For the better part of the past thirty years, being a conservative biblical archaeologist wasn’t very popular. The prevailing wisdom was that the further back in time the biblical narrative goes, the more fictional it becomes. Most scholars questioned whether there ever was a united Israelite monarchy, and whether David and Solomon were anything more than the ancient Jewish equivalent of Achilles or Odysseus. And if there was anything like an exodus from Egypt, it probably wasn’t much more than eight guys on a raft. And as for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Forget about it.
The discovery of the Tel Dan inscription in 1993 tweaked this picture, but only slightly. This inscription included a reference to the historical King David. So okay, he probably wasn’t just another Arthur, but most scholars still insisted that he couldn’t have been much more than the chieftain of one of several disparate, illiterate, nomadic tribes. This is still a far cry from the biblical portrait of the centralized, urbanized, educated kingdom of Israel.
It’s surprising how quickly that minimalist picture was overturned with just one dig site. Over the past few years, researchers have been sifting through the remains of a place called Khirbet Qeiyafa, which overlooks the Elah Valley southwest of Jerusalem. What they’ve found is an ancient fortification with a distinctive casemate wall and a pair of gates—leading to its identification with the ancient biblical city of Shaaraim (meaning “two gates” in Hebrew). It’s described in Josh. 15:36 as one of the cities allotted to the tribe of Judah, and 1 Sam. 17:52 mentions it as a place to which the Philistines fled after being routed by the Israelites.
Without a doubt, the most important find at this site is the Qeiyafa Ostracon. It’s a small potsherd inscribed with an Old Hebrew script (this comes from the Phoenician alphabet, not the later Aramaic alphabet that we learn in seminary classes). There is some debate over the best translation of the inscription, but it probably goes something like this:
Do not oppress, and serve God…despoiled him/her
The judge and the widow wept; he had the power
Over the resident alien and the child, he eliminated them together
The men and chiefs/officers have established a king
He marked 60 [?] servants among the communities/habitations/generation.
This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it’s probably the oldest Hebrew inscription in existence. Dating back to the tenth century B.C., it means that Israelites were literate at the time of David. Second, it means that not only were they literate, but they had a centralized government and bureaucracy, complete with a king. As researchers Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel, and Martin Klingbeil summarize the find:
It is clear now that David’s kingdom extended beyond Jerusalem, that fortified cities existed in strategic geopolitical locations and that there was an extensive civil administration capable of building cities.
This is good news for Bible-believers. If we can learn this much from just one dig, who knows what future excavations will unearth? Still, let’s not get carried away here. We need to remember that archaeology really isn’t capable of “proving” (or “disproving”) the Bible. What we have is a limited set of data, and data needs to be interpreted. Further, those interpretations need to be fit into larger historical, philosophical, and theological frameworks. And all of this is done by people—people within particular communities, with particular biases and limitations. Let’s not fall into the modernist trap of setting up science as the queen of all knowledge and certainty. It’s always a nice shot in the arm when science and Scripture happen to coincide, but we shouldn’t forget that the ultimate source of our certainty is the Holy Spirit, who testifies within our hearts that God’s Word is true. That is a foundation worth building on.