No, the Ark of God hasn’t been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. But at a press conference this morning, Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, presented some artefacts that they think are related to the Ark of God in some way. However, as you’ll see, at this stage I’m a little sceptical about their claim.
So what did they announce? Well, Garfinkel and Ganor presented three artefacts: two small boxes, one of stone and the other of clay, and a fragmentary stone artefact that looks like some kind of cultic stand. They were discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which is a single stratum fortification in the Valley of Elah (30 kms southwest of Jerusalem) dating to c.1000 BC. It’s a significant archaeological site because it gives us a window onto life in the region at the beginning of the Iron II period, and some would argue bolsters the claim for the historicity of a monarchy under David and Solomon. The two boxes presented are, according to Garfinkel and Ganor, miniature models of the Ark of God. They were among a cache of artefacts discovered within three large rooms that appear to have been shrine installations at the site. Amongst the other objects found were five standing stones (or massebot), two basalt altars (was one of these the third artefact displayed at the press conference?), and two clay vessels for libations.
The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples—separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).
The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.
Two portable shrines (or “shrine models”) were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.
The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).
The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the “triglyph,” is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.
The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.
The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon’s palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term “Slaot,” [צלעות] which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term “Sequfim” [שקפים], which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as “triple recessed doorway.”
Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel 41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.
My first impression is that we have here some excellent examples of the religious practices at the beginning of Iron II, and they seem to be similar to what we have found at other Iron II religious sites throughout Judah, Samaria, Jezreel, and Galilee. But at the same time, I think Garfinkel and Ganor may be reading too much into these artefacts. To say that these boxes are miniatures of the Ark of God is a claim that can only be made with reference to the descriptions of the Ark in biblical literature. This raises a methodological issue as to whether they are letting the biblical text colour their thinking of ordinary artefacts. But besides that, the boxes don’t seem to resemble the descriptions of the Ark very closely.
Now this is where things get a little hazy with the reports. Garfinkel and Ganor perhaps realise the discrepancy between these two boxes and the description of the Ark in the Bible. And so, it appears that they are arguing that the biblical description of the Ark is based on a ‘desert’ Ark, but that the Ark in use in Solomon’s day was different somehow. If this is indeed what Garfinkel and Ganor are arguing, then it seems to be an argument based on silence. There is nothing other than their tentative suggestion that these boxes are Ark miniatures to suggest that there was more than one Ark of God. I’m afraid this sounds like cart-before-the-horse kind of logic. I’m just not convinced.
Furthermore, Garfinkel and Ganor point to similarities between the carvings on these boxes and the description of Solomon’s temple. Yet, if one follows the biblical narratives, Solomon’s temple is at least a generation later than these artefacts, in which case, the boxes are not demonstrating specifically biblical artistic motifs, but rather generic religious motifs evident throughout the wider region. The connection with Solomon’s temple is, therefore, weakened. Thus, it seems a bit of a stretch to go basing clarifications of some of the architectural terms in the Hebrew narrative of 1 Kings based solely on these boxes.
What is missing from the reports so far is a detailed description of how these boxes were found. These details would perhaps give us more of an insight into their function and help us to evaluate more precisely Garfinkel and Ganor’s thesis. Until then, they’re just nicely crafted boxes found at a religious installation dating to c.1000 BC. I’d love them to have some kind of connection to Solomon’s temple, but I’m just not convinced of one at this stage. At this stage, it looks more like wishful thinking than probability. I’m certainly willing to be swayed, but we need more information.
What these artefacts do seem to confirm for us is that there is a significant religious installation in the Valley of Elah during a time when some scholars are questioning the existence of a Kingdom of Judah/Israel. These finds by no means prove that such a kingdom existed. However, they do suggest some kind of organised or official religion. Just how official (local, district, realm, or regional) is unknown. But it points to some kind of organisation in religion on the fringes of Judah in c.1000 BC. The single-stratum nature of Khirbet Qeiyafa is quite critical in discerning this. These wares are not merely hangovers from previous eras, but objects and installations produced specifically at the beginning of Iron II. In other words, some kind of ruling authority was operative in this area, and it seems more and more to have been different from the Philistines just a stone’s throw away.
The most likely explanations for this state of affairs are that either there was a localised authority in the Shephelah region (cf. David Ussishkin’s perspective), or someone up in the highlands of Judah had a hand in this. Are the spotlights converging on us finding the kingdom of David in archaeology? Well, if there was a House of David (which I argue is another name for Jerusalem) that could be a player on the international stage in c.800 BC as per the Tel Dan Inscription, and there is an organising authority in the Valley of Elah in c.1000 BC, it’s not inconceivable that the two entities could end up aligning, such that we eventually have some strong evidence for a Kingdom of Judah in the time of David and Solomon. However, we don’t have that yet. Even with these artefacts announced today, we have not confirmed that the two entities do align. We must await further archaeological evidence to fill in the two-century gap between Khirbet Qeiyafa (c.1000 BC) and the Tel Dan Inscription (c.800 BC) before we can make a call either way on that.
UPDATE: Some more comments on the finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa can be found HERE.