Biblical Ziklag and Mapping the Bible

New theory on biblical site’s location

Aerial view of Khirbet_a-Ra‘i

Aerial view of Khirbet al-Ra‘i. Courtesy Emil Ajem, Israel Antiquities Authority.

What do a Judahite scribe, a Roman-era Greek historian, and a 17th-century explorer all have in common? Each holds a piece of the puzzle to the elusive location of a famous biblical site—ancient Ziklag.

For years, scholars have theorized about the location of biblical Ziklag, notable in the Bible as young David’s haven from King Saul. One suggestion, which has garnered much attention, is that Ziklag should be identified with the tenth-century B.C.E. hilltop site of Khirbet al-Ra’i in the Judean Shephelah. In a recent article, published in the Israel Exploration Journal, scholars Zachary Thomas and Chris McKinney challenge this proposal. Thomas and McKinney bring together ancient literary sources and the results of earlier excavations to challenge the Khirbet al-Ra’i proposal and suggest a new theory, that biblical Ziklag is actually the far-lesser known site of Tell esh-Shari’a in the northwestern Negev.

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According to the Hebrew Bible, Ziklag was a small city gifted to David by King Achish of Gath during David’s flight from King Saul. Biblical accounts tell that from Ziklag, David raided the towns of the northern Negev, suffered attacks from the Amalekites, and restored great wealth to the people of Judah (1 Samuel 27–30). Ziklag was also the place where David received the news of Saul and Jonathan’s demise (2 Samuel 1:17).

Map of various cities in the region around al-Ra’i and esh Shari’a. Courtesy Biblical Archaeology Society.

But where was this biblical city? Initially, the excavators of Khirbet al-Ra’i proposed their site was the best candidate for ancient Ziklag. Radiocarbon dates indicate settlement at the site in the early tenth century B.C.E., the period associated with King David. Scholars also point to the site’s large assemblage of Philistine pottery, as well as Khirbet al-Ra’i’s proximity to Gath and the Negev highlands. Thomas and McKinney argue, however, that Khirbet al-Ra’i cannot be ancient Ziklag because the site’s major phases of occupation do not coincide with the biblical account. Moreover, they posit that the biblical authors listed Ziklag among the cities of the northern Negev or the Beersheba Basin, and that it was not a city in the Shephelah, where Khirbet al-Ra’i is located (Joshua 19:1–10).

Tell esh-Shari'a

Tell esh-Shari’a, recently identified as a more likely candidate for biblical Ziklag. Danny Gershoni, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Instead, Thomas and McKinney argue that the little-known site of Tell esh-Shari’a, located in the northern Negev, halfway between Gaza and Beersheba, is a much better candidate for biblical Ziklag. Archaeological evidence from Tell esh-Shari’a suggests continuous occupation from the Middle Bronze Age to the early Roman period. Additionally, written records that describe Ziklag’s location—ranging from the Greek historian Eusebius’s Onomasticon to the travel logs of a 17th-century explorer—place the city about 15 miles east of Gaza, which aligns much more closely with the geographic location given in the biblical account. While this new identification raises exciting questions about Tell esh-Shari’a and its importance during the time of King David, the debate about Ziklag’s true location will surely continue.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Biblical Town of Ziklag May Have Been Discovered

The Destruction of Philistine Gath


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Where Is David’s Ziklag?

Newly Discovered: A Fortified City from King David’s Time

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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