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Retrieving the historical David

The question of whether the biblical David actually existed and the extent to which he ruled over a minor tribe or a major kingdom may seem tangential to those who connect to him mainly as a mythic figure or by religious faith – the boy who killed Goliath, the young shepherd who loved Jonathan and whose musical playing could calm king Saul’s savage migraines and who later became king, the older melancholy intellect we connect with the Psalms, and the scheming sexual predator who murdered a general to sleep with his wife.  But the archeological interest connecting to recent finds that some see as confirming his biography have implications not only for Israeli identity and national history, they are likely to play a role in the ongoing work to vindicate Zionism.  This is so because the state of Israel has long been linked in the historical imagination as the modern-day incarnation of David’s united kingdom.

Yosef Garfinkel, a Hebrew University archeologist, has been overseeing a dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa near the historic Valley of Elah (the Bible says this is where David brought Goliath down and the dig is only a couple miles from Goliath’s home town of Gath), located near the modern Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, and containing the remains of a heavily armored 3000-year-old city.  In the immediate vicinity, scholars have long been at work to unearth evidence of Philistine culture and militarism, and the cryptic remains that date to the 10th-century B.C.E. are of special interest because that was the period of asserted national unification, when the biblical account says David brought together Judah and Israel and expanded the nation.  But defensible remains are hard to find, and as one journalist recently put it, “a  number of scholars today argue that the kingdom was largely a myth created some centuries later.  A great power, they note, would have left traces of cities and activity, and been mentioned by those around it” (Bronner).  Work at the Elah Fortress just began earlier this year in earnest.

The absence of historical data from this period so far is why archeologists and biblical partisans are interested in a new find at the Garfinkel dig, which is shown in the photograph above.  A shard of pottery, inscribed with charcoal and animal fat and carbon dated by Oxford University to the period between 1050 and 970 B.C. (the precise period in question), seems to offer evidence on several fronts.  First, if confirmed, it shows evidence of literacy from a period for which evidence of writing is sparse – this is important because for biblical scholars it offers a way to square the writings of received scripture with the assumption that the period’s culture was largely or even exclusively oral.  Second, the site holds promise because it was only active for a very short period before the encampment was shut down, possibly in the aftermath of a military defeat at the hands of the Philistines, and so the normal blending of archeological evidence in layer upon contested layer is less an obstacle to historical analysis than it often would be in other settings.

Garfinkel argues that the pottery fragment, inscribed in a proto-Canaanite script, shows that the city was a forward deployed military base of Israeli/Hebraic origin or use.  For him the site’s location, two day’s walking distance south of Jerusalem, proves or at least strongly suggests that the reach of David’s empire was considerable enough to invest the ten years time it would have taken to produce such fortifications.  The site is large and its six acre, 700-meter-long city wall would have taken a long time to construct (and the construction would not have been simple:  some of the stones comprising the wall weigh as much as eight tons apiece).  Such evidence might go far in settling an ongoing historical debate between those who argue the general surface remains show no evidence of urban centers or a large dispersed population capable of constituting a 10th-century B.C.E. kingdom, and those who read the anthropological evidence as strong enough to support the judgment that a centralized government and bureaucracy could have been sustained by the available population centers.

Garfinkel is no biblical literalist (“we have to calm down before we start jumping to sentimental, Biblical conclusions,” he has said).  For him the new find might simply suggest that the story of David and Goliath mythically represents the likely ongoing skirmishes between the people who lived in the Elah Fortress and the Philistines who lived nearby.  But skepticism has been expressed even about his more definitive claims, in part because some of the funding for the excavation comes from an organization called Foundation Stone, which encourages archeological work confirming the Jewish connection to the historical Holy Land.  Others are less sure of what to make of the findings than Garfinkel – while acknowledging its archeological importance, for example, Amihai Mazar (another archeologist working at Hebrew University) wonders at the strength of the evidence the Fortress has so far yielded:  “The question is who fortified it, who lived in it, why it was abandoned, and how it all relates to the reign of David and Solomon,” David’s son.

A more complicated suggestion made by Garfinkel and his colleagues is that the pottery piece directly hints at David himself.  The text is not fully deciphered, but because the words king, judge, and slave are written there, the fragment may suggest some sort of official communique from the time of David’s rule or a system of scribal regulatory conveyance.

For believers in the scriptural record, such a find would be a happy but unnecessary confirmation of what they already know:  that David unified a group of warring tribes into a significant Mediterranean kingdom whose existence was prophetically foreseen and which laid the foundations of the modern state of Israel (if one visits the website for the Israeli government one can see national historical maps that assume the biblical account of David and Solomon is literally true).  But for those who tend to read the Bible’s historical accounts as mainly mythological, the search for a historical David has never been settled by the biographical details enumerated in the books of First and Second Samuel.  And because so few extra-Biblical confirmations have been found (only one inscription from the period, the so-called Tel Dan stele, uses the phrase “House of David”), some doubt whether there ever was a King David.

A slew of recently suggestive finds have reactivated interest in the subject.  Beyond the new pottery shard, a Jerusalem researcher this past week claimed to have “found an ancient water drain mentioned in the Bible as the route used by David’s forces to capture the city from the Jebusites.  [And] in Jordan, scholars said they had uncovered an ancient copper excavation site that tests showed could be the legendary King Solomon’s mines” (Kalman).  The challenge is to avoid racing to friendly conclusions – on other occasions early finds have been publicly circulated as settling the questions surrounding the historical David (including the Mesha Stele and a Pharaonic inscription alleged to refer to the “highlands of David”) only to finally garner limited scholarly support after deeper investigation and debate.  Other sites have offered tantalizing hints of a Davidic reign (including digs done in the heart of Jerusalem and a site first announced as the site of David’s Palace), but have been judged inconclusive either because the sites were contaminated by remains from other periods or could not be definitively connected to the 10th century B.C.E. period under question.

SOURCES:  Ethan Bronner (New York Times correspondent), “Dig may shed light on biblical David,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, 31 October 2008, pg. A7; Matthew Kalman, “’Proof’ David slew Goliath found as Israeli archeologists unearth ‘oldest ever Hebrew text,’” The Mail online, 31 October 2008; Carolynne Wheeler, “Pottery shard lends evidence to stories of Biblical King David,” London Telegraph, 31 October 2008.


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