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Identifying King David's Palace: Mazar's Flawed Reading of the Biblical Text

Eilat Mazar has proposed that the palace of King David is located in the area of her excavations in Jerusalem on the basis of 2 Samuel 5. Her analysis of the biblical text fails to recognize the non-sequential order of the account, and it incorrectly assumes that David's palace was built at the beginning of his rule. In fact, 2 Samuel 5 does not provide the specific location of the palace as she alleges.

See Also: The "Palace of David" Reconsidered in the Light of Earlier Excavations By Margreet L. Steiner

Jerusalem in the 10th / 9th centuries BC By Margreet Steiner

By Todd Bolen
September 2010

Several years ago Eilat Mazar began excavation of the area above the famous Stepped Stone Structure in the City of David. Though this area was partially excavated in the 1920s by Macalister and Duncan, significant mistakes were made, such as mis-dating the Hasmonean "First Wall" to the time of David and Solomon. In the 1970s and 80s, Yigal Shiloh excavated the impressive Stepped Stone Structure which all agreed supported a large public building. Eilat Mazar predicted in 1997 that excavations above the Stepped Stone Structure would reveal the palace of David.1 Her proposal was supported by the discovery of a proto-Aeolic capital on the slope below by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1960s.

Mazar commenced excavation of the area in February 2005 and a year later, she published a brief article in which she proposed that a large stone wall that she had found belonged to the palace of David constructed by Hiram of Tyre.2 Mazar's conclusion is based in part on her reading of 2 Samuel 5, which she believes provides the location of David's palace. While the area of Mazar's excavations is undoubtedly significant and may be the area of David's palace, this essay will show that the biblical account does not support her conclusion.3

Mazar claims that 2 Samuel 5 locates David's palace to the north of the Fortress of Zion and outside the city walls. She reads the account as a presentation of events in chronological sequence: (1) David captured Jerusalem (v. 7); (2) he lived in the Jebusite stronghold (v. 9); (3) his palace was built by Hiram (v. 11); (4) he was attacked by the Philistines (v. 17), at which time (5) he retreated from the palace to the fortress. Because the text says that David "descended" to the fortress, Mazar deduces that the palace was north of the fortress because the topography of Jerusalem is higher in the north than it is in the south. Given the notice that David went to the fortress at the time of attack, Mazar suggests that the palace was outside the city walls.4 There are three problems with this reading of the text.

The first problem with Mazar's reconstruction is her premise that each phrase in 2 Samuel 5 sequentially follows after the one before. Scholars have long recognized that the account of David's life in 2 Samuel 5–10 is arranged thematically and not sequentially. One example of this is that some of the battles David won in chapter 8 occurred after his family troubles described in chapters 11–20.

More specifically, the narrative of chapter 5 clearly is not intended to be read as a strictly sequential report. This is most easily seen in the mention of the wives David married and sons born to him over the course of many years after he became king in Jerusalem (5:13-16). Even Solomon is mentioned in this list, though he clearly was not born until the middle of David's rule (2 Sam 12:24-25). The reference to David's palace is also positioned in non-chronological order in verses 11-12, perhaps prompted by mention of his initial residence in the stronghold (v. 9). In other words, the author's notice of David's capture of the city and his taking residence in the former Jebusite stronghold evoked comment about the palace that David would later live in.5 It is indisputable that chapter 5 presents events in non-chronological order.6

Mazar argues that David went from the palace to the fortress in response to the Philistine attack. The exact timing of the Philistine incursion is uncertain, but it is connected by the author to David's installation as king over all Israel (5:17). Once crowned by the twelve tribes, David conquered Jerusalem and established his residence there.7 The text gives three indications that the Philistine attack occurred very close in time to David's move to Jerusalem. The first is the comment that the Philistines came up in "search" of David. A "search" would only be necessary prior to the Philistines' discovery that David had made Jerusalem his capital. The second clue is that the Philistines prepared their forces in the Rephaim Valley. This location, not far from Jerusalem, indicates that Philistine scouts had learned that David was in the former Jebusite city. The third clue that the Philistine attack occurred about the same time as David's move to Jerusalem is their ability to advance so close to his capital. Later in David's rule, the Philistines would be subdued and would not have unimpeded access to the heart of his kingdom (8:1, 12).8 These observations indicate that the Philistine invasion occurred very early in David's Jerusalem years. Mazar's reconstruction, on the other hand, requires that the Philistine attack occurred many years later, after the Phoenicians built David's palace.9

That David's palace was constructed much later than the Philistine attack is supported by other considerations. The author of Samuel gives credit for the construction of the palace to King Hiram of Tyre (5:11). This is the same Phoenician king who helped Solomon construct the temple in Jerusalem, and he was still on the throne twenty years after Solomon began his reign (c. 951 BC; 1 Kgs 9:10-11). King Hiram must have ascended the throne near the end of David's reign, and the construction of the palace, therefore, must have occurred at this time.10 In other words, when David "went down to the stronghold" (2 Sam 5:17), he did not do so from his palace, because it had not yet been built.

A second problem with Mazar's reconstruction concerns the identification of the "stronghold." Mazar argues that verse 17 indicates David went from his palace in Jerusalem down to the Jebusite stronghold in Jerusalem. But the text says neither that David left his palace nor that he went to the Jebusite stronghold.

Three factors suggest that the stronghold in view is outside Jerusalem. First, although the Jebusite stronghold is mentioned in the preceding context (5:9), the broader narrative of David's flight from Saul and the Philistines mentions various other strongholds (e.g., 1 Sam 22:4; 23:14; 24:22). These were familiar to David and likely had been improved by him and his men.11 The point that the text seems to be making is not that David left his palace to walk a few feet downhill to the Jebusite fortress, but that he sought refuge in one of his former strongholds.

Second, the notice that David went "down" to the stronghold suggests that he left Jerusalem, as typically the Bible speaks of going "up" to Jerusalem and going "down" from Jerusalem. Later in the same account, the Lord tells David to leave the stronghold and "go up" to fight the Philistines, not "down" as one would expect if he was leaving Jerusalem. The interpretation that David left Jerusalem is preferable to the view that David went down from one point to another point within Jerusalem.

Third, Mazar's suggestion that David left the palace to go to the Jebusite stronghold assumes a siege scenario, but the Philistine location in the Rephaim Valley, more than a mile distant from Jerusalem, argues against this. David had previously faced the Philistines in the Rephaim Valley while he was in the "stronghold" of Adullam (2 Sam 23:14). David may have recalled the strategic advantage of this site and returned to it in order to prepare for battle and inquire of the Lord (5:18-19).

Photo of City of David area from the eastCity of David.

A better reconstruction of the narrative is that when the Philistines marched up towards Jerusalem, David left the city and went down to a former stronghold that was familiar to him. Here he was told by the Lord to "go up" to fight the Philistines encamped in the hills near Jerusalem.

A third problem with Mazar's reconstruction is the suggestion that David would have built a palace outside the walls. If David was able to finance a foreign-built palace, then surely he could have constructed a wall to protect it. It seems reasonable, given the chronology discussed above, that by the time David built his palace, plans were already underway for construction of the temple. David may well have been the one to erect the first fortifications around what would become the Temple Mount. Though forbidden by God to build the temple, there is no reason why David could not have fortified the area both for his palace and the anticipated temple before his death (cf. 1 Chr 22).

Mazar concludes her proposal with this challenge:

The Biblical narrative, I submit, better explains the archaeology we have uncovered than any other hypothesis that has been put forward. Indeed, the archaeological remains square perfectly with the Biblical description that tells us David went down from there to the citadel. So you decide whether or not we have found King David's palace.12

In fact, the archaeological remains square perfectly only with a selective and tendentious reading of the biblical text. Second Samuel 5 is not presenting a chronologically-ordered account, it does not state that David went down from his palace, and it does not require that the stronghold in which David sought refuge be in Jerusalem. It is certainly possible that David's palace was located north of the Stepped Stone Structure, and it may be that Mazar is currently excavating it. But support for that conclusion does not come from the biblical text.


[1] Eilat Mazar, "Excavate King David's Palace!," Biblical Archaeology Review 23, no. 1 (1997): 50–57, 74.
This article is online at

[2] Eilat Mazar, "Did I Find King David's Palace?," Biblical Archaeology Review 32, no. 1 (2006): 16–27, 70.

[3] Evaluation of Mazar's archaeological analysis may be found in Israel Finkelstein et al., "Has King David's Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?," Tel Aviv 34 (2007): 142–64.

[4] Mazar's theory is accepted by V. Philips Long, "2 Samuel," in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, ed. John H. Walton, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 436–37.

[5] This is not an uncommon device in Hebrew narrative. For instance, in the first account of the Israelites eating manna, the narrator notes that some was collected and placed in a pot inside the ark of the covenant, even though the ark had not yet been built (Exod 16:34-35).

[6] The entire chapter moves back and forth from reporting events at the beginning of David's reign (vv. 1-3, 6-9a, 17-25), to providing summaries of his entire reign (vv. 4-5, 9b-16).

[7] That the capture of Jerusalem occurred shortly after David's anointing is indicated by the chronological statement which distinguishes David's time as king over Judah in Hebron from his time as king over all Israel and Judah in Jerusalem (5:5). This implies that David did not rule as king over all Israel and Judah while living in Hebron.

[8] That the Philistines had such access during Saul's reign at the beginning of David's rule is clear from other passages. One particular example is the narrative in 2 Samuel 23:13-17. As in 2 Samuel 5, the Philistines are in the Valley of Rephaim and David is in the stronghold. Both stories reflect Israelite weakness prior to the establishment of David's rule in Jerusalem.

[9] McCarter says, "It is now generally acknowledged, however, that vv. 11-12 are chronologically out of place at this point in the narrative. They share in the spirit of the miscellaneous catalogue of David's successes found in 8:1-14" (P. Kyle McCarter, II Samuel, Anchor Bible, vol. 9 [New York: Doubleday, 1984], 146).

[10] Dating Hiram's reign is difficult, but in Merrill's extensive discussion of the issue, he observes that "all scholars agree that only David's last decade is contemporary with Hiram" (Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008], 255–56). For details on Hiram's reign, see H. Jacob Katzenstein, The History of Tyre: From the Beginning of the Second Millenium B.C.E. until the Fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E., 2nd., rev. ed. (Beer Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 1997), 95–96.

[11] McCarter makes similar and additional observations in II Samuel, 153, 157–58. Cf. R. P. Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, Library of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1988), 229, who puts the stronghold at Adullam.

[12] Mazar, "Did I Find King David's Palace?," 70.