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The Mysterious Silver Hoard from Eshtemoa, Ze’ev Yeivin, BAR 13:06, Nov-Dec 1987.

eshtemoa-synagogue-doorwayTwelve miles south of Hebron (the city associated with the patriarch Abraham) lies an Arab village named es-Samoa. As is well known, modern Arab place names often preserve in a variant form an ancient place name that attached to the same spot thousands of years earlier. Es-Samoa is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Philologically, it represents a transformation into Arabic of the ancient name Eshtemoa, a town known to us from the Bible.

Geographically, the Biblical Eshtemoa fits the location of es-Samoa and thus supports the equation es-Samoa = Eshtemoa. In Joshua 15-50, Eshtemoa is listed among the towns in the hill country of Judah. In Joshua 21-39 and in a parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 6-42, we are told that Eshtemoa was a Levitical city of refuge, near Hebron, given to the sons of Aaron-

“To the descendants of Aaron the priest they assigned Hebron, the city of refuge for murderers, together with its pastures … [and] Eshtemoa and its pastures” (Joshua 21-39).

Similarly in Chronicles-

“To the sons of Aaron they gave the cities of refuge in Hebron … and Eshtemoa” (1 Chronicles 6-42).

Eshtemoa/es-Samoa was inhabited thereafter for thousands of years, down to the present day. In post-Biblical times, it flourished as a Jewish city from about the third/fourth centuries A.D. to the ninth/tenth centuries A.D.

Some of the ancient houses are still used by village families today. Stone lintels over the entrance doorways of several houses contain engraved menorahs, the seven-branched candelabra, in situ reminders of the original Jewish occupants of the buildings. On other houses we notice, on the stone entrance jambs, indentations that once housed mezzuzahs. A mezzuzah is a tiny inscribed scroll, placed in an indentation or in a receptacle attached to a doorway, in fulfillment of the Biblical commandment to “inscribe [these words] on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deuteronomy 6-8). Some of the indentations for mezzuzahs at Eshtemoa are decorated with small, engraved menorahs. One house even has an ancient white mosaic floor still in use today.

In the center of the village just off the main road stands a beautiful ancient synagogue that was used for over 600 years, beginning about the third/fourth century A.D. The main hall of the synagogue is a so-called broad house- It is wider than it is long; that is, the “front” of the building is on the long wall. Inside the synagogue, on the long, north wall, facing Jerusalem, is a wide niche flanked by two smaller niches. The center niche once housed a wooden Torah ark containing the scrolls of the Pentateuch or Torah. Each of the smaller niches probably contained a large freestanding menorah. In front of the Torah shrine are the remains of a decorated bema (reading platform). On either side of the Torah shrine along the north wall—the prestigious “Jerusalem wall”—are limestone benches for honored members of the congregation.

The floor of the main hall was paved with a mosaic carpet, only a few parts of which have survived. It consists solely of geometric and some floral designs.

The synagogue was first surveyed and partly excavated by the late L. Y. Mayer and A. Reifenberg in 1936.1 In 1968, as archaeological staff officer for Judea and Samaria, I was assigned to clean, excavate and conserve this ancient synagogue. Among the adjacent structures we examined was a room joined from outside to the northern wall of the synagogue—apparently a later addition to the synagogue. This room had been lived in until shortly before our examination of it.

Less than two feet below the floor of this room, we made an extraordinary discovery. There, in a natural hole in the bedrock, were five Iron Age jugs—from the First Temple period. Each jug was filled with silver. When later weighed, it turned out that there were 62 pounds of silver in these five jars.

This is the largest silver hoard ever discovered in the Land of Israel.2 It is most unlikely that such a quantity of silver would have been private property; it probably belonged to the government.
What were over 60 pounds of silver doing less than two feet beneath the floor of a room that had, until recently, been lived in by a local villager?

The five jugs in which the silver was found contained nothing but the silver, which has now been studied in some detail. Some of the silver objects were melted pieces without any definite form. However, a large amount of the silver hoard consisted of cut-up pieces of silver (“cut silver”), and silver jewelry intentionally destroyed. Apparently, it was cut up so that the pieces would fit through the jugs’ relatively small mouths.

We know the silver came from a number of sources because the metal compound differs somewhat from piece to piece. All the pieces contain a high percentage of silver, varying from 78 percent to 97 percent. The remaining contents of the compounds vary; they include a small percentage of copper, magnesium and sometimes even gold.

Our first thought was that this silver hoard might be the booty David gave to Eshtemoa, as recorded in 1 Samuel 30-26–28. When David fled from the wrath of King Saul, David temporarily joined the Philistines, who gave him the city of Ziklag to rule. Shortly thereafter, Ziklag was attacked and destroyed by the Amalekites, Israel’s mortal enemy. David pursued the Amalekites and ultimately defeated them, recovering an enormous amount of booty the Amalekites had taken on previous raids against Judah as well as against the Philistines.

David distributed some of this booty to the elders of various cities in Judah-

“When David reached Ziklag, he sent some of the spoil to the elders of Judah [and] to his friends, saying, ‘This is a present for you from our spoil of the enemies of the Lord.’ [He sent the spoil to the elders] in Bethel, Ramoth-negeb, and Jattir; in Aroer, Siphmoth, and Eshtemoa … all the places where David and his men had roamed” (1 Samuel 30-26–28, 30).

Could this have been the silver spoil David had given to the elders of Eshtemoa? we asked ourselves. This intriguing suggestion foundered on the hard facts of pottery chronology and epigraphy. The five jugs in which the silver hoard was stored can be dated possibly to the late tenth century or to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.,3 but in any event after the reign of King David and his son Solomon. David became king about 1000 B.C., so his gift to the elders of Eshtemoa must have occurred in the late 11th century B.C. One way the silver hoard is dated is by the pottery in which it was found. Three of the five jugs are similar. Each has a ball-shaped body, a long, thin neck, a double-profiled rim, a ring base and a single, smooth handle. They can be dated to the late tenth century B.C. at the earliest.a

Inscriptions on the jugs also help to date them. Two of the three jugs mentioned above contain clearly written Hebrew inscriptions on the bodies of the jugs; each reads “H|MSð,” meaning five or fifth. The third jug mentioned above bears traces of red that appear to be another inscription of the same word. The red H| is drawn with two stripes, a form that was common in the ninth century B.C. or perhaps a little earlier, and can be compared with the same letter on some tenth to eighth-century B.C. ostraca from Arad.4

The M (Mem) has a short tail and lies horizontally. Such a Mem appears in two other places, on the Gezer Tablet (end of the tenth century B.C.) and on a jar from Tel Amal (1000–950 B.C.).
The third letter, the Sð, is a wide letter that is characteristically—but not definitely—thought to belong to the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.

The silver hoard from Eshtemoa could be spoil from an encounter some hundred years after King David’s time, but more likely it is an administrative hoard of taxes. Eshtemoa, which was a Levitical city, as we have seen, may even have been a center of tax collection at this time, from which taxes were then sent to the royal court in Jerusalem. Professor Benjamin Mazar has pointed out that the administrative system established by King Solomon, in which the country was divided into 12 administrative districts (1 Kings 3-7–20), continued to be used. The post-Solomonic system of taxation in Judah was very similar to the Egyptian system. The Eshtemoa hoard might well be a part of the taxes collected from the surrounding area under Levitical administration following King Solomon’s death. The taxes would be brought to the Levitical city of Eshtemoa, where the objects would be gathered together and then appropriately separated, prior to delivery to the nation’s capital, Jerusalem.

In a curious way the inscription on three of the jugs, “H|MSð,” supports this interpretation.

The late Professor Yigael Yadin suggested the inscriptions, meaning five or fifth, referred to the weight of the silver in the three jugs bearing this inscription. We tested this hypothesis by weighing the silver but could find no evidence to support the theory. Dr. Avraham Eran, an expert in ancient metrology, supports Yadin’s suggestion and thinks that the word five refers to five manas, a mana being 100 shekels of 8.19 grams each, according to the Mesopotamian standard.

I believe, however, that the more likely explanation is that five or fifth refers to some kind of tax, as was initially suggested to me by Professor Ephraim Stern. A tax known as ma’aser, which means tenth part, is well known from the Bible. It is first mentioned in Genesis 14-20, where it is commonly translated tithe (meaning tenth). There Abram gives to Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem?) and priest of God Most High (El Elyon), a tenth (ma’aser) of “everything.” From then on, the ma’aser became a permanent tax, initially to God, later to the priests or to the Levites—a tenth part of everything. This tax changed its form and later became a royal tax during the Israelite Monarchy.
Just as there was a ma’aser, which taxed the tenth part, there may have been a tax referred to as “fifth” (h\omesh in Hebrew) for a fifth part.

Indeed the Bible itself—in the story of Joseph in Egypt—supports this theory-

“Then Joseph said to the people, ‘Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth [H|MSð] to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children’” (Genesis 47-23–24).

Even if the “fifth” tax was an Egyptian conception, it is quite possible that the post-Solomonic system of taxation in Judah was very similar to the Egyptian system, an especially plausible suggestion in light of the significant influence Egypt exerted on Israel.

In an efficient administration, taxes were probably brought to administrative centers, like Eshtemoa. In these centers, the taxes would be carefully sorted- silver in one group, gold in another and jewelry in a third. At Eshtemoa, we found only silver, which had been carefully placed in five jugs. Larger pieces of silver had been cut or bent to fit into the jugs. Jewelry was regarded only for its silver content and not for its art, for it too had been cut to fit into the jugs. Approximately 20 pieces of silver from the hoard were tested by the crime laboratory of the Israeli police in order to determine how many tools had been used to cut the silver pieces. The results were surprising- At least five pieces had been cut with the same iron chisel, which left its traces on the cuts.
The final mystery, for which we have no explanation, is why this silver hoard, if it indeed represents taxes collected from the surrounding region, never reached the royal treasury in Jerusalem.

a. Similar jugs with a doubled rim, a ring base and a single handle were found in Stratum 12 at Arad, which is dated from the end of the 11th to the beginning of the 10th century B.C. In Tell Beit Mirsim, Stratum A, two additional, similar jugs were found, belonging to the ninth to eighth centuries B.C. From the end of the tenth century came a similar jar from Ta’anach Stratum IIb. In Lachish, Stratum III (900–700 B.C.) and Megiddo, Strata III–IV and VI (1150–650 B.C.) other jugs were found comparable to the Eshtemoa jugs.

1. E. L. Mayer and L. M. Reifenberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a short report in Yediot (Vol. 9, 5702, pp. 41–44), the quarterly of the Israel Exploration Society.

2. Similar silver hoards have been found at Megiddo (Megiddo II [Chicago, 1948], pl. 229, pp. 7–9), at Shechem (Shechem, [London, 1965], p. 8), at Gezer (Gezer II, [Jerusalem- Hebrew Union College and Archaeological School in Jerusalem, 1974], p. 262, fig. 408), as well as at other sites in Israel, but none contains such an unusual quantity as at Eshtemoa.

3. The clearest parallels come from Megiddo level VI, Ta’anach level IIb, Lachish level III, Tell Beth Mirsim level A, as well as from other sites that provide an average date of ninth to eighth centuries B.C.

4. A similar H| was found on an ostracon from Arad that dates not later than the eighth century B.C. and not earlier than the tenth century B.C. A similar H| can be seen on the Gezer calendar from the tenth century B.C., but this is incised on stone so it is not a good comparison to our painted H|. A similar H| appears on a decanter found at el-Kom, near Hebron, belonging to the eighth century B.C.

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