By May 2, 2016 Read More →

Yigael Yadin 1917–1984, Hershel Shanks, BAR 10-05, Sep-Oct 1984

yigael yadinIsrael’s most celebrated Biblical archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, died of a heart attack on June 28 at the age of 67. The world of Biblical archaeology has been impoverished.

Yadin was struck down at his weekend home in Michmoret on the Mediterranean Sea, suddenly and without warning.
All Israel mourned. The general-archaeologist who had led Israel’s fledgling army in its 1948 War of Independence was given a military funeral. The only eulogy was delivered by the president of the state.

Yadin was born with a trowel in his hand. His father, Eliezer L. Sukenik, was one of the pre-state’s leading archaeologists, a pioneer in a profession in its infancy. Sukenik and his wife Hasya, both staunch Zionists, had emigrated from Poland in 1912 and settled in Jerusalem. Their son Yigael was born on March 21, 1917.

At the age of 15, Yigael Sukenik joined Haganah, the underground defense force of the Jewish community in Palestine. There he acquired the name Yadin. Ben-Gurion insisted that all officers in Haganah have secret code names. Yadin was the name given to young Sukenik. It means “will judge,” as used in a number of Psalms: “The Lord will judge the people” (Psalm 7:8); “the Lord will judge the world in righteousness” (Psalm 9:8). After the war, he kept the name.

His first name had been given to him by his father. It means to be freed or redeemed. Once BAR indicated that Yigael, which is in the passive form, should be pronounced Yigull (the active form), like another popular Hebrew name. Yadin wrote the editor: “My name is pronounced Yi-ga-el (to rhyme with Israel), not Yi-gull. The name means in Hebrew, ‘He will be redeemed.’ True, there exists another name, Yigal, which means, ‘he will redeem,’ given by fathers more conceited than mine.”

By May 1948, when Israel was declared a state, Yigael Yadin was Haganah’s Chief of Operations. After Haganah became the Israel Defense Forces, Yadin served as its Chief of Staff. During Israel’s War of Independence, he developed a military strategy based partly on his study of the battles in the Bible. He also used his knowledge of long-lost Roman roads to gain logistical advantage. “The topography of war,” he once said, “doesn’t change very much.” On one occasion he captured a large Egyptian force, its brigadier still in pajamas, by sending Israeli troops along the course of a 2,000-year-old road buried under sand dunes.

At the end of the war, his armies successful, Yadin served as a delegate to the Israeli-Arab armistice negotiations on Rhodes. At the age of 32, he had become a national hero, having played a crucial role in the founding of a nation.

In 1952, he returned to his first love, archaeology. Not long thereafter Yadin became intimately involved, as his father Sukenik had been, in Israel’s acquisition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yadin tells the dramatic story in a short popular book entitled The Message of the Scrolls. In late November 1947, Sukenik received a fragment from one of the scrolls, followed soon thereafter by other fragments. Sukenik quickly recognized their importance—he was the first to do so. At the time, the British had divided Jerusalem into Arab and Jewish areas separated by barbed wire. The scrolls were being kept by a dealer in Bethlehem, an Arab town beyond Arab Jerusalem. At the same time, in Lake Success, New York, the United Nations was debating a resolution recommending the end of the British Mandate and the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. Passage of the resolution would lead to the rebirth of the Jewish state. But passage would also make violence and hostility likely. Indeed, according to Yadin, Haganah intelligence reported that Arab attacks on Jewish cities and settlements were almost certain to follow passage of the resolution. Should Sukenik go to Bethlehem to try to buy the scrolls? Yadin advised his father against it. Sukenik disregarded his son’s advice.

On November 29, 1947, Sukenik crossed over to Arab Jerusalem and took a bus to Bethlehem; he was the only Jewish rider. Later in the day, he returned unharmed, with three ancient scrolls wrapped in paper tucked under his arm. When he arrived in Jerusalem virtually trembling with excitement, he learned that the United Nations had passed by the necessary two-thirds vote the resolution that would create a Jewish state. “Joy and apprehension filled every Jewish heart,” said Yadin. Hostilities broke out the next day.

Yadin later wrote of this moment:
“I cannot avoid the feeling that there is something symbolic in the discovery of the scrolls and their acquisition at the moment of the creation of the State of Israel. It is as if these manuscripts had been waiting in caves for two thousand years, ever since the destruction of Israel’s independence, until the people of Israel had returned to their home and regained their freedom. This symbolism is heightened by the fact that the first three scrolls were bought by my father for Israel on 29th November, 1947, the very day on which the United Nations voted for the re-creation of the Jewish state in Israel after two thousand years. These facts may have influenced my approach to the scrolls. It was a tremendously exciting experience, difficult to convey in words, to see the original scrolls and to study them, knowing that some of the Biblical manuscripts were copied only a few hundred years after their composition, and that these very scrolls were read and studied by our forefathers in the period of the Second Temple. They constitute a vital link—long lost and now regained—between those ancient times, so rich in civilized thought, and the present day. And just as a Christian reader must be moved by the knowledge that here he has a manuscript of a sect whom the early Christians may have known and by whom they may have been influenced, so an Israeli and a Jew can find nothing more deeply moving than the study of manuscripts written by the People of the Book in the Land of the Book more than two thousand years ago.”

Sukenik had obtained only three of the seven major scrolls, however. The other four found their way to America, where the Metropolitan Samuela tried to sell them. This proved more difficult than the Metropolitan had anticipated. Eventually, he placed a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal:

“‘The Four Dead Sea Scrolls’ Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group. Box E206 The Wall St. Journal.”

The year was 1953 and Yadin was in the United States on a lecture tour. Someone called the ad to Yadin’s attention, and through intermediaries Yadin arranged to purchase the scrolls for the State of Israel, thus completing the task his father had started. The price for the four scrolls, incidentally, was $250,000—$62,500 each. Although eventually it was to Israel’s benefit, it is indeed curious that the Metropolitan Samuel was unable to sell them for more. Yale University turned them down, although Yale paid $450,000 for the Boswell papers at about the same time, as Edmund Wilson tells us in his book, The Scrolls from the Dead Sea; also at this time, $50,000 was being paid for the first version of Alice in Wonderland. Wilson concluded that “ … undoubtedly the principal obstacles [that the Metropolitan faced] were the relative poverty of such institutions—divinity schools and seminaries—as are interested in Biblical manuscripts and the high susceptibility of rich collectors, cultivated by the book dealers through decades, to first editions of classics that are perfectly accessible to everybody.”

Today the seven scrolls are housed in the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Yadin himself edited two of the seven scrolls, the War Scroll and the Genesis Apocryphon Scroll.Between 1956 and 1958 Yadin led a major excavation at the mound of Hazor, the largest expedition that had ever been mounted in Israel. For years, the Hazor expedition remained the high-water mark of Israeli archaeology, both methodologically and in terms of its finds. In a stratigraphically complex tell, Yadin separated 23 different occupational levels before reaching bedrock, including one that he identified as the city that Joshua burned, as well as a later, materially poor settlement that represented the first Israelite occupation of the mound. At Hazor, a whole new generation of Israeli archaeologists, now leaders of the profession, was trained.In the 1960s Yadin conducted his most famous excavation, at Masada, where Herod the Great built a three-tiered palace-fortress on a desolate, diamond-shaped mountain in the Judean wilderness and where, later, desperate Jewish Zealots flung defiance at their Roman oppressors, finally choosing suicide over surrender.In few sites has ancient reality been brought to life more vividly than at Masada. The finds were extraordinary. Herod’s luxurious palace contained magnificent frescoes and sumptuous tiled mosaic baths, a swimming pool, storerooms, cisterns, and even a synagogue, where fragments of ancient scrolls were uncovered along with several mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths). During the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66 A.D.–70 A.D.), the site was occupied by the Zealots. Even after the Romans were victorious, burning Jerusalem and destroying the Temple, the Zealots at Masada did not give up. They held out until 73 or 74 A.D. Yadin explored the remains of the threatening Roman camps at the foot of the mountain, as well as the huge ramp the Romans built to get their war machines to the top. He also found the remains of Masada’s defenders—their pots and lamps and ovens and mats and cloth, even their skeletons. In the end, he found heaps of ash and the inscribed lots by which the defenders may have decided who among them would be the last to live. Eleven inscribed potsherds were uncovered; on each was penned a single name, sometimes a nickname. One contained the name Ben Ya’ir. Eleazar Ben Ya’ir was the commander of the defenders of Masada. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, describes the casting of the lots:

“They then chose ten men by lot out of them, to slay all the rest; everyone of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office; and when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was to first kill the other nine, and after all, should kill himself.”Only Yadin’s own words can capture the drama of discovery at Masada:“We were arrested by a find which it is difficult to consider in archaeological terms, for such an experience is not normal in archaeological excavations. Even the veterans and the more cynical among us stood frozen, gazing in awe at what had been uncovered; for as we gazed, we relived the final and most tragic moments of the drama of Masada. Upon the steps leading to the cold-water pool and on the ground nearby were the remains of three skeletons. One was that of a man of about twenty—perhaps one of the commanders of Masada. Next to it we found hundreds of silvered scales of armour, scores of arrows, fragments of a prayer shawl (talith), and also an ostracon (an inscribed potsherd) with Hebrew letters. Not far off, also on the steps, was the skeleton of a young woman, with her scalp preserved intact because of the extreme dryness of the atmosphere. Her dark hair, beautifully plaited, looked as if it had just been freshly coiffured. Next to it the plaster was stained with what looked like blood. By her side were delicately fashioned lady’s sandals, styled in the traditional pattern of the period. The third skeleton was that of a child. There could be no doubt that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada.”Yadin concluded:

“It is thanks to Ben Ya’ir and his comrades, to their heroic stand, to their choice of death over slavery, and to the burning of their humble chattels as a final act of defiance to the enemy, that they elevated Masada to an undying symbol of desperate courage, a symbol which has stirred hearts throughout the last nineteen centuries. It is this which moved scholars and laymen to make the ascent to Masada. It is this which moved the modern Hebrew poet to cry ‘Masada shall not fall again!’ It is this which has drawn the Jewish youth of our generation in their thousands to climb to its summit in a solemn pilgrimage. And it is this which brings the recruits of the armoured units of the Defence Forces of modern Israel to swear the oath of allegiance on Masada’s heights. ‘Masada shall not fall again!’”

Masada has an additional significance in the annals of archaeology. Here, for the first time in the Near East, the actual excavating was done by thousands of student volunteers, instead of by paid workers; this practice has now become standard in Israel. As a result, a whole new generation of amateurs has “experienced” archaeology.

Yadin also led a team that systematically explored caves in the area where the original Dead Sea Scrolls were found. There he found packets of letters, some of which had been written by Bar-Kokhba, the hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132 A.D.–135 A.D.).

Yadin did not know immediately that some of the letters had actually been written by Bar-Kokhba. Only after the crumbly ancient papyrus was expertly unrolled could the letters be read. Yadin of course had an unparalleled flair for the dramatic. To disclose the nature of the find, he chose an occasion when the various teams that had explored the caves were invited to the home of the president of Israel to report on their discoveries. Gathered together for the occasion were not only the president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, but also the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, members of the Cabinet and of the Knesset. When it was his turn to make his presentation, Yadin flashed on the screen a slide of a letter. He read the first line aloud: “Shimeon Bar Kosiba [Bar-Kokhba], President over Israel.”

Yadin then turned to the president of Israel. “Your Excellency,” he said, “I am honored to be able to tell you that we have discovered fifteen dispatches written or dictated by the last president of ancient Israel, 1800 years ago.”

Yadin described the reaction:
“For a moment the audience seemed to be struck dumb. Then the silence was shattered with spontaneous cries of astonishment and joy. That evening the national radio interrupted its scheduled program to broadcast news of the discovery. Next day the newspapers came out with banner headlines over the announcement.”

It is unnecessary to describe Yadin’s most recent contribution to the stirring saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His involvement with the Temple Scroll is described by Yadin himself in this issue (see “The Temple Scroll—The Longest and Most Recently Discovered Dead Sea Scroll”).

In 1977, Yadin entered politics as the organizer and leader of a new party, the Democratic Movement for Change. In the 1977 election, the DMC won 15 seats, the third largest bloc won by any of Israel’s many parties. His votes were crucial to the formation of Menachem Begin’s first government, and Yadin became Deputy Prime Minister, a post he held for more than four years.

His party disintegrated under his leadership (or, it is said, his lack of leadership) and ultimately disappeared. Yet to call him a failed politician is not, I think, an entirely fair judgment.

Yadin was unsuccessful because his program was overtaken by events. He campaigned on a program to reform the proportional representation system by which Israel is governed and on the promise of streamlining its concededly overweening bureaucracy. After the election, he concluded quite reasonably that this could more likely be achieved by joining a government led by Begin’s Likud. Shortly thereafter, Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, and the Camp David agreements ensued. Peace became the overriding issue. Domestic reform was suddenly irrelevant. Yadin and his party lost their power.

Even in this context, Yadin performed loyally and responsibly. And even in this context, he achieved what he could. While Yadin was in the government, Project Renewal was his responsibility. Project Renewal has been one of the few successful social experiments to improve Israel’s decaying neighborhoods. Project Renewal’s overlooked and often lasting accomplishments remained a source of great pride to Yadin, amid the merciless scorn heaped on him in the robust rhetoric that characterizes Israeli politics.

In 1981, Yadin returned once again to archaeology.

In his too-short life he played many roles—as military leader, politician, archaeologist—but he was above all a scholar. He was at home on the battlefield, in the Knesset, and in the excavation trench, but most of all in the quiet excitement of the scholar’s study. It was here, I think, he found his greatest thrills.

More than any other Biblical scholar of his time, he understood the relationship between the smallest detail and history writ large. Trying to understand the most esoteric fact, he never lost sight of the bigger canvas on which he painted. He saw connections where no one else did. He was forever researching, questioning, synthesizing, theorizing. He engaged in a scholarship that had more levels than the most complicated stratigraphic excavation.

He was always reaching—to understand. In the world of scholarship, it is dangerous business to conjecture, to speculate, to express an idea that may be right but can’t be proved. He had the courage to lead the way, to pioneer. If he must be characterized as only one thing, I would call him a pioneer. He was a military pioneer, a political pioneer, an archaeological pioneer, but above all, a scholarly pioneer.

He continually used his fertile imagination to look at things in a new way. In one well-known instance, Yadin offered a new reconstruction of a dim inscription from Arad that survived on a piece of pottery dating to the seventh century B.C. and diffidently made a suggestion as to its historical context. In Yadin’s own words, “The following … is no more than a suggestion.” In the no-holds-barred manner of scholarly debate, the slamming reply came back, without any reference to Yadin’s own hesitation in making the suggestion, “There is nothing to commend the idle fancy of Y. Yadin [on this point].” Yadin was not bothered. He was willing to go out on scholarly limbs. Sometimes he was wrong. But most of the time he was right—and brilliantly so. He knew that caution often masks cowardice, that wrong answers evoke their own correctives, and that progress is made in the scholarly world, as elsewhere, by imaginative and even daring solutions.

At Hazor, Yadin discovered a city gate that he dated to the time of King Solomon. An almost identical gateway had been found at Megiddo. He recalled the verse from 1 Kings 9:15 that tells how Solomon rebuilt Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. R. A. S. Macalister had excavated Gezer in the early part of the century, but he had found no Solomonic gateway. Yadin looked at Macalister’s old excavation plans and saw what Macalister had identified as a Maccabean palace. In the mishmash of tangled walls, however, Yadin recognized one side of a Solomonic gateway nearly identical to the ones at Hazor and Megiddo. Yadin suggested precisely where the second half of the Gezer gateway should he. Years later, an American team of archaeologists re-excavated Gezer and found the other half of the gateway to Solomon’s city exactly where Yadin said it would be. The three gateways are an outstanding example of the way in which archaeology sometimes illuminates the Bible.

Just this year Yadin read in BAR of a few links of chain that had been uncovered at the Judean fortress of Lachish, in front of a wall that had been attacked with battering rams by the Assyrian tyrant Sennacherib. The excavator who wrote the report offered no explanation of the puzzling chain. Upon reading the report, Yadin immediately recalled a detail from an Assyrian relief in which the defenders of a city had lowered a chain down the outside of a wall being attacked by battering rams. When the ram itself was positioned in front of the wall, men on the wall lifted the chain to deflect the ram. Here was the explanation of the few links of chain found at Lachish, part of the Judeans’ last-ditch effort to defend themselves. The effort was unsuccessful. Lachish was destroyed and burned by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

Yadin spent his life solving puzzles like this, although not always so dramatically.

Yadin cared not only for scholarship but also for its dissemination. He wanted the layperson as well as the scholar to understand. He was an Israeli hero—and indeed a world hero—not simply because he was a great scholar but because he also had an ability to articulate his scholarship for the average person. He was a superb lecturer and enjoyed it immensely. He wrote several widely read, popular books—on Masada, on Hazor, and on the Bar Kokhba caves—that made his name truly a household word.

At the same time, Yadin’s scholarly interests were unlimited. He published the definitive edition of some ancient phylacteriesb (tefillin) and the inscriptions inside them that had been found in the Dead Sea Scroll caves. He wrote a two-volume treatise on the Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands.

Yadin’s last and perhaps greatest scholarly achievement was published in English just months before his death—a masterful three-volume edition of the latest and the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls to come to light, the Temple Scroll (see review in Books in Brief in this issue).

It is sad to state, however, that Yadin did not complete a single final report on any of his excavations. Part of the final report on Hazor was published. Hazor I, covering the 1955 season, appeared in 1958; Hazor II, covering the 1956 season, appeared in 1960. In 1971 the plates (pictures) for Hazor III–IV were published. But the text itself (for the last two seasons) was never published. A final summary volume was also planned, but that too never appeared, although Yadin did publish an overall description of the excavation in a volume of Schweich Lectures, which appeared in 1972 under the title Hazor, the Head of All Those Kingdoms.

The reason for the failure to publish the text of Hazor III–IV apparently had something to do with the most famous archaeological rivalry in history, between Yadin and Yohanan Aharoni, who was a member of the senior staff at Hazor. Considerable material was submitted for Hazor III–IV, including material from Aharoni. But no agreement could be reached on how the excavation results would be interpreted. Aharoni became Yadin’s bitter antagonist.

This rivalry, which lasted until Aharoni’s death in 1976 and, some say, beyond, had positive as well as negative aspects. As a result of the antagonism between the two men, Aharoni left Hebrew University and became the leader of a strong and expanding Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and the head of its new Institute of Archaeology. Intellectually, the two men often clashed, and this produced some exciting and stimulating debates, as well as contributions to knowledge that might otherwise never have been made. Yadin and Aharoni disagreed about almost everything—the nature of the Israelite occupation of Canaan, the dating of pottery, how inscriptions should be reconstructed, and much more.

But unfortunately, this rivalry was more than professional; it also contained an undisguised element of personal animosity. It was divisive, it was corrosive, it was unbecoming. In the last years of his life, Yadin, I believe, realized this, and his attitude toward Aharoni softened somewhat. But the personal antagonism between the two men has left its residue in institutional antagonisms that survive. Now that both men are gone, it is time to bury this divisiveness as well.

If the Yadin-Aharoni feud accounts for the failure to publish the text of Hazor III–IV, this cannot be said of Yadin’s failure to publish a final report on Masada. At his death, work on the final report on Masada was fortunately nearing completion. Perhaps his students will see this through publication in the near future.

The Bar-Kokhba letters, discovered in 1960, are another matter. They are still unpublished. Photographs and other materials that may exist, such as transcriptions, should be published immediately, so that they will be available to all scholars! There is simply nothing more to say on this subject, except that the Israeli establishment now controlling these letters has an opportunity to set an example. It is what Yigael would have wanted.

It is difficult for me to say good-bye to Yigael Yadin. He was the most exciting archaeologist I ever met. He had his human foibles, as we all do. But he also had an unsurpassed passion for archaeology and history, for Israel and our heritage, for learning and scholarship. His enthusiasm was riveting. For me, the highlight of any trip to Jerusalem was my visit with Yadin, which always included at least one private lecture on whatever archaeological subject he was then exploring. I would leave his home walking on air.

The suddenness of his death, when he was in such seeming good health, makes it all the more difficult to adjust to his loss. He had so much more to do—so many more sites to dig, so many more articles to write, so many more puzzles to solve.

Most of all, he wanted to return to Hazor. A number of stray tablets inscribed in cuneiform writing have surfaced, some quite accidentally, at Hazor. Yadin was convinced that there must be an archive buried somewhere on the site. No major archive has yet been found in Israel. Yadin thought he now knew just where to dig. And he had already planned an expedition.

Now others will have to finish the work. May they be worthy. May his memory be an inspiration and a blessing.

Comments are closed.