Beit Lehi / Khirbet Beit Loya
Khirbet Beit Loya / Beit Lehi is a unique archeological site in the southern Judean Foothills (the Shephelah), 5km south of Lachish. The site was inhabited in antiquity, as well as other time periods, up to the 14th century CE. It may have been named Beit Lehi (Hebrew for “The Estate of Lehi”) in the Israelite period, and “Betzedeh” in Roman times.
The History of Beit Loya / Beit Lehi
Khirbet Beit-Loya was first settled during the time of the Israelites. The most remarkable find from this time period is a burial cave with a rare inscription in Paleo-Hebrew. The Latter-Day Saints Church believes that, during this period, this site was Lehi’s estate. According to the Book of Mormom Lehi left Jerusalem in the days of King Zedekiah (1. Ne. 2:1-4), became a prophet, and eventually sailed to “The Promised Land” (1. Ne. 5:212).
Was Khirbet Beit-Loya the Home of Priest Lehi?
Since the 1970s, the Latter-Day Saints Church developed a theory that Khirbet Beit-Loya may have been the home of Lehi, the first prophet in the Book of Mormon. Several arguments support this theory –
- The Arabic name of the site, “Khirbet Beit Loya” means “the ruins of the House of Loya.” “Loya” is not a known name in Arabic, but perhaps it is preserving the name of the first resident – Lehi.
- In 1961, a burial cave from the Israelite period was discovered at the eastern end of the site. The cave was looted, but 7 inscriptions in Paleo-Hebrew were found engraved on its walls. One of them read, “YHWH (is) the God of the whole earth; the mountains of Judah belong to him, to the God of Jerusalem.” A boat was engraved next to it. The text implies that it was written by a Jew from Jerusalem, yet the boat suggests his plan to sail away.
- In the 4th century, a church was built at the site. Its mosaic floor included a description of people sailing in a boat. Perhaps the local community was preserving the memory of a man who once sailed from here?
- In 2015, another engraving depicting a boat was found in another cave at the site, next to a short Greek inscription reading “Jesus is here.” The references at this site to boats and sailing is surprising as the closest body of water to the site is the Mediterranean sea, which is 45 km west of the site.
- According to this video, By local Arab tradition a prophet once lived at the site, but one day he disappeared, and no one knows why.
The site was abandoned around the 6th Century BCE, but was reoccupied two centuries later, possibly by Edomites. It is assumed that during the Babylonian exile of the Jews from this region, Edomites settled in their place. A few underground agricultural installations indicate the Edomites specialized in raising pigeons and olive oil production. They also built a watch tower, which was used in later periods. The Edomites apparently abandoned the site when Judah, the Maccabi, led military raids in this region (Ant. 12 8 6). About 130 years later, in the days of King Herod, Jews returned to settle at the site. Edomites shrines were abolished, and seven branched candelabras (Menorah) were engraved at a few locations. The Jews also added ritual baths (Miqveh) and used unique purity vessels made of stone.
Khirbet Beit Loya / Beit Lehi in the Great Jewish Revolt
During the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE), the Jews dug hiding tunnels under the site. This was part of their tactical plan to fight a guerrilla war against the Romans. A tunnel was also dug under the observation tower. It is possible that this tunnel was used by Niger, commander of the Jews, after a failed attempt to raid against Ashkelon.
Did Niger, A Jewish Rebels Commander, Hide in Beit Loya?
In his book, The Wars of the Jews against the Romans, Flavius Josephus describes in detail various battles between the Jews, rebelling against the Roman Empire. Among others, he documents an attempt of the rebels, led by a person called Niger, to raid against Ascalon. Yet, Antonius, the Roman commander –
“laid ambushes for them in the passages they were to go through, where they fell into snares unexpectedly, and where they were encompassed about with horsemen, before they could form themselves into a regular body for fighting, and were above eight thousands of them slain. So all the rest of them ran away, and with them Niger, who still did a great many bold exploits in his flight. However, they were driven along together by the enemy, who pressed hard upon them, into a certain strong tower belonging to a village called Bezedeh. However, Antonius and his party, that they might neither spend any considerable time about this tower, which was hard to be taken, nor suffer their commander, and the most courageous man of them all, to escape from them, they set the wall on fire. And as the tower was burning, the Romans went away rejoicing, as taking it for granted that Niger was destroyed. But he leaped out of the tower into a subterraneous cave, in the innermost part of it, and was preserved. And on the third day afterward he spake out of the ground to those that with great lamentation were searching for him, in order to give him a decent funeral; and when he was come out, he filled all the Jews with an unexpected joy, as though he were preserved by God’s providence to be their commander for the time to come.”
Since a tower with a hiding tunnel beneath it was exposed at this site, it is tempting to suggest that this battle, as described by Josephus, took place at Khirbet Beit Loya. If so, it also indicates that the name of the site in the 1st century was “Bezedeh.”
Khirbet Beit Loya / Beit Lehi in the Byzantine and Muslim periods
After the Roman conquest of the Khirbet Beit Loya, the site was abandoned for about three hundred years. In the fourth century CE, a community of Christians settled at the site. They built a basilica shaped church, which may have been part of a monastery. Its mosaic floors were decorated with geometric designs and images of sailing and fishing. Several inscriptions in Greek were also documented. Most were recording the donors of the church. By the 9th century CE, the church was abandoned and became a burial ground for Muslims. The Muslims also added a small mosque next to it. The Muslims occupied the site until the 14th century and eventually abandoned it.
Touring Khirbet Beit Levya / Beit Lehi
The site is within the military firing zone of the Israeli Army (IDF). Being so, it can only be visited on the weekends and local holidays, when the army isn’t training in the area. There is no paved road to the site, so an off-road vehicle is required. The best time of the year to visit is in the spring when the area is in spring bloom. You will really appreciate the spectacular lupine blossom. We also recommend bringing flashlights to be able to explore the many caves scattered around the site.