Archaeologists at a controversial site in the Elah Valley Tuesday announced a discovery that should further stir up the scholarly debate over the Bible's historical veracity.
Two small containers, one of clay and one of stone, unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa near Beit Shemesh, are believed to be the first-ever archaeological evidence of Judean ritual dating from the time of David, about the 10th century B.C.E.
Furthermore, the models resemble the description of Solomon's Temple in the biblical Book of Kings, say the head of the Hebrew University expedition to Tel Qeiyafa, Prof. Yossi Garfinkel, and his associate from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Sa'ar Ganor.
The ruin known as Khirbet Qeiyafa, on a rocky slope overlooking the Elah Valley in Israel's western lowlands, contains remnants of a walled city dating back 3,000 years. Originally the walls rose to a height of some six meters. Along the walls, which still stand three meters tall in some places, archaeologists have discovered the remains of 99 dwellings.
According to Garfinkel, Khirbet Qeiyafa is the first proof of the existence of a regional government during the time of David. This evidence is a significant counter-claim to scholars who say David's kingdom was nothing more than a meagerly populated village in the Jerusalem area. These scholars, known as minimalists, say that in the absence of extra-biblical support, Scripture's depiction of David's kingdom as large and powerful cannot be accepted.
The maximalists, however, who accept the validity of the biblical description, view Khirbet Qeiyafa as the first proof of their claim that David's realm could have been as large as the Bible says it was.
Garfinkel takes a middle position; to him, Khirbet Qeiyafa shows the existence of a regional realm that included Jerusalem, Hebron and the lowlands around Khirbet Qeiyafa.
Garfinkel told reporters that the boxes, 20 and 35 centimeters high, and which they believe contained symbols of a deity, are important because they are "identical to the object the Bible calls 'the ark of the Lord.'"
Containers of this type, which look like model shrines, are known to archaeologists from other sites, but Garfinkel says the Khirbet Qeiyafa finds are unique because they reveal motifs known from the biblical description of Solomon's Temple.
The clay container features a decorated opening flanked by lions and two pillars that Garfinkel says recall "Boaz and Yachin" - pillars that flanked Solomon's Temple, according to the Bible.
Garfinkel says a depiction of three straight beams appears on the clay container, above which are three circles as well as a design apparently representing the curtain that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies.
Above that, three birds can be discerned on the roof, recalling the sacrifice of birds in the Temple.
According to Garfinkel, the stone container also recalls the Bible's description of Solomon's palace and the Temple: "And there were beams in three rows; and light was over against light in three ranks" (I Kings 7:4 ).
What was inside the boxes? Garfinkel and Ganor do not think there were figurines because no figurines have been discovered at the site.
Garfinkel says he thinks these models, which predate Solomon's Temple, show how depictions of a Solomonic-like shrine were present in the local architecture of the ancient East.
However, Prof. Nadav Na'aman, a historian and archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, discounts Garfinkel and Ganor's conclusions. "These are beautiful finds but they are not special in that similar ones have been found in various places, and they should therefore not be connected in any way to the ark," nor to the Temple in Jerusalem, says Na'aman.
He says believers made models of shrines out of various materials as an act of devotion. "There was no such thing as making a model that represented a temple in another place."
He said he found the combination on one of the items of lions and doves very interesting. "The dove is connected to a fertility goddess, and this combination hints that the model belonged to a cultic site of a fertility goddess. I think Qeiyafa was a Canaanite site that had no connection to Jerusalem," he added.
In invoking Canaanites, Na'aman has touched on the heart of the scholarly debate. For Qeiyafa to play a role in disproving the claims of the minimalists about the meager nature of David's kingdom, Garfinkel has to show that it was neither a Canaanite nor Philistine site.
Garfinkel and Ganor say the shrine models they have found differ from those known so far and that their design underscores a Judean connection.
But Garfinkel says he does not need the shrines to prove that Qeiyafa was Judean - other discoveries at the site do it for him. For example, out of thousands of animal bones unearthed there, none were pig bones, and no figurines were found - two elements some see as alluding to biblical prohibitions. An inscribed potsherd was also found there whose writing some archaeologists identify as ancient Hebrew.
Na'aman has a different explanation for the lack of pig bones: "The Canaanites also did not eat pork. Only the Philistines ate a great deal of pork at this time." As for figurines, Na'aman says places elsewhere in Judea "were full of figurines."
Minimalists also discount the inscribed potsherd, saying it is impossible to differentiate its letters from other languages at that time.
Whether Judean or Canaanite, ammunition for the minimalists or the maximalists, one thing is certain about Khirbet Qeiyafa - the slated expansion of nearby Ramat Beit Shemesh would swallow it up, endangering what Ganor calls "a heritage site of the first order."