Why Schama’s History of the Jews is not History: On Jewish Origins in Episode 1

British historian Simon Schama is currently presenting a series called The Story of the Jews, on BBC2. In episode 1, Schama begins with the stories told in the Bible. He notes that, while there is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus or desert wandering that would make them count as historical reality, the first ‘solid evidence’ of Jewish identity can be found near the Valley of Elah:

To find some of the first solid archaeological evidence for the Jewish story, you have to fast-forward a couple of centuries from the traditional date for the Moses epic, and come here, to the Valley of Elah, in present-day Israel. According to the Bible, this is where a giant, called Goliath, was brought low by a shepherd boy called David, armed only with a slingshot.

Schama then goes on to make the claim that Yosef Garfinkel, excavator at Khirbet Qeiyafa, has established that the Elah Fortress (ca 1000 BCE) belonged to the people of the Judean highlands, “not to the pig-eating Philistines of the coastal plain”. The reason is that no pig-bones can be found in the highland fortress at Elah – and the proscription against eating pork is, of course, a distinctive ethnic marker of later Jews.

The big problem with this claim is that the lack of pigs is a feature of highland areas in general – not just of the Judean highlands. Pigs need a lot of watering, which in the Iron Age necessitated a location near the coast. This is the case both within so-called Jewish territory, and for any Philistines who did not live on the coast, such as the Philistines of the northern Negev. On this issue, see the 1997 article by Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish, “Can Pig Remains Be Used for Ethnic Diagnosis in the Ancient Near East?” and Aharon Sasson’s book, Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies, Equinox, 2011. As previously noted on this blog, the same point is noted by the archaeologist at Tel es-Safi (identified with biblical Gath, hometown of the legendary Goliath), Aren Maeir:

… extremely high pig frequencies (c. 20 per cent or more) are found in [Philistine] sites in the Israeli coastal plain (Ashkelon, Tel Miqne-Ekron)…. At Tel es-Safi/Gath, located on the interface between the coastal plain and the hill country, pigs comprise 13 per cent of the Iron I fauna …, while Tel Batash, located in a similar setting, has yielded only 8 per cent pigs; at southern Philistine sites, the Nahal Patish temple … and the small village of Qubur el-Walaydah in the northern Negev …. pigs represent less than 1 per cent of the faunal assemblage, a similar low frequency to that observed in coeval Israelite sites…. Thus, it is very feasible that ecological, economic or functional factors, or a mixture of them, rather than ethnicity, were responsible for the relatively high frequencies of pigs in some Philistine sites and their dearth in others – Philistine and Israelite settlements alike

– Aren M. Maeir, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Liora Kolska Horwitz, “On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity”Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32 no. 1 (2013): 5–6 (emphasis added).

In the BBC documentary, Schama also lets Yosef Garfinkel repeat his claim that the story of a battle between the Philistine Goliath and the Judean David preserves a kernel of historical truth: that the Elah fortress was a site of conflict between coastal Philistines and highland Judeans. However, the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, as Israel Finkelstein points out, bears many more marks of much later ideological concerns:

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.

– 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.

So in The Story of the Jews, Schama recycles some less-than-critical arguments that the beginnings of Jewish identity can be demonstrated 3000 years ago, a time associated with the legendary King David. In truth, the origin of a distinctive Jewish identity is not clear before the Persian period (sixth-fourth centuries BCE), in the province of Yehud. More than that, Schama’s assumption seems to be that the biblical dating of the exodus and conquest – 1000 years earlier than the Persian Period – is essentially correct:

You don’t have to accept the Bible as literal truth to believe that 3,500 years ago something extraordinary and fateful in world history did happen, over there, on the other side of the Jordan Valley.

The biblical stories of such early origins for ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelites’ (not yet Judea and Jews) are founding myths dating from the Persian period. While they are still important for Jewish self-identity today, they are not historical events; they constitute a part of Jewish cultural memory but they do not belong to reality. The Story of the Jews tells a good story, but it is not, in this regard, good history.

See also: Mark Goodacre, “Simon Schama’s Misreading of Paul“, NT Blog, 10 September 2013

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Yigal Levin Identifies The Israelite Camp in the David and Goliath Story as Khirbet Qeiyafa

According to an article by Yigal Levin in the August 2012 issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the archaeological site of Khirbet Qeiyafa is none other than the Israelite camp mentioned in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17).

Levin begins his article by rejecting the many recent attempts to identify Khirbet Qeiyafa with one of the sites in the Bible, “especially those that are mentioned in chapter 17 of 1 Samuel, the famous tale of the duel between David and Goliath” (p. 73). Levin disputes Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor’s identification of Qeiyafa with Shaaraim (“Sha’arayim”), in part because while Shaaraim is associated with towns from a period of settlement, Qeiyafa is younger (late IAI or IAII transition). Levin also disputes Gershon Galil’s identification of Qeiyafa with the royal administrative center of Netaim, on the basis that the archaeological finds do not support such an administrative function for the site.

Levin then takes up suggestions by David Adams and by Israel Finkelstein and Alexander Fantalkin in which they make links between the Israelite encampment mentioned in 1 Samuel 17 and Khirbet Qeiyafa. Adams reasons, ‘if one were to take seriously the words attributed to Goliath in his challenge to the Israelites, ‘choose for yourself a man and let him come down to me’ (I Sam 17.8), then it may be that the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa (whether already built, in the process of construction, or not yet fortified) served as Saul’s headquarters on the hill overlooking the battlefield during the famous conflict” (“Between Socoh and Azekah”, p. 65). Finkelstein and Fantalkin similarly point out that Khirbet Qeiyafa “would provide the missing toponym – the place of encampment of the Israelites – in the 1 Sam 17 account” (“Khirbet Qeiyafa”, p. 48) (p. 81).

What Levin proposes, in addition, is that the ma’gal (מעגל) mentioned in 1 Sam. 17.20 refers to the Israelite encampment and should be identified with Khirbet Qeiyafa. Levin notes that the term ma’gal refers especially to a round or circular camp. The circular shape of the Israelite camp matches the distinctive shape of Khirbet Qeiyafa:

Khirbet Qeiyafa - round like the ma'gal in 1 Sam. 17.20
Khirbet Qeiyafa – round like the ma’gal in 1 Sam. 17.20

So Levin concludes:

In this case, a round-shaped military installation, placed exactly where many commentators over the ages have assumed that such an installation would be placed, from the approximate time-frame referred to in the biblical story that mentions such an installation, can only mean one thing: Khirbet Qeiyafa is the ma’gal of 1 Sam. 17.20.
(p. 82)

Levin cautions that this “does not, of course ‘prove’ that David really killed Goliath” (p. 83). He acknowledges that the story in 1 Samuel 17 might “not represent any particular historical event at all” and that the ’round camp’ at Khirbet Qeiyafa may have been built decades later than the setting of the story. Yet, Levin notes, the round structure of Khirbet Qeiyafa “would still have been visible and known to the author of 1 Samuel 17, who “guessed its function, and worked it into his story” (p. 84).

So – although identification of archaeological sites with biblical placenames is a risky business – Yigal Levin has pointed out two major factors which support the identification of the Israelite encampment in 1 Samuel 17 with a site which probably only came into being after any “King David” had lived. That is, Khirbet Qeiyafa meets expectations for the approximate geographical position and the circular shape of the Israelite encampment mentioned in 1 Samuel 17 – but is probably a fictional setting invented after the purported time that the duel between David and Goliath had taken place.

See:

Yigal Levin, “The Identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa: A New Suggestion”, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 367  (August 2012): 73-86.

See earlier at Remnant of Giants:

Ethnic Cleansing of Khirbat Zakariyya allows for excavation of site mentioned in David and Goliath story, Tel Zakariyya (“Azekah”)“, 29 February 2012

Finkelstein vs. Garfinkel: The historical worth of the story of David vs. Goliath“, 9 May 2011

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”?

Finkelstein vs. Garfinkel: The historical worth of the story of David vs. Goliath

Khirbet Qeiyafa western gate
Khirbet Qeiyafa western gate

In a 2008 article, Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor claim that the story of David and Goliath contains a historical kernel of truth. For behind this legend, they claim, is an historical reality of tenth-century BC conflicts between Judahites and Philistines. The battle between David and Goliath is based in the border-area of the Valley of Elah, because that is where battles between Judah and Gath would have taken place.

Perhaps the tale did have its origins in this period. But that’s not something we can probably ever know from a late Persian or Hellenistic story that exaggerates the fame of a now legendary King David by going so far as to claim that he slew a Giant while he was only a boy. Such a story certainly doesn’t provide historical corroboration of the Bible’s claims about an extensive empire, as Garfinkel and Ganor wish.

The mighty Philistine city of Gath, ca. 30 hectares in area, was located only 12 km downstream from Khirbet Qeiyafa. This was a hostile border area, where the Kingdoms of Gath and Jerusalem had constant millenary [sic] conflicts. The story of David and Goliath is just one of the many “warrior tales” listed in 2 Sam 21:15-22 and 1 Ch 11:11-27. Even if many of these traditions are folkloristic in character, their chronology and geography bear historical memories. As by the end of the 9th century BCE Gath disappeared as a political power, these traditions must have been created at an earlier time. The biblical text, the single-phase city at Khirbet Qeiyafa, and the radiometric dates each stands alone as significant evidence clearly indicating that the biblical tradition does bear authentic geographical memories from the 10th century BCE Elah Valley.

– Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor, “Khirbet Qeiyafa: Sha’arayim”, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8.22 (2008): 6.

In reply, here is the more sober judgment of Israel Finkelstein:

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.

There have been some extraordinary claims for the significance of Khirbet Qeiyafa. But a little sensible reflection should lead us to conclude that the excavation of a tenth-century border city doesn’t really indicate that anything of historical value can be found in a story from half a millennium later about a Giant-slaying boy who later became king, let alone justify the conclusion that he reigned over a vast kingdom from Egypt to Babylon.

[A] fortified city doth not a kingdom make.

– Jonathan N. Tubb, “Editorial: Early Iron Age Judah in the light of Recent Discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 142.1 (2010): 1-2, p. 1.

Garfinkel may well be right but on the other hand he may well be making a suit out of a button.

Jim West