DR. AVRAHAM BIRAN, z"l
Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem
Dr. Avraham Biran, the renowned Israeli archaeologist and Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Israel since 1974, died on September 16, 2008 in Jerusalem. In 2002 Dr. Biran was presented with State of Israel's greatest honor, the Israel Prize, in recognition of his enormous contributions to archaeological excavation, research, and publication.
Dr. Avraham Biran holding the "House of David" stele, dating from the 9th century B.C.E., the first archaeological evidence supporting the existence of the House of David.
Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR President, said, "We at the College-Institute took great pride in Dr. Biran's pioneering accomplishments as the preeminent archaeologist and scholar of his generation. His excavations of biblical Israel, discoveries of extraordinary sites and artifacts documenting our ancient history, and extensive publications brought great distinction to HUC-JIR, and contributed so richly to the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. We were privileged to applaud Professor Biran upon receiving the Israel Prize, and were grateful for his gifts of energy, character, and knowledge, which endure as a legacy and source of inspiration."
Avraham Biran, a third generation Israeli, received his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University under William Foxwell Albright and was Thayer Fellow in the American Schools of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, 1935-37. Between 1949 and 1955, Prof. Biran was the District Commissioner of Jerusalem as well as Senior Member of the Israel delegation to the Mixed Armistice Commission of Jordan. He served as the Israeli consul in Los Angeles from 1955-1958. Formerly Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, and deeply involved in the development of HUC-JIR's Jerusalem School of Biblical Archaeology during the 1960s, he became Director of HUC-JIR's Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology in 1974. He participated in the excavations of the University of Pennsylvania in Iraq, at Tepe Gawra near Mosul and Khafaje near Baghdad. 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 1999).
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.
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.
Dr. Biran recounted some memories of his excavations at Tel Dan, that expressed his unflagging passion for archaeological discovery:
"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."
Read further coverage in The New York Times.
To make a gift in Dr. Avraham Biran's memory, click here
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement’s congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR’s campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.