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The Tel Dan Inscription

The Tel Dan inscription is an inscription found, as the name says, at Tel Dan, which is a site people will tell you in northern Israel, but to be strictly speaking it’s in northern Israel now.  In the time the Bible was written and in the time of the kingdom of Israel, it was sometimes in Israel and sometimes not.  The Tel Dan inscription really first was found when it was not.  Now those who know their Bibles well would know that the land of Israel is described as “from Dan to Beer-Sheba” as if Dan was the limit and was definitely part of Israel, but historically, it wasn’t always—it was contested between the King in Samaria, the capital of Israel, and the King of Damascus, the capital of Syria. 

In this case it’s a stela, an inscription found not in its original place but found near a wall.  Apparently written by a king or on behalf of the King of Damascus who describes how he captured the city and so on and mentions the King of Israel. 

It also mentions a thing called, well, “house of David” is one translation, it’s actually says beit—beit David or beitdod, all as one word.  Now the people who discovered this, immediately said, “Fantastic! This is the House of David!”  They also reconstructed the entire phrase, because the thing is broken off at the edges so we don’t have the word before, but we do have the last letter, a “K”, and they reconstructed melekh: king.  So they thought the inscription read, King of the House of David.  Great, the House of David exists, it’s Judah, therefore, there’s a David. 

Now, there are three areas in that already, first of all, melekh beit David is syntactically nonsense.  There is no inscription that ever uses that.  You always talk about house of something, like House of Omri, which the Assyrians use for Israel or use the King of something, but king plus house plus name doesn’t exist anywhere.  Secondly, it’s not clear that beit dod means House of David anyway.  Dod is a word that even in the Bible can mean lots and lots of things.  It could be a place name, it can be, it can mean uncle, it can mean beloved, and while House of David is certainly possible, and I am not one who rules it out, but I have been critical of those people who jump to the conclusion that this is all it could mean and take it as a fact.

Oh, but David is mentioned.  Well David is not mentioned, even House of David is not necessarily mentioned.  People really need to know when we scholars are saying what we know, and when we are saying what we guess.  And scholars are saying what they guess, we don’t know that, but let’s assume that it is; and that’s a big assumption.  It suggests there’s something called House of David.  Now we could equate House of David with the King of Judah, but it’s not called Judah.  No inscription anywhere in the ancient Near East ever refers to Judah before the time of Hezekiah, the middle of the eighth century, and this comes from about two centuries earlier, a half century earlier. 

We can equate House of Judah, the Kingdom of Judah with the House of David possibly, but there are all kinds of interesting questions there about whether there really is a Kingdom of Judah at this time. 

Thirdly, the question of David, I actually think there was a tradition within the Kingdom of Judah that its founder was somebody called David; but David is not a name.  It could never have been anybody called David by name, it’s a title; almost certainly.  It becomes a name when people called David later on, but dod is not a name; it’s therefore not absolutely clear that it’s named after a person.  It doesn’t really tell us that a person called David existed or that he did anything. 

We might say it’s some minimal evidence that there was a figure remembered as David, if that is what the inscription says, but it tells us absolutely nothing about this, except that he had a house.  Maybe, a dynasty, it may of course, be a building.  There are complications in that the letters ‘DWD’ also occur in another inscription; the inscription of the Moabite King, Mesha, where possibly they occur twice and there might also be a reference; but again, nothing about a king who lived in Judah in either of them.  So we really again, have to be very careful that we don’t mislead the public by getting them to think that we know something we don’t; and on this, we know practically nothing.  We can only guess.  Don’t let anybody else tell you any different.



  • Philip R. Davies

    Philip R. Davies has written extensively on the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among his books are In Search of “Ancient Israel” (T&T Clark, 1992), Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Westminster John Knox, 1998), The Origins of Biblical Israel (T&T Clark, 2007), and Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History (Westminster John Knox, 2008). Since 2002 he has been professor emeritus at the Universty of Sheffield, United Kingdom.