Several days ago, I hiked in the footsteps of King David. The words of the Bible became real. They became filled with life.
In Israel one can literally walk where our biblical heroes traveled. One can stand where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac or where the prophet Amos admonished the Jewish people or where David composed his sweet psalms.
In the land of Israel our Bible takes shape. It is here that the soil adds flesh to our legends.
Before beginning the hike, we stood on the heights of Tel Azekah where the Israelites spied the Philistine army. It was there that our people cowered in fear before the mighty Goliath. A young David volunteered to battle the giant. He refused the offer of King Saul’s armor and spear. He thought them too cumbersome and heavy. David killed Goliath with a small pebble thrown from his slingshot. The Israelite army then routed the Philistines and the Israelites soon crowned David as king.
The legend of David and Goliath was born here, in this place. We walked where this battle took place. We felt as if we stood in the path King David blazed. It is intoxicating, to stand in the Valley of Ella, in the very spot where David vanquished the Philistines.
We then climbed the opposing heights until reaching Khirbet Qeiyafa. It is here that archeologists uncovered an ancient fortress dating back 3000 years to the days when David ruled. Most ancient cities have one gate where soldiers stood guard, but this fortress has two gates. This is a surprising find and so scholars surmise that it must be the very same city the Bible refers to as Shaarayim, which means two gates.
This is a debatable point. It is unclear whether or not “two gates” is the origin of the biblical city’s name. We know so very little about these times. Moreover, scholars remind us that much of what we know about David’s dynasty is derived from a book of faith. Can we really be sure that David was the king of a mighty kingdom? Perhaps he was only the mayor of a small town? The Bible is more concerned with legend than history. Does it matter? Still the symmetry between the Bible’s words and these archaeological remains stir the heart.
Our faith is buoyed by this new found earthen evidence.
On Tel Azekah, the Israel Parks Authority has fashioned stone benches with words from the Book of Samuel. “Thus, David bested the Philistine with sling and stone; he struck him down and killed him.” A few more steps. “The men of Israel and Judah rose up with a war cry and they pursued the Philistines…the Philistines fell mortally wounded along the road to Shaarayim.” (I Samuel 17)
We are walking in David’s footsteps.
We walk a path of verses.
Israeli archaeology seeks to confirm the Bible’s authenticity. It wishes to reaffirm our claim that the Jewish people returned to this land. We did not create a new state but rather reestablished sovereignty in the very place where David cemented it and we first enjoyed it. We are not the strangers here! These biblical verses, and now their earthen confirmation, are part of what gave us the strength to reclaim this land after the past century’s horrible tortures. It is what gave our people the courage to establish the modern State of Israel.
This is a claim I very much believe. And yet I also recognize that it may find its greatest evidence, and most steadfast confirmation, in the heart. These prooftexts of stone are intoxicating, and empowering, because they appear to legitimate the heart.
I wonder. Is the heart leading the proof or following the discovery? I so very much want to see these verses in this land. I cling to stones. I hold on to words. We want to be able to say this place has always been ours—and not yours. The words of our sacred book are etched in this earth. And then sometimes, our inspiration becomes so blinding. We begin to say, we belong here and you do not. We only see ourselves. We fail to see others.
My heart is continually stirred.
Archaeologists uncovered more than these two gates in Shaarayim. They discovered the most remarkable of finds. They found one of the oldest ostracons. (An ostracon is a piece of clay pottery used as a writing surface.)
On Shaarayim’s ostracon the following words are inscribed:
You shall not do it. But worship God. Judge the slave and the widow. Judge the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant. Plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave. Support the stranger.
Although scholars debate how exactly these words should be translated—some letters are unclear on this weathered and broken ostracon and its proto Semitic lettering is the domain of but a few scholars, all agree that these verses do not appear in the Bible.
The sentiment of upholding the rights of the orphan, stranger, poor and widow can of course be discovered throughout the Bible, but this particular phrasing is nowhere to be found. My heart is again affirmed. In this city, we have not unearthed legitimacy but instead reclaimed values.
We have always been on this path.
Here in this land, in this place where David walked, my people wrestled with how best to fashion a just society. They were, as we are today, still working out the exact words, but we have remained steadfastly devoted to this ideal. Whether or not David was a mayor or a king, and whether or not he defeated Goliath and the mighty Philistine army exactly as the Bible recounts, we have been trying to work out for as long as we have been a people how to rule with compassion, how to live with a heart turned towards others.
How do we protect ourselves, our families, our people while also caring for those less fortunate than ourselves? How can we guarantee the rights of the stranger while still maintaining our singular identity? These are the questions that have been our people’s obsession from its very beginnings. This has been my ancestors’ focus even in the days before we agreed on what words would be codified as verses in our Bible.
Walking in David’s footsteps is intoxicating and inspiring, blinding and exhilarating.
And then as the day approached noon and the sun drenched us with its oppressive heat, we quit our walk.
It can be exhausting walking this path.
Still my heart remains stirred.
And I believe. As soon as the moon ascends in the blackened sky, and the desert begins to cool, my strength will be restored, and I will pledge to follow these footsteps once again.