Archaeology early Israelites knew of Samson
By Candice Mervis
TEL AVIV–Professor Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University (TAU) Department of Archaeology recently uncovered an ancient seal depicting a man confronting a large lion, which resembles the Bible story of Samson.
Their excavation team made camp at a kibbutz near the site at Tel Beit Shemesh, 27 miles from Tel Aviv, enabling them to start the slow and careful process of excavating in the early hours of the morning. The site operates for approximately six weeks during June and July every year, after which Bunimovitz and his team return to TAU to catalogue their finds.
Recently Bunimovitz allowed me to accompany him to Tel Beit Shemesh, the historic site where the seal artifact was located. The find indicates that during the 12th Century BCE the legendary stories of Samson already existed. However the scene engraved on the seal, of a man facing a lion, does not clarify if Samson was a historical or legendary figure.
While walking around the site, Bunimovitz explained that when they found the seal, the archaeologists had been excavating a house that they had dated back to the 12th Century BCE. Bunimovitz stated that the seal, which measures only 1.5 centimeters in diameter, was unearthed along with a number of other artifacts that were lying on the floor at the end of one of the rooms. Upon uncovering the seal, Burnimovitz recognized, that “it is the first tangible archaeological find that shows here in the valley there was some meet between a lion and a strong man, at the time of these clashes in the 12th Century BCE where we have the legend of Samson.”
We arrived at a high point above the east-west running SorekValleythat opens to a view of the Mediterranean Sea. Bunimovitz pointed into the valley below and explained that here was a cultural meeting point, a border town environment, where Canaanites, Israelites and Philistines lived in close proximity during the period 14th – 10th Centuries BCE. They established clear cultural borders where identities were being defined and redefined.
This border town situation, Bunimovitz says, features prominently during the period of Judges, where Samson, who is from the Israelite tribe of Dan, crosses frequently into Philistine towns, both with positive and negative consequences. The most infamous biblical stories are those that detail his battles – the fight with the lion on his way to his bachelor party before his marriage to a Philistine woman and then killing 1,000 Philistine men with a single donkey jaw-bone.
“Samson is presented with a legendary aura, a figure that acts miraculously” and these stories as Bunimovitz states are “border sagas”, which reinforce that bad things occur when one wanders across the border.
Holding the seal between his thumb and forefinger Bunimovitz points out that the indent in the back allows for a string to be put through it, indicating the seal could have been worn around the neck. It is a personal seal that someone was carrying around, with a story about a man and a lion, most likely used to stamp important letters, Bunimovitz explained.
The view of the SorekValleyfrom Tel Beit Shemesh is breathtaking, as it stretches out into a wide coastal plain that leads to the Mediterranean, only 20 miles away. As I stood above the valley, it was bewildering to fathom that over 3200 years ago, the cultures of the Israelites, Canaanites and Philistines were interacting and conflicting below and that the existence of cultural borders, as Bunimovitz says, was ascertained by the types of bones and pottery discovered in Tel Beit Shemesh compared to surrounding areas within the valley.
Bunimovitz’s excitement and passion were evident when he explained that no pig bones were located in Tel Beit Shemesh compared to 20% pig bones discovered at archaeological sites in the valley. This indicates that the people who lived at Tel Beit Shemesh did not eat pork products because they followed the laws of kashrut, whereas the Philistines had no such dietary restrictions.
A small percentage of Philistine pottery, thought to be from trade, was uncovered in Tel Beit Shemesh, compared to 40% Philistine pottery in other areas. Bunimovitz states that this clearly evidences a difference between cultures.
The Philistines were immigrants in the 14th Century BCE, originating from the Aegean region, who settled along the coastal plain of Israel, in the cities of Gaza, Ashdod and Ashkelon and began to expand their territory towards Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.
Their expansion and aggression during the 12th Century BCE was a catalyst for border disputes and clashes. It also sparked, as Bunimovitz states a Canaanite resistance, where Canaanites began to sharpen their own identities against the Philistines. This interesting relationship, which developed over centuries, was the background for many stories in the Bible, and ultimately the setting for the tales of Samson.
The importance of locating the seal lies in the fact that it is the first artifact to suggest a link between the legend of Samson and a historical story of a man encountering a lion. “The thrill of the find is in the cultural meaning of the artifact and how it connects to the big picture,” the professor said.
Mervis is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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