New Finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa May Clarify Bible Text, Temple Architecture

During last summer’s dig, we found artifacts that relate to Israelite religion before Solomon’s temple. They may even help us understand more about the temple itself. As the Israel Antiquities Authority headlined it for this morning’s press conference, “Hebrew University archaeologist finds the first evidence of a cult in Judah at the time of King David, with implications for Solomon’s Temple”

If even part of the proposed interpretation holds up, it will be an important discovery for biblically-related archaeology.

Here are excerpts from the official press release along with some of my observations at this point. You can read the full text here.

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced today the discovery of objects that for the first time shed light on how a cult was organized in Judah at the time of King David. During recent archaeological excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified city in Judah adjacent to the Valley of Elah, Garfinkel and colleagues uncovered rich assemblages of pottery, stone and metal tools, and many art and cult objects. These include three large rooms that served as cultic shrines, which in their architecture and finds correspond to the biblical description of a cult at the time of King David.

… Because these shrines pre-date the construction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem by 30 to 40 years, they provide the first physical evidence of a cult in the time of King David, with significant implications for the fields of archaeology, history, biblical and religion studies.

The absence of cultic images of humans or animals in the three shrines provides evidence that the inhabitants of the place practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines, observing a ban on graven images.

[My thoughts… Gath – a major Philistine site – is only a few miles away. The contrast between Qeiyafa’s artifacts and those of Gath are striking. These were very different cultures existing on opposite sides of the Judah/Philistine border.]

The findings at Khirbet Qeiyafa also indicate that an elaborate architectural style had developed as early as the time of King David. Such construction is typical of royal activities, thus indicating that state formation, the establishment of an elite, social level and urbanism in the region existed in the days of the early kings of Israel. These finds strengthen the historicity of the biblical tradition and its architectural description of the Palace and Temple of Solomon.

According to Prof. Garfinkel, “This is the first time that archaeologists uncovered a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David. Even in Jerusalem we do not have a clear fortified city from his period. Thus, various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong.” Garfinkel continued, “Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs. Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggests that the population of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans—on pork and on graven images—and thus practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines.”

[It’s a bit strange that Kh. Qeiyafa, a town of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, would have yielded three “cultic rooms” in one small portion of the city. Garfinkel suggests this reflects decentralized worship.

“The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD.”1 Kings 3:2 ESV)

The Ark of the Covenant sat in people’s homes from the time of Samuel until David brought it to Jerusalem. (The house of Abinadab in Kiriath-jearim in 1 Samuel 7:1-2; The house of Obed-edom in 2 Samuel 6:10-11) While the Ark sat in private homes, the tabernacle and main altar were elsewhere. (Nob in 1 Samuel 21; Gibeon in 1 Kings 3:4)]

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples—separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).

[It looks like Qeiyafa fits the biblical description of people worshiping God at local shrines/high places.]

The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.

[I posted photos of some of these objects a few months ago. They were found in a room very different from the residences discovered at Qeiyafa. This cultic room was not large, but had the standing stone positioned in the “high place” of the room. The room included floor installations (for rituals?), a bench along one wall, and an opening to a drain channel.]

Two portable shrines (or “shrine models”) were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.

The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

[Yossi Garfinkel and Saar Ganor say that Qeiyafa’s inhabitants observed the Israelite ban on graven images, yet they present us a shrine adorned with animals.  Is this inconsistent? I don’t believe so. The temple of Solomon is described in 1 Kings 6 as having statues of cherubim flanking the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place. The interior walls of the sanctuary were also adorned with engravings of flora and cherubim. Exodus 25 calls for gold cherubim on both ends of the mercy seat in the tabernacle. It seems the early Israelites understood this law to prohibit images for worship, not necessarily for adornment. A temple model with birds and lions (but no idols/figurines) would seem to fall within the boundaries described in the Bible.]

The clay shrine. Note the details around the door. Each column stands on a lion’s head. The rows of wooden beams are visible. Above them is what appears to be a folded textile. The heads of the birds on the roof are broken, though feet are visible. Garfinkel suggests the columns and the textile evoke similarities with the temple that would be later be built in Jerusalem. Certain architectural styles/motifs were already in place in Judah/Israel. It must be noted that other ancient shrines show columns flanking a door. Still, some of these details appear to be unique. This is certainly different than religious objects discovered in Philistine territory, just a few miles away. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

The largest fragment of the freshly-discovered clay shrine in Luke Chandler’s hand. This front portion was the first piece of the shrine that was found, discovered literally in the last minutes of the last day of the 2011 season. Most of the team had already left to board the bus for our hostel. A few of us were wrapping up in Area C when a college-age girl from Maryland unearthed this in a casemate room.

The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the “triglyph,” is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.

The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.

The stone shrine. Notice the seven triglyphs along the top of the door. This shrine may help us understand long-forgotten technical terms in Hebrew, as described below. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon’s palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term “Slaot,” which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term “Sequfim”, which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as “triple recessed doorway.”

Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel (41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.

My guess the other day about the nature of this announcement was correct, though it was an easy call for those us of who saw these shrines come out of the ground. They were so different that other things we had found. These shrines were found in a square adjacent to mine, in different parts of an Iron Age building. This building is not fully excavated. It should be interesting to (hopefully) finish it up this summer. What else is buried there?

Barnea Selavan, the man who got me to go to Qieyafa in the first place, was present at the conference and offers these comments:

Based on two decorated cultic boxes Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority suggest revising the understanding of several biblical verses and practices. They suggest the small boxes are actually the arks used in Israel as opposed to the ark of the desert. They suggest finding them in the rooms is akin to the four times the ark was kept in someone’s house. The decorations include a triple recessed design which could be the “sheqafim” and that insets of three lines on the top of the box are triglyphs which are the earliest found and explain the word “tzla’ot” in Solomon’s temple and in Ezekiel’s description. Other elements hint at the curtain and pillars. One has decorative lions. Prof Garfinkel suggests that only a contemporary writer would have this accuracy.

One more thing… This has just been announced, so people are only beginning to wrap their minds around it. Some details will only be known once the final report is published. I don’t believe we’ll have too long to wait. Here are some links with reactions on the announcement for your perusal:


About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister with the North Terrace Church of Christ and has participated in multiple archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke leads informative, meaningful tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
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6 Responses to New Finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa May Clarify Bible Text, Temple Architecture

  1. Pingback: Exciting Finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa | The Power of the Land

  2. Thomas Middlebrook says:

    I don’t have much time to comment, but I did want to add something concerning the “uniqueness” of these pieces. I think most understand that the piece as a whole is not unique, but having looked through the Yavneh favissa naos alone, I was able to identify a parallel for each of the features noted from personal inspection and photographs of the artifacts. I would be interested to hear which elements appear to be unique, save for their unique location and time of creation. One of my lingering questions is the correlation between the triglyphs on the larger piece with the recessed doorway, and the circular features with the three strokes above the doorway on the smaller piece (related?). The circular features show up on a number of other naos and some cult stands. My best guess is the end of a log-beam, but I am not convinced if these ends were not decorated and how. These appear most frequently atop pillars and more rarely between them, typically sandwiched and/or above a stretcher/girt. The representation is difficult to identify with confidence. Thoughts?

    • lukechandler says:

      Hello Thomas,
      I am still wrapping my mind around the interpretation of these finds myself. I have so far interpreted the triglyph features on both shrines as wooden beams. At this point I don’t know what else they could be given the known architecture of early Iron Canaan. They are circular on the clay shrine but rectangular on the stone one. Is that difference irrelevant or important? At this point I don’t know. I look forward to seeing further analysis.

      The ones on the stone shrine do look a lot like triglyphs found in Classical Greece and later periods, but we’re jumping ahead several centuries. (Here’s a comparison photo – Perhaps it was originally meant to imitate wooden beams for both the Greeks and the cultures in Canaan. I too need more time to absorb and investigate the plethora of questions arising with this new information.

      Maybe this summer’s excavation will provide some answers. We’re looking to excavate the rest of the building in which these objects were found.

      Best wishes to you and your family,

  3. larrygeiger says:

    I’m not an archaeologist or Bible scholar. At a first glance it looks like an architecture project to me. It looks like a junior architect who made a model of the tabernacle and then made a model of the temple he might someday build in Jerusalem. Nothing in this impression that anyone should pay attention to.

    • lukechandler says:

      Hello Larry,
      These models were actually very common in Canaan during ancient times. Many of them have been found in Philistine, Canaanite, and Israelite sites. They were used to worship various gods, including Asherah and Baal in the Bible. These temple models indicate people at Kh. Qeiyafa were engaged in worship practices similar in some ways to other cultures in Canaan, which fits the biblical description of the period. Garfinkel states that the assemblage of religious artifacts found with the shrines is somewhat different than assemblages found in other sites, including a lack of figurines/idols with these particular shrines. That could mean something. If we have a people of Judah living at Qeiyafa, then we have evidence of a developed architectural style (including what are said to be unique features on the stone model) that could support the existence of a developing central state in the late-11th or early-10th century. That conclusion is being debated, and has significance for biblical studies and history.
      Thanks for commenting, and best wishes.
      – Luke

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