Kiryat-Yearim Controversy: Was David Really a King or Just a Tribal Chief?

The men of Kiryat Ye’arim came and took up the Aron of Hashem and brought it into the house of Avinadav on the hill; and they consecrated his son Elazar to have charge of the Aron of Hashem. I Samuel 7:1 (The Israel Bible™)

A recent dig at the Biblical site of Kiryat Yearim is a piece in the puzzle that may settle a raging feud among archaeologists: was King David a larger-than-life monarch who unified the Northern and Southern Kingdom or was he a local chieftain whose role the Bible exaggerated.

About three weeks ago, Prof. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, presented his findings from the excavations at Kiryat Yearim to a meeting of the national academies of science of Israel and France. The site is relatively undisturbed and was unexplored until Prof. Finkelstein began his dig last year.

The site is located approximately 6.2 miles west of Jerusalem. Finkelstein told Haaretz that the hill is clearly manmade, created by four massive retaining walls creating an earth-filled platform. The walls measure 360 feet by 490 feet. Running north to south and from east to west in a completely straight line, the walls were built with an error in the range of one degree.

In the Bible, the Ark of the Covenant was taken to Kiryat Yearim after it was returned by the Philistines. The Ark was removed from the Tabernacle in Shiloh and taken into battle by Israel but the Philistines captured it, placing it inside a Temple in Ashdod dedicated to the idolatrous worship of Dagon. As a result of the ark’s presence, the idol in the temple toppled and its hands broke off. The Philistines were struck with an epidemic of hemorrhoids and decided to return the ark. The ark was not returned to Shiloh but was taken to Kiryat Yearim where it stood for 20 years until David took it to Jerusalem.

The men of Kiryat Ye’arim came and took up the Aron of Hashem and brought it into the house of Avinadav on the hill; and they consecrated his son Elazar to have charge of the Aron of Hashem. (I Samuel 7:1)

Before beginning his dig, Prof. Finkelstein acknowledged that the Biblical reference indicated the city had some level of importance.

“It’s reasonable to assume there was a temple there,” Professor Finkelstein told Times of Israel. “To follow the story, the place where they took the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t, of course, just some field or under a tree, they refer to an important cult place.”

Prof. Israel Finkelstein at the Megiddo excavation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Pof. Finkelstein, a respected and prominent figure in Israeli archaeology, has been the long-time proponent of a controversial theory that the Biblical description of the united kingdom of David and Solomon described in the Bible is an ideological construct. According to him, the historical David and Solomon ruled over a small territory in the southern highlands.

“I see David and Solomon as historical figures – the founders of the Jerusalem dynasty. But at the same time, I see the text as layered,” Finkelstein told Haaretz. “For Solomon, there is very little information about his actual reign. For David, there is more, especially the material that describes him as a leader of a Habiru band on the southern fringe.”

Prof. Finkelstein believes that his findings in Kiryat Yearim support this theory. Finkelstein told Haaretz that the kingdom of Judah at that time was too weak to construct such an impressive structure. He theorized that the hill was likely built by the stronger kingdom of Israel.

Finkelstein argues that the original version of the story about Kiryat Yearim was written in the early 8th century B.C.E. by an author from the Kingdom of Israel during a period when the kingdom of Israel dominated the kingdom of Judah.

He suggested that the size and complexity of the site indicated that In addition to being the location of the Ark of the Covenant and place of worship, it also functioned as an administrative center since it is conveniently situated between the two kingdoms. He told Haaretz that for this reason, the site is significant as it symbolizes the unification between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

The site was dated using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence, which analyzes the last time quartz particles in the soil were exposed to sunlight. This produced a broad date range between 1150 B.C. and 770 B.C, although pottery sherds found at the site show that it was a hive of activity in the first half of the 8th century B.C.

Prof. Finkelstein views the Bible as a religious and political text combining various traditions written in Jerusalem in the seventh century B.C.E and onward. Written during the reign of the kings of Judah, it glorifies the kingdom of Judah and minimizes the role of the kingdom of Israel in the north. Contrary to the Biblical account in which the Kingdom of Judah ruled the north under David and Solomon, Finkelstein explains that it was actually the northern kingdom that was the stronger of the two.

Dr. David Ilan, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College, was intrigued by the dig but suggested that the conclusions required more study.

“It seems a bit early to draw definitive conclusions from the data taken from that site,” Dr. Ilan told Breaking Israel News, adding that Prof. Finkelstein was recognized as a thorough researcher. “He is essentially still trying to test his hypothesis of historical reproduction based on his reading of the Biblical text. The literature and his presentation focuses on his theories and not on his findings.”

Ilan emphasized that Finkelstein’s hypotheses could be largely misinterpreted if viewed in black-and-white, religious versus anti-religious.

“Prof. Finkelstein is not throwing out the Bible,” Ilan stated.”He clearly cherishes the text. He just reads it differently. He loves it because it is fascinating and so interesting to deconstruct. His theory is based on a specific reading of the Biblical text and he has a lot of followers.”

“People sometimes get that wrong about him,” Dr. Ilan concluded. “He identifies strongly and loves his people. As an academic and an archaeologist he puts things together in a different way. He is certainly not anti-Bible or anti-Judaism. Even if you disagree with him, it should be acknowledged that he has done a great deal for Biblical archaeology.”