Tell es-SebaDavid, while fleeing from King Saul, joined the Philistines, ancient Israel’s bitter enemies. With 600 men (and their families), David presented himself to Achish, king of the Philistine city of Gath, and asked for asylum. Achish gave David the town of Ziklag, and David lived there a year and four months (1 Samuel 27-1–7).

With Ziklag as his base, David raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites, who, we are told, inhabited the region of Olam (or Telem) on the way to Shur and on to the land of Egypt (1 Samuel 27-8). When David reported his raids, he told Achish that he had raided several Negev regions, including the Negev of Judah, belonging to his own people, but in fact David studiously avoided any attack on his own people (1 Samuel 27-9–11).

Thus far, modern scholarship’s search for Ziklag has been unsuccessful. From the Book of 1 Samuel and other references, Biblical geographers know that Ziklag was located somewhere near the border of the Philistine coastal plain, as it ascends to the steppe and desert areas to the east and southeast.

This location is further substantiated by another episode- When the Philistines mustered their forces for a war with Israel, Achish questioned David as to what he would do. He declared his loyalty to Achish, and, in return, Achish appointed David his bodyguard for life (1 Samuel 28-1–2). The other Philistine officers, however, objected to David’s participation in the war, fearful that he was not entirely loyal to the Philistine cause. (One wonders what David would have done if he had been permitted to join the battle.) David and his men were then sent back to Ziklag.

When they arrived at Ziklag, they discovered that their village had been raided and burned by the Amalekites, who had taken captive all those who had remained, including David’s two wives (1 Samuel 30-1–5). After consulting a priest of Yahweh, David immediately pursued the Amalekites with his 600 men. It proved to be an exhausting pursuit. Two hundred of his men, unable to continue, stopped at the Wadi Besor. David—with the remaining 400 men in his force—ultimately found the Amalekites and rescued the captives, including his two wives, as well as the booty taken by the Amalekites. This became “David’s spoil” (1 Samuel 30-7–20).

When David’s force returned, a question arose as to the distribution of the spoil. The 200 men who had stopped at the Wadi Besor wanted their share. The 400 men who had continued in the Amalekite pursuit wanted to give them only their wives and children—nothing more. David, however, ruled otherwise- “‘The share of those who remain with the baggage shall be the same as the share of those who go down to battle; they shall share alike.’ So from that day on it was made a fixed rule for Israel, continuing to the present day” (1 Samuel 30-24–25).

David went even further. When he returned to Ziklag, he sent some of the spoil to the elders at various sites in Judah—in the southern mountains and in the Negev (1 Samuel 30-26–31).1 The geographical hints in these stories provide a general location for Ziklag, without being very precise.

We do not know much about the legal relationship between David and Achish. We should probably regard it as a form of vassalage—Ziklag was not simply a place of abode for David, his troops and their families; Ziklag had to provide food for this Israelite contingent. As we have seen, David also carried out raids on outlying settlements with Ziklag as his base.

Even after David became king of Judah and moved to Hebron, Ziklag remained his possession. So the Biblical text tells us in the passage where it relates that Achish first “granted him Ziklag; that is how Ziklag came to belong to the kings of Judah, as is still the case” (1 Samuel 27-6).

In the tribal allotments recorded in the Book of Joshua, Ziklag is among the sites in the Negev given to Judah (Joshua 15-21–32). When an autonomous tribal area within Judah was extracted for the Simeonites, Ziklag was included in this allotment Joshua 19-1–6; see also 1 Chronicles 4-30).

Then all mention of Ziklag disappears from the sources. Further knowledge of its location is lost. Ziklag apparently remained in existence throughout the period of the monarchy, even during the Divided Monarchy, when it was part of the kingdom of Judah. In Nehemiah 11-28, we are told that when the exiles returned from the Babylonian Exile, some returned to Ziklag.

Three principal sites have been suggested for ancient Ziklag. The great German Biblical scholar Albrecht Alt suggested the site of Tell Halif (Tell Khuweilifeh) on the southwestern edge of the central mountain range, relying essentially on the geography of the site.2 Since Alt made this suggestion, however, the site has been excavated by an American team led by Joe Seger.3 This immense mound has revealed ruins of cities from the Early and Late Bronze Ages (3200–2350 and 1600–1200 B.C.E.), but remains from Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.) are extraordinarily sparse. Only traces of a settlement have been found from the 12th century B.C.E. From the late 11th- or early 10th-century, the remains of a dwelling were discovered, but nothing more. In David’s time there was only a temporary settlement, which did not continue for any length of time—the site was largely uninhabited during the tenth century. The Iron Age II city, dating to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., was founded anew after the division of the kingdom. These findings exclude the identification of Tell Halif as Ziklag.

Similar problems arise with respect to the other sites that have been suggested for Ziklag. The Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni suggested Tell esh-Sheri‘a, a little farther to the south, as an alternative possibility.4 Tell esh-Sheri‘a, situated on the western edge of the coastal plain, was excavated in the 1970s by the Israeli archaeologist Eliezer Oren, who found a gap in habitation between the middle of the 12th century B.C.E. and the 11th century, after which a new culture was introduced. Moreover, the site was destroyed in the early ninth century B.C.E. and was abandoned until about the end of the seventh century.5 On this basis, we can exclude the site from consideration.

The last site is one whose excavation I co-directed (with Israeli archaeologist Aharon Kempinski)—Tel Masos. Frank Crüsemann has suggested that this is the site of Ziklag.6 This suggestion may be easily rejected since Tel Masos was abandoned in early Iron II, the period of the United Monarchy under David. The site remained uninhabited until the seventh century B.C.E.

The result of this brief examination of the archaeological evidence is clearly negative. None of the locations put forward for Ziklag provides evidence for the necessary presupposition of a history of continuous occupation during Iron II (1000–586 B.C.E.), the period of the United and Divided Monarchies. This observation obliges us to resume the search for Biblical Ziklag.

It is of course tempting to look for a survival of some form of the name Ziklag in a modern context. This has helped to identify such sites as Biblical Bethel which survived in Arabic Beitun, and Biblical Shiloh, in Arabic Seilun. But, unfortunately, in the Negev Arabic place names rarely offer any hint of past Biblical associations. This makes it all the more difficult to identify Biblical sites in this area of the country. We are thrown back mostly on geography and archaeology.

There is one site in the right location, however, that conforms to the occupational history of Ziklag as described in the Bible. It may astound some scholars, as well as BAR readers. I suggest that ancient Ziklag is located at Tell es-Seba‘, which its excavator, Yohanan Aharoni, identified as ancient Beer-Sheva—a mistaken identification in my view.

Three sites in the vicinity of the modern city of Beer-Sheva include the second element of the name- Bir es-Seba‘ (the well of Seba‘) is the Arabic name of the well south of the present-day Old City. Khirbet Bir es-Seba‘ (the ruins of the well of Seba‘) refers to ancient remains that have come to light at numerous places in the Old City near the well. Finally, Tell es-Seba‘ (the tell of Seba‘) which lies to the north of Wadi es-Seba‘ (the valley of Seba‘) is a stratified tell containing a series of ancient cities. But this tell lies about four miles east of the bir (the well), the khirbet (the ruins) and the Old City of Beer-Sheva.

Obviously, Biblical Beer-Sheva was situated in the area of the Old City of Beer-Sheva, not four miles to the east. This in itself makes the identification of the tell with the ancient city of Beer-Sheva suspicious. Indeed, there is every reason to reject the identification of the tell with Biblical Beer-Sheva in light of the khirbet (the ruins) under the Old City. True, the foundations of the Old City are Turkish-and are situated on the remains of a Roman and Byzantine settlement. But beneath the Roman stratum, remains from the Iron Age have been repeatedly attested.7 Thus, a continuity in the history of occupation since the Iron Age has been ascertained in the area of Bir es-Seba‘; there is no reason to look for ancient Beer-Sheva elsewhere. Indeed, all the evidence points to a location of ancient Beer-Sheva in the area of the present-day Old City.8

The tell four miles to the east was the subject of a major excavation between 1969 and 1976 led by Yohanan Aharoni, who identified this site as Biblical Beer-Sheva.9 If Biblical Beer-Sheva in fact lies beneath the present-day Old City, as seems to be the case, then the ancient identification of the tell to the east remains to be established. In my opinion, it is Ziklag.

The history of the occupation of the tell fits extremely well with that of Ziklag. The settlement was founded (level IX) in the 12th century B.C.E., precisely when the Philistines settled in Palestine. This settlement consisted at first of inhabited caves. Three successive villages were then built on top of each other (levels VIII, VII and VI). These settlements consisted mainly of three- and four-room houses. In the second of the three, the houses stood in line, with the entrance to the settlement flanked by two towers. Whether the line of houses formed a complete enclosure, as Ze’ev Herzog (Aharoni’s heir at the site) suggested, is not entirely clear. In any event, these three levels were succeeded by a well-planned fortified administrative center (level V). The foundation of this center is probably attributable to King David; it lasted through a total of four levels (levels V, IV, III and II) of occupation, until it was destroyed by the Assyrians at the end of the eighth century B.C.E.10 With the exception of a brief effort to rebuild the old fortifications in the seventh century B.C.E., the site remained unoccupied until Hellenistic times. The latest construction is a caravanserai dating to the Roman/Byzantine period.11

Thus we see that a sporadically settled early Iron Age village first established in the middle of the 12th century was replaced in the early 10th century by a fortified town—just at the beginning of the period of the monarchy.

It is unusual for a well-planned town to be built on the site of an earlier village. There are exceptions- at Kinneret in the Galilee, at Tell el-Far‘ah (north) and at Tell en-Nasbeh.12 These sites are all in the north. Tell es-Seba‘ is the only known exception in the south. It is explainable, however, on the basis of David’s making Ziklag part of his kingdom.

Another point- It is very rare to find a major center founded in the first half of the tenth century. At several sites, Late Bronze Age cities continue to be occupied uninterruptedly, maintaining Canaanite traditions into the Iron Age. This is true of Beth Shemesh, Gezer, Megiddo and Beth-Shean. None of these is in the Negev. In the eastern Negev, Arad was established at this time, but it was a fortress, not a town.13 Apart from Tell es-Seba‘, only two cities, as far as we know, were newly established under King David- Kinneret and Dan. This is in contrast to the vigorous building activity under King Solomon.

When David became king, he transformed Tell es-Seba‘ from a village to a town protected by an encircling wall (level V). David’s particular legal relation to the place apparently accounts for this transformation. It could hardly be assumed that the village council of the village would undertake such a transformation—or be capable of it.

The layout of this new town reflects a high degree of planning, which must be attributed to measures administered by the central government.14 Although I what we see in the excavation is mostly the remains of the last level of this city (level II), numerous trial trenches have demonstrated that, even at the time of the town’s founding, it was laid out in a similar carefully planned way—with its ring road and extensive network of streets. The position of the houses in rows along the city wall and in blocks between two streets was determined by the pattern of the streets. Next to the city gate was a complex of three adjacent tripartite pillared buildings that presumably served some military purpose.15 A large water storage cistern was constructed to assure the city an adequate water supply. All this is really inconceivable without the relevant measures having been undertaken by the monarchy.

The usual early Israelite community, by contrast, exhibits little in the way of organization. Whenever we see an element of planning—and at Tell es-Seba‘ there is great deal—it must be attributed to measures put in place by the royal administration. In the case of the town at Tell es-Seba‘, the construction and layout must have been a consequence of a particular connection between the king and the place, as could be presumed for Ziklag.

I recognize that I have not proven the equation of Tell es-Seba‘ with Ziklag, but it is certainly a possibility worthy of consideration. The history of the settlement of the site is basically in agreement with the Biblical references to Ziklag. A greater degree of certainty is at present unattainable. But at least all previous candidates must be excluded.

If I am correct, then the major site excavated by Aharoni and his colleagues was not ancient Beer-Sheva, but Ziklag!

Visitors Welcome

Visitors today to Tell es-Seba‘ (Tel Be’er Sheva) can enjoy recent improvements to the site by the National Parks Authority- benches, a thatched shelter, a diorama of the site, maps and walkways. An observation tower on the mound provides an overview of the excavations and surrounding area. Reflecting the old scholarly consensus, signs identify the tell as Biblical Beer-Sheva. Ziklag is not mentioned.

1. See Volkmar Fritz, Zeitschrift des deutschen Palestina-Vereins (ZDPV) 91 (1975), pp. 30–45.

2. Albrecht Alt, Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel III (1959), pp. 409–435.

3. Joe D. Seger, “Investigations at Tell Halif, Israel, 1976–1980,” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 252 (1983), pp. 1–23.

4. Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible, (London- Burns and Oates, 1979), p. 291.

5. Eliezer Oren, “Ziglag—A biblical city on the edge of the Negev,” Biblical Archaeologist (BA) 45 (1982), pp. 155–166.

6. Frank Crüsemann, ZDPV 89 (1973) pp. 211–224.

7. Ram Gophna and Y. Yisraeli in Beer-sheba I, ed Y. Aharoni (Ramat Gan Tel Aviv Univ., 1973), pp. 115–118.

8. Nadav Na‘aman,“The Inheritance of the Sons of Simeon,” ZDPV 96 (1980), pp. 149–151.

9. Aharoni, in Beer-sheba I pp. 1–3.

10. Aharoni, “Excavations at Tell Beer-sheba,” Tel Aviv 2 (1975), pp. 146–168.

11. Fritz “The Roman Fortress,” in Beer-sheba I pp. 83–89.

12. Fritz, ZDPV 102 (1988) 1–39; Alain Chambon, Tell el-Far‘ah I- L’age du Fer, (1984), Thomas L. McLellan, “Town Planning at Tell en Nasbe,” ZDPV 100 (1985), pp. 53–69.

13. Ze‘ev Herzog et al., “The Israelite Fortress at Arad,” BASOR 254 (1984), pp. 1–34.

14. See also Herzog, “Israelite City Planning,” Expedition 20/4 (1978), pp. 38–43.

15. Fritz, ZDPV 93 (1977), pp. 30–45.