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The Jezreel Expedition, Part 1

jezreel view west

Jezreel is mentioned more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible and is best known as the location of Naboth’s vineyard and where Jezebel was eaten by dogs. The Jezreel Expedition is currently conducting a strategic excavation of the area of greater Jezreel to learn more about the 6,000-year history of this important site.

Jezreel—Hebrew Yizre’el, meaning “God sows”—is a large site perched on the edge of the Gilboa mountain range in Israel’s Galilee; the site gave its name to the fertile valley below. The site consists of an upper tel that was partially excavated in the 1990s and an enigmatic lower city close to the spring of Jezreel (Hebrew, ‘Ein Yizre’el).

The Jezreel Expedition, directed by Jennie Ebeling of the University of Evansville and Norma Franklin of the University of Haifa, was launched in 2012. Our first act was to commission an airborne LiDAR (laser) survey of the 7 square kilometer area of greater Jezreel; our team then followed up with a traditional ground survey of the core area of Jezreel. This preparatory work enabled us in 2013 to choose three very different areas to excavate in order to understand the connection between the lower and upper cities and their respective periods of occupation.

The earliest references to Jezreel appear in the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, but it is the dramatic events that unfold in 1Kgs 21 concerning the desire of Ahab, king of Israel, to add Naboth’s vineyard to the royal estate that capture the imagination. Ahab is only able to take the vineyard through the nefarious manipulations of Queen Jezebel, which cause Elijah to prophesy a grim end to their dynasty. The continuation of the narrative in 2 Kings, which is set against the backdrop of the war between Ahab’s successor Joram and King Hazael of Aram, portrays Jezreel as not only a rich agricultural site but also a strategic military stronghold. Joram is recuperating from battle at Jezreel, attended by Jezebel and Ahaziah, king of Judah, when they receive news that Jehu, an Israelite military commander, has staged a coup and is approaching Jezreel (2Kgs 8:29). The two kings ride out to meet Jehu in his chariot; Jehu kills them both, victoriously enters Jezreel, and tramples Jezebel to death beneath his horses’ hooves. When Jehu returns from having a meal, he finds that the dogs have eaten all of Jezebel except for her skull, feet, and hands (2Kgs 9:14-37).

The fact that these events took place at Jezreel and not at the Israelite capital Samaria is significant. Jezreel is located at the narrowest point in the valley, and it protected the great east-west highway, the “Way of the Sea,” and its junction with the north-south route, the “Way of the Patriarchs,” that led to Samaria and Jerusalem beyond. It is this combination of rich agricultural farmland and strategic location that insured Jezreel’s continuous habitation from early times through to the modern era. The Pilgrim of Bordeaux referred to the site as Stradela in 333 CE, and Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, described a large village named Esdraela (from the Greek rendering of Jezreel) there in the fourth century CE. During the period of the Crusades, the Knights Templar fortified Jezreel—now called “Le Petit Gerin”—because of the site’s location on the road south to Jerusalem. Among the later battles that took place in the valley below were Saladin versus the Crusaders, the Mamluks versus the Mongols, Napoleon versus the Ottomans, and the Palmach versus the Arab Liberation Army.

  • Jennie Ebeling is an associate professor of archaeology and chair of the Department of Archaeology and Art History at the University of Evansville in Indiana. Codirector of the Jezreel Expedition and a stone artifact specialist, Ebeling has edited volumes on household archaeology and ground stone artifacts and is the author of Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (T&T Clark, 2010).

  • Norma Franklin

    Norma Franklin is a research associate at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa and an associate fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. Codirector of the Jezreel Expedition, Franklin is a field archaeologist with a particular interest in the northern kingdom of Israel and its three key cities: Samaria, Megiddo, and Jezreel.