Ethnic Cleansing of Khirbat Zakariyya allows for excavation of site mentioned in David and Goliath story, Tel Zakariyya (“Azekah”)

The story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 opens with this geographical description of the military camps of the Philistines and Israelites:

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. Saul and the Israelites gathered and encamped in the valley of Elah, and formed ranks against the Philistines.

Azekah was a fortified town to the west of, and overlooking, the Valley of Elah – the latter the site of the legendary encounter between David and Goliath:

Tel Zekariyya seen from the Valley of Elah, location of the legendary encounter between David and Goliath
Tel Zekariyya seen from the Valley of Elah, location of the legendary encounter between David and Goliath

Azekah is today named Tel Zakariyya/Zakariya, after the name of the Arabic town Khirbat Zakariyya (خربة زكريا), lying to the north-east. The town was continuously occupied by Palestinians since the Roman or Byzantine periods, until ethnically cleansed by Israeli Defence Forces in 1948 and forcibly resettled in 1950. The town of Zakariyya was almost completely destroyed.

Zakariyya school-children, before they were ethnically cleansed from their city in 1948 by Israeli Defence Forces. Tel Zakariyya, under which lies Azekah, can be seen on the left  in the background.
Zakariyya school-children, before they were ethnically cleansed from their city in 1948 by Israeli Defence Forces. Tel Zakariyya, under which lies Azekah, can be seen on the left in the background.

There is, therefore, a rich destruction layer available for investigation from as recent a year as 1948, and which boasts some 2000 years of prior and continuous occupation. In light of this, the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition has announced that it will excavate only the town of Azekah, underneath Tel Zakariyya, due to the organizers’ interest in the Bible. The directors of the excavation are Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University, Manfred Oeming of Heidelberg University, and Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University. The excavation is supported by the Collège de France, Duke University, Georg-August-Universität-Göttingen, Heidelberg University, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, Macquarie University, Moravian College, Moravian Theological Seminary, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Tel Aviv University, Universität des Saarlandes, Université de Lausanne, University of Iowa, Univerzita Karlova v Praze, and the University of Zurich. The first season of the expedition to “Tell Azekah” will commence 15 July 2012.

The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition website has detailed information about the story of David and Goliath. It describes the story in 1 Samuel 17, and summarises some of the competing explanations about the alternative story of the slaying of Goliath by Elhanan in 2 Samuel 21.19. The website notes that the name “David” is unique “in the Bible or in any known ancient Near Eastern records” – apparently taking a minimalist stance on the Tel Dan stele. No mention is made of the name of  Elhanan’s father in 2 Samuel 21.19 (“Dodi”), a form which is almost the same as “David”. The website then summarises the contradictions in the David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel 17, as indicators of its “complex compositional history”. The summary ends by concluding that

it is clear that 1 Samuel 17 is not a piece of historiography meant to document actual events as they occurred. Rather, at its core, it is a folktale about how, in spite of their disparity in size, military experience and weaponry, a mere shepherd boy was able to overcome a powerful foreign champion and become a national hero and future king. These kinds of folktales are known in many cultures around the world and are not unique in ancient Israel’s literature. What makes this story historically compelling is its setting in the Valley of Elah between Socoh and Azekah. This area, and the entirety of the Judaean lowlands, was a border zone in which different cultures and emerging polities intermingled during the early Iron Age (11th–9th centuries BCE). Cultural and political encounters thus provided the source material for many tales of heroism, including the story of David and Goliath.

The idea that there is some kernel of historical background, in real frontier skirmishes, has been proposed by Yosef Garfinkel, excavator at another Valley of Elah project, Khirbet Qeiyafa. As Garfinkel and Saar Ganor wrote in a 2008 article, “This was a hostile border area, where the Kingdoms of Gath and Jerusalem had constant millenary conflicts.” (We suspect that Garfinkel was intending to refer to military conflicts, rather than any rivalry between Israelite and Philistine millenarians or perhaps hat-makers.)

Israel Finkelstein makes a good rejoinder to such claims:

Making straight forward connection between this site and the biblical tradition on the duel between David and Goliath takes archaeology back a century, to the days when archaeologists roamed the terrain with a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other. The story of David and Goliath is a complex one. There could have been an ancient memory on conflicts between Judah and Philistine Gath in this region and the story of the slaying of Goliath by a hero named David or Elhanan (2 Sam. 21:19) may be related to this ancient tradition. But the text in 1 Samuel 17 is Deuteronomistic in its language, and it seems to depict Homeric influence. It is clear therefore that the story could not have been put in writing before the late 7th century BCE. More than anything else the story portrays the theological goals of the authors and the historical reality of the time of the authors – centuries after the high days of Khirbet Qeiyafa.

A final note on this issue: the eruption of the tradition biblical archaeology, characterized by a highly literal interpretation of the biblical text, should not come as a surprise. It is an unavoidable phase in the now two-centuries-long battle between the advocators of a critical history of ancient Israel and the supporters of a conservative approach that tells a basically biblically narrated history of ancient Israel in modern words. Following every high-tide of critical studies comes a “counter-revolution” of the conservative school.

– Israel Finkelstein, “A Great United Monarchy? Archaeological and Historical Perspectives.” Pages 3-28 in R.G. Kratz and H. Spieckermann, eds., One God – One Cult – One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives (Berlin, 2010), pp. 18-19; cf. Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor, “Khirbet Qeiyafa: Sha’arayim”, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8.22 (2008): 6.

Although the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition website provides a reasonably detailed discussion of the biblical David and Goliath story – which no doubt will stimulate the interest of volunteer diggers from North America and South Korea – oddly, there is no discussion of any history of the area since Roman or Byzantine times, nor any mention of the recent destruction layer in 1948. I wonder if anybody connected with the excavation can tell me how much of their resources are being allocated to an archaeological investigation of the Khirbat Zakariyya site. Surely this latter period and site is not deemed unimportant to “cultural memory”?

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5 thoughts on “Ethnic Cleansing of Khirbat Zakariyya allows for excavation of site mentioned in David and Goliath story, Tel Zakariyya (“Azekah”)

  1. Just so that you know, the village of Zakariyya was not situated on top of the tell, but at its feet in the valley. The excavation will not dig through the village, since it’s not on the same site.

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    • Thank you.

      I was aware of the distinction – and the black-and-white photo above shows the distance between the village of Zakariyya in the foreground, with its school-house pictured, and Tel Zakariyya in the background. And I mentioned that the town lies to the north-east of the excavation site. My concern, rather, was with the way that certain layers of destruction are deemed “important” (esp. those dated to the IA) and certain layers of destruction are routinely ignored (esp. those around 1948) in Palestinian archaeology. This is not to blame individual archaeologists, as there are of course systemic and nationalist pressures at work here.

      I appreciated your article identifying Qeiyafa with the ma’gal (מעגל) – I am convinced it is the better explanation.

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  2. “The town was continuously occupied by Palestinians since the Roman” – come on… why not since the dinosaures…

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