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Albert Tours Blog-  A Licensed Tour Guide - Israel

The cultic place at Tel Gezer

Tel Gezer is one of the most important Biblical sites you would find in the Land of Israel and you wouldn't want to miss it. But it is not easily accessible nor can it be easily visited. There is no access except a dirt road and there is barely any signage on site to tell you its great story. At the right seasons, I conduct tours there, mostly for the Israeli public who are eager to see by themselves where Bible meets History. There are a few sites like Gezer in Israel, but Gezer is probably in the top five.

In my tour of the site, that usually takes two hours or more, I cover many subjects such as an chronological overview of the site of course, but also the history of the archaeological digs that were carried out and the evidence that it is indeed the Biblical Gezer. But there is more. In Gezer, visitors can learn about the history of the alphabet, an ancient agricultural calendar that lasted for over 1400 years, the typical Canaanite city of the Bronze era, the Patriarchs in the Promised Land, the 18th and 19th powerful Egyptian dynasties (with Thutmose III, Akhenaten, Ramses II, Merneptah), the dating of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, the dowry of Pharaoh Psusennes I's daughter, Gezer in the time of King Solomon, and more.

Pharaoh conquered Canaan from the hands of the Hittites around 1450 BCE. In the temple of Karnak, he is depicted with the many Canaanite cities he conquered, each city with its name in a cartouche. Gezer is featured in this list.
Thutmose III conquers the land of Canaan, and Gezer (Karnak temple)

Beyond the Biblical era, Gezer offers additional history during the revolt of the Maccabees leading to the festival of Hannukah, and later in time, Gezer was the seat of the Crusader fort called Mont Gisard (which name comes from Tel Gezer in French). The famous battle of Montgisard in 1177 was featured in the Hollywood blockbuster "Kingdom of Heavens" with Orlando Bloom. In fact, each of the above theme would deserve a blog of its own, and I may do so in the future.

Crusader King Baldwin IV, who was about 17 years old and suffered from leprosy, crushed the army of Saladin in 1177 at Montgisard (Tel Gezer)
Battle of Montgisard (Tel Gezer) in 1177

For now, I would take you to the strange cultic place of Tel Gezer which has fed many theories over the past century. The location was found by the British excavations of Macalister in the early 20th century on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). At the time, the three volumes narrating his archaelogical excavations at Tel Gezer was the most documented piece ever published in this science.

Map of Tel Gezer, Judean Lowlands, Israel

The cultic place has no equal in the Land of Israel in the era of the Canaanite cities. It is composed by an alignment, roughly on a north-south axis, of 10 monoliths and one basin. The monoliths are not equal in size or shape. On site, we can only see 7 of these monoliths, but the place of the 3 missing ones is still visible.

What was the purpose of such arrangement? This has baffled the historians since its discovery just over 100 years ago. The generally accepted explanation is that, in Biblical times, monoliths were erected to seal an alliance or a pact. This indeed is narrated when Moses wanted to commit the alliance between God and the 12 tribes in the desert:

And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mount [of Sinai], and twelve pillar [monolith], according to the twelve tribes of Israel. (Exodus 24:4)

Although the grammatical word should have been pillars (plural), מצבה in Hebrew, it is in singular in the Biblical text, obviously as an emphasis that the 12 tribes form One. And, indeed, from this moment, the 12 tribes were no longer known the Hebrews, as a clan, but the Israelites, as a people. And they were recorded as such in History from this moment, as shown in the stele of Merneptah (also called the stele of Israel because it is the first time that the name "Israel" is recorded in an historical document).

So here as well, historians have thought that the alignment of 10 monoliths in Tel Gezer must have been a way to seal an alliance between city-states in the region of which Gezer would have been the head one. Next to this alignment, there is also a large basin that would have been used as a recipient for the sacrifices to remind of this alliance. A complement to this theory is that there was no single alliance at a given point of time but rather a cumulation of alliances, sealed at the same spot, over a length of time. The reason for this thought is that the monoliths are not all the same is size: the smallest one (on the right side of the photo below) may have been the oldest one too.

One other explanation is that these pillars represent the sacred pillars of other cities that were subjugated by Gezer: these sacred stones were therefore displayed as trophies and also as a way to mark Gezer as the only center of cult for the cities that were conquered. This explanation would also comply with the fact that not all these pillars are the same in size.

One particular pillar (the most northern one) is also different from the others: it is composed of two parts, one being the pillar itself and the second being a sort of stone "plug" on which the pillar is laid.

In the Bible, we have already mentioned that a tall cultic pillar is called matzevah (מצבה) and is at times combined with another cultic stone element: the asherah (אשרה). This set of two is mentioned many times in the Bible, always to reflect the ancient cult of the Canaanite people. For example, one of the reasons given in the Bible for the divine punishment of Kingdom of Israel (the Northern kingdom) was that the Israelites finally adopted the cult of their neighbours:

And they set them up pillars and asherim upon every high hill, and under every leafy tree (II Kings 17:10)

In this verse, the two elements are mentioned. In another passage, related to the Judge Gideon, it is specifically mentioned that one is set "on" the other:

And it came to pass the same night, that the LORD said unto him [Gideon]: 'Take your father's bullock, and the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is on it. (Judges 6:25)

We can understand this cult as representations of the Canaanite god Baal and its spouse Astarte (Ishtar in other Oriental cultures). Together they form the 'divine couple', similarly to the Greek Zeus and Hera, or the Roman Jupiter and Juno. In short, Baal and Astarte echoed the combined masculine and feminine principles of the human race. And, obviously, as a mark of 'fertility' (of the people, of the land etc.) both principles must be joined together (this male-female union is a commandment of the Bible). In such view, we can see this particular pillar of Tel Gezer as a representation of Baal and Astarte for fertility.

But there is more about this cultic place. Macalister had also found many graves in the same area. These graves were of small children, laid in a particular position, at times in a jar, often with elements of decoration with them. There is little doubt that this was not a graveyard but rather the resting place of children sacrificed to the gods. Here again, we find sources in the Bible that mentioned this Canaanite practice:

Isn't you that inflame yourselves among the terebinths, under every leafy tree; that slay the children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks? (Isaiah 57:5)

The sacrifice of children is particularly prohibited by the Bible such as in Leviticus 18:21 and 20:3. Further, such sacrifices are described as a demoniac practice:

And they served their [neighbours'] idols, which became a snare unto them; Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan. (Psalms 106:36-38)

Because of their practices of child sacrifice, the people of Canaan were doomed to be destroyed. When Abraham was driven by God to the promised land, it was already settled by the Canaanite people, under the rule of the Hittites, as written:

And Abram [later renamed Abraham] passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. (Genesis 12:6)

But God promised this land to the seed of Abraham. When would this promise be effective? After his descendance will return from the bondage of Egypt:

And in the fourth generation they shall come back here [in Canaan]; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full. (Genesis 15:16)

What can be such iniquity or sin that would cause the people of Canaan to be destroyed? We can only think of children sacrifice, which is abhorrent by divine rule. And which particular Canaan people are finger-pointed for such practice? the Amorite, those who occupied the present-day Judean Lowlands, at the head of which was... Gezer

So the Bible text accuses the Amorite people to deserve utter destruction, and we find by archaeological evidence that Gezer was the center (head city) of alliance and children sacrifice between these Amorite city states.

Tel Gezer has many other stories to offer. As above mentioned, it is one of these unique archaeological sites where you can see Bible meet History. If you wish to visit Tel Gezer, please be accompanied by a Certified Tour Guide otherwise your visit would not be fruitful.

Albert Benhamou

Private Tour Guide, Israel

January 2020


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