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Piecing together biblical history is not an easy job, but archaeologists are doing it every day in Israel. And another piece of the puzzle came together this month when a team found the hometown of the Philistine champion Goliath.
We all know the story of David and Goliath. The Israelites and the Philistines were at war and rather than send their armies to battle, the Philistine warrior Goliath challenged any warrior from the Israelite side to fight him in single combat. Whichever warrior won the fight would win the battle for their side. No one stepped forward. But then David, who would later become an important king in the Bible, took up the challenge.
Goliath was apparently a giant of a man who dwarfed David. But David knocked him out with a stone from his sling and cut off his head.
Later on, David would visit Goliath’s hometown of Gath, now known as Tell es-Safi, and would drool at the gate because he was so impressed with the massive fortifications and architecture of this Iron Age Philistine settlement.
According to Haaretz:
Gath is mentioned in the Bible more times than any of the five major Philistine cities (the other four being Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza). Gath is said to have hosted the Ark of the Covenant for a brief time after the Philistines captured it from the Israelites (1 Samuel 5:8) and it is where David sought refuge twice from king Saul, eventually becoming a mercenary for the city’s ruler, Achish (1 Samuel 21 and 1 Samuel 27).
Archaeologists have already found Ashkelon, where they conducted DNA tests and found that the Philistines originated from Europe.
Another team of researchers led by Bar-Ilan University professor Aren Maier have been digging at the site of Gath for years. The problem is that Gath is one of those sites where people have been building settlements over older settlements for centuries, making it difficult to find a specific time period. And so, the level they believed to be the hometown of Goliath originally, was wrong. Because they have now found a level that matches the correct times, and the ruins are massive enough that one might just believe giants lived here.
The discovery suggests that Gath was at the peak of its power much earlier than previously thought, putting its heyday around the time when the city features heavily in the biblical narrative as a fierce rival of the early Israelites as well as the hometown of Goliath and other outsized biblical warriors.”
“Over the summer’s digging campaign, which ended last week, archaeologists decided to investigate the foundations of large terraces located in Gath’s lower city, which was only inhabited during the Iron Age. The dig revealed that those terraces were resting on massive fortifications and larger buildings made of huge stone boulders and fired bricks – a method that makes them stronger than traditional sun-dried mud bricks.”
“I’ve been digging here for 23 years, and this place still manages to surprise me,” Maier said. “All along we had this older, giant city that was hiding just a meter under the city we were digging. This was the largest Philistine city and probably one of the largest in the Iron Age Levant. Larger cities were only found outside the Levant, such as in Egypt and Mesopotamia.”
The later settlement they had been digging had been destroyed by the Aramean king Hazael around 830 B.C.E. in the Iron Age IIA period. The earlier settlement they just found, however, is even bigger.
“Up until now we thought that the city from the Iron IIA, the one that was destroyed by Hazael, was the largest and most important period in Gath,” Maeir said. “This year we got a different story.”
In some areas these walls are four meters thick or more, and the pottery associated with them dates to the early Iron Age, to the 11th century B.C.E. or possibly earlier. No comparably colossal structures are known in the rest of the Levant from this period – or even from the later incarnation of Philistine Gath, Maeir says.
“Whatever it is, it’s enormous,” Maeir adds. “It’s as if the site of Gath in the early Iron Age dwarfed the later city.”
And this is why many people believed that the Philistines were giants even though no skeletal remains have been found that suggest as such.
“Many of the biblical texts must be understood as allegory,” Maeir said. “We have excavated several tombs in Gath, and we definitely haven’t found the bones of particularly large people, so what is the origin of the tradition that giants lived here? If there were enormous ruins sitting around, that’s the best way to get stories about giants started.”
University of Lausanne professor Thomas Römer agrees.
“We always have to be very cautious in our interpretation but this can be related to the size of Philistine cities like Gath and to this very impressive civilization that the Hebrews were familiar with,” Römer said. “When you are confronted with such large structures you need to explain them: so why not giants?”
Again, Gath has been destroyed several times over. It would be easy for later visitors to look upon the massive ruins and deduce that giant people must have lived there, further perpetuating the stories of Goliath being a giant when he may not have been much bigger than David. The people who wrote the biblical stories about Gath did so centuries after these events took place. And besides, including giants in the story just added excitement to the scriptures and made the Philistines look even more villainous.
After all these centuries, it turns out the only real giant was the city itself.
“We still don’t know a lot about why a new city was built on top of the old one, with a different orientation for the buildings,” Maeir said. “But one thing is certain, we are slowly awakening a sleeping giant.”
Perhaps the next dig at the site will produce the tomb containing an inscription identifying it as belonging to Goliath himself. That would be an even bigger discovery.
More on Gath from the Science Channel: