadab to take custody of the Ark in Kiryat Yearim, where it remained in quarantine for 20 years.
Tonight Professor Garfinkel will visit us and bring a lecture at the hotel so we can learn first-hand about the digs at Lachish and Khirbet Qeiyafah, where he has also excavated.
We’re getting down, dirty, and bucket worthy.