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Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #2 House of David Inscription

This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.

The Great Kings of Israel

Without question the two greatest kings of Israel were David and Solomon. The Bible is full of rich stories recounting these two remarkable lives.

David burst onto the scene as a small boy who could play a musical instrument beautifully enough to calm the nerves of his king. The larger than life prophet Samuel secretly anoints David as the new king to replace the unfaithful King Saul. As a young man David shows fierce courage. He steps up, while all the men of the nation cower, and cuts the head off the giant Goliath. David then goes on to eventually become the greatest King of Israel. He is a poet, a warrior, a musician, a leader, a lover and so much more. David had substantial flaws but through it all God deemed him a man after His own heart. His influence is still felt today with the modern nation of Israel using the “Star of David” as their national emblem.

Solomon, additionally, is cloaked in his own greatness. Rarely can a son follow in the footsteps of a famous father. Solomon reaches iconic status through God offering him a unique opportunity, one wish. What is Solomon’s wish? Solomon famously asks not for riches but for wisdom. God, surprised by Solomon’s wish, makes him the wisest man who has ever lived. As an added bonus God goes ahead and makes him rich as well. Solomon’s wealth, influence and wisdom are without rival. These men are famous and contribute a considerable portion of Scripture (traditionally Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon).

The Great Silence

We have two great kings; we also have a great silence. Outside of the Bible there has been absolutely no evidence David or Solomon ever existed. David and Solomon are portrayed in the Bible as international players. Solomon is married to an Egyptian princess, the Queen of Sheba comes to visit and learn from Solomon, David conquers kingdoms, yet nothing has been discovered from any country with any hint to their existence.

You can imagine the doubts this has developed in the scholarly world. Many scholars postulate the nation of Israel was nothing more than the equivalent of a backwoods hick town at the supposed time of David and Solomon. The Bible, it is thought, grossly exaggerates the influence of these kings (who may or may not have lived) in order to create some sort of false national pride to a much later generation. Are these fabricated stories? The archaeological record appears to support this view due to the shocking lack of any mention of their names.

For years millions of people trusted the biblical account of David and Solomon without any archaeological support, then came 1994.

1994

In 1994 archaeologists were digging in northern Israel at the ancient city of Dan. The area surrounding Dan is one of the most beautiful parts of Israel. The excavation had come across some interesting elements but nothing which would rock the archaeological world until a member of the team made an unlikely discovery.

The city gate was being excavated. Most of the gate was constructed with typical building materials of the time, but three of the stones holding the gate together held a history much more interesting than their neighboring stones. These three stone fragments were found covered with ancient writing. The largest stone fragment measured 32x22cm. Of the original writing 13 lines of text are partially preserved. The writing was found to be ancient Aramaic, dating to the mid-800’s BC.

What did the writing say? Interestingly, the stone slab is a form of ancient propaganda. An Aramaean king, most likely Hazael of Damascus, conquered the Israelite city of Dan sometime in the 840s BC. After he defeated the city he evidently erected this inscription in a public place to let everyone know he was now in control of the city. We know from the Bible Jehoram, king of Israel, and Ahaziah, king of Judah, were both defeated by Hazael (2 Kings 8:7-15, 28; 9:24-29; 2 Chronicles 22:5).

In the inscription the Aramaean king claims to have killed the kings of both Israel (Joram) and Judah (Ahaziah) in the course of his southern conquests. Interestingly, this parallels an account of the murders of Joram and Ahaziah in 2 Kings 9, but in the Hebrew Bible’s account it is Jehu who kills the two kings in a bloody coup and seizes the throne of Israel for himself! So we have a strange historical challenge in which each names a different murderer.

Discovery

This inscription is fascinating on many levels, but what makes it the #2 biblical discovery in archaeology is the way one of the kings is described. The Aramaean king refers to the kingdom of Judah by its dynastic name, a name frequently used in the Hebrew Bible as well: the House of David. This not only indicates that the family of David still sat on the throne of Jerusalem, but this inscription represents the oldest textual reference to the historical King David ever discovered!

Significance

The House of David inscription is significant on many levels. First, contrary to all of the ink spilled touting the silence of David and Solomon from the extra-biblical record there is now proof of a historical king of Israel named David. Second, an Aramaean king would not brag about killing a king who was the relative of a guy who led a backwoods hick town. In order for Hazael to brag about killing a king descending from the House of David, David must have been a well-known and influential king even 150 years after his death. Third, after Hazael was eventually defeated it looks like the inhabitants of Dan tore down the inscription, broke it up into pieces and reused the stone fragments to construct their new outer gate showing their disdain for the inscription and love for their historically rich country.

The Tel Dan inscription is amazing. It is made more amazing by the decades of ridicule which surrounded the silence of David and Solomon from the historical record. That silence was broken in such a recent and surprising way through this small 13-line Aramaic inscription. What do you think?

Please join the discussion by posting your thoughts in the comments section below.

21 Responses to “Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #2 House of David Inscription”

  1. I don’t agree with the minimalists who think Israel’s history was invented. But it is easy to overstate the importance of this find.

    I think what one can take from this find is evidence that in antiquity there was a tribe of Israel and that it once had a leader named David. It doesn’t say anything about David’s personal history or the legends about him, which are contradictory even by biblical standards. It doesn’t prove that David fought Goliath or that he wrote poetry or that he married Bathsheba after murdering he husband or that Israel ruled the region for a period.

    The fact is that there continues to be a lack of evidence about the vast majority of Israelite history that leads to doubts about whether it was as grand as the bible would lead us to believe. It is not irrational to believe the bible, but there remains little archaeological evidence that any of the particular stories are in fact true.

  2. “God, surprised by Solomon’s wish”

    Is ‘surprised’ the right word here? Certainly in a phenomenological sense — but perhaps ‘pleased’ would have been a better choice since it fits the interpretation better?

  3. It’s often said that no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted the Bible, but wouldn’t this be one? Either Jehu really did kill the kings of Israel and Judah and Hazael was lying in his inscription, or Hazael was telling the truth and the Bible is making up history. Which is it?

    Does the inscription actually name the kings? It doesn’t sound like it names the Judean king, but does it name the Israelite king?

    What is the translation of the inscription?

  4. Paul,

    Would you agree the find suggests at least that David must have been one of the greatest leaders of his tribe?

    -Tim

  5. Tim, that’s not unreasonable.

    Jason, good point. The bible stories are not much different in genre than what was found on the inscription. It was ancient propaganda intended to create loyalty to the tribe. Whether stories were accurate or not was not the point.

  6. C Michael Patton 2010-10-01 at 10:27 am

    It the Bible is Israeli propaganda, they did not do too good of a job. Except for the Chronicles (and even then some) they only provide information that would make them look bad. Big difference from Egyptian and Assyrian propaganda.

  7. I would consider the Bible and this description to be different types of genre. I acknowledge some people would not share my view. Regardless, even 1 Kings 19:17 states, “And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay.” Jehu is the one who is credited in the Bible for the death of these two kings but it wouldn’t be a far stretch for Hazael, who has taken over the territory, to claim that he is the one who conquered these kings. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If two people claim responsibility for an event you shouldn’t automatically reject the historicity of the event. You also shouldn’t automatically reject all claims of responsibility just because there are multiple claims.

    Additionally 2 Kings 8:13 states, “And Hazael said, What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing? Elisha answered, The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” Hazael had a complex relationship with God and His prophets and people. Hazael’s statement does not surprise me.

    I still maintain the greatest take-away from this inscription is that the House of David is mentioned by Hazael…we shouldn’t discount the other issues but let’s also not lose the significance of David’s inscription.

    Furthermore, remember my post in this series on Jehu’s tribute to Shalmanezer. Why do you think Shalmanezer put Jehu on that wall if he wasn’t a great warrior-king who was bowing down to Shalmanezer? Just a thought…

    Enjoying the discussion,
    Tim

  8. Tim,

    Maybe Hazeal was lying, but we do have an instance here of an archaeological find directly contradicting the Biblical record. It bothers me, therefore, to hear so many Christian apologists claiming no archaeological find has ever contradicted the Bible.

    And for the record, I agree with you that this is a significant find. But it’s one of those finds that seems to confirm the accuracy of Scripture on one hand, and question it on the other.

  9. By the way, as we discuss…here is the 13 line translation…hopefully the formatting will come through. Missing text or text that is too damaged by erosion is represented by “[…..]”):

    1′. […………………]…….[……………………………..] and cut […………………….]
    2′. [………] my father went up [against him when] he fought at[….]
    3′. And my father lay down, he went to his [fathers]. And the king of I[s-]
    4′. rael entered previously in my father’s land. [And] Hadad made me king.
    5′. And Hadad went in front of me, [and] I departed from [the] seven[…..]
    6′. of my kingdom, and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha-]
    7′. riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab]
    8′. king of Israel, and I killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g
    9′. of the House of David. And I set [their towns into ruins and turned]
    10′. their land into [desolation……………………]
    11′. other …[………………………………………………………………. and Jehu ru-]
    12′. led over Is[rael…………………………………………………………….and I laid]
    13′. siege upon [……………………………………………………]

  10. Jason,

    From one perspective I disagree with people who say archaeology has never contradicted Scripture. For instance, as Bart Ehrman has written at in length through his NY Times Bestseller books, there are openly 300,000 variants in the New Testament. You can say some of these manuscripts, containing NT variants, came from the field of archaeology. Therefore, when an archaeologist discovers a NT manuscript…or even the Dead Sea Scrolls and one letter is different from our generally accepted Bible, then archaeology has contradicted the Bible. Granted, Ehrman has conceded in debates these variants make no major theological differences. A strong case can be made these variants and disagreements from the archaeological record actually enhance the historical reliability of Scripture. What would you rather have in your hand to ensure the accuracy of a document…one surviving manuscript from antiquity or 25,000?

    Steven McKenzie, through Oxford Press, even states about this inscription, “The contradiction is further reason for considering the inscription genuine. A modern forger would almost certainly parrot the Bible rather than inventing a blatant contradiction to it. The context of the references to these two kings makes it relatively certain that the phrase in line nine means “the house of David.”

    Believing the Bible, as it was written, to be inspired…and believing our modern critical Greek and Hebrew editions to be accurate, certainly not perfect, but accurate representations of the original…does not rise and fall based on someone outside the Bible…especially an enemy king to write something contrary to Scripture. I would actually anticipate that difference. The similarities between Hazael’s account and the Bibles account are far more similar than their difference…

  11. “The fact is that there continues to be a lack of evidence about the vast majority of Israelite history that leads to doubts about whether it was as grand as the bible would lead us to believe. It is not irrational to believe the bible, but there remains little archaeological evidence that any of the particular stories are in fact true.”

    Paul,

    I’m more of a minimalist than a “maximalist,” but I think what this text does show is that arguments like the one you made above should not be made. There was so much literature before the Tel Dan and Mesha inscriptions that argued for David’s complete literary invention in the Bible. In other words, he never existed because archaeology supposedly didn’t back it up. When these were found, many who argued this way were visibly stirred up and even tried to argue immediately against the name as referring to a literal king of Israel (all Israel was tribal at that time, even in the biblical account), as you probably know. We ought to do more mining of the text for its teaching and less judging of its historical information, since we are often made fools one way or the other when we do. Of course the academy isn’t going to take that advice, but we as Christians ought to do so.

  12. Tim,

    You take an approach very common among Christian apologists. Grasping at straws for evidence isn’t enough, so evidence is cited that actually primarily discredits the rest of your sacrosanct text. Then you note that this discovery still refutes an aspect of a previous archaological model.

    The thing that you don’t seem to realize is that the essence of that archaeological model is actually strengthened by this discovery.

    In this case, the model suggests that much of the Tanakh was composed as political/religious propaganda (and yes, Michael, it was very effective). Archaeologists suggested that some characters may have had fictional names.

    Yet somehow you are suggesting that an inscription that contains one of the names (and none of the achievements, actions, writings, or words) of a tribal leader confirms your notion of an accurate/inspired origin for the Tanakh?

  13. Tim,

    The prime essence of your argument seems to be “don’t write off Biblical historicity just because we haven’t found all the evidence yet.” … or something along those lines?

    There’s one problem with this approach. That argument might have worked in the primal infancy of archaeology. It doesn’t work today.

    Perhaps it doesn’t behoove individuals like yourself to loose the naïve ignorance of the masses (or perhaps you didn’t know?), but there is much archaeological evidence from the region, specifically during the periods the Tanakh claims historical veracity. And it is NOT the lack of evidence that casts doubts on the Tanakh’s account. It is not, as so often is repeated, an argument from absence/silence.

    It is the positive, direct evidence that the cultural/political events directly contradicted the Tanakh’s claims. Such is the case for claims of the Saul/David/Solomon empire.

    And, strangely, these contradictions make excellent sense in a model where a later, post-“empire”-experienced people group decide to embellish on the past to manipulate contemporary opinion.

    Very, very effective propaganda. But history? Not exactly.

  14. Robert Chaffin 2011-01-23 at 8:28 am

    As neither an apologist nor one who disputes the existence of the Saul/David/Solomon “dynasty,” i would like to hear from objective persons, especially qualifuwd archeologists and historians, concerning the kind of emperical evidence Wolf references but does note cite, which contradicts the existence if the Davidic line. Also, whether the
    Interpretation oh the “house of David” on the inscription is itself open to debate. Finally, while i assume the inscription was not forged, and that the Biblical contradiction supports that, it occurs to me that a good modern-day con artist might have thought through the inevitable analysis and created such a “flaw.”

  15. All of this discussion only puts in my mind a question of the value of analyzing any of this evidence to support Christian history. Who is this evidence trying to convince, Christians or their detractors? If Christians, why do we need convincing? If detractors, it seems not very useful or effective. If it’s just to give Christians a fleeting moment of possible confirmation of what they already believe, then again, what is its value against the labor involved? Having said that, I thoroughly enjoy history and archaeology, and sometimes a pursuit has value purely relating to the enjoyment of it.

  16. Regarding Wolf’s comments now that the Tel Dan Inscription has been accepted as genuine by many archaeologists, among which there were many who at first tried to find any other meaning for it, thus showing their biases (which is fine, as we’re all biased and things should stand up to rigorous scrutiny) do you at least accept there was a David figure? whether his story was later embellished or changed which i do believe myself is only a problem for complete literalists not all believers.

    As I am just starting out in reading up about this field I would be interested to know from any other commenters or the site owners or from Wolf himself about Wolf’s claims that “positive, direct evidence that the cultural/political events directly contradicted the Tanakh’s claims. Such is the case for claims of the Saul/David/Solomon empire.”

    Is this really the case? Doesn’t this inscription provide positive evidence for the existence of a David and his role as ruler of Israel, whether as a king or a tribal leader? I’m not arguing for specific claims of the Bible just that these people really existed.

    The same way that some christians believe any small positive biblical find shows that the bible is right in miniscule detail when the evidence clearly does not show that is the same way some sceptics behave when some positive evidence arrives for the bible they like to dismiss it wholesale. well you can’t do that. If we’re going to be rational and objective it has to work both ways.

    However, if there is really direct evidence against the tanakh historicity i would be interested to know it.

    thanks

  17. No. The inscription of David gives evidence that there was a David. Most people agree there was a David. Whether the Bible mythologizes David and exaggerates the story is debatable.

  18. Larry Garman, Sr. 2015-11-21 at 2:18 pm

    Well, what about the tall columns that are placed on both sides of the Red Sea crossing site, supposed inscribed,
    that they were erected by Kind Solomon? Underwater cameras explored the site, littered with chariot wheels,
    horse bones, and the solid gold, 4 spoke wheel, off Pharaoh’s chariot. Video of above, on the internet for your viewing.

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