Archaeologists in Israel recently published the discovery of an ancient inscription that may carry the name Jeruba‘al, a nickname the biblical account attributes to Gideon, one of Israel’s “judges” (Judges 6:32).

Should we get excited?

Israel’s Haaretz suggested that the inscription, which dates to about 1100 BCE, could have belonged to Gideon himself. Ruth Schuster writes, “… based on timing and location, the archaeologists surmise that he may have been none other than the biblical figure Gideon (also known as Jerubbaal), son of Joash the Abiezrite, whose activities are described at length in the book of Judges.”

Schuster names only Sa’ar Ganor, one of the four lead archaeologists, as saying he favors that identification.

Amanda Borschel-Dan, writing for the Times of Israel, was a bit more circumspect. The story’s attention-grabbing headline declares, “Five-letter inscription inked 3,100 years ago may be name of biblical judge,” but headlines are often written by editors, not authors.

Unfortunately, many people don’t read past the headlines.

Borschel-Dan correctly emphasizes the key role of the inscription as helping to fill a gap in the history of the Proto-Canaanite script, which in later years came to be adapted and adopted by the Hebrews. She acknowledges that the archaeologists discuss the name in relation to the biblical Jeruba‘al, but concludes, “We cannot tell whether he owned the vessel on which the inscription is written.”

Of course, they can’t. It’s extremely unlikely, though an e-mail blast from Biblical Archaeology Review’s Bible History Daily also provocatively asked, “Archaeological Evidence of Gideon the Judge?” Fortunately, writer Nathan Steinmeyer observes “since the biblical Gideon lived in the Jezreel Valley, nearly a hundred miles away, this inscription likely belonged to another Jerubbaal.”

Steinmeyer is correct that Gideon’s home was far to the north of Khirbet Al-Ra‘i, where the inscription was found, and some locate Orphah near Taanach, which he references. Other scholars note that Gideon’s clan name (Abiezer, Judges 6:17) is associated with the northern tribe of Manasseh, and places him at a different Orphah, probably the same town also called Ephron and Ephraim, in the hill country near Shechem.

Khirbet Al-Ra‘i, which excavator Yosef Garfinkel believes to be biblical Ziklag, is located a few miles west of Lachish, in the southern part of Israel. The inscribed pottery fragments were found in a stone-lined storage silo from the Iron I period (about 1200-1000 BCE) that had been used as a trash bin. A careful ceramic, radiographic, and petrographic analysis dates the inscription to between 1150 and 1050 BCE.

Fortunately, scholarly publications, when available, offer a more nuanced view than popular headlines. And, this find was recently featured in the open-access Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, published by the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University.

That institute, headed by Garfinkel, a leader of the Khirbet al-Ra‘i expedition, is prone to connect finds with biblical accounts. Still, though the article appropriately mentions Gideon/Jeruba‘al, it is careful not to claim an association.

Eminent epigrapher Christopher Rollston joined the four lead archaeologists in writing “The Jerubba‘al Inscription from Khirbet al-Ra‘i: A Proto-Canaanite (Early Alphabetic) Inscription.” Rollston does the important work of analyzing the inscription.

The letters were found painted on three pottery fragments from the same vessel. It was probably a small liter-sized jug that may have held something valuable, hence the rare decision to put a name on it.

Two fragments fit together to reveal four complete letters and two partial ones. Another fragment, which does not connect, has parts of two letters but not enough to speculate on their identity.

Drawing of inscription by Olga Dobovsky, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Association.

Ancient writers hadn’t settled into a reliably consistent direction for writing the proto-Canaanite script, but the stance of the letters indicates the most likely direction for this inscription is right to left.

The first letter (at right) is the trickiest. Only the bottom part of two downward strokes remains, and they could represent more than one possibility. Rollston judges the most likely candidate to be a yod. An inscribed ewer from a slightly earlier period at Lachish draws the yod roughly in the shape of a squared uppercase English “A,” and the two downward strokes fit that pattern.

The next letters follow more typical forms for resh, bet, ‘ayin, and lamedh. All of the letters changed in ways as the script developed, but these are consistent for the period.

The combined letters – assuming they were meant to be read together – spell Jeruba‘al, the first extrabiblical evidence of the name. A folk etymology in Judges 6:32 ascribes the meaning “Let Ba‘al contend,” but the authors suggest that “May Ba‘al be great” is a more natural reading.

Khirbet al-Ra‘i was probably a Canaanite town during the Iron I period, but the Israelites also used Ba‘al with its generic meaning “lord” as an element in personal names on into the Iron IIA period.

Sometime between the ninth and sixth centuries, though, Ba‘al became so associated with the Canaanite deity that the Israelites considered it too offensive for such use, and some biblical writers edited the older names.

Saul had a son named Ishba‘al or Eshbaal (1 Chronicles 8:33, 9:39), and Jonathon had a son named Merib-ba‘al (1 Chronicles 8:34, 9:40), but the author of 2 Samuel consistently refers to them as Ishboshet (2 Samuel 2:8 and following) and Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4 and following), substituting boshet (“shame”) for Ba‘al.

Indeed, Gideon himself, also known as Jeruba‘al, gets the same treatment in 2 Samuel 11:21, where he is called Jeruboshet – at least in the Hebrew. Some modern translations, such as the NRSV, ignore the scribal editing and translate the names uniformly, using ba‘al as an element.

Does this matter? We should be glad to learn of this find, not just because it may reflect a name that appears in the Bible, but mainly because it helps to fill in a gap in the development of the Proto-Canaanite script that eventually came to be adopted by the Israelites.

Speculating that it might have come from Gideon’s personal jug may attract readers, sell ads, and fire up those who want to “prove the Bible,” but it’s a classic case of barking up the wrong tree.

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