Tel Dan Stele

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Tel Dan Stele
Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology WingDSCN5105.JPG
The Tel Dan Stele in its current location
Material Basalt
Writing Old Aramaic (Phoenician alphabet)
Created 870–750 BC
Discovered 1993–94
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.[1] It is one of only four known ancient inscriptions interpreted to mention the term "Israel", the others being the Merneptah Stele, the Mesha Stele, and the Kurkh Monolith.[2]

The Tel Dan inscription generated considerable debate and a flurry of articles, debating its age, authorship, and even some accusations of forgery.[3] According to Lester L. Grabbe "it is now widely regarded (a) as genuine and (b) as referring to the Davidic dynasty and the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus."[4] It is currently on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.[5]

Discovery and description[edit]


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).[6] The Stele was not excavated in its "primary context", but in its "secondary use".[7]

The fragments were published by Biran and his colleague Joseph Naveh in 1993 and 1995.[6]


The Tel Dan Stele: Fragment A is to the right, Fragments B1 and B2 to the left

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--- ]

3.וישכב.אבי.יהך.אל[.אבהו]ה.ויעל.מלכי[ יש]







10.ית.ארק.הם.ל[ישמן ]

11.אחרן.ולה[... ויהוא.מ]

12.לך.על.יש[ראל... ואשם.]

13.מצר.ע[ל. ]


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 borne 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[9] This reading is, however, disputed.[10]

Interpretation and disputes[edit]


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.[11]

Cracks and inscription[edit]

Bible scholars Cryer and Lemche analyzed the cracks and chisel marks around the fragment, and the lettering towards the edges of the fragments. They noted that if their observations were correct, the stele would most likely have been a modern forgery.[12] But archaeologist William G. Dever strongly affirms the authenticity of the inscription.[13]


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".[14] 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.[15]


The language of the inscription is a dialect of Aramaic.[16] 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"[edit]

See also: Davidic line

Since 1993–1994, when the first fragment was discovered and published, the Tel Dan stele has been the object of great interest and debate among epigraphers and biblical scholars along the whole range of views from those who find little of historical value in the biblical version of Israel's ancient past to those who are unconcerned about the biblical version, to those who wish to defend it.

Its significance for the biblical version of Israel's past 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" has been disputed by some. This dispute is occasioned in part because it appears without a word-divider between the two parts.[17] The significance of this fact, if any, is unclear, because others, such as the late Anson F. Rainey, have observed that the presence or absence of word-dividers (for example, sometimes a short vertical line between words, other times a dot between words, as in this inscription) is normally inconsequential for interpretation.[18]

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, as George Athas has argued, 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".[19][20]

Other possible meanings have been suggested: it may be a place-name, or the name of a god, or an epithet.[17] Mykytiuk observes that "dwd" meaning "kettle" or "uncle" do not fit the context. He also weighs the interpretive options that the term bytdwd might refer to the name of a god, cultic object, epithet or a place and concludes that these possibilities have no firm basis. Rather, he finds that the preponderance of the evidence points to the ancient Aramaic and Assyrian word-patterns for geopolitical terms. According to the pattern used, the phrase "House of David" refers to a Davidic dynasty or to the land ruled by a Davidic dynasty.[21] As an alternative, apparently without explicit argumentation, Francesca Stavrakopoulou claims that it does not logically support the assumption that the Bible's David was a historical figure.[17] It seems likely[22] the correct translation is "House of David."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Finkelstein 2007, p. 14.
  2. ^ Lemche 1998, pp. 46, 62: “ No other inscription from Palestine, or from Transjordan in the Iron Age, has so far provided any specific reference to Israel... The name of Israel was found in only a very limited number of inscriptions, one from Egypt, another separated by at least 250 years from the first, in Transjordan. A third reference is found in the stele from Tel Dan - if it is genuine, a question not yet settled. The Assyrian and Mesopotamian sources only once mentioned a king of Israel, Ahab, in a spurious rendering of the name.”
  3. ^ Lemche 1998, p. 41: “The inscription is kept in a kind of “pidgin” Aramaic, sometimes looking more like a kind of mixed language in which Aramaic and Phoenician linguistic elements are jumbled together, in its phraseology nevertheless closely resembling especially the Mesha inscription and the Aramaic Zakkur inscription from Aphis near Aleppo. The narrow links between the Tel Dan inscription and these two inscriptions are of a kind that has persuaded at least one major specialist into believing that the inscription is a forgery. This cannot be left out of consideration in advance, because some of the circumstances surrounding its discovery may speak against its being genuine. Other examples of forgeries of this kind are well known, and clever forgers have cheated even respectable scholars into accepting something that is obviously false.”
  4. ^ Grabbe 2007, p. 333.
  5. ^ "Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology Wing". The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Retrieved 26 August 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Brooks 2005, p. 2.
  7. ^ Aaron Demsky (2007), Reading Northwest Semitic Inscriptions, Near Eastern Archaeology 70/2. Quote: "The first thing to consider when examining an ancient inscription is whether it was discovered in context or not. It is obvious that a document purchased on the antiquities market is suspect. If it was found in an archeological site, one should note whether it was found in its primary context, as with the inscription of King Achish from Ekron, or in secondary use, as with the Tel Dan inscription. Of course texts that were found in an archaeological site, but not in a secure archaeological context present certain problems of exact dating, as with the Gezer Calendar."
  8. ^ Athas 2003, pp. 255–257.
  9. ^ a b Hagelia 2005, p. 235.
  10. ^ Athas 2003, pp. 259–308.
  11. ^ Hagelia 2005, pp. 232–233.
  12. ^ House of David, Lemche, 2004, p. 61.
  13. ^ Dever 2001, pp. 128–129, referring to "most of the world's leading epigraphers" supporting its authenticity.
  14. ^ Mykytiuk 2004, pp. 115, 117fn.52.
  15. ^ Hagelia 2005, pp. 233–234.
  16. ^ Mykytiuk 2004, pp. 115,117fn.52.
  17. ^ a b c Stavrakopoulou 2004, pp. 86–87.
  18. ^ Rainey 1994, p. 47.
  19. ^ Lemche 1998, p. 43.
  20. ^ Athas 2003, pp. 225–226.
  21. ^ Mykytiuk 2004, pp. 121–128.
  22. ^ Schmidt 2006, p. 315.