My most recent dig site, Khirbet a-Ra’i, has just been proposed as the location of biblical Ziklag, a town linked with David shortly before he became king over Judah. I worked with this excavation for two weeks of its summer, 2019 season. We were aware of the archaeologists’ identification of the site but naturally waited until they announced before posting anything publicly. (See the IAA’s press announcement.)
The group I led to the 2019 (summer) Khirbet a-Ra’i excavation. From l to r: Ashley, Becky, Jimmy, my son Caleb, Steve, LaDonna, Doug, Madison, and Yours Truly
Is it Ziklag? Some archaeologists have dismissed the proposal while others are waiting for discussion to develop. Archaeology doesn’t provide 100% certainty on these kinds of things, so we go with the weight of (current) evidence. Numerous other sites have been proposed as Ziklag, most of which have been dismissed over time.
View to the east from the summit of Khirbet a-Ra’i, recently proposed as Ziklag. Across the rolling foothills one sees the mountains of Judea in the distance. (Photo by Luke Chandler)
The famous biblical story of Ziklag relates to David. The Philistines inhabited the town but gave it to David and his men in 1 Samuel 27. The town was attacked and burned and the families taken by the Amalekites while David and his men were away (1 Sam. 30). David mounted a rescue mission and retrieved everyone alive, along with a great quantity of spoil that was distributed to numerous allies in Judah.
The stratigraphy lines up well with what we know of Ziklag from the biblical text, but there is at least one big question that lacks resolution. Here are some points to consider:
- Over seven excavations seasons the team has uncovered two Philistine Iron I strata from the 12th and 11th centuries BC (the time of the biblical Judges) topped in some places by a different material culture from the late-11th/early-10th century (the time of David). This would be consistent with what we know of Ziklag in 1 Samuel 27.
- This late-11th/early-10th century stratum appears identical to Khirbet Qeiyafa, a site linked with Judah that has been radiometrically (Carbon-14) dated to ca. 1000 BC, the biblical time of David. It’s not just another Iron Age level – it dates specifically to David’s time, which stands out from most other sites.
- This Qeiyafa-esque stratum was destroyed and burned, which lines up with events in 1 Samuel 30.
- The site has post-exilic construction that would fit Ziklag’s mention in Nehemiah 11.
- This specific sequence of habitation and destruction layers is what caught the excavators’ attention and led them to offer a-Ra’i as a candidate for Ziklag.
The big question I mention relates to Joshua 15 which lists Ziklag among cities further south, along the Negev (vs. 21-32). The city of Lachish, just 2 miles from Kh. a-Ra’i, is listed among a separate group of towns further north (vs. 33-44). From this, it seems the Bible places Ziklag several miles further south than Khirbet a-Ra’i.
The archaeologists at Kh. a-Ra’i will be publishing a formal article that likely addresses this geographical question. Without knowing how they approach it, I cannot say this issue is insurmountable. Some scholars have quickly criticized new claims before having to backtrack or modify their criticism as more information comes forth. At this point I am comfortable seeing this as an interesting proposal that is already producing discussion. The excavators anticipate critique and look forward to addressing the kinds of questions that have already arisen.
For a number of years, the leading candidate for Ziklag has been Tel Sera. We don’t have any inscription that says “Ziklag” at either site and probably never will. We must go where the evidence directs us.
The excavators at Khirbet a-Ra’i were not seeking Ziklag when they began digging. They knew from surveys that the site had an Early Iron Age level, which fit their research interest. The Philistine finds were unexpected and have produced new research questions.
A massive Philistine wall foundation near the summit of Khirbet a-Ra’i. Archaeologists at this site recently proposed the site could be biblical Ziklag. (Photo by Luke Chandler)
On that note, one current goal of the a-Ra’i project is to pin down an approximate date for the Philistines’ entry to Canaan. Some scholars have re-thought the traditional timeline, and it holds implications for dating the development of the Israelite kingdoms. Keep your eyes – and screens – open for updates on these issues and discussions.
With Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, co-Director of the Khirbet a-Ra’i excavations.