Keith Whitelam: Further Reflection on the ‘Palace of David’ Discovery

On Facebook, Keith writes

The most sensational of all recent claims is the press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority that King David’s palace and storerooms have been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. But within days of the announcement—eagerly picked up by those who see it as proof of the biblical picture of a Davidic kingdom and a decisive blow to the so-called minimalists—more sober assessments raise serious questions about the discoveries.

The claims fit the same pattern as we have seen with other announcements, such as the inscribed jar from Jerusalem, where all evidence is forced to fit into the dominant model of a Davidic kingdom. There is nothing to link the building to David, it is not clear that it is a ‘palace’, and the IAA release notes that “unfortunately, much of this palace was destroyed c. 1,400 years later when a fortified farmhouse was built there in the Byzantine period.” 

Even before this announcement, the site was being used to bolster the traditional claims about a centralized kingdom of David: “More recently, the excavation of a small, fortified town at Khirbet Qeiyafa, 20 miles from Jerusalem, has been interpreted as further proof that Jerusalem was the capital of a centralized state ruled by David. It is claimed that the town was inhabited by ‘Judaeans’. Yet there is nothing to link the site specifically to Jerusalem or other local towns. It is a prime example of the attempt to construct exclusive claims to the past, even when it is not clear what the make-up of the population was that inhabited the site or how it was connected to its local environment. Khirbet Qeiyafa looks like many small towns throughout the history of Palestine that have flourished for a short period of time and then disappeared from view.” (Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past, chapter 7).

Others have offered more sober reflections on the claims (thanks to Jim West for most of the links). In particular, Israel Finkelstein has raised the methodological problems involved in interpreting the site (http://www.academia.edu/1954502/Khirbet_Qeiyafa_An_Unsensational_Archaeological_and_Historical_Interpretation). Peter van der Veen points out that “we cannot possibly speak of proof as nowhere on any of the stones found in the “palace” (if this is what it was?) scribes engraved the sentence “made by King David”. If such inscriptions had been found, surely we would all know about it. It would be the 21st century sensation. But mute Syro-Palestine-Israelite archaeology hardly ever allows us to be that precise, even if I too would be very happy if indeed we could be more precise. Without such straightforward inscriptions found within the same level of occupation, which precisely tell us who was the builder king etc., we cannot possibly prove anything.” While David Willner has a much more scathing appraisal of the motivation behind such sensational claims (http://www.foundationstone.org/).

The political importance of the announcement should not be underestimated. Revealingly, the IAA states that “the exposure of the biblical city at Khirbet Qeiyafa and the importance of the finds discovered there have led the Israel Antiquities Authority to act together with the Nature and Parks Authority and the planning agencies to cancel the intended construction of a new neighborhood nearby and to promote declaring the area around the site a national park. This plan stems from the belief that the site will quickly become a place that will attract large numbers of visitors who will be greatly interested in it, and from it one will be able to learn about the culture of the country at the time of King David.” In true Orwellian style: ‘who controls the past
controls the future; who controls the present controls the past’.

“There is a long and continuing history of attempts to use archaeological discoveries—usually in the name of disinterested, academic scholarship—to bolster and shore up the Zionist foundation narrative. Invariably the interpretation of such discoveries ignores the rhythms of time.” (Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past, chapter 7).