The Tel Dan inscription: the meaning of ביתדוד, “House of David”

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by Neil Godfrey

This post outlines the arguments of George Athas on the famous “House of David” lexeme that appears in the published version of his 1999 doctoral dissertation, The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation (2003).

Athas believes that the critical word often translated as House of David is in fact a geographical place-name and probably a reference to Jerusalem. I will cover Athas’s historical commentary in which he discusses the relevance of the expression as evidence for a historical Davidic dynasty in a future post. I have not covered every detail of Athas’ comments, omitting some subordinate arguments such as a proposed translation that introduces a cookhouse into the inscription, or where an argument against a particular amended text in Amos 8:14 is rejected because it breaks the parallelism in the verse.  On the other hand, I have expanded some details, such as journal names and biblical quotations. Do let me know if you notice any errors in the Hebrew/Aramaic letters. The Tel Dan is an Aramaic inscription.

To begin with, here is a translation by George Athas of fragment A in which the apparent “House of David” appears, along with line numbering:

A1 [. . . .]you will rule ov[er ]
A2 [and because of the p]iou[s acts] of my father, may [?] go up [ ]
A3 and my father will repose. May he go to [ at every]
A4 ancient [h]earth on the ground of El-Bay[tel am]
A5 I, so Hadad would go before me [ the day-]
A6 -s of my reign, and I would slay a kin[g] and [ thousands of cha-]
A7 -riots and thousands of horsemen [ ]
A8 the king of Israel, and [I] killed [him kin-]
A9 -g of Bayt-Dawid. And [the] name [of ]
A10 their land to [ ]
A11 another and to [ Jehoash r-]
A12 -eigned over Is[rael I laid]
A13 siege to [Samaria ]

There are two fragments, A and B. Athas discusses the evidence for placing the B fragment below fragment A (e.g. the evidence that the scribe did not have to stretch when engraving B as he did with the letters in A, and the breakdown of the text’s alignment if B is placed alongside A). This changes how scholars interpret the possible overall message on the monument, but does not affect the meaning of the apparent “House of David” reference.

ביתדוד – the controversy

Biran and Naveh first proposed the theory that this should be interpreted as “House of David” – that is, referring to the “dynastic name of the kingdom of Judah”. (‘An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan’, Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993), pp. 81-98.

This was paralleled with Assyrian designations of various small states in the Levant that were also named after the dynastic family names of the kings ruling the states rather than the name of state itself.

  • Bit Humri: House of Omri = Israel
  • Bit Agusi: House of Agusi = Arpad
  • Bit Haza’ili: House of Hazael = Aram-Damascus

Many scholars followed this interpretation. The following details are collated for easy reference from various sections of Athas’s book:

  • S. Ahituv (Israel Exploration Journal, 1993)
  • Z. Kallai (Israel Exploration Journal, 1993)
  • F. I. Andersen (Buried History, 1998)
  • K. A. Kitchen (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1997)
  • A. Lemaire (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1998)
  • K. L. Noll (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1998)
  • E. Puech (Revue biblique, 1994)
  • A. Rainey (Biblical Archaeology Review, 1994)
  • G. A. Rendsburg (Israel Exploration Journal, 1995)
  • W. M. Schniedewind (Bulletin for the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1996)
  • J. Tropper (Ugarit-Forschungen, 1993)
  • J. W. Wesselius (Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift, 1999; Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 1999)
  • S. Yamada (Ugarit-Forschungen, 1995)

But on the other hand there were scholars who insisted that ביתדוד could not be interpreted as “House of David”:

  • F. H. Cryer (Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 1995)
  • P. R. Davies (Biblical Archaeology Review, 1994; Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 1995)
  • E. A. Knauf, A. De Pury, T. R. Römer (Biblische Notizen, 1994)
  • R. G. Lehman and M. Reichel (Biblische Notizen, 1995)
  • N. P. Lemche (in Meilenstein, 1995; Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 1994)
  • T. L. Thompson (Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 1994 and 1995)

It is obvious that this conundrum has yet to be resolved. (p. 218)

According to George Athas the crux of the problem in the interpretation of this lexeme is the absence of a word divider between the apparent two parts: בית (Beth) and דוד (DWD). This suggests that the lexeme expresses a single word idea, not two words like “house” and “David”. In support of this Athas points out that elsewhere in the Tel Dan inscription word dividers are used regularly in expressions constructed from two or more concepts: “on the ground of El-Baytel”, “the king of Israel”, “and thousands of horsemen”, “their land”.

Thus there can be no doubt that the lexeme ביתדוד denotes one idea rather than two separate ideas. Therefore, we must look to an interpretation that understands ביתדוד as one essential entity. Unfortunately, none of the possible interpretations is completely devoid of problems. (p. 219)

Is דוד a reference to a deity (Dawd or Dôd)?

Lehmann and Reichel have suggested that ביתדוד is a reference to the name of deity expressed in a manner similar to other deities inscribed at Elephantine: BaytDod. Their argument begins with an amendment proposed to the difficult text of Amos 8:14 as long ago as 1897.

“As for those who swear by the guilt [Ashima] of Samaria,
Who say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’
And, ‘As the way [Dod?] of Beersheba lives,’
They will fall and not rise again.”

This understanding is achieved through a long-proposed amendment of Amos 8:14 in order to read וחי דדך באר־שבע (‘by the life of your Dod, O Beersheba’) rather than the Masoretic reading, וחי דרך באר־שבע (‘by the life of the Way of Beersheba’). By doing this, Lehmann and Reichel parallel the ‘Dod of Beersheba’ with the ‘Ashima of Samaria’ and the god of Dan also mentioned in Amos 8:14. A similar connection is then read into Line A9 [of the Tel Dan Inscription] whereby the lexeme ואשם, which occurs after ביתדוד, is read as a reference to the goddess Ashima. Thus, Lehmann and Reichel here see a deity, Dod, in the guise of ‘BaytDod’, coupled with the deity Ashima, in the guise of ‘Ashim’, just as in Amos 8:14. Taking this understanding and transplanting it into the reading proposed by Knauf, De Pury and Römer, they translate Line A9 as ‘[I offered libat]ion to BaytDod and Ashim’. In this way, Lehmann and Reichel compose the deity’s name ‘BaytDod’ in the same way as other divine names known from Elephantine, such as Ishum-Bethel. (p. 219)

Difficulties that preclude this explanation

No known god Dod/Dawd or BaytDod is known in the ancient Levant during Iron Age II.

But דוד according to H.M. Barstad and B. Becking (Biblische Notizen, 1995) “is almost certainly to be regarded as a divine epithet [meaning “Beloved”] applied to Yahweh and perhaps other deities known throughout the Levant, and probably in northern Arabia also. Thus, if Lehmann and Reichel’s theory is to have any applicability, ‘Dod’ must be understood as a divine epithet rather than an actual name.” And there is no known way to account for the evolution of such an epithet to evolve from דוד intoביתדוד.

Furthermore, the translation of Lehmann and Reichel, as well as that of Knauf, De Pury and Römer (‘[I offered libat]ion to BaytDod and Ashim’). Is discredited on numerous grammatical and syntactical grounds. . . . It is abundantly clear, then, that the suggestions of Lehmann and Reichel, as well as those of Knauf, De Pury and Römer, have too many holes in them to be considered sustainable theories in regards to the wordביתדוד. (pp. 220-1)

Difficulties with the translation “House of David”

The objection to this translation was explained above.

The orthography of the text indicates that such an expression [“House of David”] would most certainly have been rendered by two separate words, בית•דוד. As such, the translation “House of David” is impossible. (p. 221)

Is ביתדוד the name of a small state?

Even though the state may have received its name from its ruling dynasty, is it possible that this dynastic name came to refer to the state itself, and hence refer to a single term indicating the state itself?

This is how such state labels of the type ‘Bit-PN’ are used in Assyrian texts. . . . Nevertheless, this hypothesis by default incorporates an understanding that a “House of David’ at one time ruled a state entity. (p. 221)

Is ביתדוד the name of a town or district?

This is just as reasonable as the above explanation. If so, the name would compare with composite toponyms such as

  • Beth Shemesh
  • Beth Lehem
  • Beth She’an
  • Bethel
  • Beth Horan
  • Beth Dagon
  • Beth Rehob
  • Beth Ma’akah
  • and numerous others.

It has been suggested by Thompson that within this interpretation, the element דוד is the epithet of a deity, presumably Yahweh, meaning ‘Beloved’. This is certainly more plausible than the suggestion that ‘Dawd’ or ‘Dod’ was an independent Levantine deity. (p. 222)

Difficulties and solutions

Composite names for either a state or a toponym are almost always written as two distinct lexemes, whether in Aramaic, Hebrew or Moabite.

There are two known exceptions to this rule, and both refer to place names (Beth-Horan and Bethel are written as single lexemes) in Ostracon B from Tell Qasilé and Sefiré I A. 34.

The ancient record contains no town or district of this name ביתדוד.

Interpretation of ביתדוד in context

The critical lexeme occurs in line A9. Athas starts with lines 7 and 8:

Lines A7-8, as discussed above, refer to the author’s encounter with the king of Israel, from whom he appears to have struck down or captured vast numbers of military units. I presume that the author killed the king of Israel (Line A8). In Line A10, after the reference toביתדוד, the author refers to . . . ‘their land’). (p. 223)

Who are the “their” in “their land” in line A10?

There appear to be two possibilities: the king of Israel and his armies; or two kings, another king alongside the king of Israel who has been defeated. George Athas opts for the second suggestion as more likely. (Armies are usually seen as belonging to the king, and owned by the king as much as the land is.)

Given that the reference to ביתדוד appears in the line before this pronoun [“their”], we may understand ביתדוד as the name of a state or city whose leader was associated with the king of Israel. The content of the Tel Dan Inscription, corroborated with other sources, leads us to conclude that the name ביתדוד was the Aramaic equivalent of Hebrew (‘City of David’ or ”Ir-Dawid’). That is, ביתדוד is best understood as a reference to Jerusalem. We should, therefore, render ביתדוד in English as ‘Bayt-Dawid’, considering it a composite toponym transcribed as a single lexeme. We should then interpret the single kaph at the beginning of Line A9 as the last letter of the construct noun, . . . (‘[kin]g of’). This implies that at the time the Tel Dan Inscription was written, Jerusalem was a city-state rather than the capital of a much wider regional entity. (pp. 223-4)

George Athas compares this understanding of the term with other eponymous placenames such as:

  • House of Joseph – 1 Kings 11:28 “. . . seeing that the young man was industrious, Solomon made him officer over all the labour force of the house of Joseph”
  • House of Issachar – 1 Kings 15:27 “Then Baasha the son of Ahijah of the house of Issacher conspired against him . . . “
  • House of Judah – 2 Sam. 2:4, 7, 10-11 “Then the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah. . . . ‘Your master Saul is dead and the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.’ . . . . Only the house of Judah followed David and . . . David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah . . . .”
  • House of Esau – Obad. 18 “. . . the house of Esau shall be stubble. . .”
  • and numerous others.

However, the term ביתדוד is not associated with kinship or ethnicity but is more like the biblical “City of David” and the Assyrian “Land of Omri” in nuance.

Athas stresses, however, that the Assyrian expression for the geographic “Land of Omri” must be clearly distinguished from the term referring to a dynasty or political state, “House of Omri”.

This distinction is highlighted by the fact that in Assyrian texts, no person is ever termed the king of a particular dynasty. . . . What this shows is that it is extremely unlikely that we have in the Tel Dan Inscription an expression . . . where . . . refers to a dynasty. Rather, . . . must be a toponym. (p. 225)

This conclusion comes with the two caveats mentioned above:

  1. We would expect the expression ביתדודto have been divided into two words if it were a toponym, but Athas appeals to the two exceptions from Tell Qasilé and Sefiré to show that such a toponym could sometimes be expressed as a single lexeme.
  2. There is still the possibility that the “their land” refers to the king and his armies, not to two kings, although such an interpretation would leave ביתדוד without contextual interpretation.

Athas is emphatic. ביתדוד must refer to a geographical place-name.

I cannot stress enough that ביתדוד should be regarded as a toponym and not a reference to a Davidic dynasty. Although this label may have had an etymology going back to a Davidic dynasty, this is not how the author of the Tel Dan Inscription used it. Rather, the author was here referring to a geographical entity. My contention is that this geographical entity was Jerusalem. In the next chapter [i.e. in a future post of mine], this will be considered in more detail. (p. 226)

So Athas thinks that Jerusalem is the most likely identification for ביתדוד, but concedes that the inscription is too fragmentary to be sure.

What is certain from the context is that the author is recounting a conflict in which the king of Israel played a role. The language of chariots, horsemen (Lines A7-8) and siege (Line A13) is undoubtedly that of war. The reference to the king of Israel is also unquestionable. It is clear that at least one other king was mentioned alongside the king of Israel. The most logical solution to this is to understand the second king as the ruler of a place called ביתדוד. (p. 225)

In my next post on Athas’ book I will cover his commentary about the relevance of this place-name for the historicity of David or a Davidic dynasty.

Tel Dan-Israeli Gate
Tel Dan Gate. Image via Wikipedia
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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “The Tel Dan inscription: the meaning of ביתדוד, “House of David””

  1. Knauf, dePury and Romer, in their abstract to the article you list above say this:
    “Biran and Naveh read this word as bayt dawd on philological grounds, though this reading can be disputed. Dwd could be vocalized as dod [sorry Neil there are some markings in the writing of this word that I can’t reproduce so its not quite right] which is probably the name of a local deity.
    This reading reflects the historical context of the 9th century Northern Kingdom whose boundaries were fluid and whose ethnic composition diverse”.

    With reference to the ‘9th century’ above I note this, from the abstract to an article by Cryer JSOT 69 [1969] 3-17:
    “A detailed analysis of the paleographical basis for dating the inscriptions previously found on the site show that they cannot be used for dating purposes: if they were so used, they would more likely point to the eighth century than to any other time,,,,,,,A 9th century date cannot be maintained on the basis of inscriptional finds”.

    I suspect, just suspect cos my knowledge is so limited, that this may be a case where the apologists have jumped the gun.

  2. I’ve run into a problem with getting the second installment up as soon as I had expected. The more I examine the argument of Athas in debate with Thompson the more I see I will need more time to fully grasp the nuances of the two different positions in a way that makes clear enough sense for me to explain to anyone else in simple everyday terms. Meanwhile I will probably backtrack and do a post on the article by Thompson that Athas is addressing. (But currently handicapped by difficulty in accessing out of hours reliable internet.)

  3. Given David might be a reference to a god with a similar name, what is the consensus that Israel may actually be a combination of Is is, Ra, and el in some form of holy trinity? Do we see the same pattern in the English name for David’s son Sol-om-on? Is Sol-om-on a reference to three names of the sun?

    1. We’d want to see some evidence in the archaeological record before we could go along with any such speculations. I think the Hebrew meaning of the name Israel is sufficient as an explanation. You’d also have to study the words in the Hebrew, first.

      1. I have some elementaryknowledge of the supposed meaning, where it possibly means jehovah struggles for example. Im no historian but I find it strange that the name of the people and land uses the word El which means god rather than Jehovah or Jah. I find it strange after their supposed hatred of pagan gods like Baal or the bull El, that they would use the name of an enemy god as the word for the concept of god. Fir me it seems like an embarrassment that the name of the god El appears in their name, israel without any mention of jehovah. I only mentioned the trinity of is is/ra/el because the bible itself and archeology have shown that the jews did worship other gods, particularly Asherah the goddess. We also find solar demi gods in the OT with characters like Samson which is without doubt a copy of the Hercules story. There are other scriptures with an astrotheological theme, which mention the sun, zodiac and so on. With this solar theme in mind its not hard to realize the possibility that the traditional meaning given for israel is contrived, and a solar background may or should be a possibility.

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