The Fate of Tel Hazor: Canaanite Settlement Mentioned in Hebrew Bible
Tel Hazor is an archaeological site located in Upper Galilee, in the northern part of modern-day Israel. Archaeological excavations reveal that the site was occupied as early as the 3rd millennium BC. The site is best known, however, because it is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. During the time of Joshua, Tel Hazor was a powerful Canaanite city that fought against the Israelites. After the defeat of Hazor, the city was destroyed. Nevertheless, the site was rebuilt and destroyed several more times in its long history. The last destruction of Hazor dates to the 8 th century BC. Although archaeologists have uncovered evidence that the settlement was burnt to the ground, it is not entirely certain who destroyed Hazor. Whilst some interpret this evidence of destruction as corroborating the story found in the Hebrew Bible, others have suggested that the destruction was not caused by the Israelites, but by other forces.
Establishing Tel Hazor
The name Hazor is said to mean “Protected by Ramparts.” Tel Hazor is located to the north of the Sea of Galilee and covers an area of about 200 acres (80.9 ha). This makes it the largest tel (or archaeological mound) in Israel. Prior to its identification with the Biblical site of Hazor, the tel was known by its Arabic name, Tel el-Qedah. This tel was first identified with Hazor in 1875 by the Irish-Presbyterian minister Josias Leslie Porter. This identification was repeated in 1926 by the British archaeologist John Garstang. Two years later, Garstang conducted soundings at the site. It was only during the 1950s that the first major excavations of Tel Hazor were conducted. The Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin led four campaigns at the site, as part of the James A. de Rothschild Expedition, which lasted from 1955 to 1958. In 1968, a fifth archaeological campaign was carried out at Tel Hazor. The excavation of the site was renewed in 1990, under the direction of another Israeli archaeologist, Amnon Ben-Tor. Excavations have continued till this day.
Access structure at the entrance to the Israelite underground water system at Tel Hazor in Israel showing modern and ancient stair steps and the surrounding stone support structure. ( Sarit Richerson / Adobe Stock)
Tel Hazor: An Early Bronze Age Settlement That Evolved
According to the archaeological evidence, Tel Hazor was settled by humans as early as the 3 rd millennium BC, which corresponds to the Early Bronze Age . At that time, the site’s inhabitants only occupied the area of the upper city.
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Around the 18th century BC (the Middle Bronze Age), the inhabitants of Tel Hazor expanded their settlement, and founded the lower city. The upper and lower cities were occupied until the 13 th century BC, when both were violently destroyed. Subsequently, Tel Hazor was rebuilt, though it was no longer the great city it once was. For instance, many of the constructions from this period were of a semi-nomadic character, whilst during the 11th century BC, the site was an unfortified Israelite settlement. Hazor regained some of its former splendor from the time of King Solomon onwards. During his reign, the upper city was rebuilt and fortified.
This city was destroyed by a fire but rebuilt by the House of Omri during the 9th century BC. A strong citadel, which covered most of the western part of the tel, was built at the site. Although the citadel was fortified in the century that followed, it was not enough to save it from the Assyrians. In 732 BC, Hazor was conquered by the forces of Tiglath-Pileser III. After capturing Hazor, the Assyrians built their own citadel at the site, which was in use until the Persian period (538-400 BC). Lastly, another citadel seems to have been built during the 2nd century BC, which corresponds to the Hellenistic period.
In addition to creating a chronology of the site’s occupation, the archaeological excavations also provide important information about the cultures that lived on Tel Hazor, through the artifacts and ruins they left behind. For instance, many figurines of the Canaanite deity Baal have been found in the pre-Israelite levels of the mound. As these figures were primarily made during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages it shows that the inhabitants of Hazor at the time belonged to the wider Canaanite culture. As another example, during the reign of Solomon, the upper city was rebuilt and fortified. Solomon’s fortifications consisted of a “casemate wall and a large gate with three chambers on either side and two towers flanking the passage.” This form of fortification was found to be identical to those at the tel mounds of Gezer and Megiddo.
Ancient Israeli gate found at Tel Hazor, now in the Israel Museum. (Davidbena / CC0)
The Historical Records and Mentions of Tel Hazor
Apart from the archaeological evidence, the construction of these fortifications is mentioned in textual sources too. The rebuilding of the walls of Hazor, along with those of Gezer and Megiddo, is recorded in I Kings 9:15, as part of Solomon’s grand building project. The other monuments built by Solomon that are mentioned in this passage include the temple in Jerusalem, and the royal palace. Hazor was also mentioned in non-Biblical texts. For instance, the Amarna Letters mentions that Hazor was a vassal state of the Egyptians.
Apart from that, ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts also mentioned that there was an archive in the Canaanite city. This is significant, as the records stored in this building would provide scholars with much information about that period of history. Although the archive per se has not been discovered, clay tablets have been unearthed at the site, one of which, dating to the 18th / 17th century BC, contains laws similar to the famous Hammurabi’s Code .
The most famous textual reference to Hazor, however, is found in Joshua 11. The first nine verses of this chapter mention that Hazor was ruled by a king, Jabin, during Joshua’s time. Hazor was a powerful city and was at the head of a league of Canaanite cities. When Jabin heard of Joshua’s conquests, he summoned his allies, and raised an army against the Israelites. The Canaanite army, however, was destroyed by Joshua. After the defeat of the Canaanites , Jabin was killed, and Hazor razed to the ground. This is found in Joshua 11: 10-11 and is arguably the most famous part of the text. The two verses are as follows:
“And Joshua at that time turned back, and took Hazor, and smote the king thereof with the sword: for Hazor beforetime was the head of all those kingdoms.
And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire.”
Considering that Hazor is situated on the trade route between Syria and Egypt , it is not difficult to see how it could take advantage of its strategic location to become a wealthy and powerful city state.
Documents in the 18th century Mari archive mention that Hazor was a major commercial center, and that caravans travelled between this city and Babylon. The greatness of Hazor is also reflected in its archaeological ruins and artifacts. As mentioned already, the site is the largest tel in Israel. It is estimated that at its height of power, Hazor supported a population of between 20,000 and 40,000 inhabitants.
Apart from that, the ruins of several monumental structures have been unearthed in the Canaanite layers of the site. For instance, in the lower city, a tripartite structure with altars, statues, and other ritual objects, was discovered.
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Another monumental structure, believed to have been a ceremonial complex, either a temple or palace, was unearthed in the upper city. This structure had mud brick walls, and a stone foundation with floors made of cedar, which was imported from Lebanon. This wood was not the building’s only luxury object, as ivory plaques and boxes, jewelry, cylinder seals, and bronze figurines were also found there. These were all considered as expensive goods during the Bronze Age.
The "House of Pillars" at Tel Hazor in the upper Galilee, Israel. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Who Destroyed Tel Hazor And Who Rebuilt It?
One of the biggest questions revolving around Hazor is whether it was indeed destroyed by the Israelites, as described in the Hebrew Bible , or not. At different parts of the site, archaeologists have found evidence of Hazor’s destruction, i.e., over 91.4 cm (36 in.) of charcoal and ash in a single layer.
Although this is an indication that Hazor may have been burnt to the ground, it does not necessarily mean that it was the Israelites who destroyed the city. Whilst some consider the archaeological evidence as supporting the truth of the Biblical text, others have suggested that the city may have been destroyed from within, i.e., from internal rebellion, or by disaffected inhabitants.
Regardless of Hazor’s cause of destruction, this was not exactly the end of the settlement. Much of site was abandoned after its destruction. Nevertheless, a small area in the upper city was still occupied. The city is believed to have been rebuilt during the time of Solomon. Although textual sources have been used to interpret the archaeological evidence, this is not without controversy. Like the question of whether Hazor was destroyed by the Israelites or some other force, there have been differing views on the history of the city’s rebuilding.
According to the traditional view, it was Solomon who rebuilt Hazor. As mentioned earlier, this is in line with the textual evidence from the Old Testament . Others, in particular the adherents of the so-called Low Chronology, however, have rejected this view. According to this model, the united monarchy did not exist during the time of Solomon and his predecessor, David. It is further proposed that the rebuilding of Hazor only occurred in the 9 th century BC, during the reign of Ahab, the second ruler of the House of Omri. As mentioned previously, the traditional view is that the Omrides were also responsible for rebuilding Hazor, though upon the ruins of Solomonic, rather than Canaanite Hazor.
In either case, although Hazor was rebuilt it did not regain the splendor it enjoyed when it was a Canaanite city. Still, it was considered as a major Israelite settlement during this period. Structures dating to this period that have been unearthed by archaeologists include the city’s fortifications, several large public structures, storage areas, domestic quarters, and curiously, basalt workshop in the upper city.
One of the most notable constructions from this period, however, is Tel Hazor’s water collection system. This system is significant enough to be mentioned in the description of the site in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, “The three tels also present some of the best examples in the Levant of elaborate Iron Age, underground water-collecting systems, created to serve dense urban communities.” This system (see photo above) was discovered at the center of the southern edge of the tel facing the natural spring below and was hewn out of the rock. The water collection system was unearthed by archaeologists in 1968.
Hazor’s final destruction occurred in 732 BC, when it was conquered by the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III. This is also mentioned in the Old Testament in II Kings 15:29, which reads as follows:
“In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.”
The Amarna letter (written in Akkadian cuneiform text): a letter from Abdi-Tirshi (King of Hazor) to the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III or his son Akhenaten. Abdi-Tirshi reassures the Pharaoh that he is loyal and is keeping his cities in good order. The letter is on display at the British Museum, London. (Neuroforever / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Though Tel Hazor Was Destroyed By the Assyrians It Went On
Whilst the textual evidence for Hazor ends with its destruction by the Assyrians, the archaeological evidence indicates that the site, though a very small fraction of it, continued to be occupied. The Assyrians who occupied Hazor built a citadel and palace, which continued to be used up until the Persian period. Another citadel was likely built later, around the 2 nd century BC, which corresponds to the Hellenistic period.
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Whilst archaeological excavations at Tel Hazor over the decades have provided much information about the site’s history, there is certainly more work to be done. Indeed, this is evident in the fact that archaeological work is still being carried today.
In the meantime, the significance of Tel Hazor has been recognized, and it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, as part of a group of three sites called “the Biblical Tels – Megiddo, Hazor, Beer Sheba.” The three sites are described as being “representative of those that contain substantial remains of cities with biblical connections”.
To conclude, Tel Hazor is an archaeological site with strong Biblical connections, and the question of who destroyed it is certainly linked to the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that this is not the only time Hazor is mentioned in the Bible, as it was referred to on several other occasions as well. Moreover, these references may be complemented by other textual sources, as well as the archaeological evidence that has been unearthed at the site.
Top image: Ruins of an Israelite stone storehouse made with pillars and columns at the Tel Hazor Archaeological Park in Israel. Source: Sarit Richerson / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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