THROUGH THE BIBLE: Walking in the footsteps of Goliath of Gath

by Dr. Eric Mitchell |

(Eric Mitchell/via Matthew Martin)Ancient Gath, today known as Tel es-Safi, looking west. The Tel es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project is directed by Professor Aren Maeir at Bar Ilan University. You can find his weblog at https://gath.wordpress.com.

Christian Examiner continues a new series which allows readers to walk with Dr. Eric Mitchell, Associate Professor of Old Testament & Biblical Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, through some of the most important sites in the Bible. Mitchell directs the archaeological survey at Tel Gezer. Mitchell's journal entries will help readers visualize important sites like Gezer, the places where Jesus walked, and the valley where David killed the Philistine Goliath.

TEL ES-SAFI, Israel (Christian Examiner) – Growing up reading the Bible, many of the people and places presented within came across my young mind more like the settings or characters of a novel. They didn't seem directly connected to my reality, my local town, my school, and so on.

But when I was able to first visit the land of Israel, a change took place almost immediately in my mind and heart.

As I visited site after site mentioned in the biblical text, I became more and more excited about the connection between the text and the land before me. I was more interested in standing on a pile of rocks which archaeologists held to be the likely location of a town or event mentioned in the Bible than in visiting modern sites.

Standing on these sites highlighted for me a personal connection to events and people of the biblical text. This connection drew me further into the academic study of the historical geography, archaeology, history, languages and culture of the land.

It was not until my third trip to Israel that I saw, and then visited, Gath for the first time. I remember it well. I was standing on top of Tel Azekah (located on the northern end of the ridge between the region of Gath and the entrance to the Elah Valley).

There it was. Looking west from the heights of Azekah, there was the site of the biblical hometown of Goliath, the famed nemesis of David.

I just stood and stared ... and soaked it in. Gath had become a part of my reality. I would soon visit the site, and academic study would come later, but I was enjoying the connection. This "connection" is likely why St. Jerome called the land of Israel the fifth gospel. It can change one's perceptions when reading the text by solidifying the biblical context.

Why is this place so important for the study of the Bible?

The Bible indicates that the Philistines (peleshet) were from Caphtor (Amos 9:7—perhaps Crete) and one of many "sea-peoples" who migrated from the Aegean to the Levant in waves in the Late Bronze age.

They were capable of fighting on sea or on land and were part of an invasion of Egypt in 1188 BC. They were, however, defeated by Ramses III.

The Philistines used chariots, archers, and foot-soldiers (utilizing bronze helmets, mail, greaves, spears, javelins, shields and swords). In Egyptian reliefs, they were each depicted wearing a plumed helmet/headdress.

The Philistines first settled in the southwestern coastal plains of what is today Israel. The region of Philistia was controlled by a pentapolis (a group of five cities), including Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath.

The Philistines began to encroach upon the Israelites, forcing the tribe of Dan to move north (Judges 18). They also subjugated the Israelites during the period of the Judges and early monarchy – even controlling Israelite access to metalsmithing (1 Samuel 7; 13:16-22).

The Ark of the Covenant spent some time in Gath after the Philistines captured it in battle (1 Samuel 4-5). In that account God cut of the head and hands of the idol of the Philistine god Dagon at Ashdod, and He brought a plague of tumors upon the Philistines and they eventually sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel (1 Samuel 4-5).

In 2005 Aren Maier, directing the Ackerman Family Bar-Ilan University expedition to Tel es-Safi/Gath, discovered a pottery fragment dated to around the 10th or early ninth centuries B.C. This fragment is important because it attests to the usage of names similar to "Goliath" at Gath sometime after the biblical chronology of the David and Goliath account.

Using Semitic letters, the pottery was incised with the words alwt and wlt—two Indo-European names etymologically close to "Goliath."

In 2015, the excavation discovered a monumental gate and massive wall fortifications. This could be the location of the "doors of the gate" where David acted as if he was insane before King Achish of Gath in order to escape from him (1 Samuel 21:13).

(Eric Mitchell)The are on the eastern side of the Tel es-Safi/Gath, where the "Goliath" inscriptions were discovered.

The Old Testament text of 1-2 Samuel indicates that David had a complex relationship with the Philistines. He defeated their champion, he fought them as a servant of Saul and, when he fled Saul, he sought help from King Achish of Gath.

David lamented that the people of Gath would hear of Jonathan's death, he defeated them as leader of a band of rebels, and then he pretended to serve Achish of Gath.

David defeated the Philistines as king of Israel and later, as king, he employed them as his most trusted military men, such as Ittai the Gittite [from Gath], and as his personal bodyguard (the Cherethites and Pelethites).

(Eric Mitchell)The view from the western side of Tel Es-Safi, looking east toward the Shephelah and the low ridge that separates this region from the Elah valley. The higher central hill country is in the distance beyond. The Valley of Elah is where David met Goliath in battle.

In the ninth century (around 830 B.C.) Hazael, king of Aram, besieged Gath. He built a siege trench around the city and conquered it (2 Kings 12:17).

In the early eighth century BC, King Uzziah of Judah, broke down the wall of Gath and subjugated the Philistines (2 Chronicles 26:6). The Philistine cities became vassals to Assyria in that century and are not mentioned in the Bible after that time, but the site where Gath was built was in continued use until modern times.

The recently announced discovery of a Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, directed by Larry Stager of Harvard University and Dan Master of Wheaton College, will give new insight to Philistine burial practices.

Perhaps planned DNA analysis (among other studies) will also shed more light on Philistine origins – one of history's enduring mysteries.

You can find more information on their work at http://digashkelon.com/expedition/.

Dr. Eric Mitchell covers Bible Backgrounds for Christian Examiner. He is Associate professor of Old Testament & Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and directs the Tel Gezer Regional Survey Project in Israel.