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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  • mukaga says

    am just new here and excited and happy to have joined this page….

  • Ian says

    This text also proves (if there was any doubt) that there were two Kingdoms in the area: Israel and Judah (whose Kings were all descendants of King David.

  • Ethan says

    Hector,

    This didn’t occur shortly after the Goliath story. The United Monarchy didn’t split until the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

  • Kurt says

    The Book of Reliable Guidance.
    Take, for example, the well-known Israelite King David. Until recently, the sole basis for knowledge of his existence was the Bible. Although mainline historians accept him as an authentic figure, some skeptics try to dismiss him as a legend invented by Jewish propagandists. What do the facts show?
    In 1993 an inscription referring to the “House of David” was found in the ruins of the ancient Israelite city of Dan. The inscription was part of a shattered monument from the ninth century B.C.E., commemorating a victory over the Israelites by their enemy. Suddenly, there was an ancient reference to David outside of the pages of the Bible! Was this significant? Regarding this finding, Israel Finkelstein, of Tel Aviv University, observed: “Biblical nihilism collapsed overnight with the discovery of the David inscription.”
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200271570

  • Jürgen says

    That incription in question is not any evidence at all. It´s just a confirmation that a house a David existed. It does not proof any relation to a biblical David neither the size of that “house” (=family). “David” could just be a small tribe or – more and better – the leader of a bandite tribe attacking and robbing trading caravanes. The incriptions do not tell anything on a “King David”.

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