tell-aphekOne of the most critical battles in early Israelite history was fought about 1050 B.C. between the Israelites and the Philistines. At that time, the Bible tells us, the twelve tribes had settled the land and the Ark of the Covenant had been installed at Shiloh under the authority of Eli the High Priest. The people were ruled by tribal elders, by priests, by charismatic leaders called Judges who arose in times of crisis, and ultimately by the God of Israel.

The Book of Judges makes clear that not all the land allotted by God to the Israelites had been occupied by them. Various Canaanite enclaves remained. The principal problem for the Israelites in the 11th century, however, was the encroaching power of the Philistines, one of the Sea Peoples who settled and occupied the Mediterranean coastal region from Gaza to the Yarkon River, north of the modern city of Tel Aviv. On the border between the coastal plain, occupied by the Philistines, and the rising hills of Samaria, occupied by the Israelites, and the two principal powers of the country—the Philistines and the Israelites—clashed in battle.

The battle itself is described in 1 Samuel 4.

The Philistines camped at Aphek; the Israelites at Ebenezer. In the initial skirmish, the Philistines defeated the Israelites, killing 4000 men. The Israelites in desperation sent to Shiloh to have the Ark of the Covenant brought to lead them in battle. Eli’s sons Hophni and Phineas came with the Ark.

In the subsequent battle, the Israelites were again defeated. Thirty thousand Israelite soldiers were killed. The Ark was captured by the Philistines. Hophni and Phineas were killed. Upon hearing the news, Eli himself died. Archaeological evidence from Shiloh as well as literary evidence from the Bible (Jeremiah 7-12, Jeremiah 7-14; Jeremiah 26-6, Jeremiah 26-9; Psalms 78-60) suggests that the Philistines followed up their battlefield victory with a lightning march on Shiloh and destroyed the city along with the building or tent that had housed the Ark.

Israel and its ruling structure were in disarray. Israel was in danger of being overrun by the Philistines. A fair reading of the Biblical text indicates that it was probably the Philistine threat that required the formation of a centralized government ruled over by an earthly king. And so Samuel, the priest and prophet of the Lord, anointed Saul as king of Israel.

Recent excavations can fill in some of the background to this critical battle and of the way the Israelites lived in the 11th and 12th centuries B.C.—the days of the Judges.

Aphek, the site of the Philistine encampment for the battle, has long been known. It is an important crossroad on the Via Maris, the ancient international route from Egypt to Mesopotamia and is well supplied with water from the springs of the Yarkon River. Although the Bible refers to the site as Aphek, Herod built a city on the same site which he named Antipatris. The Arabs today call it Ras el-Ein. In the 19th century, the Turks built an Ottoman fort on the site.

Since 1972, a team of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology in collaboration with various American universities has been excavating at Aphek. Remains from 3000 B.C. to our day were found, including inscriptions in the Canaanite, Hittite, Sumerian, Accadian and Egyptian languages.

While the identification of Aphek is clear (it is mentioned as being between Ono on the south and Socho on the north in Pharaoh Tutmosis’ III list of towns on the Via Maris), the location of the Israelite encampment at Ebenezer has never been found. As part of our regional survey of the area, we came across a small settlement across the plain from Aphek, called by modern Arabs Izbet Sartah, which may well be Israelite Ebenezer. As the nearest Israelite settlement on the fringe of the hill country facing Philistine Aphek in the Sharon plain, it is the best candidate for the Israelite staging area for the decisive battle with the Philistines.

Izbet Sartah offers a striking contrast to Aphek. Canaanite Aphek had palaces and temples and inscriptions in all the major languages of the Ancient Near East. Philistine pottery with its beautiful forms and multi-colored decorations, was found in abundance at Aphek, above the debris of the Canaanite town.

Izbet Sartah, by contrast, is a rather rude village. It stretches over less than one acre. There is only one substantial building—a typical “Israelite four room house” located in the middle; poorer farm buildings surround it to form a protective belt. Stone-lined silos fill the area in between the buildings, and here and there a crude rock-cut cistern shows that the ancient Israelites had to rely on “stored” rain water because the only nearby living source of water, the rich Yarkon River springs, was controlled by Canaanite, and later Philistine Aphek.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between Aphek and Izbet Sartah is a geographical one. Although the two sites are only about 2 miles apart, Tell Aphek rises on the central plain and is watered by the Yarkon River, while Izbet Sartah is in the rocky hill country of Samaria. The one is green, the other brown. The one is fertile, the other stony. The one is on a major crossroads, the other is in the midst of nothing. That is why Aphek has been settled in every archaeological period from the Early Bronze Age (3000 B.C.) to our day, while Izbet Sartah was occupied only for about 200 years during the period that archaeologists call Iron Age I (1200 B.C.–1000 B.C.).

In short, Izbet Sartah was apparently an Israelite outpost in the days of the Judges—when Israel was able to occupy only the hill country. When King David finally subdued the Philistines (ca. 990 B.C.), and Israel occupied both the Yarkon River basin and the Mediterranean coastal plain, no one needed or wanted to live in Izbet Sartah any longer. The site was simply abandoned and never again occupied.

A number of factors suggest that Izbet Sartah may be Israelite Ebenezer referred to in the First Book of Samuel. It is in the hill country opposite the site of Philistine Aphek. Indeed, it is the nearest settlement to Aphek in any direction. Between the two is the border between the Samarian hills and the coastal plain which marked the border between Israelite and Philistine occupation in the days of the Judges.

Finally, Izbet Sartah is directly on the road from Aphek to Shiloh. Down this road, the Ark of the Covenant was carried so it could lead the Israelites in battle. Up this road, the Philistines marched on Shiloh after they had defeated the Israelites and captured the Ark.

Certainty is usually beyond the grasp of archaeologists—as it is here—, but the available evidence does indicate that Izbet Sartah is probably Israelite Ebenezer. And we have no alternative candidate which has anything like this support.

The material culture of the Philistines at Aphek was far superior to the Israelite material culture at Izbet Sartah. But the most important single find of our expedition was at Israelite Izbet Sartah—a small sherd inscribed with a 22 letter proto-Canaanite alphabet indicating that even in this outpost the Israelites used an alphabetic script during the early Iron Age. Not a single inscription in anything like a Philistine language has been found.

(For further details, see Moshe Kochavi, “An Ostracon of the Period of the Judges from ‘Izbet Sartah” Tel Aviv Vol. IV, pp. 1–13 (1977).)