Does the Mesha Stele, a Moabite slab currently in the Louvre, demonstrate beyond doubt the existence of King David, the third ruler of Israel in the Bible? A new examination of the monolith by French researchers has indeed confirmed that it mentions "the house of David".
Made around 840 BC, in the time of Mesha, ruler of the small kingdom of Moab, the stele was discovered about fifteen kilometers from the Dead Sea in 1868 by a German missionary before being deliberately damaged by Bedouins the following year. Luckily, a printout of the inscriptions had been made in time using papier-mâché.
This precious document is the most important source of information known in the Moabite language on the history of this small people, mentioned in the Bible, and very little known. It is therefore of great interest to historians and linguists. Among them, André Lemaire and Jean-Philippe Delorme, two Frenchmen, who analyzed the stele using RTI technology (Reflectance Transformation Imaging), in association with the University of Southern California. The findings were published in the "Winter" issue of Biblical Archeology Review.
Inscriptions now little subject to interpretation
RTI is "particularly valuable because digital rendering allows researchers to control the illumination of an inscribed artifact, so that hidden, weak, or worn incisions become visible," the researchers explain in the review. Images are taken from different angles and then combined, making it possible to see the image holistically, three-dimensionally. Until then, it was uncertain whether the stele mentioned King David.
The inscriptions reveal on 37 lines an account of King Mesha going into battle against Israel, which appears to be the Moabite view of the war told in the Bible (2 Kings chapter 3). On line 31 are the words “the house of David dwelt at Horonain”. Also mentioned are “the altars of Yahweh”, from the name of God in Hebrew.
Prior to the use of RTI, not all of the letters in the "House of David" reference were legible, leading to controversy as to the interpretation of the text. This mention consists of five letters, "btdwd", (bt = "house of" and dwd = David), and only the first and fourth letters, bet and waw, were visible.
However, while the biblical text speaks of a victory of the kingdoms of Israel, Judah and Edom over that of Moab, the stele mentions the victory of Mesha.