The Caananite city of Tel Arad was first settled in the Early Bronze age, some 3 millennia BC, but was abandoned for some 1500 years, including in the era of Abraham. It was then resettled and a citadel was built in the time of David and Solomon (1st millennium BC). Both citadel and city followed the waves of empires and their decline and were inhabited, destroyed, restored and rebuild several times during the Israelite, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Islamic periods until the 9th century AD. Much like a layered birthday cake, the citadel tells the story of its many occupants.
Archeological finds inside the fortress include a unique shrine, residential structures and storehouses, a water system and over 200 clay shards with Hebrew and Aramaic writing. Sharing the same model of the Temple as described in the Talmud, the shrine has three chambers, with an increasing degree of holiness. In the middle of the outer chamber, the courtyard, there is an alter made of fieldstones where animal sacrifices took place. Moving inwards there is an elongated room, the hall, which served as the room for offerings. And finally, where only the priest could enter, one finds the Holy of Holies.
The discovery of the shrine stood in stark contrast to the Bible’s admonition against worship centers outside of Jerusalem. Another striking feature was the presence of two stelae, or standing stones, apparently representing the deities of Yahweh and Asherah. These stones seem to negate the abstract and singular nature of the monotheism first championed by Abraham, in which God has no physical form, let alone fellow deities. The theory is that In the 10th century BCE, when the fortress was first built, the early Israelites were still exposed to pagan ideas. The notion of a single, omnipotent (yet abstract) god who has no worldly presence and is at once everywhere was a difficult concept to fathom. Consequently, pagan influences permeated society, including the idea that gods had actual territorial boundaries, or realms. The “border” temple of Arad was then meant to mark the entrance into “the land of Yahweh”, and perceived as one of many regional deities.
This might be a hard pill for ardent believers today to swallow. The singularity of God, after all, stands at the core of the three large monotheistic religions. Yet the story of Tel Arad could tell that the evolution of monotheism went through several phases, and that some included space for several deities. It would take the Babylonian exile – in which Yahweh’s believers had to abandon the idea of his territorial kingdom – to solidify and deepen the abstract concept of monotheism.