Archaeological Discovery Speaks of First King of Israel - Saul?

Qeiyafa Ostracon
Qeiyafa Ostracon

There have been many arguments made by minimalist as to the reality of King David and his son Solomon. Some believe these rulers were nothing more than folklore in Israeli history. In recent years several archeological discoveries have been unearthed which help confirm both David and Solomon were indeed real rulers of a major kingdom. Now, new archeological evidence may reveal even deeper into the Israelite Monarchy, back to the first king of Israel. According to the Bible, Saul was appointed as the first King of the Jewish nation by Samuel (1 Samuel). Saul eventually died in battle and was replaced on the throne by David. The only mention of the kingship of Saul was the Bible, which left some doubting the authenticity of the story. Now, external proof of this early monarchy may have been discovered in an artifact known as the Qeiyafa Ostracon.

14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal and made Saul king in the presence of the Lord. There they sacrificed fellowship offerings before the Lord, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration. (1 Samuel 11:14 - 15 , NIV)

Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years. (1 Samuel 13:1 , NIV)

Discovered in 2008,the Qeiyafa Ostracon has become quite famous and has been carefully examined by a number of scholars. The ink inscription, which measures approximately six inches by six inches, is very old and in very poor condition. In fact, several portions are completely missing which has made a concise interpretation difficult. Even how the inscription is intended to be read is in dispute. Some scholars believe the inscription should be read right to left, while others read the letters top to bottom and still others insist the proper reading is left to right. Obviously this can have a profound effect on what the inscription says and the message it was originally intended to convey.

Ostracon - a potsherd used as a writing surface.

Emile Puech is among the scholars who believe the inscription is meant to be read left to right. Puech, the senior epigrapher at the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, bases this belief on the slant of the text which is slightly tilted up and to the right. Using this reading, Puech has revealed his interpretation of the inscription and his findings offer a new insight on the early Monarchy of Israel.

Puech's report is prepared in French and has not been widely publicized. It must be noted there are several interpretations of the same inscription which do not match Puech's. This is due to the order of the letters, some interpretation of the missing or partial missing segments and the meaning of the text. Despite this, Puech feels confident his work is a solid translation of the text and if he is correct, what it reveals is nothing less than amazing.

There are five lines of text in the Qeiyafa Ostracon. Puech's interpretation of these five lines are as follows;

(1) Do not oppress, and serve God ... Despoiled him/her

(2) The judge and the widow wept; he had the power

(3) over the resident alien and the child, he eliminated them together

(4) The men and the chiefs/officers have established a king

(5) He marked 60 [?] servants among the communities/habitations/generations

Puech believes this was a portion of a letter or decree written to a governor or other local leader concerning the appointment of a higher authority. In line four we see they have established a king. This indicates the monarchy is a new one, not simply the act of a new king taking over for a previous king. The statement in the first line is also important. The king was not to oppress the people, but was to serve God. It also contains/confirms several of the key elements of the king and kingship as listed in the Bible text (1 Samuel Chapters 8 and 9).Taken in its whole, it seems very clear this was the formation of a new monarchy, but the question remained, which monarchy or king was being referred too.

The artifact was discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa which is believed to be a Judahite fortress. Qeiyafa is widely accepted as the Biblical Shaarayim, located in Judah (Joshua 15:36). The identification is helped by the Biblical interpretation of the name Shaarayim which means 'gates' (plural).

36 Shaaraim, Adithaim and Gederah (or Gederothaim)—fourteen towns and their villages. (Joshua 15:36 , NIV)

This is helpful since two gates have been found at the Qeiyafa site. All other sites which have been excavated in the area have only one gate. According to the Bible the city of Shaarayim existed prior to the time of David. In 1 Samuel we hear how the Philistines retreated past Shaarayim after David defeated Goliath.

Saul and David by Rembrandt
Saul and David by Rembrandt

Many believe the text on the Qeiyafa Ostracon refers to the kingship of either David or Solomon, but Puech believes otherwise. David assumed the role of King only after Saul had killed himself by falling on his own sword, thus it was not a new monarchy. For this same reason it seems even more unlikely the text could refer to Solomon who assumed the throne after David. The dating of the artifact was of little help to specifically identify which King it referred to. The artifact has been dated to approximately 1000 B.C. which places it in the proper time period for either Saul or David.

Given all of the evidence, Peuch feels confident in his theory the artifact refers to Saul and furthermore places Saul's reign as king from approximately 1030 BC to 1010 BC at which time David assumed the monarchy. If this is indeed accurate the artifact represents the first archeological evidence which mentions King Saul. It is also the earliest reference to the Israeli monarchy to be found outside of the Biblical text. As Peuch's theory stands, this is a remarkable find and one which gives credence to the biblical text as being a historically accurate document.

The Qeiyafa Ostracon was placed on display in the Iron Age Gallery of the Israel Museum in Jersulam in 2010.

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