An archeological mystery and the search for King David

Is Khirbet Qeiyafa the lost biblical city of Shaaraim? And did it have a shrine modeled after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem?

December 31, 2016 11:41
Khirbet Qeiyafa

Khirbet Qeiyafa. (photo credit: SKYVIEW LTD)

Perched on a hill overlooking the Eila Valley, a couple of kilometers southwest of Beit Shemesh, is an Iron Age archeological site known as Khirbet Qeiyafa. That much is certain.

The answers to other questions about the ruins, including the identity of its inhabitants, whether it contained the palace of King David and whether it should be identified as the biblical site of Shaaraim are a lot more nebulous.

The first evidence to indicate that this may be the biblical city of Shaaraim – Hebrew for “two gates” – is indeed the two gates that were found to have been existed there in the past. Critics argue, however, that Shaaraim was not the only biblical city with two gates (Megiddo also had two gates, for instance).

And that is just the beginning of the argument surrounding this ancient site.

SHAARAIM IS mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy as the place where the Philistines were slain – “on the road to Shaaraim” – following the battle of David and Goliath.

In I Chronicles 4:31, Shaaraim is listed as one of the sites under the reign of King David, I Samuel 17:11 describes the lead up to the battle between David and Goliath: “The Philistines assembled their forces for battle; they massed at Socoh of Judah, and encamped at Ephes-dammim, between Socoh and Azekah. Saul and the men of Israel massed and encamped in the valley of Elah,” and in I Samuel 17:52 it is listed as one of the places the Philistines ran after their defeat in the battle of David and Goliath: “And the men of Israel and of Judah arose, and shouted, and pursued the Philistines, until you come to the valley, and to the gates of Ekron.

And the wounded of the Philistines fell down by the way to Shaaraim, even to Gath, and to Ekron.”

Khirbet Qeiyafa lies in the Eila Valley directly between the sites that archeologists have identified as the biblical Socoh and Azekah. It had been documented as early as the 19th century and appears in maps from the time.

It was excavated in the years 2007-2013, and for the first time since the dig, artifacts from Khirbet Qeiyafa are on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem under the title “In The Valley of David and Goliath.”

Curated by Yehuda Kaplan, weapons, cookware, tools, inscriptions and more are displayed from the excavation, which was headed by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University, Sa’ar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Michael Hasel of the Southern Adventist University of Tennessee.

To reach the exhibition, you walk down a narrow hallway with a corridor- length photograph stretching along one of the walls. It’s a panoramic view of the Eila Valley with all modern structures photoshopped out. You’re seeing the valley the way the inhabitants of Khirbet Qeiyafa would have. On top of that, the exhibition’s design makes you feel like you’re inside the site, with large rock decals plastered on the wall, and a southern and western “gate,” like those of the site to enter and exit the exhibition.

“We wanted to ‘bring’ people to the site,” Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum, told The Jerusalem Post Magazine.

Weiss said that one of her “current pet peeves” is the recent UNESCO resolution that negates a Jewish connection to Jerusalem. “This exhibition shows our deep connection to the land,” she said.

But does the site really confirm an ancient Jewish connection to the land? And does it have anything at all to do with the Bible’s most famous monarch, King David? “I don’t see myself – as the curator – as the one who has to convince if [someone is] right or wrong. What we try to do here is bring the evidence... and we bring about [the archeologist’s] theory,” says Kaplan. “The excavators believe this was a Judahite town on the border with Philistia, and because of the dating, the reasonable candidate to initiate [the building of] this [site] was David.”

Khirbet Qeiyafa has added fuel to the fire of a debate that has been going on in the archeological world for the last 40 years, according to Kaplan, a debate about whether the biblical representation of the “united monarchy” – referring to the period of time under Solomon and David – and whether it is historical or fiction.

“In the ’60s,” Kaplan explains, “the time of [American archeologist and biblical scholar William] Albright, it [was customary] to hold the Bible in one hand and the spade in the other. The purpose was to prove the Bible through archeology.” Albright became best known for his work in authenticating the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948.

Later on, Kaplan says, scholars became more critical, and in the ’70s, many archeologists took the opposite approach, considering the Bible a myth – that King David wasn’t a real person but rather like the British King Arthur, a fictional, ideal role model for any king to aspire to.

KAPLAN HIGHLIGHTS the urban planning of the contested site and says that it signifies that Khirbet Qeiyafa was a city, not a village. The wall that encircles Khirbet Qeiyafa is what is known as a “casemate wall,” a wall built from two parallel walls, and perpendicular, smaller walls intersect the wall into rooms, or cells.

“The excavators think that this kind of urban planning is something that you see in Judah 100 or 200 years later in sites like Tel Sheva and Beit Shemesh,” he says. “This is a very good case for them.”

Among other things, the findings shed light on the diet of the inhabitants of Khirbet Qeiyafa. At the site, cow bones, sheep bones and goat bones were found, but not pig bones, which may point, as Kaplan explains, to a society that kept kosher laws.

In a glass case in the corner of the exhibition, Kaplan shows off what he calls “the true heroes of Khirbet Qeiyafa.”

These are about two dozen charred olive pits. The pits were found inside the houses and were sent for carbon-14 dating at Oxford University. When the results came back, the dating confirmed that archeologists were dealing with a site from the late 11th to early 10th century BCE, which is “a very, very important period of time, a very much debated in biblical history, because this was the transition between the period of the judges to the early monarchy.”

One of the most interesting finds from the site is a particular cultic artifact, a religious item, which Kaplan refers to as a “shrine model.” About a 30 cm. tall and made of limestone, it features inverted frames around the model’s doorway, and triglyphs – imitated stone roof beams. Prior to finding this model, archeologists thought the style came from Greece and was introduced to the Middle East at some point during the third century BCE, however this model predates that by 700 years.

Even more interestingly, the find led some archeologists to the theory that the shrine is modeled after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. According to them, introverted door frames and triglyphs match descriptions of the temple in the Bible.

Not everyone agrees Dr. Israel Finkelstein, an archeologist from Tel Aviv University, isn’t buying what the site’s excavators are selling.

First of all, he rejects the methodology of their dig, saying that it was “dug in haste” in his report on the site, Khirbet Qeiyafa: An Unsensational Archaeological and Historical Interpretation. Finkelstein told the Magazine that he believes it is inaccurate to label the site Shaaraim because it “appears in the Bible in Deuteronomistic texts, which date to the late seventh century BCE. Yet, Khirbet Qeiyafa does not have finds from that period. This makes the identification impossible.”

Despite that, he says that “One cannot exclude the possibility that the site was associated with Judah.” But it’s not the lack of pig bones that brought him to that conclusion. “The accumulation of data in the last few years indicates that lack of pig bones is not characteristic solely [of] highland sites. For instance, a rural site in Philistia (Nahal Besor) not too far from Gaza did not yield pig bones. In other words, large numbers of pig bones is typical mainly to urban Philistine sites,” he said.

Responding in an email to some of Finkelstein’s points, Garfinkel went on the attack. “We have fresh data and Finkelstein has a collapsed theory. His strategy to opposed opinions is bad and evil language. It does not deserve any comments.”

Nevertheless, he did raise two points in response to Finkelstein’s criticism.

With regard to the accusation that the excavation was done in “haste” Garfinkel said: “In the excavation we screened all the... sediment, which took hundreds of working hours every day. In our excavations we uncovered many small artifacts, like beads, seals and scarabs. In Megiddo [a site excavated by Finkelstein]...not so many were found. So I would say that we are collecting the important finds quickly.”

Hasel, one of Garfinkel’s partners in excavating the site, added: “The site was dug over a period of seven seasons by a very large team of 50 to 90 trained staff and volunteers each season for six weeks. In this way, we were able to expose a large portion of the city. No one else in the archeological community has questioned our methodology.”

While Garfinkel would present the two gates of Khirbet Qeiyafa as the best evidence to convince the public that the site is indeed Shaaraim, Hasel says that to pick a single piece of evidence in making the case is an oversimplification.

“We have published 12 reasons why the site can be considered Judahite,” he says. “[Among them are the facts that] it dates to the time of Saul and David. It is located in the precise place where the I Samuel narrative of David and Goliath takes place, and the site has the unusual feature of having two gates.”

The ruins of a large building at the center of the site are also contentious.

Kaplan only referred to it as an administrative building, but Hasel and Garfinkel suggest that it was a palace built by King Saul or David: “We can only hypothesize then who built the site and used the building. Some would like to suggest it was Saul. We suggest David. [In I Chronicles 4:31, Shaaraim is listed as one of the sites under the reign of King David.] Either way, it reflects the period described in the Bible as the beginning of the monarchy in Israel. Even if Saul built the site, as Finkelstein suggests, would not David have continued to use it as a garrison city located on the border between Philistia and Judah during his subsequent reign? We believe that it is a logical hypothesis that David could have used this monumental building which dates to the time of his reign.”

Finkelstein responded that the phrase Hasel attributed to him “Saul built the site,” is “a bit strong” and admitted that archeologists “don’t really know too much about this early North Israelite polity [referring to Qeiyafa] and the number of rulers and their exact time.”

And, as with many sites, only a small portion was excavated. But even so, Hasel is confident with the area that they’ve dug. “We have excavated more of Khirbet Qeiyafa than almost any other major site in Israel. We excavated 25% of the site. Another 30% is exposed bedrock and cannot be excavated.

The result is that we know 55% of the site. Most other Iron Age sites have less than 5% of them that have been excavated and have no exposed bedrock.

If anything, we can be more certain about our conclusions at Qeiyafa than in most other [sites] in Israel,” he points out.

Iron Age Khirbet Qeiyafa was inhabited for only 30 to 40 years and according to Kaplan there is evidence that it was not only abandoned, but also destroyed. But with its impressive walls and double gates, its administrative building or palace (depending on whom you ask), the mystery shrouding the site still occupies the minds of archeologists, professors and museum- goers some 3,000 years later.

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