Tel Dan Stele
The Tel Dan Stele in its current location
|Writing||Old Aramaic (Phoenician alphabet)|
|Present location||Israel Museum|
The Tel Dan Stele is a broken stele (inscribed stone) discovered in 1993-94 during excavations at Tel Dan in northern Israel. It consists of several fragments making up part of a triumphal inscription in Aramaic, left most probably by Hazael of Aram-Damascus, an important regional figure in the late 9th-century BCE. Hazael (or more accurately, the unnamed king) boasts of his victories over the king of Israel and his ally the king of the "House of David" (bytdwd), the first time the name David had been found outside of the Bible.
The Tel Dan inscription generated considerable debate and a flurry of articles, debating its age, authorship, and even some accusations of forgery, "but it is now widely regarded (a) as genuine and (b) as referring to the Davidic dynasty and the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus." However, Biblical minimalists continue to question "which house of which David" as well as whether it says David at all "since the text has no vowels and can be read with different vowels" as "House of a Beloved" and "House of the Uncle". It is currently on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Discovery and description
The stele was discovered by Avraham Biran at Tel Dan in the northern part of modern Israel (fragment A in July 1993 and fragments B1 and B2 in June 1994). The fragments were published by Biran and his colleague Joseph Naveh in 1993 and 1995.
The following is the transcription using Hebrew letters provided by Biran and Naveh. Dots separate words (as in the original), empty square brackets indicate damaged/missing text, and text inside square brackets is reconstructed by Biran and Naveh:
1.[ ]א]מר.ע[ ]וגזר ]
2.[ ]אבי.יסק[.עלוה.בה]תלחמה.בא--- ]
The following line-by-line translation by Lawrence J. Mykytiuk (published 2004) largely follows Biran and Naveh. Missing and damaged text is represented by empty square brackets "[ ]", and words and letters inside square brackets have been reconstructed. (The "Hadad" mentioned in the first few lines is a god):
1'. [ ]...[ ] and cut [ ]
2'. [ ] my father went up [ ] he fought at [...]
3'. And my father lay down; he went to his [fathers]. Now the king of I[s]/rael had penetrated
4'. into my father's land before. [But then] Hadad made me king,
5'. And Hadad marched before me. So I went forth from [the] seven[...]/s
6'. of my rule, and I killed [seve]nty kin[gs] who had harnessed thou[sands of cha]/riots
7'. and thousands of cavalry. [And I killed ...]ram son of [...]
8'. the king of Israel, and I killed [...]yahu son of [... the ki]/ng of
9'. the House of David. And I made [their towns into ruins and turned]
10'. their land into [a desolation ...]
11'. others and [...Then...became ki]/ng
12'. over Is[rael...And I laid]
13'. siege against [...]
In the second half of the 9th century BCE (the most widely accepted date for the stele) the kingdom of Aram, under its ruler Hazael, was a major power in the Levant. Dan, just 70 miles from Hazael's capital of Damascus, would almost certainly have come under its sway. This is born out by the archaeological evidence: Israelite remains do not appear until the 8th century BCE, and it appears that Dan was already in the orbit of Damascus even before Hazael became king in c.843 BCE.
The author of the inscription mentions conflict with the kings of Israel and the 'House of David'. The names of the two enemy kings are only partially legible. Biran and Naveh reconstructed them as Joram, son of Ahab, King of Israel, and Ahaziah, son of Joram of the House of David. Scholars seem to be evenly divided on these identifications. It is dependent on a particular arrangement of the fragments, and not all scholars agree on this.
In the reconstructed text, the author tells how Israel had invaded his country in his father's day, and how the god Hadad then made him king and marched with him against Israel. The author then reports that he defeated seventy kings with thousands of chariots and horses. In the very last line there is a suggestion of a siege, possibly of Samaria, the capital of the kings of Israel. This reading is, however, disputed.
Interpretation and disputes
The stele was found in three fragments, called A, B1 and B2. There is widespread agreement that all three belong to the same inscription, and that B1 and B2 belong together. There is less agreement over the fit between A and the combined B1/B2: Biran and Naveh placed B1/B2 to the left of A (the photograph at the top of this article). A few scholars have disputed this, William Schniedewind proposing some minor adjustments to the same fit, Gershon Galil placing B above A rather than beside it, and George Athas fitting it well below.
Archaeology (stratigraphy, pottery and epigraphy or letter-forms) puts the earliest possible date at about 870 BCE, whilst the latest possible date is "less clear" although according to Lawrence J Mykytiuk could "hardly have been much later than 750". Still later datings have been proposed by scholars associated with the so-called Copenhagen school – Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson, and F.H. Cryer.
The language of the inscription is a dialect of Aramaic. Most scholars identify Hazael of Damascus (c.842–806 BCE) as the author, although his name is not mentioned. Other proposals regarding the author have been made: George Athas argues for Hazael's son Ben-Hadad III, which would date the inscription to around 796 BCE, and J-W Wesselius has argued for Jehu of Israel (reigned c.845–818 BCE).
"House of David"
||The neutrality of this section is disputed. (September 2012)|
The Tel Dan stele has found favour among those who wish to defend the biblical version of Israel's ancient past. Its significance for this argument lies particularly in lines 8 and 9, which mention a "king of Israel" and a "house of David". The latter is generally understood by scholars to refer to the ruling dynasty of Judah. However, although the "king of Israel" is generally accepted, the rendering of the phrase bytdwd as "house of David" is disputed by some, in part because it appears without a word-divider between the two parts.
The significance of this fact, if any, is unclear – the majority of scholars argue that the author simply thought of "House of David" as a single word – but some have argued that "dwd" could be a name for a god ("beloved"), or could mean "uncle" (a word with a rather wider meaning in ancient times than it has today), or that the whole phrase might be a name for Jerusalem (so that the author might be claiming to have killed the son of the king of Jerusalem rather than the son of the king from the "house of David".
Other possible meanings have been suggested: it may be a place-name, or the name of a god, or an epithet. Lawrence J. Mykytiuk argues against the possibility that the term bytdwd could refer to the name of a god, cultic object, epithet or a place and concludes that in line with ancient Aramaic and Assyrian patterns for geopolitical terms, the phrase "House of David" refers to a Davidic dynasty or to the land ruled by a Davidic dynasty.  But even if (as seems likely) the correct translation is "House of David", Francesca Stavrakopoulou argues that it does not logically support the assumption that the Bible's David was a historical figure.
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