What Time Hath Not For-Gath

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Philistine Plain, Israel

Deuteronomy begins with Moses recounting Israel’s travails in the wilderness. He recalls the assignment of leaders to assist Moses, which occurred earlier in Exodus. He tells the story of the spies who scouted Canaan, Israel’s complaints against the idea of conquering Canaan, their punishment to wander in the wilderness for 40 years and their travels in the desert and into the Transjordan, stories which were first told in the book of Numbers.

Scholars who evaluate the Bible from a scientific and historical perspective attempt to determine the historicity of events within the Bible. Scholars may assume that a story written in closer proximity to the time the events occurred is more accurate than a story written at a far later date. A story written at a later date is more likely to see anachronisms, details that do not fit the time period creep into the text. Thus a story that appears to avoid late anachronisms would have better odds of recording a historical event.

One such story is that of David fleeing to Gath. In 1 Samuel 21, David escaped from Saul. “That day David fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath. But the servants of Achish said to him, “Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands? David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath. So he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard. Achish said to his servants, Look at the man, he is insane, why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?”

The story would seem to be an odd inclusion in the Bible. One of King David’s greatest feats in the Bible was eliminating the threat from the Philistines, and yet in this story he relies on the Philistines to survive. Beyond its unusual theme, the story is significant for estimating when it was recorded.

In the Bible, there were five major Philistine cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. Excavations at Tell es-Safi demonstrated that the area is likely the site of the ancient Philistine city of Gath.

In 2 Kings 12, over a century after King David’s rule ended, “Hazael king of Aram went up and attacked Gath and captured it.” Archaeologists working the site of Gath have shown that the city was destroyed in the late 9th century BCE. After its destruction, the city remained reduced in the 8th century BCE, a shadow of its former self.

1 Samuel 21 tells the story of David at Gath. As Gath had been reduced, a late written story of King David would be unlikely to have him visit Gath, which was of no significance at that time. Thus the story in 1 Samuel 21 is likely to have been more ancient, and more likely written closer to the timing of the story it tells.

The photo in the image above is of the remains of an Iron Age building in Gath.