Khirbet Qeiyafa (Biblical Sha’arayim)—1 Samuel 17:52

Khirbet Qeiyafa is a 5.7-acre (2.3 ha) site located in the western part of the high Shephelah overlooking the Elah Valley from the north. Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, along with associate director Michael G. Hasel of Southern Adventist University, excavated it between 2007 and 2013. In 2014 Khirbet Qeiyafa became part of the Israel National Parks Authority.

The site has an especially impressive double outer (casemate) wall built of stones weighing up to 8.8 tons (8 metric tons). Such massive construction is not known in Late Bronze Age Canaanite cities, nor is it evident in hundreds of smaller Iron Age I sites in the hill country. Archaeologists have uncovered two massive contemporaneous gates dating to the Iron Age IIA (eleventh-tenth centuries BC).

The excavators found hundreds of restorable pottery vessels on the floors of the houses and between the casemate walls. They are characteristic of Iron Age I with some traits that later became classical indicators of Iron Age IIA—the time of Saul and David. The vessels fall into three different categories. The first and largest group is simple local ware, consisting of a small number of vessel types. Most of them lack decoration. Red slip very rarely appears on the bowls and jugs, which sometimes also feature irregular hand burnishing. Some “Ashdod ware” vessels were imported from the coastal plain as well as two black-on-white juglets originally from Cyprus.

The excavators uncovered several hundred stone objects made from both hard and soft limestone as well as chalk, basalt, beach rock, flint, and other minerals. A few fragments of small alabaster vessels indicate that the local inhabitants conducted trade with Egypt. Other finds include more than 100 iron and bronze tools (mainly weapons) including three iron swords, daggers, arrowheads, spearheads, and one bronze axe. Two pottery crucibles with bronze slag in them indicate metal smelting on the site.

Three cultic rooms contained various artifacts, including standing stones, basalt altars, libation vessels, and shrine models. The stone shrine model appears to resemble certain building practices seen in the Solomonic temple almost half a century later. No human or animal figurines have turned up, however. The cult practices at Khirbet Qeiyafa seem different than the Canaanites and Philistines who usually worshipped in large-scale temples characterized by many iconographic objects.

An ostracon (pieces of pottery with writing on them) found in 2008 at Khirbet Qeiyafa contained five lines totaling some 70 letters. The letters are written in the Canaanite writing tradition (also known as “proto-Canaanite”). A good deal of the writing is unclear, making it difficult to decipher. The inscription includes words such as “do not do” (al ta’as), “judge” (shofet), “slave” (‘ebed), “god” (El), “Baal” (Ba’al), and “king” (melekh). So far it is the longest extant inscription from the twelfth to ninth centuries BC found in the region and one of only a few uncovered in a clear stratigraphic context. If we accept the reading, al ta’as (“do not do”) in the beginning of the first line, then the language is Hebrew. Other possible languages could be Canaanite, Phoenician, Philistine, or an unknown Semitic dialect. According to the expedition’s interpretation of the site, its location, architecture, and diet, Khirbet Qeiyafa was part of the kingdom of Judah. Thus, the inscription is more likely to represent very early Hebrew. A second inscription discovered in 2013 contains the name Ishba’al, the same name as one of Saul’s sons, although it appears to belong to a different individual.

The thousands of animal bones recovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa include those of sheep, goat, and cattle, but no pig bones, unlike the nearby Philistine centers of Ekron (Tel Miqne) and Gath (Tell es-Safi), where the local population largely ate quantities of pork. A second aspect relating to food consumption is the pottery baking trays found at Khirbet Qeiyafa in each building but unknown at Ekron and Gath. Such aspects demonstrate that two different populations coexisted in the Iron-Age Shephelah and that the people of Qeiyafa were clearly not Philistines.

The main question archaeologists have wrestled with regarding Khirbet Qeiyafa is its possible relationship to the biblical texts describing state-formation processes in Judah, King David’s activities, and the extensive military clashes in the Elah Valley. Here we have the crux of the scholarly debate about Iron Age archaeology and history. The Tel Dan stele describing Judah as the “house of David” now has confirmed him as a historical figure. But it remains unclear whether he was the ruler of a large empire or only a small, local chieftain.

Khirbet Qeiyafa has become a key to understanding Judah’s establishment. It is a fortified city in Judah located one day’s walk from Jerusalem and one day’s journey from Hebron. The distance between the three cities corresponds well to the expected spacing of central cities in such an ancient kingdom. Thus, Khirbet Qeiyafa perhaps functioned as the third most important city in the early kingdom of David.

One would expect the biblical record to mention a city of such apparent significance. Scholars have offered various proposals for the site’s identification. The archaeological expedition itself suggested the name Sha’arayim, which the biblical tradition mentions twice in the context of the Elah Valley and twice in association with King David. In addition, Khirbet Qeiyafa’s two gates are an important clue to its identification with Sha’arayim, a name that means “two gates” in Hebrew (1 Sam. 17:52).

Furthermore, Khirbet Qeiyafa is situated between Khirbet Shuweikeh (biblical Socoh) and Tell Zakariyeh (biblical Azekah). The Bible places the battle of David with Goliath “between Sochoh and Azekah” (1 Sam. 17:1). The site’s massive fortifications and the rich assemblage of metal objects point to its use as a military garrison or fortress to guard the border and the road to the central hill country.

The chronology and geography of Khirbet Qeiyafa, as well as the archaeological findings there, show that the Bible does preserve historical data. The inscriptions indicate that writing was indeed practiced in Judah during this period and thus could produce documents that would preserve historical information for future generations.