The Ark of God found at Khirbet Qeiyafa?

No, the Ark of God hasn’t been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. But at a press conference this morning, Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, presented some artefacts that they think are related to the Ark of God in some way. However, as you’ll see, at this stage I’m a little sceptical about their claim.

So what did they announce? Well, Garfinkel and Ganor presented three artefacts: two small boxes, one of stone and the other of clay, and a fragmentary stone artefact that looks like some kind of cultic stand. They were discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which is a single stratum fortification in the Valley of Elah (30 kms southwest of Jerusalem) dating to c.1000 BC. It’s a significant archaeological site because it gives us a window onto life in the region at the beginning of the Iron II period, and some would argue bolsters the claim for the historicity of a monarchy under David and Solomon. The two boxes presented are, according to Garfinkel and Ganor, miniature models of the Ark of God. They were among a cache of artefacts discovered within three large rooms that appear to have been shrine installations at the site. Amongst the other objects found were five standing stones (or massebot), two basalt altars (was one of these the third artefact displayed at the press conference?), and two clay vessels for libations.

The two boxes found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which Garfinkel and Ganor claim are miniature models of the Ark of God.

Below is an excerpt from Demotix relating some of the details given at the press conference (you can go to their website for their full story):

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples—separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).

The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.

Two portable shrines (or “shrine models”) were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.

The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the “triglyph,” is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.

The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.

The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon’s palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term “Slaot,” [צלעות] which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term “Sequfim” [שקפים], which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as “triple recessed doorway.”

Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel 41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.


My first impression is that we have here some excellent examples of the religious practices at the beginning of Iron II, and they seem to be similar to what we have found at other Iron II religious sites throughout Judah, Samaria, Jezreel, and Galilee. But at the same time, I think Garfinkel and Ganor may be reading too much into these artefacts. To say that these boxes are miniatures of the Ark of God is a claim that can only be made with reference to the descriptions of the Ark in biblical literature. This raises a methodological issue as to whether they are letting the biblical text colour their thinking of ordinary artefacts. But besides that, the boxes don’t seem to resemble the descriptions of the Ark very closely.

Now this is where things get a little hazy with the reports. Garfinkel and Ganor perhaps realise the discrepancy between these two boxes and the description of the Ark in the Bible. And so, it appears that they are arguing that the biblical description of the Ark is based on a ‘desert’ Ark, but that the Ark in use in Solomon’s day was different somehow. If this is indeed what Garfinkel and Ganor are arguing, then it seems to be an argument based on silence. There is nothing other than their tentative suggestion that these boxes are Ark miniatures to suggest that there was more than one Ark of God. I’m afraid this sounds like cart-before-the-horse kind of logic. I’m just not convinced.

Furthermore, Garfinkel and Ganor point to similarities between the carvings on these boxes and the description of Solomon’s temple. Yet, if one follows the biblical narratives, Solomon’s temple is at least a generation later than these artefacts, in which case, the boxes are not demonstrating specifically biblical artistic motifs, but rather generic religious motifs evident throughout the wider region. The connection with Solomon’s temple is, therefore, weakened. Thus, it seems a bit of a stretch to go basing clarifications of some of the architectural terms in the Hebrew narrative of 1 Kings based solely on these boxes.

What is missing from the reports so far is a detailed description of how these boxes were found. These details would perhaps give us more of an insight into their function and help us to evaluate more precisely Garfinkel and Ganor’s thesis. Until then, they’re just nicely crafted boxes found at a religious installation dating to c.1000 BC. I’d love them to have some kind of connection to Solomon’s temple, but I’m just not convinced of one at this stage. At this stage, it looks more like wishful thinking than probability. I’m certainly willing to be swayed, but we need more information.

What these artefacts do seem to confirm for us is that there is a significant religious installation in the Valley of Elah during a time when some scholars are questioning the existence of a Kingdom of Judah/Israel. These finds by no means prove that such a kingdom existed. However, they do suggest some kind of organised or official religion. Just how official (local, district, realm, or regional) is unknown. But it points to some kind of organisation in religion on the fringes of Judah in c.1000 BC. The single-stratum nature of Khirbet Qeiyafa is quite critical in discerning this. These wares are not merely hangovers from previous eras, but objects and installations produced specifically at the beginning of Iron II. In other words, some kind of ruling authority was operative in this area, and it seems more and more to have been different from the Philistines just a stone’s throw away.

The most likely explanations for this state of affairs are that either there was a localised authority in the Shephelah region (cf. David Ussishkin’s perspective), or someone up in the highlands of Judah had a hand in this. Are the spotlights converging on us finding the kingdom of David in archaeology? Well, if there was a House of David (which I argue is another name for Jerusalem) that could be a player on the international stage in c.800 BC as per the Tel Dan Inscription, and there is an organising authority in the Valley of Elah in c.1000 BC, it’s not inconceivable that the two entities could end up aligning, such that we eventually have some strong evidence for a Kingdom of Judah in the time of David and Solomon. However, we don’t have that yet. Even with these artefacts announced today, we have not confirmed that the two entities do align. We must await further archaeological evidence to fill in the two-century gap between Khirbet Qeiyafa (c.1000 BC) and the Tel Dan Inscription (c.800 BC) before we can make a call either way on that.

UPDATE: Some more comments on the finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa can be found HERE.

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46 thoughts on “The Ark of God found at Khirbet Qeiyafa?

  1. I would agree with your stance based on the sketchiness of their evidence, but yet very exciting at the same time. My wife and I would like to possibly dedicate our latter years to being on digs. Does Moore do any Post Grad archeological studies?

    • Yes, Paul, it is very exciting. Unfortunately, we don’t have an archaeology program at Moore. The closest we have is a field trip to Israel that can be done as part of our Masters of Arts degree.

      • thanks George! Really enjoy your blog. Unisa has studies in archeaeology, both undergrad and post grad. Hopefully will link with them at some stage. For now, its Church Ministry and loving it!

  2. This is fascinating and eventually important stuff. But I think both you and Yossi have gone overboard. Identifying the shrines with any ark is, of course nonsense, and goes back to such biblical scholars as Morgenstern (cwertainly unknown to Yossi) from HUC who thought the Ark was some sort of shrine. They should be compared with miniature shrines known from places all over the ANE including most recently the favissa at Yavneh. The most striking feature of the stone shrine discovered at Qaifeh is the interlocking door frames which parallel the mezuzot revi’it and mezuzot hamishit in Solomon’s temple. But this feature appears in many other places such as the lady in the window or in Cypriot graves. But it is chronologically closest to Solomon’s temple. What this stuff shows is that Solomon’s temple stands in an architectural and artistic tradition attested, among other places, nearby and a short time before.

      • I was trying to be “even handed” in my criticism, but I do think you’re doing a lot of speculating on history. It’s just not my thing. But I have been thinking of Yossi’s explanations, and this evening there was a clip from the press conference on Israeli news, the end of Mabat. i found Yossi’s theories not even worthy of being called a travesty of scholarship. He doesn’t know what the Ark was, he doesn’t associate these house shrines with other known similar artifacts such as from the Yavneh favissa, nor does he compare with the eminently comparable house shrines used all over the far east. And then he compares the two! and his interpretations of the terms describing features of Solomon’s temple are total fantasy. The most important thing about his stone model shrine is the entrance which recalls the mezuzot revi’it in Solomon’s temple. The house shrine reflects monumental, temple architecture known to its owners, just at doll houses of today depict real houses. If so, it shows that some of the features of Solomon’s temple as described in 1 Kings have antecedents in whenever the Qeiyafah shrines come from. There is certainly nothing to do here with the Ark being homed temporarily in Oved Edom’s house. I studied temporary temples in the Raphael Kutscher memorial volume, and that is what we have in 1 Sam. 6

        • Thanks for the thoughts, Victor. I’m in agreement with you. Again, though, I’m not following you on where I’m speculating on history. Could you be more specific?

  3. Where in the Demotix excerpt do the archaeologists compare the miniature models of the Ark of God? As I read it, they compare them to temples. Did they say something different at the press conference?

    • The Demotix article, which is I believe the statement released by HUJ, doesn’t mention the desert Ark and subsequent Ark. I’ve pieced that detail of the presentation from a short summary of the press conference received by and posted on Jim West’s blog.

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  6. Nice points, George. The ostracon, written in a pre-Hebrew Canaanite script, is too badly damaged to be ready clearly by anyone following the best practices of epigraphy (see Rollston’s useful caution here). The best guesses are that it is either a list of Phoenician type names (Ed Cook, Alan Millard, Aaron Demsky) or a badly damaged set of sentences of some sort in a North-West Semitic dialect. It could be an early variety of Hebrew or an ancestor of Hebrew, but there is no uniquely Hebrew vocabulary or grammar.

    I’m going to post something on the bigger picture in a bit.

      • Again, there is no discussion of Saul on the ostracon either. Not sure why people insist on reading what isn’t there.

          • Sometimes I feel like these sorts of reconstructions belong on shows like ‘Ancient Aliens’. ;-)

            • Hehe! Did you see Puech’s reconstruction of the Tel Dan Inscription when only Fragment A had been found? He reconstructed more text around the fragment than what was actually on the fragment. It was like the fragment was a minor contribution to his grand composition.

        • According to Émile Puech, the fourth line would read something along the lines of “The men and the chiefs have established a king”, and connecting this with the time period of Khirbet Qeiyafa, people see this as likely referring to the establishment of kingship in Israel/Judah which (basing off of the biblical text) would point to Saul. A number of assumptions have to be assumed for this such as the biblical text being reliable, that the dating of Saul’s reign and this site are both reliable, that the inscription is actually referring to a first establishment of an Israel+Judah kingdom (an extension of whether Puech’s interpretation is reliable), et cætera.

          • I think Puech also argues for reading the text of the ostracon from left to right. I’m not sure if his suggestion involved boustrophedon or not. Either way, his reconstruction is problematic.

  7. Between the article above and another, I’ve seen both lack of porcine bones and lack of graven images adduced as signs that this is a shrine for a cult closely related to Judaism. Are either of these proscriptions unique to Judaism then? My understanding was that these were pretty widespread in the region.

    • Ryan, unfortunately, the claim that there are no graven images here is actually exaggerated, for one of the boxes arguably has depictions of lions. Aniconic standing stones (masseboth) are quite common across the region, but these have to be seen in tandem with the many figurines that have been discovered. The significance of lack of porcine bones is more interesting. Given the short-lived nature of Khirbet Qeiyafa, the evidence may simply be circumstantial. However, there are other sites that lack porcine bones. The difficulty lies in knowing what exactly to make of this.

      • The issue should not be the presence of images, but their use in representing deity. As you well know there were cherubs in all biblical temples, and this would not be considered an infringement of the Bildverbot. This had its ups and down even in post-Biblical Judaism.

  8. That was so noble of you to say “…Philistines just a stone’s throw away” instead of “a stone’s sling away”! Personally, I would not have been able to resist!

    • For those interested, there is a more detailed summary of the press conference in today’s Ha’aretz. The article also cites some rebuttals by Nadav Naaman. I disagree with Naaman who suggests, inter alia, that the model shrines were pious gifts to a temple, a custom known from elsewhere. To the best of my understanding of Garfinkle’s description, they were found in private houses. In this case they prima facia could not be temple gifts. Instead they are to be compared with miniature temples found in private homes and other places in the Far East until this day. They are part of private cult. Idol’s are put in them and offerred sacrifices. I assume that they resemble in form and decoration regular, full size regional temples, but they were used in the home. Just like doll houses resemble real houses, so these minitemples resemble the real thing, and they can be used to envisage what was outside. So if there is a model shrine in a house, there was a real shrine somewhere else. In the case of KQ, this was certainly not Jerusalem, but the temple it resembles had certain features also found in the Solomonic Temple as described by the Bible, and in particular the interlocking door frames on one model and the pillars on the other. The issue is complex and what I just said is just general thoughts.

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  10. Just from a layman’s standpoint…don’t shrines usually contain sculpted images of deities? That being the case, if it is the case, how can this
    Khirbet Qeiyafa limestone shrine be identified with a monotheistic Judahite site of the eleventh century BCE, or be the sacred model for Solomon’s temple and it’s invisible God? The only way it can be linked, as I see it, is if the ‘pagan’ entryway design of the shrine was later used to model the actual Jerusalem temple irrespective of it’s original function.
    Please, your several comments.

    • Agreed, Allan. You’ve recognised a problem. The other issue is that Judah was for most of its history not monotheistic. So the fact that these shrines probably do not represent monotheism does not mean KQ cannot be a Judean site.

      • The temple models may have once housed small idols. On the other hand, they may have been empty and represented the home of an invisible deity. A precedent for this would be the Taanakh cult stand which has one empty window, which some scholars have identified a niche for an invisible deity. By the way, the question of monotheism and the question of divine representation and the question of the divine form are distinct questions. Moreover, even in polytheistic societies with 3600 gods each god/dess had his/her own sanctuary or room in a larger complex, so a model temple with room for only one deity cannot be used as evidence for monotheism.

  11. George. Yes. You remind me that monotheism was often more honored in the breach than in practice at least until the exile to Baylon. So this site can be both Judean and idolatrous. Thanks for the clarification. The rush to identify the shrine so directly and intimately with the Jerusalem temple by Garfinkel and Ganor threw me off.

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    • You’re probably thinking of Hebrews’ mention of the heavenly pattern of the Tabernacle. Whether this is actually in heaven or a manner of speaking that implies Moses’ tabernacle was given through divine revelation is debatable. But in any case, the Ark in the news story here is the ‘earthly’ one.

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