Recent excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa* have had an enormous impact on our understanding of the formation of the Kingdom of Israel. The only known Judahite fortified city dating to the time of Saul and David, Khirbet Qeiyafa has reshaped debates on urbanism during the early Israelite monarchy. The 2008 discovery of the Qeiyafa Ostracon has captivated the attention of epigraphers and archaeologists alike, and the diversity of translations and interpretations have simultaneously kept the sherd from Khirbet Qeiyafa in the spotlight and shrouded in mystery. The highly regarded French epigrapher Émile Puech provides one of the most groundbreaking interpretations, presenting the Qeiyafa Ostracon as the earliest text on the formation of the Kingdom of Israel and the only artifact referencing King Saul.
In the May/June 2012 BAR, Gerard Leval adds to the discussion on the heavily debated Qeiyafa Ostracon by reviewing Émile Puech’s translation and analysis for the first time in English. (In the same issue of BAR, Christopher Rollston discusses the non-Hebrew script on the Qeiyafa Ostracon in a search for the oldest purely Hebrew inscription.)** Puech translates the incomplete text on the Qeiyafa Ostracon as:
Do not oppress, and serve God…despoiled him/her
The judge and the widow wept; he had the power
Over the resident alien and the child, he eliminated them together
The men and chiefs/officers have established a king
He marked 60 [?] servants among the communities/habitations/generation.
According to Puech, this translation of the Qeiyafa Ostracon “contained all of the essential” components of the Biblical tale on the transition from Judges to the selection of Saul as the leader of a new Kingdom of Israel.
In the Bible, Samuel’s sons do not follow his moral ways, and the elders ask Samuel to appoint a king to lead Israel. Despite his initial resistance to the idea, Samuel is guided to Saul, whom he appoints as the first monarch of the Kingdom of Israel. If one follows Puech’s translation, the text from Khirbet Qeiyafa is the first artifact to reference Israel’s first king. Gerard Leval gives a list of narrative parallels between the Qeiyafa Ostracon the Biblical text on Saul: the need for judges who will not oppress the foreigner and those less fortunate; the need for those who will protect them from annihilation; the installation of a king; the existence of servants who serve the king; the injunction not to oppress but to serve God; most importantly, the designation of a new monarch.
The excavators at Khirbet Qeiyafa identify the site with Biblical Shaarayim. After David slays Goliath, the Israelites pursue the Philistines “on the way to Shaarayim” (1 Samuel 17:52). According to the Bible, Shaarayim must have existed during Saul’s reign, and finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa corroborate the chronology.
Gerard Leval writes “for Puech, the text announces the installation of a centralized royal administration and it makes this announcement to a distant frontier province. He concedes that it is difficult to establish with certainty whether the new royal administration is that of Saul or David… most likely, the ostracon refers to Saul’s accession.” The inscription focuses on the transition from the period of the judges to the monarchy rather than from one king to another.
If Puech is correct, the Qeiyafa Ostracon is the only known artifact to reference the first king of the Kingdom of Israel. Its tone suggests that it refers to a recentl event, making it stand out as the oldest account of Saul and the formation of the Kingdom of Israel.
To learn more about Émile Puech’s interpretation of the Qeiyafa Ostracon, see Gerard Leval “Ancient Inscription Refers to the Birth of Israelite Monarchy” Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 2012.
* Read more about the excavation in “Newly Discovered: A Fortified City from King David’s Time” Biblical Archaeology Review Jan/Feb 2009.
Khirbet Qeiyafa Update: On May 8, 2012, Khirbet Qeiyafa excavation director Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of the latest finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa, including cultic items from the time of King David. Read more and view a slideshow of the finds>>