Garth Gilmour, Contributor
Close-up of opening of one of the beehives found at Tel Rehov.
The term 'honey' appears on 55 occasions in the Hebrew Bible, 16 of them as part of the image of Israel as "a land flowing milk and honey" (e.g. Exodus 3:8). Other passages suggest that honey was scavenged from holes in the rocks (Psalm 82:16), from the trees (1 Samuel 14:27), and from the carcasses of wild animals (Judges 14:8-9), among other places. Until now, there has been no evidence that honey was produced by domesticated bees in Old Testament times, and scholars have suggested that honey from dates or figs or even grapes was produced in its place. However, enigmatic passages such as Ezekiel 27:17 suggested that enough honey, of whatever type, was produced in the land to export abroad.
A whole new light has been cast on these passages by the discovery last summer of a large industrial apiary at the site of Tel Rehov in the Jordan Valley in Israel. Archaeologists excavating there exposed three rows of beehives in the apiary, containing more than 30 hives in the middle of a built-up area in the site. They estimate that originally, the area may have contained as many as 100 hives. The rows contained at least three tiers of hives, each of which is a cylinder composed of unbaked clay and dry straw about 80 cm long and 40 cm wide. One end of the cylinder was closed and had a small hole in it, which allowed for the entry and exit of the bees. The opposite end was covered with a clay lid that was removed when the beekeeper extracted the honeycombs. Experienced beekeepers and scholars who visited the site estimated that these hives may have produced as much as half a ton of honey each year.
Professor Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the director of the excavations, noted the uniqueness of the find by pointing out that these are the first beehives discovered at any site in the Near East. Although fired ceramic vessels that served as beehives are known from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, none were found in their original location, and beekeeping on an industrial scale, such as the apiary at Tel Rehov, is unknown in the archaeological record. Pictures of apiaries are known from Egyptian tomb paintings, showing extraction of honey from stacked cylinders similar to those from Tel Rehov.
Honey itself, of course, was a delicacy, though it also had medicinal qualities, and the beeswax had multiple applications in the ancient world. These include its use in the metal and leather industries, and possibly as the soft substance in ancient writing tablets which would have been pressed with a stylus to shape the letters.
Tel Rehov: All pictures courtesy of the Professor Amihai Mazar, Hebrew University
Careful analysis of the beehives and their contents has revealed not only the beeswax that confirms the function of these otherwise strange containers, but also parts of the bees' bodies, as well as pollen grains brought to the hives by the bees. Grains of wheat found alongside the hives have provided an accurate date of the mid-tenth century to the early ninth century BC, the time of King Solomon and his successors in the northern Kingdom of Israel after the division of the monarchy following Solomon's death.
The early date of the apiary is significant for a number of reasons, not least because it adds to the growing corpus of material, both archaeological and textual, about the city of Rehov during this time.
The city appears in several Egyptian documents from the Canaanite period, and in an inscription on the walls of the mortuary temple at Thebes of the Pharaoh Sheshonq I, called Shishak in the Bible, a contemporary of Solomon who launched a military campaign in Israel after Solomon's death (1 Kings 14:25). Excavations have revealed a large city, one of the most important in Israel during the period of the monarchy. The presence of the beehives as early as the tenth century adds evidence of significant industrial activity to the large size and international importance of the city.
Religious objects were found in association with the beehives, including a small four-horned altar and an elaborately painted chalice. Other sites have produced evidence that the early Israelites had small shrines in industrial areas, and the new evidence from Tel Rehov would appear to indicate the same tradition.
A row of cylindrical beehives found at Tel Rehov.
Another find from the area of the apiary suggests that Rehov may have had further unexpected significance. A fragment of a pottery storage jar has a short inscription that reads "To Nimshi". Two other jar inscriptions containing this name are known that date to the later ninth century, one from Rehov itself, the other from the small industrial site of Tel Amal, nearby. It is tempting to believe that this is the same Nimshi who was the grandfather of Jehu, the assassin of Joram, the son of Ahab, and the usurper of the House of Omri (2 Kings 9:2). The obvious inference, though speculative, is that the city of Rehov was the home of Jehu's clan.
Dr Garth Gilmour is a biblical archaelogist based at the University of Oxford. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.