The following is a response to recent reports of an inscription found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, by Dr. Hector Avalos, Iowa State University:
I’ve seen this so many times, I could write a manual. An interesting inscription or item is found that derives from ancient Israel. What soon follows is some announcement that this item is “the earliest” or “the best” example of X--- or, better yet, “definitive proof of” the historicity of some biblical person or event.
And so it is the case with the recent reports of an inscription found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a site in the Elah valley of Israel dating to around 1000 BCE, and so around the presumed time of David. Discovery of the inscription was already announced in 2008, but only now has a “decipherment” been announced by Dr. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa.
Over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, John Hobbins seemingly has already reconstructed a whole Davidic Kingdom on the basis of an inscription that does not even mention David. He tells us:Nonetheless, given the relatively certain aspects of the inscription’s contents and the archaeological context in which the inscription was found, it is already difficult to avoid the conclusion that the kingdom of David – or some equivalent entity we would have to invent were it not for the fact that 1-2 Samuel preserves traditions whose basic outline is compatible with everything we know from the archaeological record - possessed a defensive infrastructure capable of giving the powerful Philistine city-states on its western border a run for their money. The balance of probability now rests with a hypothesis of that kind. The minimalist theses of a Davies and the skeptical theses of a Finkelstein now seem like so much ancient history.But how certain are the contents of this inscription? Without having to know Hebrew or the finer points of Northwest Semitic epigraphy, we can detect the actual level of uncertainty just by comparing these translations:
A. Translation on John Hobbins’ website:
1 Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]
2 ruler of [geographical name?] . . . ruler . . .
3 [geographical names?] . . .
4 [unclear] and wreak judgment on YSD king of Gath . . .
5 seren of G[aza? . . .] [unclear] . . .
B. Translation “provided by the University of Haifa”:
1 you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2 Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3 [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4 the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5 Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger
First, notice THERE IS NO DAVID mentioned anywhere in this inscription. Judging by translation A, which mentions Gath, we could equally be exuberant that Assyrian historical claims have been amply confirmed by this inscription because the records (ca. 712/711 BCE) of Sargon, the Assyrian king, mention Gath. Hooray for Assyrian culture and religion!!!
Notice also how much difference a noun and a verb can make.
Translation A has a noun, the equivalent of the (Masoretic) Hebrew SHOPHET, and so translated as “ruler” (often translated as “judge” in the Bible). Translation B has an imperative verb commanding someone to “judge X.” But where are the partially reconstructed “slave” and “widow” of Translation B in Translation A?
Since the inscription appears to be in Hebrew (rather than in Phoenician or some other Canaanite dialect), it would at least confirm that Hebrew was being written at this time. But that is about all it would confirm until we have a better handle on what it actually says. As we can see, the translations alone tell you that this is not yet a settled issue.
Otherwise, it is like arguing that we have just confirmed the historicity of Gilgamesh because we found a fragment of the epic of Gilgamesh in Israel (and we have found such a thing).
And how certain is the archaeological context? I agree that we have much more data than for many other excavations (including some Carbon 14 dates). See the report by Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.
Yet, the archaeology is also not completely without dispute. For those who do not have access to the latest journals, note the abstract of Yehuda Dagan’s article in Tel Aviv (Volume 36, Number 1, June 2009 , pp. 68-81), a well-respected journal:“The excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa have attracted attention recently following the discovery of a city gate and the proposals of the excavators that it be dated to the 10th century BCE and identified with biblical Sha'arayim. Based on my survey of the site, I suggest an alternative settlement history and a different interpretation of the construction stages of the circumference wall. I also propose an alternative identification of the biblical city of Sha'arayim.”From my experience, few things are ever definitively settled in the archaeology or epigraphy of ancient Israel. Accordingly, and as I have done with previous finds, I urge caution until a greater number of experts have looked at this inscription more closely.