Disclosure: I am not an expert in archaeology, history or Tanach. If any reader finds erors here, please use the 'comment' icon at the end of the post to contact me. I can then make corrections or adjustments to this text.
This tiyul is about an event that took place at some point between the years 701 -686 BCE, app 2700 years ago. The exact date depends upon who you talk to, but all seem to agree that this is the range within which this event took place. Because of archaeological finds, we start our trip with a stop at the Begin Center in Jerusalem, which is located near Emek Refaim, also near the Liberty Bell park. There, we walk behind the main building, to a sidewalk or walkway along the rear exterior wall of the building.
With your back to the building, here is a portion of what you see:
This is, essentially, a short back-strip of property behind the Begin Center. At the top of the picture, you can see a portion of rear foundation work of a building (a church) on the street above--see the light-colored cement-work sitting on the stone. In a way, this scene probably looks like the rear of most public buildings in a crowded urban area: the building sits on as much of its property as it can; the rear is often just like this--rugged rock.
But this is Israel, not New York or Boston, and the Begin Center (named after former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and housing his papers) is in Jerusalem, a city that is more than 3,000 years old. Sowhat you are looking at here is not just rugged rock at the rear of a modern building; it is an archaeological discovery--the remains of a burial cave, its roof collapsed and gone, from the period of the First Temple, 2500- 2800 years old- or older.
The backround: in ancient Israel, at the time of the First Temple, Jewish burial, apparently, was done in one of two ways: if you were poor, your family found a spot for burial--sometimes under the floor of the house you lived in--and the body is buried there; but if you had wealth--or public position-- you were not buried in the ground, but above ground, in burial caves. In those times, all burial caves were at the outside of your city (since we are are talking here about a walled city, Jerusalem, I can only comment on walled cities; I assume the same held true for non-walled cities--unless no one of wealth lived outside a walled city --a strong possibility-- which would mean if you lived outside a walled-city, what you got was a poor-man's burial, in the ground under or near one's house).
This burial cave, therefore, at the time of the First Temple, was outside the walls of the Jerusalem--we'll come back to this point later.
For the wealthy and/or powerful, the burial process was completed in two stages.
Look at the next three pictures:
We are going to talk about that 'walk-in bathtub'. Look at the right-side outside edge of that 'bathtub'. Can you see a row of small squares of stone with hollows between them?
Take a closer look at that right edge again. If Ezra reaches out with his left hand, he can touch the row of squares. Do you see the hollows between the squares?
As you look at these three pictures, remember that you are looking into a cave in a wall that faces a valley outside the city walls of ancient Jerusalem. This burial cave had a ceiling that would probably be, based on other, similar caves, perhaps nine - fifteen feet high. The roof of the cave has collapsed, and the debris has been removed. You are looking at what would have been a section of one room in the cave.
Now, back to the burial process for the wealthy. It was a two-step process. Step one was, the body of the deceased was brought into this room, in this cave. It was placed, lying flat on its back, with its head resting in one of those hollows between those stone squares I mentioned above.
Again, look at the right edge of the picture immediately above: the head was placed in the hollow. Can you see the hollow?There are four hollows visible in this picture (the first, in the foreground, has a chipped edge). The feet of the deceased would point away to the right. In this picture, from what you can see, four deceaseds can lie here at the same time (there are more spots in this picture for bodies, but that gets more difficult to point out).
The body of the deceased lies here, probably wrapped, for (it is thought) a year. Then, someone re-enters the burial cave and collects the bones of that deceased.
Look at this picture:
Here, tour master Ezra Rosenfeld is about to point to something in front of his left foot.
What Ezra is about to point at, is a small opening at the bottom inside of that rectangle he is standing in. It is a small opening that opens into a space that is perhaps four feet-by four feet-by three feet: a communal family ossuary.
After one year, a person comes into the burial cave, gathers up the bones of the deceased lying before him, and places the bones into that family ossuary; the space vacated is now 'open'for another deceased family member.
By the way, after the Second Temple, Jews move away from this two-step process, and the wealthy are assigned their own individual death-spot, often, for the very wealthy, a sarcophagus. There is a well-preserved burial cave in, I believe, Beit Sha'an, where you can see dozens upon dozens stone sarcophagi.
Right now, however, we are in the First Temple era, behind the Begin Center.
There is another point here. As in other cultures, the wealthy Jew at this time is not buried 'alone': he is often buried with pottery, items of gold and silver, and jewelry. Grave robbing was a concern. In fact, at one museum, we saw a replica of a stone sign that one family had erected on the outside of a burial cave. The stone engraving contained two sentences. The first sentence read something like, 'There is no gold or silver in this cave.'
Pretty shrewd, eh? Do you think that kept the robbers away--or was that sign simply an advertisement that there might be something of value there?
The guide at the museum where we saw this replica--the original is in the Israel museum, I believe--told us that it probably didn't work. But what might have worked was the second and last sentence inscribed on the sign: (a rough translation) 'a curse be to the one who enters this cave.'
The speculation today is that a curse may have had some influence on people back then--at least enough, perhaps, to keep (lesser educated and perhaps superstitious) grave-robbers away.
When discovered, that cave was 100% empty.
So much for signs.
However, our roofless cave behind the Begin Center was not empty: it contained at least 90 bodies. It also had a prize in it: a small silver amulet, something apparently meant to be worn on a necklace around a neck. It was rolled up and very small, perhaps no bigger than an inch wide and maybe a quarter-inch tall; rolled out, it is only app two inches long.
It took years to figure out how to unroll it, without destroying it.
Once unrolled, however, it revealed ancient Hebrew letters. The letters spelled out the Bircat Cohanim--the Priestly Blessing--just as we know it today from the Torah. A couple of words were missing, but the Blessing was obvious.
This small discovery suggested that this burial cave might have been for Chohanim, the Priests or, because of the silver and the quality of the amulet, perhaps for a Cohain Gadol--a High Priest. Maybe.
This burial cave dates to the seventh century BCE, the time-period for our tiyul, and the writing on this small strip of silver is the oldest known name of Hashem (G-d's name) in Hebrew ever found.
It is a significant discovery.
Today, because of a discovery at a dig-site called Qeiyafah--the subject of our July 14 Tiyul--there is now one older example of Hebrew writing, a stone ostricon (an ostricon is a flat stone with writing engraved on it). The writing found at Qeifaya is said to date back to David's time, the tenth century BCE. As we speak, its writing and its translation are still being studied.
Now, here is the next picture:
This is Har-Tzion, standing with your back to the burial caves we have been discussing.
Regarding this picture, there are two points of interest: First, look at the center of the picture, where the trees are: here, somewhere in those trees (I believe) there was found remnants of a wall that had been built during the First Temple period. This means that the burial cave we are discussing was outside the city and, as you can see, faced the city.The second point of interest is the modern geography. If you look to the upper left, you will see a tower-like structure--it is the farthest-left tower in the picture. That tower is near Jaffa Gate, inside the walls of the 'old city'.
Note: let's talk for a moment about the 'old city' of Jerusalem, and the wall of this 'old city'. This existing 'old city wall' has nothing to do with the era we are discussing, We are discussing the period preceding the First Temple, which was destroyed in the year 586 BCE, almost 2,600 years ago. The 'old city' walls are no older than 450 years.
When you discuss Jerusalem, you have to be careful when using a word like, 'old'.
Now, let's get to the heart of today's story: destruction. If you know about the story of the destruction of the First Temple, you might be wondering about my dating here. Something seems wrong. The dates aren't correct.The dates here are app 110 years before the First Temple was destroyed. Why are we talking about an 'eve' of destruction taking place so long before the Temple was actually destroyed?
Answer: We are talking a potential destruction. We are talking about a kind of almost total obliteration that would have been far more cruel and horrible than what the Babylonians did later, in 586 BCE. We are talking , in fact, about the attack against Israel by the Assyrian King Sennacherib.
It is a story of destruction, faith, an incredible miracle that has two stories associated with it, and the King of Judah, Chezkiyahu.
King Chizkiyahu (Hezikaya) ruled during the years (app) 715-686 BCE. This time range is approximate. Not everyone may agree on the exact years, but the general time-period appears accurate. Our Tanach credits him with being a strong king who was dedicated to the G-d of Israel. He ruled over a Jerusalem that had experienced dramatic growth since David, some 280 years (app) before. You can see how Chizkiyahu's Jerusalem compares to David's Jerusalem in this model.
Look at the model:
This is a model of Jerusalem, during Chizkiyahu's day. As you can see, it contains several pieces. First, the entire, largest outer circumference of the wall is Jerusalem at 701 BCE, at the time of the attack by the Assyrian King Senncherib. It represents all of the construction work King Chizkiyahu ordered completed (you'll see why in a moment).
Now, the challenging part--finding the City of David, called 'Ear David', which was the Jerusalem of King David.
We are going to concentrate on the bottom left section of the model. This section contains two pieces. First, there is a relatively small section that looks like a holding place for a salami--not quite rectangular, with pinched ends. Do you see it? Now, see if you can distinguish, within the bright light that shines on the model, there is a wall inside the outer wall that stretches from the left bottom corner, all the way across the model, to the far right. Can you see, or make out the outline of, that inner wall? That is unbroken. The wall has no openings or break in it as it reaches from side-to-side.
Now, still looking at that inner wall, let's look at what lies between the true outer wall at the bottom and this inner wall, for it will be inside these two walls that you will see the City of David. First, look at the detail work between the two walls--some of it looks mottled--bumpy (to the left). This 'mottled' look are tiny boxes representing housing--what you find in a city. This left-side section goes about half-way across the bottom of the model, and then stops; the floor of the model becomes clean--no buildings on it until you get to a larger outline of something. Can you see that? This left-side section , with the 'housing' on it (not including that 'salami holder' beneath it) is the original City of David. It is Jerusalem during King David's reign. Remember, it does not include the lower'salami holder' section. Can you see all of that?
The Jerusalem of King David, compared to the Jerusalem of King Chizkiyahu, some 260 years (app) later, is very small, is it not?
This model illustrates how dramatically Jerusalem grew in those intervening years. It also shows what King Chizkiyahu did.
Compare the model to a picture of a picture in the next two pictures:
The City of David is in the area, in the top picture, where the lower of the two pens is pointing; actually, the lower pen is pointing at the top of the City of David. Can you see that? Compare it to the bottom picture, and find where I have already said the City of David is located. That older portion is much smaller than the Jerusalem of Chizkiyahu.
Now, before we talk about King Chizkiyahu in detail, let's talk about King Solomon who, after his father David died, built the first Temple. The first Temple is here, within those two walls we have been looking at--at the far right. Do you see that large, free-standing building at the far right? That, in the model, is the First Temple. In the picture above the model, the Temple is being pointed at by the upper pen. If you look closely at the picture, you will see that that upper pen is pointing at the current Temple Mount.
Okay. Back to our story of King Chizkiyahu.
After Shlomo died, his son Rechavam became King. Apparently, Rechavam wasn't, shall we say, very wise. The people, especially in the North, rebelled against him and chose someone called Yeravam as their king.The United Kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, that had lasted perhaps 100 years, now split into two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Judah in the South (including Jerusalem) and the Kingdom of the North. For the next 220-260 years (depending on whose numbers you choose), the kings who reigned in both the North and the South were mostly not religious or particularly talented. One or two were mighty warriors. Some, like Ahab, were the pits. Chizkiyahu was one of the good guys.
Around 700 BCE, regional conflict broke out, and all of Israel became a target of the Assyrian superpower (to Israel's North-north-east) led by Senncherib. Senncherib came into Israel and obliterated everything in his path. He destroyed virtually every main city his could find and took captives. But he did not just exile these captive Jews; he took them and spread them out--so much so that they have literally disappeared. They have become the 'ten lost tribes'.
Senncherib knew how to devastate a people.
In Israel at that time, there were app 47 cities. Sennchreib conquered, devastated and captured 46 of these cities. Then, in app 700 BCE, he turned to Jerusalem--the Big Apple, if you will, the last city and the main prize for him.
Indeed, if he took Jerusalem, the entire Jewish people might have disappeared, just as happened with the ten Northern tribes. Fortunately, Chizkiyahu does not wait for him to attack.
Chizkiyahu knew how to be a king.
To understand Chizkiyahu, here is a short lesson in Kingship 101, circa 700 BCE:
First, you need to protect your water supply. The reason for this is that Senncherib has also studied kingship 101, and he knows what everyone else knows: if you lay seige against a city, and you control their water supply, you win. Period. Check-mate.
Now, it just so happens that the water supply for the City of David is inside that 'salami holder' section of the wall.
Look again at the model:
As you look at that 'salami holder' section at the bottom left--that's where the water supply enters the City of David. Actually, the lower portion of that wall did not exist before Senncherib entered Israel. Chizkiyahu didn't have to be a rocket scientist to understrand what Senncherib's goals were--he knew Jerusalem was the ultimate prize. So, in order to protect himself, the Jewish king did a number of things. First, he built that lower, outer wall to that 'salami holder' section of wall, to bring the vulnerable part of the water supply into and behind protective walls. Got that? Then, he did something astounding: he brought in crews of men, and rechanneled existing water tunnels, so as to protect the water even more. What is startling about this project is that Chizkiyahu had two crews working from different ends, working towards each other, chiseling through limestone. Yes, it's the fastest way to chisel a fairly long channel--but it's also risky because who's to say the crews are going to line up properly enough to meet up?
Not only did the two work crews meet up with very little error, but archaeologists found, chiseled into a tunnel wall, about shoulder height, a description by one of the chislers, explaining that here is where the two crews met.
I have walked through a portion of that tunnel-work, and it is amazing that it could have been done so quickly, so expertly, and so accurately 2600 years ago.
In addition, the Jewish King understood the topography his city sat on, and he understood that the north wall was the city's most vulnerable segment; the land outside the wall there was the best-suited spot for launching an attack on the city. Therefore, the Jewish King rebuilt and/or built new wall structures at that part, so that the North wall was reinforced.
Everyone in the city knew about the war preparations and the approaching army. People were frightened, especially since Senncherib was incredibly brutal. The land of Israel, North and South, was devastated, no other cities existed any more. Jerusalem was next.
180,000 experienced and well-equipped Assyrian troops soon came to Jerusalem. At the ready. As they rested and prepared for the push against Jerusalem, the prophet Yeshaiyahu came to Chizkiyahu and scolded him: you have spent all of your time working to defend against the enemy? You have destroyed homes to build new walls?
Look at this:
This is a piece of Chizkiyahu's wall. It is 7 meters wide (perhaps 22 feet).
How high do we estimate it was, originally?
See that sign for, 'estimated height of wall'? It seems to be at least sixty feet above the wall (my estimate), which is directly below the picture.
And Cizkiyahu is accused of doing what? Destroying houses in order to rush-build this wall?
Look at the left side of the picture. Do you see what looks like two semi-circles of stone jusr below the wall, on the outside, on the left? Those are not semi-circles. They are walls from houses that have been destroyed as this wall was built. It is exactly as the prophet had said.
The prophet continues: (a paraphrase) do you think you battle this enemy by yourself? Do you think you have the might to be victorious? All strength comes from G-d. Pray to Him. Only He can protect you (a very bad paraphrase, indeed). However, I think you get the point. The king has to turn to G-d, or else, he is warned, he is toast.
The king is not a rocket scientist. Still, he gets the message. He prays.
The Tanach, at this point, says that on that same night the camp of the Assyrian army was struck, and 180,000 soldiers died.
Jerusalem, Israel, and probably all future generations of Jews, were saved.
But that is not the end of the story. You see, Senncherib was not the village idiot. He was king of a superpower--with an ego to go with that. He liked to record his war results; and he liked to have that record chiseled into stone--literally.
In fact, there is a pencil-like stone, perhaps seven feet tall, called the Taylor Prism (the original is now in the British Museum), and on this multi-sided stone, Senncherib had carved the stories of his conquests, including his attacks on Israel.
Part of what he had had written is this:
Because Chizkiyahu... would not submit to my yoke...I came up against him...I took 46 of his strong fenced cities...and smaller towns which were scattered about...I took and carried off 200,150 persons, old and young, male and female...and Chizkiyahu himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage.
He does not say that he conquered Jerusalem. Why not? He took all the other cities. What happened? The strong warrior with the big ego does not say.
We are left only with that story in our Tanach.
What do you think happened?
(I wish to thank Ezra Rosenfeld (tanachtiyulim.com) for showing me the Land of Israel with Tanach in hand)