In September, the Israel Antiquities Authority made a stunning announcement: at the ancient Judean city of Lachish, second only to Jerusalem in importance, archaeologists have uncovered a shrine in the city’s gate complex with two vandalized altars and a stone toilet in its holiest section. “Holy crap!” I said to a friend when I first read the news. The Daily Mail was more subtle, publishing stunning photographs of the finds under the headline, “The Wrong Kind of Throne.” My social media feeds quickly clogged with toilet humor, but no one was pooh-poohing the discovery.
What’s a toilet doing in a shrine? And why were the shrine’s altars vandalized? Archaeologist Saar Ganor, who directed the dig on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, sets the finds in historical perspective. Iron Age Levantine city gates were large architectural complexes where a wide variety of civic, religious, and judicial activities were carried out. Religious rituals were regularly conducted at other Iron Age city gates, for example at Bethsaida.
It is striking, then, that Lachish’s shrine would contain two cuboid stone altars with four characteristic protrusions at their top corners—their ‘horns’—broken off. The excavators regard this as an act of sacrilege intended to render the altars unsuitable for cultic activity. They interpret the toilet, which showed no chemical traces of being used, as a symbolic act of desecration.
Together, these acts of defilement point to the decommissioning of the shrine. Given the eighth-century date of the finds, the excavators relate this decommissioning to the Bible’s claim that Hezekiah, king of Judah, removed sanctuaries outside of Jerusalem: “He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred posts” (2 Kings 18:4a, NJPS). The palpable excitement generated by this correlation between archaeology and the Bible is captured by Ze’ev Elkin, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Minister of Environmental Protection: “Before our very eyes these new finds become the biblical verses themselves and speak in their voice.”
My own work on Iron Age Levantine politics sheds light on three aspects of this lavatorial discovery. First, the finds reflect rituals of desecration rather than random violence. The placement of a toilet in the shrine is quite conspicuous and points to intent. Someone deliberately rendered the shrine unusable.
Although a wide variety of biblical literature regards human waste as unseemly, the conceptual background to this act of desecration is more specific. Deuteronomy 23:13–15 instructs Israelites to dig a hole outside their camp and bury their excrement there. The command is explained, “let Him [i.e., Israel’s god Yahweh] not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:15b, NJPS).
Within the logic of this verse, the sight of human waste repulses the deity. The placement of a toilet in the Lachish shrine also seems aimed at repulsing the deity, thereby rendering the shrine useless. The logic of the desecration thus accords with a stream of biblical tradition—Deuteronomic tradition—associated with the religious reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah.
Second, Iron Age Levantine city gates were contested spaces. A wide variety of biblical literature—for example, Deuteronomy 22:13–21, Joshua 20:1–9, Amos 5:3–5, 10, 12—and Assyrian king Sennacherib’s description of his third campaign (Rassam Cylinder lines 42–58), in which he destroyed Lachish and handed some of Hezekiah’s territory to Philistine rulers loyal to him, suggest that towns were independent units within the geopolitics of the region in the Iron Age. These and other texts make clear that there was some tension between the distributed power of towns and the centralized power of Israelite and Judahite kings.
This tension often played out in city gates. For example, the biblical story of Absalom’s revolt presents him as playing on the strain felt by towns at the hands of centralized power as wielded by the current king (1 Samuel 15:1–6). And several ancient Near Eastern kings are known to have placed royal statues or inscriptions in existing city gates in an attempt to assert their power over the city. For example, a colossal neo-Hittite statue with an inscription by king Suppiluliuma was discovered at Tell Tayinat’s gate.
If the Lachish excavators are right in attributing the desecration of its shrine to Hezekiah, the find serves as a further case study in how the tension between towns and centralized royal power played out in city gates.
Third, Hezekiah was by no means the only ancient Near Eastern king to have decommissioned temples. The Lachish excavators present their find as analogous to Jehu’s desecration of Baal’s temple, described in 2 Kings 10:18–28. And Josiah’s reforms, recorded in 2 Kings 23:4–25, are well-known to readers of the Bible. Cult reforms have also been attributed to other ancient Near Eastern kings, including Akhenaten of Egypt, Muwatalli II of Hatti, Tudhaliya IV of Hatti, Nebuchadnezzar I of Babyolnia, and Nabonidus of Babylonia.
One analog in particular brings into focus a feature of the biblical description of Hezekiah’s reform. A fragmentary clay tablet (RIM B.6.14.1) discovered at Uruk describes the cult reforms of Nabû-šuma-iškun, who ruled Babylonia in the fifth century bce. The text, evidently written sometime after his reign, criticizes his changes to the cultic calendar, his removal of divine images from their temples, his plundering of temple treasuries, and his installation of foreign gods in local temples, among other perceived religious crimes. The text blames these acts of sacrilege for his downfall.
The biblical traditions about Hezekiah, by contrast, celebrate his desecration of shrines outside Jerusalem and praise his fidelity to Yahweh (2 Kings 18:3–6 and 2 Chronicles 31:1). Biblical historiography, this comparison reminds us, is not objective but presents the viewpoint of a circle who advocated the worship of Yahweh only and who sought to support Jerusalem’s unique position of power.
The eighth century residents of Lachish, in other words, would have described the desecration attested in these archaeological finds in different terms than those found in the Bible.
Headline image credit: LachishPalace053011.jpg by Wilson44691. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.