During conservation and restoration work at Tel Dan in Israel in 1993, staff surveyor Gila Cook found a sizable fragment of a monumental inscription. The inscribed stone was in secondary use, and embedded in a wall bordering a large piazza between the inner and outer gates of the city. Based upon stratigraphic considerations, this first stele fragment was set in place sometime before the destruction of Dan by Assyrians led by Tiglath-pileser III in 733 B.C. (Biran and Naveh 1994: 85-86; 2 Kgs 15:29). Careful examination and excavation in the vicinity netted two additional joining fragments in 1994. A detailed inspection demonstrated that these two pieces joined the first, although behind the surface. This join between the fragments allowed scholars to propose probable restorations of the missing letters and words lost in the gaps between the (now) two large pieces of the stele. The stele recounts the victories over the king of Israel and the House of David (Judah) by an Aramaean king, most likely Hazael (ca. 842-796 BC).
Relevance to the Biblical Account
With the discovery of the first fragment of this inscription came the exciting announcement that, for the first time, an archaeological discovery confirmed the existence of King David. While the text does not specifically mention David himself, his dynastic name (House of David) appears as an alternative to the kingdom of Judah. It is important to note that a number of highly critical scholars had previously denied that David ever existed! Consequently, this ancient inscription, dating about a century and a half after David’s reign, names David as the progenitor of a dynasty of kings, proves the doubters wrong. Shortly after its discovery, biblical scholar André Lemaire read the same “House of David” title on another ninth century B.C. stele, the Mesha Inscription. Then Egyptologist K. A. Kitchen deciphered an inscription by Pharaoh Shishak on a temple wall at Karnak to read “Heights of David.” Consequently, in less than two years, three references to David appeared in extra-biblical texts. Since the Tel Dan stele appeared, a series of discoveries at various sites in Israel have provided further confirmation of David’s reign and his powerful kingdom.
The inscription currently consists of three fragments of basalt stone that originally comprised part of a victory stele, bit was later smashed in antiquity. The largest fragment measures about 32 cm high and 22 cm at maximum width. Site director Avraham Biran (1994: 276) estimated the original size of the stele to be about 1 m. high and 55 cm wide. The two other fragments, once joined, measure 19.5 x 12 cm. The inscription is carefully incised and all extant letters are clear and fully legible.
The identity of the Aramaean king who erected this monument at Dan is uncertain. Initially, it was attributed to Ben-Hadad’s attack on Dan (1 Kgs 15:16-22 // 2 Chr 16:1-6), but a growing consensus of scholars now relate the inscription to Hazael (1 Kgs 19:15-17; 2 Kgs 12:17-18; 13:22-25; 2 Chr 22:5-6). The Tel Dan Stele not only mentions the king of Israel and the king of the House of David, it partially preserves the names of each ruler. The Old Testament recounts Hazael’s defeat of Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah (2 Kgs 9-10; Hosea 1:4), followed by Jehu’s coup and bloody purge of members of the Omride dynasty. Kings Joram and Ahaziah perfectly fit the partial names preserved on the stele. Apparently, Hazael recorded their demise at the hands of Jehu as an epilogue following their military defeat at his hands. On the other hand, Jehu could have acted on behalf of and with Aramaen support when he launched his coup, but this is unlikely and not hinted at in Scripture.
Other monumental inscriptions in Aramaic and Phoenician exist, for example those of Bar-Hadad, Kilamuwa, Zakkur and the Amman Citadel inscription.
2008 The Tel Dan Inscription. Pp. 466-473 in Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, trans. A. F. Rainey from Hebrew. Jerusalem: Carta.
2003 The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 360. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
1994 Biblical Dan. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society. (pp. 274-78)
Biran, Avraham, and Naveh, Joseph