Using the Bible as an Archaeological Travel Guide to Israel

There are hundreds of biblical sites in Israel – some have been identified with certainty by archaeologists while others require an act of faith. To what extent can we use the Tanakh, and its stories of David and Goliath, Samson et al, as a reliable tour guide?

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Bible and travel illustration
Credit: Luzhbin Aleks / Shutterstock / Sebastian Scheiner / AP
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The two terebinths that grow atop Tel Azeka have lost their leaves. Six stone cubes have been placed beneath the trees and the view opposite the high observation point is wonderful. From the east you can see the Valley of Elah, green fields, greenhouses, orchards and Highway 38, which crosses the valley. In the distance you see Tel Socho, and on the opposite ridge the huge bloc of buildings called Ramat Beit Shemesh rises unexpectedly.

This description doesn’t tell the full picture. Anyone who sits at the top of Tel Azeka can’t simply gaze at the landscape. Events that took place (or didn’t take place) about 3,000 years ago appear before them and are constantly present during the course of the visit. The story of the heroic battle between David and Goliath, which according to the Bible took place during the reign of King Saul in the 11th century B.C.E. is present at every moment.

The Tanakh is the perfect guidebook for any visitor to the site. But even if you arrive without a copy, don’t worry – the story of the victory over the armed Philistine giant by the redheaded youth who refused to wear armor will become clear to you as you’re breathing hard during the ascent. Stones have been placed alongside the steps that ascend to the summit, with biblical verses etched on them that tell the story from beginning to end. Those stone cubes beneath the two trees also tell the story of David and Goliath.

Tel Azeka is the site of a victory by the small over the mighty. The setting leaves no choice. The site’s designers urge the visitor to imagine the armies arraying themselves and the battle. One of the foundational stories of local culture presumably took place there, in the valley opposite Azeka. The Bible conveniently provides clear geographical markers for this story: “Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and they were gathered together at Socoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched in the vale of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines” (1 Samuel 17: 1-2).

Caravaggio - David with the Head of GoliathCredit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Is it generally possible to use the Tanakh as our guidebook? At what sites should that be done? How certain is the identification of biblical sites with contemporary landmarks? And what is the attraction of a tour with the Tanakh? Is a Tel Azeka tour in the company of David and Goliath more interesting than a tour observing the trees and cyclamens that are beginning to bloom all around? And of course: is there anyone who exploits the connection between the present site and the legendary-historical past? Is it proof of our “right” to the Valley of Elah?

Drawing up a complete list of Israeli tour sites with a biblical “past” is nigh-on impossible. There are hundreds of such sites that are identified as biblical. Some have been identified with certainty; others out of hope or faith.

In her delightful book “Traveling with the Bible” (also available in English), Galia Doron published 17 touring routes based on the stories – from Dan in the north to Nahal Gerar in the Western Negev and Sodom on the shores of the Dead Sea.

The City of David excavations in Jerusalem.Credit: Koby Harati

Also there: Gideon and the Midianites at Harod Spring; Elijah the Prophet on Mount Carmel; Samson at Tzora; David at Tel Azeka; Joshua at Gezer; Abraham who descends to Gerar; and Jerusalem during every period. On the book jacket, Doron wrote: “It’s a unique experience to hear the biblical stories at the site where they took place and as if there isn’t a gap of thousands of years. The present, the distant past and not-so-distant past commingle in the same story.”

Doron did not include sites in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) in her book, but others believe there are many candidates there to join the list – from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to the settlement of Ofra, near Nablus, from which Gideon set out. In the guidebook “Yesha is Fun” (by Karni Eldad and Shlomo Bashan, 2015), the visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs is described thusly: “You owe yourself a brief communion with the site of the burial of our patriarchs and matriarchs, one of the cradles of the birth of the Jewish people. After all, it’s not every day we travel to visit Father and Mother.”

Archaeologists who have researched the site estimate that the foundation of the present structure was built during the days of Herod, about 1,600 years after the time of Abraham. The question of whether this tradition proves our “right” to Hebron is, of course, not related to archaeology or historical truth but to political opinion.

The leafless terebinths atop Tel Azeqa.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Identifying biblical sites

The first question that perturbs anyone sitting at Tel Azeka is: How do we know the biblical story took place here? How do we know this is the site of Azeka mentioned in the Book of Samuel? Archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University explains that identifying a place mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts is based on three elements: The first relates to the preservation of the name in Arabic – for example, Geva in the village of Jeba and Anatot in Anata or nearby (both are north of Jerusalem). Sometimes the name was not preserved: the Arabic name of Tel Megiddo is Tel-el-Mutesellim (Hill of the Governor); the name Megiddo wasn’t preserved.

There are cases where the ancient site is found near the place that preserves the name. There are interesting cases in which the identification was made indirectly, and there are other cases where the name was preserved in the surroundings, like the grave of a sheikh (for instance, in the case of Gezer).

Prof. Israel Finkelstein.Credit: The Megiddo Expedition

The second element for identification is geographical logic. So, a place that is mentioned near Jerusalem cannot be identified in the Galilee. The third element is archaeological findings: the existence of a finding that suits the period in which the place is mentioned.

An identification can be made with certainty even if the name was not preserved, Finkelstein explains. But it’s impossible to make a definite identification if there is no geographical logic and there are no findings.

Things are more complicated when dealing with identifying a spot without a settlement – for example, Rachel’s Tomb, whose location (Bethlehem) was determined by pilgrims’ traditions that postdate the literal geographical explanation of the biblical text.

Finkelstein also adds a general and very important remark concerning the reading of the Bible. “It can be done in a traditional-literary manner or a research oriented-historical manner, and both are good,” he says. “In terms of history and geography, the second method is required. And of course, in that case we have to ask about the authors, their time, their place and their objectives.”

According to Finkelstein, the basic question is whether you believe the biblical story as is, or whether you treat it as a literary text and examine the author’s motives.

Tel Azeqa, overlooking the Valley of Elah and scene of one of the biggest fighting upsets in history. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Finkelstein says identification of such places is central to the discipline known as “historical geography.” This began in the 19th century with researchers like George Adam Smith and Edward Robinson. Jewish scholars also subsequently entered this field of research, the most influential of whom were Benjamin Mazar and Yohanan Aharoni. The Zionist movement, Finkelstein notes, promoted this field in the early 20th century as “Yediat Ha’aretz” – literally, knowledge of the land. The field was pursued mainly by Joseph Braslavi and Zev Vilnay, who combined touring and research.

Tel Socho and Tel Azeka from the David and Goliath story have been identified with certainty, Finkelstein says. The geographical logic has been preserved there and the sites were identified in prolonged excavations. The Valley of Elah that stretched between them served as the site of the battles between the armies of Saul and the Philistines.

Giving the notorious letter to Uriah: Eating catfish may have been the least of King David's sins (painted by Pieter Pietersz Lastman in 1611)Credit: Detroit Institute of Arts / Kuns

“I’m infuriated by the idea that reading the Tanakh belongs only to the traditional reader. It is mine to the same degree as it belongs to any other person,” Finkelstein continues. “The experience is everyone’s. In a tour with the Tanakh, a person has an emotional experience. They connect to the past that they believe is their past. That’s an explanation from the field of psychology rather than archaeology, but when it comes to emotion, everyone has such a connection and it’s natural and normal. I assume that it comes from the education we received.

“The important question is how to approach the reading of the biblical story. When you stand in front of the gate of Megiddo and read in the Book of Kings about King Solomon – do you read simplistically or in a complex manner? Every verse you’ll read there arouses 1,001 questions. Who wrote it? Where? Why? I don’t read the Bible in a direct way. I ask questions. I think that makes the reading more interesting. I get into the head of the ancients and ask what bothers them, what motivates them, why it was important to them. And that’s much more interesting.

“Let’s say it’s from the time of Solomon,” he says. “How was it preserved up to the time of the author of the Book of Kings, who lived in the late seventh century B.C.E.? In other words, at least 300 years passed from Solomon’s time until the writing of the text. Did the author of the Book of Kings use something from a period close to his own life and draw conclusions regarding Solomon’s life? I’m in favor of complex, empathetic and critical reading. It’s reading done with great love for the Bible, but it’s more interesting than simplistic reading. We tour with the Tanakh in hand, but don’t read it simplistically.”

Searching for evidence

Archaeologist Prof. Aren Maeir of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, researched Philistine culture for many years. In an interview, he explains the question of touring with the Tanakh from his point of view: “We have a text that lies at the foundation of our culture and of human culture. People have always loved to find routes to it, in order to connect to it. In the past 150 years, we’ve been looking for the sites and trying to identify them.

Prof, Aren Maeir. "The search for the geography of the Tanakh also includes an ideological aspect," he says.Credit: Maria Eniukhina

“It’s of religious, cultural and experiential importance, but the search for the geography of the Tanakh also includes an ideological aspect,” Maeir says. “We’re looking for the biblical sites in order to prove or contradict a claim. If I found the place where David built his temple, then I’ve presumably proven that the Tanakh is history. And if I searched for Joshua’s Jericho and didn’t find it, that presumably means the Tanakh is fiction. But that’s a simplistic approach.”

Maeir proposes a different worldview. He says that, for instance, the stories in the Book of Samuel about Samson and the Philistines are amazing stories that are fundamental to our culture. If a child visits Tel Azeka, that will leave a stronger impression on them than the best lesson in a school classroom. “Even if we treat the Bible in a totally secular way, it’s still an amazing tour,” he argues. “Even if we claim that there isn’t much history in the descriptions, there’s no doubt that the authors of the stories were very familiar with the geography of the Valley of Elah. Touring with the Tanakh is very powerful – certainly if we read it in an ideological-religious manner, but even from just the cultural aspect.”

He says that every time a society recalls its past, it changes it for its present-day needs. In light of that, it’s fascinating to examine how our view of the Bible has changed from the founding of the state until today. “I recently participated in a conference in the City of David [in Jerusalem] and for a moment I thought I was listening to studies from the 1970s,” Maeir recounts. “There, the Bible is central to the Zionist narrative. In many forums, that has disappeared over the years, but there are still parts of the population who preserve that. The feeling is similar to listening to the news broadcasts of the Kan Public Broadcasting Corporation or the Keshet franchise, and then switching to Channel 14 [an Israeli commercial television channel aimed at a right-wing audience]. It’s another world.”

Samson's Tomb, in the central Israel town of Tzora.Credit: Emil Salman

Asked whether a biblical site can prove a “right” to the land, Maeir says there is “an interminable debate about the right of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. The argument is that if the Tanakh is a work of fiction, without a historical component, then presumably we’ve lost that right. In my opinion, that’s a strange conclusion. Even if we presumably lost the right 3,000 years ago, we were still here 2,300 years ago. So is the right preserved for us or not? The biblical stories are of significance, even if it isn’t historical. We have an emotional, religious or cultural experience with the Tanakh that is not necessarily related to history.”

Everything that has been said here refers to sites that have been identified with certainty. But that’s only part of the picture. About a month ago, I visited a site near Tzora, central Israel, featuring an attractive sign: “The tomb of Samson and his father Manoah.” The twin-domed structure has been identified in the recent past as the grave of Sheikh Samat, but believing Jews go on a pilgrimage to this site in order to request fertility. Dozens of similar sites are scattered throughout the country, part of the broad map of biblical tourism, although they’ve been identified with certainty as something else.

According to anthropologist Prof. Yoram Bilu of the Hebrew University, such things develop out of a “human need for intermediaries. It exists in all the major religions, and in tribal religions as well. In all of them, we find intermediaries – like Samson, Dan and Elijah – to whom the believers turn. It’s impossible to turn to the abstract God in order to solve everyday problems that make up our lives.”

Prof. Yoram Bilu.Credit: Gili Eitan

How reliable is the map of holy places?

“Maimonides is apparently buried in Tiberias and Rabbi Judah the Prince (Yehudah Hanasi) is probably buried in Beit She’arim. As for all the others, there’s no archaeological evidence for the location of their graves – but that’s not important from the point of view of believers. There’s logic to the location. The tomb of Dan is located in the area apportioned to the Tribe of Dan, but there’s no evidence or ancient tradition to confirm the site. The fact is that it’s the grave of an Arab sheikh, but in many places holiness begets holiness. That’s what happened in [the southern city of] Netivot: The moment the Baba Sali [Israel Abuhatzeira, a revered kabbalist rabbi] was buried there in 1984, Netivot became a city where dynasties of tzaddikim are established.

“There’s a local tradition that ancient Gerar – the temporary residence of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible – is located next to Netivot, and they created a mystical connection between our Father Abraham and Rabbi Abuhatzeira. That’s a good example of bridging over thousands of years in an instant.

“It should be emphasized: There are not many places in the world where the biblical names were preserved and used after thousands of years. In other words, there’s logic and historical reality behind these things.”

The view from Tel Megiddo, whose name doesn't offer a clue about its past. Credit: Yaniv Cohen

Is it exploited politically in other places too?

“It’s exploited politically the world over. Sacred places are situated on the ruins of sacred places belonging to other religions. That’s also true of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It’s not necessarily a cynical agenda; usually it’s imbued with faith. In Beit She’an, for instance, a tzaddik appeared in someone’s dream and asked that they ‘bring him up’ to the Land of Israel. Not his body, but only regarding faith. It could be seen as a way to make money – but that’s not true. If you brought a tzaddik into your home, and gave him a room in a 40-square-meter [430-square-foot] home, that’s a big sacrifice. True, it also brings in money, but most of it stems from faith.

“The loveliest story is about the discovery of the entrance to Paradise in a courtyard in Beit She’an in the late ’70s. The discovery was on a Friday evening. The members of the household were supposed to move to the city of Yavneh two days later; the father of the family didn’t want to leave, and then Elijah the Prophet was revealed to him and pointed to the entrance to Paradise in the courtyard. The place quickly became a communal site. A community of dreamers was formed there in the ’80s, only dissipating in the 2000s. They were unable to receive legitimization from the Religious Services Ministry. But for a long time people went from the health maintenance organizations center, which was adjacent to the courtyard, to the entrance to Paradise, and strengthened the medications the doctor had prescribed for them. Don’t mock that because it worked.”

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