Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Lipschits, Oded and Aren M. Maeir (eds.),The Shephelah in the Iron Age (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017). Pp. x+201. Hardback. US$64.50. ISBN: 978-1-57506-486-4.

Aren Maeir and Oded Lipschits have done an excellent job assembling this volume. The book developed out of a session at the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies, where the editors organized a double session on excavations in the Shephelah. The Shephelah has become one of the most intensely excavated areas in all Israel and the world and rightfully so. There is no more important geographical zone for understanding the interactions between the various cultures and polities in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, which are the focus of the volume. The Shephelah served as a transition zone between the Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites/Judahites, who settled in and competed for dominance in the area.

The volume consists of seven (updated) papers read at the conference and two invited papers. The result is eight papers focused on most of the major excavations taking place in the Shephelah (Tel Azekah, Tel Beth-Shemesh, Tel Burna, Tel Gezer, Tel Halif, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Tel eṣ-Ṣafi, and Tel Zayit) and a final essay focused on settlement patterns serving in part as a conclusion. A brief introductory chapter precedes these papers.

It would be impossible to detail all the contributions of each essay in a review such as this. Instead, I will evaluate it based on what appear to be the aspirations the editors set out in the introduction. The editors make two main points along with an additional note to open the volume. First, Maeir and Lipschits suggest that due to the extensive work that has taken place, the discussion can move “beyond the standard baseline of much archaeological research” (p. vii). Second, they state that one area it can focus on is looking at the Shephelah as “a transitional zone between regions, cultures, and polities” (p. vii). Lastly, they note that readers will see disagreements among the scholars represented.

Many of the essays do move beyond “the standard baseline of much archaeological research,” but others do not. In this way, the volume is only able to partially meet this “goal” and as a result does not flow as well as it could. We will begin by looking at three essays that move well beyond discussions of stratigraphy and material finds. This is where the strength of the volume lies.

The first essay to focus on their site as a transitional zone is the article by Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman on Tel Beth-Shemesh. They look at the site as playing one side of a teetering seesaw. They have noticed in the archaeological record how the political and cultural makeup of Beth-Shemesh changes depending on the relative strength of Philistia contra Judah or vice versa. Overall, the authors have made a strong case for the ups and downs of the site, and believe their model could prove to be a paradigm for what archaeologists will find elsewhere at transitional sites. Despite many goods points, they assume that you can identify in some of these movements a process of cultural resistance to external forces, which is nearly impossible to prove.

Later in the volume, Maeir's article on Tel eṣ-Ṣafi/Gath does an excellent job of moving beyond what he calls “the ‘basics’—such as the rudimentary study of the regional material culture” (p. 133). Prior to discussing his main point, he briefly examines the development of Philistine material culture at Ṣafi. He also outlines how Gath's strength impacted the Shephelah and the early Judahite kingdom. The most important contribution of the article comes as he reflects on the finds and notes that not all of them are purely “Philistine.” This is also the case at other sites in the Shephelah, which have a slightly mixed material culture. Maeir cautions against seeing a straightforward correspondence with the binary opposition between the Philistines and Israelites present in the biblical text and trying to map this onto the archaeological finds. In these transitional areas, we do not know if there was a singular identity that saw all outsiders as the “other.” His discussion hits at the heart of what it means for the Shephelah to be a transitional area and forces us to rethink certain assumptions.

In the final article that focuses primarily on the Shephelah as a transitional zone, Ron Tappy looks at how the finds at Tel Zayit demonstrate the strategic position of the site as a community on the border between two competing centers. Tappy outlines and applies a theoretical perspective to the problem of Tel Zayit, and border sites in general, which has been lacking. In rejecting the common model of center and periphery for border sites, he outlines a model employed in anthropological studies, which discusses the idea of liminality (p. 155). This model can help us understand how communities create their identity within transitional zones, or areas where there are competing cores. The finds at Tel-Zayit show how this materializes in that this marginal zone did not undergo a cultural leveling process at the hands of either center, but maintains connections with both. This essay, along with the previous one by Maeir, make the volume well worth acquiring.

Next, the following essays touch only slightly on the transitional character of the Shephelah.

In his article, Yosef Garfinkel discusses Khirbet Qeiyafa and sets out to answer when the kingdom of Judah spread from the hill country into the transitional area of the Shephelah. He notes four possibilities but argues it occurred in the late tenth century BCE. He analyzes the material finds to support his claims. Garfinkel makes bold claims about how the site's finds can contribute to the understanding of the early phase of the kingdom of Judah. This moves beyond the baseline of archaeological discussion to interpretation, but not entirely with a focus on border sites, he hopes to draw out connections between the biblical text and archeological finds. These are well published and controversial claims.

The third article by Itzik Shai discusses the site of Tel Burna, which at the time of the article had been excavated for six seasons. Shai focuses on the material finds, which is understandable considering he is providing us with the preliminary Iron Age results. He does cursorily help us appreciate how this site fits into the Shephelah by discussing why we have a Judahite fortified town so close to Lachish. He suggests it is because of its geographical position midway between the two major centers of Gath and Lachish.

Finally, the following essays focus almost exclusively on material finds and discussions of stratigraphy:

The first article in the volume is by the directors of the Azekah dig, Lipschits, Gadot, and Oeming. The dig at Azekah and the article are both welcome as they outline the first four seasons and provide us with a discussion of the results. They note some “unexpected finds,” which help shed light on the inadequacy of using historical documents and surveys to predict what one will find in the field.

The article on Tel Gezer by Ortiz and Wolf focuses almost entirely on the material finds and the Iron Age stratigraphy. In this way, they do not go beyond discussing “the standard baseline of archaeological research.” If one wants to learn about the stratigraphy of Gezer the article is very detailed with updates and corrections to previous excavations. They end the article by noting one of the goals of the project is to address the shifting ethnic and political boundaries of Gezer as a site in the Aijalon Valley, but do not feel they can yet do so. We might have hoped for more considering the long history of excavations at this site.

The article by Borowski also focuses essentially on the material finds of Tel Halif. He does show, however, how Halif fits into the region suggesting the site functioned as a collection center for grain distribution in the LBIIB, Iron I, and Iron II periods.

The volume ends with an essay by Ido Koch focusing on settlement patterns in the Shephelah. Koch's article helpfully complements the earlier articles, especially the article on Tel Beth-Shemesh, and so helps tie the volume together. He first notes the rise of Tel Miqne as the chief center in the area during the Iron I. Second, he notes the interregional interaction of sites in the Shephelah, which is evident in the Iron I material culture; and lastly, he discusses the increase in number of sites in the region in Iron IIA. The main contribution he makes, however, is noting the shifting power structures throughout the LB and IA periods in response to various geopolitical issues. This is where he adds the most to the discussion of the transitional nature of the Shephelah. He sees a marked pattern of the continuous founding and re-founding of local centers at the same sites from the MB II to Iron II related to these shifts in power.

In summarizing the volume, I would first note that interaction between the authors is minimal. Only in a handful of places do they explicitly note disagreements. Aaron Maeir correctly questions the assumption by Bunimovitz and Lederman that we can identify in the material remains a process of resistance to external cultural forces. In looking at the seesaw in the Sorek valley, Bunimovitz and Lederman use Khirbet Qeiyafa as a parallel to what they see at Beth-Shemesh, but in doing this they disagree with the interpretation of Khirbet Qeiyafa as an early Judahite site. The debates over the nature of Khirbet Qeiyafa are well known and well publicized, but outside of this are only hinted at in the volume. Lastly, Tappy and Shai disagree over the identification of biblical Libnah. Tappy believes Libnah is to be identified with Tel Zayit, while Shai thinks Tel Burna fits better.

The editors are to be commended because they have gathered the foremost experts. The authors of each article are the directors of the excavations at the sites they are writing on and so we have a tour de force of “Shephelah specialists.” For some of these essays, the extensive experience of these scholars shines through. After reading the essays by Maier and Tappy you feel as if you have heard from the best in the field and have received the culmination of the scholar's experience thinking and writing about transitional sites.

The work is of interest to archaeologists, but also to non-specialists. It succeeds in providing a general introduction to the Shephelah and at the same time offering scholars the most up to date information for some of the sites whose field reports have not been published. Each essay also ends with an up-to-date bibliography, which is invaluable. We now just need to hear the latest from Lachish, Tel Eton, Khirbet Arai as well as extend a few of the essays in the volume beyond the standard baseline of archaeological work, which would help the volume hold together.

Andrew Walton, Harvard University