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Archaeology Settles "House of David" Debate

ARTIFACTS is a series on the art and history of Bible times. See other articles in this series.

The "House of David" Inscription on Mesha Stele Confirmed

A new exciting discovery using advanced photographic techniques of the Mesha Stele contains explicit references to the Israelite House of King David. This is yet another demonstration of the reliability of the Bible as a historical document. The stone-inscribed tablet dates back 2,800 years and is no longer a debated example of the reality of the House of David in the Hebrew Monarchy.

The Moabite Stone, also known as the Mesha Stele, is a remarkable artifact that connects biblical history to antiquity. There is a debate about the phrase on the stone "House of David." One of the damaged sections on the stone stretches across this area. Previously, only two of the five letters were clearly identified until a breakthrough in digital photography illuminated the truth.

Summary: A new digital photography method confirms written records of biblical King David on Mesha Stele.

The Crazy Destruction of the Valuable Stele

An Anglican missionary, Fredrick Klein, discovered the Mesha Stele a few miles east of the Dead Sea, the biblical site of Moab in 1868. The stone artifact was erected by King Mesha of Moab in Dibon, the capital city, around 840 BC.

Made of black basalt, the Stele stands 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide and has 34 lines of text, which is the longest ancient inscription ever found on a monument in the area of Israel. A year after it was discovered, arguments over the possession led to it being broken into several fragments by local Bedouins who heated it by fire and poured cold water on it.

Fortunately, an impression had been taken of the stone earlier by using a type of paper mache allowing a reconstruction of the missing pieces. The reconstructed artifact may be viewed today at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Stele of Mesha, king of Moab, recording his victories against the Kingdom of Israel. Basalt, ca. 800 BC. From Dibon, now in Jordan.

The conflict between Moab and Israel to control geographic areas around the Dead Sea continued for centuries. The scriptures record that the great-grandmother of King David was Ruth, a Moabite who emigrated to Judah. The struggle between King Mesha and the House of David is recorded along with several other key city locations such as Rabbath-Ammon, Samaria, Dibon, Jericho, and Jaffa.

Replica of the Moabite Stone. Palestine Government Museum. (credit: Matson Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Problem

The "House of David" text on the stone was in question because three of the five letters weren't completely clear.

Recent re-examination of the evidence by researchers André Lemaire and Jean-Philippe Delorme has led to a pro-bible conclusion. They published their findings in a late-2022 article entitled “Mesha’s Stele and the House of David” in the winter issue of Biblical Archeology Review. In the article, they write:

“In 2015, a team from the West Semitic Research Project of the University of Southern California took new digital photographs of both the restored stela and the paper squeeze. The team used a method called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), in which numerous digital images are taken of an artifact from different angles and then combined to create a precise, three-dimensional digital rendering of the piece. This method is especially valuable because the digital rendering allows researchers to control the lighting of an inscribed artifact so that hidden, faint, or worn incisions become visible.”

David in the Mesha Stele – a two-word phrase in line 12, אראל. דודה, translated “its Davidic altar-hearth.”(credit: Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)1

A New Picture

In 2018, new high-resolution images were made at the Louvre Museum, projecting light through the 150-year-old paper impression. That allowed the researchers to gather a clearer inscription. With this method, they were able to see evidence of the other letters, concluding the "David" interpretation to be solid.

The Biblical Connection

Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and he had to deliver to the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. So King Jehoram [Joram] marched out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. And he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to battle against Moab?” And he said, “I will go. I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” (2 Kings 3:4-7 ESV)

Mesha Stele Biblical References

References to biblical history contained in the Mesha Stele inscription include:

  • "YHWH" (This is one of the oldest references to Israel’s God ‟YHWH” outside the Bible. The oldest come from two Egyptian inscriptions and the recently discovered Mount Ebal curse tablet.)
  • ‟Israel” – six times (This is the third oldest known use of the name ‟Israel” in an inscription, behind the Berlin Pedestal and the Merneptah Stele.)
  • ‟Omri …king of Israel” (Omri reigned in Israel a half-century after the death of Solomon split the nation in two.)
  • ‟The men of Gad” (Gad was one of the Israelite tribes that settled east of the Jordan River, north of Moab.)2

What It All Means

These types of important breakthroughs are making waves in the archaeological world who generally are skeptical about David - many saying he never existed as the king of a powerful Israelite monarchy, as the Bible describes. But with studies such as this, we can be even more confident that we serve a God who is real and actively working through history, giving us a reliable record of the past. 3

  1. Images used in the article are in public domain from: https://commons.wikimedia.org. ↩︎
  2. Lora Gilb, Debated King David Reference on Mesha Stele solved!| January 27, 2023| http://patternsofevidence.co ↩︎
  3. Andre Lemire, “House of David” Restored in Moabite Inscription, https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/20/3/2 ↩︎


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