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From Myth to Maybe to Monarch

Updated on April 29, 2013

The Philistines

In the nineteenth century it was decided by some scholars that the Bible was simply a book of myths. That being the case, the people in the Bible were also myths, including King David. After all, what was the likelihood of a beardless teenage shepherd boy defeating the oversized champion of the Philistines?

The Philistines are relatively well attested in archaeology. They are known from their remains as traders in the 18th Century B.C. and into the time of Israel. Sometime in the 12th Century B.C. they decided to emigrate from their homes in the Aegean (including Crete, curiously the Aeneid records the Trojans as having come from Crete, I wonder if there’s a connection) and travelled along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean destroying settlements and replacing them with their own. In 1177 B.C. they ran into the Egyptians under Ramesses III. They were defeated by the Egyptians; an event memorialized on the Medinet Habu reliefs, and retreated eastward to Canaan, occupying the coastal regions and primarily the southern area now known as Gaza. This gave them control of the best agricultural areas and the trade routes from Asia into Egypt.

David and Goliath

At this time, the time of the Judges, Israel had not yet gained control of Canaan. It has been suggested that the tribe of Dan was forced to migrate after they failed to defeat the Philistines in their allotted inheritance. The Philistines attempted to assert control over the highlands where most of the Israelite settlements were without displacing them.

It is in one of the engagements between the Philistines and Israel that David meets Goliath. It was not uncommon for two armies to settle a battle by a fight between champions. Such a fight was seen as being decided by the gods, or in Israel’s case by God.

David’s weapon of choice was the sling. The use of the sling in warfare was widespread throughout history. Both the Egyptians and Assyrians used slings, the oldest surviving fragments of a sling coming from Egypt, and one of the earliest depictions of slings being used in warfare come from an Assyrian relief showing the capture of Lachish.

Sling stones have been found throughout the Near East. They range in size from 28g to 450g, that is, from golf ball to soft ball size. While David is recorded as having used natural stream stones, sling stones have been found that are shaped natural stones, baked clay balls, and lead projectiles shaped like almonds. Sometimes the stones could be heated and used to start fires.

It would appear that at the time that David met Goliath the use of the sling in warfare was not well known, or perhaps, had fallen out of use (slings had been used in the time of the Judges, see Judges 20:16). Goliath was outraged at this beardless youth being sent to challenge him, seeing this choice of champion as an insult. David would have probably approached to about 15m distance from Goliath before letting fly with his sling.

The possibility of this outcome has been tested by the producers of “Ancient Discoveries: Lost Science of the Bible.” Their slinger, a champion from the Balearic Islands, was able to the hit the target, a force meter the estimated size of Goliath’s forehead, with sufficient force to cause fatal trauma. The use of the sling is well attested in the both the historical and archaeological record. The Philistines are both historically and archaeologically attested in the areas claimed by the Bible. Their description in the Bible matches what is found elsewhere. At this point we can say that the story of David has moved from myth to maybe.

The Monarchy

It is suggested by Biblical Minimalists that if David did exist, he was no more than a tribal chieftan. The evidence for a kingdom, they claim, is lacking. Somehow the continued warnings about conclusions drawn from an absence of evidence seem to have been missed by the minimalists. The trend in Biblical Archaeology is toward finding the evidence that has been absent. Keep in mind that Israel is one of the most fought over areas of the world. Jerusalem is an inhabited city with its most important archaeological site off limits because of ethnic/religious/political concerns. Yet evidence exists for a Monarchy.

In 2008 an ostracon (a piece of pottery with writing on it) was discovered in Israel. It was dated to the 10th Century B.C., about the time of David. Epigraphers (people who study writing styles) determined that it was written by a scribe. The first implication of this find is that scribes existed at the time of David. The existence of scribes further implies the existence of a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies do not exist in tribes, they do exist in kingdoms; therefore, a kingdom must have existed at this time. If a kingdom existed at the time of David it is likely, given the historical information we have in the Bible, that David was in fact the King of that kingdom. A further implication is that with the knowledge of writing events could be written down, something which we call history. It can then be said that history existed at the time of David moving the preservation of events from legend to history.

Hot Bullet Rather Than Smoking Gun

What is really wanted for David is a smoking gun. What we have is a bullet. In 1993 at a site called Tel Dan, a stela from an Aramean king was found; on it was the boast that he had defeated the “House of David”. This was the first extra-biblical evidence of a House of David. The minimalists accused the discoverers of forgery, but critical examination since the discovery has confirmed its authenticity. The name of the king who commissioned the stela is missing, but his enemies are named, Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah, making the Aramean king Hazael of Damascus (see 2 Kings 8 – 13). The use of the term “House of David” by an enemy indicates that a dynasty was recognized. While this is not necessarily a smoking gun it is a bullet from that gun.

It is still questioned as to why David and Solomon are missing from the records of the nations that surrounded Israel. In reply it needs to be asked, what records? It is assumed by minimalists and their followers that abundant historical records are known from this time period when precisely the opposite is true. The time of David and Solomon was a time of turmoil in the Near East. The Egyptians had lost power and the Assyrians were an up and coming power embroiled with the remnants of the Hittite Empire. Records from this era are sparse all the way around Israel; those that do exist do not come from Israel’s neighbours. It is noted that of the 113 rulers known to archaeology in this area, only 16 are known from their own inscriptions. One of the unknowns is a king who has come down to us as Herod the Great. If evidence from a king one thousand years closer to us is sparse we should not be surprised if evidence from 1000 years earlier is even sparser.

On the other hand a number of neighbours of Israel are known from the Bible. The record of the Bible regarding these people has been shown to be accurate. If the Bible is accurate regarding the neighbours and enemies of Israel then perhaps it can be trusted as to Israel as well.

What we have found is that historically and archaeologically the story of David and Goliath is possible. At the time that the Bible claims David to have ruled there did was a bureaucracy in the area he is alleged to have ruled, a bureaucracy which gives evidence of a kingdom. At least one enemy of Judah recognized that it was ruled by the “House of David”. From this we can say that the David Narrative is not mythology, it goes beyond maybe, and that there was definitely a monarchy.


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    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 5 years ago from Texas

      Good hub, Barrydan! I enjoy reading write-ups like this when they're done by someone so well versed in the conditions of the times they're speaking of. It helps ground these stories in actual reality to get a sense of the political climate and the struggle for power happening in the time and place the story is set. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    • barrydan profile image

      barrydan 5 years ago from Calgary, Alberta, Canada

      Thank you for your comment HeadlyvonNoggin, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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