Dan (Tel Dan) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Dan (Tel Dan)
City and ramparts
Gate of Judgment
Early Danites
Golden calf
Arched gate

The Gate of Judgment
Heading east from the pistachio tree, crossing an old trench of the Israeli army (for Dan is on the border with Lebanon and the army had positions here until 1967) we take the steps down the rampart and continue east, arriving at a large gate system, partly reconstructed. The gate we see from the trail is the outer of two (not counting the traces of an unreconstructed gate that is nearer to us on the east or right). Biran at first attributed them to Ahab, but the results of his further excavations suggest a somewhat later date. These further excavations were undertaken after a spectacular find: In the late afternoon of July 1993 (so the story goes), the dig's recorder was making a note a few yards to the east of these two gates, in the cobbled plaza, when she tripped and fell. On rising, her eye caught something lit by the slanting rays of the sun: an inscription! There were in fact quite a number of words engraved on the smooth side of a rock that belonged to the ruin of a wall. This rock had been recycled in the building of the wall: it was the large fragment of a stele that someone had deliberately smashed. The language was Old Aramaic, and among the words could be made out "Israel" and "house-of-David," written as a single construct. This is so far the only extra-biblical reference to David dating from within 150 years of his death (or, if Lemaire's reconstruction of the Mesha stele is right, it is one of two). Against minimalist views of the accounts in Samuel and Kings, it shows not only that David existed but that he was important enough to have established a "house," whether this word refers to a dynasty or a place (Jerusalem).


The interpretation of the inscription is a matter of hot dispute, which will not be settled until more fragments are found. (In fact two small fragments have been found and are picture above to the left of the main one, but they do not settle anything.) Some think that the inscription's author was the Aramean Hazael, who usurped the power in Damascus around 743 BC and conquered large swathes of territory; he seems to be claiming credit for killing the "king of Israel" and a king from the House-of-David. If these were, respectively, Joram son of Ahab and Ahaziah of Judah, that would contradict the Biblical account of Jehu's killing them (2 Kings 9:14-29). Others argue that the author was Hazael's son, Ben Hadad II, who was threatened on his northern front by Assyria and erected the stele to cow his subjects. (See also a book by Athas.) The smasher could have been someone loyal to King Joash of Israel, or his son Jehoshaphat II, in the early 8th century, when one or the other restored Dan to Israel. It is tantalizing to stand here and look at the ruins, knowing that they must contain the pieces that would solve the puzzle. The fragments are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

The whole gate system was covered in the ash of the destruction by Tiglath Pileser III, King of Assyria, around 735 BC.
As we enter the first reconstructed gate, we see a small platform, original and in situ, with carved stone bases (one of them original) at its corners. These held wooden posts which supported a canopy. To the right is a long bench.
Often in the Bible we read of a court session taking place in the city gate or of the elders sitting there. This makes sense, because most people were not living in the city at all, rather in villages outside. Often there would be disputes involving the rural folk, and the ideal place would be the gate. Here at Dan, uniquely, the courtroom has been found: both the platform which supported the ruler's throne and the bench for the elders. 
The whole procedure was sanctified by a standing stone (Heb. matzeva) to the left of the platform: the ruler's right.

After facing the Chief Justice, if we now turn to the right, we see a modest construction including five standing stones (below).


When the ancients located a place as sacred, they often set up such stones.  The gate included a sanctuary. The low benches must have held offerings. There was a time, apparently, when many towns in Israel and Judah had shrines in their gates, for King Josiah, we learn, destroyed them: "He broke down the high places of the gates." (2 Kings 23:8) This shrine at Dan escaped Josiah: it had lain under ash for a century by the time his reign began (and besides, his reforming hand did not reach this far north).
There was a logic in having shrines at the gates. People wanted divine protection at their borders, whether of the city or the nation.

Concerning the nation, the first king of the north, Jeroboam son of Nebat, set up shrines with golden calves at the two extremities of his domain: Bethel and Dan. The high place at Bethel has not been found, but Biran has excavated the one at Dan. We head in its direction, but several things will interrupt us on the way.  

We go through the gates with their chambers, noting the stones in which the hinges swiveled and, on the inside of the inner gate, the mark of the slamming door. As we ascend the path, our right side would be exposed to the Israelite wall above (if the Assyrians hadn't dismantled it in 735 BC). Since most people are right-handed, members of an attacking army would have had their spears in their right hands and their shields in the left. The access is set up, then, to catch right-handed attackers here. An enemy army would send its left-handed soldiers first, but there is another bend above to deal with them. This double-L access is standard through the ages (e.g., the main Crusader gate at Caesarea Maritima, the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem).

At the top of the zigzag path are the remains of yet another gate, later than those below. It was built as an extra defense against the Assyrians (Biran, p. 246).