Archaeologists working at Mount Ebal, a part of ancient Israel that is near Nablus in what is now the occupied West Bank, are touting a new discovery that – if authenticated – could bring real excitement to the study of ancient paleography and perhaps even Israel’s history.
Whether their considerable claims hold up is yet to be seen.
Mount Ebal, which sits adjacent to Mount Gerizim, appears in Deuteronomy 11 and 27 as a place where Moses reportedly instructed the Israelites to gather and recite a string of curses against themselves.
After sharply reminding the people that obedience would lead to blessing and disobedience would lead to cursing, the account has Moses telling the people to “set the blessing” on Mount Gerizim and “set the curse” on Mount Ebal (Deut. 11:29-30).
The Israelites were to build an altar and set up stones on Mount Ebal, then cover the stones with plaster and write the law on them (Deut. 27:1-3). After dividing the tribes between the two mountains, they were to read out a series of 12 curses for specific acts of disobedience, and all the people were to shout “Amen!” (Deut. 27:11-26).
Adam Zertal excavated the top of Mount Ebal from 1982 to 1986, uncovering a large rectangular stone structure built over an older and smaller circular structure. Zertal identified the structure as an altar, dating the initial structures to about 1250 BCE, as the Late Bronze II period was giving way to Iron Age I, generally dated to about 1,200-1,000 BCE.
The cultic site remained active for about a century, but it was “decommissioned” and ritually covered with a large mound of stones around 1140 BCE, about the same time another cultic site at Shiloh appears to have been constructed.
Some archaeologists interpret the site differently, regarding it as a watchtower, a farm structure, or perhaps a cultic site but not clearly an altar.
More conservative scholars favor the belief that it is not only an altar, but the one reportedly built by Joshua in obedience to Moses’ instructions (Josh. 8:30-35).
So, what of the big discovery? Zertal thoroughly excavated the site, but left behind three piles of dirt and debris, known as “dumps.” Archaeologists associated with the Associates for Biblical Research have been digging through the dumps and sifting the material.
Sifting – especially wet sifting – allows for the recovery of small artifacts that are often missed in digging alone.
While doing so, they found a small strip of lead, less than one inch by two inches, that had been inscribed on one side and then folded into a roughly one-inch square.
Because of the tablet’s age and brittle nature, they could not unfold it without damage, so they partnered with scientists in the Czech Republic to produce thousands of computed tomography images in an attempt to identify inscribed letters on the inside.
These were painstakingly transcribed, and two consulting epigraphers (specialists in ancient scripts) identified the text as a proto-alphabetic script of 40 characters that they interpret as a repetitive curse:
“Cursed, cursed, cursed, cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will die.
Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
The researchers interpret the text as a legal document pronouncing a curse, and they argue that it supports the identity of the oldest parts of the structure as Joshua’s altar and even the covenant ceremony itself.
For the moment, we have only a press release and an announcement made by Scott Stripling, Director of Excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research to go on. The findings have yet to be published and peer reviewed, though publication is promised for later in the year.
Stripling claims that the tablet dates to the Late Bronze II, which would push the date of the oldest proto-alphabetic inscription bearing the name YHW (an abbreviated form of Yahweh) back 200 years or more.
Previously, the oldest example of proto-Hebrew inscriptions containing the name YHWH were from the eight century BCE, on the Moabite Stone and on pottery inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud.
The name YHW is known from two Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions dating as far back as the 13th and 14th century, when it is associated with a nomadic people group called the Shashu, who lived in the Transjordan, in the region of Edom and Moab.
The relationship between the Shasu and the early Israelites is unclear.
There are good reasons to approach the interpretation of the find with some skepticism. The small tablet, known as a “defixio,” was not found in situ, but recovered from a dump of mixed materials. It could have been ceremonially buried there long after the original structure was built.
Similar curse tablets made of lead are fairly common, but typically from the much later Roman and Medieval periods.
Stripling also announced his claims without showing any of the evidence other than a picture of the folded tablet and a drawing (that appears all too perfect) of the letters he claims spell YHW.
One should be aware that the “Associates for Biblical Research” organization has an unabashed bias, identifying itself on its website as “A Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.”
It is very much part of their agenda, then, to look for evidence pointing to an early date for the Exodus as well as an early date for literacy, and to interpret things in that direction. In a video press conference on the website, Stripling argues that the tablet is evidence that the Israelites were not only present at Mount Ebal during the Late Bronze Age, but that writing was common and literacy widespread.
Critical scholars contend that writing remained in a very primitive stage until centuries later, and that most of the Hebrew Bible, including writings attributed to Moses, were actually written as late as the Persian period.
The tablet in question, assuming the transcription basted on CT scans is accurate, is written with very early proto-alphabetic letters characteristic of the Late Bronze and early Iron I period.
It seems unlikely that a much later writer would have used that script unless it was remembered and used for ceremonial curses.
But, both the letters and the words (if interpreted correctly) were shared by several ancient Semitic languages: nothing about it is unique to Hebrew.
If the reading and the dating of the tablet is accepted as authentic, it would be quite interesting, and I would be happy for it, but it still would not support the many claims Stripling made.
Early letter forms showed considerable variability as the alphabet emerged, and when they are allowed to see the evidence, other epigraphers may disagree with the initial researchers’ identification of the letters.
Epigraphy is a tricky business, especially when trying to interpret an inscription hidden inside a folded lead strip.
What one sees as a yod, another may interpret as a kaf, for example.
Even if the interpretation is correct, the existence of a very simple statement in which 30 of the 40 letters are used to spell “cursed” 10 times leaves only 10 additional letters.
That does not prove that literacy was common or that the scribe who wrote it could have written the entire Hebrew Bible, as Stripling claimed.
Based on the epigraphers’ presentation of the three letters for YHW, they are reading the inscription from left to right, opposite of the way Hebrew is normally written. This would not be unusual for early periods, before scribes settled on a right to left direction.
It does open the possibility, though, of a different interpretation if the letters were read from right to left, or in conjunction with other letters nearby.
At this point, images of the inscription remain privy to the initial researchers, so its current analysis comes only from scholars who want to prove that Hebrew writing dates to an early period, and that the tablet is evidence that Joshua and the Israelites were on Mount Ebal in the Late Bronze Age.
Stripling has promised the publication of an article before the end of the year, and I am looking forward to seeing imagery of the script itself, and to seeing how other experts in the field interpret the text.
Christopher Rollston, perhaps the most noted epigrapher of our day, has expressed skepticism that the initial translation will stand.
Finding an inscribed curse tablet on a mountain traditionally associated with cursing should not come as a surprise. Finding one dating to that early period, however, could have real significance for our understanding of early Israelite history.