On Sunday, May 6, 2007, The National Geographic Channel will present the “Lost Kings of the Bible.” This program is a study of the reign of David and Solomon and a discussion of recent archaeological discoveries that have a bearing on the historical events described in the biblical text.
The blurb describing the program summarizes the content of the program: “Are two of the most famous kings of the Bible - King David and King Solomon - mythical heroes or made of flesh and blood?” The program will explore what the National Geographic Channel calls “groundbreaking new evidence that may provide answers to these questions.”
The purpose of this post is to review some of the issues that will be raised by the program and addressed by some of the archaeologists that were interviewed in the program. The issues discussed in this post are in the forefront of the debate raging in scholarly circles on the historicity of David and his monarchy.
The question that has been raised by biblical scholars and archaeologists concerns the historical reliability of the biblical texts. In recent years, archaeologists have claimed that the patterns of settlement in the land of the Bible have cast doubts about whether there was a united monarchy during the days of David and Solomon.
The traditional view says that after the death of Saul, David became the king of Judah first and then of Israel. David became the king of a united Israel. David’s kingdom grew and became a small empire. With the conquest of neighboring nations, David’s kingdom covered a territory that extended from the borders of Egypt all the way to the Euphrates.
However, this view has been challenged by archaeologists. In their book, The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman (p. 131) say that there is no archaeological evidence for David’s conquests or for his empire. Their conclusion was that archaeologists misdated the evidence for David and Solomon by a century (p. 142).
Some biblical scholars are skeptical about the historicity of the Davidic monarchy. In his review of Storia d’Israele: Introduzione alla storia d’Israele e Giuda dalle origini alla rivolta di Bar Kochbà by Alberto J. Soggin, Jim West wrote:
One overarching question that needs further address (not only by Soggin but by most historians of ancient Israel) is, How can so much be said about so many when historical sources are so few (and almost fairly said, nonexistent)? How can Soggin really say what he says about the Davidic monarchy when there is no historical source for it?
After discussing the problem of history vs. historiography, Jim concludes:
In short, what Soggin brilliantly offers us here is theology in the makeup of history. If the makeup is scrubbed off and the pristine skin of theology laid bare for what it is, we have a simple retelling of the story of the Bible. Or perhaps an archaeological example will be better. If the patina of theology is scrapped [sic] off the underlying historical events, the one who scrapes will soon discover that the patina is so thick that the actual artifact is forever encased and hence lost unless the patina is thoroughly shattered, which would sadly also shatter the membrane-thin artifact beneath. What Soggin (and virtually all other historians of ancient Israel) offers us is more patina on the existing patina of historicism. If this is not the case, I have a simple solution: let two or three witnesses (aside from the biblical text) be called and testify to what they have seen and heard or else admit the hearsay nature of the evidence and dismiss the case called Historical Ancient Israel as unfounded.
There are three witnesses (aside from the biblical text) that mention the house of David: the Tel Dan Stela, the Mesha Stela, and the Karnak Inscription.
The Tel Dan Stela. The discovery and publication of the fragments of the Tel Dan inscription revealed for the first time the existence of “the house of David.” This reference to David in the Tel Dan Stela is the first time that the name of David appears in a non-biblical material. Although a few scholars have made an attempt at translating byt-dwd as the “Temple of Dod,” this translation has been almost universally rejected. Dod as the name of a god does not appear in any ancient literature.
The Tel Dan mentions a king of Israel and a king from the House of David. Although the fragments are broken, the names have been identified with Jehoram, son of Ahab and king of Israel, and Ahaziah, a king from the house of David.
The Mesha Stela. The second reference to the House of David appears in the stela of Mesha, king of Moab. Mesha ruled in the 9th century B.C. Mesha had been paying tribute to Israel since the days of Omri but after the death of Ahab, Omri’s son, he rebelled and reconquered several cities that were under Israelite control, including the city of Horonen, which was under the control of the house of David.
The Karnak Inscription. The third reference to the house of David may be found in the Karnak inscription in Thebes. The inscription celebrates Shishak’s victory against the Asiatics.
Shishak, also known as Shoshenq I, was a Libyan and the founder of the Twenty-Second Dynasty of Egypt. Shishak invaded Canaan in the fifth year of Rehoboam, son of Solomon and king of Judah. The information about his presence in Canaan is found in 1 Kings 14:25-26 and in 2 Chronicles 12:2-9. According to the biblical text, Shishak took as tribute the wealth of the temple and the treasures of the royal palace. The inscription lists the places in Israel and Judah that Shishak said he conquered. Among the names listed there is a list of places located in “the heights of David.”
In addition to this possible evidence for the name of David, other recent archaeological discoveries are shedding light on the tenth century and events associated with the life of David. For instance, I have written about the discovery of David’s palace by Eilat Mazar and about Aren Maeir’s discovery of a broken piece of pottery containing an inscription in early Semitic style spelling with the name of Goliath.
More and more archeologists are discovering evidence that David was a real person. The discovery of inscriptions bearing the title “the house of David” tends to substantiate that David was a real person. Now, there is no reason to deny the historicity of David and his house.
As for the reality of a monarchy, the recent findings may not be enough yet to prove that there was a government in Jerusalem during David’s reign. Was David the leader of an Iron Age chiefdom? Is the concept of a united monarchy the legacy of the post-exilic community?
As Finkelstein and Silberman wrote:
There is hardly a reason to doubt the historicity of David and Solomon. Yet there are plenty of reasons to question the extent and splendor of their realm. If there was no big empire, if there were no monuments, if there was no magnificent capital, what was the nature of David’s realm?
I do not believe that the “Lost Kings of the Bible” will answer this question. Until a few years ago, some people were willing to say that David and Solomon never existed and that they were invented to promote a utopian view of a united Israel.
Today we can say with certainty that there was a “house of David” and that someone was called “Goliath.” Today we can say that Omri, Ahab, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoash, Menahem, Pekah, and Hoshea, kings of Israel, are mentioned in extra-biblical documents. We can also say with certainty that David, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Uzziah, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, kings of Judah, are also mentioned in extra-biblical documents.
What else is buried in the remains of old cities? What kinds of written material are buried that have not yet been discovered? We do not know what else will be discovered a few years from now or in the next decade. But one thing is sure: little by little we are learning that the lost kings of the Bible are being found, one at the time.
Biran, Avraham. “‘David’ Found at Dan.” Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 1994): 26-39.
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil A. Silberman. The Bible Unearthed. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
Kitchen, K. A. “A Possible Mention of David in the Late Tenth Century BCE, and the Deity *Dod as Dead as the Dodo?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 76 (1997): 29-44.
Lemaire, Andre. “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription.” Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1994): 30-37.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tags: David, Karnak Inscription, Lost Kings of the Bible, Mesha Stela, Solomon, Tel Dan Stela