In WALKING THE BIBLE, he’s still sitting there forever, behind a cloud of smoke, saying, “People like me don’t have time to talk to people like you,” then calling me at home that night to introduce me to Avner. Now, nearing 100, he has finally passed.
Avraham Biran, an archaeologist of biblical sites who excavated Tel Dan, an ancient city along Israel’s northern border, and uncovered an unexpected stone fragment bearing what might be the earliest reference to the House of David, died on Sept. 16 in Jerusalem. He was 98.
Dr. Biran’s death was confirmed by a spokesman from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, where Dr. Biran directed the institute’s school of biblical archaeology.
In 1993, after nearly three decades of digging at Dan, which is on the Syrian border and near the headwaters of the Jordan River, Dr. Biran and his colleagues discovered a foot-long piece of stone with a partial inscription in Early Aramaic.
The archaeologists were able to decipher text on what was possibly a monument to commemorate victory in battle by a king of Aram over Israel. The inscription — which contained the words House of David — was dated to the ninth century B.C. and was hailed by biblical scholars as a unique find and evidence of the antiquity of King David’s lineage. Some scholars, however, have questioned the interpretation of the discovery and even the existence of King David.
Dr. Biran attributed the find to good luck and said that in archaeological fieldwork, “it’s all chance, whatever you do.” Indeed, the earthen mound of Dan, or Tel Dan, was chosen almost by chance. In 1966, Dr. Biran rushed to the scene when Israel’s military tensions with Syria were on the rise and the 50-acre mound was in danger of being shelled or covered by fortifications. He persuaded the Israeli Army to let him excavate Dan’s southern slope and found signs of human habitation dating from the fifth millennium B.C.
To say that my life was profoundly changed by nearly every encounter I had with this great mean is to understate his significance to me and to so many others. I never met anyone who didn’t do a slight bow at the mention of his name. The State of Israel has lost another pioneer, and biblical studies one of its last and greatest defenders.