To fundamentalist Christians, the Bible is an inerrant source of wisdom whose basis in reality should be unquestioned. To those whose faith is perhaps not quite as strong, independent corroboration of biblical events and people buttresses their beliefs. Unfortunately, such corroboration has been rare, despite the pursuit by generations of archeologists.
So it was with great excitement last week that researchers greeted the discovery of a small stone tablet among the rubble of a wall at Tel Dan on the Jordan River in northern Israel. The 13 lines of Aramaic script on the tablet commemorate the defeat of Baasha, the king of Israel, by Asa of the House of David and the king of Syria in the 9th Century BC.
The tablet is not only the first corroboration of that epic battle, described in I Kings, but it is also the first mention outside the Bible of the House of David, and thus of King David himself. King David, who ruled from 1010 to 970 BC over a kingdom that stretched from Egypt to Mesopotamia, established the dynasty that ruled in Jerusalem through the time of Christ and to which modern Jews trace their lineage.
"This is an extraordinary and important discovery," said archeologist Eric M. Meyers of Duke University. "This is a window into an era that is not terribly well understood. The 9th Century BC has been a kind of dark age in biblical history."
The discovery "gives us more confidence in the historical reality of the biblical text," said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review.
Alfred Gottschalk, president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, said: "This takes away the argument that David was the figment of somebody's imagination, that there was no such person. That's the important point here."
The tablet was found this summer by archeologist Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Biran, 84, and still very active, is a former director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and is considered the dean of Israeli archeologists.
The tablet apparently is part of a stone stele, or monument, erected to commemorate the defeat of Baasha. Such stelae were commonly erected by kings during that period, "but you rarely find them today," Biran said in an interview from Jerusalem.
The stone is about one foot square. Biran believes that it is part of a stele that measured 2 feet by 3 feet. It was apparently destroyed about 30 years after its erection, when King Ahab reconquered Dan; its shattered stones were used to build the wall in which Biran found it. He is searching for the rest of the monument.
The text is still being deciphered, Biran said, but the Aramaic script clearly says "bet David," meaning "House of David." The phrase is set off from the other text as if to emphasize the special status of the phrase, he said. Other words in the text refer to "chariots" and "thousands of horsemen," as well as "King of Israel" and "Hadad," which could refer either to a king of Aramea or to a god of the same name.
"The only interpretation that I can give it is to refer to Chapter 15 of I Kings, a very dramatic story," Biran said.
The story began after the death of David's son, Solomon, when the tribes of Judah and Ben split off from the other 10 tribes of Israel to form the kingdom of Judah in what is now southern Israel. Judah was ruled from Jerusalem by the House of David.
The remaining tribes established the kingdom of Israel in the north, governed initially by Jereboam I. These tribes were conquered by the Assyrians in the 8th Century BC and taken into exile, never to be heard from again. They are now known as the "lost tribes of Israel."
Dan was a center of worship established by Jereboam so that his people did not have to go to Jerusalem, and it became the center for a paganistic cult that worshiped a golden calf. Biran and his colleagues have been excavating at Tel Dan since 1966 and have found, among other things, the cult center where the calf was presumably located.
According to I Kings, King Asa of Judah raided the temple treasury, taking all its gold and silver and sending it to the king of Syria to entice him to attack Baasha, the king of Israel. Together, the armies of the two countries captured Dan. The king of Syria presumably then erected the newly discovered monument to mark his victory.
Asa enjoyed a long and peaceful reign, dying in the 41st year of his rule from a festering foot disease. After his death, Ahab of Israel was able to retake Dan.