The recent debate among Biblical archaeologists about the evidence for the kingdoms of David and Solomon is proving to be more than just an academic discussion. So many people attended a recent conference on the topic in Jerusalem that those who arrived just before it began (including me) had to hear it through the windows, standing outside the building. And occasionally it rained!
The doubts over David and Solomon were suggested by the noted archaeologists I. Finkelstein, Z. Herzog, and D. Usshiskin, all of the University of Tel-Aviv. They hold the view that our understanding of David and Solomon’s era has to be revised due to the study of both the Biblical text and the archaeological record.
The Bible describes David as a charismatic leader who united the 12 tribes under his rule. He was succeeded by his son Solomon, and their kingdom extended from the upper part of the Euphrates down to the border of Egypt. The temple built by Solomon and the visit of Queen of Sheba suggest enormous wealth during those days, and the number of chariots and soldiers, as well as fortification projects throughout the land, give the impression of great military power.
Long ago it was claimed by some critical Biblical scholars that the Bible was edited in a pro-Judaic and pr-opriestly way. Some 19th century
German scholars such as Wellhausen and Alt claimed that David’s power and Solomon’s wealth were exaggerated. They based their claim on the lack of extra-Biblical sources to support the Biblical record. Neither David nor Solomon appeared in any of the contemporary documents recovered in Egypt, Phoenicia, or Assyria. Some even claimed that these figures are fiction; mythical figures created by the editors of the Bible in the 7th century BCE, to create a golden past in Judah’s history.
At least the last claim can now be rejected. In 1994 A. Biran, excavating at Tell Dan, discovered a broken, inscribed stele mentioning “the house of David”. So at least David’s existence has been fully confirmed by an archaeological find.
But what about his kingdom? was it as large and wealthy as the Bible claims? The Tel-Aviv University professors think the archaeological record on that subject is clearly negative. After initiating numerous excavations and surveys throughout the country and carefully reading the publications of excavations carried out by others, Professors Finkelstein, Ussishkin and Herzog create the following scenario of Israel’s past (for comparison, I have included the Biblical description of that period in parenthesis).
1. During the 12th-10th centuries BCE nomadic tribes settled along the eastern mountain ridge of Samaria and Judah. Later on, in a slow and gradual process, they usurped the territory of the Canaanite city-states. (The Book of Joshua claims that the Israelite tribes conquered the Land of Canaan by military campaigns led by Joshua.)
2. In the 9th century BCE a large, strong and wealthy kingdom was created in northern Israel with Samaria as the capital. Judah’s kingdom was only a small, modest chiefdom with no more then a dozen inhabited locations. (According to the books of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, David had already united the tribes under his rule in the 10th century BCE. The capital was Jerusalem, and the ten tribes separated from Judah after the death of Solomon).
3. During the 8th century BCE Assyria penetrated into northern Israel, conquered Samaria and exiled the ten northern tribes. Judah was not captured and remained independent. Jerusalem was destroyed more than a century later, by the Babylonians. (This agrees with the Biblical account).
And how does the archaeological evidence fit in?. According to the new understanding the stables at Megiddo and the fortifications at Hazor, which were ascribed mostly to Solomon, are now assigned to the period and figures of Ahab and Omri.
And according to this new theory the abundance of finds at sites such as Jerusalem, Lachish, Gezer, and Beer-Sheba, is now dated to a period no earlier than the 8thcentury BCE.
Other scholars have rejected this scenario. Prof. Ben-Tor, currently digging at Hazor, replied with zeal in the following style: “Egyptian sources of the Hellenistic period describe Pharaonic dynasties from the 3rd millennium BCE and we take them for granted. Why then are we so skeptical about the Biblical accounts of the 10th century BCE?.. Some have argued for the non-existence of David, but they are clearly wrong due to the recently found inscription from Tel Dan.. The Bible is right until proved wrong, not vice versa! And the lack of finds do not prove that they did not exist. We can simply say that we haven’t been found them yet..”. His closing argument was met with spontaneous applause.
The number of people attending the meeting indicated great public interest in the subject. It showed that even many secular Jews view the historical texts of the bible as a reliable record of their heritage. After all, what are the Jewish claims to the Land of Israel without the Bible? Doubting the “golden age” of the Jewish past caused much reaction, some of it quite emotional.
In my view, at the heart of the debate is the failure of archaeologists to accurately date the Biblical layers. Unfortunately coins (which usually bear a date) were not in use prior to the 6th-5th century BCE. In most cases the finds from biblical layers are pottery shards. And the study of pottery can only provide a general estimation of the centuries when it was in use. This is not good enough for the current Biblical debate, because Ahab ruled only 60 years after Solomon. The physical dating method of Carbon 14th is also inadequate as laboratory results give only a range of dates, not the year, or even the decade in which the find was in use. Only an accurate tool for dating, or a clear inscription, might end such a debate, and unfortunately the Holy Land is rather poor in ancient inscriptions.