“House of David” and BYTDWD

Joe and Jim are at it again, over the Tel Dan Stele. I can’t resist. I have to point out some issues that it seems both sides of the argument are perhaps either unaware of, or have forgotten.

(I haven’t yet gotten and read a copy of George Athas’ book on the Tel Dan Stele, so if anyone has read it and the following points are addressed, which I certainly expect they would be, I’d appreciate hearing about it.)

The vast majority usage in the Hebrew Bible of the phrase בית דוד / בית דויד refer to the Davidic Dynasty. Other usages include David’s literal house, i.e. his home/palace, as in 1Sam 19.11, seemingly a metaphoric term for the current king of Judah, as in Isaiah 7.13, and maybe, just maybe, it appears once as a parallel term for the kingdom of Judah, in Isaiah 7.2 (which is interesting, as the same verse mentions Aram [see below!]).

In first millennium Aramaic usage, adopted by the Assyrians apparently wholesale, the phraseology “Bīt-[PN of ruler in genitive]” referred to a kingdom. Whether the ruler in question was actually the founder of a dynasty or not is probably not strictly proven. Certainly the PN is that of a well-known (to the Syrians? to the Assyrians? to everyone?) ruler of the principality so named, as we find in the case of the territory named the Bīt-Adini, “House of Adin”, the principal city of which was Til-Barsip, and which at one point was ruled by a man named Adin (see the Annals of Ashurbanipal, III.55, which you can read here, which refers to “Ahuni son of Adin” or the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, as found in COS 2, p. 261, which refers to him as “Ahuni of Bīt-Adini”). Adin reigned probably early in the 9th century, as his son Ahuni is encountered by the Assyrian kings from about the second quarter to middle of the century. So, in the case of Bīt-Adini, we know of a territory named for a former king of the territory. It may be that Adin was the first ruler in Til-Barsip that the Assyrians directly dealt with, either by military encounter or treaty, most likely the latter, as it is his son who is punished for rebelling.

(Just for fun, here’s a quick list of the Bīt-(genitive PN) territory names from The Helsinki Atlas of the Near East in the Neo-Assyrian Period, in the Ancient-Modern Gazetteer, pp 7-8:
Bīt-Abdadāni, Bīt-Adad-erība, Bīt-Adini, Bīt-Agūsi, Bīt-Ammān, Bīt-Amukāni, Bīt-Bahiāni, Bīt-Barrūa, Bīt-Bunakki, Bīt-Dakkūri, Bīt-Gabbāri, Bīt-Halupê, Bīt-Hamban, Bīt-Hazail, Bīt-Humrî, Bīt-Iakīn, Bīt-Kapsi, Bīt-Purūtaš, Bīt-Ruhūbu, Bīt-Sagbat, Bīt-Šabāia, Bīt-Supūri, Bīt-Tābti, Bīt-Zamāni, Bīt-Zualza. Some of the PNs are clearly familiar or at least recognizable by their constructions, obviously.)

As the Tel Dan stele is clearly Aramaic, a victory stele left at Tel Dan by an Aramean king whose name is now lost. We should expect the Aramaean/Assyrian usage there, and that the BYTDWD there refers to that territory and kingdom otherwise known as Judah. We should NOT read the Tel Dan Stele as referring to the Davidic Dynasty, as that is the Hebrew usage. The two cultures (Assyrian/Aramean and Hebrew) are separate enough for the connotation of “house of…” to have different primary connotations in the different languages, as one finds quite apparently through the usage in the inscriptions and the preserved usage in the Hebrew Bible.

So, yes, the BYTDWD of the Tel Dan Stele is evidence for an earlier David being on the throne in that territory which we typically refer to as Judah. But there is no indication of how much earlier than the date of the inscription David was there, that David founded a dynasty, that a direct descendant of David and king of that dynasty had been on the throne and was killed as described in the stela. We learn all of that kind of detail only from the preserved Hebrew writings. So, let’s keep the usage distinct. It’s only fair to the evidence.

I hope that is a helpful contribution to the discussion. Now back to laundry!


  1. Thanks, Larry. I’ll look those up. (Of course, I just managed to see your message at Joe’s blog a few minutes after posting that!)

    I won’t be convinced by the statement that the term can’t refer to a geographical location because it occurs nowhere else. Not a single literate Aramaic relic exists from Damascus of the Iron Age (anyone, please correct me if I’m wrong on that, but I haven’t heard of anything showing up recently). A largely preserved archive of Damascus never mentioning BYTDWD would be much more conclusive. But arguing in the lack of such evidence is inconclusive.

    However, in keeping with the well-known Assyrian usage, which, as far as is known, incorporated a large number of Aramean place names, the construction is used only for geographic locations (or those locations as political entities — such specificity of “political” over “geographic” is probably unwarranted – the names seem rather to be a canonical set of geographic references, as we see for Israel not being renamed Bīt-Yahua, which one would expect if they were interested in tracking the internal politics and changes of dynasty). While we have quite a bit of Assyrian evidence, we have very little from the Aramean side, in their own documents, in their own language, utilizing their own particular terms for states, etc., and this is what would be particularly appropriate to have and to use in evaluating as accurate such a judgment as to whether BYTDWD is not an otherwise “known place-name.” We probably don’t even actually know the complete list of Bīt-X usage from the Assyrian side, much less the Arameans.

    We have the evidence here on one Aramean stele, that of Tel Dan, found outside of an Aramean territory, a rare find in and of itself, of a BT-… name thoroughly in keeping with otherwise known Aramean and Assyrian usage as a geographical term denoting, as we can tell by context, most notably the king’s name in the entirely likely reconstruction:
    ק[טלתי את אחז]יהו בר[ יורם מל]ך בתדוד
    the area we usually refer to as Judah. That isn’t a stretch of either usage or the evidence at all. Thus far the primary sources.

    Regardless of argument, because of the current primary source materials and our readings of them, I don’t find it likely that the Aramean Tel Dan inscription is going to primarily connote in a way contrary to what we know of typical Aramean (and Assyrian) practice of the time, especially in order to connote the same thing that the Hebrew texts do, whether earlier, contemporary, or later. The evidence in the Hebrew texts does show the primary connotation of ??? ??? to be that of the Davidic Dynasty. The cognate phrase in Aramaic, however, refers to the geographic location over and in which that dynasty ruled. I don’t see the evidence that we currently possess pointing in any other direction.

    Of course, that could change!

  2. Jim responds here.

    It’s apparent he’s not at all convinced by the explicit example of another ruler, Adin of Til-Barsip, whose territory was called Bīt-Adini, “House of Adin”, a pattern of usage which is exactly parallel to the Tel Dan stele Aramean ביתדוד, Bêt-Dawid, “House of David,” a territory known internally/alternately as Judah. Oh well.

  3. Hi Kevin,
    Great name, by the way!
    The Assyrian/Aramean usage is unequivocal: there was an actual person named DWD (which we are also perfectly justified in transliterating as David!) ruling in that territory (BYTDWD) at some point in the past. This is true of all the BYT…/Bīt… names. The way the Hebrew Bible mostly uses it, with “house of David” as a name for the dynasty itself (and its supporters?) is a separate issue. It looks to me that only Isaiah 7.13 might use the phrase as a reference to the territory/kingdom of Judah rather than the dynasty, but that’s not certain. Anyhow, I’ll have more on the subject after I get the books of Tiglath-Pileser’s and Sargon’s inscriptions in from interlibrary loan. They sure are taking their time….

  4. Forgive me for the intrusion.
    I happened to stumble across your blog while searching “Bit Adini” to determine if there is a relationship between the original Adini and the Adonis and similar cognates. However I had also stumbled across an Assyrian website showing a map of some of the ancient Assyrian territories one whose title, Bit Adini, does begin with the Semitic word for house.
    Again pardon my intrusion.
    Augusta, GA USA jtr

  5. Kevin, I’d like to repeat part of my comment on Joe Cathey’s blog. You might be interested in reading Gary Rendsburg’s well-grounded article, “On the Writing BYTDWD [this article title spells it using Hebrew script] in the Aramaic Inscription from Tel Dan,” _IEJ_ 45 (1995): 22-25. In that article (p. 22), he says that examples of the Aramaic pattern of _bit_ (“house of”) + X, “where X can stand either for a royal name or for a simple place name, but in most cases refers in some way to an independent political entity, are forthcoming from a variety of sources.” In the entire ancient Near East, there is no known place-name BYTDWD. (Some scholars claim that the one and only instance is in this stele, and of course they are free to make this claim, but it cannot be said to be known, only claimed, because this term does not occur as a place name elsewhere.)

    Rendsburg then cites several examples in Assyrian and Babylonian records, including “Bit-Humri,” i.e., “the house of Omri,” which the Assyrians used as a name for the northern kingdom of Israel, where Omri founded his dynasty. Since the Tel Dan stele mentions BYTDWD in a context of two references to the northern kingdom of Israel (spelled YSR’L) within relatively few lines, it is reasonable to interpret the -DWD part as a personal name and BYTDWD as “house of David,” meaning the dynasty founded by David or the territory that his successors ruled. I could say more on the contextual support for this interpretation, but it’s fairly lengthy and is already written in my book.

    Larry Mykytiuk

  6. Kevin, I appreciate your response and I’m pleased to find someone who can discuss the details of these questions at your level of familiarity with the materials. You have got me thinking. I will be in touch.

    Larry M.

    Lawrence J. Mykytiuk
    History Bibliographer
    Purdue University

  7. If I may toss my two Litas in:

    While I agree that the Tel Dan inscription refers to Judah as the ‘house of ‘David,’ I think it is a bit of a leap to say that this is “evidence for an earlier David being on a throne in that area”.

    What it indicate is that the Judean royal house referred to themselves as the ‘house of David’. They probably did so because their dynasty was founded by David, but there could be other reasons. Even for them, David could have been a legendary figure, or they could have chosen the name for some reason unknown to us.

    I think at best it is indirect evidence for the existence of David.

    Kevin A. Wilson
    Professor of Biblical Studies
    Lithuania Christian College

  8. Kevin, In my 25+ years of research on the genealogies of Genesis I find that places or regions named after the ruler/chief designate the chief’s recognized territory. Those who sought to do business in that region had first to receive permission from the ruler.

    The territories were marked by the placement of 2 wives on a north-south axis. The first born son was named by the bride after her father. Example: In Genesis 4 we meet Lamech with 2 wives, Adah and T-Zillah (wrong axis, BTW, due to the man’s hubris). Lamech has a daughter, Naamah, who marries her patrilineal parallel cousin, Methuselah (Gen. 5) and names their first born son Lamech, after her father. This pattern continues for longer than I’ve had time to trace it in the OT, but my research on David, suggests that he was named for his maternal grandfather. I hope that this is helpful.

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