Defiling a Shrine with a Toilet
In 2016, archaeologists at the site of Tel Lachish in Israel
discovered a toilet that very likely played an important role in a
religious reform in the Kingdom of Judah during the eighth century B.C.E.
King Hezekiah carried out sweeping religious changes
throughout his kingdom.
He abolished the local worship of traditional deities in favor of
centralized worship of the one God of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The toilet discovered at Tel Lachish seems to have been used
to ritually defile a temple dedicated to the Levantine god Ba'al.
Ba'al, known as
to the Israelites,
and Βάαλ to the later Greeks,
was a prominent deity of the ancient Levant.
The name Ba'al was used to refer to the primary god in the local religions.
He was associated with the storm and rain god Hadad
in the northwest Semitic and ancient Mesopotamian religions.
The earliest Israelites sometimes used Ba'al to refer
to their god Yahweh.
In Canaan, Ba'al eventually replaced El
as the leader of the gods and the patron of the kingship.
Ba'al, like Hadad, was a weather god, attributed with power over
lightning, wind, rain, and thus with fertility.
Scholars propose that the actual name Hadad or Yahweh
became too holy to be spoken aloud by anyone other than the high priests.
An alias, basically "Lord", was used instead.
This was Ba'al or Bel in place of Marduk.
Or, for the Hebrews,
both of them alternative ways to refer to Yahweh,
the Lord of Israel, without saying the holy name.
in the original, was
the 13th king of Judah.
He witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by
Sargon's Assyrians in about 720 BCE,
and was the king of Judah during the invasion and siege of Jerusalem
by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE.
2 Kings 18-20,
2 Chronicles 29-32,
Hezekiah assumed the throne at the age of 25 and reigned for 29 years,
in 715-687 BCE.
Hezekiah imposed a restriction for the sole worship of Yahweh within the
Jerusalem Temple, forbidding the veneration of other deities.
Yes, until that time you could go to the Temple in Jerusalem and
pray or make an offering to any deity you chose.
It was ecumenical and then some.
Hezekiah started by cleansing and repairing the Temple in Jerusalem,
and then reforming the priesthood.
Hezekiah was driven by his belief that his ancestors
had not properly worshiped Yahweh the God of Israel.
2 Kings 18:4,
he "removed the bamot (or high places),
broke down the masseboth (or pillars),
and cut down the Asherah (or the sacred pole)."
That is, he destroyed the facilities where the other deities were
Tel Lachish, or
in the original, later called
by the Greeks, was the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah.
The Iron Age version of Lachish
was a city covering over 7 hectares within a city wall
with a six-chambered gate complex.
Tel means "mound".
Ancient cities were usually built on a high spot that grew taller
over time as waste material and old construction layers accumulated.
The site of Lachish was occupied since the Neolithic period,
in about 5500-4500 BCE.
It began to be developed as a community during the Early Bronze Age,
in 3300-3000 BCE.
Later, during the period 2000-1650 BCE,
Egypt influenced the growing settlement at Lachish.
Lachish became more significant and grew under Egyptian patronage.
The city was destroyed by fire in about 1150.
The Canaanites rebuilt the city, under the protection of New Kingdom
But another fire, perhaps caused by an attack by either the Sea Peoples
or the Israelites, soon destroyed the city again.
The site was abandoned for two centuries.
The Israelites resettled the site during the Early Iron Age,
in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE.
The site wasn't fortified yet, and may have been destroyed by forces
of the Egyptian Pharaoh Sheshonk I around 925 BCE.
After that, in the early 800s BCE, Lachish was rebuilt and fortified.
That was when they built the massive walls and gate complex explored
in the 2016 archaeological dig.
That gate complex was 24.5 meters on each side.
The archaeologists found some storage jars labeled with
LMLK, meaning "Belonging to the King".
A large room, apparently a shrine, was part of the gate complex.
The shrine room held two four-horned altars, with the horns
deliberately damaged, plus several ceramic lamps, bowls, and stands.
This was as referenced in the Biblical description of Hezekiah's effort to
reform religion by centralizing worship in the Temple of Jerusalem and
abolishing it elsewhere.
A century earlier, Jehu, who killed and took the throne of the
Northern Kingdom of Israel, had converted a temple of Ba'al
into a functioning latrine.
One corner of the shrine room contained a toilet.
The archaeologists concluded that this was the toilet-based desecration
2 Kings 10:27:
"Then they demolished the pillar of Ba'al, and destroyed the temple
of Ba'al, and made it a latrine to this day."
Lab tests failed to find fecal remains.
It hadn't been used there.
Its presence was entirely symbolic.
This process of desecrating a site with a toilet had been described
However, this 2016 discovery was the first to document
an example of the action.
See the Biblical Archaeology Society article
Latrine: A Peek into King Hezekiah's Reforms in the Bible?",
the Biblical Archaeology Review article
to the Bathroom at Lachish",
and the Israel Antiquities Authority article
Important Archaeological Discovery: A Gate-Shrine Dating to the
First Temple Period was Exposed In Excavations of the
Israel Antiquities Authority in the Tel Lachish National Park".
The archaeologists described the object as a stone seat with a central hole,
very clearly a toilet.
It was a functional toilet, moved from elsewhere within the site.
So, Lachish at approximately 700 BCE in the Iron Age
had toilets, and therefore some type of sanitary drainage.
Lachish was on a local high spot, a tel.
Waste could drain out of the city
through small openings in the defensive walls.
Above is an earlier sewage drain through defensive city walls.
This is at
Tiryns, in Greece.
Tiryns, like the nearby Mycenae, reached its peak in 1400-1200 BCE
during the Bronze Age.
Below is a sewage drain within the Phrygian settlement built on the
earlier Hittite capital of
The Phrygian occupation of the site dates to about 1200-700 BCE.
This is next to today's small Turkish farming village of
Boğazkale, east of Ankara and north of Cappadocia.
Hezekiah was a religious reformer.
In addition to destroying the indigenous religion's high places
and centralizing and formalizing worship in Jerusalem,
he re-established the Passover pilgrimage.
He restarted the tradition of inviting the scattered tribes of Israel
to a Passover festival in Jerusalem.
Sennacherib of Assyria Moves Against Judah
Sargon II, the King of Assyria, died in 705 BCE.
States that were subject to Assyria, including Judah,
saw an opportunity to break their subservience to Assyria.
Hezekiah quit paying the tribute established by his father.
In 703 BCE, Sargon's son Sennacherib began a series of military campaigns.
Having dealt with rebels to his east, in 701 BCE Sennacherib turned
to the west, including Judah.
Hezekiah had entered into a league with Egypt,
but Egypt did not come to his aid.
Hezekiah's Defenses, Including His Water Tunnel
Hezekiah built the Broad Wall around Jerusalem,
a defensive wall seven meters thick.
That construction is described in the book of
Hezekiah also directed impressive water projects.
His hydraulic engineers built the Siloam Tunnel
connecting the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam
and further securing the water supply for Jerusalem.
Seige warfare, especially in the
Iron Age Levant,
relied on waiting until the besieged fortress ran out of clean water.
Hezekiah's tunnel was intended to provide Jerusalem with enough water
to withstand a siege.
Sennacherib's Assyrian forces captured Lachish in 701 BCE.
They besieged Jerusalem, but Hezekiah made a deal that kept him in power.
The details depend on whose record you read.
Assyrian records say that Hezekiah formally recognized Sennacherib
as his overlord and paid tribute.
Archaeologists discovered Sennacherib's Prism
in the ruins of the palace in Nineveh.
This was a cuneiform document more three-dimensional than
the usual bun-shaped tablet.
It describes the Assyrian conquest of 46 strong towns "and uncountable
smaller places", plus a siege of Jerusalem in which Sennecherib says
"As to Hezekiah, the Jew ... Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem,
his royal residence, like a bird in a cage."
The Hebrew Bible says that Hezekiah paid three hundred talents of silver
and thirty talents of gold, taking precious metal off the doors of the
Temple to make the payment.
But after the payment, Sennacherib renewed the siege.
He sent a Hebrew-speaking representative to talk to the soldiers
on the defensive walls, saying that Hezekiah's destruction of the
traditional High Places would lose the support of the associated deities.
Sennacherib's Prism records a payment of 800 silver talents, not 300.
This may have been because of differing units of measure,
but it's likely due to what historians have noticed as
an Assyrian tendency for exaggeration.
Several ancient descriptions report large numbers of Assyrian deaths.
One theory is that may have been an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
The Greek historian Herodotus said that it was a plague of mice.
2 Kings 19:35
in the the Hebrew Bible,
the angel of Jehovah killed 185,000 Assyrian troops in one night.
Sennacherib eventually ended the siege and withdrew his military forces.
He was assassinated in Assyria 20 years later, in 681 BCE.
Meanwhile, in Judah, Hezekiah continued as sole ruler until 697 BCE
and then was co-regent with his son Manasseh until his death in 687 BCE.
Judah was the strongest nation along the frontier between Assyria and Egypt
during this time.
Jerusalem grew during Hezekiah's rule, reaching a population of about
25,000, five times what it had been under Solomon.
Most of the population of the kingdom of Judah lived in the city
of Jerusalem, the other cities were much smaller.
Some of the population growth was probably due to people from the northern
Kingdom of Israel fleeing Assyrian destruction.
Literacy and the production of literary works both increased under Hezekiah.
The Siloam Water Tunnel
Hezekiah's Tunnel, the Siloam Tunnel or
is 533 meters long.
If the description we have of its construction is accurate,
it's an amazing example of Iron Age tunneling.
The tunnel was dug by two teams.
They started from each end and managed to meet in the middle.
In modern times the tunnel was first described by Franciscus Quaresmius in 1625.
Other scholars explored and described the tunnel in the 19th century.
The Canaanites had built a fortified tower around the Gihon Spring,
and by 1800 BCE a Canaanite tunnel had collected the spring water.
However, that tunnel released it into the Kidron Valley.
This supported farming crucial to Jerusalem,
but it made the water available to besieging armies.
Hezekiah blocked that earlier tunnel and redirected the
Gihon Spring water into a new tunnel leading to the Pool of Siloam.
The Hebrew Bible mentions the tunnel project in multiple places.
The rest of Hezekiah’s deeds and all his powerful acts—how
he made the pool and the channel and brought water inside
the city—aren’t they written in the official records of Judah’s kings?
2 Kings 20:20
After these things and these faithful acts, Assyria’s King Sennacherib
invaded Judah and attacked its fortified cities, intending to capture them.
When Hezekiah realized that Sennacherib also planned on fighting Jerusalem,
he consulted with his officials and soldiers about stopping up the springs
outside the city, and they supported him.
A large force gathered to stop up all the springs and the streams
that flowed through the land.
"Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?" they asked.
Hezekiah vigorously rebuilt all the broken sections of the wall,
erected towers, constructed another wall outside the first,
reinforced the terrace of David’s City,
and made a large supply of weapons and shields.
2 Chronicles 32:1-5
Hezekiah was the one who blocked the upper outlet of the waters of
the Gihon Spring, channeling them down to the west side of David’s City.
Hezekiah succeeded in all that he did,
even in the matter of the ambassadors sent from Babylonian officials
to find out about the miraculous sign that occurred in the land,
when God had abandoned him in order to test him
and to discover what was in his heart.
2 Chronicles 32:30-31
You made a reservoir between the walls for the water of the earlier pool.
But you didn’t trust its maker;
you didn’t consider the one [Hezekiah] who planned it long ago.
'Ain Silwân or the
Pool of Siloam was between the Fountain Gate,
at the southern tip of the city, and the King's Garden,
a tract at the junction of the Kidron Valley and the Tyropoeon Valley.
chapter of the Gospel of John
describes Jesus healing a blind man
at 'Ain Silwân or the Pool of Siloam.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth.
Jesus' disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind,
this man or his parents?"
Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents.
This happened so that God's mighty works might be displayed in him.
While it's daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me.
Night is coming when no one can work.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva,
and smeared the mud on the man's eyes.
Jesus said to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (this word means sent).
So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
The man's neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said,
"Isn't this the man who used to sit and beg?"
Some said, "It is,"
and others said, "No, it's someone who looks like him."
But the man said, "Yes, it's me!"
So they asked him, "How are you now able to see?"
He answered, "The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes,
and said, 'Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.'
So I went and washed, and then I could see."
They asked, "Where is this man?"
He replied, "I don't know."
Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees.
Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man's eyes on a Sabbath day.
So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
The man told them, "He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see."
Some Pharisees said, "This man isn't from God, because he breaks the
Others said, "How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?"
So they were divided.
Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again:
"What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?"
He replied, "He's a prophet."
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