Evidence for Saul, David, and Solomon
Archaeology supports the biblical record of Israel’s united monarchy
The historicity of the early Israelite kingdom is under fire. Several influential archaeologists reject the Bible’s portrayal of the monarchy led by Saul, David, and Solomon, claiming that the physical evidence contradicts the biblical record. According to some, even though these kings were historical rulers, the Bible exaggerates their power, wealth, influence, and achievements. Others go further and claim that David and Solomon were little more than small-time tribal chieftains who ruled locally but did not unify the nation of Israel and reign over all twelve tribes in the 10th century BC. Finkelstein and Silberman insist:
… many of the famous episodes in the biblical story of David and Solomon are fictions, historically questionable, or highly exaggerated. … [T]here was no united monarchy of Israel in the way that the Bible describes it.1
Such claims are often repeated to the public as if they have been proven beyond reasonable doubt. But they are actually based on highly controversial interpretations of the facts. In reality, skepticism about the early Israelite monarchy has been in continual retreat for a few decades, as more and more evidence has been unearthed to support the Bible’s detailed claims about Saul, David, and Solomon. What follows is a sampling of that evidence.
David and his dynasty mentioned by enemy kings
Before 1993, radical skeptics called ‘minimalists’ argued that little evidence of David’s kingdom had been found, and they had begun to challenge his very existence. However, that year, a fragmentary stele (inscribed stone monument) was discovered embedded in a later wall, at the ancient site of Tel Dan. Now called the Tel Dan Stele, it was written by Hazael, an Aramean king who fought against Joram, king of Israel, wounding him, as described in 2 Kings 8–9. On this stele, dated to around 840 BC (roughly 130 years after King David), Hazael boasts that he killed Joram as well as Ahaziah, king of Judah. However, according to the biblical text, it was Jehu who killed them both. Remarkably, the inscription states that Ahaziah belonged to “the house of David”. This refers to the kingdom of Judah and the dynasty that David founded. The phrase is akin to wording used in Assyrian inscriptions from this time period that mention Israelite kings from “the house of Omri”. This discovery not only confirms David’s existence, but also indicates he was much more than an insignificant local chief. He was a prominent king who gave rise to a dynasty of kings in Judah, in keeping with God’s covenantal promise to give David an enduring royal “house” (2 Samuel 7:4–17).
After the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, scholars recognized that two other ancient inscriptions may refer to David as well. Interestingly, these were similarly created on behalf of foreign kings discussed in Scripture. First, in the Mesha Stele, King Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3) refers to Omri, king of Israel, Yahweh, Israel’s God, and probably the “house of David”. However, a couple of the key letters in this pivotal phrase are damaged, leading some scholars to dispute the reading. When the spacing of the letters and the context are taken into consideration, however, it remains a strong probability that this stele bears a second reference to David.2
A third reference may be present on the wall of an Egyptian temple—the Bubastite Portal of Pharaoh Shoshenq I at Karnak Temple in Luxor. The Bible records that Pharaoh Shishak (traditionally identified as Shoshenq I, a Libyan pharaoh of the 22nd Dynasty) invaded Judah just a few years after Solomon’s death (1 Kings 14:25–27; 2 Chronicles 12:1–12). We know that Shoshenq campaigned in the northern kingdom of Israel as well, since his temple wall contains a long list of sites in both Israel and Judah that he claims to have conquered, and there is destruction evidence at many of these locations to corroborate Shoshenq’s list.3
Egyptologist and evangelical scholar, Kenneth Kitchen, has argued that one of the sites Shoshenq claims to have defeated in the Negev (desert area of southern Judah) should be translated as “heights of David”.4 If this is correct, the site (whose exact location is unknown) could have been named after King David. The Bible documents that he spent time in the vicinity of the northern Negev when he was hiding from Saul (1 Samuel 27; 30). Or, the site called “heights of David” could refer to one of more than 50 small forts in the central Negev highlands that were built in the 10th century BC. The timing suggests some or all of these could have been built by David, and they were subsequently destroyed by Shoshenq.5,6 More on these Negev forts shortly.
The ‘low chronology’ challenge
These direct references to David provided strong evidence of his existence in the 10th century BC and lent credibility to the biblical claims about his legacy. But in the 1990s, a new group of scholars, led by Israel Finkelstein, proposed a radical revision to the established chronological system, which would undermine many other apparent evidences for David’s kingdom. Finkelstein’s so-called ‘low chronology’ insists that strata formerly attributed to the 10th century (David and Solomon’s time) should actually be dated to the 9th century BC. This revision is based on some debatable pottery correlations and carbon-14 dates. If correct, it would mean that the archaeological evidence of powerful, well-connected cities (to be discussed below) were built by later kings of the 9th century like Omri and his son Ahab, rather than by David and Solomon. In the low chronology, small villages of Iron Age I formerly thought to belong to the era of the judges would also need to be moved forward, and dated instead to the time of David and Solomon. This would mean that these kings were not really as powerful as the Bible portrays.
However, while Finkelstein and other low chronology advocates continue to make their case in academic journals and exert much influence upon popular discussions of the evidence for David and Solomon, their arguments have been subjected to severe criticism from many other leading archaeologists.7 These responses have shown that, while the low chronology perspective threatens to undo much of the evidence for the united monarchy, the low chronology is itself seriously threatened by the strong evidence against it. The most reasonable interpretation of the archaeological data still supports a wealthy and powerful 10th century Israelite kingdom.8
Excavations at many sites throughout the land of Israel indicate that significant cultural changes were taking place around 1000 BC, roughly the time at which the Bible says the nation transitioned from rule by judges to kings. In the time of the judges, the period archaeologists refer to as Iron Age I, small village settlements were abundant. But in the Iron Age IIA, which correlates with the reigns of David and Solomon, many new cities were constructed over old villages as well as in new locations. Fresh city walls and other fortifications were built. The cities also show evidence of central planning, and the construction often indicates that labor or financing from outside the local area was required—pointing to the rise of governmental leadership that could supply the oversight and resources necessary. As archaeologist William Dever puts it:
The shift in settlement type and pattern alone would justify defining the tenth century, or the Iron IIA period, as the era of statehood by widely adopted criteria.9
Thus, there was a monarchy, and the evidence indicates it was operating throughout both Israel and Judah. The accompanying map shows how widespread these Israelite sites were that were built or refurbished in the 10th century.
Khirbet Qeiyafa—an impressive Israelite border fortress
A particularly impressive example of city planning and monumental construction, even though it was on the outskirts of Judah, is a site called Khirbet Qeiyafa. Excavations of Qeiyafa and dating of the ruins show that it was built and occupied only in the time of Saul and David, then mysteriously destroyed. Judging by the architecture, the pottery, the lack of pig bones, and other considerations, it was clearly an Israelite city.10 But the nature of the construction suggests locals were not responsible, as it would be beyond their capability. Qeiyafa must have been built at the behest of a centralized kingdom. The specific evidence includes a ‘casemate’ wall around the circumference composed of two parallel walls and divided into chambers, which were accessible from the inside. The city also had two gates, an unusual feature which, when combined with its location, suggests Qeiyafa should almost certainly be identified as the biblical site Shaaraim (שַׁעֲרַיִם), which in Hebrew means ‘double gates’. The entrances to the casemate chambers were consistently placed on the furthest corners from the gates, indicating that the walls and the gates were planned in advance and constructed together. There was also a large palace at the summit that exhibited impressive construction. Its thick walls indicate that it was a multi-storey public structure.
Qeiyafa/Shaaraim overlooks the Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath. Indeed, Shaaraim is mentioned in the account of the battle in 1 Samuel 17:52, and it is said to be located between Socoh and Azekah, in the vicinity where the battle took place (1 Samuel 17:1–3). In fact, some have suggested that Shaaraim was the very mountain on which Saul and his army were stationed. The term ‘encampment’ used in 1 Samuel 17:20 could refer to a circular rampart, which accurately describes the oval fortress atop the mound of Qeiyafa. Shaaraim could have been built by King Saul, since the site already existed before David became king (1 Chronicles 4:31), and this is consistent with the archaeological dating of Qeiyafa.
In any case, this fortress, near Gath, appears to have been designed to protect the border of Judah against the Philistines. Constructing colossal stone walls, gates, and public buildings at a site in the hinterland of Judah points to the existence of a ruling administration that could finance the project and supply outside labor. If such impressive construction took place on the fringes of the country, one would expect that similar construction efforts likely took place in the capital. Indeed, there is evidence for a fortress in Saul’s capital city of Gibeah, which dates to this same time period.11
Noteworthy pottery from Khirbet Qeiyafa
Some smaller finds at Khirbet Qeiyafa also support the accuracy of the biblical claims about the early monarchy. First, a great deal of the excavated pottery was mass-produced and marked with finger impressions on the jar handles. This is not only a hallmark of Israelite pottery, but the excavators believe it also points to a system of taxation in which locals were required to fill these jars with agricultural products and return them to the government.12
Second, one particular storage jar found in 2012 contained an inscription on its collar naming an obscure individual: “Eshbaal, son of Beda”. Though there is no biblical record of this individual, one of Saul’s sons was also named Eshbaal (1 Chronicles 8:33; 9:39). Interestingly, because the biblical authors did not want to glorify Baal (the Canaanite storm god), his name was altered in most instances to ‘Ish-bosheth’—changing the meaning from ‘Man of Baal’ to ‘Man of Shame’.13
Inscriptions recovered by archaeologists have shown that theophoric names ending with ‘-baal’ were common in the 10th century, but mostly fell out of use in subsequent centuries. This same pattern is observed in biblical names. Hence, the Bible is historically accurate in regard to which naming conventions belong to which time periods.
Tracking occurrences of the name Eshbaal specifically, Garfinkel et al. note:
… the name Eshbaal is not found in any of the hundreds of inscriptions or on over a thousand seals and seal impressions known from ancient Israel dating between the 9th and 6th century BCE and recording over 2,000 names. The correlation between the chronological distribution of personal names in the biblical tradition and in ancient inscriptions indicates that the biblical text preserves authentic traditions relating to the period of King David.14
Third, an ostracon (inscribed pottery sherd) was found at Qeiyafa, which exhibits writing in a distinctly ancient Hebrew script. Although not yet fully deciphered, some words and phrases are recognizable, including “king”, “judge”, “slave”, and “thou shalt not”. The text seems to pertain to issues of justice and morality reminiscent of the Mosaic Law. The king it mentions could possibly even be an early Israelite king. The subject matter certainly suits this biblical time period, during which the nation of Israel had recently ceased to be ruled by judges and had become a kingdom.
There is another point of relevance here. For these examples of writing to have been found at such a rural site is indicative of literacy being more widespread in the 10th century than had previously been supposed. This too lends support to the plausibility of an Israelite kingdom having already been established by this time.
The prominence of Gath
It is commonly assumed by secular scholars that the accounts of Saul and David in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel were written centuries after the fact, perhaps in the 8th century BC or even later. It is obvious, however, that the author(s) of these books did not place David’s story in an 8th century BC setting. Archaeology has demonstrated that the biblical authors must have had access to accurate knowledge from the 10th century, regarding which cities were occupied and which were most prominent. The close agreement between Scripture and the 10th century reality even casts doubt on the secular theory that the text was composed centuries after these events occurred. The Philistine city of Gath is one of the clearest examples.
Archaeologists have recently excavated material in Gath from Saul and David’s time, which revealed a more impressive and powerful city than they expected.15 They found a massive city gate—perhaps the one where David pretended to be insane—and other large buildings and fortifications.
Gath was one of the cities of the Philistine Pentapolis, the others being Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron. In the biblical record, Gath was prominent in the time of Saul and David, and it features repeatedly in the biblical narrative.16 Nadav Na’aman explains:
In the narratives of David’s rise to power, … Gath is described as the leading power among the five Philistine kingdoms and its king as primus inter pares [first among equals] in relation to the other Philistine rulers.17
But Gath’s status changed around 830 BC when the site’s archaeological record shows it was attacked and the whole city was destroyed. Finkelstein and Silberman note how the city never returned to its former glory.
Though it had previously been the most important city in the Shephelah [Judean foothills], and possibly the largest in the entire country, Gath dramatically declined in size and importance in the following centuries.18
Indeed, later Assyrian records discuss only four major Philistine cities instead of five. Gath is excluded and treated merely as a small satellite city of Ashdod.19
The Bible similarly records that Gath was attacked—by the formerly mentioned king of Aram, Hazael (2 Kings 12:17)—and that the city was diminished after its capture. All five cities of the Pentapolis are listed together in early mentions of Gath (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), but in the parts of the Bible written after Gath’s destruction, only the other four Philistine cities are mentioned (Jeremiah 25:20; Zephaniah 2:4), just like in the Assyrian inscriptions. This is merely one of many ways the writers of David’s narrative demonstrated that they had reliable knowledge of circumstances in his time.
David’s palace in Jerusalem
David’s first capital was Hebron, and even the limited archaeological excavation that has taken place there and at other nearby sites indicates that the city was well fortified, populated, and growing during the transition to Iron Age II.20 According to the Bible, David then conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and built a new palace on the southern ridge of Jerusalem’s eastern hill, thereafter called the City of David. Yet, critics claim there is no definitive trace of the grandeur of David’s kingdom in Jerusalem.21
Excavations in Jerusalem do face some difficult challenges in attempting to recover evidence from the 10th century. For one thing, many areas are off limits to digging since modern people and structures are occupying these spaces. This holds true for the entire Temple Mount, where the Bible indicates Solomon built the First Temple. Furthermore, bedrock is close to the surface in the City of David, so when ancient occupants rebuilt there, they often removed previous structures and founded their buildings directly on bedrock. This practice destroyed much evidence of earlier occupations. Finally, the lack of conquests of Jerusalem for hundreds of years contributes to the ambiguity of the evidence. Jerusalem experienced centuries of continuous rule by David’s descendants without any major destructions from the 10th century until 586 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city. Destruction layers can help to preserve and clarify things for archaeologists, but with centuries of relative peace, it can be harder to distinguish between strata and date them accurately. For these reasons, the evidence in Jerusalem for the respective reigns of David and Solomon might be less obvious than if circumstances had been different.
Despite these caveats, however, there is a strong possibility that David’s palace in Jerusalem has been found. In the 1960s, archaeologists excavated an imposing stone structure on the eastern slope of the City of David. This ‘stepped stone structure’, or SSS, is 18 m (60 ft) high, and was likely constructed as a rampart which could support a large building at the summit, since it filled in a large gap in the bedrock. The pottery assemblage in the fills beneath this structure includes material that dates as late as Iron I, which is the time leading up to David’s conquest of Jerusalem, around 1000 BC. So the SSS was likely built either by the Jebusites shortly before David or by David himself. But what did the SSS support at the summit?
In 2005, Eilat Mazar began to excavate the area just above the SSS. Her team found a monumental building with an east-west wall 30 m long and 3 m wide. Another north-south wall section was 6 m wide! Mazar dubbed this the Large Stone Structure, or LSS. Like the SSS, the material under the LSS dated to the Iron I period, and this enormous building seems to interlock with the SSS, so they were likely built around the same time, roughly 1000 BC—a good match for David’s time. To find such a large building with massive walls from the time of David and in the area where David must have built his palace is highly significant. Although not conclusive, the evidence currently favours identifying this building as the palace of King David.
David is the only king of Judah who the Bible says built a palace in this vicinity. Solomon decided that he and his wives would not remain in David’s palace because he considered it sacred given that the Ark of the Covenant had spent time there (2 Chronicles 8:11). So, when Solomon built the Temple further north, he also built a new palace complex for himself and his wives near the Temple.
If the LSS is David’s palace, it matches the biblical description of its location and every other detail. Its lofty height above the steeply sloping Kidron Valley explains how David was able to look down and see Bathsheba. It also demonstrates that David was no mere backwoods tribal leader. The power and wealth the Bible ascribes to David seems appropriate if he was responsible for such a massive building project. The SSS and the LSS were some of the largest structures in existence throughout Iron Age Judah.
Additional finds help to bolster the case that the LSS is David’s palace. First, a palmette-shaped column capital was found at the base of the SSS. It is thought to have fallen from the LSS above. The capital closely resembles other palmette capitals used in royal architecture throughout Israel in the Iron Age. This style is known to have originated on the Phoenician coast, which is consistent with the Bible’s claim that Hiram of Tyre assisted with the design of David’s palace (2 Samuel 5:11). Second, expensive items, such as ivory utensils and remains of exotic foods, have been found inside the LSS, both of which imply royal occupants. Third, dozens of bullae (clay seal impressions) were found in and around the LSS that contained the names of royal officials and princes. Some of these people are known from the Bible, such as Gemariah (Jeremiah 36:12), Jehucal and Gedaliah (Jeremiah 31:8), and Nathan-Melech (2 Kings 23:11). These finds are not surprising given that the Bible indicates David’s palace continued to function as a royal building throughout the history of the kingdom of Judah.
Solomon’s construction projects
The Bible portrays Solomon as engaged in many more building projects than his father, David. According to 1 Kings 9:15, Solomon built “the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor and Megiddo and Gezer …”. Evidence of impressive building activity in the 10th century at all four of these sites lends credence to this verse. Moreover, if the construction of walls, gates, and public buildings in these cities should be attributed to Solomon, it would indicate that he ruled over all of Israel. This is because these cities span the nation’s tribal allotments, from the north to the south. Evidence to this effect has indeed been found.
In Jerusalem, a topographic ‘saddle’ between the City of David and the Temple Mount is called the Ophel (Nehemiah 3:26–27). In the 1800s, Charles Warren was exploring the Ophel when he discovered an enormous projecting tower and a smaller second tower attached to it. Though it remains mostly buried underground, from digging vertical shafts and lateral tunnels, Warren was able to determine that the larger tower is 24 m wide and 20 m tall. When Eilat Mazar excavated in the same area in 1986 and 2009, she discovered a 70 m long stretch of ancient Jerusalem city wall connected to these towers. She also excavated what she realized was a chambered gatehouse, sitting on top of the massive projecting tower.22 The towers and the gatehouse were all part of a gate complex from the First Temple period. The scale indicates it was built by a powerful king in Jerusalem.
When exactly was this city gate constructed? Based on evaluating pottery in the fill under the floor, Mazar maintains that it was most likely constructed in the 10th century BC and by Solomon. Her supposition has further support because of the similarity of this gate’s dimensions to those of other gates found at the three cities mentioned above—Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer.
Archaeologists have found six-chambered gates constructed with similar designs and dimensions in each of these three royal cities. The similarities are such that they could not be coincidental, but indicate they were built based on a common blueprint, likely around the same time and by the same administration. The Jerusalem gate also matches the others very closely, making allowances for adaptations to local conditions. It has four chambers that are clearly preserved, but there is some evidence it was actually a six-chambered gate as well.23
Yigael Yadin excavated the six-chambered gates of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer between 1957 and 1970. Based on the dating, the similarities, and 1 Kings 9:15, Yadin attributed them all to Solomon. Others have challenged this dating, especially at Megiddo, where the stratigraphy in the gate area is complex and the excavators subscribe to the low chronology. However, pottery evidence and carbon-14 dating very securely assign the gates at Hazor and Gezer to the 10th century. The combined evidence indicates that at least these two are indeed Solomonic gates, and it is unlikely the Megiddo gate is an outlier.
Destruction layers found at Gezer and Megiddo are consistent with these gates being Solomonic as well, because they help to establish the dating by bracketing the time in which the gates were built. Gezer, for example, shows multiple destructions—once shortly before the Solomonic gate was built, and once again not long after. This evidence matches perfectly with the biblical testimony, since Scripture tells of two pharaohs who attacked Gezer at these times. The first attack is described in 1 Kings 9:16–17: “Pharaoh king of Egypt had gone up and captured Gezer and burned it with fire, and had killed the Canaanites who lived in the city, and had given it as dowry to his daughter, Solomon’s wife; so Solomon rebuilt Gezer”. The second was due to Shoshenq I (the biblical Shishak, previously mentioned), who invaded Israel and Judah just a few years after Solomon’s death and destroyed dozens of cities and towns (1 Kings 14:25).
Megiddo likewise shows destruction evidence soon after its six-chambered gate was built. Shoshenq left multiple monuments behind to identify him as the attacker. He left a victory stele with his cartouche at Megiddo and he listed Megiddo as a conquered city on his Bubastite Portal. There is synchrony here between the Bible and the sequence of events which occurred at Megiddo. The pattern bears witness to Solomon as the builder of its six-chambered gate.
Gates and walls were not all that Solomon built at these cities. Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer acted as royal administrative centers, as evidenced by palaces and other public buildings, which have been found in the same strata as the gates. All this points to the accuracy of Scripture when it speaks of Solomon as a great builder.
The Temple in Jerusalem
Though archaeologists are not able to excavate the area where Solomon’s Temple once stood on the Temple Mount, they can compare the detailed description of the Temple from Scripture to other temples of the time, to check for consistency with known architectural methods and designs. Remarkably, many close parallels to Solomon’s Temple have been found at other temples and even in small household shrines.
The Bible makes it clear that Solomon’s Temple was a tripartite long-room building with two pillars in the open front porch area, and a ‘holy of holies’ room at the far end. This was a very common temple design in Syria in the second millennium BC. The layout migrated down into Israel over the next millennium, so there was precedent for Solomon to have built such a Temple in 10th century Jerusalem.
The closest known parallel to Solomon’s Temple is a Neo-Hittite temple at ‘Ain Dara in Syria. It was built around 1300 BC and endured well past Solomon’s time. Its discovery actually helped to elucidate obscure details in Scripture’s description of the Temple, like the “windows with recessed frames” (1 Kings 6:4) and the triple-storey corridor structure that ran around three sides of the building (1 Kings 6:5–10). A temple built around 900 BC at Tel Motza, very near Jerusalem, also had such a corridor, and it closely matches Solomon’s Temple in other respects as well.
A small limestone shrine found at Qeiyafa in 2012 sheds further light on details of the Temple’s construction. Because the occupation at Qeiyafa narrowly dates to the time of Saul and David, this miniature shrine would have been created just prior to Solomon’s Temple. Above the doorway, the Qeiyafa shrine displays protruding rectangles in sets of three, which are thought to represent the ends of wooden beams designed to hold up the roof. In passages such as 1 Kings 6:5, 15; 7:3 and Ezekiel 41:6, the Bible may be describing roof planks such as these, used in sets of three.
Also, though translators have struggled to understand the biblical description of the First Temple’s doorways, the Qeiyafa shrine depicts a multi-recessed doorway, a feature seen in many other temples of the ancient Near East. Thus, the shrine provides visual assistance to gain a better understanding of texts such as 1 Kings 6:31, which states regarding the doorway into the holy of holies that “the lintel and the doorposts were five-sided”. Interestingly, the number of recessed frames varied in the doorways built by Solomon. The entrance to Solomon’s palace had three (1 Kings 7:5), but the entrance to the Temple had four (1 Kings 6:33). The increasing number of recesses toward the inner sanctum (five) may have been intended to mark the increasing holiness of the spaces.
Much more could be said about the minutiae of the Temple’s design, including its wood and gold paneling, decorative elements, furnishings and so on. But the point of comparing these fine details is that the biblical description of the Temple’s specifications is in line with known architectural features dating to the 10th century and earlier. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Solomon did build the Temple exactly as the Bible describes it.
Solomon’s wealth and long-distance trade
The Bible describes Solomon’s immense wealth—but is this historically plausible? Could Solomon have traded with distant lands like Ophir and Sheba? The answer in both cases is a resounding yes!
Kenneth Kitchen has compared numerous biblical claims about Solomon’s finances to other ancient reports of economic transactions and various markers of wealth. In each case, the biblical figures are comparable, not apparently exaggerated. For example, 1 Kings 10:14–15 mentions that Solomon accrued 666 talents of gold annually, excluding some minor sources of income. Kitchen crunched the numbers to estimate Solomon’s net worth over his entire reign and concluded:
… his total hoard might have been … about 500 tons all told. This sum is, frankly, modest when compared with the 1,180 tons of gold that Alexander the Great took from Susa, and the breathtaking 7,000 tons of gold that he abstracted from the vanquished Persian Empire overall. Solomon was simply not in the same league! And is hardly just fantasy in such a context.24
The accounts of Solomon’s trade networks are just as reliable. According to 1 Kings 9:26–28, the servants of Solomon and Hiram, king of Tyre, together sailed to Ophir to retrieve gold. An 8th century BC ostracon was found in Israel that mentions “Gold of Ophir for Beth-Horon”, so the land of Ophir was no myth. Ophir may plausibly be identified with Mand adh Dhahab in the Arabian Peninsula, a site where gold mining has occurred for centuries and which lies on a trade route to Israel that has been in use for 4,000 years.
The famous “Queen of Sheba” (1 Kings 10:1–10) was from Saba/Sabaea, a kingdom even further south, in ancient Yemen. French epigrapher André Lemaire notes:
… archaeologists have persuasively argued that international trade between the southern Levant and South Arabia began at the end of the second millennium B.C.E.25
Two important inscriptions imply trade between Israel and Sheba, specifically. An inscription written in Sabaean was found which dates to around 600 BC. Written by a messenger of the king of Sheba, it specifically mentions a trade expedition to “the towns of Judah”.26
Significantly, this trade relationship goes back even earlier, to Solomon’s time. A recent decipherment of an ostracon found in Jerusalem provides fascinating evidence of this. Known as the Ophel pithos inscription, this potsherd was found in 2012 in the Ophel area. Both the sherd and the inscription (etched into the surface before firing) are dated to the 10th century BC. For some time, scholars had difficulty reading the text and debated what it actually said. However, in 2023, epigrapher Daniel Vainstub published a paper, claiming to solve the mystery.27 He discovered that certain unique letterforms indicate the inscription was written in the Ancient South Arabian script. It refers to a type of incense called labdanum, a sticky brown resin obtained from shrubs native to the southern Arabian Peninsula. Labdanum is probably the ‘onycha’ referred to in Scripture as one of the four ingredients for a holy incense used in the tabernacle (Exodus 30:34–38).28 The same incense would almost certainly have been used in Solomon’s Temple, so it is appropriate that this jar fragment was found just south of the Temple Mount. The paleography of the letters confirms the 10th century date, so there clearly was a spice trade between Sheba and Jerusalem in the time of Solomon, just as the Bible says.
As far as can be checked at present, the biblical narratives are also accurate in describing the neighboring nations of Israel during the time of the united monarchy. For instance, David and Solomon had friendly relations with two kingdoms to their north, Geshur and Phoenicia. Archaeology confirms the existence of several Geshurite cities in the 10th century BC, including the capital. David married a princess of Geshur, and this union produced Absalom, who later fled to Geshur when opposing his father.
Furthermore, trade existed between Israel and Phoenician cities such as Tyre and Sidon. Phoenician timber, pottery, and art had permeated Israel, as demonstrated by the archaeological evidence. The Bible speaks of David and then Solomon working with Hiram, king of Tyre, to build their palaces and the Temple. Even evidence of Hiram himself may have been found, since a 10th century ornate sarcophagus belonging to a king ‘Ahiram’ was found in Sidon. However, it is not clear whether the biblical Hiram ruled over Sidon as well as Tyre, and this may have been a common name for Phoenician rulers of the time.
East of the Jordan, the Bible says David subjugated the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, nations it portrays as well-established kingdoms by this time. Secular scholars have expressed doubts that these tribal groups were organized into states with kings at this point. Nevertheless, recent evidence has pushed back against their skepticism, at least as it pertains to Edom.
Within Esau’s genealogy (the father of the Edomites), Genesis 36:31 states that there were “kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites”. Significantly, only since 2012 has evidence of an early Edomite kingdom come to light. It has come from renewed archaeological excavations in Edomite territory, at a network of ancient copper mining sites scattered through the Timna Valley and Wadi Faynan.29 Archaeologists have shown that Egypt controlled these sites in the Late Bronze Age, but abandoned them around 1300 BC. The mining work nevertheless continued, but by local Edomites. They employed new smelting techniques, progressing over several centuries in their efficiency and ability to extract more copper. The two mining sites were clearly sharing technological developments with each other since they advanced in parallel. The scope of the industry at such a remote location and dissemination of sophisticated techniques suggests Edom had organized into statehood by the 11th century, if not earlier.30
Furthermore, around 1000 BC, the mines showed another change in culture that may have resulted from Israelite influence. New houses appeared, exhibiting an architectural layout used throughout Iron Age Israel. In addition, discoveries were made of exotic foods, native to Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, and expensive textiles. The mining operations reached their height during this period, due to improvements made to the smelting process. As a result, new fortifications (the previously mentioned Negev forts) were built to protect these economically important sites.
These changes align well with 2 Samuel 8:13–14 which describes how David “put garrisons … throughout all Edom” and made the Edomites his servants. David and Solomon would have gained control of the Edomite copper industry, which contributed to the wealth of their economy. However, just after Solomon’s death, Shoshenq I of Egypt captured these sites, after which a number of them were abandoned. The remaining facilities, back under Shoshenq’s control, were further expanded and improved using Egyptian technology. In sum, the whole sequence of changes at these Edomite mines through the time of the united monarchy precisely matches the biblical record.
Currently, only limited archeological evidence has been found for the 10th century kingdoms of Ammon and Moab. But future excavations could easily challenge existing secular assumptions about these kingdoms, just as they recently have regarding Edom.
Did Israel’s empire extend to the Euphrates?
Scripture indicates that David and Solomon had other powerful neighbors to their north—the Aramean kingdoms of Zobah (including Beth-Rehob), Damascus, Maacah, and Tob, plus the Neo-Hittite kingdom of Hamath.31 The Bible claims that David defeated and subjugated Aramean kings from Zobah and Damascus, but had peace with Hamath (2 Samuel 8:3–12). However, Solomon later fought against and defeated Hamath (2 Chronicles 8:3–4) and is explicitly said to have controlled these territories that extended up to the Euphrates River (1 Kings 4:21–25; 8:65). Some scholars are dismissive of the idea that David and Solomon could have annexed these Syrian states, thereby controlling vassal lands as far as the Euphrates. Nevertheless, there is no compelling reason to insist this did not occur.
So far, archaeology has provided only sparse information about these kingdoms of Aram in the 10th century BC.32,33 This lack of data neither confirms nor denies the biblical record. However, the Bible writers did at least accurately portray the Aramean kingdoms of this time as independent city-states. This was no longer true after 732 BC, when the Assyrian empire conquered Aram-Damascus and divided the region into three provinces.34 The major empires of Egypt and Assyria were relatively weak in the 10th century BC, and the Hittite empire that once controlled much of Syria had collapsed around 1180 BC.35 Their lack of control over this territory allowed several Neo-Hittite and Aramean mini-empires to spring up. This could also have made room for the Israelite monarchy to arise and to exert itself in the region. To say that David and Solomon could not have conquered these areas is presumptuous and premature.
In addition, there is potential evidence for two of these specific kings who interacted with David, Hadadezer of Zobah and his rival, Toi of Hamath. An inscription of Assyrian king Shalmaneser III mentions that, during the earlier reign of Assur-rabi II (a contemporary of David), an unnamed “king of Aram” had conquered two cities near the Euphrates. This is possibly a reference to the biblical Hadadezer, who is also said to have once controlled territory on the Euphrates (2 Samuel 8:3).36 On the other hand, some argue that the Aram Shalmaneser refers to is more likely located in upper Mesopotamia, not southern Syria.37 The evidence does not appear to be decisive. Second, some have suggested that Toi of Hamath might be equivalent to King Taita who ruled the Late Hittite kingdom of Palastin around 1000 BC.38 An image of Taita and an accompanying inscription of his survives on a temple dedicated to the Luwian storm god at Aleppo. However, the identification of Taita with Toi has also been challenged, and remains unproven.39
Overall, while archaeology has not positively demonstrated that David and Solomon temporarily subjugated northern kingdoms that reached as far as the Euphrates, the presently known facts do not contradict the biblical record.
As already mentioned, Shoshenq I (biblical Shishak) attacked many cities in Israel and Judah around 925 BC, which was shortly after Solomon’s death. Though his campaign took place just after the united monarchy collapsed, it still provides evidence that a powerful kingdom had been established prior to 925 BC. Amihai Mazar explains:
Unlike any of the earlier Egyptian New Kingdom military campaigns in Canaan, Sheshonq’s list mentions sites north of Jerusalem, like Beth Horon and Gibeon. The only plausible explanation for this must be the existence of a political power in the central hill country that was significant enough in the eyes of the Egyptians to justify such an exceptional route for the campaign. The only sensible candidate for such a power is the Solomonic kingdom.40
Furthermore, the details recorded in the Bible about Shoshenq are consistent with what is known from Egyptian and other extra-biblical records. For example, Shoshenq I was not a native Egyptian pharaoh who inherited the throne from his predecessor; he was a Libyan conqueror of Egypt and founder of a new dynasty. This helps to explain why Solomon had been on good terms with an earlier pharaoh and had even married his daughter (1 Kings 9:16), yet Shoshenq was an enemy who sheltered Solomon’s adversary, Jeroboam, (1 Kings 11:40) and plundered the Temple after Solomon’s passing (1 Kings 14:25–26).
In addition to all the preceding, other evidence for Saul, David, and Solomon could be offered, like the psalms and proverbs they wrote, which have stylistic equivalents in the extra-biblical literature of the period. Although not every specific challenge to the historicity of these biblical kings has been addressed here, this overview highlights many good reasons to take the biblical record seriously. The evidence for Saul, David, and Solomon is plentiful, and if archaeological discoveries continue on their current trajectories, more supporting evidence will surface in the future. Bible-believers need not fret over popular claims that the united monarchy is largely legendary or exaggerated. God’s Word has a habit of being proven a reliable guide to the past.
References and notes
- Finkelstein, I., and Silberman, N.A., David and Solomon, Free Press, New York, NY, 2006, p. 21. Return to text.
- New high-resolution photography of this monument has renewed scholarly debate on the subject. See Lemaire, A. and Delorme, J., Mesha’s stele and the house of David, Biblical Archaeology Review 48(4): 34–41, 2022. See also Richelle, M. and Burlingame, A., Set in stone? Another look at the Mesha Stele, Biblical Archaeology Review 49(1):54–57, 2023. Return to text.
- For more information, see Cox, G., Strengthening the Shishak/Shoshenq synchrony, J. Creation 36(2):40–49, 2022; creation.com/strengthening-the-shishak-shoshenq-synchrony. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 93, 2006. Return to text.
- Dever, W., Beyond the Texts, SBL Press, Atlanta, GA, pp. 289–291, 324, 2017. Return to text.
- Mazar, A., Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Doubleday, New York, NY, pp. 390–396, 1990. Return to text.
- For example, Dever, W.G., Solomon, Scripture, and science: the rise of the Judahite state in the 10th century BCE, Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology 1:102–125. Also, Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006. Return to text.
- One need not adopt even more radical revisions to the chronology of this era either, such as proposals by David Down and David Rohl that put the United Monarchy in different parts of the Late Bronze Age. These revisionists destroy the excellent harmony between the biblical description of the 11th and 10th centuries BC and the Iron Age archaeological finds. Return to text.
- Dever, W., Beyond the Texts, SBL Press, Atlanta, GA, p. 363, 2017. Return to text.
- Garfinkel, Y., et al., In the Footsteps of King David, Thames & Hudson, London, UK, pp. 167–170, 2018. Return to text.
- Mazar, A., Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1990, pp. 371–374. Return to text.
- Garfinkel, Y., et al., In the Footsteps of King David, Thames & Hudson, London, UK, pp. 106, 178, 2018. Return to text.
- See 2 Samuel 2:8–15; 3:7–15; 4:5–12. Return to text.
- Garfinkel, Y., et al., In the Footsteps of King David, Thames & Hudson, London, UK, p. 126, 2018. Return to text.
- Borschel-Dan, A., Colossal ancient structures found at Gath may explain origin of story of Goliath, timesofisrael.com, 26 July 2019. Return to text.
- The Philistine champion, Goliath, was from Gath (1 Samuel 17:4). David sought refuge in Gath more than once when fleeing from King Saul (1 Samuel 21:10; 27:2–4). King Achish of Gath was part of a coalition of Philistine lords who set out to attack Saul (1 Samuel 29). He controlled much territory, and even bequeathed the town of Ziklag to David (1 Samuel 27:6). Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., In search of reality behind the account of David’s wars with Israel’s neighbours, Israel Exploration Journal 52(2):202, 2002. Return to text.
- Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N.A., David and Solomon, Free Press, p. 39, 2006. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., In search of reality behind the account of David’s wars with Israel’s neighbours, Israel Exploration Journal 52(2):202, 2002. Return to text.
- Chadwick, J.R., Discovering Hebron, Biblical Archaeology Review, 31(5):24–33, 70, 2005. Return to text.
- Finkelstein, I., The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel, SBL Press, Atlanta, GA, p. 43, 2013. Return to text.
- Mazar, E., Discovering the Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem, Shoham Academic, p. 85, 2011. Return to text.
- Eames, C., A study into King Solomon’s FOUR monumental gates, Let the Stones Speak 1(6):10–19, November–December 2022. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 134, 2006. Return to text.
- Lemaire, A., Solomon & Sheba, Inc., Biblical Archaeology Review 36(1):55–56, 2010. Return to text.
- Lemaire, A., Solomon & Sheba, Inc., Biblical Archaeology Review 36(1):55–56, 2010. Return to text.
- Vainstub, D., Incense from Sheba for the Jerusalem Temple, Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology 4:42–68, 2023. Return to text.
- Carter, R., Egyptian mummies and Hebrew perfume, creation.com/egyptian-mummies-hebrew-perfume, 7 March 2023. Return to text.
- Ben-Yosef, E. and Greener, A., Edom’s copper mines in Timna: their significance in the 10th century, thetorah.com, 12 August 2018. Return to text.
- Nagtegaal, B., Archaeology confirms biblical account of Edomite statehood, armstronginstitute.org, 12 November 2019. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., In search of reality behind the account of David’s wars with Israel’s neighbours, Israel Exploration Journal 52(2):200, 2002. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., In search of reality behind the account of David’s wars with Israel’s neighbours, Israel Exploration Journal 52(2):203, 2002. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 90, 2006. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., In search of reality behind the account of David’s wars with Israel’s neighbours, Israel Exploration Journal 52(2):202, 2002. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 88–90, 98–99, 2006. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 94, 2006. Return to text.
- Pitard, W.T., Ancient Damascus, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, pp. 90–92, 1987. Return to text.
- Janeway, B., Old Testament king discovered?, biblearchaeology.org, 11 February 2011. See also University of Haifa press release, The history of King David, newswire.com, 15 December 2014. Some have also proposed there may have been more than one Taita ruling in succession. Return to text.
- Na’aman, N., Memories of monarchical Israel in the narratives of Davidʼs wars with Israelʼs neighbours, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 6:323–324, 2017. Also, Thomas, Z., Reckoning with David in scholarship and media, asor.org/blog, 5 June 2015. Return to text.
- Mazar, A., The search for David and Solomon: an archaeological perspective, in Schmidt, B.B., ed., The Quest for the Historical Israel, Leiden: Brill, p. 124, 2007. Return to text.