Interview with Professor Yossi Garfinkel

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Moments before our interview. With Yossi Professor Garfinkel at the YMCA, Jerusalem

My visit to Tel Lachish is still fresh in my memory. It was an exciting three days, action packed and exciting. Such a busy time, in fact, that I was unable to sit with Professor Garfinkel for an interview on site.

The first day, there was a lot of setting up to do to kick off the week. There was also a youth team which needed introductions to the site, a visitor group, and finally hosting a private tour with Professor David Ussishkin. The next two days were no less busy. Numerous visitors and groups including VIPs and Israel Antiquities Authorities representatives. All that is on on top of the second to last week of the digging season, which means a lot of work recording the finds, bringing down the ramps, and preparing for preservation of the site until next year.

We finally caught up on a beautiful Friday morning (July 29, 2916), at YMCA in Jerusalem. If you haven’t been there, or sat at their cafe, it is recommended. Great vibe,  beautiful architecture and a nice view of the King David hotel.  Without further due, let us begin the interview:

In your opinion, what is the value of Archaeology in General, and specifically for Biblical studies?

Well, every human society, even the most simple one, has some ideas about its past. What happened? How the world has been created, how our forefathers came, and how our culture has been created. And the ancient Hebrews were the same. We have the Bible – we have Bereshit – and a story of how the world was created in six days. And then you have the history of humankind, and in the end you have the founding father of the Israelite: Abraham, then Isaac, and Jacob. And so, you have a history.

This is how the people of Israel, the ancient people of Israel understood their past. So, this is something very basic.

And today, archaeology is doing the same. But we have modern tools. So we can excavate and find levels and periods; we have radiocarbon accurate dating; archaeology is supplying this kind of curiosity. People want to know the past.

And this is the job of the archaeologist: to submit an answer.

Why did you choose to excavate Lachish?

In the last ten years or so, I’m focusing on the early history of the Kingdom of Judah. According to the Biblical tradition, the kingdom existed for about four hundred years: The 10th century, the 9th century, the 8th century and the 7th century (BCE). And the last centuries are well known, but the first two centuries – the 10th and the 9th, are not very clear, and there are heavy debates about what happened in this time period. So I excavated Khirbet Qeiyafa, and now I’m excavating at Lachish to find Level IV and V, and I think that together, both sites will give us a better picture of this unknown period.

Now that you’ve dug in Lachish several times, what do you know different that you didn’t know before you started digging?

The core of the question is Level V – the first Iron Age settlement at Lachish.  

There are three basic debates:

  1. If this level ever existed, or it is just a mistake of the archaeologists?
  2. If it existed, was it a village or a fortified city?
  3. What is the dating of this level?

Now, after four seasons at Lachish, I know that there is level V, and I know that it is a fortified city, because we discovered a new city wall. And we also uncovered olive pits from this level, which we can send to radiocarbon dating. And once we have the results, we will know what is the exact dating of the fortified city at Lachish.

If it was fortified at about 1,000 BC, or 900 BC, or 800 BC, or maybe 700 BC. All of these ideas have been suggested in the past.

In terms of this site, in general, both in terms of your expedition and previous expeditions, what has been found on the site that would be valuable to a teacher in the classroom? What ideas can be understood better, because of the expeditions?

I think that the best correlation between the site and the excavation on one side, and the biblical tradition on the other, are what we call level II and level III.

Level II has been destroyed by the Babylonians. And at Lachish we discovered the famous Lachish letters, about eighteen letters that describe the city and the people and also the fire signal of Lachish and Azekah.

And in Jeremiah (34:7) we also heard about Lachish and Azekah.

So we have a very interesting correlation between Lachish, the letters of Lachish and the Biblical tradition about the last days of the kingdom of Judah.

When level III is taken into consideration, we know about the Sennacherib campaign (705-681 BCE). It’s mentioned in the Bible in three different books: In the book of II Kings (18:17), in the book of Isaiah (36:2), and in II Chronicles (18:14).

And then in Lachish we have level III, with the Assyrian siege ramp, the city has been destroyed. We can see how life looked like at the time of Hezekiah.


How would a teacher bring this to life in the classroom?


The teacher can read with the student the biblical text, then he can look at Assyrian documents: The Sennacherib Royal Inscriptions, and the famous reliefs, now in the British Museum, that describe Lachish, and then he can look at the actual archaeological finds which have been excavated by Professor David Ussishkin and published in numerous books, and also two popular books.

So altogether the student can see the city on the relief, read the text, see the archaeological data, and together you can understand how the Assyrians attacked the city, how the Judeans defended themselves, and so on and so forth.


How do the finds in Lachish shed light on the nature of that city, as opposed to what we know from the text itself?

Well, according to the Biblical tradition, Lachish was the second most important city in Judah.

King Amatzia, for example, there was a coup in Jerusalem, and he ran away to Lachish, and he was murdered in Lachish.

And when you excavate and you see the huge fortification of Lachish, the huge gates, the huge palace, you understand why he ran away to Lachish – because it was almost as important as Jerusalem.

What is the relationship between Ancient Gath –  Tel es-Safi, and Tel Lachish?

The major question today is when the Kingdom of Judah spread from the hill country, from Jerusalem region into the lowland, and later into the Beersheba region. Some people believe it took place in the time of David and Solomon. Some people take into consideration the tradition of the Rechav’am fortifications (II Chronicles 11:5-10), which fortified Lachish.

And today, many people would like to say that Judah was able to spread into the lowland only after the site of Gath has been destroyed. And why?

Gath was a huge city. Almost 6-7 times bigger than Lachish. Very dominant center. So people are saying: Judah is a small kingdom. Lachish was a huge kingdom, so Judah could not move into the lowlands until Gath was destroyed. Which means that Gath was destroyed first, and then Judah came into the lowlands. This is one possibility  to understand the sequence.

But, if Lachish was built before, one hundred years earlier, as mentioned in the Bible according to Rechav’am’s fortifications (II Chronicles 11:5-12). Then we have a different scenario: Judah came into the lowlands, took over land and villages and population. Gath became smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, and then it was possible to destroy it.

But the question is, what is the cause and what is the effect?

Some people would like to say that the destruction of Gath enabled Judah to come in, but   it is possible that while Judah came in, it was possible to destroy Gath. So we have two huge sites one next to the other, and we need to clear the chronological question, when was Lachish built. If Lachish was build before Gath was destroyed, or Lachish was fortified after Gath. This is today the chicken and egg question.

What is your message to teachers and students about coming to an archaeological dig?

I figure that anybody who has interest in the ancient world, or the biblical tradition, if he comes to an archaeological dig, even for a week, or two weeks or three weeks, he is inside the houses, with the pottery, the animal bones and all the artifacts that were left by our forefathers, and he will have a better understanding of how people lived in antiquity. And then he will also understand the biblical texts in the original setting.

2016-07-18 08.08.34.jpeg
Loom weight which I found, while diggin in Level VI



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