Out in West Jerusalem in the district where the Knesset is located, there are a collection of museums including the Israel Museum with the famous Shrine of the Book housing the Dead Sea Scrolls and nearby, the Bible Lands Museum. The latter is devoted to looking at the context of the Old Testament and especially the nations and ethnic groups that helped to form the Bible stories as we know them. So there’s a lot of artefacts from Egypt and Babylon, from the Philistines and elsewhere.
The special exhibition being displayed by the museum at the present time is called ‘In the valley of David and Goliath’ which is a presentation of finds from the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa. The excitement that surrounds the finds is that they relate to a passage in 1 Samuel.
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. Saul and the Israelites gathered and encamped in the valley of Elah, and formed ranks against the Philistines. (1 Samuel 17.1-2)
What has been found is what some believe to be the biblical city of Shaaraim (1 Samuel 17.52) which was in the vicinity of the battle. Its distinguishing feature and the source of its name was ‘Two Gates’ and the walls of the city that has been discovered in the last ten years is a city with walls that have two gates – unusual, because the more gates you have the weaker the walls, your defences are.
So all this was very interesting but what was more intriguing was the debate that it revealed between archaeologists and historians about the person of David. Nothing much has been found about him that would suggest that he is in fact an historical figure and, if he is accepted as historical rather than mythological, then how large in fact was his kingdom. Our Guide in the museum described it as a minimalist and a maximalist perspective. Was David a tribal chief who had his capital in Jerusalem but it was small and overblown in the Biblical telling, or was he the king of a nation that stretched from ‘Dan to Beersheba’? Its interesting to note that that evocative phrase was used in the discussions that led to the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine post WWI when it was agreed that the area would be “defined in accordance with its ancient boundaries of Dan to Beersheba”. History is important because it can colour and, literally, shape the present!
The archaeologists working on the dig that produced the finds in this exhibition believe that the settlement was Judean and dated from the Davidic period and, therefore, a priori, it is evidence that the Davidic kingdom stretched further than Jerusalem.
Does this all matter? Well, it does if your national self-understanding depends upon Israel being a great and powerful nation under God. That gives you a ‘legitimate’ claim over the land in some ways of thinking. So visiting the museum was interesting to see how in a country whose politics are always on the knife-edge archaeological ‘proof’ can be utilised to armour its legitimacy.
And for us? David is one of those great iconic figures of the faith. Jesus is ‘born of David’s line’ as we will be singing at Christmas. The whole Bethlehem story is only necessary to link Jesus in with the king who gathered the nation into one. David’s story is inspirational – the victory of the small guy over the giant. It is a vocational story – he’s chosen by God in preference to others who on many readings of suitability – age, stature, maturity – should have ben chosen ahead of him. It’s a story of vulnerability, of the susceptibility of power to corruption – seeing Bathsheba bathing, knowing that as king he could have what he wanted, then having to live with the consequences of his actions. It’s a story of disappointed ambition – arriving at the ultimate place of victory, Jerusalem and being unable to build the Temple he so desired to build as the House of God in the midst of the people but having to leave that honour to his son.
David is a very flawed, human figure; the Bible doesn’t tell the story with mythological whitewash. That is why I would come down on the side of him being an historical figure – we just haven’t found sufficient evidence, yet. But as to whether his kingdom needed to be vast or local, well, that doesn’t bother me. But then, my sense of national identity doesn’t rest on it.
So, the lesson of today, old stones are often used to build modern edifices.
God of the past,
of the present,
of the future,
may I learn from the past,
live in the present,
and seek to build a better future.