David & Goliath

00:00 - 00:30 Bethlehem - ancestral home of David on the desert side of the Judean ridge. Recall the rebuke of David's brother when the young shepherd showed up in the military camp: "Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert?"
00:30 - 02:20 Cross Judah westward to the central spine of the hill country
02:20 - 07:50 Descend to the Valley of Elah along the near-continuous ridge route. The ease of access between the hill country and the Shephelah made this a desirable invasion route for the Philistines. It's most likely the reason the standoff between Israel and Judah is taking place where it does.
07:50 This is a good spot to pause and use Google Earth's navigation controls (upper right corner of the image) to take a 360-degree look around our current location. We're where the Valley of Elah - which runs east to west - intersects with the "Judean moat" - a north-south valley separating the hills of Judah on the east from the low-lying hills of the Shephelah on the west. We'll discuss the moat's significance on another flight ...
07:50 - 08:40 Here, in the broad flat area at the upper end of the Valley of Elah (and on the north side of the Elah stream), David most likely found the camp of Saul, positioned defensively to prevent the Philistines from using the ridge route up into the heart of Judah. It's a good candidate for the location where, we're told, "David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers."

As we shall see shortly, the Philistines have pushed deep into the Shephelah, occupying towns belonging to Judah. It's reasonable to see their offensive as aimed at the heartland of Judah. Saul's position at the ascent to the heartland makes it almost impossible for the Philistines to advance. But Saul's in no position to take the initiative and drive them back ...

09:10 - 12:05 The Valley of Elah at this point is defined by two east-west ridges on its north and south sides. The Philistines have advanced inland from the coastal plain deep into the Shefelah, taking the cities of Azekah and Socoh. Socoh - straight ahead - is the primary Israelite stronghold where Elah meets the Judean moat. It is now the Philistines' forward-command post. Azekah - a bit further downstream where the valley curves north and then west again - was always a major Shephelah stronghold, and it's now in Philistine hands. They occupy the entire ridge on the south and west sides of the stream. Saul was across the valley: "Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them."

It's possible the Philistines held the western portion of the northern ridge - a major archeological excavation currently underway may help answer that question ...

12:05 This is a good place to pause and take a 360-degree look around. To the west and northwest, we see the the broad Valley of Elah meandering through the low hills of the Shefelah toward the coastal plain - the territory of Philistia. Where the Shefelah ends and the plain begins is the city of Gath - Goliath's hometown and one of the five chief cities of the Philistines. Looking due east, we see the ridge that defines the northern side of the battlefield. The Bible tells us the Philistine line ran from here at Azekah to Socoh. Did that mean they only held the southern ridge on this side of the stream, or did they occupy at least a portion of the northern ridge before us? If we can answer that question, we'll have a stronger basis for suggesting the location on the valley floor where the two champions - David and Goliath - faced off ...
12:05 - 12:45 The northern ridge ... It's possible Saul held it in its entirety. If so, the two armies faced off against each other along the length of the Elah stream between Socoh and Azekah. If so, it does much to explain the stalemate. Either side venturing out onto the valley floor was vulnerable to attack on it's right flank from the other's position of greatest strength and reserves. A full-on assault across the length of the valley floor could result in lines being cut, troops being isolated, picked off and slaughtered.

On the other hand, if the Philistine line included this portion of the northern ridge, the natural tension of the battlefield was not along the stream, but further east toward the Judean moat. Saul's position at the moat and and the base of the Elah-Bethlehem ridge route effectively blocked the Philistine advance into the hill country, and with the high ground behind him, was highly defensible if he was attacked. The Philistine occupation of the entire southern ridge and much of the northern ridge effectively blocked any attempt by Saul to drive them back to the coastal plain. Above all, any advance down the valley meant he would be attacked from three sides.

The answer to this question might be found at Khirbet Qaifeh, perhaps the most exciting archaeological dig in Israel at this time ...

12:50 Khirbet Qaifeh - this is a good place to pause. Using the navigation control in the upper right of the screen, grab its outer ring with your mouse and spin it around. This will let you encircle Khirbet Qaifeh for a better look at the site. It has been identified as a fortified Israelite city from about the time of David. Was it here during the reign of Saul, or was it built later after David had become king? If the former, was it still in Israel's hands during this standoff, or had the Philistines overrun it like they had Azekah and Socoh? If the former, was this fortified position Saul's command post during this confrontation? Finally, given this site's possible prominance at the time, can we identify it based on the story told in 1 Samuel 17? Excavations underway may answer those questions.
12:50 - 14:15 Continue eastward along the northern ridge, back to the junction of the Valley of Elah and the Judean moat. Whatever is concluded about which side controlled the west end of the northern ridge, it's virtually certain Saul's forces were dug in here, blocking the ascent to the hill country.
14:15 - 16:55 Let's end with a look at the valley floor and the stream from where David selected his five smooth stones. Somewhere along this course, David accepted the Philistine challenge to a contest of champions, crossed the stream and killed Goliath. We're told the Philistines fled back toward Gath and Ekron in panic when Goliath fell, with Israel in pursuit. If the entire northern ridge was in Israel's hands, those Philistines who held the southern ridge suddenly found themselves trapped - the valley floor between Socoh and Azekah was suddenly a gauntlet as Saul's army fell on the fleeing Philistines' right flank and bottled up that dog leg in the valley that sweeps around the base of Azekah. On the other hand, if the Philistines controlled the western end of the northern ridge, they were mercifully spared the slaughter of the flank attack, but still had to run faster than their pursuers if they were to escape with their lives ...
16:55 This is a good spot to pause and take a 360-degree look around. 1 Sam. 17:1 tells us the Philistines encamped between Azekah and Socoh at Ephes Dammim - "border of blood". The broad, flat area here where the Valley of Elah makes a sharp turn northward is the best location for a major encampment. It is protected on the west and south by ridges. The open area here extends southward into another broad valley, making it ideal for holding reserves and supplies - and escaping, if attacked. Indeed, this spot was critical to hold if the Philistines were not going to risk having their advance forces that were stretched along the southern ridge to Socoh being cut off and isolated.

It has been suggested Khirbet Qaifeh is Ephes Dammim. If so, it would mean the encampment was located at the captured Israelite stronghold. But the name Ephes Dammim suggests something more linear - a border but not a city. And while there may be perfectly good tactical and morale reasons to make the captured stronghold of your enemy the site of your encampment (assuming Israel did not retain possession), this broad area on the valley floor seems a more appealing location that the rocky, uneven scrub around Khirbet Qaifeh. But, at this point, it's speculation based on the images we have in our minds ...

16:55 - 17:24 A final look at the Valley of Elah.