Tel Dan inscription references the “House of David”
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 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.
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.
Read about the current excavations at Tel Dan in “The Renewed Excavations at Tel Dan.”
“‘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.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2011.
Become a member of Biblical Archaeology Society, and gain All Access with your membership today
The BAS Library includes online access to more than 9,000 articles by world-renowned experts and 22,000 gorgeous color photos from…
Plus, you get access to so much more from your All-Access pass:
Biblical Archaeology Review print edition:
Enjoy our current issues in the convenient, time-tested, paper magazine format…
Biblical Archaeology Review digital edition:
Stay on top of the latest research! You get …
All of this rich and detailed scholarship is available to you—right now—by becoming an All-Access member.
That’s right: when you join as an All-Access member, you get a ticket to four decades of study, insight and discovery. Why not join us right now and start your own exploration?
Whether you’re researching a paper, preparing a sermon, deepening your understanding of Scripture or history, or simply marveling at the complexity of the Bible – the most important book in history—the BAS All-Access pass is an invaluable tool that cannot be matched anywhere else.
You'll get to experience all the discoveries and debate in beautiful clarity with Biblical Archaeology Review, anytime, anywhere! And the Library is fully searchable by topic, author, title and keyword, and includes curated special collections on topics of particular interest.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to explore Bible history and biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.