David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
Chalcolithic Gate to Laish
As ancient as all these Iron Age cities are, even built above Bronze Age cities, rounding the corner to see this structure takes the breath away.
I stopped breathing.
This early gate to Laish/Leshem (which became the city of Dan) dates back over four thousand years to the Chalcolithic period and stands to its full height from antiquity.
The word Chalcolithic comes from two Greek words: Χαλκός | chalcos, meaning copper, and Λίθος | lithos, meaning stone. Together, Chalcolithic describes the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, the time period attributed to Abraham’s journey from his home in Chaldea to his destiny in Canaan, in response to God’s call.
Large basalt stones (black volcanic rock), quarried in the Golan, provide the base for the gate, and the rest is built from sun-dried mud bricks, standing twenty-two feet high. There are three arches with two rectangular towers, one on each side.
Until about forty years ago, historians taught that Romans had invented the arch. I mean, why not? The Romans had invented quite a few other things (like cement) and were master engineers.
Then, quite by accident, the three-arched gate to ancient Laish was discovered.
This Chalcolithic gate has the earliest complete arches ever found in the whole world, making it truly unique. And predates the Romans by a good fifteen centuries.
But wait! There is more.
This exact gate is mentioned in Abraham’s story.
The Kings of Shinar
Abraham and Lot had just parted ways after a dispute between their herdsmen. Lot chose the fertile lowlands near Sodom and Gomorrah, which left Abraham to the arid highlands.
Surely Lot felt pleased with himself for choosing the best. But, somewhere during this time the ancient eastern kings of Shinar (which eventually became Babylon) joined forces to wage war with the kings of the five cities in the Negev—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar. Their coalition gathered in the Valley of Siddim after marching south through Canaan. Reading the story, it sounds like the kings of Shinar were defending their trade routes with Egypt.
The Siddim Valley was situated at the southernmost end of the Dead Sea, rich in copper, magnesium and cattle. The king of Elam, one of the Shinar kings (Elam is now Iran), had exacted a regular tribute from these vassal states for thirteen long years. By the fourteenth year the Dead Sea kings rebelled, deciding they had had enough, so when the king of Elam’s agent showed up to collect the tribute for that year, they sent him packing.
In response the eastern kings gathered a seemingly invincible, relentless, unstoppable army to teach a punishing lesson to all these vassal kings.
The biblical account speaks of the Rephaim and Zuzim, families of giants, the ancestors of Goliath. You and I have heard of them before as the Nephilim, fighting men reportedly six to eight feet tall, mighty warriors, greatly feared by the people around them. Yet the invading kings plowed right over even these giants, sacking one city after another on their march towards the Siddim Valley.
The territory mentioned is quite extensive, covering from the north and west of the Sea of Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, all the way south to the Red Sea. Nelson Glueck, a well-known Palestinian archeologist, thoroughly investigated this entire area, both his own and earlier excavations. He reported that every village along their path was plundered and left in ruins, even the countryside was laid to waste in the time frame of this Biblical account. There are clear signs that the population was either wiped out or led away in captivity and for hundreds of years much of this area remained abandoned, with all the monuments and buildings left scattered, stone for stone.
So as the Dead Sea kings watched, one bonfire after another began to light up the night skies, signaling the approach of the eastern kings. You can imagine their dread. At least they had time to plan.
And their plan was brilliant actually. Dotted along the Dead Sea were tar pits, filled with natural asphalt—to this day, chunks of asphalt sometimes pop up in the Dead Sea. These open pits of asphalt would be covered over by the desert sand as the wind blew across them, making them look like the surrounding ground. But anything that fell into such a pit would be held by the tar, acting like quicksand.
Looting of the Dead Sea Cities
The Dead Sea kings’ strategy was to draw the battle over to these petroleum pits, then drive the eastern kings into them. But the pits turned out to be a trap for the Dead Sea kings instead. As the tide of battle turned against them, they ran for their lives to the mountains. In their terror and disorientation, many fell into their own pits of tar, and died. Meanwhile, the Shinar kings looted the empty cities, took all the treasure, and took all the women and children into slavery.
“An ancient gate from the Canaanite period. The gate was made of mud bricks, and has been preserved to its full height of 7 m. Alongside the gate is a paved platform, reminiscent of biblical descriptions.
“The gate was built of mud bricks, and has three arches that are considered to be the earliest of their kind in the world. The gate has been preserved to its full height of 7 meters.”
Lot had chosen to live in the lush Siddim Valley, having selected the entire Jordan plain for himself. At first pitching his tent near Sodom, he had ended up buying a home in the city, marrying, starting a family, acquiring wealth, getting involved in the local government. Now he and his household had been taken captive and all his belongings plundered.
Meanwhile, Abraham had quietly settled down by the Oaks of Mamre. God had been blessing Abraham with growth: increase in wealth, increase in members of his household, and warm relationships with his neighbors. Now, to protect his spreading household, Abraham had set aside three hundred and eighteen male servants to be trained and ready to guard his holdings, and cooperatively, the holdings of his neighbors.
But Abraham’s peaceful, pleasant existence was broken by terrible and unexpected news.
Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner; these were allies of Abram.Genesis 14:13 (NRSV)
It is interesting to note the escapee knew to go straight to Abraham, the rich and powerful foreigner, living in Mamre and allied with his three neighbors, wealthy and powerful chieftains.
From the Negev to the Golan and Beyond
When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.Genesis 14:14 (NRSV)
Remember the saying “from Dan to Beersheba”? Well, Abraham went from Beersheba to Dan, the entire length of what would one day be Israel. And it would have been this very three-arched gate that Abraham would have either entered or at least passed by in his pursuit of the kings of Shinar.
They traveled the whole length of the Jordan River, finally reaching the enemy considerably north of the Sea of Galilee. The custom with armies of that time, when they felt they had come to a place they considered safe, was to make camp for several days and indulge in some drinking and carousing to celebrate their victories.
This is how Abraham and his allies probably found them.
With good strategy to maximize his forces during the night, Abraham divided up the men and surrounded the drunken camp. One part of his army went one way and one the other way, the third group prepared for close combat. At a signal, they sprang up on the surprised eastern kings and routed them.
[Abraham] pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the goods and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods and the women and the people.Genesis 14:15-16 (NRSV)