Biblical Tours is a special series highlighting a collection of sites in the Holy Land as told by Israel’s very own tour guide, Gary Littwin. Familiar passages will literally take on new life and new meaning. You will absolutely feel the connection and the tangible, for-real bond which connects modern Israel and all of us to ancient Israel. Be prepared for some surprises as well!
Last week we explored Lachish. Today we will be visiting what may be, from a biblical viewpoint, one of the most significant and exciting finds in recent archaeological history.
The site known as “Kiafa” is believed by many to have revolutionized biblical archaeology. It goes a long way towards refuting the theories of the “minimalists” – academics who discount or diminish the biblical narrative in connection (among others) with the united kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon.
Kiafa (the biblical city of Sha’araim) is located in the Elah valley, where David fought Goliath, just east of Tel Azeka. About 200 meters south of the Azeka junction, we see a dirt road cutting east through the fields. Follow the dirt road to a fork, turn right, and continue east another 400 yards where you’ll park just below the excavated city wall.
Climbing up the final few meters we are met with an astonishing site: the excavated remains of a very ancient fortified city. Wandering through the ruins, we see large portions of a massive city wall, the remains of two monumental gates, private dwellings, a biblical “industrial” zone, religious ritual sites, and some additional surprises.
So much has been learned here about David and his kingdom, thanks in large part to one of Israel’s greatest archaeologists, Professor Garfinkel of the Hebrew University who began work here in 2007.
Why a revolution in biblical archaeology? Simple. The truth is that outside of the Bible very little tangible evidence has been found for the existence of a true kingdom at the time of King David. The minimalist school of thought had been gaining steam for decades. Suddenly, a large, heavily fortified Hebrew settlement, far from Jerusalem, on the western border of the kingdom facing the hostile Philistines.
But how do we know that the city is from the time of David, and even if it is, how do we know the city is Hebrew?
Organic matter, including olive pits, was found inside the walls of the city. An exhaustive series of carbon-14 tests conducted in Israel and abroad was conclusive; the city, which only existed for about 35 years before being destroyed by the Philistines, stood between 1015 and 980 BCE – the time of the rule of King David.
The city plan was typical of Judean cities, and the casemate walls were almost certainly of the type described in Joshua 2:15 in relation to the home of Rahab of Jericho who aided Joshua’s spies. The religious sites and alters were clearly of the Hebrews: of the thousands of sacrificial animal bones found, all were of kosher animals, unlike similar sites in neighboring settlements of the Philistines, Canaanites, Egyptians and others.
One of the most exciting finds was a ceramic shard with the oldest Hebrew inscription ever to come to light. The script is a very ancient Hebrew, or proto-Canaanite, but the language is definitely Hebrew, and the content is biblical, clearly reminiscent of Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow”.
Just to the east of the southern gate there is a small feed trough. Thought too small for horses, it was surmised that this must have served as a stable for donkeys. The diggers were not content with theory alone so a donkey was brought in specifically to test it out. Over three thousand years have passed since a distant donkey relative last had lunch here, but the donkey did not hesitate – he went straight to the trough looking for a snack!
The city was a frontier outpost, situated on the western border of David’s kingdom, facing off against the Philistines. Just across the border directly to the west at a distance of about two miles stand the remains of the Philistine city of Gath, home of Goliath. It made good geopolitical sense to build a city here to hold the frontier.
Finally, the name. “Kiafa” was an arbitrary name given to the site during the British Mandate (1920 – 1948). Today it seems almost certain that the city is the biblical Sha’araim.
“Sha’araim” means “two gates” in Hebrew. Kiafa has two gates – a real rarity at this time. Sha’araim is mentioned in Joshua 15:36 right after Socoh and Azeka, which indicates that they are in the same area. In 1 Samuel 17:52 we read how Philistine warriors fell near Sha’araim in the route following David’s defeat of Goliath.
“And the men of Israel and of Judah arose, and shouted, and pursued the Philistines, until thou comest to Gai, and to the gates of Ekron. And the wounded of the Philistines fell down by the way to Shaaraim, even unto Gath, and unto Ekron”.
And of course we know that the town is just by the center of the battlefield.
The implications of the Kiafa dig are far reaching and continue to arouse passion in the world of biblical archaeology. Many of the stones comprising the walls and gates weigh upwards of five tons. This is a project which can only have been undertaken by a powerful central government: the government of King David.