Hikers discovered mysterious etchings of a menorah, cross and a key in a cave lying in the Judean foothills. (Photo: Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Nevertheless, a spring or a cistern holding water shall be clean, but whoever touches a carcass in them shall be unclean. – Leviticus 11:36 (ESV)

In Jerusalem and across ancient Israel, people carved out cisterns from the solid rock as a means to collect rainwater. This provided water during the extreme dry summer months. The cisterns could be small for just one family or large for an entire community.

It is a fact that, “During biblical time cisterns were not only used to store water but were also used as underground chambers, hiding places for fugitives, burial places, and even as prison cells…” Bible-history.com has many archaeological and biblical references supporting this statement.

Jesus said ”…but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 (ESV)

It was in one of these cisterns that three members of the Israel Caving Club; Mickel Barkal, Sefi Givoni, and Ido Meroz, made a unique discovery. They had heard that the lowland caves region of South-Central Israel were quite beautiful. Meroz stated of their exploration, “We began to peer into them, and that’s how we came to this cave, which is extremely impressive with rock-carved niches and engravings on the wall.” The niches were part of a columbarium. It is known that the niches were used to raise doves, a staple of the sacrificial rite in the ancient Temple.

The Columbarium. (Photo Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)

However, one of the most important elements they found inside the cave was an engraving of a seven-branched menorah from the Second Temple period. This engraving is now one of three that have been discovered in the region of the Judean Shephelah. Another engraving by the menorah included a cross (believed to have most likely been added later in the Byzantine era), one that appears to resemble a key, as well as other engravings that have yet to be identified.

One of the ways that the seven-branch menorah marks the time, is that modern menorahs typically have nine arms. Eight arms represent the eight nights of Hanukkah and the extra to hold the candle that lights all of the others. As Live Science notes, “the seven arm design is associated with menorahs used in the First and Second Temples.” The Hanukkah holiday first began as a rededication after the temple was spoiled by the Greeks, near the end of the Second Temple period. Continued study of the First and Second Temples will help us learn about this era. As more evidence comes to light; it is important to follow the evidence.

Menorah etching found carved in cistern near Bet Shemesh (Photo: Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Cross etching found carved in cistern near Bet Shemesh (Photo: TPS)

An engraving that appears to depict a key. (Photo: Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Israel Antiquities Authority’s district archeologist of Ashkelon, Sa’ar Ganor, explained that, “there are buildings and hiding caves dating to the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising (2nd century AD) at the site, as well as buildings that date to the Byzantine period. But it is rare to find a wall engraving of a menorah, and this exciting discovery, which was symbolically revealed during the Hanukkah holiday, substantiates the scientific research regarding the Jewish nature of the settlement during the Second Temple Period.”

“The menorah was probably etched in the cistern after the water installation was hewn in the bedrock – maybe by inhabitants of the Jewish settlement that was situated there during the Second Temple period and the time of Bar Kokhba – and the cross was etched later on during the Byzantine period, most likely in the fourth century CE,” Ganor added.

A keen observation was made by Vox.com that, “the discovery of the side-by-side symbols associated with Judaism and Christianity, respectively, coincides with a rare overlap of the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays in 2016, with the first night of Hanukkah falling on Christmas Eve. Such an alignment has happened only four times since 1900 — in 1902, 1940, 1978 and 2016

An overview of the Bar Kokhba uprising can be read on Wikipedia. It was a rebellion of the Jews of the Roman Province of Judea. It was the last of the three major Jewish-Roman wars. During the revolt against the Roman occupation, many caves in Judea, and in other parts of Israel, were used by the Jewish resistance. After the war, Emperor Hadrian sought to erase the memory of Judea or Ancient Israel and replaced it on the maps with Syria Palaestina. The Jewish people were largely barred from Jerusalem during this time. Some believe that the aftermath of the revolt was among the key events to differentiate Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism. At the time Jewish Christians regarded Jesus as the Messiah and did not support Bar Kokhba. However, they were barred from Jerusalem along with the Jews.

Today the exact location of the cave with the menorah and cross is not being disclosed by the IAA, in an effort to protect it. This is largely due to fear that the evidence of Jewish and Christian heritage could be vandalized or destroyed.

Hikers Mickey Barkal and Ido Meroz stand near their discovery of etchings made into the stone cave. (Photo: Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to the IAA, “the three hikers who discovered the engravings will receive a good citizenship certificate and will be invited to participate in the coming archaeological surveys that the IAA will conduct in the Judaean lowlands.”