The place-name Mizpah occurs 45 times in the Hebrew Bible, not all of them referring to the same site (see Wikipedia’s disambiguation page). Tell en-Nasbeh is thought to be the Mizpah mentioned in First Samuel, First and Second Kings, Second Chronicles, and Jeremiah.
Samuel called the people to battle against the Philistines, setting up camp at Mizpah. After winning the battle, he set up a memorial stone, naming it Ebenezer. Later, Samuel followed a circuit that included Mizpah (1 Samuel 7).
In the war between Israel’s King Baasha and Judah’s King Asa (9th C. BCE), when Baasha was fortifying Ramah to prevent his people from entering into Judah, Asa hired Ben-Hadad king of Aram to drive him away. Asa then drafted a large work force to dismantle Ramah’s fortifications and use them to fortify Geba and Mizpah (1 Kings 15:16-22; 2 Chron. 16:6). This explains the massive wall surrounding such a small, relatively insignificant town (enclosing only 8 acres).
In the early sixth century, after the Chaldeans had conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, they appointed Gedaliah as governor over the people they left to take care of the fields and vineyards, establishing a new provincial capital at Mizpah (2 Kings 25:22-24; Jer. ). Within two months, however, Gedaliah was assassinated by a trusted commander named Ishmael, who was really under orders by the king of Ammon. Ishmael also slew members of Gedaliah’s administration, Chaldean soldiers in the city, and others. He took hostages and fled toward Ammon. Johanan, a commander who had been loyal to Gedaliah, pursued Ishmael and engaged him at Gibeon, managing to rescue the hostages though Ishmael and eight of his companions escaped to Ammon. Fearing reprisals from the Chaldean overlords, Johanan and the survivors decided to flee to Egypt, ignoring Jeremiah’s urgent pleas to stay in Judah (2 Kings 25:25-26; Jer. 40:7 – 43:7).
Because Tell en-Nasbeh is northeast of Gibeon, identifying it as Mizpah creates a problem: why would Ishmael, on his way to Ammon, which is straight east, go to southwest to Gibeon on the way? Two explanation seem possible: 1) Ishmael was trying to throw off his pursuers by heading out in the opposite direction to his intended destination; or 2) Tell en-Nasbeh is not biblical Mizpah after all, and a site west of Gibeon is more likely. Edward Robinson was first to identify Nebi Samwil (“the prophet Samuel”) with Mizpah as a result of his 1838 survey of the area. (See 1 Sam. 7 for Mizpah’s association with Samuel.) The site later gained the endorsement of Professor W. F. Albright in 1924. Nebi Samwil, though, has not yielded any remains from the ninth to the sixth century BCE, and Albright’s identifications of both Geba and Mizpah are now hotly disputed.
The excavation of Tell en-Naṣbeh, conducted by the Palestine Institute of the Pacific School of Religion under the direction of Dr. W. F. Badè and with the assistance of Dr. C. S. Fisher and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Dr. Badè’s 1936 death left responsibility for publication of the results in the hands of Dr. C. C. McCown of ASOR and J. C. Wampler, a member of the excavation staff during the last three campaigns. The two men published their report in two volumes in 1947 (see below). The Pacific School of Religion maintains a museum displaying finds from the Tell en-Naṣbeh excavations.
Want to dive deeper?
Chester Charlton McCown and Joseph Carson Wampler. Tell en-Naṣbeh,
excavated under the direction of the late William Frederic Badè. Vol 1: Archaeological and Historical Results. Vol. 2: The Pottery. Berkeley, Calif., and New Haven, Conn.: Palestine Institute of Pacific School of Religion and American Schools of Oriental Research, 1947. Reviews: by Roger T. O’Callaghan in Biblica 32, 2 (1/1/1951): 313-316; G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeologist 10, 4 (12/1947): 69-77.
Jeffrey R. Zorn and Aaron J. Brody,
eds. “As for me, I will dwell at Mizpah …”: The Tell en-Nasbeh Excavations after 85 Years. Piscataway, N. J.: Gorgias Press, 2014. Available from Amazon
J. Maxwell Miller. “Geba/Gibeah of Benjamin.” Vetus Testamentum 25, 2 (4/1/1975): 145-166.
Vicinity of Mizpah (Tell en-Nasbeh)
Mizpah Without Labels (Tell en-Nasbeh)
Mizpah Excavation Plan (Tell en-Nasbeh)
Mizpah Alternate Site (Nebi Samwil)