THE RULE OF DAVID
The reigns of King David and his son Solomon over a united monarchy mark the glory years of ancient Israel. That period (roughly 1000 B.C. to 920 B.C.) -- described in detail in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles -- marks the beginning of an era of stronger links between biblical history and modern archaeological evidence. Before the discovery of the "House of David" inscription at Dan in 1993, it had become fashionable in some academic circles to dismiss the David stories as an invention of priestly propagandists who were trying to dignify Israel's past after the Babylonian exile. But as Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein observes, "Biblical nihilism collapsed overnight with the discovery of the David inscription."
In the aftermath, another famous ancient inscription found more than a century ago has attracted renewed scholarly interest. The so-called Mesha Stele, like the stele on which the Dan inscription is etched, is a basalt monument from the 9th century B.C. that commemorates a military victory over Israel -- this one by the Moabite king Mesha. The lengthy Tyrian text describes how the kingdom of Moab, a land east of the Jordan River, had been oppressed by "Omri, king of Israel" (whose reign is summarized in 1 Kings 16:21-27) and by Omri's successors, and how Mesha threw off the Israelites in a glorious military campaign.
But the name of another of Mesha's conquered foes may lie hidden in a partially obliterated line of text that, transliterated, reads b[˝]wd; the remainder of the inscription is missing. The French scholar AndrÚ LeMaire, after carefully re-examining the inscription, has suggested that the line should be filled in to read bt dwd -- "beit David," or "house of David" -- a reference to the kingdom of Judah. "No doubt," says LeMaire, "the missing part of the inscription described how Mesha also threw off the yoke of Judah and conquered the territory southeast of the Dead Sea controlled by the House of David."
As significant as they are, these two inscriptions -- both still contested -- remain for now the only extrabiblical references to David's dynasty. And both were written more than a century after the reigns of David and Solomon. Given the grandeur of the Israelite monarchy under the two kings as described in the Bible, how could such an influential and popular regime have attracted so little notice in ancient Near Eastern documents from the time?
The answer, suggests Carol Meyers, professor of biblical studies and archaeology at Duke University, may lie in the political climate in the region at the time, when, she says, "a power vacuum existed in the eastern Mediterranean." The collapse of Egypt's 20th dynasty around 1069 B.C. led to a lengthy period of economic and political decline for a nation that had exerted powerful influence over the city-states of Palestine during the Late Bronze Age. This period of Egyptian weakness, which lasted for over a century (until around 945 B.C.), saw a "relative paucity of monumental inscriptions," says Meyers. "The kings had nothing to boast about."
Similarly, the Assyrian empire to the east was unusually silent from the late 11th to the early 9th century B.C. regarding the western lands it once had dominated. Assyria was preoccupied, says Meyers, with internal turmoil following the death of one of the greatest of its early kings. Another major power in the region, Babylonia, also was uncharacteristically quiet. For centuries following a raid on Assyria in 1081 B.C., it seldom ventured beyond its own borders, says Meyers, "and thus its records would hardly have mentioned a new dynastic state to the west."
The reign of David was a time of territorial expansion for the united Israelite kingdom and was marked, according to the Bible, by a series of military victories. Twice the Israelite armies repulsed invasions by the Philistines, a belligerent horde of pagan marauders who occupied Canaan's Mediterranean coastal plains. While the Bible depicts the Philistines as a frequent nemesis of the Israelites, their name does not appear in ancient nonbiblical sources before 1200 B.C. Some minimalist scholars have suggested that the biblical stories of run-ins with the dreaded Philistines were invented by priestly scribes in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. to dramatize the military prowess of the mythical Davidic dynasty.
But modern archaeology has uncovered a wealth of information regarding the Philistine "sea people" thoroughly consistent with their portrayal in the Bible. For example, sources including numerous Egyptian inscriptions indicate that the Philistines most likely originated in the Aegean area, probably on the island of Crete. That fits with biblical passages (Jeremiah 47:4 and Deuteronomy 2:23, for example) linking them with Caphtor, a location most scholars identify with Crete.
Additionally, the Bible depicts the Philistines as expert metallurgists, and archaeologists have found material evidence that the Philistines were, indeed, expert metalworkers. Trude Dothan, a Hebrew University archaeologist who has excavated many of the Philistine sites, says this superior knowledge no doubt gave them a military advantage in their early battles with the Israelites. She notes that in the famous story of the duel between David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, the giant Philistine warrior is described as wearing a bronze helmet and bronze body armor and carrying a spear with a shaft "like a weaver's beam" and with a head of iron. "The Bible compares Goliath's spear to a weaver's beam," Dothan says, "because this type of weapon was new to Canaan and had no Hebrew name." Once again, the Bible and archaeology are in agreement.