Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Yigael Yadin nee Sukenik (he changed his name at Ben Gurion’s request based upon Genesis 49:16, “Dan yadin amo – the tribe of Dan will judge his nation”) was a warrior, scholar, and statesman who achieved great success and fame in three distinct areas. First, he was an outstanding military commander who played an important role in achieving Israel’s birth as a Jewish state and served as Israel’s chief of staff; second, he was a world-renowned archaeologist who achieved great fame for the two greatest archaeological finds of modern Israel, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Masada; and third, he was a statesman who founded a new Knesset party and served as Israel’s deputy prime minister.

Yadin portrait

Although he was not an Observant Jew, Yadin believed that the biblical account of Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael was accurate, and one of the most important and satisfying results of his archaeological work was finding actual relics that supported the biblical narrative. He brought a nationalist vision to identifying archaeological relics, and his historical-philological decoding and interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls raised the status of Israeli antiquities in the eyes of the world. This was a particularly valuable contribution in an era when the United Nations, Arab countries, and other assorted antisemites were spewing poisonous propaganda challenging even the assertion of a historical Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael.

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Signed photo of Yadin

Yadin wrote for both scholarly and lay audiences, not only documenting and explaining his archaeological findings but, equally important, placing them in historical context and reconstructing important parts of the cultural history of ancient Israel and casting new light on the biblical, Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic periods. A brilliant and charismatic teacher and lecturer, he also played a leading role in acquiring the Dead Sea Scrolls for Israel and, on his initiative, Heichal Hasefer (aka the Shrine of the Book) was built at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem to house them. His discoveries and historical theories remain the reference point for virtually all contemporary archeological analysis of the history of Eretz Yisrael.

Born in Jerusalem, Yadin (1917-1984) joined the Haganah at age 16 and, as its operations officer (1947), he was responsible for designing and executing Israel’s military strategy during its War of Independence. His knowledge of archaeology permitted the Israeli army to outflank the Egyptian army in the Negev by using an ancient road built 2,000 years ago by the Romans, a crucial development in Israel’s military victory. After leading the Israeli delegation in the armistice negotiations with Egypt, he was appointed chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces with the rank rav alluf (“major general”) in 1949, in which capacity he instituted and implemented many of the characteristics of Israel’s military that continue today, including the establishment of the standing army, compulsory military service, and the military reserve system.

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Yadin resigned on December 7, 1952, after a rupture in his relationship with Ben Gurion when the prime minister demanded a massive cut in the defense budget. In this historic correspondence written on the very day of his resignation to Moshe Dayan, who succeeded him as the IDF Chief of Staff, Yadin writes:

Yadin’s letter to Moshe Dayan

Allow me to write you a few words as I conclude my tour of duty – you are in no small measure “guilty” of the fact that this [duty] fell on my shoulders. I want to thank you for the cooperation and friendship that you have shown through all the years that we have been in contact, particularly the last three years.

Even though we did not always agree with one another, I always recognized the special and excellent qualities that distinguish you: initiative, courage, independent thinking, a sense of humor, leadership skills, and a wonderful understanding of both operational and political issues.

I am certain that your contribution to the future of the army will be of paramount importance and I hope that you will succeed in all your endeavors.

Yadin next devoted himself to scientific work as head of Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, which he founded, and he was charged with researching and preserving Israeli antiquities. He excavated Hazor (1955-1958), Judean Desert caves (1960-1961), and Masada (1963-1965), where he made important discoveries involving the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans. He was awarded the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies for his research on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1956), the Rothschild Prize for the Humanities (1964), and the Jabotinsky Prize for Literature (1972).

Calling for electoral reforms and greater concentration on Israel’s social and economic problems, Yadin later created “Dash,” the Democratic Movement for Change party. In an unprecedented feat, the small new party won fifteen seats in the May 1977 elections, taking seats away from the Labor Party and turning control of the government to Menachem Begin, under whom Yadin served as deputy prime minister and who became an active participant in the 1977 peace negotiations with Egypt. However, Yadin’s leftist positions, which included opposition to the expansion of Israel’s settlements in Judea and Samaria, lacked broad support and Dash, which virtually disintegrated in 1980, proved to be a short-lived phenomenon.

In the undated correspondence exhibited here, Yadin writes on his personal letterhead:

Yadin letter regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus.

Thank you for your kind letter. I do not know what happened to the Arab shepherd [sic] boy who stumbled on the Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not mention Jesus Christ in any way.

In 1957 I published a book entitled THE MESSAGE OF THE SCROLLS (Simon and Schuster, N.Y.) in which I tell what was known at the time of the scroll’s discovery and contents. It is long out of print, but I believe a paperback reprint was published a few years ago. You might find this interesting.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabatean, on animal skin, parchment, papyrus, and bronze, which date from an extended period ranging from 200 B.C.E. to the time of the Roman destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in 70 C.E. They include the earliest known surviving manuscripts of works included in the Hebrew Bible, including parts of all its 24 books (which include the Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim) – except the Book of Esther, which came later in Jewish history. The scrolls also contain fragments of previously unknown hymns, prayers, commentaries, the earliest known version of the Ten Commandments, and a list etched in rare copper of precious treasures of gold and silver, which some experts believe may have been from the Second Temple.

Most archeological and historical experts agree with Yadin’s conclusion that Qumran was home to a group of Jewish ascetics called the Essenes, who devoted their lives to writing and conserving sacred scrolls and who hid them in 11 caves before the Romans destroyed their community shortly after the Second Temple was destroyed. However, other experts maintain that there was never actually a Jewish settlement in Qumran but rather that Jews fleeing the Romans into the desert sought to protect their scrolls by cramming them into the caves of Qumran. There are any number of alternative theories well beyond the scope of this article and, although nobody challenges the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is no real consensus about who actually wrote them.

In any event, whoever hid the scrolls did an incredible job, as they were not discovered for 2,000 years and, in fact, they could well have remained hidden but for a fortuitous accident in 1947 when a goat wandered into a hollow. When a Bedouin shepherd (to whom Yadin refers in our letter) tossed a stone into the dark cavern, the unexpected “ping” of the stone striking a vessel roused his curiosity and his investigation yielded the first fragments of what later became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On November 29, 1947, Yadin’s father, Professor Eliezer Sukenik (discussed below) set out on a dangerous trip to Bethlehem – this was on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence and tensions in Bethlehem, an Arab city, were very high – where he purchased three of the seven scrolls for 50 pounds. The other four had been smuggled to the United States and, on a trip there in 1954, Yadin, eager to complete his father’s work, purchased them for $250,000, and all seven are now on exhibit at the Shrine of the Book.

Returning to Israel, Yadin continued his archaeological work, as he put it, “’with the Bible in one hand and a trowel in the other.” With protection from Israel’s military against Jordanian artillery facing the western shore of the Dead Sea, he commenced a search of the caves there (1960), which yielded a wealth of historic material. Included in these materials were 15 letters written by Shimon Bar Kochba, who led the final (failed) Jewish revolt against Rome (132-135 C.E.), to Yehoshua ben Galgula, a Jewish commander at nearby Ein Gedi. Yadin discussed the expedition and his findings in Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (1971).

Concerned about the future of biblical archaeology, Yadin urged major research universities to institute field programs that would draw archaeology students to Israel to work on digs, and he himself undertook to bring such volunteers, both in Israel and from the Diaspora, to contribute to his archaeological work. In what is considered to be his crowning archaeological achievement, he led thousands of these volunteers in the excavation of Masada, where he uncovered almost all the structures built by Herod and unearthed proof that 976 Jewish zealots there committed suicide rather than capitulate to Roman legions in 73 C.E., thereby corroborating the account of Jewish historian Josephus Flavius.

Citing the Israeli tradition of inductees into the Israeli army taking their oath of allegiance atop Masada, he affirmed that “Masada shall not fall again” and that “this is the so-called ‘Masada Complex’ that we have is wanting to live as a free people.” Israel formally honored the defenders by burying their remains in a 1969 ceremony.

Strategically built on the route between Egypt and Babylon, Hazor was the largest biblical-era site in Eretz Yisrael. Digging there in 1955-1958 (he later returned in 1968) on the first large-scale project of its kind in Israel, Yadin excavated city fortifications, temples, palaces, dwellings, water systems, and statues of officials and deities. The most important discovery, however, was the remains of King Solomon’s city gates and other objects which substantiated much of the biblical account of Joshua, which describes how Yavin, the king of Hazor, led a coalition of Canaanite cities against the advancing Jewish forces led by Joshua. (See Joshua, chapter 11.)

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In this January 3, 1958, correspondence on his Hebrew University Rothschild Archaeological Expedition at Hazor letterhead, Yadin writes:

“As I promised, here is a photo for you of the children’s cemetery that was found at Hazor.

“If you can draw any conclusion from it, I would thank you to let me know as such.”

Many of Yadin’s positions engendered great controversy amongst scholars, but perhaps the greatest storm was with respect to Yadin’s discovery in March 1960 of bones near Nachal Hever, a desert river that flows to the Dead Sea between Ein Gedi and Masada. Yadin maintained that the bones could not have been Jewish, but Orthodox groups led by Agudat Yisrael and supported by Rav Goren argued that the bones were the remains of the Jewish defenders of Masada.

A committee appointed by Ben Gurion concluded that the bones, which had been buried in accordance with Jewish law and which were found with Jewish artifacts, were indeed Jewish and it recommended that the bones be reburied in accordance with halacha. However, the committee’s recommendations were not initially implemented because Ben Gurion became focused on other matters and because, according to Rav Goren, “Yadin stole the bones.” (The bones were ultimately buried in a formal State Funeral on May 11, 1982.)

Sukenik photo

Yadin’s father, Eliezer Sukenik (1889–1953) is best known for helping to establish the Department of Archaeology at Hebrew University; for serving as director of the Museum of Jewish Antiquities (1938); and for identifying the antiquity of the Dead Sea Scrolls and convincing the Israeli government to acquire them.

Making aliyah from his native Bialystok (1911), Sukenik worked as a teacher and tour guide before serving in the British army during World War I in the 40th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (which became known as the Jewish Legion). Drawn to archaeology while studying at the Hebrew Teachers Seminary and the French Biblical and Archaeological School at Jerusalem, he earned degrees at the University of Berlin (A.B., 1923) and at Dropsie College in Philadelphia (Ph.D., 1926). Returning to Eretz Yisrael, he became associated with the Hebrew University as field archaeologist before being appointed a lecturer and then professor of archaeology.

Noted for his numerous excavations, investigations, and discoveries which threw new light on the history of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael as well as on the Hebrew language and the Bible, Sukenik excavated a number of synagogues and Jewish tombs in the Jerusalem vicinity and found remains that he claimed were evidence of early Christianity; discovered remnants of an important Bronze Age Hyksos fortification at Tel Jerishe; and directed the clearance of the Third Wall in Jerusalem (1925-1927), later publishing The Third Wall of Jerusalem (1930). He also led the excavations of the Beth-Alpha synagogue (1928), and his The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (1932), which made famous the mosaic pavement he unearthed there, expanded the frontiers of the history of Jewish art.

Sukenik’s familiarity with the script of the epitaphs of the Jewish necropolis in Jerusalem, dating from c. 30 B.C. – 70 C.E. of the Second Temple, enabled him to recognize that the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the first Qumran cave in 1947 dated from that same period. He published an article linking the scrolls and their content to a community of Essenes (1948), one of the three Jewish sects at the time of Jesus – the others are the Perushim (Pharisees) and Tziddukim (Sadducees) – which became the standard interpretation of the origin of the scrolls and which remains the contemporary consensus among scholars. His book The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University was published posthumously (1955).

In this December 7, 1947, correspondence on his Hebrew University Department of Jewish Antiquities letterhead, Sukenik writes to Mr. G. Landau, municipal engineer for the city of Tiberias:

Sukenik correspondence on the excavation of Tiberias.

It is my great regret to inform you that a few days ago, the head of the antiquities department advised me that the government has decided, in the aftermath of the constitutional changes and economic meetings, not to go forward with the excavations at the walls of Tiberias.

It will therefore be incumbent upon us to wait for the costs of doing this excavation until the establishment of the Jewish State.

Please express my thanks to the head of the municipality for his courtesy and for the interest he demonstrated in the excavations described above.

In a handwritten postscript, Sukenik adds “In the near future, I will return to you the maps that you loaned to us.”

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.