“A Man after God’s Own Heart”

I’ve written an article for the Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament (JESOT 2.2) titled, ‘“A Man after God’s Own Heart’: David and the Rhetoric of Election to Kingship’. Here’s the abstract:

The anticipation of David as a “man after Yahweh’s own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 is to be understood as a statement about Yahweh’s election of David to kingship, rather than about David’s own moral qualities. Comparison of similar phrases in Akkadian texts shows that the phrase is part of the rhetoric of divine election to kingship. The focus on divine election does not mean David has no positive attributes. On the contrary, he is depicted as a man with clear leadership qualities. The phrase serves the Davidic apologia in distinguishing David from Saul as Yahweh’s personal choice for king.

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The Ark of God found at Khirbet Qeiyafa?

No, the Ark of God hasn’t been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. But at a press conference this morning, Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, presented some artefacts that they think are related to the Ark of God in some way. However, as you’ll see, at this stage I’m a little sceptical about their claim.

So what did they announce? Well, Garfinkel and Ganor presented three artefacts: two small boxes, one of stone and the other of clay, and a fragmentary stone artefact that looks like some kind of cultic stand. They were discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which is a single stratum fortification in the Valley of Elah (30 kms southwest of Jerusalem) dating to c.1000 BC. It’s a significant archaeological site because it gives us a window onto life in the region at the beginning of the Iron II period, and some would argue bolsters the claim for the historicity of a monarchy under David and Solomon. The two boxes presented are, according to Garfinkel and Ganor, miniature models of the Ark of God. They were among a cache of artefacts discovered within three large rooms that appear to have been shrine installations at the site. Amongst the other objects found were five standing stones (or massebot), two basalt altars (was one of these the third artefact displayed at the press conference?), and two clay vessels for libations.

The two boxes found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which Garfinkel and Ganor claim are miniature models of the Ark of God.

Below is an excerpt from Demotix relating some of the details given at the press conference (you can go to their website for their full story):

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples—separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).

The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.

Two portable shrines (or “shrine models”) were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.

The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the “triglyph,” is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.

The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.

The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon’s palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term “Slaot,” [צלעות] which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term “Sequfim” [שקפים], which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as “triple recessed doorway.”

Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel 41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.


My first impression is that we have here some excellent examples of the religious practices at the beginning of Iron II, and they seem to be similar to what we have found at other Iron II religious sites throughout Judah, Samaria, Jezreel, and Galilee. But at the same time, I think Garfinkel and Ganor may be reading too much into these artefacts. To say that these boxes are miniatures of the Ark of God is a claim that can only be made with reference to the descriptions of the Ark in biblical literature. This raises a methodological issue as to whether they are letting the biblical text colour their thinking of ordinary artefacts. But besides that, the boxes don’t seem to resemble the descriptions of the Ark very closely.

Now this is where things get a little hazy with the reports. Garfinkel and Ganor perhaps realise the discrepancy between these two boxes and the description of the Ark in the Bible. And so, it appears that they are arguing that the biblical description of the Ark is based on a ‘desert’ Ark, but that the Ark in use in Solomon’s day was different somehow. If this is indeed what Garfinkel and Ganor are arguing, then it seems to be an argument based on silence. There is nothing other than their tentative suggestion that these boxes are Ark miniatures to suggest that there was more than one Ark of God. I’m afraid this sounds like cart-before-the-horse kind of logic. I’m just not convinced.

Furthermore, Garfinkel and Ganor point to similarities between the carvings on these boxes and the description of Solomon’s temple. Yet, if one follows the biblical narratives, Solomon’s temple is at least a generation later than these artefacts, in which case, the boxes are not demonstrating specifically biblical artistic motifs, but rather generic religious motifs evident throughout the wider region. The connection with Solomon’s temple is, therefore, weakened. Thus, it seems a bit of a stretch to go basing clarifications of some of the architectural terms in the Hebrew narrative of 1 Kings based solely on these boxes.

What is missing from the reports so far is a detailed description of how these boxes were found. These details would perhaps give us more of an insight into their function and help us to evaluate more precisely Garfinkel and Ganor’s thesis. Until then, they’re just nicely crafted boxes found at a religious installation dating to c.1000 BC. I’d love them to have some kind of connection to Solomon’s temple, but I’m just not convinced of one at this stage. At this stage, it looks more like wishful thinking than probability. I’m certainly willing to be swayed, but we need more information.

What these artefacts do seem to confirm for us is that there is a significant religious installation in the Valley of Elah during a time when some scholars are questioning the existence of a Kingdom of Judah/Israel. These finds by no means prove that such a kingdom existed. However, they do suggest some kind of organised or official religion. Just how official (local, district, realm, or regional) is unknown. But it points to some kind of organisation in religion on the fringes of Judah in c.1000 BC. The single-stratum nature of Khirbet Qeiyafa is quite critical in discerning this. These wares are not merely hangovers from previous eras, but objects and installations produced specifically at the beginning of Iron II. In other words, some kind of ruling authority was operative in this area, and it seems more and more to have been different from the Philistines just a stone’s throw away.

The most likely explanations for this state of affairs are that either there was a localised authority in the Shephelah region (cf. David Ussishkin’s perspective), or someone up in the highlands of Judah had a hand in this. Are the spotlights converging on us finding the kingdom of David in archaeology? Well, if there was a House of David (which I argue is another name for Jerusalem) that could be a player on the international stage in c.800 BC as per the Tel Dan Inscription, and there is an organising authority in the Valley of Elah in c.1000 BC, it’s not inconceivable that the two entities could end up aligning, such that we eventually have some strong evidence for a Kingdom of Judah in the time of David and Solomon. However, we don’t have that yet. Even with these artefacts announced today, we have not confirmed that the two entities do align. We must await further archaeological evidence to fill in the two-century gap between Khirbet Qeiyafa (c.1000 BC) and the Tel Dan Inscription (c.800 BC) before we can make a call either way on that.

UPDATE: Some more comments on the finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa can be found HERE.

The Extra Letter on the Tel Dan Inscription

I recently returned home from the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Francisco. While there I heard a very interesting paper by Andrew Knapp (Johns Hopkins University), in which he gave a new take on part of the text of the Tel Dan Inscription. This Old Aramaic inscription is perhaps best known for containing the phrase House of David (or something close to this). Knapp’s paper focused not on this phrase, but on another section of the inscription. He argued that the word קדם in line 4 of the inscription, which scholars usually translate by the adverb formerly, is actually a toponym, Qedem. He pointed to other sources in which there appears to be a place called Qedem in the northern Transjordan in the general vicinity of Damascus. Thus, according to Knapp, at least one of the reasons given for the hostility between Aram-Damascus and Israel that is reflected in the inscription was an Israelite incursion into Damascus’ territory at the town of Qedem.

As I told Knapp after he gave his paper, I welcome his new approach, as it stirs the pot a little after the discussion about the meaning and significance of the Tel Dan Inscription has congealed. However, at the same time, I believe there are some fatal flaws in Knapp’s theory because it rests on the original decipherment of the text by Biran and Naveh. I have outlined the flaws inherent in this original reading in my book, The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation (T & T Clark, 2003). However, it seems that the main piece of evidence that disqualifies the original reading still goes undiscussed and unaccepted in general scholarship. That piece of evidence is an extra letter on the inscription.

Biran and Naveh configure the fragments of the inscription such that Fragments B1 and B2 are to the immediate left of Fragment A. Using this configuration, Biran and Naveh reconstruct lines 3 and 4 of the inscription as follows:


This is usually rendered:

 And my father lay down with his fathers. Then the king of Israel went up
formerly into the land of my father. But Hadad made me king.

Tel Dan Inscription: Fragment A

If you look at the fourth line of Fragment A (pictured above), you will notice that there is a lacuna (a pock mark) in the stone towards the left hand side. It was presumably caused by the destruction of the original inscription in antiquity. This lacuna occurs between the aleph (א) and beth (ב) of the word usually transcribed as אבי (my father), and actually covers part of the aleph and part of the beth. This causes one’s eye to draw the aleph and the beth together. The result of this visual arrangement makes one, on a casual glance, believe that the beth follows immediately after the aleph, such that the word appears to be אבי (my father).

However, this is merely illusory. There is, in fact, a significant gap between the aleph and the beth. There is, after all, a lacuna between them, and it is big enough to accommodate an intervening letter. This, of course, does not mean there must be an intervening letter, except for the fact that the remains of an intervening letter are physically there on the surface of the stone. It is not immediately discernible in the photographs of the inscription, but the evidence is there: jutting out of the top of the lacuna are two strokes, the left one of which is merely a damage scratch. This initially makes one think that the right stroke is also a damage scratch. However, it most certainly is not. The right stroke is deliberately carved, bearing all the hallmarks of every other carved stroke on the inscription. In fact, the stroke bears the characteristic features of all other lameds on the inscription (a deep stopping mark at the topmost point where the engraver’s chisel finished carving the letter). The position and slant of this stroke can be compared with the aleph and lamed that appear in line 3, almost immediately above it.

In response to my pointing out this carved stroke, Knapp said that there was no indication that there was an extra letter at this point of the inscription. I pressed Knapp to see if he had reached this conclusion on the basis of the photographs alone, or whether he had personally examined the stone itself. He replied that his conclusion was based solely on the photographs. This is exactly the same position taken by Nadav Na’aman in his review of my book. Na’aman wrote:

Equally unlikely is [Athas’] reading of line 4: b’rq.’lby[….][…], as no trace of the lamed is visible in the photographs.
(Review of Athas, The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation, in Review of Biblical Literature 10/2004)

Both Knapp, Na’aman, and so many other commentators on the inscription, however, commit a cardinal sin in evaluating and reconstructing the text: they fail to consult the stone itself. I had the opportunity to examine the stone at Jerusalem in 1998. When I arrived to inspect the inscription, I had no inkling about this extra letter. Its existence had not even occurred to me. Like all others beforehand, I had simply drawn the aleph and the beth on either side of the lacuna together as sequential letters. And yet, as I examined the stone, lo and behold, there was the extra letter! I was, in fact, quite shocked to discover it, since it had previously gone unnoticed, and the photographs gave no indication that this ‘scratch’ was an actual letter. And yet, as I examined the stroke carefully and compared it to all other carved strokes on the surface of the inscription, I could no longer deny that this was, in fact, a real letter. Try as I might to ignore or reason it away, I could not. It was very much there!

The result of this extra letter is that the original reconstruction of the text proposed by Biran and Naveh, which scholarship has largely followed as the consensus, is categorically impossible. The word in question is not אבי (my father), but אלבי. What exactly this word means is conjectural. I proposed in my book that it is the first part of the name אלביתאל (El Baytel or El Bethel)—the name of the deity El in the form of a Bethel stone or massebah. However it is translated, though, the author is certainly not referring to his father with this particular word (though he does at other points in the inscription). In Old Aramaic, the word father does not have a lamed in it!

This extra letter stands in addition to the other major flaws of the general consensus view of the inscription, such as the claim that Fragments B1 and B2 belong to the immediate left of Fragment A. This claim and the text reconstructed on the basis of this configuration is virtually physically impossible. Furthermore, the authorship  and dating of the inscription were pegged to Hazael in c.840 BC, but this was concluded before the find site at Tel Dan was fully excavated. Subsequent seasons of excavation at Tel Dan show that this is slightly too early for the relevant strata. In addition to this, it seems that the consensus view largely sidesteps the fact that Hazael was a known usurper of the Damascene throne. That is, his father was not the previous king of Damascus. In fact, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III refers to Hazael as ‘the son of a nobody’, implying that he was not part of the previous ruling dynasty. This fact is further reflected by the biblical tradition that Hazael murdered his predecessor to take the throne (2 Kings 8.15). And yet the Tel Dan Inscription (at other points) refers to the author’s father as though they were the reigning monarch. The general consensus view of the inscription simply does not make sense. The much more likely candidate for authorship is Hazael’s son, Bar Hadad.

There are many other flaws in the general consensus view of the Tel Dan Inscription, which I won’t enumerate here. They are all discussed in my book. However, it is about time that scholarship on the inscription and those who wish to use it in understanding the history of the Ancient Near East paid attention to this extra letter in line 4 of Fragment A, for it scuttles the basic consensus. The Tel Dan Inscription needs to be examined again and examined more closely, and our history books amended accordingly.