Gezer and the Bible

An exciting discovery sheds new light on an old site.

David Merling, Ph.D., is curator, Horn Archaeological Museum, and associate professor of history of antiquity, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Randall W. Younker, Ph.D., is director of the Institute of Archaeology and professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

During a recent excavation in Israel, archaeologists unearthed important new evidence that sheds light on biblical events. The site of their discoveries is Tel Gezer, a 30-acre mound at the base of the foothills 15 miles west of Jerusalem. Because of its strategic location, Gezer became a powerful city in antiquity and is mentioned many times in the Bible. It is also cited in various Egyptian inscriptions, including those from the Late Bronze Age pharaohs Thutmose III, Thutmose IV, and Merneptah.

From the Bible we learn that the ancient inhabitants of Gezer suffered defeat from the conquering Israelites, but were difficult to control. The Bible records that Horam, king of Gezer, sought to support his ally the king of Lachish against the advance of the Israelites, only to be killed and his entire army destroyed (Joshua 10:33). Despite this devastating loss, the people of Gezer managed to maintain their independence. When the Israelite tribes divided Canaan among them selves, Gezer was assigned to the tribe of Ephraim (Joshua 16:3) and later allotted to the priestly family of Kohath (Joshua 21:21). The Canaanite city of Gezer was not destroyed, but its inhabitants became forced laborers for the Israelites (Joshua 16:10; Judges 1:29, 30). Probably the defenseless inhabitants, having lost their king and army, sued for peace (Deut. 20:10, 11).

Gezer, however, was only tentatively in Israel's domain. During the ongoing warfare between the Israelites and Philistines, Gezer was a border/buffer city (2 Sam. 5:25; 1 Chron. 14:16; 20:4). Not until the time of King Solomon was Gezer finally under the full control of the Israelites. First Kings 9:16 records that Solomon's Egyptian wife received the city of Gezer as a dowry from her father, Pharaoh, king of Egypt. This gift prompted Solomon to rebuild Gezer (verse 17).

Early excavations

Because of its large size, strategic location, and biblical connections, Tel Gezer (ancient Gezer) has figured prominently in the archaeological re construction of Old Testament Israel. Excavations at this site began in 1902 under R.A.S. Macalister, sponsored by the Palestine Exploration Fund. The seven-year expedition was the largest and most important archaeological excavation in Palestine up to that time.1 Macalister employed as many as 200 workers year-round from sunrise to sunset, except for an occasional pause caused by outbreaks of malaria and cholera.2 His strategy was to dig to bedrock in 10-meter wide swatches spanning the width of the tell. He began at the eastern end of Tel Gezer and worked west. As Macalister's workers trenched across the mound, they dumped the newly excavated dirt into the previously dug trench, in effect turning the site up side down a practice quite unacceptable by today's standards.

Nevertheless, Macalister uncovered many interesting and helpful discoveries. He found portions of an outer city wall, 10 large monoliths,3 the famous "Gezer Calendar," and a large water shaft on the magnitude of those discovered at Gibeon, Hazor, and Megiddo; he also directed some creative research on ancient winepresses. However, with so many workers and Macalister their only supervisor, the end result of the excavation was, by modern standards, an archaeological disaster. The major problem with Macalister's work was that one archaeologist could not properly direct or interpret such a large undertaking. To his credit, Macalister published his finds in three large volumes. Unfortunately, they are difficult to use because of their many faulty interpretations and in correct dates.

In 1934 new excavations began under A. Rowe, but these were limited to only one season, with little material from Bible times uncovered. In 1964, recognizing the historical importance of Gezer, G. E. Wright, professor of archaeology at Harvard University, began a new series of excavations there. After the first two seasons the excavations came under the direction of William G. Dever (1966-1971); Wright continued as adviser to the project.4 In the 1972-1973 season J. D. Seger directed the project, with H. D. Lance as associate. The archaeological work during these excavations was some of the most important con ducted during the 1960s and 1970s. Despite having to work around Macalister's dumps, the Gezer team managed to greatly clarify the archaeological history of Gezer.

Lingering questions

The Gezer project was completed in 1973; however, to solve lingering archaeological questions, two additional seasons were undertaken (1984 and 1990).5 Specifically, the remaining questions deal with the dating of the "Outer Wall," which surrounds the city, and the dating of the gate area, commonly referred to as the "Solomonic gate".6 To understand the results of the 1990 season, one needs to understand some of the following current archaeological issues.

For many years archaeologists have deduced from both archaeological and biblical evidence that certain cities had monumental architecture built by King Solomon. According to 1 Kings 9:15: "Now this is the account of the forced labor which King Solomon levied to build the house of the Lord, his own house, the Millo, the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer" (NASB).

Yigael Yadin, the dean of Israeli archaeologists, first suggested that Solomon's building activity, noted in the above text, was reflected in the large six-chambered gateways he had identified at Hazor and Megiddo. He was also the first to recognize a similar gate at Gezer, finding it in one of Macalister's line drawings labeled "Maccabean castle." Macalister's plan was seen by Yadin to contain one half of what he suspected to be a Solomonic gate. When the 1960s Gezer excavations began, Yadin visited with the directors and correctly predicted where they would find the gate in Macalister's Maccabean castle.

Associated with each of these gates and other supposedly Solomonic re mains was a unique red-slipped pottery."7 The majority of archaeologists have considered this unique Iron I "red-slipped" pottery a hallmark of the tenth century B.C., and it has been specifically associated with King Solomon's building activities.8 Thus, Solomonic strata9 have been identified at a large number of archaeological sites, providing a corpus of information about the tenth century and the building activities of the time of Solomon.

A few scholars, however, have recently begun to question the Solomonic dating of these strata, wanting to date the aforementioned red-slipped pottery to the ninth century.10 The practical result of such a redating would be the lack of any archaeological evidence for the Solomonic kingdom.

William Dever writes: "Yet I cannot imagine that the founding of the United Monarchy, and especially the reign of Solomon, will have left virtually no discernible traces in the archaeological record. And make no mistake about it: the implication of moving Hazor X, Megiddo VA/IVB, and Gezer VIII [these numbers rep resent the Solomonic strata, i.e., the red-slipped pottery] all down into the ninth century B. C. is precisely [his emphasis] that."11

Archaeologists have discovered that different historic periods were distinguished by distinctive styles of pottery. By finding similar pottery at different archaeological sites, archaeologists are able to develop a "relative" chronology.12 The usefulness of a relative chronology, however, is its association with an "absolute" date or starting point.13

The key to the controversy of the dating of the red-slipped pottery is the interpretation of the excavations at Samaria. Unfortunately, Kathleen Kenyon's interpretation of the finds at Samaria have been disputed ever since they were first published. 14 Kenyon assumed that Samaria was unoccupied from the early third millennium B.C. until Omri began construction around 880 B.C. 15 Since she found this same red-slipped pottery beneath Omri's building activity, she assumed it dated to the time of Omri. The practical result of dating this red-slipped ware to the time of Omri would be the redating of all Solomonic strata to the time of Omri. Kenyon's conclusions were almost immediately disputed by G. Ernest Wright and other scholars. They interpreted the pottery from Samaria as evidence of an earlier settlement on the site.16 We determined to clarify the relationship between Gezer's Solomonic gate and the red-slipped pottery, and perhaps, find evidence to clarify the larger question of archaeological evidence for the reign of King Solomon.

The other major issue facing the 1990 excavation team was the question of the date of Gezer's "Outer Wall." A number of archaeologists have recently concluded that few, if any, cites during the Late Bronze Age had outer city walls.17 Despite the reports of both Macalister and Dever that a Late Bronze Age wall was in deed found at Gezer, its dating is disputed.18

Discovering an earthquake

To attempt to clarify both questions, Seventh-day Adventist archaeologists and students under the direction of William G. Dever, mentioned previously, who is professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, and Randall W. Younker, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University, excavated for five weeks. In addition, during the last few days of the dig a surprising discovery was unearthed that appears to corroborate an earthquake mentioned in the Bible. Denver and Yonker divided the excavation team into two crews. Dever led a detachment of students on the southern edge of the tel in investigating Field III, the Solomonic gate, while Younker and his workers opened a series of probes to the north in Field XI. Ac cording to Macalister's plans of this latter area, he had uncovered the Late Bronze Age Outer Wall and found some towers he speculated Solomon had later built into the wall. Our group hoped to locate both features.

In Field III the preliminary job was the cleaning of the gate complex, which was visible but overgrown with weeds. Since the six-chambered gate at Gezer is one of the best preserved in the country, we decided to excavate immediately next to the gate on the east side, thus preserving the gate while at the same time allowing the excavators to determine the relation ship of the gate foundation and the red-slipped ware. By the end of the summer, Field III had yielded excel lent results. It has now been clearly shown that the Solomonic gate was indeed founded in a stratum characterized by the red-slipped ware. 19 Below the foundation of the gate, and at the same time the red-slipped ware dominated, we discovered a destruction layer with obvious burned debris that correlates with the Bible account of the capture and burning of Gezer by the Pharaoh of Egypt, who then gave Gezer to his daughter, the wife of Solomon (1 Kings 9:16).

In Field XI the primary responsibilities were to remove the dump left by Macalister, then locate, determine, and date each building phase of the Outer Wall and its towers. The work in Field XI went slowly and, especially at the beginning of the season, was a disappointing process. The most difficult task was locating the Outer Wall at a point where a tower was also located. We decided to find one of the large buildings that Macalister had drawn and expand to the Outer Wall and tower from there. During the first week we had a bulldozer remove the remains of Macalister's dump. Tons of earth were removed without dis lodging a single building stone. Finally, the foundation of the large building emerged, what appeared to be the "Egyptian residency." 20 We dug probes to find the inside of the Outer Wall and tower. We quickly discovered, to our excitement, several ashlar stones, possible evidence of Solomonic building technique.21

Unfortunately, the foundation of the wall and tower was discovered after only a few courses. The evidence suggested that this section of the wall had been built, or at the least rebuilt, during the Hellenistic Period (at least 600 years after Solomon's time).

A new probe

We then decided to open a new probe along the inner face of the Outer Wall, a little farther to the east. This new probe produced an impressive eighth century B.C. wall. Excavation revealed that the very foundation stones of the wall had been split from bedrock to the top of the exposed wall. In addition, the upper course of the wall had fallen inward, while the lower courses tilted outward. This generated much discussion among the staff, with some of the native Californians arguing that this appeared to be evidence of an earthquake. Other visiting scholars agreed with this interpretation. They believe this leaning wall is the best evidence thus far recovered for the earthquake mentioned in Amos 1:1.

Despite that exciting discovery, the excavation team was clearly frustrated. With only a few days of the excavation remaining, it seemed that the critics were right. We had found no evidence for a Solomonic or Late Bronze Age city wall.

Because it was possible that the earlier wall had been dis mantled to the point we had begun excavating, we decided to try one more probe. Again the eighth-century wall was quickly exposed. Below that we found evidence of a tenth-century wall, from the time of Solomon! But still no Late Bronze wall. Although we were happy to discover evidence of the eighth century earthquake and were pleased that we had found the Solomonic wall, we were puzzled by the lack of evidence for a Late Bronze Age wall.

Still, the base of this tenth-century wall was unusual in that it appeared to have been built with a dirt foundation. We decided to dig below the base of this wall to check its footing.

Within a few minutes on the following day, another course of stone began to appear. It was offset from the wall above by about 64 centimeters,22 indicating it was a separate wall. When the excavation season was complete, we had found seven courses of a Late Bronze Age II city wall. Its date was confirmed by 27 buckets of pure thirteenth century B.C. pottery, which was excavated to the bedrock foundation. Gezer was indeed a walled city during the Late Bronze Age!

Scriptural record vindicated

To sum up the 1990 excavation season at Tel Gezer, we can say that while the issue of the relationship between the red-slipped Iron I pottery and Solomon may not be settled in everyone's mind, it is now certain that Gezer's Iron Age gate was built and the city itself rebuilt when the earliest red-slipped pottery was prevalent, that it was built shortly after a major fiery destruction, and the re building of the city was a major construction project. Certainly the Bible's account of a destruction of Gezer by an Egyptian pharaoh and its rebuilding by Solomon harmonizes with this evidence.

It now also appears that we have excellent evidence for a Late Bronze Age wall at Gezer. This new information will have an impact on the cur rent and future understanding of the Canaanite Late Bronze Age. Future interpretations of the Late Bronze Age must deal with the reality that some of those cities were defended by walls.

Finally, the evidence of the eighth century earthquake most certainly highlights the statement of Amos 1:1. A few weeks of work at an old site provided much new light!

1. Much of the historical and archaeological information of this article has been taken from William G. Dever, "Gezer," in Michael Avi-Yonah, ed., Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), vol. 2, pp. 428-443.

2. A. S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer: 1902-1905 and 1907-1909 (London: John Murray, 1912), vol. 1, pp. 51-53.

3. Large standing stones used for cultic purposes.

4. For convenience, these excavations will be referred to as a unit under the combined title "Dever."

5. See W. G. Dever, "Gezer Revisited," Biblical Archaeologist, December 1984, for a report on the 1984 season.

6. The question raised about the building of the Solomonic gates has given rise to the more generic, current title of "six-chambered" gates. In this article "Solomonic gates" and "six-chambered gates" are used interchangeably. The capitalization of "Outer Wall" follows the final reports of Dever and Macalister and refers to a specific outer wall. Dever originally referred to this wall as "Wall 9011," but adapted the general term "Outer Wall" (W. G. Dever, H. D. Lance, R. G. Bullard, D. P. Cole, and J. D. Seger, Gezerll: Report of the 1967-70 Seasons in Field I and II [Jerusalem: Annual of the Hebrew Union College/Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, 1974], vol. 2, p. 35.

7. "Slip" is an optional step in pottery construction that consists of dipping a formed pot into a vat of liquid clay before firing. It is a decorative technique that adds coloring to the finished pot. "Burnishing" is a process by which the potter rubs the surface of the pot before firing leaving a smoother, shiny surface after firing.

8. Early Iron Age red-slipped pottery has been seen as an evolution of three phases (John S. Holladay, "Red Slip, Burnish, and the Solomonic Gateway at Gezer," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 217/278 [Febraary/May]: 23-70). The earliest phase was a red-slipped pottery with no burnishing, dated to the early to middle tenth century B.C. It was followed by a red-slipped pottery that had been hand burnished, middle to late tenth century B.C. The final sequence of development was a red-slipped pottery that was wheel burnished, late tenth century to early ninth century B.C.. In this article, whenever "redslipped" pottery is mentioned, it refers to "redslipped, unburnished."

9. "Strata" are contemporary layers of archaeological remains.

10. Although the majority of scholars continue to accept the tenth century dating of this pottery, the issue has continued in question. An entire issue of a recent Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research, [277/278] was devoted to this discussion. Three American archaeologists (William G. Dever, John S. Holladay, and Lawrence E. Stager) defend the traditional view of the Solomonic strata, while three other scholars (Israel Finkelstein, David Ussishkin, and G. J. Wightman) sought to lower the dating of the red-slipped ware. In this discussion viewpoints largely follow national lines. The British and Israelis tend to support the conclusions of Kenyon.

11. Holiday, BASOR 277/278:233.

12. "Relative chronology" means that as archaeologists discover similar pottery fragmentsat different sites they assume that the two occupation layers of each site are of the same age or historic period.

13. Certain archaeological sites and/or historic dates are pivotal for interpreting a "relative" chronology. In other words, for a "relative" chronology to be useful, one must have a few "absolute" events or dates with which the "relative" chronology can be associated. In this case, the building of Samaria by Omri (1 Kings 16:23, 24, 29) is the closest datable event. Kenyon wrote of Samaria: "Archaeologically it has the importance that, as we have a fixed date for its foundation, we can establish very closely the chronology of the pottery and other objects found associated with its first phase" (Kathleen M. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land 5th ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985], p. 260). Since the founding of Samaria is the closest "absolute" date, the interpretation of the archaeological finds there are fundamentally crucial for interpreting the relative chronology a century on either side of that event.

14. Although Kenyon was not the chief excavator at the 1931-1935 Samaria excavations, she was a participant and assumed a major role in its publications.

15. Kenyon, p. 260.

16. Lawrence E. Stager provides a good short survey of the history of the discussion, "Shemer's Estate," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 277/278 (February/May): 93-108).

17. Consertative Bible scholars would place the Israelite conquest of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age.

18. Macalister, pp. 236-256; Dever, 1974, pp. 35-39; 1970, pp. 43, 44.

19. We believe that the recent articles by Lawrence Stager and John Holladay in BASOR, 277/278, now more than ever, confirm the Solomonic (tenth century) date of the red-slip ware.

20. Macalister referred to this building as "the residence of the governor" (p. 206) while in more recent articles it has been called the "Egyptian residency." (See Itamar Singer, "An Egyptian 'Governor's Residency' at Gezer?" Tel Aviv 13 (1986); Aren M. Maeir, "Remarks on a Supposed 'Egyptian Residency' at Gezer," Tel Aviv 15, 16 (1988, 1989): 65-67; and Shlomo Bunimovitz, "An Egyptian 'Governors Residence' at Gezer? Another Suggestion," Tel Aviv 15, 16 (1988-1989): 69-76.)

21. Ashlars are finely hewn rectangular blocks of stone.

22. Slightly more than one-half yard.


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David Merling, Ph.D., is curator, Horn Archaeological Museum, and associate professor of history of antiquity, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Randall W. Younker, Ph.D., is director of the Institute of Archaeology and professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

January 1994

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