Arad (Numbers 33)

The ancient Israelite city of Arad was located at modern Tell Arad, in the Negev south of Jerusalem. Archaeological excavations there has uncovered a large, well-preserved, Early Bronze Age city that served as an important post on key trade routes. Hebrew ostraca (pottery fragments containing writing) bearing the name Arad have been found there, as have a large quantity of ostraca bearing other Hebrew or Aramaic inscriptions.

A series of fortified occupations dating from the reign of Solomon to that of Zedekiah also have been found at Tell Arad. The site appears to have been more or less deserted during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, but during the Iron Age Israelites built a fortress on the summit of Tell Arad to guard the eastern Negev basin from nomadic peoples and Transjordian enemies – especially from Edom. The structures belonging to the final level of Israelite occupation at Arad were destroyed during the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 B.C.

An impressive Israelite temple has also been unearthed at Arad. The only Israelite temple recovered by archaeologists to date, it may have been modelled after Solomon’s temple; like Solomon’s it was oriented toward the east. This structure had a sacrificial altar in the courtyard, as well as two incense altars and two standing stones in its “Most Holy Place”.

Archaeologists have determined that this particular temple was deliberately put out of use. This probably happened during the reforms of either Hezekiah or Josiah, when local temples situated outside of the control of the king and the Jerusalem priesthood were dismantled because they tended to become focal points for the growth of pagan and/or aberrant religious movements.

The location of Arad, however, poses a problem related to the conquest narrative. The king Arad attacked the Israelites, who were traveling near the southern border of Canaan. After suffering an initial loss, Israel defeated thisking and destroyed his cities (Numbers 21:1-3). Yet Tell Arad lacks any remains dating to the time of Moses. A possible solution exists in the campaign account of Pharaoh Shishak, whose tenth-century B.C. list mentions the conquest of two Arads: Arad the Great and Arad of Yrhm. The Israelites could have destroyed the second Arad, the location of which remains uncertain. Another possibility is that the Arad mentioned in Numbers 21 actually refers to the general region and that the king of Arad (Numbers 21:1) lived in the city of Hormah (Numbers 21:3).

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