Biblical inscription from Mt. Ebal, but a note of caution

Archaeologists have revealed a small, ancient lead amulet with an inscription that was discovered on Mt. Ebal in the rubbish pile of a previous excavation. Back in the 1980s, Dr. Adam Zertal uncovered a stone structure atop Mt. Ebal that some interpret as an altar built by Joshua in the Bible (Josh 8:30-31) Mt. Ebal is also one of the mountains of blessing & cursing in Deut. 27 and Josh. 8. These types of amulets are known from the ancient world and contained inscriptions folded and sealed inside thin sheets of lead. The lead folds on this amulet couldn’t be opened without breakage so researchers employed tomographic scans of the exterior and interior to try and discern the hidden inscription.

Images of the folded lead tablet found on Mt. Ebal. The object is small, roughly 1 inch square.
Photo by Michael C. Luddeni. (Courtesy of Associates for Biblical Research)

Dr. Scott Stripling and staff with the Associates for Biblical Research recently announced the results of this scientific analysis at a press conference at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston. Dr. Scott Stripling, the project head, stated that thousands of scans enabled them to discern 40 proto-alphabetic letters. The researchers did not share any original images or transliteration from the scans, which is curious for an inscription reveal, but offered their English translation of the hidden text.

Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW.

You will die cursed.

Cursed you will surely die.

Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.

The amulet is a “curse” tablet, a type of ancient legal text describing consequences if a person does not fulfill conditions of an agreement. The Blessings & Curses at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal in Deut. 28 are an example of this ancient practice.

Big Claims: The researchers claim this is the earliest example of Hebrew writing yet discovered, though written in a precursor alphabet to paleo-Hebrew. (This is not unusual since we have other inscriptions from this approximate period written in early alphabetic scripts.) Some scholars insist early Israel was not a literate society, meaning the historical books of the Hebrew Bible could not have been written in the era of Moses, the Judges, or the earlier kings. This inscription would show the tribes of Israel were literate, able to record their history and laws, and potentially compose biblical books at that time.

Scott Stripling also claims this inscription may date to around 1400 BC, when Israel entered Canaan in the traditional biblical chronology. This is a big point of contention among scholars since many archaeologists believe the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt would have occurred in the 1200s instead. If these claims are true, this would suggest the Israelites entered Canaan around the earlier date.

Its discovery near a place biblically associated with the renewal of a covenant agreement would also be notable. Mt. Ebal is associated with a famous blessing/cursing event in the Bible (Duet 27-28). The ABR people suggest this tablet could be connected with that famous story.

If all of these claims are true, especially regarding the inscription date, this discovery would be on the level of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the “House of David” inscription from Tel Dan. However, big claims require solid evidence, and their press announcement didn’t offer it.

Concern and Caution: ABR presented weighty conclusions on controversial biblical matters, yet chose not to share the actual data that informed their conclusions. They announced an inscription without showing the inscription. This is unusual. Why withhold original images while announcing an inscription and a proposed translation?

Putting faith in the Bible and believing a certain archaeological claim are two different things.

Assuming the inscription scan results were indeed clear enough to support the translation, the proposed dating to ca. 1400 BC seems to be the least established conclusion, yet the most consequential. The amulet was taken out of its original context around 40 years ago, away from the pottery and other remains that best inform the dating, before being recently sifted from dump debris. The press conference and previously published materials note the site’s pottery ranged from the Late Bronze to Early Iron ages, a period that extends into the 11th century BC, far later than the proposed early 15th century date. The most secure dating for the altar site points to the 1200s BC, so a claim of ca. 1400 needs clear supporting evidence.

The stated reason for the early 15th century BC date is the writing style. While the shape and orientation of the letters can suggest approximate dates, the lack of standardization in the Late Bronze and Early Iron periods (the biblical judges and early kings) make it difficult to pin down dating. Writing rules often differed from one place to the next. It’s possible the amulet could date to 1400 BC but maybe just as likely (or more likely) that it dates to the 1200s or later. The press conference was sprinkled with words like “possibly,” “could be,” and “maybe,” indicating the ABR team is aware the amulet may not fit their desired paradigm.

This drawing shows the Divine Name of YWHW rendered in a proto-Canaanite (or Early Alphabetic) script. This is the only part the inscription that was revealed at the press conference, but it is only a reconstructed drawing. None of the scans or images on which this drawing is based were shown during the announcement of the inscription. (Drawing by Gershon Galil, courtesy of the Associates for Biblical Research)

Whatever its date, this amulet is a genuine ancient find in a notable place. However, believers have been burned many times by quickly embracing preliminary announcements, even from sincere people, because the results seem to support the Bible. Early conclusions often do not withstand later scrutiny. Once they publish their actual data, we can see if these announcements hold up. There’s always a gap between conclusions we form vs. what we actually find. Mind the Gap!

About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister with the North Terrace Church of Christ and has participated in multiple archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke leads popular study tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
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2 Responses to Biblical inscription from Mt. Ebal, but a note of caution

  1. Tom Powers says:

    Mind the gap, indeed. The healthy dose of caution you’ve injected is well-founded — Thank you! Prudence dictates, as always, that we consider the source. Unfortunately, ABR (and groups of their ilk) put the spade in the ground with a clear agenda, which should raise ‘red flags’ for thinking people. Simply put, they’re given to filtering what comes out of the ground through their own peculiar, pseudo-scientific lens, in a misguided quest to “prove” the Bible (as if the Bible needs proving — mine doesn’t). And, not surprisingly, they always, always “find” the evidence they’re looking for! In the process, though, they manage to abuse both archaeology AND the Bible. What’s more, the State of Israel has no right, under international law, to permit such archaeological projects (or to carry out their own) in the occupied Palestinian territories. So, yes, ‘Caveat emptor’.

    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

  2. Reblogged this on ἐκλεκτικός and commented:
    Mind the Gap, indeed!

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