Chazael and the Tel Dan Stele

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The Tel Dan Stele is most well known for its mention of the "House of David," considered by many to be the earliest extra-Biblical reference to the Davidic dynasty yet discovered.  The Aramaic inscription describes the triumph of Aram over Yisrael and Yehuda and is believed to speak of Chazael's war against Yehoram and Achazyahu, discussed briefly in Melakhim II 8.

Biblical Sources

Chazael is first mentioned in Melakhim I 19, where Hashem tells Eliyahu to anoint him as king over Aram, declaring that he will decimate Israel for their sins. The appointment is fulfilled in the time of Elisha1 and, soon after, the prophecy comes true as Chazael usurps the throne of Aram and proceeds to attack Yisrael and Yehuda.2 

Chazael's first battle is described almost tangentially in Melakhim II 8:26-29 and Melakhim II 9:15.  We are told that Achazyahu of Yehuda joins Yehoram of Yisrael to fight Aram in Ramot Gilad.3 Tanakh shares no details of the battle, only relaying the outcome: Aram smites Yehoram's army, wounding the king who is forced to return to Yizrael to recuperate. Soon after, Achazyahu pays his ally a visit, but unfortunately for him, it coincides with Yehu's revolt against Beit Achav.4 Yehu, thus, kills both Yehoram and Achazyahu.

Tel Dan Inscription

The three fragments which constitute the Tel Dan Stele were discovered5 during excavations led by Avraham Biran in Tel Dan, in the northern region of Israel, in 1993-1994.6  They comprise about 13 lines of an Aramaic inscription which commemorates the victory of an Aramean king over his southern neighbors, the "king of Israel" and king of the "House of David." Due to the fragmentary nature of the stele and inscription, the name of the Aramean king is missing entirely and the names of the others are only partially legible.7  A. Biran and Y. Naveh8 have reconstructed the latter names as Yehoram and Achazyahu, leading to the assumption that the Aramean king who commissioned the stele was Chazael and that the battle described is that mentioned in Melakhim II 8.9 In the opening of the inscription (most of which is missing) the king alludes to a conflict that had existed between his father and Yisrael.  He then describes how, after the god Hadad made him king, he slew thousands of his enemies' chariots and horsemen, turned their towns into ruins, and killed both Yehoram and Achazyahu.

Relationship to Tanakh

Due to the small amount of data preserved in the inscription, it does not elucidate the Biblical text to any great extent, though it does provide extra-Biblical attestation of the destruction wrought by Chazael. There is one point, however, about which Tanakh and the stele disagree.  Tanakh attributes the murder of Yehoram and Achazyahu to Yehu, while in the inscription, Chazael (the unnamed king) takes credit. How is the contradiction to be understood?

  • Hyperbole – D. Bienenfeld10 suggests that it is possible that the king of the stele simply exaggerated his deeds, a phenomenon seen often in victory monuments.11  Though he only wounded Yehoram, the king boasted of killing him.  As the inscription alludes to a longer standing feud between Chazael's family and the House of Omri, he would have every reason to want to take credit for Yehoram's murder. Moreover, since Chazael had wounded Yehoram enough that the king was forced to retreat to Yizrael, he might even have somewhat legitimately viewed himself as the cause of the king's ultimate death.
  • Mistaken reconstruction – D. M. Levy12 suggests, instead, that the apparent contradiction might stem from a mistaken reading of the stele.  He points out that, on the stele, the key words regarding the killing are only partially legible.  The verb "קתל" (kill) is entirely missing in relation to Yehoram, and only the first part of the verb, וקתל, is found regarding Achazyahu.  This allows for other possible reconstructions of the relevant sentences such as "וקתל הדד לאחזיהו" (and (the god) Hadad killed Achazyahu).  Such a reading would not contradict the account in Sefer Melakhim as it does not attribute the death to Chazael but to his god.  In addition, earlier in the stele, when the king credits himself with killing others, the first person verb form "ואקתל" is used.  The absence of the "א" here might further suggest that he was not taking credit for the killing.

Additional Significance of the Stele

  • Mention of House of David – As mentioned, the major significance of the stele lies in its mention of Beit David.13  It is assumed to be the first extra-Biblical reference to the Davidic dynasty yet found.14 
  • Mention of Israel – The stele is one of four contemporary inscriptions which mentions "Israel" (rather than the House of Omri, Shomron etc.). The others are the Merneptah Stele, the Mesha Stele15 and the  Kurkh Monolith.16