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The Tel Dan Inscription


Although various small, fragmentary inscriptions have been found at the site of Tel Dan in Israel, the most important one is chiseled on several fragments of a black basalt stela. The inscription, known as the Tel Dan Inscription, is written in Old Aramaic. The largest fragment, “Fragment A,” was found during the 1993 excavations, and two smaller fragments, which join together and are known as “Fragment B,” were excavated in 1995. Joseph Naveh, an epigrapher, copublished the inscription with the excavator, Avraham Biran. The inscription is on permanent display in the Israel Museum (Jerusalem).

The chiseled stela was broken in antiquity.  Just 13 lines are preserved on the fragments. Both the top and bottom portions of the inscription are missing, and though the beginnings of 11 of the lines (i.e., the right side of the inscription) are preserved, the left sides of those lines are also missing, meaning that we do not have the actual ends of any lines. Fragments A and B do not join together perfectly, but enough of this inscription has survived for scholars to translate it with confidence.

The following translation of the text is based on Naveh and Biran’s arrangement of fragments A and B:

(1) [. . .] and cut [. . .]

(2) [. . .] my father went up against him in war at [. . .]

(3) And my father lay down and he went to his fathers. Now the king of

(4) Israel had gone formerly into the land of my father. But, then, as for me, Hadad made me king.

(5) And Hadad went before me, and I departed from the seven [. . .

(6) . . . ] my kingdom and I killed [seve]nty kings who harnessed [thousands of

(7) char]iots and thousands of horsemen. [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab]

(8) King of Israel, and I killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram]

(9) king of the house of David [my emphasis]. And I made [their towns into ruins and turned]

(10) their land into [. . .]

(11) other [. . .]

(12) over Israel [. . .]

(13) siege upon [. . .]

                                                                   (author’s translation)

The name of the king who commissioned this inscription is not preserved. However, based on the historical content of the inscription and information from Mesopotamian (cuneiform) and biblical sources, the most convincing conclusion is that the king of Damascus (Syria) known as Hazael commissioned it in the ninth century B.C.E., after he had usurped the throne of Damascus from Ben Hadad (2Kgs 8:15). Hazael subsequently formed an alliance (1Kgs 19:17) with King Jehu of Israel (reigned 843–815 B.C.E.), who was also a usurper. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the biblical account (2Kgs 9) states that Jehu of Israel slew King Jehoram of Israel (reigned 849–843 B.C.E.) and King Ahaziah of Judah (reigned 843 B.C.E.), whereas the Tel Dan Inscription attributes these royal assassinations to Hazael.  That is, these two usurpers were working together and so both could legitimately claim to have been responsible for the coup de grace. 

The portion of the inscription that has attracted the most interest is the reference to “the house of David,” that is, the dynasty of David. Some scholars argue that the Aramaic phrase “BYTDWD (bet david)” may not mean “house of David,” and they propose “house of the kettle” or “house of the uncle” instead. However, the majority of scholars consider “house of David” to be the only compelling translation. Thus, although this inscription does not refer to David the historical figure, it certainly refers to the Davidic dynasty.  

  • Christopher Rollston

    Christopher Rollston is an associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University.  He is a philologist and epigrapher of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean languages and works in more than a dozen ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, as well as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Ammonite, and Moabite. He is the author of several books, including Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL,  2010).