Hezekiah’s Reform: The Archeological Evidence
King Hezekiah (725–697 B.C.E.) is described in the book of Kings as having abolished worship sites outside the Jerusalem Temple:
מלכים ב יח:ד הוּא הֵסִיר אֶת הַבָּמוֹת וְשִׁבַּר אֶת הַמַּצֵּבֹת וְכָרַת אֶת הָאֲשֵׁרָה...
2 Kgs 18:4 He removed the high places (bamot), smashed the standing stones, destroyed the Asherah….
Later in the narrative, the Rav-shakeh, an Assyrian official, tries to get the men of Jerusalem to surrender by arguing that Hezekiah angered YHWH by closing down YHWH-worship sites outside of Jerusalem, motivating YHWH to allow the Assyrians to conquer Jerusalem:
מלכים ב יח:כב וְכִי תֹאמְרוּן אֵלַי אֶל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ בָּטָחְנוּ הֲלוֹא הוּא אֲשֶׁר הֵסִיר חִזְקִיָּהוּ אֶת בָּמֹתָיו וְאֶת מִזְבְּחֹתָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לִיהוּדָה וְלִירוּשָׁלִַם לִפְנֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ הַזֶּה תִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.
2 Kgs 18:22 And if you tell me that you are relying on YHWH your God, He is the very one whose shrines and altars Hezekiah did away with, telling Judah and Jerusalem, “You must worship only at this altar in Jerusalem.”
In contrast to the Assyrian spin, the book of Kings sees Hezekiah’s closing of the high places as a righteous act. The reform is retold with slightly different details in the Second-Temple period Book of Chronicles, which states that after Hezekiah celebrates the Passover with all of Israel in Jerusalem, the people go out and destroy the high places:
דברי הימים ב לא:א וּכְכַלּוֹת כָּל זֹאת יָצְאוּ כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל הַנִּמְצְאִים לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה וַיְשַׁבְּרוּ הַמַּצֵּבוֹת וַיְגַדְּעוּ הָאֲשֵׁרִים וַיְנַתְּצוּ אֶת הַבָּמוֹת וְאֶת הַמִּזְבְּחֹת מִכָּל יְהוּדָה וּבִנְיָמִן וּבְאֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה עַד לְכַלֵּה...
2 Chron 31:1 When all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out into the towns of Judah and smashed the pillars, cut down the sacred posts, demolished the shrines and altars throughout Judah and Benjamin, and throughout Ephraim and Manasseh, to the very last one….
A similar reform takes place in the reign of Hezekiah’s great grandson, Josiah. According to this story (2 Kgs 22–23), when Josiah had the Temple purified, after the reigns of his father Amon and grandfather Manasseh, who debased the Temple with idolatry, the priests found a torah scroll. Upon hearing the contents of this scroll, Josiah engages in several reforms, prominent among which is the closing down of all worship places outside the Jerusalem Temple.
ב מלכים כג:ח וַיָּבֵא אֶת כָּל הַכֹּהֲנִים מֵעָרֵי יְהוּדָה וַיְטַמֵּא אֶת הַבָּמוֹת אֲשֶׁר קִטְּרוּ שָׁמָּה הַכֹּהֲנִים מִגֶּבַע עַד בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וְנָתַץ אֶת בָּמוֹת הַשְּׁעָרִים...
2 Kgs 23:8 He brought all the priests from the towns of Judah [to Jerusalem] and defiled the shrines where the priests had been making offerings—from Geba to Beersheba. He also demolished the shrines of the gates…
In his 1805 dissertation, Wilhelm M.L. de Wette identified this scroll with Deuteronomy’s law collection, and suggested that this is the period when Deuteronomy was introduced to Judah as an official document, and that this explains Josiah’s reforms.
But why would Josiah’s reforms have been so revolutionary, explained by the finding of a lost book of laws, if Hezekiah had already instituted a reform? Wouldn’t Josiah have been simply going back to his great-grandfather’s pious policy? Moreover, is it not strange that Josiah’s reform receives almost two chapters of narrative, with great fanfare, while Hezekiah’s is mentioned in half a verse, with no fanfare at all?
This has led many scholars to suggest that Hezekiah’s reform, at least the part about destroying high places, was just a projection of Josiah’s reform into an earlier period. For example, Julius Wellhausen wrote:
How startling was the effect produced at a later date by the similar ordinance of Josiah. Is it likely then that the other, although the earlier, should have passed off so quietly and have left so little mark that the reinforcement of it, after an interval of seventy or eighty years, is not in the least brought into connection with it, but in every respect, figures as a new first step upon a path until then absolutely untrodden? Note too how casual is the allusion to a matter which is elsewhere the chief and most favoured theme of the book of Kings!
Wellhausen further notes that the influential contemporary religious figure in Hezekiah’s administration was the prophet Isaiah, but nowhere does the book of Isaiah express the desire to shut down high places: It only talks about cleansing them of idolatry.
Nevertheless, excavations in Israel in the latter half of the 20th century seemed to lend support to the historicity of Hezekiah’s reforms, when archaeologists uncovered what appeared to be decommissioned temples or altars from this period in several Judean sites. I will examine the evidence from three of these sites: Lachish, Beersheba, and Arad.
The Gate-Shrine at Lachish
Tell ed-Duweir, better known as Tel Lachish, is located in the southern part of the Judean Lowlands. During the 8th century B.C.E., this was the second largest city in Judah, and it epitomized Judah’s prosperity and power. Its destruction is well documented in biblical and extra-biblical sources and can be securely connected to the conquest by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. Inside the city-gate, archaeologists unearthed evidence for cultic activity prior to this disastrous event.
Saar Ganor, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, points to physical confirmation for Hezekiah’s cultic reform in the finds from one of the chambers, but none of the findings appears to me to be definitive:
- A double altar was found with its horns cut, implying that it had been purposefully desecrated.
The cuts are quite minor, and appear not only on the horns but all over. It seems more likely, therefore, that the cuts go back to when the stones were quarried or when the structure was assembled. The natural stone in the Judean lowlands often exhibits marks like this as a result of the quarrying; it is not like the hard basalt in the north.
- A cubical stone object was discovered, which the excavators interpreted as a toilet seat, implying a symbolic defilement—no residue of excrement was found—of the sacred space.
While the book of Kings does refer to King Jehu turning the Baʿal temples into actual מחראות/מוֹצָאוֹת “cesspits” (2 Kgs 10:27), installing a symbolic toilet is unprecedented in the Bible and the ancient Near East. It seems more likely that the structure is not a toilet seat at all, but a cultic installation, perhaps connected to purification rites.
- The back of the chamber appeared to have been blocked intentionally, implying that the space was no longer being used for cultic activity.
This suggestion appears to be an overreading, and is based only on a depression in the floor and small piece of plasters, no bigger than 5 cm, found at the entrance of the back-chamber.
An even bigger problem with the suggestion that the cult-site was decommissioned and repurposed before the Assyrian conquest is that cult-items were found in the “unsealed” front part of the chamber together with four arrowheads and a sling stone. Their appearance near the arrowheads implies ongoing ritual activity until the Assyrian destruction in 701 B.C.E., 15 years after the suggested time of Hezekiah’s reform.
This in turn calls into question the interpretation of the broken altar horns and the cubical stone “toilet”: If the altar had been vandalized by the Judahites to decommission it, and a symbolic toilet seat installed to defile the sacred space, why would they continue to use such a site for cultic purposes?
The Altar at Beersheba
Tell es-Seba, better known as Tel Sheba, holds the remains of the ancient city of Beersheba, located slightly to the east of the modern city. The excavations were conducted in the 60s and 70s by Yohanan Aharoni (1919–1976) of Tel Aviv University, who discovered, during the fourth season, several stones that had once been part of a horned altar, inside the wall of a house. The fact that a horn had been cut from one of the stones, likely to avoid its bulging out of the wall, shows that the stones were no longer considered sacred. In a later season, the remaining stones were discovered in the fill of the city’s glacis (sloping bank of a fort).
The house was from Stratum II, which was destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E., therefore the altar had been disassembled earlier. Thus, Aharoni, and his protégé Ze’ev Herzog, also of Tel Aviv University, suggested that it was dismantled as part of Hezekiah’s cultic reform.
This interpretation is possible, but we lack sufficient information to suggest that it is the most likely interpretation. Other than the reused stones of this altar, we have no knowledge of any cultic site in Beersheba, either from the Bible or archaeology. Indeed, we do not know where the altar was located when it functioned, and whether it was in a cultic corner, an open space, or a closed structure: no temple remains have been uncovered in Beersheba. Thus all we can say is that at some point before 701 B.C.E., this altar was decommissioned and used as fill for other building projects—but nothing suggests that it be specifically connected to Hezekiah’s reform.
The Sanctuary at Arad
The archaeological finding that motivated archaeologists to see Hezekiah’s reform as historical, is the temple in Tel Arad, a site in the Negev desert, approximately 30 km northeast of Beersheba. Inside its impressive fort, Yohanan Aharoni uncovered a sanctuary, including a sacrificial altar, several incense altars, and a מַצֵּבָה, “standing stone.”
As study of the site and its strata advanced, Ze’ev Herzog argued that stratum VIII, after Sennacherib’s campaign, did not function as a worship site, but served simply as a fort. Moreover, the Stratum IX structure stopped being used as a temple even before the conquest. According to Herzog the evidence for this desacralizing is:
- A metal object, possibly for holding the burning coals, was removed from the head of the sacrificial altar;
- The standing stone (מצבה) was laid on its side;
- The incense altars were buried below the floor of the debir (“holy of holies”);
- No remains of cultic paraphernalia or votive offerings were found, implying that they were removed.
Aharoni and Herzog both connected this decommissioning with Hezekiah’s reform. Yet, the question of what led to the abandonment of the Arad temple is fraught, and other scholars argue that it fell victim to the Assyrian campaign. Moreover, even if the sacred structure was intentionally buried, one need not turn to religious reform to explain this.
The decommissioning and burial of formerly sacred objects is seen elsewhere in the ancient Near East. For example, in Alalakh (in modern Turkey), Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) uncovered a statue of the deified king Idrimi buried in a pit inside the temple complex.
Apparently, after the statue was torn from its throne and desecrated, probably by Hittite invaders in the 14th century, the local Semitic inhabitants buried the statue before building a new temple on the site of the previously destroyed one. Closer to home is the evidence from the temple at Tẹ̄l Kittān, located in the Beth-Shean valley, where, in the course of the erection of a new sacred structure, the builders carefully and intentionally buried the older temple and its furnishings.
In these scenarios, the people did not mean to decommission the place, and certainly not to desecrate it or violate its sanctity. Rather, the burial of holy objects no longer to be used was done with respect to the old cult place, its furnishings, and the gods these represented. The same may have been the case at Arad; we need not turn to widespread religious reform to explain this.
Inconsistent Means of Desecration
Even aside from the alternative interpretations for each site presented above, the three parade examples for Hezekiah’s reform show a clear inconsistency: In Lachish, the site was supposedly defiled by vandalism and the instillation of a toilet. Similarly, in Beersheba, the altar is treated as scrap, though we have no idea what happened to the cultic site. In Arad, however, the objects are buried with care and treated as retaining a residual holiness.
This suggests that these three sites should not be seen as part of a single cultic reform dictated by the reigning king, and probably carried out, or at least overseen, by his representatives from Jerusalem, as such a reform would have left more consistent evidence.
De Facto Centralization
Thus, the interpretation of the findings in these sites as evidence for Hezekiah’s reform seems unlikely. And yet, one problem remains: Why were the sacred structures at Arad, Beer Sheba and Lachish never recommissioned in the aftermath of the settlement with Assyria? The simple answer, I would argue, has to do with economics rather than religion.
After the loss of most of its territory and the burden of the siege on Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Judah only recovered slowly, after which Judah functioned as an Assyrian vassal state that had to pay substantial tribute. During this period, Judah’s political and economic power was limited to Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity.
The state was probably unable to fund the re-furnishing and the maintenance of public cult places, and the official cult could only be carried out in Jerusalem. Indeed, no new state-supported structures of any type were erected. Thus, the end of Hezekiah’s reign would have been characterized by de facto centralization.
As Wellhausen already noted, after the idea of centralization was established by the Deuteronomic school as a religious ideal, the authors of Kings would also have wanted to include the righteous King Hezekiah as well. Hezekiah’s reform was thus was not a literary “invention” by the author of the book of Kings, but his reinterpretation of the de facto centralization of cult in Jerusalem that took place for economic and political during his reign after the disaster of the Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 B.C.E.
The loss of the Judahite cult places and Hezekiah’s inability to finance their reconstruction are negative circumstances that would have cast a negative light on the “good” King Hezekiah. The biblical authors thus transformed this memory into the positive, powerful cult reform initiated by the king that presaged the later reform of his great-grandson Josiah.
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Dr. Sabine Kleiman is a Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures. She holds a Ph.D. in Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures, and an M.A. in Archaeology and History of the Land of the Bible, both from Tel Aviv University, and a Dipl. Theology from the University of Heidelberg. Kleiman is currently working on her Habilitation at the University of Tübingen's Department of Old Testament Studies, dealing with the topic of David's Rise, and she is a Field Director at “The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.”
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