Bill Slott

The House of David

A monumental 'bragging rock' from the king of Aram is not a surprise. But what was written on it was a game-changer.
'The House of David,' highlighted in white on the stele from the Israel Museum. (Bill Slott)
'The House of David,' highlighted in white on the stele from the Israel Museum. (Bill Slott)

Archaeology often involves tripping over something truly astonishing while searching for something else altogether. So it was, in 1993, when the team of Professor Avraham Biran was excavating a stone-paved plaza in the ancient city of Dan near Israel’s border with Lebanon. A stele (a monumental inscription) was found that referenced “Beit David” (“The House of David”). It did a great deal more than that, but there is no question that the sequence of Hebrew letters “Bet-Yud-Tav-Dalet-Vav-Daled” (or as paleographers would write “B-Y-T-D-V-D”) shook the world of Biblical Archaeology like no discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Tel Dan stele was carved into a basalt tablet in Aramaic, using ancient Hebrew script and written in the first person, probably by King Hazael of Aram, boasting, among other things, that “I killed Yehoram son of Ahab, king of Israel and I killed Ahaziyahu son of Yehoram, King of The House of David.” It dates to somewhere between 870 BCE and 750 BCE. Damascus, the capital of Aram, was only 70 miles away from Dan, and clearly at this point in history, Dan was under Aram’s sphere of influence, if not direct control, so a monumental “bragging rock” from the king of Aram is not a surprise. But what was written on it was a game-changer.

The significance of the discovery is twofold: First of all, it retells (from the Aramean perspective) an episode from the Bible in which King Hazael defeated King Yehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah. This military confrontation is clearly cited in Kings II, Chapters 8 and 9 and just as clearly boasted about by the Aramean king on the stele. Two separate contemporary descriptions from two different sources is a very rare resource for Bible scholars. Moreover, and of greater importance perhaps, is the verification of the existence of King David. A triangle for the Dalet (note the similarity to the Greek Delta), followed by the little flag (an upside-down lowercase “h”) that is the original Vav, and then another triangle for the final Dalet. You can see it clearly in the Israel Museum (see photo). Here he is, the king who tradition credits with the writing of the Psalms, and whose exploits take up all of Samuel II, and whose descendent will herald the coming of the end of days. A flesh and blood king from 3,000 years ago, the number one namesake of Jewish boys to this day. Yep, there he is, in black and white, or rather, in chisel and basalt.

There are scholars who disagree. Some say that a reference to the “House of David” does not prove that David himself existed. Others say that the three letters that spell “David” – Dalet, Vav, Dalet – might just as well be spelling something else, like “lover,” “uncle,” or even “kettle”. But scholars make a name for themselves by coming up with wild theories and collecting evidence that makes them seem somehow less wild. (Dog bites man: So what. Man bites dog: academic fame!).

Still, the overwhelming majority of archaeologists believe that the reference is to the actual “House of David,” and I agree with them. I also agree with Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University, whose excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa (among other sites) continue to strengthen the historicity of David, Solomon and the United Kingdom of the 10th century BCE.

All of this is much easier for people of faith. No need for doubt. It is written. David was there, in Jerusalem, writing psalms, playing the harp and ogling Batsheva.

The challenge of archaeology is that we are never going to find King David’s social security card or Solomon’s driver’s license. We are forced to believe the experts of our generation. And frankly, is my putting my faith in Professor Garfinkel any more of a leap than those who put their faith in scripture? For now, we will wait, maybe generations, until more stones are uncovered revealing more of the story of our origins, our legends and our history.

Meanwhile, perhaps the Messiah (by tradition, the son of David) will come and all this will be a moot point.

About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.