The City of Arad and the Arad Ostraca—Judges 1:16

Tel Arad, also “old” Arad, is an archaeological site just 8 kilometers from modern Arad, an Israeli city of 30,000 habitants. The site is located at the northeast of the drainage basin of Beshor/Beersheba in an area surrounded by mountain ridges known as the Arad Plain.

The old settlement sits on an 18-acre plot of land that is part of a system of villages, fortresses, and cities situated along the Nahal Beersheba streambed. Divided into lower and upper cities, the latter part of the site has the only “House of Yahweh” ever discovered outside of Jerusalem in the land of Israel.

The Old Testament mentions the ancient city of Arad only four times. According to Numbers 21:1-3, “the king of Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the South [the Negev]” fought against Israel. At first, Arad’s forces won, but then the Israelites “utterly destroyed” Arad’s army. The place became known as Hormah, or “Destruction.” Numbers 33:40 mentions Arad in the context of the list of camp sites that Israel made after departing Egypt. Joshua 12 includes Arad in a list of conquered kings. Arad also appears in Judges 1:16, this time without reference to any king but as part of a geographical designation: the “Wilderness of Judah.” All of the biblical references to Arad are, to the pre-Israelite Arad, home to a Canaanite king. The later Israelite Arad does not appear in the Bible.

However, the ruins of Tel Arad do add some interesting details to later biblical history. Archaeologists have discovered there a series of fortifications, some dating from the time of Solomon. The biblical account tells us that he built or rebuilt many cities destroyed by the King of Egypt (1 Kings 9:15-19).

One of the later levels in Arad indicates destruction by fire and has been dated to the beginning of the tenth century BC, coinciding with the time of the invasion of the Egyptian king, Shishak, just five years after Solomon’s death. A mural relief at Karnak in southern Egypt commemorates that invasion and lists Arad among the many cities conquered. (cf. 2 Chron. 12:1-4). Since it served as a fortress, it is not surprising that Arad was conquered and destroyed several times and rebuilt. Tel Arad gives us an idea of the type of fortifications Judah constructed to protect itself.

Another important finding is a sanctuary or shrine dedicated to Yahweh. Although it exhibits certain characteristics of a twelfth-century shrine attributed to the Kenites, it has also many similarities with Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. For example, the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard follows the physical specifications laid down in Exodus 27:1. The sanctuary itself consists of two rooms: a holy place and a Holy of Holies. It is interesting to conjecture what might have taken in the second compartment. Who would have entered it and when? Since there was no Ark of the Covenant here, what took place in the room? Was the Day of Atonement ritual practiced here?

Archaeologists have found more than 100 ancient ostraca, pieces of broken pottery with Paleo Hebrew inscriptions, in Tel Arad. One of the inscriptions has the phrase “House of Yahweh,” though it is not known whether it referred to the sanctuary at Arad or the Temple at Jerusalem. But the most important significance of the collection is its dating because biblical scholars debate whether the core texts of Judaism were written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Many liberal scholars believe that it was during the Babylonian Exile that scribes compiled the majority of the Hebrew Bible from earlier oral traditions or invented it altogether as a history for the Jewish people.

Though some of the Arad ostraca may date back to the tenth century BC, most appear to come from the eighth to sixth centuries. A recent study carefully examined 16 ostraca, trying to determine how many people had written them. Using a specially designed image processing computer program to analyze the handwriting of each inscription, the researchers discovered the potential presence of at least six literate individuals within a garrison of about 30 men. This quite high number of 20 percent of the soldiers is unusual in ancient society, and it is possible that even more individuals were literate. If this statistic is representative of Judahite society as a whole, then literacy levels would have been easily capable of producing the biblical texts before the Babylonian Exile. Similar conclusions have been drawn from the more recent excavation at Tel Azekah.


Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions.

Aharoni, “Hebrew Ostraca from Tel Arad,” 1-7, 1966.

Aharoni, “The Israelite Sanctuary at Arad,” 25-39.

Faigenbaum-Golovin et al., “Algorithmic Handwriting Analysis of Judah’s Military Correspondence Sheds Light on Composition of Biblical Texts,” 4664-4669.

Herzog et al., “The Israelite Fortress at Arad,” 1-34.