An important and unusual discovery was made in archaeological excavations that were carried out in the Tel Lachish National Park, an archaeological site located in the Shfela (lowland) region of Israel between Mount Hebron and the Mediterranean coast. The find is a gate-shrine from the First Temple period (eighth century BCE) in what archaeologists perceive as compelling evidence of King Hezekiah’s efforts to abolish idol worship there, as described in the Bible: “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…” (II Kings 18:4).
The archaeological excavation was conducted between January and March by the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the initiative of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, in order to further the continued development of the Tel Lachish National Park. The northern part of the gate was uncovered decades ago, and the current excavation aims to expose the gate completely. The gate that emerged is the largest known from the First Temple period.
According to Sa’ar Ganor, excavation director on behalf of the IAA, “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.” According to the biblical narrative, the city gate was where the city elders, judges, governors, kings and officials sat on their benches, as the core of civic life. “These benches were found in our excavation,” Ganor noted.
The Lachish city gate (73.5 × 73.5 ft.), which is now completely exposed and preserved to a height of 12 ft., consists of six chambers, three on either side, and the city’s main street that passed between them. Artifacts discovered in its rooms indicate how they were used in the eighth century BCE: in the first chamber were benches with armrests, at the foot of which were numerous finds including jars, a large number of scoops for loading grain and stamped jar handles that bear the name of the official or a lmlk (belonging to the king) seal impression. Two of the handles bear 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, who was probably a senior official during the reign of King Hezekiah. It seems that these jars were related to the military and administrative preparations of the Kingdom of Judah in the war against Sennacherib, king of Assyria (705- 681 BCE).
The continuation of the building is a gate-shrine whose walls were treated with white plaster. According to Ganor, “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. 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: “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…” (II Kings 18:4)
Besides cutting the horns on the altar, in order to further intensify the abolition of worship in the gate-shrine, a toilet was installed in the holy of holies as the ultimate desecration of that place. A stone fashioned in the shape of a chair with a hole in its center was found in the corner of the room. Stones of this type have been identified in archaeological research as toilets. Evidence of abolishing cultic locations by installing a toilet in them is known in the Bible, as illustrated in the case of Jehu destroying the cult of Baʽal in Samaria: “And they demolished the pillar of Baʽal, and demolished the house of Baʽal, and made it a latrine to this day.” (II Kings 10:27) This is the first time that an archaeological find confirms this phenomenon. Laboratory tests we conducted in the spot where the stone toilet was placed suggest it was never used. Hence, we can conclude that the placement of the toilet had been symbolic, after which the holy of holies was sealed until the site was destroyed.
According to the Minister of Jerusalem and Heritage and Environmental Protection Ze’ev Elkin, “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. … Before our very eyes these new finds become the biblical verses themselves and speak in their voice.”
According to the Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, “the uncovering of these finds joins a long list of discoveries that enlighten us about our historic past, a past that is manifested in our country’s soil and in the writings of the Book of Books.”
According to Shaul Goldstein, director-general of the Nature and Parks Authority, “Tel Lachish is one of the most quintessential places where one can get unequivocal proof of Israel’s hold on its land. The new visitor center 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 at Tel Lachish was destroyed by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, in 701 BCE. The excavation revealed destruction layers in the wake of that defeat, including arrowheads and sling stones, indicative of the hand-to-hand combat that took place 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.
At this time the gate is temporarily covered for conservation purposes and cannot be seen. The Nature and Parks Authority, in cooperation with the IAA, is currently engaged in the continued development and conservation of the site in preparation of opening it to visitors.