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Madison archeologist relocates border between Judah, Philistines
September 30th, 2012
The conflict between ancient Israel, especially the southern kingdom of Judah, and the Philistines, who lived in what is now the Gaza Strip area, is a great theme in several books of the Bible.
But just where was the border between these clashing peoples? Jeffrey A. Blakely of the University of Wisconsin-Madison believes it is not where most scholars of biblical history and archeology have thought it was.
Since he was a college freshman some 40 years ago, Blakely has helped excavate and has studied Tell el-Hesi, a mound located along the ancient road between the Philistine city Gaza and ancient Judah’s city Lachish.
He now is a teacher of archeology in UW-Madison’s Hebrew and Semitic Studies department, and is co-director of the Hesi Regional Project, investigating sites in the overall area.
He spoke in Milwaukee Sept. 18 at a meeting of the Milwaukee Area Biblical Archeology Society at Wisconsin Lutheran College on “Using Archeology and Text to Identify Judah’s Border with Philistine Gaza and Ashkelon.”
Tell el-Hesi is one of several small mounds that, if connected from north to south, form a bulge pushing west toward the Gaza area. Tell el-Hesi, at the center of the bulge, is the largest of these, and has the best water supply, Blakely said.
Blakely told the audience of about 40 people that he believes Judah built hill forts on these sites. That would put the border between Philistia and Judah further west than other archeologists and Bible scholars have believed, he said.
He also said evidence suggests that Tell el-Hesi might be the Migdal-Gad mentioned in Joshua 15 and the “Enclosure of Gad” that an Egyptian inscription says was conquered by Pharaoh Sheshonq I (tenth century BCE), who is referred to in I Kings and 2 Chronicles.
Moreover, while most Philistine sites are “massive cities,” Blakely said a recent survey of what had been the Arab village of Burayr, located across from a Judean mound in the northern curve of the bulge, found Philistine pottery from the tenth or ninth centuries BCE. These are the same dates as the Judah-type pottery found at Tell el-Hesi and associated sites.
Burayr therefore likely was the site of a Philistine village contemporary with the hill forts; and as it is close to them, it therefore may help show the location of the border. At any rate, Blakely said there was “enough evidence” to justify an eventual look in more detail at Burayr.
The structures on Tell el-Hesi also suggest that Judah, while weaker than the northern kingdom of Israel, was “at least a moderately powerful kingdom” able to carry out a construction project of this type, that could house about 100 people, he said.
Tell el-Hesi and the other forts in the area, as well as Philistia, were part of the region conquered by the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III around 732 BCE. The area was thereby “lost to Judah forever,” and later people in the area renamed the sites, which Blakely believes is why no Hebrew-like names have survived there.
For its next program, the Milwaukee Area Biblical Archeology Society will bring to Milwaukee Israeli archeologist Gabriel Mazor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Mazor is the director and senior researcher of the Bet She’an Archeological Project and will discuss the Roman and Byzantine eras at the site.
He is scheduled to speak on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m., at Wisconsin Lutheran College’s Center for Arts and Performance, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave. Admission is free. For more information, contact Dr. Joel Pless, firstname.lastname@example.org or 414-443-8930.