Pondering the Spade: Tel Dan Stele

by Dr. David Schreiner

When you are on an archaeological dig, you look at and through everything. I mean everything. Why? Because you just don’t know what you are going to find. Archaeologists don’t just look at the dirt below their feet. They look at the dirt on the walls of the balks. They also take buckets of excavated dirt to the sifter on the outside chance that something critically important was missed. Yet despite the excitement of potentially finding something in the least likely of places, you don’t want to be the person tagged for sifting duty.

Sifting entails taking buckets of dirt and filtering them one-by-one through a Excavationwaist-high frame of metal meshing. As you shake the frame violently, chunks of dirt break apart and dust falls into buckets (or a pile) at your feet leaving any worthwhile object, such as a scarab, seal, coin, or an inscriptional fragment, on top of the meshing. Unfortunately, after about 30 minutes of this—dirt flying and wind blowing—you look like someone who has just wandered in from the Sahara Desert having survived a sandstorm. You look barely human, and you will be digging dirt out of your nose for the next week.

But again, the reason archaeologists sift is because material was discarded and reused every day, and some of that material produces some of the most excited responses. For example, at Tel Dan in the mid 90s, archaeologists were digging through an Iron Age stratum when something caught the eyes of one of the volunteers. That person’s gaze became fixed upon an odd-looking stone sticking out of a wall constructed for a courtyard. Upon closer inspection, the excavators noticed that the stone was of a “higher quality” than those around it….and it had writing on it!

[Can’t you feel my excitement?! Whenever you find writing at an archaeological dig it is a really big deal.]

A year later, in a pile of debris under a standing-stone structure and as a random paving stone, the excavators found two more fragments. All three of these fragments turned out to be the left-overs from a monument commemorating Aramean conquests over Israel and Judah. Yet despite how important a victory monument is, the legacy of this find exists in the fact that it would destroy what were trendy theories within Old Testament scholarship and set scholarship on some new ones.

Tel Dan Stele
Figure 1

Those three fragments were photographed, logged, documented, and then shipped off to be read. Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh would later publish the first reading of the inscription, which had at its focal point the first extra-biblical reference of the person King David. Line 9 shows quite clearly the consonants bytdwd, which read “house of David.” In light of the inscription as a whole (at least, as a whole-of-what-we-currently-have), one reads about an (unknown) Amarmean king proclaiming victories over Israelite and Judean kings, namely over Ahaziah, son of Jehoram from the “house of David.”

So, not only was there non-biblical support for a person, but there was also substantiation for the biblical claim that David was the founder of an influential dynasty. Now, I know what you are thinking. “Why all the excitement over something that the Bible knows to be true?” Well, scholars and historians like something called “multiple attestations.” The more voices that one can find speaking on a particular subject makes for a more efficient and effective reconstruction. When it came to King David, prior to the Tel Dan Stele, the only voice that historians had was that of the Bible. And because scholarship in general displays a tendency to look upon the historical accounts of the Old Testament with an overly critical eye—if not outright skepticism—it had become vogue in the 80s and early 90s to characterize King David as a mythical figure…rooted in imagination and fantasy rather than reality. The Tel Dan Stele effectively silenced this trend.

Now I wish I could tell you that everything in the wake of the Tel Dan Stele was all puppies and unicorns. I wish I could say that this find ushered in an era of positive scholarly perception with respect to the Old Testament’s historical veracity. No. It just shifted the debate. Instead of questioning the person of King David, skeptics of Old Testment historical veracity now question the nature of David’s Kingdom. “Did he or didn’t he exist,” gave way to, “Was his kingdom really like what the Old Testament describes?”

Tel Dan CommentI am okay with this shift, which leads me to my rationale for including this find on my list of most important archaeological finds. This find has forced scholarship, particularly evangelical scholarship, into areas that are more fruitful interpretively, theologically, and apologetically. You see, assessing the authority and Truthfulness of Scripture fundamentally demands that we consider Scripture’s literariness.

“Dave, what do you mean?”

Bear with me for a second.

Because God Almighty chose to reveal himself primarily through ancient Israel, we need to understand properly the claims that are made through that medium. Their experiences and understandings were eventually preserved in written forms, and so for us today, this means wrestling with an ancient body of texts. For the claims that are made through Israel’s historical texts, we must understand the dynamics of ancient historiography, or ancient history writing. We must set aside our modern notions of history writing for those of antiquity. It requires that we keep in balance the writer’s simultaneously held concerns for 1) what happened and 2) what it means. More on this in my next post.

Figure 1: “The Tel Dan Stele.” Faithlife Study Bible Infographics. Logos Bible Software. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corporation.

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