David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
Archaeological evidence points to a settlement as early as the Late Neolithic period (Stone Age), five thousand years ago.
Five hundred years later, in the Chalcolithic period this settlement had grown into a substantial fortified city, as attested to by a three-arched entryway named “Abraham’s Gate” (featured in Friday’s post).
Before being given to the tribe of Dan for their inheritance in the Promised Land, the city of Dan was known as Laish, also sometimes written Leshem, meaning jewel.
When the territory of the Danites was lost to them, the Danites went up and fought against Leshem, and after capturing it and putting it to the sword, they took possession of it and settled in it, calling Leshem Dan, after their ancestor Dan.Joshua 19:47 (NRSV)
The Book of Judges seems to look back to this story and expand on it, beginning with, “in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking for itself a territory to live in, for until then no territory among the tribes of Israel had been allotted to them.”
So they selected five valiant men to explore the land in and around the upper Galilee and liked what they saw. To hike through the Dan National Reserve today will explain why. This is among the lushest regions in all Israel, verdant, filled with birds, blossoming trees, rich fields, and living water. Lots and lots of water!
“the Dan Spring is the largest of the springs in the nature reserve. It is the most plentiful karstic spring in the Middle East, fed by the snow that accumulates on Mt Hermon every winter and trickles down to the springs at the foot of the hill. The output of the springs is an estimated 250 million m³ a year. The springs are considered to be constant, with no great changes in flow between winter and summer (unlike springs of the Hermon, Banyas and Snir-Hatsbani streams). The spring produces water at a low and steady temperature throughout the year.”
In fact, the River Dan feeds into the River Jordan, so to the ancient Israelites, this had to have been like the Garden of Eden in their imaginations (and in fact the Dan Park has an area called “The Garden of Eden”).
And then the five spies saw this jewel of a city, Laish.
When they came to Laish, they observed the people who were there living securely, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking[a] nothing on earth, and possessing wealth. Furthermore, they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with Aram.Judges 18:7 (NRSV)
The powerful kingdom of Aram was just west of the Jordan River, bordering what is now the Golan. And the powerful Phoenician city-state of Sidon, along with its sister city of Tyre, had remained impregnable to the tribe of Asher, who had to be content with living side-by-side with the Phoenicians.
The Danite spies discerned that Laish (Leshem) was a peaceful and peaceable city, wealthy, and most importantly unarmed and unready.
Of course, the spies reported back to their tribal chiefs and it was decided to take the city.
The Danites … came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city.
There was no deliverer because it was far from Sidon, and they had no dealings with Aram.
It was in the valley that belongs to Beth-rehob. They rebuilt the city and lived in it. They named the city Dan after their ancestor Dan.Judges 18:27-29 (NRSV)
There is an interesting aside in this story.
Before they scouted out Laish, the five spies ended up in Ephraim’s territory at the home of Micah, who had been mentoring a young Levite and made him a priest for his own private sacred place. Apparently, the priest was able to inquire of the Lord for people, and the spies left reassured that their mission was “under the eye of God.”
“The Israelite Gate – the remains of the entrance gate to the city of Dan and the fortification walls from the Israelite period. The remains of a palanquin were found at the site, on which the ruler of the city would have been enthroned, alongside benches for the elders of the city.”
Being spies, they also noticed that Micah had somehow obtained an ephod, a teraphim (an image that seems to have represented a god, or perhaps a person, such as an ancestor. David had a life-sized teraphim in his home.), and an idol of cast metal.
So they stole these things, and also kidnapped the young Levite priest.
After marauding Laish and resettling there,
Then the Danites set up the idol for themselves. Jonathan son of Gershom son of Moses(or possibly Manasseh) and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity.
So they maintained as their own Micah’s idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.Judges 18:30-31 (NRSV)
It was a prophetic situation, considering what would happen later in Dan’s history.
The united kingdom of Judah and Israel did not last long. Three generations—Saul to David to Solomon.
Solomon, with his conscripted labor, heavy taxes, and many excesses, had burdened the people to the breaking point. So when Solomon died, and his son Rehoboam rose to the throne, sage counselors advised Rehoboam to gain the people’s favor by easing the burden his father had placed on them.
Foolish, entitled, and arrogant, Rehoboam ignored their wise advice and instead boasted he would be twice as hard on the people.
They made Jeroboam their king, and God intervened, preventing Rehoboam from taking his kingdom back.
Jeroboam quickly discerned that if Jerusalem with its temple remained all Israel’s sacred place, and God was viewed as dwelling on Mount Zion, then the people would soon return the Judahite king. So, Jeroboam’s first major act as Israel’s king was to establish new sacred spaces, and new sacred emblems.
The king took counsel and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
And this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel and before the other as far as Dan.
He also made houses on high places and appointed priests from among all the people who were not Levites.1 Kings 12:28-31 (NRSV)
Ritual site – another noteworthy find is the ritual compound, with a paved platform. This structure recalls the biblical stories of the golden calves.
Just as the Danites had done when they conquered and colonized Laish.
It is reminiscent of the golden calf incident in the wilderness, and in fact ancient images of calves are found throughout Israel. Some scholars believe these images were meant to represent YHWH as a retooling of Canaanite Ba’al worship and Egyptian Apis worship, both strong influences on the Israelite tribes.
It would remain a deep-seated rift between the Lord and God’s people, with a few reforms dotted between long stretches of polytheism in Israel, and then eventually in Judah as well.
The Books of Kings and Chronicles record skirmishes between the kings of Aram and the kings of Israel over possession of Dan. It seems Dan changed hands at least four times. The Tel Dan Stele, now residing in the Israel Museum, tells of at least one of these conquests by King Ben-hadad of Aram, and mentions “The House of David.”
The Bible corroborates King Ben-hadad’s account. King Asa of Judah stripped gold and silver from the temple and his own palace, and sent this treasure to Ben-hadad asking the Aramean king to break off his alliance with Israel. He did.
Ben-hadad listened to King Asa and sent the commanders of his armies against the cities of Israel. He conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel-beth-maacah, and all Chinneroth, with all the land of Naphtali.1 Kings 15:20 (NRSV)
Dan’s ultimate demise came at the hands of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-pileser.