Does Bone Arrowhead Prove Biblical Account of Epic Battle of Gath?
In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Kings tells a story about how an Aramean king named Hazael conquered and destroyed the famed Philistine city-state of Gath, the home of the legendary giant Goliath. This event occurred sometime between the years 842 BC and 800 BC, coinciding with Hazael’s reign as leader of the kingdom of Aram, located in modern-day Syria.
Historical research does not always support the stories told in the Bible. But that is not the case at Gath. Previous research has uncovered evidence that shows a fierce and epic battle did take place long ago at the site where Gathonce stood. Now, team of Israeli archaeologists believes it has discovered new evidence that further supports the Biblical account and sheds light on how the battle at Gath progressed, according to an analysis appearing in the June 2021 edition of the journal Near Eastern Archaeology.
New Evidence Comes to Light
The evidence in question is a single, unusual object. It is an arrowhead carved from cattle bone, which would have been common in much more ancient times but not so much in the ninth century BC.
The arrowhead (Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)
The arrowhead was originally unearthed in 2019, at an important archaeological site known as the Tell es-Safi burial mound (Tell es-Safi was the name given to Gath by later settlers). The Israeli archaeologists were exploring the ruins of an excavated stone house and found the bone arrowhead buried in the dirt at that location. The arrowhead was cracked at the tip and broken half-way down its shaft, which seems to indicate it hit the target it was fired at.
Based on where it was found and its surviving state, the curious object would likely have been a remnant of the fierce struggle that took place at Gath more than 2,800 years ago, one that ultimately led to the Philistine city’s complete annihilation.
Neolithic Weapons in the Iron Age?
Bone arrowheads were common during the Neolithic Age, which ended approximately 6,000 years ago. But they generally faded from heavy usage after that, as people turned to superior metal alternatives. First bronze had predominated during the Bronze Age, and then iron was added to the mix during the Iron Age – and it was during the latter period that the battle between Hazael’s army and the defending forces of Gath took place.
“In many cultures you have bone projectile points, but as you move into a metal-oriented society they disappear,” Professor Aren Maeir, an archaeologist from Bar-Ilan University and the Gath dig leader, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “The common arrowhead in the Iron Age was made of bronze and iron. Here and there you still find bone points, but they are not very common.”
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In 2006, less than 1,000 feet (300 meters) away from where the arrowhead was discovered, archaeologists uncovered an ancient workshop that dated to the same time period. Here various pieces of discarded waste bone were scattered about, indicating that the bone arrowhead—and many other such items—would likely have been manufactured in this location. Since no intact objects were found there, it seems the workshop was used to manufacture items that were needed immediately.
Location of the arrowhead in Gath (Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)
Why would the Gittites (the Bible’s name for the residents of Gath) have turned to making arrowheads from bone, when better materials were presumably available? The archaeologists have a theory.
They believe this decision was a motivated by desperation. With Hazael’s army marching toward the city, ready to lay it to waste, the people of the endangered town would have gathered their forces and utilized all possible weapons in their final bid to save their homes. With metal available in limited supplies, and with time being of the essence, they likely began making bone arrowheads because they couldn’t meet their needs for ammunition any other way.
“It shows the dramatic moments of the end of the city and the desperate measures they were taking to make weapons that could help in its defense,” Maeir said.
A Fierce Battle
The arrowhead’s discovery inside of a Philistine house suggests it could have been fired by an invading Aramean. But Maeir doubts the object was manufactured on that side of the divide. He thinks the arrowhead must have been fired at the Arameans by a Gittite defender initially, and then recovered and fired back into the Gittite home, where it hit something or someone and broke.
“We understand the Aramean army was a well-organized force that came from afar,” Maeir explained. “They probably carried with them enough supplies so that they would not have to resort to making such ineffective weapons.”
Home invasion is another possible explanation for the location of the arrowhead. If the Arameans were carrying their attack door-to-door, a Gittite homeowner may have been protecting his sanctuary from an intruder menacing his family. At such a close distance, the arrowhead would have almost assuredly hit its target.
Gath Was Lost but Jerusalem Was Spared
Under Hazael’s leadership, the northern kingdom of Aram emerged as a fledgling empire in the ancient Middle East. From his seat of power in Damascus, Hazael dispatched his conquering armies into several nearby territories, meeting resistance that was generally ineffective.
Hazael, King of Aram (Unknown Author / Public Domain)
On the outskirts of Gath, archaeologists found evidence to suggest the Arameans had subjected the people of the city to a terrifying and prolonged siege. A massive trench and several towers were uncovered, indicating that the Arameans were ready to spend as much time as it took to subdue the Philistines.
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Once they’d finished with the Philistines at Gath, their next target was Jerusalem. The capital of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah was located just 22 miles (36 kilometers) away to the east.
But the Aramean plan to conquer Jerusalem was ultimately called off. Rather than invading and destroying the city, the Arameans (somewhat inexplicably) allowed themselves to be bought off instead. The Book of Kings in the Bible explains what happened:
“And Jehoash king of Judah took all the hallowed things that Jehoshaphat, and Jehoram, and Ahaziah, his fathers, kings of Judah, had dedicated, and his own hallowed things, and all the gold that was found in the treasures of the house of the LORD, and in the king’s house, and sent it to Hazael king of Syria: and he went away from Jerusalem.”
The ‘house of the LORD’ is a reference to the Temple. It seems that the handing over the Temple’s vast store of treasures was enough to convince the Arameans to leave Judah in peace, at least for the time being.
An Ancient Mystery
There is no way to determine for certain why Hazael’s forces chose tribute over territorial conquest after reaching Jerusalem. It’s possible that the resistance they’d met at Gath had been potent and effective enough to deplete their manpower and sap them of their fighting strength. Perhaps they decided the best course of action under the circumstances was to accept a generous bribe and depart, rather than take the risk of losing even more men and resources in another fierce battle.
If that is the case, it means the Israelite kingdom of the ninth century BC may have owed their survival to the Philistines, a people they’d been in conflict frequently over the years (as the Philistines’ vilification in the Bible shows).
The land once occupied by Gath is now a part of Israeli territory. This makes Israel responsible for exploring and preserving the legacy of this lost but not forgotten city, whose people may have inadvertently saved their ancestors from destruction a long, long time ago.
Top image: The bone arrowhead may be evidence of a desperate defence of Gath. Source: Oksana Volina / Adobe Stock.
By Nathan Falde