Tel Dan Inscription

George Athas gathas at
Thu Dec 30 04:03:28 EST 1999

Hi Peter! Thanks for your observations. I have some countering comments, though.

> "Bethel" may be a single concept, but in Hebrew orthography it is two
> words, usually joined by maqqef, of which the first is a construct
> ("Beth" not "Bayith"). So it's not a very good example for your
> comparison!

That's the problem -- "in Hebrew Orthography". We are not dealing here with Hebrew
Orthography of the Bible; we are dealing with Aramaic orthography from the 9th-8th century

With regards to toponyms, the case is mixed. You can have "Beth-X" type names transcribed
as either two words or as one word. Compare Ostracon B from Tell Qasile where "Beth-Horon"
is written as a single lexeme. A construct expression "House of David", though, is
undeniably two lexemes each with its own meaning that happen to be in a construct
relationship. For toponyms, this 'free standing individuality' of the elements is no
longer as important as it is for a pure construct expression. Thus, when we see the word
_bytdwd_ in the Tel Dan Inscription and realise the author's orthography, it is far more
likely that the word is a toponym (which can be transcribed as a single word) than a pure
construct expression (which in the Tel Dan Inscription can only be transcribed as two

> Later you wrote: "The Bible, which dates much later than the Tel Dan
> Inscription, writes "House of David" as _byt dwd_ -- two words, not a
> single word like _bytdwd_. If there were two words in the Tel Dan
> Inscription, then we probably would have had "House of David"." Not
> strictly true: in some cases (e.g. 1 Kings 12:20) Beyt Dawid is
> written with a maqqef, in other cases as two separate words. So the
> situation is the same as with Bethel. In both cases the writing
> depends on phonology, not on semantics. Of course we don't know much
> about the criteria on which the Tel Dan inscription writers divided
> words, but perhaps they also used phonology rather than semantics as
> the criterion, and I guess they didn't have that convenient device
> maqqef in their orthography.

It's a pity the orthography is so inconsistent. But then, that's the way Biblical Hebrew
orthography is. The expression _byt-dwd_ in the Bible (with a maqqef) occurs 4 times out
of the 13 times that the expression appears with or without maqqef. Two of these instances
are actually written with a plene spelling as _byt-dwyd_ and occur in Zech 12. However,
even here, the expression appears in 12:10 without a maqqef. It seems like the expression
was considered as two separate words which just had to be pronounced with a single accent
on the final syllable. But that's exactly what a construct expression is -- two separate
words read together.

When you examine the orthography of the Tel Dan Inscription, you will find that construct
expressions are always separated by word dividers. It seems that since the scribe had no
such thing as a maqqef, he used word dividers instead. As such, biblical orthography has
no real bearing here. The word _bytdwd_ must not be a construct expression - it must be a
single word, even though etymologically it might derive from a construct expression. It's
exactly the same case as a personal name. You can break it down into its various
components, but in the end, you need to treat it as a single lexeme rather than a
construct expression.

> Also, can you justify your statement that the relevant parts of the
> date to much later than the Tel Dan inscription? There is a danger of
> circular argument here as this discussion of the inscription came out
> of a discussion of the evidence for such a statement. I accept of
> course that the Masoretic pointing with maqqef is much later than the
> inscription.

I don't think I need to delve into much detail about the dating of biblical texts.
Although precise dates are elusive, most biblical texts point to a post-exilic era,
whether it be Babylonian, Persian, or Hellenistic, or whatever. You also need to factor in
the possibility of editing down through the ages, too. As such, it can be misleading to
let documents which date *at least* 250 years later and which are written in Hebrew
influence our understanding of the Tel Dan Inscription which is Old Aramaic. We can
certainly make comparisons and valuable observations, but we must not take our point of
departure from the biblical texts; we must take it from the inscription itself.

> You have treated the Tel Dan inscription "on its own merits firstly".
> When will you compare it "with other texts, like the Assyrian annals"?

Comparison with Assyrian annals actually goes quite a long way towards suggesting that
_bytdwd_ is not a political or dynastic title. Knauf, de Pury, & Römer have shown that
never in Assyrian annals does the expression "King of the House of PN" occur. Rather, this
thought is conveyed by the expression "son of PN," as in "Jehu son of Omri" -- that is,
Jehu king of Bit-Humri. This means that if we are going to view _bytdwd_ as a construct
expression, "House of David", then the preceding word in the Tel Dan Inscription cannot be
_mlk_ ("king of"). If the preceding word is, however, _mlk_, then _bytdwd_ must be a
simple toponym. In the context in which _bytdwd_ appears, it is most likely that the
preceding kaph is indeed part of the word _mlk_. As such, it is far more likely that
_bytdwd_ is a toponym than a construct expression or dynastic title.

This is by no means a comprehensive answer. I'm in the process of preparing a paper which
should appear in SJOT some time next year which is a little more thorough.

Best regards for the New Year!
George Athas
 Dept of Semitic Studies,
 University of Sydney
Tel Dan Inscription Website
< gathas@ >

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