“No Anakites were left in Israelite territory; only in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod did any survive.” (Josh 11:22)
Biblical Gath rises from a patchwork of peach orchards and forests. But the pastoral quiet can be deceiving: Gath symbolizes a region that seethed with conflict, revealing evidence of the ancient cities that were forced to their knees and the innovations of those who came to live there instead.
The dig at Tel Tzafit, which began over a decade ago, reveals ample evidence of a period of great interest to lovers of Scripture: the seam between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age (the 12th and 11th centuries BCE). It was during this period that powerful old city-states and alliances began to crumble. They were replaced by a group known as the Sea Peoples (among whom were the Philistines) and by the Israelites.
Visitors to the massive mounds of Tel Lachish and Tel Hazor hear a great deal about this period. Now, the excavations at Gath allow it, too, to tell its part of the tale. The view from the top of the mound shows the region where the two groups of newcomers clashed. To the west lay the coastal plain and present-day Ashdod, and to the east, the Judean mountains. This is the arena of many biblical stories, among them the exploits of Samson, the return of the Ark to Bet Shemesh, and David’s battle with Gath’s notorious native son – Goliath.
One find, unearthed in a level dating to the end of the 10th century or the beginning of the 9th century BCE, made worldwide headlines: a fragment of bowl bearing typical burnished red-slip decoration, and two names that were Philistine in origin, but written in Semitic script. Not only is this the earliest Philistine inscription ever found, but the names may be related to the Lydian-Greek name Alyattes, which the Semitic writers of the Bible apparently pronounced “Goliath” – indeed the stuff of headlines.
The city now being uncovered by the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project (www.dig-gath.org), headed by Professor Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, was a whopping 110 acres in size. This fits its biblical stature: Gath is mentioned frequently. Achish of Gath, with whom David allied himself when he fled from Saul, was the only Philistine in the Bible called “king” (1 Samuel 21:10) and his city was called “royal” (1 Sam 27.2). Many elements of daily life are emerging from the ground – decorated cooking and storage vessels as well as the tools and workshops of crafts and industry.
Three of the five Philistine cities – Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza – were never entirely lost, because their names have remained almost unchanged until this day. The fourth, Eqron, has been located at Tel Miqneh (at nearby Kibbutz Revadim) and has yielded rich Philistine finds. Mighty Gath eluded scholars the longest. Its ancient name did not survive – it became known in Arabic as Tell es-Safi – “the pure mound” apparently because of its gleaming white chalk cliffs, an element the Crusaders also noticed when they called the fortress they built here Blanche Guarde (the white fortress), remains of which can still be seen.
A visit to Gath is the perfect place to consider the challenge David faced in Goliath, one of the Anakites (giants) – standing some 9’9” tall, well-outfitted with armor and a javelin – a big man from a big city. Once you’ve visited Gath, head out to the Elah Valley and reenact the story of David and Goliath on the place it actually happened, with the Bible as your script. You’ll never forget it.