Sculpted head of mys­tery bi­b­li­cal king found in Is­rael

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - WEATHER DESK -

Buried un­der a pair of hills at Is­rael’s north­ern bor­der, at the nexus of three an­cient king­doms, is one of the last large bi­b­li­cal sites yet to be un­cov­ered. So said an in­ter­na­tional team of ar­chae­ol­o­gists af­ter they started to dig up the ru­ins of Abel Beth Maacah five years ago.

The lost town is also one of the more enig­matic places men­tioned in the Old Tes­ta­ment.

As leg­end had it, the ar­chae­ol­o­gists wrote, Abel Beth Maacah was a for­ti­fied cross­roads con­nect­ing the king­doms of Is­rael, Da­m­as­cus and Tyre, and “per­haps the seat of a lo­cal or­a­cle.” It’s un­clear to which king the town was loyal, they wrote — or whether it be­longed to a pos­si­bly myth­i­cal fourth king­dom called Maacah.

Only a few sto­ries about the town are told in the Bi­ble, and all of them are more tan­ta­liz­ing than il­lu­mi­nat­ing for sci­en­tists who want to know what Abel Beth Maacah ac­tu­ally was.

A traitor to Is­rael’s King David once took refuge in Abel, ac­cord­ing to the Books of Sa­muel. The king’s men ac­cord­ingly be­sieged the town, and were in the process of ram­ming down the wall when a “wise woman” called out to them from in­side:

“Why do you want to swal­low up the Lord’s in­her­i­tance?” she asked.

The sol­diers said they just wanted the traitor. So the wise woman had her peo­ple cut off his head and toss it over the wall, and King David left Abel Beth Maacah alone.

And then a cen­tury or so af­ter that episode, if ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing can be trusted, this lit­tle guy showed up in Abel:

The Is­raeli and Amer­i­can­led team of ar­chae­ol­o­gists were about five years into their ex­ca­va­tions last sum­mer, “dig­ging through the floor of a mas­sive Iron Age struc­ture” when they found the head be­neath the top of the site.

The carved head was about 2 inches around, en­cased in a clump of dirt that dated to be­tween 900 and 800 B.C. — a pe­riod when King David’s Is­rael had splin­tered into two king­doms, and Abel would have been in the mid­dle of a power strug­gle among its many neigh­bors.

Which raises the ques­tion: Who was the man whose like­ness is cap­tured in the fig­urine, and what did he mean to the peo­ple of Abel?

“We’re guess­ing prob­a­bly a king, but we have no way of proving that,” Robert Mullins of Azusa Pa­cific Univer­sity, who is co-di­rect­ing the Amer­i­can side of the ex­ca­va­tion, told LiveS­cience.

The man was im­por­tant.

Even aside from his crown, re­gal beard and el­e­gant hair, he was crafted with artis­tic pre­ci­sion.

“His al­mond-shaped eyes and pupils are lined in black and the pursed lips give him a look that is part pen­sive, part stern,” the univer­sity wrote.

He is made of a glasslike ma­te­rial more com­monly seen in Iron Age jewelry. The ar­chae­ol­o­gists rushed to put him on dis­play at Jerusalem’s Is­rael Mu­seum.

Which king is now the cen­tral ques­tion, and the an­swer could shed more light on the en­com­pass­ing mys­tery of Abel Beth Maacah.

Ex­perts say Abel likely switched kings and loy­al­ties flu­idly through­out the 9th cen­tury B.C. — mean­ing that the sculpted head could be­long to one of sev­eral feud­ing mon­archs. Two likely pos­si­bil­i­ties would con­nect the head to one of the Bi­ble’s most no­to­ri­ous char­ac­ters: Queen Jezebel of Is­rael.

In the Bi­ble, Jezebel is usu­ally de­picted as a traitor, syn­ony­mous with im­moral­ity. But his­tor­i­cally, she was a pow­er­ful queen who united the fam­i­lies of two king­doms: the daugh­ter of King Eth­baal of Tyre, and wife to King Ahab of Is­rael.

And both of those men ruled around the time the head was carved.

“Given that the head was found in a city that sat on the bor­der of three dif­fer­ent an­cient king­doms, we do not know whether it de­picts the likes of King Ahab of Is­rael, King Hazael of Aram-Da­m­as­cus, or King Eth­baal of Tyre, rulers known from the Bi­ble and other sources,” Azusa Pa­cific Univer­sity wrote. “The head rep­re­sents a royal enigma.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

This de­tailed fig­urine of a king’s head, on dis­play at Jerusalem’s Is­rael Mu­seum, dates to bi­b­li­cal times. It was found last year near Is­rael’s bor­der with Le­banon.

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