Biblical City of Ziklag Where Philistines Gave Refuge to David Found, Researchers Claim

Finds from the Philistine period and 10th century B.C.E., the time of King David, signal Khirbet al-Rai as the site of Ziklag and place boundaries on the kingdom he ruled

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Tel a-Rai, site postulated for Ziklag, where David found sanctuary under the Philistine wing.
Tel a-Rai, site postulated for Ziklag, where David found sanctuary under the Philistine wing.Credit: Emil Aljem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The biblical town of Ziklag may have been found, a team of Israeli and Australian archaeologists announced on Monday. The ruins were found near the southern town of Kiryat Gat in Israel and have been dated to the early 10th century B.C.E. – the time associated with King David.

Wine and oil were stored in jars like theseCredit: Excavation expedition to Khirbet a-Ra‘i

If they're right, it would bolster the theory that David was more than just a local hilltop chieftain as some researchers claim, and support the theory that he indeed ruled over a united kingdom in the area of Judea, say the researchers, from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia. But the kingdom doesn't seem to have been the mighty entity in antiquity that some envision.

Ziklag is mentioned in the Books of Joshua and Samuel as a Philistine town abutting the city of Gath (after which the modern city of Kiryat Gat is named).

In this context, the archaeologists point out that the very name Ziklag stands out in the biblical record because it isn’t Semitic or Canaanite, but apparently a Philistine one. Apropos of that, recent genetic studies on skeletons discovered in a Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon, on Israel’s coast, have proved once and for all who these mysterious Philistines were: They originated in Europe.

Storage jars found at Khirbet al-Rai, believed to be the biblical town of ZiklagCredit: Excavation expedition to Khirbet a-Ra‘i

The time of King David

According to the Hebrew Bible, when the youthful David fell into disfavor with King Saul, who allegedly tried to spear him, he fled to the Philistines. The Philistine king Achish of Gath allowed David to move to Ziklag, which, according to the biblical narrative, became a base for him to build up his forces.

Some argue that David preferred to live at a distance from the accommodating Achish in order to keep his activities secret and to hide the fact that he wasn’t really beholden to the Philistine monarch.

Tel al-Rai, identified as Ziklag, where David took refuge from Saul.Credit: Excavation expedition to Khirbet a-Ra‘i

In any event, the future Israelite king's decision to seek sanctuary with the Philistines is one of the stranger episodes in the Bible. The story that before seizing the throne, David and his men allied with the Philistine enemy to fight against their own people, the Israelites, has provoked much argument, with apologists suggesting that the young warrior was actually deceiving Achish and did not truly act against the interests of Israel. This camp cites as evidence David’s apparently brutal forays against other enemies: the Amalekites and the people of Geshur and Gezer.

For his part, David also experienced loss as the Amalekites, nomads from the south, attacked Ziklag in his absence:

"David rose up early, he and his men, to depart in the morning, to return into the land of the Philistines... it came to pass, when David and his men were come to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had made a raid upon the South, and upon Ziklag ... and had taken captive the women and all that were therein, both small and great." 1 Samuel 29:11-30.2

What seems to be clear from the Bible is that it from Ziklag that David departed for Hebron where he was anointed king.

Science vs. scripture

Storage jars found in Tel al-Rai, identified as ZiklagCredit: משלחת חפירות חורב

These days, even the “minimalist camp” of biblical archaeologists, which is not guided by scripture but by their scientific discipline, agree that David did actually exist – along with, by extension, King Saul, David's nemesis, and King Solomon, his son. During turbulent eras such as theirs, it is also possible that David could have taken refuge in Ziklag. Still, we have never known exactly where this town lay.

Excavating, very carefully, at Tel a-RaiCredit: Excavating, very carefully, at Tel a-Rai

Over the years archaeologists have suggested no less than 12 potential sites in the south-central regions of Israel as the biblical Ziklag. Now, after seven seasons of excavation, Prof. Joseph Garfinkel of Hebrew University, Saar Ganor of the Antiquities Authority, and Prof. Dr. Kyle Keimer and Dr. Gil Davis of Macquarie University, Australia, believe they’ve found it, at a site called Khirbet al-Rai (or Arai) in the Judean foothills, between Kiryat Gat and Lachish.

Khirbet al-Rai, the researchers explain, is the only one of the sites where there is evidence of continuous occupation. Moreover, remains of both a Philistine community and of a settlement from the era of King David have been discovered there.

Finding ZiklagCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority,YouTube

Specifically, Carbon 14 tests show Khirbet al-Rai dating to the 10th century B.C.E. – King David's time. The Philistine settlement has been dated to the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E, and the relevant finds include massive, spacious stone structures, and ceramics unique to the Philistines in foundation deposits ־ such as bowls and an oil lamp, albeit no skeletons of enemies.

It was quite the custom in these parts in antiquity to bury precious objects underneath the foundations of a home to bring “good luck” and/or trap demons who were believed to be responsibility for morbidity.

Olive-oil manufacturing site in GathCredit: Philip Bohstrom

The archaeologists also report finding stone and metal artifacts similar to finds from the same period in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath – all major Philistine cities.

Above the Philistine remains at the Khirbet al-Rai dig was the later stratum associated with King David; findings show that there was an intense fire that destroyed many of the structures of that era. Excavations here have yielded dozens of intact vessels looking remarkably like the ones discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, identified as biblical Sha’arayim, and also excavated by Garfinkel and Ganor.

Qeiyafa, which is not far from Beit Shemesh, was a fortress that dates to the early 10th century B.C.E., David's time – although suggestions that it was the site of one of his palaces have not been proven.

The range of complete vessels includes large quantities of storage jars for oil and wine. The archaeologists also found jugs and bowls decorated in the style known as “red slipped and hand burnished,” typical to the period of King David, they say.

Not all would agree that they likely discovered the real Ziklag.

Mostly reconstructed vessels found at Tel a-Rai, identified as ZiklagCredit: Excavation expedition to Khirbet a-Ra‘i

"It's very hard to accept," Prof. Aren Maier of Bar-Ilan University told Haaretz, pointing out that the location of Khirbet al-Rai is out of whack with biblical sources on Ziklag.

"References to this site in the biblical texts are consistently much more south, relating to the Negev, the tribe of Shimon, or the southern border of Judah," Maier says. |Just because you have Philistine finds and then 10th century B.C.E. destruction, that does not make it Ziklag." The suggestion that this is the site requires outstanding proof, which remains lacking, he says. "If he had an inscription saying that that was Ziklag, all would agree; as he doesn't, the biblical geography is the key to the identification. And finally, not every archaeological site in mentioned in the Bible. This might be an unknown site."

Whether or not this was Ziklag, it was discoveries at Qeiyafa that reignited the argument about whether there had been a United Kingdom of Judah and Israel under David and Solomon – or not. Garfinkel, for one, believes that the important findings at Qeiyafa indicate that David ruled an area that ranged at least as far as the Shfela, southern-central Israel. Detractors point out that there is no evidence of any connection between Qeiyafa and Jerusalem, or proof that David controlled a large area.

Based on the excavations at Lachish and now at Tel Arai, Garfinkel and Ganor argue that David, ruling from Jerusalem, controlled a not-large area between that city, Hebron and Qeiyafa – and these were the only fortified cities in his kingdom, they believe. The kingdom also held sway over a dozen to 20 unfortified villages and a nomadic population, as well.

“That was the composition of the population,” Garfinkel told Haaretz. “I estimate that it had no more than 5,000 residents, about 2,000 in the cities and 2,000 in the villages and another thousand Bedouin, nomads. This is the realistic picture I see of the Kingdom of David. Later King Rehoboam would fortify Lachish and the kingdom would grow a little more.”

So in the early days of King David, Garfinkel and Ganor now suggest, the hilltop cities of Ziklag and Sha’arayim marked the western frontier of the kingdom, controlling trade routes linking the Philistines and Judeans. Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Elah Valley was opposite Gath, and Khirbet Arai sits opposite Ashkelon – a site from which it was possible to keep an eye on the Philistines.

As King David laments, following the deaths of his nemesis King Saul and his beloved son, Jonathan, who were killed by the Philistines: “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon.”


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