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Finding the Site of David and Goliath: Connection With the Past, Implications for the Future?

By Randy Pinsky

What does a traffic jam and an archaeological site have in common? 

Plenty - especially if it’s in Israel!

A booming city, Beit Shemesh is known for celebrity chef Jamie Geller of The Joy of Kosher, the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox…and for having one of the busiest highways in Israel. Normally a forty-minute drive from Jerusalem, the four lanes of Route 395 quickly squeeze into two due to critical archaeological sites discovered on both sides. Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster[1], Associate Professor in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, discussed “The Modern David and Goliath: Environment, Heritage and Archaeology in Israel” at the Azrieli Institute's first (and first in person!) talk of the 2022-23 academic year on September 12, exploring the contention between preservation…and modernization.

Israel, Land of the Bible

As the site of most of the stories in the Bible, discoveries are constantly made whenever there is development and expansion. As noted by Leona Berry, Deputy Director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem“Wherever you dig here, you’ll find heritage.”

Artifacts are unearthed, missing pieces found, even ancient cities are uncovered. Members of the Department of Antiquities must be present at all building sites, to ascertain the archaeological significance of the findings and thereby, subsequent steps. The question that has plagued the country since its creation however, is how to balance maintaining sites while also allowing for needed development?

Who We Are, Depends on Where We Came From

In “What is History?” (1962), author E.H Carr observed “history…is an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” A follow-up need is to “convey the past to the next generation, with narratives” noted Aster.

In a blog post for The Times of Israel (April 3, 2022) entitled “Why Does a 3,300 Year-Old Piece of Rock from Mount Ebal Matter?” Aster described how findings reveal much about past communities, lifestyles, and culture. As reinforced by the Israel Antiquities Authority, “burials [and archaeological sites] contain immense and vital information about ancient man and his customs.” (Israel Antiquities Authority)

“What is at stake is not simply a battle about how to reconstruct the ancient history of the Israelites,” noted Aster, “but about modern Jewish identity and how we view Israel’s future.” This is particularly significant with the reference to a group of Semitic-speaking individuals lacking a king called ‘Israel’ in the inscription.

In an ancient settlement southwest of Jerusalem, archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem observed that although bones of sacrifices included those of sheep, goats and cattle, pigs were noticeably absent. Moreover, not a single human or animal figurine was found. “This suggest[s],” he commented, “that the population…observed two [B]iblical bans - on pork and on graven images - and thus practiced a different culture from that of the Canaanites or the Philistines” (3,000-Year-Old Artifacts Reveal History Behind David and Goliath).

Biblical Archeology

Given the personal connection many religions have with Israel, there is the fervent desire to ‘prove’ stories or situations that occurred in the Bible (just see tour descriptions like that of Bein Harim). People feel the need to visit ‘the very site’ where events took place, be it Moses’ parting of the Red Sea or the pillar of salt that was Lot’s wife, to somehow reinforce that they ‘really happened’. It can be tricky to be an archaeologist in the region as there is always the underlying temptation to try to match the findings with what one believes (or wants to believe). 

So when there is discongruence, which prevails? 

In his Times of Israel blog piece, Aster observed, “archaeology can never prove narrative…because any narrative…only narrates a small selection of the elements that occur. Events are chaotic; narrative is orderly.” As such, while archaeologists will try to examine the entire context of a site, including the “messy and disorderly events that occurred in real time,” a narrator will select findings which suit their purposes. For this reason, “archaeology has developed a severe allergy to Biblical stories,” quipped Aster, “because some will fudge information to support popular imagination.”

Yet narrative is critical, as seen in the intersection between past and future at Beit Shemesh

Blocking Modernity?

Recent attempts were made to address the city’s growing needs and widen the highway to Jerusalem. Work was halted however upon the discovery of two key archaeological sites.

Israel’s Antiquities Law 1978 #29a forbids the building on any antiquity site. While there is “continuous debate in almost every major development in Israel,” Aster noted there is particular pressure for Beit Shemesh as it is slated to replace Haifa as Israel’s third largest city.

While both discoveries were deemed to be archaeologically significant, Tel Yarmuth is to be treated as an island with development around it, while that of Khirbet Qeiyafa has been granted preservation status.

What makes the difference?

The Site of What?

Just months prior to the planned expansion, archaeologists uncovered evidence of a thriving settlement in the Kingdom of Judah (In Beit Shemesh, New Highway Collides with Surprise Biblical-Era Settlement), a critical puzzle piece in the area’s history.  

The Hill site was excavated by Hebrew University and conclusively dated between 1050-960 BC. Aster described massive gates and defensive walls typical of Israelite sites which surrounded what appeared to be storage rooms, evidence of administration and taxation of some kind. A curious form of Canaanite and Hebrew script was observed on jars, indicating words such as ‘king’, ‘G-d’ and ‘judge’.

Archaeologists concluded that these findings indicated a strategically important site of King David, linking the coastline through the center of Judah and its fortified cities of Hebron and Jerusalem. Particularly important was evidence of the transition from small farming tribal communities to urban centers (In the Shadow of David and Goliath).

Most powerful however, was indication of an interaction between the Israel hill and the Philistine sea people who brought previously non-existing iron to the area. Storehouses, fortification indicating conflict, and the intersection of Israel and Philistine culture - sound familiar?

Narrative Comes Into Play

All the indicators seem to match up, “The story fits into the larger, logical sequence of ideas and events, critical for making meaning of the past” shared Aster. This was the location of the famous Biblical encounter of shepherd David, who confronted and defeated the armed giant Goliath with a pebble and a slingshot. An iconic image, critical to Israeli and Jewish identity.

Beyond its archaeological significance, is the importance of narrative, the symbolic connection with David, defeating odds and emerging triumphant, intrinsic to Israel as the ‘Start Up Nation’. With David as the quintessential Jewish hero, it also reinforces the continuous presence and connection to the land.

“Nobody knew it was there until they tried to expand the city and now they’re stuck,” observed Aster. This challenging dynamic is explored in an exhibit at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum called “Highway to History” which “examines the State of Israel's fraught attempts to balance preserving the past and developing the future.”

As such, the site will be protected from future development, resulting in what architect Raz Efren, head of the planning branch in the Antiquities Authority called “an unprecedented and exceptional success in preservation.”

So from an attempted solution to a traffic jam, came a critical find, one that resonates with people everywhere. Due to an emotional connection that fits an iconic Biblical story, better buckle up for a long trip, ‘cause this highway isn't expanding anytime soon. 


[1] Aster was a visiting scholar at the Azrieli Institute in 2016, and will be assisting with an exciting new joint program between Bar-Ilan University and Concordia University.

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