Tel Dan – The Kingdom of Israel’s Northern Outpost

By Cliff Churgin

Nestled in the northern reaches of the Upper Galilee lies one of Israel’s great archeological treasures – Tel Dan.  Not well known to the general public, Tel Dan is not only the location of one of the earliest known arched gates and the largest spring in the Middle East but is also the home to a ninth century tablet describing a biblical story from the Aramean perspective.

The story of Tel Dan, oddly enough, begins on the other side of the country on the coast.  When the Israelites first entered the land of Israel they were awarded the rich coastal plain.  Unfortunately for them this land was also the area taken over by the powerful Philistine peoples.  The struggles of the tribe of Dan are well portrayed in the book of judges, especially in the tragic story of Samson.  It was this area, originally awarded to the tribe of Dan, that Samson clashed with the Philistines.  His heroic struggle against the Philistines was only part of a larger war between the Israelites and Philistines.  The Israelites eventually won the struggle, but not before the tribe of Dan tired of the struggle and moved up north.  Here the wealthy town of Leshem fell easy prey to the tribe’s warriors.  (See Joshua 19:47)

After the conquest Leshem was renamed Dan and became the tribe’s capital.  When David and Solomon’s kingdom broke up, Dan served as the Israelite kingdom’s northern border.  When the Israelite King Jeroboam decided to set up his own temples to compete with Jerusalem he built two them in Beit El, near the border with Judah and in northerly Dan, covering his entire Kingdom (see Kings I 12:29).

Area where Jeroboam would have set up the golden calves of Dan

As a pilgrimage center and in control of the largest spring in the Middle East Dan flourished but its position at the far north of the kingdom once again placed it at the forefront of the battlefield –  this time with the Aramean kingdoms.  Several times the town changed hands eventually becoming Assyrian when the Israelite kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722.

Approaching Tel Dan visitors can hardly believe they are still in Israel. The paths are lined with trees such as the Dolev – a relative of the Maple, Oaks and Pistachio.  Surrounding the path are babbling brooks created by the Dan and Leshem springs.

Dan Spring, the largest freshwater spring in the Middle East

When you arrive at the tel you will be pass by the “new gate” (only about 3,000 years old) and continue on to an ancient wall featuring one of the oldest arched gates in the world dating back to the 18th century BCE.  According to the Bible (Genesis 14;13-16) it is outside these gates that Abraham fought a battle against the 4 kings in order to free his nephew Lot.  One can just imagine after the battle Abraham and his men walking through these gates to refresh themselves after the fight.

Tel Dan is home to the second oldest arched gate in the world

Turning back to the “new” gate we find the remains of an ancient marketplace.  While excavating the market one of the volunteers noticed an inscription on one of the floor tiles.  The tile was broken into several pieces which the archaeologists slowly uncovered.  When put together they formed an ancient sign or stele telling the story of how an Aramean king, defeated and killed both the Israelite and Judean kings, Joram and Ahaziah.   

What makes this find so remarkable is that it contains the first mention of “The House of David” found in archeology so far.  While not confirming King David’s existence, the stele does make it clear that by the 8th or 9th century BCE the kings of Judah were referred to as “the House of David.”

The famous "House of David" stele was found outside this gate

It is also fascinating to compare the story as told by the stele, a decisive military victory by the Arameans, and that told by the Bible (Kings 2 9:14-27  and Chronicles 2 22:7) – where the usurper Jehu kills the kings while overthrowing Joram.  So how did they die?  Perhaps one or the other version is correct or maybe Jehu’s coup was supported by the Arameans who received the city of Dan as their reward?

In any case when the city switched hands again the stele was taken down and used as a paving stone, perhaps an intentional act of disrespect.    

In addition to the stele the marketplace yielded another unique find. An ancient “bamah” or raised area found with the standing stones intact.  This Temple was probably used by passing merchants as they stopped by the marketplace.  While these bamot were found throughout Israel and Judah the kings of Judah would periodically “cleanse” their kingdom of idol worship, one reason why this is the only intact Temple found to date.

As you enter the city gate, you’ll see the chambers where judges would have sat giving the people easy access to their leaders.  You’ll then move on to the area of the city Temple, the place where Jeroboam would have put his Golden Calves (Kings 1 12:28-30).

The Temple today is an amalgam of remnants from the Israelite Kingdoms all the way up to Greek period.  It appears the natural beauty of the city inspired the spirituality of many.

Not far from the Temple is a reminder that in the 20th century Dan found itself once more on the border.  Up until 1923 this area was not considered part of the Palestinian mandate but rather part of Syria, however an agreement between Britain and France transferred this critical source of water for the Sea of Galilee to the Palestinian mandate.  The UN partition plan awarded the area to Israel but Syrian forces attempted to conquer the spring.  While they failed the cease-fire line ran along the area and the Israeli bunkers can be seen right by the Temple area along with the Syrian ones opposite, a reminder that Dan is still living at the edge of a battlefield.

Trenches used by the Israeli army until the 1967 Six Day War

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