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Tribute to Dr. Avraham Biran

Dr. Avraham Biran Awarded Israel Prize, The State of Israel's Highest Honor

Dr. Avraham Biran Awarded Israel Prize, The State of Israel's Highest Honor

"It gives me the greatest joy to congratulate our teacher Professor Avraham Biran on this Yom Ha'atz'ma'ut (Israel Independence Day). He is so richly deserving of the prestigious Israel Pirze, and we at the College-Institute bask in the rays of his glory and celebrate his accomplishments on this day. His work in the field of archaeology has brought great distinction to HUC-JIR, and has contributed so richly to the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. We applaud Professor Biran today, and give thanks for his energy, his character, and his knowledge. In the words of our tradition, we thank God, 'she-halak meihachmato li'rei'av -- who shared divine wisdom with humans.' May Professor Biran continue to grow from strength to strength."
Dr. David Ellenson, President

Prominently located at the most copious of the Jordan River's headwaters, Tel Dan has intrigued generations of explorers and archaeologists. Its identification with Biblical Dan by Edward Robinson in 1838 conjured up images of a thriving Israelite cult center rivaling the temple in Jerusalem. In 1966, with the site threatened by military activities related to its forward position on the Syrian border, Dr. Biran, then director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, embarked upon salvage excavations which developed into a full-fledged and still active research project. Tel Dan has revealed an almost uninterrupted sequence of occupation from the Neolithic period through the late Roman period in a series of unique discoveries whose full implications are only just beginning to be understood.Avraham Biran, a third generation Israeli, received his M.A. and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University under William Foxwell Albright and was Thayer Fellow in the American Schools of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, 1935-37. Formerly Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, he is Director of HUC-JIR's Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology in Jerusalem. He participated in the excavations of the University of Pennsylvania in Iraz, Tepe Gawra near Mosul, and Khafaje near Baghdad, and in the American Schools of Oriental Research excavations near Irbid in Jordan. He accompanied Nelson Glueck in his epoch-making discoveries at the head of the Gulf of Eilat. Professor Biran directed the excavations of Anathoth, Tel Zippor, Ira, Aroer, the synagogue of Yesud Hama'alah, and the longest ongoing excavations in Israel at Tel Dan (1966 to the present day).

Dr. Biran's book, Biblical Dan (Israel Exploration Society/Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1994) is a chronicle of Tel Dan's history: its initial settlement at the dawn of civilization, its first urban episode in the Early Bronze Age, the massive earthwork fortifications and unique mud-brick gate of the Middle Bronze Age through which Abraham is said to have walked, the tombs of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, the evidence for the migration of the tribe of Dan in the early Iron Age, and finally, the rise of a national cult center in the Israelite period in all its architectural and artifactual glory. In 1993 at Tel Dan, the northernmost city in the biblical kingdom of Israel, Dr. Biran discovered the "House of David" stele. The inscription on this stele, written in early Aramaic paleo-Hebrew script and dating from the 9th century B.C.E., is the first archaeological evidence supporting the existence of the House of David.

We began digging at Tel Dan the year before the Six-Day War. We didn't go there because it was the site of Biblical Dan or even because that's where we thought it was. It was near the border with Syria and Lebanon, at the source of the Jordan River. The army had been digging trenches and putting up gun emplacements facing the Syrian positions. Some kibbutzniks from Kibbutz Dan, a couple of miles from the tell, came and told me that the army was destroying the tell. So we decided to do a quick little excavation to see what we could learn before either the army destroyed much of the evidence or who knows what the result of a war could be. If war broke out, we might not be able to go there. So we rushed to do what we call a rescue dig. Of course, we knew from the Bible that Jeroboam had set up the golden calf at Dan [1 Kings 12:28-30]. We thought it might be interesting to see if we could find the locality where the golden calf would have been set. Could we find the sanctuary or the high place where the cult rituals took place?

Deep in your heart, you always think, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to find the golden calf." We went to the northern edge of the tell [an ancient mound composed of remains of successive settlements] where the springs were. We wanted to work there, but the army wouldn't let us because this faced the Syrian positions. The army said that if we started working there and bringing in a lot of people, it might become a cause for war. So we said to the army, "So where can we dig?" They said on the southern slope. Okay, so we went to the southern slope. But it is about 200 yards long - where to begin? We saw two huge rocks - built stones - jutting out of the slope. So we said if we can cut a trench between these two blocks of stone, maybe we'll learn something without doing any damage. It happened that it was a very fortunate choice because we discovered over the years that these stones were part of the gate from the Israelite period.

Common sense is a very important element in excavating. Obviously these built stones represented some construction. To remove them would be against everything that you've been taught. So we chose an area that was between them.

Whenever you dig, you destroy. All excavation is a destruction. We cut a trench through the southern slope to see whether we could learn something about the construction of the ramparts that protected the city. We could have started at the bottom, at the foot of the rampart. Had we done that, we might have discovered in 1966 the inscription that we found in 1993 that mentions the "House of David." Who knows? It's all chance, whatever you do.

After the Six-Day War, the army said we could dig anywhere we wanted. We've been digging at Dan now for 36 years. People ask me today, "When are you going to stop?' I say that it reminds me of an old Jewish story of a guy desperately fighting with a bear. His friends keep yelling at him to let go of the bear. "I want to," he says, "but the bear won't let me go."