The Stronghold of Zion

Tel Dan Inscription


Image: The Tel Dan Inscription


People familiar with excavations in Jerusalem know of the controversy that has arisen with the involvement of the Elad Foundation in sponsoring archaeologists to excavate the city in order to recover “the remnants of a glorious Jewish past.”

Doron Spielman, the international director of development for the Elad Foundation, said that the purpose of the foundation is to reveal the ancient city beneath the modern city and create a thriving Jewish neighborhood in the city that once was the capital of ancient Israel.

The controversy has arisen once again when Eli Shukron, an Israeli archaeologist associated with the Elad Foundation, announced that he has discovered the ancient Jebusite citadel which was captured by David and his men after David was proclaimed king of Judah and Israel.

The account of the conquest of Jerusalem is found in 2 Samuel 5:6-9:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”– thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David.”

Excavating at the site believed to be the City of David, Shukron found a massive fortification and pottery shards that date to 3,800 years ago which he believes is evidence that the fortification was the citadel conquered by David and his men. Shukron said that the whole site can be perfectly compared to what the Bible says.

In an article describing the findings, Shukron said that the massive fortification confirms the biblical story:

Shukron’s dig, which began in 1995, uncovered a massive fortification of five-ton stones stacked 21 feet wide. Pottery shards helped date the fortification walls to be 3,800 years old. They are the largest walls found in the region from before the time of King Herod, the ambitious builder who expanded the Second Jewish Temple complex in Jerusalem almost 2,100 years ago. The fortification surrounded a water spring and is thought to have protected the ancient city’s water source.

The fortification was built 800 years before King David would have captured it from its Jebusite rulers. Shukron says the biblical story of David’s conquest of Jerusalem provides clues that point to this particular fortification as David’s entry point into the city.

In the second Book of Samuel, David orders the capture of the walled city by entering it through the water shaft. Shukron’s excavation uncovered a narrow shaft where spring water flowed into a carved pool, thought to be where city inhabitants would gather to draw water. Excess water would have flowed out of the walled city through another section of the shaft Shukron said he discovered, where he believes the city was penetrated.

Shukron says no other structure in the area of ancient Jerusalem matches what David would have captured to take the city. The biblical account names it the “Citadel of David” and the “Citadel of Zion.”

Shukron’s claim that he found the ancient citadel of Zion has not found unanimous support. One archaeologist who disagrees with Shukron’s theory is Ronny Reich, who also excavated at the site:

Ronny Reich, who was Shukron’s collaborator at the site until 2008, disagrees with the theory. He said more broken pottery found from the 10th century BC, presumably King David’s reign, should have been found if the fortification had been in use then.
According to Reich, more archaeological evidence is required before the fortification can be definitely identified with the biblical account.
Until recently, some biblical scholars did not believe that David was a historical figure. When the “House of David” stela was found in an excavation at Tel Dan, a site in Northern Israel, a reference to “House of David” was found on one of the fragments. This was the first time the name David appeared outside the Bible, indicating that David was an actual, historical person.

It is possible that the massive fortification Shukron found at the site may prove that the site was the ancient Jebusite stronghold. Maybe we need more archaeological evidence to identify the site with the place mentioned in the book of Samuel. But one thing is certain: David conquered the stronghold of Zion and named it “The City of David.”

Unfortunately, one issue that has contributed to the controversy about the excavation of the City of David is that the excavation was conducted in an Arab neighborhood east of Jerusalem captured by Israel in 1967, an area that the Palestinians claim will be the capital of the future state of Palestine.

When politics and archaeology join hands to recover “the remnants of a glorious Jewish past,” the results can lead to conclusions that may not reflect the realities of the past. Archaeologists cannot allow donors to influence how the past is interpreted. The danger is that money and politics can become the prism by which archaeologists look at the past. Let us hope that this does not happen in the excavations of the City of David.

NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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