Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

It’s one of the most widely known tales in scripture, but it’s been difficult find conclusive historical evidence support the story of David and Goliath. In fact, the lack of such archaeological discoveries has led some to question whether the events happened at all. But now, a team of researchers digging around the giant’s reputed birthplace have made a literally enormous discovery – and consequently shed new light on the biblical battle between David and Goliath.

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The story of David and Goliath begins in the Valley of Elah during the 11th century B.C., as the Philistines rally to attack the nation of Israel. Saul, the leader of the Israelites, gathers his forces but is too fearful to advance across the valley. For more than a month, the Philistines’ champion Goliath – described in the Bible as a giant of more than 9 feet – demands that one of the Israelites’ warriors faces him in battle.

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Eventually, David learns of Goliath’s challenge and accepts on behalf of the Israelites. However, he opts not to put on armor and instead confronts the giant armed with just his sling, five stones and a staff. When the pair meet, Goliath taunts his opponent – but David replies that he has come in the name of the God of Israel.

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David then uses his sling to pitch a single rock at Goliath, which strikes the giant squarely in his skull. With that, the Philistine champion collapses – and David swiftly finishes off his foe. The Philistine army subsequently retreats towards the city of Gath, followed by the Israelites. The Bible teaches that David’s victory came from his faith in God, but there are broader meanings to the story, too.

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For example, it’s also intended to show that Saul wasn’t a suitable ruler. According to Samuel 9:2, Saul was taller by some margin than the other Israelites – which made him the obvious contender to challenge Goliath. But when the moment came, he was too afraid to act. David’s victory therefore cements his place as the true king of Israel, in addition to proving the supremacy of his deity over the Philistine gods.

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There are inconsistencies in the Bible’s story, however. In fact, a later passage suggests that Goliath may not have fallen to David at all, as Samuel 21:19 instead names Elhanan as the giant’s slayer. The later “Book of Chronicles,” which was written during the 4th century B.C., attempts to justify this discrepancy by claiming that Elhanan actually defeated Goliath’s brother, Lahmi, in battle.

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The King James version of the Bible also ran with this story and even altered certain passages to fit the Lahmi narrative. However, “brother” is never mentioned in the Hebrew text, and most scholars now believe that David was credited with Elhanan’s victory simply because he’s better known. Furthermore, some academics believe that the battle may have happened centuries later than described in the Bible, rather than during David’s lifetime.

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Regardless of the precise details, though, the tale of David and Goliath has since permeated throughout history and culture. Moreover, in the process, it’s taken on a wider significance. Indeed, it now symbolizes an against-the-odds victory or a contest between two unevenly matched foes. And it’s used in all walks of life, from sports and science to politics and business – most often by news organizations hoping to add character and context to a story.

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However, some have argued that this usage displaces the story’s original meaning. In his 2020 essay “David vs. Goliath in the Sports Pages,” theology professor Leonard Greenspoon explained, “Most writers use the story for its underdog overtones (the little guy wins)… Less likely to show up in newsprint is the contrast that was most important to the biblical authors: David’s victory shows the power of his God, while Goliath’s defeat reveals the weakness of the Philistine deities.”

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Beyond the story’s various meanings, though, a historical question looms over David and Goliath: did they actually exist? Well, the account fits the custom of the time that used such contests as a means to resolve battles. In addition, there are also archaeological findings that seemingly corroborate the narrative in Goliath’s supposed birthplace, Gath.

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The city of Gath is described in the Bible as being among the most important Philistine metropolises. It’s presented as the most pivotal as well – partly because it’s the one that’s referenced most frequently, but also because several important people are said to hail from there. For instance, the Bible associates Gath with the fabled “Anakim” tribe of giants.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Historians know that Gath existed because it’s referred to in ancient Egyptian source. Over the centuries, though, there’s been plenty of disagreement over where it may have once stood. Around the early 14th century, for example, Jewish historians asserted that the Israeli town of Ramla was formerly Gath. However, some scholars now believe that a separate city, Gath-Rimmon, existed around Ramla.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Then, in the 1800s a researcher named Edward Robinson linked Gath with an archaeological mound known as Tell es-Safi. His theory held sway until the 1920s, when the historian W. F. Albright proposed that Gath was actually located at Tell ’Areini. But when excavations in the mid-1900s turned up no evidence to support this hypothesis – and after another false start at Tell en-Nejileh – Tell es-Safi once again became the accepted site of the biblical city.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Tell es-Safi lies between Ashkelon and Jerusalem, and it’s one of the nation’s most extensive archaeological locations. The area was inhabited for millions of years, and it’s had plenty of different titles in that time: Byzantine cartographers labeled it Saphitha, for instance, while Blanche Garde was the name by which the Crusaders referred to it.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

The area was populated until the late 1940s, in fact, when Israeli forces expelled the Palestinian inhabitants amid the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, it’s an Israeli national park known as Tel Tzafit, and the site of an enormous, ongoing excavation project. The decades-long dig is intended to discover more about Tell es-Safi’s history and, in turn, the many different civilizations that have occupied it over the millennia.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project began in 1996, spearheaded by Dr. Aren M. Maeir from Israel’s Bar-llan University. In an accompanying blog detailing the excavation, Maeir has explained that the project aims to plug a significant gap in our understanding of ancient civilizations. “Scientific knowledge about this central site, so important for the study of the history and culture of the biblical period, was completely lacking,” he wrote.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Indeed, Maeir’s dig is the first major attempt at archaeological research on the site. Prior to the arrival of the archaeologist and his team in the mid-1990s, Tell es-Safi’s sole formal excavation occurred way back at the very end of the 19th century – and lasted just a fortnight. In the decades that followed, the sole archaeological excursions in the area were those undertaken illegally by former Israeli military chief Moshe Dayan.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Moreover, it didn’t take long for Maeir and his team to begin making significant discoveries in the area. For instance, one of the earliest examples was a trench that stretches over a mile and a half and around almost the entire perimeter. The archaeologists spotted it after examining aerial shots of the area.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

The enormous ditch spans some 26 feet in width and has a depth of more than 16 feet. According to Maeir, it was once used by enemy troops to prevent the city’s occupants from leaving. Furthermore, the team has since confirmed that the trench was created during the second Iron Age – which makes it the planet’s oldest siege structure.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Then, in 1998 the team made another vital discovery: a level of houses sitting just beneath the current terrain. These buildings had all fallen during some cataclysmic event – and in the process, their original contents had been miraculously preserved. The excavation subsequently unearthed hundreds of relics, all of which helped to paint a picture of people’s existence at that time.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Among the extraordinarily well-preserved finds were a wide variety of ceramic objects. Some are thought to have been culinary implements. At the same time, the archaeologists discovered a number of ivory objects, as well as weapons made from metal. Together, these instruments help to create a vivid sense of the era.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Perhaps even more importantly, though, these discoveries provide crucial archaeological evidence to support the Bible’s historical narrative. You see, tests have shown that the relics – and indeed, the newfound layer – are from the 9th century B.C. As we’ve already heard, the biblical record of this period has previously been called into doubt by some scholars, owing to a profound lack of corroborating information. Now, Maeir and his team’s project has at least provided some archaeological proof of the Bible’s account.

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What’s more, these finds seemingly corroborate the Bible’s account that Gath was the most important of the five Philistine metropolises. According to Maeir, the Philistines left the Aegean area and traveled to the Levant sometime around 1200 B.C. They then gradually incorporated many aspects of the areas customs into their own, including the use of a Semitic tongue.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

In fact, the evidence that points to this adoption of the Semitic language also hints at the existence of David and Goliath. An inscription discovered in the mid-2000s mentions a pair of names, ALWT and WLT, that are loosely related to the original form of the giant’s moniker. Moreover, this artifact – the first known Philistine written record – was created sometime around 950 B.C., placing it close to the biblical account of David and Goliath.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

In the years since, Maeir and his team have continued to excavate this and other levels. And in doing so, they’ve managed to piece together a more complete archaeological picture of Tell es-Safi between the 13th and 8th centuries B.C. Some of their most archaeologically impressive finds include an Early Bronze Age donkey grave, barricades from the same era, and relics of Israelite, Canaanite and Philistine societies.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

The excavation has also led to the discovery of an enormous lower city, which was a Philistine settlement during the Iron Age. According to Maeir, this city was attacked in the 9th century B.C. by Aramean forces led by King Hazael – tallying with the Bible’s account in Kings II. And archaeologists long assumed that this represented the apex of ancient Gath’s geographical expanse.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

However, Maeir told The Times of Israel in July 2019 that he wasn’t wholly convinced. “I kept having this niggling feeling,” he said. “It was bothering me: if the city destroyed by Hazael was so important, why didn’t it have fortifications? There were some, but nothing to write home about.” So, the team decided to continue digging – and what they ultimately unearthed may have biblical repercussions.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Yes, if Goliath really did exist, then the giant-sized man may indeed have hailed from an appropriately giant place. That’s because Maeir and his team have discovered yet another layer to the site – and its architecture suggests it was a settlement even bigger than the one destroyed by Aramean forces. What’s more, it’s from the 11th century B.C., matching the timeframe of the biblical story of David and Goliath.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Not only is this architecture larger than anything previously found at Tell es-Safi, but it’s also significantly bigger than any site in the entire region from the time. And that means Gath may well have been a major urban center as far back as the 11th century – a period when it was previously thought that Ekron was the dominant city. Indeed, Maeir said the discovery could upend our understanding of the territory’s power structures.

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Based on the archaeological evidence, the ancient city spread over more than 120 acres. That’s more than twice the area of similar cities across the region – and may even have eclipsed Jerusalem. According to Maeir, the contrast would be comparable to the contrast between Indianapolis and New York City. “In geographical terms, Gath was a ‘primate city’ and on a larger and different scale than others,” he said.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Among the architecture revealed in the new layer were enormous fortifications, measuring some 13 feet across. That’s around twice the width of walls seen in later periods – and this stark difference is further reflected in the elements used. The stone blocks used to construct the older fortifications measured between 3 and 7 feet, compared to the much smaller stones used later.

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Maeir said his team’s discovery also tracks with the chronology of the Bible. “For those scholars that accept that David was a historical figure– and I’m among them – the late 11th/early 10th century B.C., the time of the earlier phase of the city of Gath, whose impressive remains were just found, is the time frame in which David existed,” he explained.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

“If in fact David did confront an opponent in single combat, most often identified as Goliath, this would, more or less, be the time of this early Iron Age phase of the city of Gath,” Maeir continued. However, the archaeologist emphasized that the new discovery doesn’t amount to definitive proof. “It is hard to say whether or not there is a historical kernel to the story, and if there is in fact a kernel, what this kernel was,” he added.

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Nevertheless, Maeir suggested that the city’s enormous architecture may well have inspired the Bible’s account of Gath’s giants – including Goliath. The archaeologist speculated that the holy text’s authors may have seen the stones, and surmised that only a giant could move them. According to Maeir, this explanation would correspond with other mythological narratives that have sprung up at similarly mysterious structures, such as Stonehenge.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

“Maybe there’s a family of large people we haven’t found, but it’s more likely to say that a mythical story developed over time based on the size of the architecture,” Maeir said. This hypothesis also tallies with a tale from ancient Greece. Some walls constructed in that period were so gargantuan that the philosopher Aristotle concluded they must have been the work of giant creatures known as cyclopes.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Meanwhile, a 2019 investigation undertaken by scholars from the Max Planck Institute and the Leon Levy Expedition Ashkelon found DNA evidence that the Philistines traveled to the region from Europe in the 12th century B.C. Two hundred years later, though, little trace of their European genes remained. Nonetheless, the study confirms that some portion of the Philistines genetic make-up did indeed originate in Europe.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Moreover, Europe’s impact on Gath may then have extended beyond the gene pool. At the time, building with enormous, monolithic stones was popular across Greece and Cyprus. Maeir suggested that Gath’s vast fortifications may well have been inspired by these techniques. “It is possible there is another tradition or traditions coming out here [in the large architecture], and it could very well be that they are western,” he said.

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Alas, chances are slim that the team will find the Philistines’ side of the biblical tale. While archaeologists once presumed they would eventually find an archive recording the civilization’s history, Maeir has since concluded that “the Philistines didn’t write a lot.” Moreover, the rare inscriptions that have been discovered are usually indecipherable.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

As a result, there’s no “smoking gun” – that is, an inscription confirming the city really was Gath. But discoveries from the previous layer had already implied that the area was the region’s focal point in the 9th and 10th centuries B.C. This new layer, then, simply lends more credence to that idea – and therefore supports the notion that Tell es-Safi really was the home of Goliath.

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Image: Facebook/Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

“It’s a surprise, but on the other hand – it explains something,” Maeir stated. “The pieces fit together now much better.” The team of archaeologists are now focusing their excavation work in the newfound lower city, before the project ultimately wraps up in 2021. “You excavate a site so for long that you think you understand it,” Maeir concluded. “But every turn of the trowel can bring a new and unexpected find.”

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