King David and Jerusalem:
Myth and Reality
By Daniel Gavron
To most Israelis it is axiomatic that the celebrations for the 3,000th
anniversary of the conquest of Jerusalem by King David mark a real and
tangible event; but this is far from certain. The biblical account of the
capture of the city is the only one we have, and in the opinion of most
modern scholars, the Bible is not an entirely reliable historical
document. Corroborating evidence is required, and some indeed exists; but
it is not conclusive. When all the available information has been
assembled, the most that can be said is that there was probably an
Israelite ruler called David, who made Jerusalem his capital sometime in
the tenth century bce. However, the precise date cannot be determined, and
consequently there is no way of knowing exactly when the anniversary
There is plenty of evidence for the existence of ancient Jerusalem.
Excavations in the City of David, today the village of Silwan, just south
of the Old City walls, show that the site has been continuously occupied
for some 5,000 years. Closer to David's purported time, excavations
directed by the late Prof. Yigal Shiloh, uncovered a monumental 20 metre
stepped structure, and dated it to the 12th-10th century bce. This could
have been the foundation of the Jebusite stronghold, captured and
subsequently expanded by David.
In addition to the archaeological evidence, Jerusalem appears in several
ancient documents, apart from the Bible. The earliest known reference
dates to 1900 bce in the so-called "Execration Texts." The names of the
enemies of the Egyptian ruler were inscribed on pottery, which was then
smashed in the hope of bringing destruction upon them. Jerusalem at that
time was apparently an enemy of Egypt, as indicated by letters written on
clay tablets found in the ruins of Amarna, the palace of the reforming
Pharaoh Akhnetan. In one of them, dating to the 14th century bce,
Abdu-Heba, the king of Jerusalem, writes pledging his loyalty to the
Until very recently, there was no evidence outside the Bible for the
existence of King David. There are no references to him in Egyptian,
Syrian or Assyrian documents of the time, and the many archaeological digs
in the City of David failed to turn up so much as a mention of his name.
Then, on July 21, 1993, a team of archaeologists led by Prof. Avraham
Biran, excavating Tel Dan in the northern Galilee, found a triangular
piece of basalt rock, measuring 23 x 36 cm. inscribed in Aramaic. It was
subsequently identified as part of a victory pillar erected by the king of
Syria and later smashed by an Israelite ruler. The inscription, which
dates to the ninth century bce, that is to say, about a century after
David was thought to have ruled Israel, includes the words Beit David
("House" or "Dynasty" of David"). It is the first near-contemporaneous
reference to David ever found. It is not conclusive; but it does strongly
indicate that a king called David established a dynasty in Israel during
the relevant period.
Another piece of significant evidence comes from Dr. Avi Ofer's
archaeological survey conducted in the hills of Judea during the last
decade, which shows that in the 11th-10th centuries bce, the population of
Judah almost doubled compared to the preceding period. The so-called Rank
Size Index (RSI), a method of analyzing the size and positioning of
settlements to evaluate to what extent they were a self-contained group,
indicates that during this period - David's supposed period - a strong
centre of population existed at the edge of the region. Jerusalem is the
most likely candidate for this centre.
To sum up the evidence then: in the tenth century bce, a dynasty was
established by David; the population doubled in the hill country of Judah,
which acquired a strong central point, probably Jerusalem, a previously
settled site that was important enough to be mentioned in Egyptian
documents. These facts are certainly consistent with the biblical account;
but, before examining the biblical version, we should consider the nature
of the Bible and of the historical material it contains.
The Bible is not - and was never intended to be - a historical document. A
work of theology, law, ethics and literature, it does contain historical
information; but if we want to evaluate this information we should
consider when, how and why the Bible was compiled.
Until comparatively recently, the Bible was accepted as the word of God by
most Jews and Christians, and therefore scholarly works dealing with it,
such as the Talmud, rabbinical commentaries, and the work of Christian
scholars, concentrated on its interpretation.
In the 19th century ce, the "Age of Reason," scholars began subjecting the
biblical texts to linguistic, textual, and literary analysis, noting
inconsistencies and interrupted rhythms, comparing styles, and placing the
text within the archaeological, historical and geographical background.
There are still many differing opinions regarding the origin of the Bible,
when it was written, and under what conditions; but it is fair to say
that, outside fundamentalist circles, modern consensus suggests that the
assembling and editing of the documents that were to constitute the Bible
began in the seventh century bce, some three centuries after David's time.
(The earliest actual material in our possession, part of the Dead Sea
Scrolls, dates to the second century bce at the earliest).
By the seventh century, David's kingdom had split into two. The northern
kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 bce.
The southern kingdom of Judah was invaded several times - most importantly
in 701 - but managed to fight off the Assyrians and survive. Subsequently
the Babylonians conquered the Assyrian empire. In 586 bce, they captured
Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and exiled the major part of the
population of Judah. The Babylonians in their turn were conquered by the
Persians, who between 538 and 520 permitted some Judaeans (i.e. Jews),
under Ezra and Nehemiah, to return to Judah and revive their nation.
The early biblical materials were compiled during this period of threat,
invasion, destruction, exile and return, by an author-editor known as the
"Deuteronomist." This writer - or more probably a team of writers - made
use of numerous earlier documents, including the Book of Deuteronomy.
There is still considerable controversy regarding when the various
documents at the disposal of the Deuteronomists were first written down;
but there is no doubt that, in weaving their material together, the
seventh century author-editors were considerably influenced by the
circumstances of their own time.
The saga of the Israelites, as told in the Bible, was designed as a
morality tale to prove the importance of faith in the One God. The stories
of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Joshua demonstrate that the
Israelites were rewarded when they obeyed God, but were punished when they
The historical evidence to back up these events is sparse, and, in some
cases, contradictory. In particular, the account of Joshua's conquest of
Canaan is inconsistent with the archaeological evidence. Cities supposedly
conquered by Joshua in the 14th century bce were destroyed long before he
came on the scene. Some, such as Ai and Arad, had been ruins for a 1000
The Book of Judges, which directly contradicts Joshua, and shows the
Israelites settling the land over a prolonged period, is nearer historical
reality; but even it cannot be taken at face value.
The archaeological surveys conducted over the past two decades in the
hills of Menasseh, Ephraim, Benjamin and Judah, on the west bank of the
River Jordan, indicate that the origin and development of the Israelite
entity was somewhat different from either of the rival accounts in the
Bible. The survey was conducted by more than a dozen archaeologists, most
of them from Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology. Their
conclusions were published in "From Nomadism to Monarchy," edited by Prof.
Israel Finkelstein and Prof. Nadav Na'aman.
Around 1200 bce, semi-nomads from the desert fringes to the east, joined
by elements from Anatolia, the Aegean, and the south, possibly including
Egypt, began to settle in the hill country of Canaan. A large proportion -
probably a majority of this population - were refugees from the Canaanite
city states, destroyed by the Egyptians in one of their periodic
The conclusion is somewhat startling to Bible readers who know the
Canaanites portrayed in the Bible as immoral idolaters: most of the
Israelites were in fact formerly Canaanites. The story of Abraham's
journey from Ur of the Chaldees, the Patriarchs, the Exodus, Sinai, and
the conquest of Canaan, all these were apparently based on legends that
the various elements brought with them from their countries of origin. The
consolidation of the Israelites into a nation was not the result of
wanderings in the desert and divine revelation, but came from the need to
defend themselves against the Philistines, who settled in the Canaanite
coastal plain more or less at the same time the Israelites were
establishing themselves in the hills.
Thus the founders of Israel were not Abraham and Moses; but Saul and
David. It was apparently Saul who consolidated the hill farmers under his
rule and created fighting units capable of confronting the Philistines. It
was David who defeated the Philistines and united the hill farmers with
the people of the Canaanite plains, thus establishing the Kingdom of
Israel and its capital city.
It is generally accepted among scholars today that there is genuine
historical material in the Books of Samuel, which describe the careers of
Saul and David; but even these books must be critically examined to
distinguish between legend and fact, in as much as it can ever be known.
Some of the materials in Samuel I and II , notably the lists of officers,
officials, and districts are believed to be very early, possibly even
dating to the time of David or Solomon. These documents were probably in
the hands of the Deuteronomists when they started to compile the material
three centuries later.
Apart from the lists, the account appears to have undergone two separate
acts of editorial slanting. The original writers show a strong bias
against Saul, and in favour of David and Solomon. Many years later, the
Deuteronomists edited the material in a manner that conveyed their
religious message, inserting reports and anecdotes that strengthened their
monotheistic doctrine. When it comes to Jerusalem, however, the challenge
is to set the biblical texts in the context of the archaeological and
The biblical account is terse:
And the king and his men went unto the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the
land; which spake unto David, saying, Except thou take away the blind and
the lame, thou shalt not come hither; thinking David cannot come in
hither. Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the
city of David. And David said on that day, whosoever getteth up to the
gutter, and smiteth the Jebusites and the lame and the blind, that are
hated of David's soul, he shall be chief and captain. Wherefore they said,
the blind and the lame shall not come into the house. So David dwelt in
the fort and called it the city of David.
[II Samuel 5: 6-9]
We have already seen that archaeologists uncovered a large stepped
structure that could have been the basis of the Jebusite town, so the two
questions that arise are: how did David and his men get into the town, and
what is the significance of the rather obscure reference to the "blind and
In 1865, Charles Warren, a British army engineer, discovered beneath the
village of Silwan, a shaft leading to a tunnel connecting with the Gihon
spring. For some time it was taken as self-evident that the "gutter"
(tzinnor in Hebrew) of the biblical account was this shaft, named Warren's
Shaft, after its discoverer.
Subsequently, similar systems were discovered at other sites, such as
Hazor in Upper Galilee and Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, and dated to a
later period. As a result of this, a number of ingenious interpretations
of the word tzinnor were suggested, for example, a grappling iron for
climbing the walls, or the windpipes of the defenders, or the water-source
but not the shaft.
However, the most recent investigations have shown that the City of David
water system is based on natural fault lines. It was man-improved rather
than man-made. Therefore it could have been earlier than the Megiddo and
Hazor systems. In any case, few archaeologists are now prepared to date
these systems precisely.
Consequently there is no reason to reject the original assumption that
David's men penetrated the Gihon spring, crept along the tunnel and
climbed up the shaft into the city, taking the defenders by surprise.
More complex is the matter of the blind and lame. The Roman-Jewish
historian, Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century ce, in an
apparent attempt to mock David, proclaimed that the city was so
impregnable that even blind and lame soldiers could defend it.
In modern times, the late Prof. Yigael Yadin was the first to suggest a
solution that has become generally accepted, by examining the history of
other nations in the region. Noting that the Jebusites of Jerusalem were
probably of Anatolian-Hittite origin, Yadin made the connection to
Hattusha, the ancient Hittite capital, where documents were found that
described soldiers taking an oath of loyalty to the ruler.
The soldiers were paraded in front of a blind woman and a deaf man, and
told that anyone failing to live up to his oath "will be as these" - that
is, will be stricken blind or deaf. The passage about the taking of
Jerusalem may refer to a similar idea, where the defenders placed the
blind and lame in the front lines as a way of casting a spell on the
attackers, threatening them with blindness and lameness.
The Bible testifies that David did not massacre or expel the Jebusite
survivors. Two biblical passages make it clear that they continued to live
in David's capital:
And the children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that
inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwell with the children of
Bethlehem in Jerusalem unto this day.
[Judges I: 21]
A passage in the book of Joshua is almost identical, except that it refers
to the "children of Judah" instead of the "children of Benjamin." The
account in the Book of Samuel, which states that "David built around from
the Millo inward," suggests that David expanded the city to accomodate his
family, court, officials and soldiers. No one is certain exactly what this
means; but most experts connect "Millo" with milui, the Hebrew for (land)
fill. It may refer to the expansion of the Jebusite city by terracing the
hillside, filling up the terraces, and building on them. This would be
consistent with the discovery of the stepped structure in the city of
That David showed respect for the Jebusites - even their property rights -
is clear from the description of how the Israelite king acquired a site
for a sacrificial altar. Although Araunah the Jebusite, possibly the
former ruler of the city, offers it to him free of charge, David insists
on paying for it:
And the king said unto Araunah; Nay, but I will surely buy it from thee at
a price; neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that
which doth cost me nothing. So David bought the oxen and the threshing
floor for fifty shekels of silver.
[II Samuel 24: 24]
Other passages in the Books of Samuel make it clear that David employed
Jebusites in his army and administration. Uriah the Hittite is an obvious
example. Some scholars also suggest that Zadok, David's second high
priest, was a Jebusite priest of Jerusalem. The Bible shows him as a
descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses; but, as we have seen, scholars
are divided over the historical authenticity of Moses and Aaron. Many see
the appointment of two high priests as a balancing act between north and
south. The two entities, although united under Saul and David, showed
signs of division during their reigns, and were irrevocably split after
Solomon's demise. Abiathar, the sole survivor of the priests of Nob, was
from the north; Zadok could have come either from Jerusalem, or from
We have already mentioned that the lists of territories, officers and
officials are almost certainly the oldest and most historical parts of the
Books of Samuel. Two lists of David's officials contain names, such as
Adoram, who was in charge of the levy, Seraiah the scribe, and
Jehoshaphat, the royal herald. Prof. Benjamin Mazar has pointed out that
these names were Canaanite, and concluded that David evidently employed
officials of the Canaanite city-states in his administration. This serves
to confirm the pattern of David's behaviour. He made use of local
officials in Jerusalem, and all over his new nation.
The 3,000th anniversary celebration of David's capture of Jerusalem is
perceived by some people, both in Israel and abroad, as an indication of
an exclusive Jewish claim to the city. Although, as we have argued here,
it is probable that David did take the city some three millenia ago, and
make it his personal, national and religious capital, the biblical
evidence points to the fact that the great Israelite monarch found a way
to share his capital with his former adversaries. The Jebusites continued
to live there; their property rights were respected and they were given a
role in the administration of the city.
Source: Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1996/102, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs