In 1994, André Lemaire proposed for the first time to read “House of David” (btdwd) in line 31 of the Mesha Stele.a But it is only in the last few years that scholars have been in a position to seriously debate this fascinating proposal. This has become possible thanks to new images of both the remnants of the stone itself and the squeeze that was made just prior to the stela’s fragmentationb in the late 19th century.1
In the Winter 2022 issue of BAR, André Lemaire and Jean-Philippe Delorme used this new imagery to defend the reading btdwd.c Fortunately, you don’t need to be an epigrapher to follow the discussion, for the disputed signs simply consist of an X, a triangle, and a dot! Indeed, the letters that are debated are those in brackets in the expression b[td]wd, that is, a taw and a dalet (in their BAR article, Lemaire and Delorme also discuss the final dalet, but most scholars, including us, agree with this reading). In the script of the Mesha Stele, the letters taw and dalet are normally written, respectively, as an X and a triangle, while word dividers are dot-shaped. Let us briefly review the evidence put forward for these three signs (for supporting photographic evidence, see Images A–D in sidebar).
The X (Taw)
Lemaire and Delorme argue that traces of a taw can be seen in line 31 of the stone. Our own conclusion, after careful examination of the stela (including a recent visit made to the Louvre after reading Lemaire and Delorme’s article), is that there are striations and small depressions, but no traces of actual strokes made by a craftsman’s tool (which should originally have been of approximately the same width and depth as the undisputed strokes of the inscription). Lemaire and Delorme draw an X (in red) on an RTI image (Image A), but neither of the two segments forming the X is a stroke. The segment leaning upwards and to the right, for example, actually consists of minor depressions that do not form a continuous line, are of varying depth, and do not have the same width as the stela’s inscribed letters. Indeed, as was noted by Nathaniel Greene and Heather Parker, the latter a member of the team who took the RTI images of the stela, the Mesha inscription “challenges current RTI capabilities, as it is heavily abraded in many areas.” 2
Lemaire and Delorme also suggest identifying traces of three ends of the X on the squeeze (Image C) but the noted dark marks are too tiny to be convincing. Moreover, they do not necessarily belong to a letter, since we find similar marks in other places on the squeeze where no letter was engraved. The two lower traces are surrounded by other dark marks (see arrows 1 to 4 in Image D), and we find no justification for distinguishing these two elements from the other marks that surround them. In other words, if they are traces of a letter, then the other dark traces should also be interpreted as traces of letters, which would not produce any possible reading. In addition, the top-right extremity of the X as drawn by Lemaire and Delorme on the squeeze is positioned higher than they place it on the stone.3
The Triangle (Dalet)
Lemaire and Delorme see traces of the disputed dalet on the squeeze: the left angle of the triangle and its lower side (see Image C). However, two observations prevent us from drawing the same conclusion. First, the orientation of the triangle (characterized by the angles the sides make with the horizontal) is not exactly the same as that of the 055undisputed dalet situated slightly to the left. This is not a decisive factor, though, since slight variations in letter stance occur regularly enough in individual inscriptions. Second, and more important, the dark line that would be the lower side of the triangle is prolonged to the right by similar dark traces extending until the area where Lemaire and Delorme see the bottom of the taw (see arrow 5 in Image D). While they prefer to treat only the left half of that long series of dark traces as the lower side of the dalet, we don’t think this is warranted. A direct examination of the squeeze itself shows that the entire series of dark marks, including the place where Lemaire and Delorme see the lower side of the triangle, corresponds to a long wrinkle along the surface of the squeeze, which does not match with any letter form. There are many such creases on the squeeze.
We should keep in mind that the squeeze is now quite deteriorated, having suffered from tears 056and creases that were created when it was prematurely removed from the original stone more than 150 years ago. Such wear reduces the clarity of the new backlit images of the squeeze—because creases and other kinds of deteriorations leave dark traces that sometimes look like those left by actual letters. In short, while the existence of a dalet cannot be ruled out, the squeeze cannot be said to confirm this reading.
The Dot (Word Divider)
Finally, what about the dot after btdwd? There is a reason why most scholars have ignored it: It does not really look like the other word dividers found on the stela. As a rule, the latter appear as deep circular holes with neat, clear sides (see the undisputed word divider shown by arrow 1 in Image B). This is not the case here (see arrow 2 in Image B). The depression here is similar to others found in the lower part of the stone, which are typically abrasions, marks, and dents caused by deterioration or damage to the surface. A direct examination of the stone shows that this depression extends upwards and to the left (see the dotted arrows in Image B), so its shape is actually far from being circular. Finally, the slightly dark spot found 057in this area on the squeeze (marked by a red dot in Image C, see also arrow 6 in Image D) is much less dark than the spot left by the undisputed word divider (see arrow 7 in Image D).
In conclusion, we find no solid evidence for the X (taw), triangle (dalet), or dot (word divider). Accordingly, while the reading btdwd is not impossible, it remains purely hypothetical. We may well be wrong, of course, but while we are sorry not to agree with Lemaire and Delorme’s fascinating proposal, we prefer to err on the side of caution. With no word divider clearly present after the second dalet, it is impossible to say where the word stopped. As such, this section of line 31 could contain any number of possible letter combinations or conjectured reconstructions based on the sequence b[??]wd[…]. One of these possibilities, of course, is still to reconstruct b[td]wd, but that would rest on contextual and historical grounds rather than epigraphical considerations, and that is a subject for another debate. In the end, however, it is fascinating to see how this inscription, found more than a century and a half ago, still puzzles epigraphers and historians.
The Mesha Stele might contain a reference to the “House of David.” Some scholars believe this reading can now be confirmed, thanks to new photographic evidence, as published in the Winter 2022 issue of BAR. However, others disagree. Take another look at the Mesha Stele, a ninth-century BCE Moabite victory stela, and see if the reading of the “House of David” is indeed set in stone.