How a Nation Came to Ruin
The stones are still there. You can see them and touch them yourself if you travel to Upper Galilee in northern Israel. There you will pass from arid surroundings into the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, a popular scenic park where trails wind through lush oaks, ash, eucalyptus, buckthorn, laurel and willow herb, and across numerous footbridges spanning dozens of streams that seem to flow in every direction. But beyond the marsh ferns and reeds, the salamanders and the otters, this place holds something much less idyllic: a warning of ruination.
Walking down the boardwalks and across the rushing brooks, you will come face to face with something different: signs of a human habitation—a ruined one. According to some historians, this was the most important northern city in the ancient kingdom of Israel. Today this is all that is left of the city of Dan.
The Bible records this city’s original name, Laish, which was changed when the Israelite tribe of Dan, known for naming places after its father, captured the city during the period of the judges. The city of Dan is one of the first examples of many self-identifying places named by the people of Dan, a tribe God prophesied would leave behind a “serpent’s trail” (Genesis 49:17).
A couple of well-preserved structures from the earliest days of the Israelite kingdom still stand at the excavation site, including a city gate complex and a long section of the wall of the old city. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that the well-preserved inner gate is typical of what Israelite city gates looked like during biblical times.
But what happened to these Israelites? Why did they make a “serpent’s trail” westward from here? Why did they not stay in this beautiful place, their historic homeland?
It has little to do with economics, weather or politics and everything to do with what happened right here on these stones at this ruin.
After Solomon died in the 10th century b.c., the kingdom of Israel split in two, in exactly the way that the biblical prophets had warned. Responding to heavy taxes imposed by Solomon’s son, the 10 northern tribes, including Dan, left the kingdom and selected a man named Jeroboam to be their king.
The contentious division nearly caused a full-scale civil war between the north and south. After the dust settled from the bitter separation, Jeroboam had a new kingdom of his own—and a problem. He had political power, military backing and economic support, but he was missing the most crucial component: religious support. The people of Israel were deeply religious. King Jeroboam feared that if he did not fundamentally alter Israel’s religious worship, the northern tribes would continue looking to the holy city of Jerusalem. Eventually, that one element of religious faith would override everything else, and the Israelites would switch their allegiance back to Solomon’s son, the house of David, and the God of David.
Jeroboam had a choice. Keep Israel’s religion pure, or blend in his own ideas to his own political advantage.
“Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan” (1 Kings 12:28-29).
Jeroboam used his influence to convince Israelites to go along with this rebellious form of religious worship by telling them that there was a much easier way to observe God’s commands. He was like many modern preachers—who speak “smooth things” to their followers.
Jeroboam made a “house of high places.” To this very day you can go to one of his high places, the exact spot where a people turned away from God to a religion that was more convenient for them and politically expedient for their leader.
Jeroboam also dissolved the Levitical priesthood and instead “made priests of the lowest of the people” (verse 31), crossing another red line by taking control of religion and thus the masses. “And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made. So he offered upon the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense” (verses 32-33). Note how similar this is to the way human nature reasons today. Jeroboam took a religious festival and made it into something he thought would work better. Perhaps he himself said, “After all, it doesn’t matter how you worship as long as you worship.” But even if it has the exact same name and includes all of the same forms of worship, if it is not observed at the time God designates or carried out the way He commands, it is not God’s festival, and the person keeping it is not worshiping God!
This was Jeroboam’s religion through and through. Israel followed right along after this pagan form of worship. This came less than two generations after King David had shown the nation how to truly worship the true God!
God sent prophet after prophet to plead with Israel to return to the true God. But these God-fearing men were despised and rejected.
So Israel sinned. What was the big deal?
“And the children of Dan set up the graven image: and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30). In other words, the tribe of Dan and the other northern tribes were attacked, conquered and evacuated from their homeland to become slaves.
Their cities, their streams, their homeland—and their pagan high places—were left behind and ultimately became a ruin.
According to Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Vol. 2, the city of Dan flourished until the late Iron Age, when Galilee and the northern coastal regions became the first areas to be conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians, under Tiglath-Pileser iii, destroyed Dan and a new city was later constructed over it. Assyrian pottery vessels and statues, in addition to Phoenician chapels and settlements from the Persian period, have also been uncovered in Tel Dan. Unsurprisingly, the name of the pagan god “Ba’al” appears in a few of the finds from Dan.
When I saw the excavated remains at the Tel Dan site—the pagan temple precincts, the large stone gateway, and the new city structures the Assyrians built on top of a crushed and desolated Israelite city—I couldn’t help but think about how those excavated ruins validate not only the history of the Bible, but specifically the many sobering warnings delivered by the prophets of old, who constantly warned Israel to return to God’s festivals and God’s laws. Not because they are merely cultural or religious quirks, but because they are the very difference between national life and national death.
A Witness at Tel Dan
The most famous discovery made at the Tel Dan site is a ninth-century b.c. stone tablet bearing a clear reference to the “house of David” and “king of Israel.” The author of the inscription, a Gentile king, boasts of defeating both the king of Israel and the king of Judah—the latter monarch being a descendant of the “house of David.” Even notable Bible skeptics Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman could not ignore the significance of the Tel Dan tablet. They wrote in 2001, “Thus, the house of David was known throughout the region; this clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem.” You could also say that this fragment hints at what destroyed these kings of Israel and Judah and what ultimately desolated this city of Dan: They left behind not only the “house of David” but also the God of David.