Last summer, archaeologists excavating at Tel Dan (biblical Dan) found a fragment of a stela (inscribed stone) in the remains of a city wall that scholars acclaim as “one of the most important discoveries in the annals of Biblical archaeology” (Wood, 1993, 6:121). The stone fragment seems to have been from a victory stela erected at Dan by a conquering Aramean (Syrian) army. When the Israelites eventually reclaimed the city, they destroyed the stela and used its fragments in various structures (Shanks, 1994, 20:39). Professor Avraham Biran, the archaeologist heading the excavation, has dated the stela to the first half of the ninth century B.C. (Shanks, 1994, 20:38).
Though only thirteen partial lines remain of this once-impressive monument, they contain an unparalleled literary jewel. Lines 8 and 9 explicitly mention the “king of Israel” and the “House of David,” which the conquering army defeated [The drawing on the left depicts the lower portion of the basalt stela from Tel Dan. The engraved inscription is written in paleo-Hebrew. The two highlighted areas are translated “king of Isreal” and “House of David,” respectively.] These statements are important for several reasons. First, this is the only extant, extrabiblical document that unquestionably mentions the name David (perhaps it also appears in the Mesha stela, better known as the Moabite stone; see Lemaire, 1994). Even more remarkable is the fact that his name appears in the familiar phrase “House of David.” Given the date of the stela, this serves to confirm the biblical usage of this designation (cf. 1 Kings 12:19, 14:8, Isaiah 7:2, et al.).
Second, though critical scholars have tended to minimize the importance of Israel and Judah during this historical period, the inscription supports the significance that the Bible attaches to these two kingdoms. Third, the tentative date of this discovery corresponds historically with 1 Kings 15:9-20 in which Ben-Hadad, King of Syria (Aram), attacked several Israelite cities including Dan. Some scholars argue that the stela is an exact parallel to this sacred account.
However, there seem to be some differences between the details of 1 Kings 15:9-20 and the ancient stela fragment. Most conspicuously, the stela suggests (if accurately translated) that the Syrian army destroyed both Israel and Judah, but the biblical text indicates that Syria and Judah were allies against Israel. These discrepancies do not necessarily mean that either account is inaccurate. It may be that the stela refers to another battle not mentioned in the Bible, and it is very likely that there were several skirmishes involving Syria. But the stela does demonstrate that Syria (Aram) had military conflicts with Israel, lending corroborative testimony to the historical reliability of the biblical text.
No doubt, analysis of and debate over the stela will continue for some time. We can be certain, however, that the name “David” has been found in a ninth-century B.C. text other than the Bible. That incontrovertible fact is yet another ancient witness to biblical credibility.
Lemaire, Andre (1994), “ ‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 20:30-37, May/June.
Shanks, Hershel (1994a), “ ‘David’ Found at Dan,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 20:26-39, March/April.
Shanks, Hershel (1994b), “New Inscription May Illuminate Biblical Events,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 20:38, March/April.
Wood, Bryant (1993), “New Inscription Mentions House of David,” Bible and Spade, 6:119-121, Autumn.