The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible

Tel Dan inscription references the “House of David”

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2011.—Ed.


 
tel-dan-stele

The fragmentary Tel Dan stela, containing the Tel Dan inscription (or “House of David” inscription) provided the first historical evidence of King David from the Bible. The Aramean king who erected the stela in the mid-eighth century B.C. claims to have defeated the “king of Israel” and the “king of the House of David.” Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Israel Antiquities Authority (photograph by Meidad Suchowolski).

Few modern Biblical archaeology discoveries have caused as much excitement as the Tel Dan inscription—writing on a ninth-century B.C. stone slab (or stela) that furnished the first historical evidence of King David from the Bible.

The Tel Dan inscription, or “House of David” inscription, was discovered in 1993 at the site of Tel Dan in northern Israel in an excavation directed by Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran.

The broken and fragmentary inscription commemorates the victory of an Aramean king over his two southern neighbors: the “king of Israel” and the “king of the House of David.” In the carefully incised text written in neat Aramaic characters, the Aramean king boasts that he, under the divine guidance of the god Hadad, vanquished several thousand Israelite and Judahite horsemen and charioteers before personally dispatching both of his royal opponents. Unfortunately, the recovered fragments of the “House of David” inscription do not preserve the names of the specific kings involved in this brutal encounter, but most scholars believe the stela recounts a campaign of Hazael of Damascus in which he defeated both Jehoram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

What made the Tel Dan inscription one of the most exciting Biblical archaeology discoveries for scholars and the broader public was its unprecedented reference to the “House of David.” The stela’s fragmented inscription, first read and translated by the renowned epigrapher Joseph Naveh, proved that King David from the Bible was a genuine historical figure and not simply the fantastic literary creation of later Biblical writers and editors. Perhaps more important, the stela, set up by one of ancient Israel’s fiercest enemies more than a century after David’s death, still recognized David as the founder of the kingdom of Judah.

The “House of David” inscription had its skeptics, however, especially the so-called Biblical minimalists, who attempted to dismiss the “House of David” reading as implausible and even sensationalistic. In a famous BAR article, Philip Davies argued that the Hebrew term bytdwd referred to a specific place (akin to bytlhm for Bethlehem) rather than the ancestral dynasty of David. Such skepticism aside, however, most Biblical scholars and archaeologists readily accepted that the Tel Dan stela had supplied the first concrete proof of a historical King David from the Bible, making it one of the top Biblical archaeology discoveries reported in BAR.

Even though the “House of David” inscription has confirmed the essential historicity of King David from the Bible, scholars have reached little consensus about the nature and extent of his rule. Was David the great king of Biblical lore who founded his royal capital at Jerusalem and established an Israelite kingdom? Or was David a ruler of only a tribal chiefdom, as Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University contends? Questions like these often arise from Biblical archaeology discoveries and lie at the heart of the complex relationships among archaeology, history and the Bible.

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Based on “Issue 200: Ten Top Discoveries,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August September/October 2009.
 


 
Read about the current excavations at Tel Dan in “The Renewed Excavations at Tel Dan.”
 

 

Visit the BAS Library for more on the Tel Dan inscription:

“‘David’ Found at Dan,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1994.

Philip R. Davies, “‘House of David’ Built on Sand: The Sins of the Biblical Maximizers,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1994.

David Noel Freedman and Jeffrey C. Geoghegan, “‘House of David’ Is There!” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1995.

Ryan Byrne, “Archaeological Views: Letting David Go,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2008.

“Strata: A House Divided: Davies and Maeir on the Tel Dan Stela,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2013.

Avraham Biran, “Dan,” in Ephraim Stern, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 5 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008).

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Posted in Artifacts and the Bible, Biblical Artifacts, Inscriptions.

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47 Responses

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  • Patrick says

    Patrick Zerbib
    The Mesha stele also mentions the “house of David”.
    Try to find 5 biblical mentions (YHVH, Israel, Mesha, Moab, Omri) on the Mesha stele with this nice game ( in french) : http://abraham.avinou.free.fr/mecha2/mecha.html
    Stele de Mesha
    Déchiffre la stèle de Mecha Trouve et surligne une des occurences des 5 mots suivants : YHVH, MCHO (Mecha), MAB (Moab), OMRY (Omri), YSRAL (Israel)
    abraham.avinou.free.fr

  • Patrick says

    The Mesha stele also mentions the “house of David”.
    Try to find 5 biblical mentions (YHVH, Israel, Mesha, Moab, Omri) on the Mesha stele with this nice game ( in french) : http://abraham.avinou.free.fr/mecha2/mecha.html

  • JIMMY says

    The bible is trew

  • Gertoux says

    Today the David and Solomon’s kingdoms are no longer considered as historical by minimalist archaeologists. According to Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, for example, authors of The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, at the time of the kingdoms of David and Solomon, Jerusalem was populated by only a few hundred residents or less, which is insufficient for an empire stretching from the Euphrates to Eilath. They suggest that due to religious prejudice, the authors of the Bible suppressed the achievements of the Omrides. Some Biblical minimalists like Thomas L. Thompson go further, arguing that Jerusalem became a city and capable of being a state capital only in the mid-seventh century. Likewise, Finkelstein and others consider the claimed size of Solomon’s temple implausible. A review of methods and arguments used by these minimalists shows that they are impostors for writing history. The historical testimonies dated by a chronology anchored on absolute dates (backbone of history) are replaced by archaeological remains dated by carbon-14 (backbone of modern myths). The goal of these unfounded claims is clearly the charring of biblical accounts.

    From “Kings David and Solomon: Chronological, Historical and Archaeological Evidence” ( https://www.academia.edu/5183268 ).

    Gerard Gertoux
    PhD in Archaeology and History of Ancient Worlds
    http://iaassyriology.org/ph-d-research/gertoux-gerard-lyonfrance-approche-scientifique-dune-chronologie-absolue-grace-aux-synchronismes-dates-par-lastronomie-scientific-approach-absolute-chronology-synchronisms-date/

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