Does the Tel Dan Inscription ‘Prove’ David to Be a Historical Person?

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by Neil Godfrey

Here I look at the argument that the inscription (bytdwd) apparently referring to David (dwd) or the “house of David” in the Tel Dan Inscription is best explained as a reference to an epithet (meaning “beloved”) for the god Yahweh.

This post is related to another about a week ago,  The Tel Dan inscription: the meaning of ביתדוד, “House of David”, which is  a look at George Athas’s published thesis. I ran into a problem, however, when I came to discuss Athas’s assessment of the evidence for what it tells us about the historicity of King David. I could not quite understand the arguments well enough to present in my own words, probably because they were largely a response to an article by Thomas L. Thompson. So I delayed further posting till I read Thompson’s article. Then I found I had to re-read an earlier article to fully get the hang of that! Real life keeps getting in the way and making me forget things I had read more than 2 weeks ago.

Did Biran Kill David?

So here I finally am. The notes are from a section of Did Biran Kill David? by Lemche and Thompson.

Lemche & Thompson begin this discussion by stating what they see as the first problem for deciding the correct meaning of the key word in the stele:

The first problem revolves around the fact that the Aramaic inscription reads bytdwd, with a strange case of plene writing for an Aramaic text in the ninth century. (p. 9)

“Plene” (Latin=”full”), as I understand from my very limited reading of Hebrew grammar, is a reference to the use of consonants to represent (otherwise completely absent) vowel sounds in a word. Thus the word for house without the vowel indicators would be written as BT — i.e. ב ; בת = B and ת = T.

In plene, however, the word is written as בית — that is, with a yod (normally a consonant) inserted to represent the “e” sound.

Lemche and Thompson suggest possible reasons that may be more convincing for some than others for this unusual feature, but let’s leave it aside for a moment and treat the text “as is”.

Two words or one?

In Biblical Hebrew the expression “House of David” (bet Dawid) “is always divided into two words.” A mark is used to indicate the division.

In the Tel Dan inscription, just as we also find in Ugaritic texts, other double-words are always indicated by that word separator to clearly show that they are two distinct words. But in the Tel Dan stele there is NO word separator between byt and dwd. So given that the other double words in the same inscription have a word divider, and that there is no word divider in the bytdwd expression, we can understand that the word was clearly meant to be read as a single word.

[The scribe] may have been mistaken and a poor and inconsistent writer. This also cannot be excluded. It is an extraordinary pity, however, that he chose this particular place in which to be mistaken! One might also argue that he did not know what authors of biblical books knew: that a dynastic name of the kingdom of Judah needed to be divided into two words. Although we are also unable to exclude this possibility, we need to point out that it is unlikely — not because we must assume the writer to have been familiar with this particular kingdom and its dynasty, but rather because the name of Betdawid, if it were proper to divide it, would be one of a large number of names of a single type: names which refer to states, such as the dynastic name of the kingdom of Israel, bit Humriyya, or the names of the Aramaic kingdoms, Bit Busi and bit Adini, to refer only to the contemporary political names. These are invariably written as separate words. (p. 9)

For this reason it can be concluded (F. H. Cryer et al) that bytdwd is a single word.

Thus it cannot be translated as “House of David”. “It must rather refer to something else than a state or dynasty.”

A place name?

A place name seems rather more likely. Compare Bethel, a place name that is always written as a single word, and that means “the House of God”.

It has been suggested that bytdwd is the name of a place outside Dan, such as a nearby city.

Lemche and Thompson would argue that it could also refer to the name of a holy place at Dan, and that as such it “can be directly compared to the bt dwd  of Lemaire’s reconstruction of the Mesha inscription.” (See below)

The evidence of the Mesha stele

Scholars arguing both for and against the claim that the Tel Dan’s bytdwd is a reference to David have pointed to the Mesha inscription for support.

Line 12 reads:


Of the many proposed translations of this phrase L&T inform us that only one major contributor (John Gibson) “has seriously proposed the name of David, the king of Israel and Judah here”. I omit the technical grammatical discussion of L&T that leads them to conclude “this translation is undoubtedly impossible.”

This is saying that Mesha removed the ‘r’l of his dwd. The ‘r’l is “probably a reference to either the sacrificial fire, the altar or, possibly, some other cultic perquisite belonging to dwd.” (p. 11)

The word dwd could here by an epithet or surname of some deity — even Yahweh as has been proposed by Hans Peter Müller, since Yahweh is mentioned in the passage preceding this line. (p. 11)

Another scholar (André Lemaire) has also proposed reconstructing line 31 to contain the word btdwd. The line is missing the middle letter so appears as bt. . .dwd. If the text should be restored to btdwd, then the meaning may be found in the preceding lines where the word “bits” (meaning “temples”) of various gods appears a number of times.

This suggests that btdwd is also the name of a temple. (p. 12)

Similarly, if the word preceding “bytdwd” in the Tel Dan inscription is not “king” after all, but (as has been plausibly suggested) “libation offerings”, the section of interest in the Tel Dan inscription could likewise be translated:

The king of Israel. I have killed . . . I poured libation offerings on/in the House of Dwd, I erected (the stone that carries the inscription).

Is “DWD” an epithet for a god?

Was there a god called “DWD”? Lemche and Thompson (at least in 1994 when they wrote the article) think there was.

We are referring here to a very old discussion, inaugurated a hundred years ago by Hugo Winckler and taken up both by Hugo Gressmann and, later, by Gösta Ahlström in his dissertation [Psalm 89: Eine Liturgie aus dem Ritual des leidenden Konigs, 1959]. In these discussions, the weight of the arguments is in favor of the existence of a god called dwd in ancient Palestine. The hypothesis allows the possibility, supported by the LXX of Amos 8.14, that the ‘the road to Beersheva’ — a truly odd occurrence of Hebrew derek — would better be read ‘your dwd of Beersheva‘, and be understood as referring to the protective god of Beersheva. (p. 13)

L&T add that evidence for this divine epithet (dwd) in the name of Ashdod, a city with a temple of Dagon.  (My note: The “dod” (beloved) presumably refers to the god Dagon?)

I find that a deliciously ironic thought — that the DOD of the Philistine city Ashdod might have been a form of the very name David as found in the Tel Dan stele! 😉

L&T also suggest Bethlehem — “where the famous hero of David, Elhanan (if not David himself is called the son of his dwd: ‘lhnn bn dwdw (2 Sam 23:24; see also 23:9, where the Ahohite [i.e. Benjaminite] Eliezer is also called a son of Dwdw or Dwday [the Hebrew here is uncertain]).” (p. 13)

The “beloved” (“my Dwd“) in vineyard song of Isaiah 5:1ff  has also been thought by scholars to have been an invocation of a deity.

“My Dwd” is also the predominant metaphor in the Song of Songs. Songs 6:2 especially “identifies the garden of vineyard of Yahweh’s ‘beloved’ as Jerusalem (including byt ysr’l and ‘ys yhwdh, Isa. 5:7).” (Marvin Pope has proposed that the Song was indeed understood very early as a poem of religious and ideological content. And later Christians and Rabbis have likewise interpreted the Songs and the “beloved” in them.)

Personal name or epithet?

L&T explain that “Dwd is hardly the personal name of any god. It is rather an epithet: ‘the beloved’.”

The gods of the Palestinian pantheon rarely had personal names at all. They were generally known by their functions. Thus:

  • Baal = Lord
  • Asherah = Sacred Tree or Sacred Place
  • El = god
  • Dagan = crop

Yahweh alone may have been a personal name. But this did not last long, either, and was substituted by Adonay, Lord (cf. Adonis).

Analogously, dwd is a referent to Yahweh as ‘beloved’, as byt dwd is a reference to his temple. (p. 15)

L&T cite an article by Cryer suggesting the possibility that the Book of Enoch also contained a statement that “DWD/DUD is God” or “God is the Beloved”. The following is from Cyer’s article itself and not from L&T’s summary:

In my view, it would be wise to consider the following reading from the so-called “Ethiopian Enoch”, a pseudepigraphic work of the 2nd cent. BCE which we possess in its entirety only in Ethiopian, but which originally existed in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, as the Greek manuscript tradition and the Qumran materials inform us. In the tenth chapter of the “Book of Noah” contained in the work (chs. 1- 36) we read the following: “(X.4) And further the Lord said to Raphael: Bind Azazel by his hands and his feet, and throw him into the darkness. And split open the desert which is in Dudael, and throw him there”. Here the placename “Dudael” would seem to reflect an Aramaic, DWD3 3L, as was originally suggested by August Dilmann many years ago.

On the other hand, the Greek manuscripts offer us a choice of either doudael or dadouel. The former of these could as easily reflect Hebrew or Aramaic DWDH as DWD’. The latter (dadouel) could possibly be explained as imperfectly realised by an Ethiopian scribe, who took the form to be DAD plus the Ethiopian adjectival ending àwï, plus, of course, el, and the meaning would then derive from the sense to be attributed to the root DDP. If the former is the case and the best Ethiopian MSS point directly to the reading baduda’el, “in Duda’el” then the meaning cannot be “the cauldron of God”, as optimistically suggested by Dilmann. The use of the Aramaic definite article would be pleonastic in this position. The remaining possibility would be to understand the construction as a nominal sentence, hence “Duda (on the Dud) is God”. If DWD is a hypostatised/divinised quality, as Lemche has argued, then duda’el would mean something along the lines of “God is the beloved, God is the Friend”. Admittedly, a nominal sentence placename is an odd sort of placename, but there is nothing linguistically wrong with such a reading. Alternatively, as previously mentioned, we might have to do with a DN Duda, that is, DWDH, as in the Mesha inscription referred to above.

Does even the biblical “House of David” refer to a Davidic dynasty?

This is not as obvious as many assume, argue L&T:

Rather, the metaphor byt — like ‘b, bn and others — belongs essentially to the ideology of patronage. byt dwd of our biblical texts — and especially the stories of David and Saul in 1 and 2 Samuel — cannot be rendered by ‘dynasty’ (as we remain within the story word of that dynasty’s founders), but refers to the foundation of the patronage of Yahweh in Jerusalem represented by his temple (byt), and to the heroic David as the eponymic founder of Yahweh’s patronage within Israel. This is at the core of the so-called ‘covenant theology’ that centers on an eternal byt dwd. This tradition of story does not refer to a belief in a destiny of promise of unending royal rule under kings descended from David, but rather to the eternal center of the bet ha’elohim in Jerusalem. The misreading that byt means ‘dynasty’ in the Bible derives from a misunderstanding of society and political structures in this part of the ancient Levant. (p. 15)

L&T footnote that claim of misunderstanding to a little bibliography:

On Patronage:

  • M. Liverani, Prestige and Interest: International Relations in the Near East ca. 1600-1100 BCE (History of the Ancient Near East Studies, 1; Padua, 19900, esp. pp. 187-202.
  • N.P. Lemche, ‘Kings and Clients: On Loyalty between Ruler and the Ruled in Ancient “Israel”‘, Semeia (forthcoming — at time of article, 1994)
  • N.P. Lemche, ‘The Relevance of Social-Critical Exegesis for Old Testament Theology’ (forthcoming . . .)
  • N.P. Lemche, ‘Power and Social Organization: Some Misunderstandings and some Proposals: Or is it All a Question of Patrons and Clients? (forthcoming . . .)

On characteristics of the small-region based agricultural economy of the southern Levant which fostered political systems of this type:

  • T.L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People from the Written and Archaeological Sources (SHANE, 4; Leiden: Brill, 2nd edn. 1994), pp. 316-33.

The “Golden Age” of the Davidic dynasty’s 40 kings

I quote here page 16 of L&T’s article because it encapsulates beautifully the nature of the story of David as a fable. (I have reformatted the single paragraph – and sentence! – for easier reading.)

A growing minority of Old Testament scholars today are of the opinion that the narratives about David in the Old Testament have little to do with history.

The stories of Saul’s election and rise to power over Israel and the story of his fall from grace, the story of mad king Saul whose depressions were soothed by David, the inspired musician of the psalms,

the story of the great warrior Saul, the scourge of the Philistines crazed with murderous jealousy of the faithful and constant young lieutenant who surpasses him in all his exploits, the idyllic story of Jonathan’s love for David in the midst of court intrigue and violence,

the story of the young shepherd boy, in his pious simplicity and innocence overcoming in personal combat the warrior giant and heroic champion, Goliath of the Philistines,

the story of David’s succession to the throne and the greatness of his empire, the story of his sneak attack on Jerusalem (through what was, after all, the centuries later tunnel of Hezekiah)

as well as the story of the lecherous David, who has his faithful follower killed out of lust for the man’s wife and the story of the silly old man, who in his senile dotage needs an innocent young girl to keep his bed warm,

the story of Solomon’s succession-the youngest of David’s sons-to the throne in a classic rendition of the success of the unpromising, the story of the Croesus-like Solomon whose wealth rivals the legends of Assyrian kings plastering their walls with gold, the story of the great Solomon, great builder and exploiter of international trade, the consort of the princess of Egypt and the equal in wisdom to the fabulous Queen of Sheba,

the story of Solomon as the Alexander-like philosopher-king in his wisdom protecting the simple virtues of family and guiding an empire, the story of the building of the temple dedicated to the one true God as the crown of Solomon’s piety, a temple whose desecration served as his undoing, the stories of Solomon lured away from pristine faith by foreign wives, the syncretistic corruption of empire and of the great world of government and wealth,

this Solomon whose hubris and apostasy were responsible for the breakup of his kingdom, again like the struggles that followed the death of Alexander the Great between the true south and the faithless north,

all of these stories mark this ’United Monarchy’ as the ’golden age’ of the Davidic dynasty’s 40 kings.



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Does the Tel Dan Inscription ‘Prove’ David to Be a Historical Person?”

  1. Ouch!
    That abstract of Land T takes very emphatic and precise aim at the conservative [dare I say it, yes I will] apologetic of those who wish to read the inscription as supporting a real king David.

    I do like to read Thompson [I’ve never been able to get anything of Lemchke’s], his style is so eloquent even when using the formal abstract medium, presumably carefully co-authored with his colleague.
    The 2 books of his that I have are probably my 2 favourites on this topic, I may not always agree with him but I do appreciate the clarity of his thought and expression.
    This abstract, plus that of Cryer, and I understand there are others, really should drive a garlic tipped silver peg through the H/David dream.
    But it won’t.

  2. From the Babylonian Talmud in reference to Amos 8:14…

    Shabbat 67b:3

    One who says: Let my barrels be strengthened [donu danei], that contains an element of the ways of the Amorite. Rabbi Yehuda says: That is more severe than the ways of the Amorite, as Dan is nothing other than a term of idol worship, as it is stated: “They that swear by the sin of Samaria and say: As your god Dan lives” (Amos 8:14).


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