Imagining Hazor…

A first visit to the thousand-year “head of many kingdoms,” Hazor (after spending many years there)…

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. – Albert Einstein

Hazor. Hatsor. Chatsor. חצור. No matter your preferred spelling, for over a millennium Hazor in northern Israel was one of the most powerful and important cities in The Fertile Crescent, its influence spanning pagan Canaanite times to the rule of Pekah, penultimate ruler of the doomed Northern Kingdom. Joshua is credited with having destroyed Hazor sometime during the 13th century BCE (Jos 11:11). Archaeological evidence unearthed at modern Tel Hazor supports the report in First Kings which notes that, some three hundred years after Joshua crossed the Jordan, King Solomon restored the city to its former glory (1 Ki 9:15). Roughly another 130 years passed before Israel’s last great (though evil) king, Jeroboam II, recaptured Hazor from Damascus and restored its status in the Levant as an economic and military powerhouse.

A fabled center of commerce and influence for over a thousand years, the site where daunting Hazor once stood is now a remote, windblown tel east of Highway 90 between Tiberias and Qiryat Shemona. Though it is the largest archaeological site in northern Israel one might easily miss Tel Hazor while driving north toward Lake Hula—a small, painted sign marks the turnoff—but my wife, Marcia, and I found it easily. Although this would be our first visit, I had already spent several years roaming the streets of that ancient city in my imagination.

Why such fascination with Hazor? In my novel, Faithless Heart, a fictional rendering of the biblical account of the prophet Hosea and the prostitute, Gomer, perhaps the most consequential love story ever told, Hazor’s fate—along with the fall of Iyon farther north—seals the doom of sovereign ancient Israel. “Go,” said the Lord to Hosea…

take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord. (Hos 1:2)

Gomer dishonored her husband and, like modern Israel will be, someday, she was forgiven though unworthy and supernaturally redeemed…

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods…” So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley. (Hos 3:1-2)

Mighty but doomed Hazor, just before its fall, seemed then like the perfect time and place for Gomer’s fictional redemption to begin. I had spent countless hours there by dint of ancient texts and modern studies so I found myself nearly giddy when I finally arrived on scene in the flesh. The time had come to measure my imagination against that historic tel’s blowing dust, fallen columns and broken stones.

Tel Hazor National Park Aerial View and Park Managers

Two Friendly Park Managers and an Aerial View of Tel Hazor

Faithless Heart Book CoverSituated on an access road stemming east from Highway 90, Tel Hazor is an unimposing-looking grassy mound about a quarter-mile in length running southwest to northeast. There is a greeting station above the national park’s gated entrance and friendly help. I was immediately pleased to read, upon entering the park, that the enclosed high mound did not comprise all of the original city. An expansive “lower city” once surrounded the upper plateau just as it does in my story.

I don’t know whether the Prophet Hosea ever visited Hazor but, in Faithless Heart, he arrives there for the first time after a days-long, 50-mile hike from his home in Samaria to attend his friend, Yaron’s, wedding. From the ninth chapter of Faithless Heart, this description…

In King Jehu’s time, five decades before Hosea was born, the walled city of Hazor, which lay only two-day’s southwest of Damascus, had been gutted by the king of Aram. Everyone in Samaria well knew Hazor’s grim history. It was the heaviness imposed by that history, Hosea supposed, that had caused him to panic when Yaron announced his plans to settle there. Or his fear had arisen by a stirring from God. Either way, when Hosea first beheld the city on the fifth morning of his trek, he felt foolish to have been concerned.

Hazor was an amazing place, a Samaria of sorts it was so grand, but built with war and commerce, not magnificence in mind. Lying upon successive elevated plateaus and encircled by a tall and wide stone wall, Hazor had been fortified and expanded by King Solomon himself. The rebuilt garrison there, erected only thirty years earlier, embodied an imposing, six-chambered gate; a protection built to discourage attacks from her natural enemies, Aram and Assyria.

A kind of outpost stood on the flats just beyond Hazor’s gate; a long, lumber platform paced by men at arms and flanked by bannered chariots parked in rows along its length. A market thrived on the city’s apron under this post’s protection; merchants selling cloth, spices, icons, incense, produce, jewelry and livestock.

Hosea passed inside. Upon the city’s bustling lower terrace he saw scores more of merchants’ booths, pitched tents, lean-tos and shanties that housed workers who served an adjacent granary, a crowded stable and an elaborate armory filled with grunting, muscular smiths and scores of furnaces belching smoke.

Asherah poles were everywhere. A small metal calf much like the bigger idols at Dan and Beth-el sat in the center of a square. Deep-cut rock pits channeled water beneath Hazor’s perimeter wall into common baths, public wells and countless cisterns.

Hosea climbed an inclined road to the upper terrace where, it was easy to see, lived Hazor’s more well-to-do; city officials, landed families and those who had recently prospered by trading in ore, hard goods, weapons and equipment.

Yaron and his new bride-to-be, Hosea was certain, would live in that bright clean air.

Marcia and I found still standing the massive six-chambered gate which Hosea would have walked through to enter the upper city. That grand entrance now known as the “Solomonic Gate” dates to the time of King Solomon, 10th century BCE. Nothing remains in place of its once tall adjacent towers but the huge cut stones that supported them.

Six-chambered gate at Tel Hazor

Marcia standing beside the remains of a tower flanking Hazor’s famed, six-chambered gate

Hazor Water Supply

The park managers mentioned more than once, “Be sure to look at the water system.”

From the ruins, looking west.

From the ruins, looking west.

We walked the grounds on a beautiful sunlit day, birds chirping, clouds drifting overhead, validating expectations and examining crumbling walls. A huge, mysterious looking crater lies north of the tel, descending perhaps a hundred feet in depth. What caused it?

A"mysterious looking" crater on the north side of the tel

The “mysterious looking” crater

Who among the untold thousands of ancient Canaanites, Israelites and Assyrians who had lived, thrived and died in that once powerful place raising families, engaging in commerce and fighting endless wars would have guessed that preeminent Hazor would someday be a blot on a map marked by a small, painted road sign, where nothing of note would have happened for nearly three thousand years?

What is the lesson learned? In Israel in 753 BCE, early in Hosea’s ministry, Jeroboam II died after rebuilding Hazor and flourishing as king for 41 years. The Northern Kingdom seemed as strong and secure as ever then (though the Prophet Amos had long warned of an inevitable day of judgement). But, just as it would happen later in Babylon following the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Israel rapidly collapsed in the absence of a powerful leader. Six kings would follow Jeroboam in the nation’s remaining thirty years, four of whom would murder their predecessors to gain the throne.

Faithless Heart’s last scene in Hazor presents the prostitute Gomer, even as she is being supernaturally redeemed, confronted by former lovers, just as—according to a word received from one of Babylon’s most famous captives 150 years later—the people of Israel shall someday be confronted upon their redemption…

Therefore, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God, “Because your lewdness was poured out and your nakedness uncovered through your harlotries with your lovers and with all your detestable idols…therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, even all those whom you loved and all those whom you hated. So I will gather them against you from every direction and expose your nakedness to them that they may see all your nakedness… (Eze 16:35-38)

Though it’s sometimes difficult to imagine, if the past teaches us anything it’s that rulers and nations fail.

This article originally appeared on the blog Standing by the Gate, October 28, 2016, and reposted with permission.