Walking around museum exhibits reading the fine print on signs identifying archaeological artifacts isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But what if the artifacts you’re looking at were found at your favorite hiking spot near your home? What if one of the artifacts is the oldest Hebrew writing ever to be discovered? And what if the museum exhibit proved the existence of the biblical King David, and revealed the site to be one of King David’s palaces and an important administrative center?
Sha’arayim (“Two Gates”) is so-named because this fortified Judean city dating to the 10th BCE and the beginning of the kingdom of Judah has the unusual configuration of two equally large gates with bedrock thresholds (so that enemies could not overcome the gate barrier by digging beneath the doors). One gate faces south towards Jerusalem, and the other faces west, along the border of the area occupied by the Philistines who came to Judea by sea. Sha’arayim is mentioned three times in Jewish scriptures: 1 Samuel 17:52, Joshua 15:36, and 1 Chronicles 4:31.
“If King David ever came here from Jerusalem, he entered from this [southern] gate. It is likely we are walking in the footsteps of King David,” said Hebrew University Prof. Yossi Garfinkel who, with Sa’ar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, discovered the site and led the archaeological excavation.
How did the archaeologists determine that Sha’arayim was an Israelite city in Judea? Pig bones and pottery. Every Philistine city in the area revealed pig bones; Sha’arayim had none. Vast quantities of Philistine pottery were found in the excavated Philistine cities of Gat, Ekron, and Ashdod, and no such decorated Philistine pottery was found in Sha’arayim.
One thousand square meters around with massive casement walls (two circular walls with chambers between them) two to four meters tall and constructed of stones weighing up to eight tons each, this heavily fortified city at the top of a hill commanded views from the interior-walled palace at its center over the main road leading to the Judean hills, with a view east to Jerusalem and west to the Mediterranean Sea. Battles between the Jews and the Philistines took place in the Elah Valley below, including the battle between David and Goliath, from the nearby city of Gat. 1 Samuel 17 records, “Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gat and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Sha’arayim Road to Gat and Ekron.”
A huge storeroom 15 meters long is thought to be King David’s tax collection storage site, as over 600 ceramic pots, as well as Egyptian-imported alabaster vessels, were found. Two dozen metal tools and weapons have been unearthed to date, two-thirds of iron and one-third of bronze. Most significantly, crucibles used to manufacture bronze from copper and tin were also found, along with swords, axes, and daggers. 1 Samuel 13:19-20 records, “Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.’ But every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle.” Sha’arayim was inhabited for only about forty years before its destruction by the Philistines circa 980 BCE; perhaps it was targeted for destruction not only for its strategic location but also because the Hebrews in this city did, in fact, manufacture their own metal weapons!
Among the objects on display are charred olive pits carbon‑14 dated to the biblical King David’s reign, women’s earrings and bracelets adorned with gold leaf, and kitchen implements: cooking pots, mortar and pestle, grinding stones, baking trays and ovens. Among the many ritual items found were cultic standing stones, chalices for incense or libations, stone basins and benches, and four distinct model shrines. The largest shrine (shown below) proves that these Israelites had a notion of what monumental religious buildings looked like (predating the Parthenon in Greece by at least 400 years) probably based on the Mesopotamia model existing centuries before King David’s era. Distinct from the local Canaanite architecture, this style may have inspired the design of Solomon’s Temple decades later, with recessed door entrances and dentiles representing the wooden roof beams in sets of three.
Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, shows off a stone shrine model that was found during excavations at Sha’arayim (aka Khirbet Qeiyafa), an ancient Israelite city believed to be one of King David’s palaces and administrative centers, SW of Jerusalem.
As a librarian devoted to books and the written word, I think the most exciting find from Sha’arayim is the earliest known Hebrew inscription discovered to date. Written in the Canaanite alphabetic script on a small pottery fragment in five lines of eighteen words (eight exclusively Hebrew words), the inscription reads (according to Gershon Galil of Haifa University and dozens of other scholars):
1 you shall not do [it], but worship (the god) [El]
2 Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3 [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4 the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king
5 Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
Verbs characteristic of Hebrew, such asah (“did”) and avad (“worked”) were rarely used in other local languages, and almanah (“widow”) is specific to Hebrew. Addressing social concerns matches the Torah’s instructions for creating a moral, just society, and this content is markedly different to inscriptions from other cultures which glorify taking care of the physical needs of their idols.
Until you are able to visit Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem and its famous Bible Lands Museum, check out the short video introduction to the exhibit: “In The Valley of David and Goliath” – enjoy!
Contributed by: Aviva Adler, Librarian, Touro College Israel in Jerusalem