DOI:10.5508/jhs.2007.v7.r7

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

George Athas, The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 360; Copenhagen International Seminar, 12; New York: T. & T. Clark, 2005). Pp. xii + 331. US$49.95. ISBN 0-567-04043-7.

This work, a re-impression of a 2003 publication, constitutes an extensive revision of the author’s University of Sydney dissertation. Numerous articles on the Tel Dan inscription have appeared since Fragment A was discovered in July 1993 and the bifurcated Fragment B (sigla: B1 and B2) was unearthed in June 1994, but this is the first full monograph devoted to this Iron Age II text from northern Israel, one of the most important epigraphic finds from the Levant in recent decades. As the author indicates in laying out his methodology (pp. 1–3), his objective is to provide extensive discussions of all salient areas of enquiry: archaeological context, epigraphy, palaeography, textual analysis and historical significance.

Athas begins his investigation in Chapter Two by detailing the circumstances of the discovery of the pieces of the inscription within Area A at Tel Dan: Fragment A from the base of a wall inside the city (p. 6); B1 about 2 m south of a platform shrine along the base of the Iron Age city wall (p. 13); and B2 incorporated into the pavement at the base of that wall (pp. 14–15). Here he makes some preliminary estimates regarding the time span for the creation and destruction of the stela, viz. from early in the latter half of the ninth to the beginning of the eighth century bce (pp. 13, 16), already challenging the conclusions of the excavator Avraham Biran and original epigrapher Joseph Naveh.

In Chapter Three (“Epigraphical Analysis”), the author provides his own reading of the lines on the tablet fragments, based on a painstaking personal examination of the artifact (pp. 35–92). Prior to this, in part through his own physical experiments with hammer and chisel (see p. 21), he describes methodically the mechanics involved in writing and incising the letters, with helpful drawings and photographs (pp. 21–35). This remarkable undertaking allows him to posit the approximate dimensions of the original stela’s writing surface prior to fracture—height not much more than 110 cm, width 35 cm (p. 35)—the significance of which will become apparent in Chapter Five.

Chapter Four (“Palaeographical Analysis”) is an exhaustive comparison of the forms of all of the letters on the tablet (complete with miniature photographs) with the corpus of West Semitic inscriptions dating from the mid-tenth to the mid-fourth centuries bce (pp. 94–174). Athas’s objectives are to determine “whether a plausible connection exists between Fragment A and Fragment B in terms of palaeography” (p. 96)—it does (pp. 164–65)—and to establish a palaeographical date for the stela to go along with the earlier-proposed archaeological dating (it is ca. 800 bce, plus or minus twenty years [pp. 136, 164]).

The following chapter (“Arrangement of the Fragments”) provides arguably the most arresting observation of a monograph that is replete with them. As currently displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Fragment B is positioned immediately to the left of Fragment A, the top edges of each of the two essentially level with each other, in accordance with the conclusions of Biran, Naveh, epigrapher Ada Yardeni and three restorers (pp. 175–76). The first eight lines of Fragment A thus supposedly continue on Fragment B, although Biran and Naveh have expressed “a modicum of doubt as to the present configuration” (p. 177). Due in part to problems with the ostensible two parts of these eight lines, particularly in lines 2, 4 and 8 (pp. 183–87), Athas has proposed an entirely new arrangement of the fragments, one which severs the physical connection between A and B. The implications of his proposed dimensions for the original, unbroken stone, determined during his epigraphical analysis, now become clear. Asserting that “different physical circumstances governed the writing of Fragment A and Fragment B” (p. 180), Athas proposes to place B some 32 cm below A, about 45 cm from the bottom edge of the theoretical unbroken stela, with Fragment A’s first line being the third line of the full stela (pp. 190–91).

Athas moves in Chapter Six to an extensive textual analysis, confirming that the language of the inscription is indeed Old Aramaic (pp. 201, 245–46), as has been asserted since the Biran-Naveh editio princeps (1993, 1995). His translation (pp. 193–94) is, of course, much discrepant from all previous interpretations that have been based upon the configuration of a Fragment B contiguous with Fragment A. Obviously, space does not permit a full summary of his reasoning here, but we must at least note his conclusions regarding the crucial lexeme ביתדוד in line A9 (pp. 217–26). While the majority of commentators have assumed it to be “House of David,” taken as a dynastic name for the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, Athas interprets what he vocalizes as “Bayt-Dawid” (p. 221 and passim) to be a reference not to the nation Judah but to the city(-state) Jerusalem (pp. 223-24; also 275–81), the reasons for which will be discussed presently.

Chapter Seven is a lengthy historical commentary, assembling and correlating the data from 1) the inscription; 2) other relevant extra-biblical texts; 3) biblical testimony; and 4) the archaeological record. Several points bear mentioning here. First, Athas now arrives at precise dates for both the production (ca. 796 bce) and the destruction (ca. 791 bce) of the stela (p. 296). Secondly, he determines that its author is not, as has been thought by most scholars, the Aram-Damascus monarch Hazael but rather his son and successor Bar Hadad (p. 263), and further that this “Bar Hadad” is not to be considered the third (or even fourth) king of that name, but only the second, hence Bar Hadad II (pp. 263–68; 289–94). Thirdly, the “king of Israel” referred to in line A8 is Jehoahaz ben-Jehu (not Jehoram ben-Ahab), and יהואחז must thus be entirely restored at the end of line A7 (see pp. 269, 193). The corollary to this is that the king of “Bayt-Dawid” (i.e., Jerusalem) is therefore Joash ben-Ahaziah (p. 281), and not Ahaziah ben-Jehoram. Fourthly, based on the date given for the destruction of the stela, it must have been purposely shattered by Jehoahaz ben-Jehu’s son and successor, Jehoash (pp. 270–71). Fifthly, given the juxtaposition of a state (Israel) with a city (Bayt-Dawid/Jerusalem) by Bar Hadad II in the inscription, Judah was negligible as a state entity at that time; “Jerusalem, in all likelihood, had only token sovereignty over the regions of Judah” (p. 278) and “was only a small feudal estate” (p. 281). This, of course, has the further implication that the biblical portrayal of a powerful tenth-century bce Davidic-Solomonic kingdom centred on Jerusalem cannot be accurate; indeed, as the archaeological record suggests, “in the tenth century bce, Jerusalem was only a fortified compound with a small population—not a bustling metropolis” (p. 305). (Athas does, however, conclude that “דוד must refer back to the eponymous ancestor of Jerusalem’s king—namely, David ben-Jesse” [p. 303].) Finally, two passages from 1 Kings that have elicited great scholarly debate may now conclusively be placed chronologically: 22:1–40 is actually describing the death in battle of Jehoahaz ben-Jehu (at the hands of Bar-Hadad II, as described in the Tel Dan inscription!) rather than of King Ahab (pp. 283–84); and in 20:23–43, the unnamed king of Israel is not to be taken as Ahab, as the placement of the narrative would suggest, but rather Jehoash ben-Jehoahaz (destroyer of the inscription), with the Damascene king “Ben Hadad” being none other than the erector of the inscription, i.e., Bar Hadad II (p. 286).

Athas concludes the book with some brief summarizing comments about the implications of his findings, and some suggestions about how scholars might proceed in future when faced with artifacts of such potentially great significance. As he correctly notes, “[t]he Tel Dan Inscription produced one of the biggest divides in the scholarly community” (p. 318). In particular, he asserts that nothing can replace first-hand examination of the artifact itself; determinations based on photographs and hand-drawings can be misleading (p. 318).

The conclusions of George Athas in the Tel Dan Inscription are, to put it mildly, far-reaching and novel. They are also, in the opinion of the present reviewer, largely compelling. Athas stresses that in conducting his analysis he has attempted to follow a prudent methodology that, among other things, neither takes “all the information derived from the inscription at face value” nor “dismiss[es] the biblical evidence from having any value for historical reconstruction” (p. 255). He has hewn to this path admirably, and he has coupled this with archaeological, epigraphical, and palaeographical work of extreme rigour and erudition. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the volume, but two matters treated in Chapters Six (“Textual Analysis”) and Seven (“Historical Commentary”) do warrant some comment.

The first concerns the vexatious ביתדוד in line A9. Athas asserts that due to the absence of a word divider between בית and דוד, this form cannot refer to “two separate ideas” (pp. 218–19), and is thus to be taken as “a composite toponym transcribed as a single lexeme” (p. 224). This toponym is, as already explained, “Bayt-Dawid,” a reference to Jerusalem, limited ca. 800 bce “to the narrow spur between the Qidron Valley and the Central (Tyropoean) Valley” (p. 279). Athas likens “Bayt-Dawid” to an alternate biblical term for Jerusalem עיר דוד [“City of David”] (pp. 279–80; also 224) reasoning that ביתדוד would have been the Old Aramaic equivalent for עיר דוד since the noun עיר is (at least thus far) unattested in Old Aramaic (p. 280). While the suggestion is novel, it is potentially undermined by the fact that there are only two relevant cases in which a composite toponym is written as a single lexeme: ביתחרן [Beth-Ḥoron] in Ostracon B from Tell Qasilé and ביתאל [Bethel] from Sefiré I (p. 222). Athas neglects to mention, however, that the second component in both is a DN (“Ḥoron” and “El”) rather than a PN (“Dawid”). The ostensible parallel is thus weakened. Similarly, Athas does not adequately explain why it is that biblical בית דוד (“House of David,” as a dynastic name for the kingdom Judah) is two separate ideas but ביתדוד (“Bayt-Dawid,” the supposed Old Aramaic name of Jerusalem ca. 800 bce) is not two separate ideas. Presumably, what he means is that in using “House of David” to refer to Judah, a speaker would have been mentally separating the concept of the eponymous man “David” and the concept of “house” as a reference to a “socio-political label” (p. 300), whereas “Bayt-Dawid,” while originally two separate ideas, would no longer have been thought of thus (just as we no longer think of “New York” as being a new version of the English city York).

Another conclusion that readers may find somewhat tenuous is Athas’s assertion that line A4 contains a reference to the supposed deity אלביתאל [“El-Baytel”] (pp. 309–15; also 193, 210–11). Athas describes this as “the hypostasis of the deity El, who came later to be known simply as ‘Baytel’ or ‘Bethel’” and says that it “refers to the deity El in the form of a maṣṣebah or sacred Bethel-stone at the city gate” (pp. 210–11). Thus, he posits an evolution of the DN El from “El” to “El-Baytel” (meaning “‘The Bethel-stone, El’” [p. 311]) to “Baytel/Bethel.” Given, however, that this DN is not otherwise attested and that its last three letters must be entirely restored (see pp. 193, 210–11), this reading and interpretation should be treated with caution. It is, however, highly intriguing and cannot be rejected out of hand.

The Tel Dan Inscription is, undeniably, a scholarly tour de force, subverting virtually all previous scholarship on the text. The author’s assertions are wide-ranging and provocative, and even in the rare cases when not entirely convincing they are nevertheless imaginative. At a minimum, it is difficult to argue with Athas’s determination that Fragment B is to be placed well below Fragment A rather than immediately to its left, meaning that most of the previous scholarship on the inscription, based on the current arrangement, is misleading. The amount of data that confronts the reader in this volume can be overwhelming and even exhausting (the sheer volume of information doubtless explains the sporadic typographical errors and problems in phrasing), but navigating through it is a richly rewarding experience. All subsequent work on the Tel Dan inscription will have to contend with this monumental treatment.

Daniel Miller, Bishop’s University