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For both Jews and Christians, King David (r. c. 1010–970 BC) is a figure of towering significance. According to 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel anointed David to replace Saul as king. David eventually became a successful monarch who carved out a mini–empire while ruling Israel and Judah. Yet David was all too human, and the scale of his failures (Bathsheba, Uriah) nearly matches that of his successes. Through it all, biblical texts speak of David as a “man after my (God’s) own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). Both Matthew and Luke list David in their genealogies of Jesus. Overall, there is an undeniable theological focus in the accounts of David’s life, and he is mentioned more frequently from Ruth through Revelation than any other Old Testament individual.1
In part because of that theological focus, scholars attempting to determine the historicity of David have arrived at wildly different conclusions. The so–called minimalist scholars generally claim there is no direct physical evidence of David’s life and reign, and this alleged fact, combined with the theological focus of the biblical texts, means David did not exist, and the biblical accounts amount to little more than fiction with too much ideology and theology to sort out what little, if any, of the material might be historical.2 For them, the kingdom of Israel developed before Judah, and there was never a united monarchy under David and Solomon. While it is true that, strictly speaking, there are no contemporary records that speak of David or his kingdom, nor any indisputable physical remains of his kingdom, there is now a considerable amount of compelling circumstantial textual and archaeological evidence that strongly suggests David did in fact exist and found a dynasty.
THE LIGHTNING ROD: THE TEL DAN STELE AND THE “HOUSE OF DAVID”
In 1993–94, excavations at Tel Dan in northern Israel uncovered three fragments of an Aramean victory stele.3 Once translated, it was clear that line 9 contained a tantalizing reference to David. To provide context, lines 6 through 9 read:
And I killed [power]ful ki[ng]s, who
harnessed thou[sands of ch]ari(7)ots
and thousands of horsemen;
and [I killed Jo]ram, son of [Ahab],(8)
king of Israel.
And [I] killed [Ahaz]yahu, son of
[and I overthr]ew(9) the House of David (Judah). 4
The author of this text was the Aramean king Hazael, an enemy of Israel and Judah (r. 844/832–803/802 BC).5 Upon defeating his rivals, he set up the stele at Tel Dan. Thus, an enemy of David’s successors referred to the “house of David,” not an Israelite or Judean king hoping to bolster his reign by appealing to a celebrated figure from the past. In other words, Hazael had no reason to reference David unless David actually existed and Hazael had heard of his importance. Additionally, the text dates to about 150 years after David’s reign, at which point memory of David was apparently still alive among enemy kings.
So, what does all this mean for the historicity of David? Hazael claims to have killed both the Joram and Ahazyahu. Scholars nearly unanimously agree that these are the kings that the Bible calls Jehoram and Ahaziah (cf. 2 Kings 8:16–29). Hazael tells us Jehoram was the son of Ahab, king of Israel. In strict parallel to the killing of Jehoram is the defeat of the second king, Ahaziah. But while Hazael notes Ahaziah’s father just as he did for Jehoram, instead of telling us that Ahaziah was king of a place, he uses the phrase “I overthrew the house of David.” Since these lines function in parallel, the phrase “house of David” must have a similar meaning to “king of Israel.” In other words, just as “king of Israel” explains who Jehoram was, so “house of David” provides additional information about Ahaziah. The Assyrians referred to their enemies in a similar fashion. For example, Jehu, who became king of Israel after the events recorded in the Tel Dan Stele, is called “Jehu of the House of Omri” in Assyrian texts.6 In this parlance, “House of Omri” was a substitute for saying “King of Israel.” Just as with the Tel Dan Stele, enemy rulers referenced a specific king, Omri, because Omri was influential enough to name the kingdom after him. Thus, the use of “house of David” in the Tel Dan stele refers to David as the dynastic founder of Judah. As for Hazael’s claim to have “overthrown the House of David,” 2 Kings 11 notes that in the chaos that followed Ahaziah’s death, Queen Athaliah ascended to the thrown during a bloody coup.
It is worth noting that evidence like the Tel Dan Stele has limits. While I believe it establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that David existed and founded a dynasty, it tells us nothing else about him. For example, it cannot prove David fought Goliath or committed adultery with Bathsheba and so on. Still, as Millard rightly notes, “Since the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, both groups (meaning both scholars who believe in a historical David and those who do not) have had to acknowledge the existence of someone called David who founded a dynasty.”7
While the Tel Dan Stele is the clearest extra–biblical textual attestation of David, another possible mention of the “house of David” is found in the Mesha Inscription, which is usually dated to the second half of the ninth century BC.8 Renowned epigraphist André Lemaire restores bt [d]wd—“House of [D]avid” in line 31.9 The line thus reads, “Now as for Horonaim, the House of David dwelt in it.” This understanding also fits the context as a whole. Previously, Mesha had identified Omri as king of Israel (lines 4–5), who had taken possession of Madaba (lines 7–8). Having dealt with this enemy, Mesha now turns to his new foe, the “house of David.” Mesha was likely referring to the House of David as parallel to the “king of Israel,” which is mentioned three times previously (lines 5, 10/11, and 18) just as “house of David” functioned in the Tel Dan Stele. The recent restoration of a “house of Balak” instead of “house of David” is very tentative and can be questioned on both linguistic and contextual grounds.10
THE JERUSALEM CONUNDRUM
The kingdom David founded is best understood in geopolitical terms as a “secondary” state; that is to say, a state that develops within the context of a primary or dominant state, like in this case of ancient Egypt or Assyria. Usually secondary states emerge after the collapse of the dominant state(s).11 Among the many aspects that scholars use to determine that a polity is a “state” is settlement hierarchy, which usually has four tiers: (1) capital cities, (2) major administrative centers, (3) secondary administrative centers or fortresses, and (4) provincial towns with few or no public structures.12
Naturally, to understand David’s rule, scholars sought to excavate Jerusalem, David’s capital. Unfortunately, none of the material uncovered from Jerusalem can be undeniably dated to David’s reign, but for the most part this can be easily explained.13 For starters, David’s Jerusalem was built on the eastern hill where subsequent generations removed/reused stone from previous generations to build on the bedrock, presumably due to concerns over erosion. The only evidence left would therefore be in fills and dumps. That said, archaeologists have found pottery from the tenth century BC and an area of public buildings that might represent David’s building activity.14 Secondly, we must be careful not to assume Jerusalem was a large city in David’s time; this is essentially a problem of modern perception. Instead, Uziel and Shai propose that we should understand Jerusalem as a “center” (palace, temple) and then a larger urban area developed.15 Thus, Jerusalem grows from a centralized capital in the tenth century to a major metropolitan area in the eighth century BC. As Ortiz summarizes, this theory “fits the archaeological record,”16 with a noticeable increase in population in the eighth century. Finally, modern political and religious realities mean, quite obviously, that archaeologists cannot excavate the Temple Mount or Haram esh–Sherif, where a large section of the city of David was located.
RECENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE: KHIRBET QEIYAFA
Although excavations of Jerusalem have proven inconclusive regarding David’s activity, the same cannot be said of data from Khirbet Qeiyafa, a tier 3 (see above) settlement located in the Shephelah on the border of ancient Judah and Philistia. Crucially, radiocarbon dates include in their range the time period of David’s reign.17 This means the date of the material discussed below cannot be pushed into later centuries.
Khirbet Qeiyafa during David’s time boasted several features indicative of its importance to a central authority. The site covered five acres and contained a massive wall formed by casemates with gates to the west and south. Houses abutted the wall, meaning that the wall of the city served as the back rooms of the houses. This is typical of ancient Judean towns and houses, but this was not done in Israelite, Philistine, or Canaanite cities.18 The gates demonstrate considerable architectural acumen incorporating large stones, chambers, and even a channel for draining rainwater that still functions today!19 In Area F, archaeologists found a large rectangular building measuring 11 x 15 meters and containing a 12-meter long hallway with central pillars. This was clearly a “massive administrative building.”20 Garfinkel and his team were able to analyze the diet of the inhabitants of Khirbet Qeiyafa based on thousands of bones from sheep, goats, and cattle. Noteworthy is the absence of pig bones, which have been found at Philistine and Canaanites cities (Ekron, Gath, Lachish).21 It appears that the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa took seriously the biblical injunction against eating pork (Lev. 11:7).
While much more can be said of this fascinating site, the finds above demonstrate that a central authority was very active at Khirbet Qeiyafa, having built extensive fortifications and an administrative building. Ethnically, the people who lived there were Judean (house style and diet). Radiocarbon dating places the site firmly in the timeline of David’s life. It is logical to connect all this activity to David who had every reason to fortify a settlement on the border with Philistia, and the biblical depiction of David is that he was powerful enough to accomplish all this.
THE PLAUSIBILITY OF DAVID’S KINGDOM: WHEN THE CAT’S AWAY…
As mentioned above, David’s kingdom was a secondary state. Far from implausible, David carved out his kingdom precisely when the major, dominant powers of ancient near eastern history were either in decline (Egypt) or had not yet re–emerged to assert control over the region (Assyria, Babylon). In fact, other groups thrived during this general period as well. Kingdoms of varying power emerged in Philistia, Aram–Damascus, Moab, Tyre, and so forth. David interacted with his fellow upstarts in a variety of ways typical of ancient kings. For example, he made a trade alliance with Hiram of Tyre,22 but famously warred with the Philistines.23 While David was a remarkable in many ways, his founding of a dynasty precisely when he did was actually not unusual, and he was not alone in carving out a kingdom during this time period.
Despite certain elements of the accounts of King David in the Hebrew Bible appearing to be legendary, several intriguing sources strongly suggest that David existed and founded a dynasty and that David’s kingdom was more than a myth. Textual sources written from the perspective of the enemies of Israel and Judah mention the “house of David,” a clear reference to David as a dynastic founder. While direct, physical evidence (i.e., “David was here”) is lacking, archaeological data from key sites points toward the activity of a king or strong central authority. Additionally, David established his kingdom precisely during a power vacuum in the ancient Near East region. Thus, the overall picture paints David as a historical figure, and biblical accounts of his kingdom are plausible.
Mark D. Janzen (PhD in History, emphasis ancient Egypt, University of Memphis) is an assistant professor of history at Louisiana College. He is also a deputy co-director on the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project.
1 Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor, and Michael G. Hasel, In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), 24.
2 See, e.g., E. Pfoh, The Emergence of Israel in Ancient Palestine (London: Routledge, 2016); J. Van Seters, The Biblical Saga of King David (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
3 Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan,” IEJ 43.2–3 (1993): 81–98; “The Tel Dan Inscription: A New Fragment,” IEJ 45.1 (1994): 1–18.
4 For excellent, recent translations of the stele, see K. Lawson Younger, “The Tel Dan Inscription and the Deaths of Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, ed. John S. Greer, et al (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 293–298, translation on p.294; Alan R. Millard, “The Tell Dan Stele (2.39)” in Context of Scripture 2, ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2003), 161–162; and Andrew Knapp, Royal Apologetic in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta, SBL Press, 2015), 283–288.
5 For more on Hazael and the stele’s authorship, see K.L Younger, A Political History of the Arameans from Their Origins to the End of Their Polities (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 591–592; H. Hagelia, The Dan Debate: The Tel Dan Inscription in Recent Research, Recent Research in Biblical Studies 4 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009), 32–43.
6 Cf. Knapp, Royal Apologetic, 287, note 38; Younger, A Political History of the Arameans.
7 Alan R. Millard, “David and Solomon’s Jerusalem: Do the Bible and Archaeology Disagree?” in Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? ed. Daniel I. Block (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2008), 187.
8 For more on the Mesha Inscription, see M. Patrick Graham, “The Discovery and Reconstruction of the Mesha Inscription,” in Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab, ed. Andrew Dearman (American Schools of Oriental Research, 1989), 41–92; André Lemaire, “House of David Restored in Moabite Inscription,” BAR 20.3 (1994): 31–37; Juan Manuel Tebes, “The Mesha Inscription and Relations with Moab and Edom,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament.
9 Lemaire, “House of David,” 36.
10 Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman, and Thomas Römer, “Restoring Line 31 in the Mesha Stele: The ‘House of David’ or Biblical Balak?” Tel Aviv 46 (2019): 3–11. Because this article is so new, scholarly reactions are still forthcoming. It should also be noted that none of the authors are epigraphers.
11 Steven M. Ortiz, “The United Monarchy” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, 209–211.
12 Ortiz, “The United Monarchy,” 212.
13 For more details, see Millard, “David and Solomon’s Jerusalem,” 190–200.
14 Eliat Mazar, The Palace of King David: Excavations at the Summit of the City of David; Preliminary Report of Seasons 2005–2007 (Jerusalem: Shoham Academic Research and Publication, 2009); this is disputed by Avraham Faust, “Did Eliat Mazar Find David’s Palace?” BAR 38.5 (2012): 47–52, 70.
15 Joe Uziel and Itzhaq Shai, “Iron Age Jerusalem Temple–Palace, Capital City,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 127 (2007): 161–170.
16 Ortiz, “The United Monarchy,” 212.
17 Garfinkel et al, In the Footsteps of King David, 17.
18 Garfinkel et al, In the Footsteps of King David, 66.
19 Garfinkel et al, In the Footsteps of King David, 71.
20 Garfinkel et al, In the Footsteps of King David, 85.
21 Garfinkel et al, In the Footsteps of King David, 113.
22 See 2 Samuel 5; 1 Kings 5; 1 Chronicles 14.
23 See 2 Samuel 5.
“Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John — or you and me — and ask, ‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’ This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want.” —from You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith