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History of Jerusalem: Myth and Reality of King David's Jerusalem

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of the city is the only one we have, and in the opinion of most modern scholars, the Bible is not an entirely reliable historical document.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 falls.

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 Egyptian ruler.

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 strayed.

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 years.

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 invasions.

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 historical evidence.

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 the lame."

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 David.

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 further south.

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.

Sources: Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1996/102, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs