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Joseph Smith was famously shocked, while he was translating the Book of Mormon, by its mention of walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem in the time of Lehi.  He needed to be assured by his wife Emma that, in fact, it did have such walls.  He knew very little about the city in those days.  Today, though, we’re learning much more.

“Between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE,” write Yuval Gadot and Yiftah Shalev in the current issue of “Biblical Archaeology Review,”

“Jerusalem reached unprecedented heights of power and prosperity.  The city was the economic, political, and religious capital of the Kingdom of Judah.  It boasted the Temple, the royal palace, and other official buildings of the state.  From a small town founded on the narrow ridge known today as the City of David, Jerusalem developed into a strong, walled city of hundreds of acres, surrounded by agricultural estates in service of the kingdom.  The capital was supported by a network of smaller cities and fortresses that facilitated its control over the kingdom’s territories and the wealthy trade caravans that passed through them.”

It’s hardly surprising that Laman and Lemuel resented the fact that their father, Lehi, had “led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things. . . .  Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets” (1 Nephi 1:2:11, 13).

Recent excavation in Jerusalem’s Givati Parking Lot, located in what is commonly called the “City of David,” just south of the Temple Mount and directly across the busy street to the south of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, opens a window onto the daily life of Jerusalem’s ruling elite that Lehi and Nephi, too—and Laman and Lemuel, and Laban—would have known.

The focus of the dig is on a large public building, the largest from that period that has been discovered so far, that excavators call Building 100.  Three rooms have been discovered, probably storage rooms, that seem to have made up the ground floor of a large two-story building that originally measured at least 65 by 55 feet.  In some places, its walls still rise at least nine feet high.  It is a structure whose occupants, its excavators say, “had some connection to the kingdom’s royal administration.”

Although archaeologists don’t know when the building was first constructed, they are confident that it was violently destroyed in a great fire during the early sixth century before Christ, most likely during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC.  This conquest marked the end of the so-called “First Temple” period of Jerusalem’s history, and it was to escape that catastrophic event that the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi fled the city with his family and a small group of others.

The collapsed walls and floors of the upper story of Building 100 can now be identified, along with charred wood, broken pottery, and other burnt debris.  Despite the damage, the fine architectural details of the ancient building can be recognized.  Both its interior and exterior walls were finely plastered, and its polished second floor was smooth, reddish, and shimmering.

Numerous fragments of ivory plaques—nearly 1500 of them—were found among the rubble and the burned wood, and excavators believe that the ivory pieces were decorative inlays that were originally attached to the building’s luxury furniture.  But ivory is not native to Palestine.  Rather, it came originally from Africa and India, and this fact suggests extensive international trade.

Furthermore, these ivory fragments prominently include stylized images of date palms, which the archaeologists identify as a “tree of life” symbol (compare 1 Nephi 8, 11) representing fertility, prosperity, and divine protection.  Another common motif is one of interconnected lotus flowers.  The lotus flower, originally from Egypt, symbolized creation and renewal and, the excavators say, an endless cycle of life.  Such elegant designs show, they say, that Jerusalem was well connected by ties of trade and culture to the wider region in which it was located, and that Jerusalem’s elite had access to high-end goods and fashionable luxuries.  Links with Egypt, especially, should be of significance to Latter-day Saints, who recall that Lehi’s cultural connection with Egypt is signaled already in the second verse of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1:2).

Other artifacts recovered from the site suggest that the administrative archive of a high Jerusalem official may have been located in Building 100.  For example, an agate seal bearing the name “Ikar ben Matanyahu” was found in one of the collapsed rooms.  Another item bears the inscription “To Nethanmelek, the servant of the king.”  It’s not impossible that this is the same Nethanmelek who is mentioned in 2 Kings 23:11 (with his “chamber”) as a government official at roughly the time of King Josiah, who reigned from roughly BC 640 until his unfortunate death in BC 609.

Animal bones retrieved by archaeologists indicate that those who used the building ate mainly sheep and goats, along with some chickens and wild game.  Interestingly, a predominance of right-front limb bones—parts that are specifically associated with sacrificial offerings (see Leviticus 7:32)—suggest a connection with the ritual sacrifices of the temple.  The meat may have been received from the priest of the temple after the sacrificial rites were completed.

Seafood was also on the menu.  A variety of fish were consumed, including bream, mullet, cod, catfish, and Nile perch.  Similar kinds of fish bones have been found elsewhere in Jerusalem, suggesting that at least the wealthy elite of the city received a continual supply of fish from the Mediterranean and the marshy lagoons of the northern Sinai, as well as—note, once again, the connection with Egypt—from the Nile River.

The pottery found within Building 100 is also suggestive of international trade.  For instance, some of the objects (including one small jug and several carved stone vessels) were of Phoenician origin.  And, in this light, it is well to remember that the Phoenician city name “Sidon” is applied in the Book of Mormon to the important river that, among other things, passed through the major city of Zarahemla.  It was likely brought to the New World by the Mulekites, who, of course, were representatives of the elite class in Jerusalem.

Analysis of the residue found in some of the recovered pottery indicates that the jars had been used to store olive oil and vanilla-spiced wine.  Since vanilla grows naturally in tropical areas of India and Africa, not in the Levant, it must have been imported via long-distance international trade.  The archaeologists working at Building 100 write, in this context, of “South Arabian caravans” providing goods to “Jerusalem’s ruling elite.” which should remind students of the Book of Mormon, according to which Lehi and his party followed what was likely an ancient trade route from Jerusalem along the Red Sea coast most probably to Oman, which, with Yemen, constitutes ancient “South Arabia.”

Curiously, though, the archaeologists working on Building 100—which they describe as the largest and richest structure known from Iron Age Jerusalem, and one that likely belonged a servant, minister, or priest of the Kingdom of Judah—report that they have found no hearths or ovens or other signs of food preparation, nor any evidence of household industry or domestic production.  Whatever Building 100 may have been, it seems not to have been a place in which routine, everyday domestic activities were conducted.

They suggest, instead, that it was a kind of reception hall, a location for lavish feasts and special gatherings.  At this point, readers of the Book of Mormon might remember an occasion on which the wealthy Laban was “out by night” among “the elders of the Jews,” at a gathering that clearly involved a serious abundance of wine.  (See 1 Nephi 4:7-9, 22-27.). The excavators of Building 100 cite Jeremiah 35:2-5, where the Lord instructs the prophet Jeremiah to

“Go to the Rekabite family and invite them to come to one of the side rooms of the house of the Lord and give them wine to drink.”

So I went to get Jaazaniah son of Jeremiah, the son of Habazziniah, and his brothers and all his sons—the whole family of the Rekabites. I brought them into the house of the Lord, into the room of the sons of Hanan son of Igdaliah the man of God. It was next to the room of the officials, which was over that of Maaseiah son of Shallum the doorkeeper. Then I set bowls full of wine and some cups before the Rekabites and said to them, “Drink some wine.””  (New International Version)

Being Rekabites, of course, they refused to partake of alcohol.  But it is perhaps significant that the ancient Latin Vulgate translation of Jeremiah 35:2 uses the word “exedra”—a term that refers to a hall that is typically furnished with seats and that is used for meetings and conversations—for what the King James Version calls a “chamber” and the NIV calls a “room.”  And the ancient Greek Septuagint version of Jeremiah 42:2 (which, in the Septuagint’s different arrangement of the chapters of Jeremiah is the equivalent verse), calls the room an “aula,” or “hall.”

“The many luxurious finds,” write Gadot and Shalev in their “Biblical Archaeology Review” article, “especially those associated with lavish feasts or special gatherings, suggest that various ceremonies were held on the second floor, where the assembly enjoyed vanilla-flavored wine and choice cuts of meat while sitting on ivory-decorated furniture.”  Indeed, they observe, what has been found in Bulding 100 is reminiscent of a prophecy directed at the aristocracy of Jerusalem by the prophet Amos sometime shortly before 750 BC.  For clarity’s sake, I quote from the New International Version’s rendition of Amos 6:4-7:

“You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches.  You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.  You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments.  You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.  Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.”

For this column, I draw primarily upon two articles in the Spring 2024 issue of the “Biblical Archaeology Review” (50/1).  They are Yuval Gadot and Yiftah Shalev, “Lifestyles of Jerusalem’s Rich and Famous,” 42-50, and Reli Avisar, “Fragments of Luxury: The Jerusalem Ivories,” 51-53.

See also “Did Jerusalem Have Walls Around It?”