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A Canaanite City: Capital of Geshur?

A Canaanite city

By Elizabeth McNamer
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Rocky Mountain College
Billings, Montana
September 2010

In the last day of the summer 1996 excavation at Bethsaida , a probe done by Reggie Bollich, who had been working on it for three weeks, discovered that a stone floor lay about eight feet down. Reggie emerged from the hole in which he had spent his whole three weeks dripping with sweat and looking like a chimney sweep but as excited as if he had just been given a view of paradise. I will never forget the look of devastation on Reggie’s face as he realized that he was within reach but could not achieve the goal. We would be leaving on the morrow. Moses surely felt like that as he viewed the Promised Land. It would be left to another generation of diggers to explore what he had found. The following summer, a new crew from Montana removed mounds of dirt. For weeks, they performed the promethean task of handing buckets of debris down the side of a hill, sifting through everything before discarding and sending the buckets back up for more until they collapsed with exhaustion They were never to see the results of their labors. That would be left to the next group who came in from Nebraska.

Early in the next season a young football player came up to me and said, “We have found a bull’s head.” Since the Nebraska football team is called the Bulls, I thought he was making a joke but followed him back to where he had been digging. There, under our feet lay the top of a large stele with indeed what looked like a bull’s head carved in relief. We all stopped to gaze. Then someone noticed other pieces (like a jigsaw puzzle) lying around. Put back together the Moon God proudly looked up at us, happy to be restored after twenty-seven hundred years of lying in the dirt! A call to Orna Cohen (the foremost restorer in the land) brought her flying up from Jerusalem. The footballers loaded the stella unto our rickety wheelbarrow. It would go back with Orna, and we now see it in the Israeli Museum, far from its provenance.

This Moon God had once guarded this large Gesurite city. Before entering the city, one offered sacrifice to the god on its “ high place.” In ancient times, the moon was considered more important than the sun. It brought light into the darkness. To this god, one offered a sacrifice perhaps of wine or milk or incense before approaching the gates (we have found the utensils used for this purpose on the “high place” just a few steps outside the city gate.) The gates, the largest ever unearthed in Israel, and the throne room unveiled themselves to us over the next several excavations sessions.

It was here that David came to find a wife. He was ruling then from Hebron a much smaller and rather ugly site. Alliance with this powerful city would give him status. Did he worship the Moon God as everyone else did who entered the city? Poor Maacah had little say in her marriage. She would have to leave this beautiful city where she had spent her childhood and move to another place with a man she does not seem to have even liked. She and David did not get along but they did produce Absalom and his sister Tamara. We read in 1 Chr 3; 2.

These are the sons of David who were born to him in Hebron: the firstborn Amnon, by Ahinoam the Jezreelite; the second Daniel, by Abigail the Carmelite; the third Absalom, son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur;

And in 2 Sam. 3:3

Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur;

David had other children by other marriages and when Amnon, the oldest of his sons raped Tamar, Absalom killed him. He then ran away from home and came to live with his grandparents for three years (2 Sam 13:8). The unfortunate Absalom had an unhappy ending. He raised an army to fight against his own father. A battle was fought in a locality west of the Jordan and Absalom's army put to flight Absalom, who had an abundant head of hair, was riding on a mule when his hair caught in a bough. The mule moved on and he was left hanging. He was discovered still alive by one of David's men, who reported the matter to the king's commander. Joab thrust a spear through Absalom's heart. When news was brought to David he burst into tears: “Oh Absalom, my son, would that it were me instead of you.”

The Geshurites (a Canaanites tribe) had inhabited the land long before the arrival of the Hebrews in Israel at the beginning of the Iron Age. This was their chief city and in the Old Testament is classed among the places not conquered by the Israelites.

Yet the Israelites did not drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites; but Geshur and Maacath live within Israel to this day (Josh.13: 15).

Photo of Bethsaida Iron Age Gate

Bethsaida Iron Age Gate

(Photo courtesy

Geshur had been built as a capital city with two strong walls for protection against the enemy. The outer wall reached to a height of thirty feet, and its gate faced north. A paved courtyard separated it from the inner wall whose gate faced west. Towers flanked both gates. To the right of the main gate was the high place where the stella of the moon god had once stood. Along side are long benches where the elders of the city met to discuss judicial questions. Here too met the husbands “who were respected” (Proverbs 31).

Inside the main gate are four large chambers. Three were used for storing grain, barley, and wheat. Deuteronomy 14:28 commands:

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns

The fourth contained a variety of pottery.

Evidence of its destruction by the Assyrians in 732 B.C.E., have also been found. Arrowheads abound. The fire set by the Assyrians was hot enough to melt mud brick (an almost impossible task). Soot from the fire and arrowheads have been found.

It remained in ruins until the time of Alexander the Great when another city would emerge from the ashes. But that is another story.

Comments (3)

I write very much subject to correction, but would suggest that comments on Geshur, Absalom and Tamar should make a gesture (I kept getting the word 'gesture' when looking up 'Geshur') in the direction of the fact that the two stories of someone named Tamar, in Genesis and Samuel, are so alike as to raise questions about the historicity of either. The story of Absalom has mythic elements, notably the great image of the tree and the hair, on almost any view. We should also note that if you asked the Bible writers where Geshur was or had been they might not have been too ge-sure, since Joshua 13:3 and Joshua 3:13 seem to point in different directions, see also I Sam.27.
We seem to have, apart from the puzzling biblical references, no literary or inscriptional evidence directly identifying any place with Geshur, recording a specifically Assyrian attack on Geshur or testifying to the re-naming as 'Bethsaida'.
Was it normal for kings to go and fetch their foreign brides and worship at their churches? Don't they normally expect delivery to their doorstep?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 09/15/2010 - 17:52

Archaeology is lots of hard work and very little glory. It's not like "Indiana Jones", that's for sure. Those early excavators at Bethsaida must feel a sense of satisfaction knowing what we now have as a result of their hard work and dedication.
The previous comment by Martin Hughes expressed doubt as to whether or not the Bible writers knew where Geshur was. Yes they did and they describe to be in the same place in every referance to it. Joshua 13: 1-3 describes the land yet to be possessed by the Israelites when Joshua is "stricken in years". The description places emphasis on the size of the area which includes Egypt in the south and Hamath in the north. I Samuel 27:8 also places emphasis on the distance between the Geshurites in the north and Egypt in the south.
Geshur was not renamed Bethsaida. Bethsaida was a Geshurite city, possibly its capitol.
#2 - A B Chrysler - 09/18/2010 - 09:01

In response to Martin Hughes's comment - I wonder what similarities he finds in the two stories?
The women share the same name, but obviously David would give his daughter the name of the mother of the Judah clan.
#3 - barbara cherry - 02/26/2015 - 08:36

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