Khirbet Qeiyafa, where some archaeologists believe King David built his palace (credit: courtesy/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” – 1 Samuel 17:37 (ESV)

The archaeological site, Khirbet Qeiyafa has been the center of continued debate. Are these the ruins of a palace built by King David? Or might they be a Philistine or Canaanite fortress? It could be very easy to allow a singular piece of evidence direct the conversation. However, keeping an open mind and reviewing all available evidence often makes a stronger case for where the evidence is pointing.

In 2007, excavation began to uncover what we now know is an ancient fortress city that overlooks Elah Valley, where the biblical narratives place the battle between David and Goliath. The excavation is near the modern Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. Archaeologists used many pieces of evidence to help date the ancient city and discern who may have lived in it.

© Copyright 2007, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The construction of the city offers many clues as to who built it. It is believed to be from the First Temple period. For it’s time, it is an impressive structure. Professor Yosef Garfinkel, Yigal Yadin Chair of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, led the excavation along with Sa’ar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Professor Michal Hazel of Southern Adventist University in Tennessee.

As reported by JNS (Jewish News Service), Garfinkel explained that before the period of King David, people lived in small farming communities. Around 11th [century] BC, these agrarian communities became urban societies. He said, “In this, the biblical tradition has historic memory. If we ask, Where is archaeology starting to support biblical tradition, Khirbet Qeiyafa is the beginning.”

Fortress Walls (credit: Yoav Dothan)

Also of note is the physical structure of the fortress; including “casemate walls – two thinner, parallel walls with empty space between and a belt of houses abutting the casements, incorporating them as part of the construction.” This type of planning has not been found at any Canaanite or Philistine city or in the northern Kingdom of Israel. However it is a common feature of city planning in other Judean cities like; Beersheba, Tell Beit Mirsim, Tell en-Nasbeh and Tell Beth-Shemesh. Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example of this city plan.

And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. 2 Samuel 5:9 (ESV)

A discovery that happened much further along in the excavation was that of two public royal buildings. According to Science Daily, one of the buildings is identified by the researchers as “David’s palace, and the other structure served as an enormous royal storeroom.” They also state, “The palace is located in the center of the site and controls all of the houses lower than it in the city. From here one has an excellent vantage looking out into the distance, from as far as the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Hebron Mountains and Jerusalem in the east. This is an ideal location from which to send messages by means of fire signals.

The palace and storerooms are evidence of state sponsored construction and an administrative organization during King David’s reign. “This is unequivocal evidence of a kingdom’s existence, which knew to establish administrative centers at strategic points,” the archaeologists say. This counters the claim by archaeologists such as Israel Finkelstein, who conclude that David was only the chief of a rustic backwater kingdom, which did not have the organization and power that we read of in the Bible.

As the journey to examine the evidence continues, a look into smaller fragments, pieces together more evidence. The pottery excavated tells an interesting story. According to a preliminary field report, written by Garfinkel, Ganor and Hasel, “Some 500 jar handles bearing a single finger-print, or sometimes two or three, were found. Marking jar handles is characteristic of the Kingdom of Judah and it seems this practice has already begun in the early Iron Age IIA.”

In addition to the marking of jar handles, there was a vessel that was carefully reconstructed, that bears an inscription. The Israel Ministry of foreign affairs notes that intensive restoration work was conducted in the laboratories of the IAA’s Artifacts Treatment Department. During which time hundreds of pottery shards were glued together to form a whole jar – the jar was inscribed with the name: Eshba’al Ben Bada.

The inscription: Eshba’al Ben Bada (credit:Tal Rogovsky)

The jar following restoration in the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratories (credit: Tal Rogovsky)

The name Eshba’al written in ancient Canaanite script. The following letters appear from right to left: aleph, shin, bet, ‘ayin, lamed. (credit:Tal Rogovsky)

Why is this discovery important? According to Garfinkel and Ganor, “This is the first time that the name Eshba’al has appeared on an ancient inscription in the country. Eshba’al Ben Shaul, who ruled over Israel at the same time as David, is known from the Bible. Eshba’al was murdered by assassins and decapitated and his head was brought to David in Hebron (II Samuel, Chaps. 3-4).” The IAA, states that “It is interesting to note that the name Eshba’al appears in the Bible, and now also in the archaeological record, only during the reign of King David, in the first half of the tenth century BC. This name was not known to be used later in the First Temple period…The name Beda’ is unique and does not occur in ancient inscriptions or in the biblical tradition.”

The location of the fortress aligning with the biblical narratives of David and Goliath, construction and city planning methods, and evidence of Judean people based on pottery inscriptions would be enough to demonstrate for many people that does in fact support the biblical account that this was a city built by King David. However, there are some scholars who very strongly disagree and feel that the city could also be Philistine or Canaanite. Next week’s Thinker will return to Khirbet Qeiyafa to reveal a find that matches the Bible’s account in a remarkable way.