Jezreel, Hebrew Yizre’el, meaning “God sows,” is mentioned more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible as the setting for a series of dramatic events during the reigns of Kings Ahab, Joram, and Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel. In 1Kgs 21, when Naboth the Jezreelite refuses to sell his vineyard to Ahab, Ahab’s wife Jezebel has him stoned to death. This is followed by a visit from none other than the prophet Elijah and the subsequent gruesome death of Jezebel.
Strategically located in Galilee at the intersection of the ancient international highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia—the Via Maris—and the route south to Samaria and Jerusalem—the Way of the Patriarchs—Jezreel was the location of a military compound, a sometime residence for Israelite kings, and an agricultural Eden.
Tel Jezreel was excavated in the early 1990s by David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and John Woodhead of the British School of Archaeology; since 2012 the Jezreel Expedition directed by Norma Franklin of the University of Haifa and Jennie Ebeling of the University of Evansville has explored greater Jezreel, which includes the northern slopes of the tel as well as the Spring of Jezreel below. Both excavations have yielded information that helps us understand the nature of the site from prehistory to modern times, including the period of the kings of Israel (ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E.).
What was the nature of the Israelite settlement at Jezreel?
Although the main royal residence was in the Israelite capital of Samaria, Jezreel may have been occupied for at least part of the year by Ahab and Jezebel. Some years after the death of Ahab, when his son Joram was king of Israel, Jezreel was described as a military center and staging post for battles in the north and east, and the military theme continues with Jezebel’s death by trampling under the hooves of the usurper Jehu’s horses. Jezreel also served as a royal retreat of sorts, as Joram went to Jezreel to rest after being wounded in battle with the Arameans (2Kgs 9).
Excavations at Tel Jezreel in the 1990s revealed the remains of a rectangular compound surrounded by walls, a moat, and a four- or six-chambered gate on the southern side. No domestic structures were found within the compound, strengthening its identification as a military or royal center. The excavators dated the compound’s construction to the Omride dynasty (circa 880 B.C.E.) on the basis of the biblical narrative; a destruction layer in the southeastern tower was accordingly attributed to Hazael and the Arameans in the late ninth century B.C.E. The current excavators have challenged both of these conclusions: the compound may date slightly later, and the destruction in the southeastern tower was too localized to signify the demise of the entire compound.
What made Jezreel such an attractive location?
Located at the narrowest part of the Jezreel Valley, in a position to control the major east–west and north–south highways, Jezreel was surrounded by fertile farmland that attracted inhabitants from prehistoric times. The spring of Jezreel that flowed nearly one kilometer north of Tel Jezreel provided the site and surrounding fields with a constant supply of water; even today, the lush fields surrounding Jezreel are considered ideal for growing two traditional staple crops of the region: grapes, as reflected in the narrative of Naboth’s vineyard, and olives. The perennial spring waters would have attracted commercial and military travelers early on; the earliest biblical event associated with the site is the encampment of the Israelite army at the spring of Jezreel while Saul prepares for battle at Gilboa (1Sam 29:1).
A landscape archaeology project conducted by the Jezreel Expedition has identified evidence of the military character of Jezreel over millennia along with a network of roads and paths that connected different parts of the site from as early as the Roman period. These discoveries underscore the agricultural plentifulness alluded to in the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1Kgs 21 and the military character of Jezreel described in 2Kgs 9.
Jennie Ebeling, Norma Franklin, "Jezreel", n.p. [cited 22 Nov 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/jezreel
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 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.