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Probing Into Tel Dan

June 1, 2006
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During the Canaanite period, the city was known by the name Leshem (Josh. 19:47) or Laish (Judg. 18:29). On the eastern side of the city, an intact gate complex was preserved, consisting of two towers flanking a recessed arched gateway. Stone steps led from the outside to the 2.4 meter (7 feet, 10 inches) wide entrances. The 18th century BC ramparts and gate were thought to provide adequate defense for what was Canaanite Laish. The stones and structures speak of community. People lived a most fascinating lifestyle in and around these ancient constructions, all put together without modern equipment and still standing after centuries.

And then came Dan. “The territory of the sons of Dan proceeded beyond them; for the sons of Dan went up and fought with Leshem and captured it. Then they struck it with the edge of the sword and possessed it and settled in it; and they called Leshem Dan after the name of Dan their father. This was the inheritance of the tribe of the sons of Dan according to their families, these cities with their villages” (Josh. 19:47–48, NASB).

Excavations since 1966 found a new construction level above the last Canaanite city. It was noticeably different in architectural character and material culture. The new settlement pattern belongs to the era of Dan. The Dan clan had previously lived in a small area in the western foothills of the Judean mountains. The takeover must have produced fierce fighting.

The excavations show Laish was fortified with huge manmade earthen embankments, which created ramparts encircling the entire city. The Bible relates how 600 members of the tribe of Dan migrated northward and eventually conquered Laish (Judg. 18:29). The Joshua verses seem to provide a master of understatement: “They struck it with the edge of the sword and possessed and settled it” (Josh.19:47). I marvel how the Bible so simply states how they “possessed and settled it.” There is little doubt the fighting was full-blooded. The defenses and fortification around the area suggest a great effort would be required to overcome them.

It is in Judges where the Dan picture is best described: “When you enter, you shall come to a secure people with a spacious land; for God has given it into your hand, a place where there is no lack of anything that is on the earth” (Judg. 18:10). This is not poetic fantasy. These words describe the breathtaking beauty of the region. Dan enjoys majestic Mount Hermon as a backdrop. The archaeological site extends over 20 dunams (50 acres). Within this region, secrets have been uncovered, but many remain waiting further inquiry.

A Whoopee Moment

One of those who have been consistently probing the secrets of Tel Dan is Dr. David Ilan, Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Archaeology, a program of the Hebrew Union College. Ilan said, “We’ve been digging at Tel Dan for almost 40 years, and we’ve opened up seven excavation fields.” As we spoke on the Bridges for Peace “People We Meet” radio program (www.bridgesforpeace.com), he said, “Perhaps the most important find to come out of Tel Dan is the famous House of David stela [stone slab or pillar], where the name of David is mentioned for the first time outside of the contemporaneous biblical text.”

This was indeed a momentous discovery, but it had a human touch to it as well. Dr. Ilan told us the wonderful story. “The larger part of the House of David stela was lying exposed in the dirt for several weeks before it was discovered. It was a piece of stone in secondary use in an Iron Age wall. One day, in the afternoon, our architect Gila Cook was surveying and plotting walls in her plans. Because the sun was at just the right angle, she began to spy strange shapes in the stone. She went closer and she found they were ancient Aramaic letters. She let out a ‘whoop’ of excitement. Immediately she ran up the tel to Professor Avraham Biran, who at the time was about 80 years old!  

“She said to him, ‘You have to come now!’ He was busy on something else. Nobody spoke to Professor Biran like that, but he sensed her excitement and ran with her back to the discovery. It was quite something to see this octogenarian professor in full flight. When he arrived and saw the Aramaic writing, all he could say, over and over again, was ‘O my God! O my God!’ He said it about seven times. He began to read those words, ‘House of David.’“ Dr. Ilan could not contain his enthusiasm even as he relived the memory of what we agreed to call a “whoopee moment.”

The Tel Dan Stela

Ilan’s wonderful story describes the discovery of the Tel Dan stela. Because the inscription mentions “Israel” and the “House of David,” it is often quoted as supporting

evidence for the Bible. There are critics of the translation, who say literary dividers used in Aramaic are missing. But Anson Rainey, emeritus professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Languages at Tel Aviv University, defended the “House of David” conclusion. He said, “A word divider between two components in such a construction is often omitted, especially if the combination is a well-established proper name.”

William M. Schniedewind, who chairs the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, said the discovery offers an interesting insight: “This inscription should refocus our attention to the political dimensions of the House of David. Biblical scholarship has tended to be overly enamored with the theological idea of the House of David and has tended to read all references to David in prophetic literature as late, or reflecting, eschatological and utopian ideals. The Tel Dan inscription should remind us that the House of David was first a political designation, and only much later did this political idea, by its association with the Temple and the priesthood, take on theological and ultimately eschatological dimensions.”He writes that “House of David” is mentioned 25 times in the Bible and argues that most of us read the warfare stories looking for spiritual or theological explanations. Shniedewind believes these battles were first and foremost part of the political contest of their day.

Other excavations have uncovered the existence of the cultic center at Dan. This is interesting when considered in the light of Judges 18:30: “…and the children of Dan set up for themselves the graven image.” The high place found at Dan was established by Jeroboam I, king of Israel at the end of the 10th century BC. After the division of the kingdom, Jeroboam I built altars bearing the golden calf in two cities: “…he set one in Beth-el and the other he put in Dan….and the people went up to worship …even unto Dan” (I Kings 6:36; 7:12).

The Nelson Glueck School of Archaeology is preparing for their summer dig at Tel Dan. Their target for June will be to uncover treasures from the sixth and seventh centuries BC as well as other bonus finds. Dr. Ilan said, “We know the sixth and seventh century BC level is very close to the surface, sometimes just 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches), and that allows us to anticipate opening one large area.” Already at this level, he said they have found “tens of complete pottery vessels in their places, lots of metal tools, sickles, scythes, knife blades and bone inlays.” Hopefully, this summer dig will experience another “whoopee moment.”


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