Placing the Past: On Writing a History of “David’s Jerusalem”

In order to write a history about this place it is necessary then to offer not only a detailed historical reconstruction of that early Iron Age settlement linked to David in the biblical narrative, but to also attend to the various ways in which this Jerusalem was remembered over time by the ancient scribes who wrote about it.

See Also: David's Jerusalem: Between Memory and History (Routledge, 2015).

By Daniel Pioske
Georgia Southern University
October 2014

The history of “David’s Jerusalem” is something more than a history of an early 10th century BCE location situated in the highlands of the southern Levant. Of course, a history devoted to David’s Jerusalem necessarily includes a study of this particular settlement by virtue of the connection made in the Hebrew Bible between this place and the figure of David and the chronology this affiliation presupposes. But the history of David’s Jerusalem also extends beyond the horizon of this brief moment in the Iron Age and into those periods in which David continued to possess Jerusalem in the memories of those communities who later claimed the location as their own.[1] David’s Jerusalem was a tangible place of limestone homes and terra rossa soil; it was also a place of remembrance.[2]

A history of David’s Jerusalem must then contend with its duration.[3] For what separates an investigation into “David’s Jerusalem” from other topics of historical interest—Iron I-IIA Jerusalem, local Israelite chieftains, 10th century BCE tribal politics—is the way in which David’s Jerusalem continued to harbor meaning over time for those who considered themselves heirs to a Davidic past. What was essential to the vitality and durability of stories recounted about David’s Jerusalem in antiquity, I argue, was that memories of this location were sustained in part by becoming affixed to a site that survived intact for four centuries after a David would have lived, and which slowly came to recover political and cultural significance in the centuries after the location’s destruction by the Babylonians.[4] To put it more succinctly, memories of David’s Jerusalem persisted because of the persistence of Jerusalem itself.

This point draws near to the work of the eminent early 20th century sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and his argument that an individual or community is best able to recollect a past when it “is preserved, in effect, by the material environment that surrounds us.”[5] In terms of method, what Halbwachs’ insights require from the historian is that one’s critical appraisal of a world remembered within ancient texts be coupled with a rigorous investigation into the material contexts (often multiple) in which these memories were transmitted and maintained. This is because a remembered past, as recent theoretical works on the topic have consistently maintained, is always in some sense dependent on the places in which this past is recalled.[6]

What makes David’s Jerusalem such a fascinating but complex subject of historical study, consequently, is that it is both a particular object frozen, so to speak, in time (an early 10th century BCE highland settlement), and a transforming and transformative collection of impressions that continued to abide through the centuries within an assemblage of cultural memories. In order to write a history about this place it is necessary then to offer not only a detailed historical reconstruction of that early Iron Age settlement linked to David in the biblical narrative, but to also attend to the various ways in which this Jerusalem was remembered over time by the ancient scribes who wrote about it.

Resisted within such an approach, accordingly, would be a straightforward historical account of David’s Jerusalem, linear in form and evolutionary in orientation, in which the story told about it moves along a series of successive chronological events most often recounted in an effort to provide insights into the rise of a “people” or the “nation-state.” Within this scheme, the history of David’s Jerusalem has long functioned as an important mediating stage in studies of state formation: out of a loosely governed tribal society a military and political genius[7] founds a new capital city and from it establishes a kingdom or perhaps an empire.[8] To give substance to this historical reconstruction, biblical texts are mined for information along the lines pioneered by the great 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke and his study of political archives stored away in the forgotten bureaucratic chambers of former medieval centers.[9]

Removing ourselves from this interpretive framework is not to dismiss the influence David’s Jerusalem may have exerted within the development of a local polity in the southern Levant during the early Iron Age. Nor is it to impugn the historical value of ancient written accounts. But it has become increasingly clear over the past half century that, on the one hand, the past portrayed about David in the Hebrew Bible is more historically nebulous and uncertain than what was once believed; and that, even more, a narrow focus on whether this Jerusalem fulfilled predetermined categories of “urbanization” or contributed to the achievement of Israelite “statehood” overlooks meaningful and perhaps more authentic dimensions of the history of this location.

Another approach to the history of David’s Jerusalem is to bracket these broader historical questions and focus instead on the place of Jerusalem itself: the landscape of the site, the lifeways of its inhabitants, the authority that may have been projected through its natural and built environment. When attending to the site in this manner, however, the challenge faced is the character of Jerusalem’s early Iron Age material culture. Perhaps the most difficult hurdle to surmount consists of the location’s four thousand years of almost continuous occupation, including not only the many conflicts, destructions, and renovations that have befallen the site, but also the rhythms of daily life that have slowly transformed the location over the centuries. But a number of other impediments to the site’s archaeological remains have been cited by nearly all of Jerusalem’s excavators.[10] These arise, for example, from the common practice of reusing quarried stone from older buildings in the construction of new edifices in ancient Jerusalem, which resulted in the absence of more apparent stratigraphic indicators during the many centuries in the Bronze and Iron Ages when the site avoided destruction; the technique by which engineers during the Roman period often cleared away previous structures at the site down to the bedrock when securing and leveling their new buildings; and from the topography of Jerusalem itself, particularly along the hilly slopes of the City of David where archaeology has been most manageable in relation to the modern city, where the settlement has been particularly susceptible to erosion over the thousands of years that separate us from the early Iron Age. To make matters more difficult, crucial areas within the most ancient precincts of Jerusalem, such as the Temple Mount, cannot be excavated.

For the Jerusalem of the early 10th century BCE this final observation is important. Following E. A. Knauf’s earlier proposal regarding the location of Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Jerusalem,[11] I. Finkelstein et al. have recently argued that Jerusalem’s earliest settlements would have been situated atop the Temple Mount area rather than, as traditionally understood, on the ridge of the City of David.[12] The attractiveness of this proposal stems foremost from its capacity to account for the dearth of Late Bronze Age, Iron I, and Iron IIA period finds from the City of David during eras in which textual sources characterize Jerusalem as being an important highland settlement. By situating the primary occupation area of these Jerusalem settlements atop the Temple Mount and beneath the Herodian platform, the City of David would be understood as a mostly marginal space of settlement activity outside of Jerusalem proper during those periods in antiquity in which Jerusalem’s population was more limited (i.e. LBA, Iron I, Iron IIA).[13]

The immediate advantage of this proposal is that it explains why more substantial material remains have not been recovered from excavations in the City of David without having to invoke those processes of erosion and rebuilding activity I have referred to above. In addition, this theory finds a certain allure because it cannot be disproved through archaeological research. But weaknesses with this argument nevertheless persist. The first difficulty is the location of the Gihon Spring and the massive Middle Bronze Age fortifications erected around it.[14] The presence of these remains suggest that the residents of MBA Jerusalem went to great lengths to fortify and defend their source of water located near the City of David and built their settlement in conjunction with this water supply. The existence of these fortifications makes it unlikely, then, that later communities abandoned this area of the City of David and its water resources and moved upslope to reside atop the Temple Mount.

A second weakness with this proposal is the inability to account for the Iron I remains that have been recovered in the City of David. Time and space does not permit a review of the longstanding and elaborate debates surrounding the dating of Iron I and IIA pottery from this region or interpretations of the construction phases that pertain to the most celebrated architectural feature from this era in the City of David’s history, the Stepped Stone Structure.[15] But what can be said is that the upper courses of the Stepped Stone Structure (Shiloh’s Wall 302) appear to have been bonded to Wall 20 of the Large Stone Structure situated above it,[16] making the Stepped Stone Structure some form of a support system used to reinforce this building or perhaps a complex of buildings situated in this northern sector of the settlement. In terms of dating this construction, Room E of the Large Stone Building, which abuts Wall 20, has provided a number of finds including collared rim jars, crucibles, and other ceramic assemblages linked to the Iron I period.[17]

Eilat Mazar, the excavator of the Large Stone Structure, has nevertheless identified a more detailed and ornate building situated in this location, dated it to the Iron IIA period, and claimed that it is the palace of David.[18] This interpretation, driven at least in part by an attempt to prove the historicity of this biblical figure and the stories written about him, has been roundly criticized on archaeological grounds due to the orientation, construction, and fragmentary character of the Large Stone Structure’s walls (which may descend from a number of different eras) and the presence of Iron I material culture within certain rooms of this building.[19] What makes E. Mazar’s interpretation more curious is that an Iron I dating of this edifice finds as much, if not greater, support from a close reading of the biblical narrative and those hazy memories of a Jebusite stronghold captured by David in 2 Sam 5:6-9//1 Chr 11:4-9 than attempts to link this structure with a Davidic palace.

In addition to these monumental structures brief mention should also be made of those vestiges of a few buildings and finds from the Iron I/IIA period have also persisted on the City of David’s eastern slope. The partial remains of two edifices with a ceramic assemblage connected to this era, for example, were located in Shiloh’s Stratums 15-14 in Area E North (Buildings 1655 and 2091),[20] and evidence of 11th-10th century BCE remains were also found further down slope.[21] In Area E North a broad depression was also uncovered within an Iron IIA building in which two complete chalices were preserved, leading the excavators to term it a “cultic corner,”[22] and in an Iron IIA stratum from Area G a partial cultic stand with a depiction of a nude male figure was recovered, as well as a small fist from a bronze statuette.[23] Presumably, similar buildings and occupied areas would have extended over the western sector of the City of David and abutted the Ophel area to the north, though what structures were once located in these areas have not withstood the vicissitudes of Jerusalem’s long and violent history.

When viewed from the perspective of even these very partial and modest remains, this Jerusalem begins to emerge from the archaeological record as a highland stronghold whose particular synthesis of topography, architecture, and natural resources would have promoted a robust ideology of security and strength among local populations unaccustomed to such a confluence of spaces and appearances during this period in time. Perched atop the spur of a hill with steep valleys along its sides in antiquity, this stronghold occupied a strategic defensive position that also commanded a key location between the venerable highland tribal centers of Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel, and Hebron. Even more, this Jerusalem was situated alongside the Gihon Spring and its subterranean waterworks system that flowed independent of rainfall. Able to avoid a total reliance on cisterns so vulnerable to periods of drought, the underground water channels beneath Jerusalem provided a precious resource within a location that bordered on desert and tolerated a semi-arid climate. The display of buildings that could be overcome only by difficult maneuvers upslope, of vegetation and abundance on Jerusalem’s surrounding fields, of water bubbling up from the ground—such images would not have been lost on those local rulers and elites who, from at least the Early Bronze Age and into the Iron Age period, sought to use Jerusalem as a base for jurisdiction and military operations in the surrounding region.

Another important dimension of this settlement however is the everyday lives of those who would have inhabited this place. In viewing the location from this vantage point, the questions pursued by the historian center on how a typical Jerusalemite resident subsisted during that period characterized by the Hebrew Bible as the Davidic era. By turning our attention toward the quotidian, what becomes clear about this Jerusalem is that the settlement was first and foremost an agrarian society comprised of farmers and pastoralists who drew on Jerusalem’s landscape to survive in what could be an unforgiving environment. From the archaeological and written record one catches glimpses of homes constructed so as to permit livestock to lodge within them during nightfall, of communal threshing floors scattered on the outskirts of the settlement, of grain fields ripening in the Kidron Valley and olive trees harvested along the terraces of Jerusalem’s slopes. Regardless of the date in which the biblical traditions of Saul and David were first composed, what is so interesting about these figures in light of this analysis is that these early rulers are depicted by biblical scribes as farmers (1 Sam 11:5) and pastoralists (1 Sam 16:11) engaged in agrarian activities—and not as rulers governing from the larger palatial and temple complex likely present in Jerusalem, for example, in the late Iron Age.

But these features of David’s Jerusalem are only part of its history. In addition are literary references to it in the Hebrew Bible, including both narrative and poetic texts written at different times and from different points of view. Indeed, what is found in these ancient writings is not one outlook concerning David’s capital, but a multitude: the beleaguered Jerusalem of 2 Sam 15-19 finds no parallel to that story recounted about David in the work of the Chronicler, and within other biblical texts are implicit and explicit allusions to David’s capital not found within these larger narrative works (Is 29:1-4; Ps 51).

In turning first to the Book of Samuel’s portrayal of David’s Jerusalem, what is remarkable about its description of the capital is that its status, much like that of its king, teeters between greatness and decay. Defied within these passages then is a one-sided, partisan perspective so common to royal writings of the ancient Near East that permit little ambiguity concerning a ruler’s domain. True, David’s Jerusalem is remembered as a royal center filled with the rich spoils of successful foreign campaigns against bitter enemies (2 Sam 8) and as a site governed by a timeless dynasty from an everlasting throne (2 Sam 7:13-16). Yet David’s Jerusalem is also a site of conspiracy (2 Sam 11:14-16; 15:1-6), rape (2 Sam 13:14, 16:22), open rebellion (2 Sam 15:13) and death (2 Sam 12:19; 1 Kings 2:25, 34, 46). In a stunning reversal from those earlier texts describing David’s rise to power, the final chapters devoted to David’s reign are ones in which the predominant picture of Jerusalem’s king is that of a ruler in mourning (2 Sam 12:16, 13:31, 37; 15:30; 19:1-5 [ET 18:33-19:4]).

One finds none of these memories of misfortune in the Chronicler’s portrayal of David’s royal center. In their place is a David who diligently oversees a flourishing, united capital that, again and again, is said to contain inhabitants from “all Israel.” This Jerusalem is a city of Levites and priests, temple musicians and gatekeepers, and a citizenry who donate lavishly “with a single heart” for the building of the temple (1 Chr 29:9). In direct opposition to the strife that grips David’s capital in Samuel, the Chronicler depicts a city of peace in which each of David’s sons “pledged their allegiance to Solomon” as the crown prince (1 Chr 29:24). Expunged from literary memory is Absalom’s rebellion; gone also is Adonijah’s coronation and ultimate demise.

Absent within the Chronicler’s story are thus those moments of insurrection against David’s Jerusalem in the Book of Samuel. Missing, too, are David’s vindictive last words voiced in 1 Kings 2 concerning old vows broken or, at the very least, interpreted anew. Present instead in the Chronicler’s narrative are detailed chapters recording preparations made by David for a temple that hovers only in the periphery of the tale of David’s reign in Samuel-Kings, with the Chronicler going so far as to describe a detailed blueprint of the holy sanctuary delivered to David—and not Solomon—from the “hand of the Lord” (1 Chr 28:19). The portrayal of David’s Jerusalem in Chronicles departs so substantially at moments from the city’s depiction in Samuel-Kings that the historian becomes gripped by the question as to what motivated the Chronicler to redress older memories of the location as he did.

Writing within a dilapidated and forlorn Jerusalem that was only a shell of its former Iron Age appearance, it is with the Chronicler that my own research into David’s Jerusalem concludes. To be sure, this is an artificial end point to this manner of historical study and not a necessary one. The memory of David’s Jerusalem will continue to resound in the story of the Maccabees (1 Macc 2), in the writings of Josephus (Antiquities VII), among early Christian communities (Matt 21-22), and the claims of medieval rulers (Charlemagne). It will resound within a great assortment of sublime artistic works and literature from the past; doubtless, it continues to resound today.

Which of these images claims priority for a history of David’s Jerusalem? What is the history of the location? My intent in calling attention to a number of different vantage points by which to examine this ancient place is to complicate a straightforward answer to this question. The reason for doing so does not derive from some scholarly yearning for obfuscation or evasiveness, but is rather a consequence of confronting deep problems of historical epistemology, or how we come to terms with what we know about the past. In the tradition of Nietzsche’s philosophical framework,[24] my argument here is that it is necessary to examine one’s historical subject matter again and again, obliquely and from many different angles, in an effort to achieve a more textured and thick representation of an ancient past. The impetus for this approach is a century of theoretical reflection on the historian’s craft that has come to be suspicious of historical claims predicated on ideas of brute, unmediated facts and a past directly available for objective analysis, and of resultant forms of imperious discourse wed to notions of veracity or historicity. Instead, by layering these perspectives of David’s Jerusalem alongside one another and refusing to privilege one particular image over others, this historical investigation attempts to honor an epistemology of ancient life and culture that the historian Carlo Ginzburg contends is inherently fragile and vulnerable, in which the past pursued is always in some sense “uncertain, discontinuous, lacunar, based only on fragments and ruins.”[25]


[1] For a fuller discussion of the dynamics of cultural memory in ancient Israel, see my forthcoming David’s Jerusalem: Between Memory and History (Routledge: New York and London, 2015), and the considerations contained in the first chapter on “‘The Content of the Form’: Biblical Narrative and the Remembrance of Things Past.”

[2] On this point, see the programmatic essay by Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 7-25.

[3] So Aristotle observes in a remarkable section of his Physics: “For place does not pass out of existence when things in it cease to be.” Physics IV.1 (208b29).

[4] In the Book of Nehemiah, for example, we come across a reference to a “House of David” positioned somewhere near the Fountain Gate (Neh 12:37). Important about this text for my purposes here is not its historical character (i.e. whether or not the “House of David” was an actual historical site from the early 10th century BCE), but rather that the memory of a Davidic structure in Jerusalem was still present when the Book of Nehemiah was being composed—presumably some six to seven centuries after a David would have lived.

[5] Maurice Halbwachs, La Mémoire Collective (2nd ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), 146. On the implications of this theory from a historical perspective, see Halbwachs’ study of ancient Christian pilgrimage sites in the Levant, La topographie légendaire de évangiles en Terre Sainte (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008).

[6] So again Maurice Halbwachs, “La Mémoire Collective et L’Espace,” in La Mémoire Collective (1968): 130-167; Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1994): 3-37; Edward Casey, “Place Memory,” in Remembering (1987): 181-215; Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (2003): 120-22.

[7] Albrecht Alt, “Jerusalems Aufstieg.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländishen Gesellschaft 79 (1925): 2-19.

[8] An elegant representative of this position is John Bright’s classic history of Israel, which describes David’s acquisition of Jerusalem as a bold maneuver through which David “gained a capital from which he could rule a national state,”—a state that was now able to rise above previous forms of “tribal jealously.” John Bright,A History of Israel (3rd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 200.

[9] So especially von Ranke’s early, concise Über die Verschwörung gegen Venedig, im Jahre 1618. Mit Urkunden aus dem Venezianischen Archive (Berlin: Dunckler und Humbolt, 1831).

[10] For brief but very helpful summaries of these impediments, see Amihai Mazar, “Jerusalem in the 10th Century B.C.E.: The Glass Half-Full,” in Essays on Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context: A Tribute to Nadav Na'aman, (Edited by Y. Amit et al. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 265-67; Othmar Keel, Die Geschichte Jerusalems und Die Entstehung des Monotheismus, Teil I (OLB IV, 1; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 75-79; Alon De Groot, “Discussion and Conclusions,” in Excavations at the City of David 1978-1985 Directed by Yigal Shiloh, Vol. VIIA (eds. A. De Groot and H. Bernick-Greenberg; Qedem 53; Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2012), 141-43.

[11] Ernst Axel Knauf, “Jerusalem in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages: A Proposal," TA 27 (2000): 75-90.

[12] Israel Finkelstein, Ido Koch, and Oded Lipschits, “The Mound on the Mount: A Possible Solution to the ‘Problem with Jerusalem,’” JHS 11 (2011), Article 12.

[13] Ibid., 3.

[14] Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, “A New Segment of the Middle Bronze Fortification in the City of David,” TA 37 (2010), 141-53.

[15] For a longer discussion of these debates, see my David’s Jerusalem, chapter five.

[16] Amahai Mazar, “Archaeology and the Biblical Narrative: The Case of the United Monarchy” in One God—One Cult—One Nation (eds. R. Kratz and H. Spieckermann. BZAW 405; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 38-40; Avraham Faust, “The Large Stone Structure in Jerusalem: A Reexamination.” ZDPV 126.2 (2010): 121-22.

[17] Faust, “Large Stone Structure,” 121-22. For a critique of this position, however, see Israel Finkelstein, “The ‘Large Stone Structure’ in Jerusalem: Reality Versus Yearning,” ZDPV127.1 (2011):1-10.

[18] Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David's Palace?" BAR 32.1 (January/February 2006): 16–27, 70; idem., The Palace of King David: Excavations at the Summit of the City of David. Preliminary Report of Seasons 2005-2007. Jerusalem: Shoham Academic Research and Publication, 2009), 51-65.

[19] Israel Finkelstein et al., “Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?,” TA 34.2 (2007): 142-164; Avraham Faust, “Did Eilat Mazar Find King David’s Palace?” BAR 38.5 (2012): 51-52, 70.

[20] Yigal Shiloh, Excavations at the City of David, I (Qedem 19; Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1984), 26-27. De Groot and Bernick-Greenberg, Excavations at the City of David, VIIA, 150-54.

[21] Donald Ariel and Alon de Groot, “The Iron Age Extramural Occupation at the City of David and Additional Observations on the Siloam Channel,” in City of David Excavations: Final Report V (2000), 158.

[22] De Groot and Bernick-Greenberg, Excavations at the City of David, VIIA, 152, 170-72.

[23] Shiloh, Excavations in the City of David, I, 17; figs. 2a–b.

[24] “‘[P]erspectival ‘knowing,’” Nietzsche writes, is the only form of ‘knowing’ possible, and thus “the more feelings about a matter which we allow to come to expression, the more eyes, different eyes through which we are able to view this one object, the more complete our ‘conception’ of it....” Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (trans. W. Kaufmann; New York: Vintage, 1967), III.12.

[25] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive (trans. A. Tedeschi and J. Tedeschi; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 24.

Comments (2)

You wrote an entire article about space and place without citing Foucault. Please tell me he's not in the book, and I will buy it.

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 11/13/2014 - 15:22

You have David's Jerusalem per Samuel/Kings teetering between greatness and decay. Not quite sure what 'teetering' means here. If it means presenting a dramatically powerful combination of greatness in terms of power and decay in terms of morality that is true. We are told that the seeds of destruction were present from the very beginning. But this is not a teetering or shimmering view in the sense of narrative inconsistency. Power and moral problems do go together.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 11/16/2014 - 17:35

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