This week I was given permission to transcribe a radio interview from the weekly show, “The Book & the Spade” (broadcast archive #1073)…
Gordon Govier (GG): We’re talking about the Babylonian Exile. In fact our interview today is based on a presentation called “The Babylonian Exile Decoded: An Archeologist Searches for Clues”, & our guest is Jeffrey Zorn, professor at Cornell University. This involves a site called Tell en-Nasbeh, which is probably Biblical Mizpah, located just north of Jerusalem. Jeffrey, the identification of Tell en-Nasbeh as Mizpah is pretty strong?
Jeff Zorn (JZ): Yes, it’s really very strong. There’s only 1 other site in the area–a place called Nebi Samwil, which people back in the early 20th century considered as a possible candidate, but excavations at Nebi Samwil haven’t really found archeological materials that correspond with what we know about Biblical Mizpah, whereas Tell en-Nasbeh’s material cultural remains really match very well with what we know about Mizpah.
GG: It’s a site that our listeners may recognize as associated with the prophet Samuel, but also became very important after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.
JZ: Yes, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they of course had to take some thought for how they were going to administer the area. They pretty well devastated most of the kingdom of Judah, but during their year & a half long siege of Jerusalem, they seemed to have left the area of the tribe of Benjamin (which is to the north of Jerusalem & part of the kingdom of Judah) untouched. They would’ve used it as a base of resources. Instead of having to bring their supplies all the way from Assyria, they could just get it from the hinterland of Jerusalem itself. Mizpah would’ve been left untouched, so it would’ve made a very convenient administrative center once Jerusalem was destroyed.
GG: They were probably more familiar with that site than anywhere else in the neighborhood based on their siege.
JZ: Oh yes, Benjamin’s not a very big area, 10 miles deep, I guess you could say, & 30 miles wide. So it’s not a big area & Mizpah would’ve definitely been the most prominent site in the area. It had been fortified in the early 9th century by King Asa of Judah & was really the major border fortress against any sort of invasion coming from the north.
GG: And the archeology that was done there is confined mostly to the early 20th century.
JZ: Yes, the site was excavated by William Frederic Bade of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California between 1926 & 1935 in 5 excavation seasons. And they actually uncovered about 70% of the site.
GG: So what does it look like today?
JZ: Well if you went there today, you’d see a very nice refrigerator graveyard. The tell itself is completely covered over. It’s privately owned land. Bade had to agree to bury everything again once he was done with his excavations. So you can’t see anything there, but that means that it’s all well preserved under the ground, & it could be dug up again at any time.
GG: Is it in an urban area now?
JZ: Ramallah is just to the north of the site, & there’s gradual creep of houses down around the site, but it’s still pretty open. The tricky part, of course, is once the state of Israel was established in ’48, Tell en-Nasbeh was in The West Bank, & so it was a sort of tricky area to excavate then or to visit then. And then from ’67 on, that area’s been under Israeli control, & of course since the 1990s the area’s become under increasingly Palestinian control. And until very, very recently the border between the Jerusalem municipality under Israeli control, & the Palestinian territories went across Tell en-Nasbeh. In the last few years they’ve moved the border south, & so now Tell en-Nasbeh is completely in the Palestinian-administered areas.
GG: Well that doesn’t sound too much different than what it was like during the Biblical period.
JZ: No, it was a border site then & it’s a border site now. And of course they make it very difficult to go & excavate. Not too many people wanna go on the border between the Palestinians & the Israelis right now.
GG: If it wasn’t for the political situation, would you give some consideration to going there?
JZ: Oh I’d be there in a second if there were no political preconditions.
GG: You worked on this for your PhD.
JZ: Yes, back in the mid-1980s I was a graduate student in Berkeley, & I worked at the Bade Institute of Biblical Archeology, which is part of Pacific School of Religion, & as I got familiar with the Tell en-Nasbeh material, I came to see that it was not really well understood, & thought that a re-analysis of the architecture & stratigraphy of the site could give some new, interesting results.
GG: And this was based on your own work as an archeologist. You worked for a number of years at Tel Dor, I believe.
JZ: Yes, from 1985 until 1999 I was part of the field staff at Tel Dor, & I’m still on the staff of the publication team for one of the areas at the site, & will be going back there this summer. I hope to put the finishing touches on the first draft of material so it can go to the editors.
GG: The Tel Dor excavation has basically changed hands. Ephraim Stern was in charge when you were there, & now there’s a new leadership under way?
JZ: Yes, 2 of my colleagues who were graduate students of Stern’s (Ilan Sharon of Hebrew University, & Ayelet Gilboa of Haifa University) have taken over the site license, & my old school, UC Berkeley is still at the site. They renewed the excavations after Stern’s retirement.
GG: For those who may have just joined us, our guest is Jeffrey Zorn, professor at Cornell University. We’re talking about Tell en-Nasbeh, which is probably the Biblical site, Mizpah, & our focus is on the Babylonian period when it was the capital that was established by the Babylonians with inhabitants of Judah taken away into exile. What you found there gives us a different perspective on what was left behind.
JZ: If you read the accounts in the last chapter of the book of 2nd Kings, & some portions of Jeremiah, what you come away with is an impression that the Babylonians tried to depopulate the land of Judah–the Biblical expression is that they left only the poorest of the land, the vinedressers, to be in the area. That gives you the impression that it was pretty well empty, but that wasn’t really the case, & there are reasons why the Biblical authors presented this situation as a kind of an empty land. So even though probably somewhere between 50- & 100,000 people might have been living in the land from the perspective of the Biblical editors, it was more convenient to leave them out of the story & speak only of the exiles. And so there would be a tendency not to look for a Babylonian period in the country because, How could you find something when there was nobody there?
GG: What does the evidence at Tell en-Nasbeh indicate? What did you find when you went over the material again?
JZ: Well, Tell en-Nasbeh in the main part of the Iron Age, before 586 & the destruction of Jerusalem, is a pretty typical Judean Hill-Country town. That is the houses are all oriented towards the natural topography of the hill, that is they kind of go in a circular pattern around the site, with a kind of a ring road around the inside of the site to link them up in a couple of crossroads. And the houses are pretty small, about 8 meters long, 6 meters wide, packed one right next to the other, a thousand people crammed into an area a little bit more than 220 meters long & about 120 meters wide. So, small, crowded little farm town, but with big, massive fortifications because of its position on the border. When you get to the Babylonian period, what they did is they went & basically leveled all the houses that were there. If the site had been destroyed in an invasion, you would find materials left on the floor as the people fled & their houses were destroyed. But you don’t find that. All you just find are nice, empty rooms that had been completely leveled. And then this leveling created broader, flat surfaces, & then in the Babylonian phase of the site, larger houses & other buildings could be built on top of that earlier Iron Age town. So for example, the houses of the Babylonian phase are at least twice as large as those of the preceding phase. They have more in the way of stone floors. The walls are built of nicer stones. Just all-in-all much bigger, nicer houses than what you had before, & then there are even larger buildings–a structure that I thought might be like a small palace or a residency perhaps for the local administrator, storage structures, & just other little bits & pieces of walls scattered around the site that were definitely not part of the earlier phase, & should belong to this Babylonian period.
GG: So the Babylonians took the elite off to Babylon, but a new elite was created back at Mizpah.
JZ: Correct, they didn’t carry off the whole elite. Even if you read the book of Lamentations, which describes the lows experienced by the people after the fall of Jerusalem, you find princes, priests, various members of the elite are mentioned in the book of Lamentations. The Babylonians didn’t carry off all the elite; somebody had to be left behind. In fact the prophet Jeremiah himself was left behind in Mizpah with the local Judean administrator, Gedaliah. And we hear also of Judean soldiers who were still there, & people called either the king’s “daughters” or “princesses” are left behind. So there’s definitely a smaller number of elite segments of society there, but they’re definitely there.
GG: When some of the exiles start to come back (we read about in Ezra & Nehemiah), then there was tension between Mizpah & Jerusalem.
JZ: Well, it’s hard to say that there’s “tension”. What we hear about in Ezra & Nehemiah is that there are some local administrators in the area of Judah, & we’re talking about in the 5th century now when Ezra & Nehemiah come back, so it’s almost a century or so after the initial return from the exile, but we hear about some local administrators including some from Mizpah who take part in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. So it would’ve taken a significant period of time for Jerusalem to recover from this devastation & to be rebuilt, so Mizpah probably for some significant period of time after the Jews are allowed to return home would’ve continued to serve as the local administrative center. Of course we don’t have a text that says, “At this point, Jerusalem became a fully-functioning administrative center.”
GG: Well you mentioned you’d like to go back to excavate at Mizpah if you had the chance. Is there anything else unresolved that you’d like to do without excavating related to the site?
JZ: Well right now a colleague of mine is doing a very important study on a set of stamp impressions. Stamp impressions are impressions that you would make on jar handles with a seal-like object. And these are called “Yehud impressions” after the name of the Persian province of Judah, which was called Yehud. And he’s doing a study of the provenience of the clays that went into these jars in order to see where the jars are being produced, & then where they’re being distributed. So that’s a really nice example of taking material that’s been excavated a long time ago, subjecting it to new scientific tests, & coming up with some new data. I did a similar thing when I looked at jar handles stamped with the word “Mozah”. Mosah seems to have been a royal agricultural state that the Babylonians hadn’t destroyed, & which during the Babylonian period served as a resource center for Mizpah because most jar handles stamped “Moza” are found at Mizpah. There are still things that you can tease out of the excavated materials without going back & re-excavating the site.
GG: Some new perspectives on the Babylonian Exile period from our guest, Jeffrey Zorn, professor at Cornell University…
I asked Dr. Zorn if his statement about Nasbeh being a “refrigerator graveyard” was hyperbole, but he explained that there really was a pile of about 50 on the northeast corner (which is closest to the access road) the last time he visited the site.
The only thing I would like add to this excellent interview is a brief mention of the major finding that Bade made at Nasbeh, a striated agate seal inscribed “Jaazaniah, servant of the king (LYAZNYEU OBD EMLK)” with a fighting-cock icon. He found it in Tomb 19, & it may have belonged to the army captain mentioned in 2Kings 25:23 & Jeremiah 40:8.