Lee Levine discusses the evidence for pre-exilic synagogues.

Lee Levine

Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 21–34

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Lee Levine
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The gate as the ‘‘heart’’ of a city is also reflected in the fact that a conqueror might place his throne there as a sign of his rule. Nebuchadnezzar’s officers did so (Jer. 39:3) and thus fulfilled the prophet’s dire prediction (ibid., 1:15–16): ‘‘For I am summoning all the peoples of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord. They shall come, and shall each set up a throne before the gates of Jerusalem, against its walls roundabout, and against all the towns of Judah. And I will argue My case against them for all their wickedness. They have forsaken Me and sacrificed to other gods and worshiped the works of their hands.’’

A king might sit at the city-gate to hear the people’s grievances. So, for example, following Absalom’s death, Joab urged David to terminate his mourning and to sit at the gate so that all the troops could come before the king (II Sam. 19:8–9). On another occasion, Ahab, king of Israel, and Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, sat at the gate of Samaria prior to a battle in Gilead, summoning the prophets to support their venture (I Kgs. 22:10).

Similarly, according to II Chron. 32:6, Hezekiah assembled the people at the city-gate to strengthen their resolve in the face of Sennacherib’s imminent attack; a century or so later, we are told, Zedekiah also sat at a city-gate called Benjamin (Jer. 38:7).

Lastly, the city-gate was also a place for performing religious functions. In the ancient Near East, people often gathered at the city-gate to worship gods, as is evidenced by the cultic objects found near the gates of Megiddo Va, Beersheba IV, Tel Dan, and Bethsaida. Regarding the city-gate at Tel Dan, Biran, following Barnett, notes that it may have been the site of religious ceremonies in antiquity: We may consider this to be also a ceremonial route. This could depend to a certain extent on the interpretation of the unique structure found in the square between the outer and main gates. This structure is rectangular with an open space where a throne or pedestal was set.

Two decorated column-bases were found in situ, a third in the debris and of the fourth only an imprint was left. . . . Our suggested reconstruction shows a canopied structure which could have served the king when he sat at the gate (e.g., I Kgs. 22:10) or it could have served as a pedestal for the statue of a god.

In terms of explicit biblical evidence, IIKgs. 23:8 has the following to say about Josiah’s reforms of 622/621 b.c.e.:

He brought all the priests from the towns of Judah [to Jerusalem] and defiled the shrines where the priests had been making offerings—from Geba to Beer-sheba. He also demolished the shrines of the gates, which were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua, the city prefect— which was on a person’s left [as he entered] the city gate.

In the post-Exilic period, a gate area was utilized by Ezra and Nehemiah: ‘‘The entire people assembled as one man in the square before theWater Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the Lord had charged Israel’’ (Neh. 8:1).

Archaeological data confirm the fact that the biblical (i.e., Iron Age) gate was the site of many communal functions. In contrast to the early Middle Bronze Age II gate, which appears to have fulfilled much more of a defensive role, the twenty or so known Iron Age II gate complexes (ca. 1000–580 b.c.e.) differed significantly. Whereas gates in the second millennium had rooms usually separated by partition walls to serve as independent units, the Iron Age II gates had rooms that opened onto the main passageway—either two, four, or six chambers, some large (in one instance, reaching 9 m. long) and often containing benches and stone water basins. These areas and, even more importantly, the adjacent open spaces, usually inside but at times outside the gate (in which case there was often another circumvallating wall), provided the setting for the many civil functions noted above. A striking example of a complex gate system is found at Tel Dan, built some time in the ninth century b.c.e., presumably by Ahab, where three gates (outer, main, and upper) were preceded by a paved square, a courtyard, and a royal processional way, respectively (fig. 1). The latter two gates had four sentry rooms each.

Perhaps an even more dramatic instance of city-gate cults has come to light at Bethsaida, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the northern tower, a stepped structure or podium, an iconic stele (a bull’s head), a basin, and several vessels were found, and at the southern one, a niche. If the excavators’ identification of the site as a bama is correct, then Bethsaida would constitute a remarkable example of a gate cult. Four aniconic stelae found elsewhere in the gate complex only serve to reinforce this identification.

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