BAR recently published an article by Philip R. Davies in which he claims that the now famous six letters of the Tel Dan inscription, bytdwd, do not mean “the House of David” after all.a
The tone and content of the article are an impassioned bashing of those “Biblical Maximizers” who read into archaeological finds what is supposedly not there—in this case, a reference to the famed king of ancient Israel. In a book entitled In Search of ‘Ancient Israel,’ written prior to the discovery of the Tel Dan inscription, Davies argues that most of Israel’s history prior to the Babylonian Exile, as related in the Bible, is fictional, having been created during the Persian period (sixth-fourth centuries B.C.E.).
In one fell swoop of the shovel at Tel Dan, a major presupposition of Davies’s book has been severely damaged. Davies was faced with a decision—either he could admit that King David wasn’t invented by Persian-period scribes, or he could attempt to explain away the reference to “the House of David” as unrelated to the King David of the Bible. He chose the latter. This does not come as a surprise. Shortly after the discovery of the Tel Dan inscription, in a critique of Davies’s In Search of ‘Ancient Israel,’ Baruch Halpern commented,
“One might think that [the Tel Dan stela] would put paid to the dismissal of the United Monarchy … On the other hand, since it has been the vogue to dismiss [the reference to Israel on the late 13th century B.C.E. Merneptah stela] as unconnected with the Israel [of the United Monarchy], the fate of the Dan stela remains to be seen.”1
What Halpern predicted in August of 1993 came to pass a year later by Davies’s attempt at explaining away these six letters as meaning something other than “the House of David.”
Let it first be said that Davies is correct in raising the possibility of other readings for the consonants bytdwd, but, as we hope to demonstrate, he gives no satisfactory alternatives and overstates their number and probability.
Davies is also right to be concerned about scholars forcing archaeological finds into Biblical history. Again, however, Davies is equally culpable by his opposite effort to suppress the significance of these finds in support of his theory that the Hebrew Bible contains little historically reliable information before the Exile.
Now to his analysis: Davies feels the division of the six letters, bytdwd, into two words is illegitimate. Davies complains,
“Despite the fact that there is no word divider between the first three letters and the last three letters to indicate that we have two words here, Biran and Naveh nevertheless read these six unseparated letters as two words, rather than one.”
This is perplexing, since later in the article Davies will admit that there are two different words, or as he puts it “two verbal elements.” He also will concede that the first three letters (byt) mean “house of.” Thus, up to this point he will have agreed with the excavator Avraham Biran and his epigrapher Joseph Naveh as to the compound nature of the six letters and the translation of byt, despite his earlier statements to the contrary.
The difference lies in Davies’s contention that since there is no word divider the six letters are best read as a place-name. However, this is simply “speculation,” the very speculation that Davies denounces in Biran and Naveh at other points in the article.
Davies himself observes that in the Mesha stela place-names beginning with byt are written as two words (for example, in line 30 of the Mesha stela we find bet diblaten and bet baalmeon). Where Davies derives the rule that place-names are written as one word escapes us, especially with his own example of Bethlehem, which is also written as two words in the Hebrew Bible.
One suspects that if there were a word divider between byt and dwd, Davies still might have argued it was a place-name because we have precedence in the Mesha stela and in the Hebrew Bible’s Bethlehem for place-names as two words. In other words, by Davies’s criteria, whoever wrote the inscription couldn’t win in writing “the House of David.” As Anson Rainey demonstrates 079in his follow-up article, Davies doesn’t seem to understand the use of word dividers; and its absence in bytdwd in the Tel Dan stela is attested elsewhere in similar situations.b
Davies’s place-name theory still doesn’t answer the question of what bytdwd means. Although he gives some suggestions, “the House of David” is still the most likely interpretation, whether it is a dynastic name or a place-name. There is no place known as bytdwd in any text, tradition or inscription. While it is possible that we have here the only reference to such a place, it is highly unlikely. Furthermore, “the House of David” (byt-dwd) is used over 20 times in the Bible as a reference to David’s dynasty, a fact Davies neglects to mention.2
Even if bytdwd is a place-name, the probability of it meaning “the House of David” is still greater than any proposals made by Davies, such as “the house of uncle,” “the house of beloved,” or “the house of kettle.” The significance of place-names with etymologies like these is dubious at best, to say nothing of the fact their use is wholly unattested.3
So if the letters mean “House of David,” it doesn’t matter whether they refer to a dynasty, as they almost surely do, or to a place-name. In either case we have an ancient reference to King David—unless Davies wishes to suggest that they may refer to someone else we don’t know about with the same name.
In his book In Search of ‘Ancient Israel,’ Davies asks for verification of Israel’s pre-Exilic history as described in the Bible. In his BAR article, Davies defines himself as one “who stubbornly insist[s] that Biblical stories, like any other ancient accounts, ought to be verified before being accorded the status of facts.” However, he does not ask for this same kind of verification of his own often unbelievable suggestions, such as that Persian-period scribes were organized into colleges in order to make up Israel’s history, the award-winning renditions of which became the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, he dismisses the archaeological evidence that does exist, which tends to confirm, in considerable detail as well as broad outline, Israel’s pre-Exilic history. Assyrian and Babylonian records confirm the existence of the following kings of Israel and Judah: Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Pekah, Hosea, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh and most probably Uzziah. These records are more than just king lists; often they describe specific historical events, such as the siege of Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign and the tribute he paid. The Moabite Stone mentions Omri, Israel and Gad. The Lachish ostraca give details about Babylonian troops in Palestine. The Samaria ostraca make reference to the territory of Manasseh. The inscription from Hezekiah’s Tunnel, while not mentioning his name, is further evidence for the Biblical narratives.
The Tel Dan inscription also underscores the general historicity of the Biblical narratives and represents another “fact” that Davies says he is waiting for, but seems determined to dismiss.
Davies’s attack on the reasoning of Biran and Naveh is both unfair and inappropriately caustic. For example, Davies suggests that, instead of Beth David, the six letters might be vocalized “Bethdod” or “Bethdaud.” Here Davies proposes only one alternative, but with two different vocalizations. He then proceeds as if he had suggested several alternatives: “All these place-names are quite reasonable suggestions.” He then goes on, “I’m surprised Biran and Naveh have not even bothered to consider these more plausible alternative readings—though I can guess why!” “These” would imply that Davies has supplied us with several options, but he has given us only one, and then he calls into question the motives of Biran and Naveh and their methodology.
Although his own proposals stand on precarious ground at best, he nevertheless accuses Biran and Naveh of “seeing what is not there” and of “putting the Bible before both archaeology and the conventions of scholarly argument.”
Davies notes inconsistencies between the Biblical episode that might lie behind the Tel Dan inscription and what seems to be implied or stated in the inscription itself:
“Despite the best efforts of Biran and Naveh to make the episode referred to in the Bible ‘fit’ with the text of the inscriptions—thereby ‘throwing light’ on the Bible (or vice-versa)—they must nevertheless recognize that if this inscription refers to the events narrated in the Biblical passage, then there is a likely contradiction, since according to the Biblical version, Israel and Judah cannot have been fighting together.”
In fact, Biran and Naveh do what we hope anyone would do if they found an inscription referring to Israel: Look up all possible parallels in the Biblical text and discuss the likelihood of there being a correlation. Biran and Naveh do this, concluding that the stela seems to record a battle not mentioned in the Bible. Certainly Davies couldn’t have a problem with this method. The real problem arises because in Davies’s reconstruction of their motives, Biran and Naveh, try as they might, cannot get the inscription to “fit” the Biblical text, and thus reluctantly have to concede it did not. This is an unworthy charge.
Perhaps Davies’s problem is with BAR’s headlining techniques to promote reader interest; if so, he needs to take this up with the editors and not with Biran and Naveh. Ultimately, however, even the writer of the BAR article faithfully reports Biran and Naveh’s conclusion that the Dan inscription does not appear to be connected with any specific episode in the Bible.
The overall impression one gets from reading Davies’s article is that he is not encouraging honest intellectual inquiry. If he were, he would (1) discuss problems with his own interpretation of bytdwd, (2) admit that the burden of proof is on him to explain bytdwd as meaning something other than “the House of David” in light of the several lines of evidence pointing to this conclusion, and (3) not use inappropriately loaded and caustic language toward his fellow scholars.
BAR recently published an article by Philip R. Davies in which he claims that the now famous six letters of the Tel Dan inscription, bytdwd, do not mean “the House of David” after all.a The tone and content of the article are an impassioned bashing of those “Biblical Maximizers” who read into archaeological finds what is supposedly not there—in this case, a reference to the famed king of ancient Israel. In a book entitled In Search of ‘Ancient Israel,’ written prior to the discovery of the Tel Dan inscription, Davies argues that most of Israel’s history prior to the […]