Guest Column: Long live the House of David!

Stone fragments provide hard evidence of the legendary dynasty

0711-guest (photo credit: Israel Museum)
(photo credit: Israel Museum)
Archeologist Avraham Biran died last September at the age of 98. His long and distinguished career earned him an Israel Prize, but his greatest claim to fame was the discovery of the Tel Dan Inscription in July 1993. This stele proved the existence of King David's dynasty, "Beit David." A part of the inscription, written in the early Hebrew script of the ninth century BCE, was found built into the wall of a piazza outside the city gate of Dan. It had probably been smashed by a later king of Israel who didn't like the contents. Remarkably, a second piece was found nearby several months later, used as a piece of paving. Thanks to the second fragment, the inscription could be reconstructed by Biran and his epigraphist colleague Joseph Naveh. The stele records the victory of the Syrian emperor Hazael of Aram over "70 kings" including "Joram, son of Ahab, king of [northern] Israel and Ahaziah, son of Jehoram, of the House of David," king of Judah. This was the first evidence outside the Bible of the existence of David and his dynasty. THE REALITY of the House of David is a mainstay of Jewish faith, which holds that God appointed the young shepherd to establish a line of kings that will eventually produce the Messiah. King David's power was handed down from father to son more than 20 times, except for two cases toward the dynasty's end, when rulers were imposed by foreign powers. In 609 BCE Jehoiakim was appointed by Egypt to replace his brother Jehoahaz, and Zedekiah was made to succeed his nephew Jehoiachin by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, 11 years before Jerusalem was destroyed. But even then, the replacements were members of the House of David. There was one other hiccup, when the Queen Mother Athaliah seized power after the death of her son Ahaziah (the one mentioned in the inscription) in 842 BCE and held the throne for seven years. But aside from these exceptions, the dynasty continued from father to son for 425 years - longer than any of the ancient Egyptian dynasties. WHAT WAS the secret of its success? True believers point to God's promise that David's seed would rule forever (II Samuel 7:16). But that promise was conditional on David and his descendants abiding by the word of God (1 Kings 2:4). It soon became clear that they did not. Solomon and his son Rehoboam built altars to idols, Ahaz copied the altar of the Assyrians in the Temple, and Manasseh spilled innocent blood throughout Jerusalem. Of David's 20 successors, 11 are recorded as worshipping idols of one sort or another. So why didn't the dynasty fall? When David became king, he took over from Saul, who had ruled all the tribes from the time they'd assembled to save the men of Jabesh-Gilead from Nahash of Ammon. But on Saul's death this coalition fell apart, and from his base in Hebron, David was only able to rule over the tribes of Judah and Simeon in the South. It was only when Saul's son, the weak Ish-boshet, antagonized his army commander Abner ben Ner that the latter handed the North over to David, enabling David to rule all the tribes from a new capital in Jerusalem. Under his son Solomon, the tribes remained together, but Solomon's despotic rule was not popular and, on his death, the North split off again and appointed Jeroboam I as their ruler, leaving the southern tribes of Judah and Simeon, and perhaps Benjamin, forever. This is described in the Book of Kings as a great disaster, but it was in fact the saving of the House of David. Solomon's son Rehoboam was now left in charge of one tribe, Judah, with perhaps Simeon and Benjamin. Judah was a powerful tribe, especially now that it had gained control of its own destiny, unencumbered by the affairs of the nine or 10 northern tribes. In the south Judah ruled supreme, and it was this strong tribal unity that enabled the leadership of Beit David to proceed in orderly fashion for 20 generations. We might have said this story was wishful thinking on the part of the Book of Kings and the Book of Chronicles, but today we have proven the existence of many of the later kings from Assyrian and Babylonian annals and, thanks to Biran, we recognize the reality of the unique dynasty of the House of David. The writer is a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.