Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Ninth Century ‘Moabite Pedestal Inscription’ from King Mesha’s Ataruz: Preliminary Synopsis of an Excavated Epigraphic Text and its Biblical Connections

17 December 2013

Rollston Collating Khirbet Ataruz Moabite Pedestal Inscription.

Rollston Collating Khirbet Ataruz Moabite Pedestal Inscription.

The Ninth Century ‘Moabite Pedestal Inscription’ from King Mesha’s Ataruz: Preliminary Synopsis of an Excavated Epigraphic Text and its Biblical Connections

Christopher A. Rollston
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Scholar
Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem


The site of Khirbet Ataruz is located in modern Jordan, on the ridge of Jebel Hamida, with Wadi Zarqa Ma‘in to the north and Wadi Wala to the south. Khirbet Ataruz is located some fourteen kilometers to the northwest of Dhiban. The site has been known for some time (e.g., Glueck 1939; Schottroff 1966; Timm 1980; Niemann 1985), but Chang-Ho Ji is the first to conduct full scale excavations at the site (Ji 2012). During the process of these ongoing excavations, Ji discovered a pedestal (arguably of an incense altar) with an inscription on it (cf. the inscribed incense altar from Mudeyineh, Dion and Daviau 2000). Significantly, the archaeological context for this inscription from Ataruz was an Iron Age II Temple, with a striking assemblage of cultic objects (Ji 2012; cf. also Finkelstein and Lipschits 2010; Finkelstein and Lipschits 2011).

Shortly after the initial discovery, Chang-Ho Ji requested that I analyze and publish the inscription and I accepted this gracious invitation. Moreover, because of the complex nature of this inscribed pedestal, particularly, the presence of several sets of hieratic numerals, I have since brought Stefan Wimmer and P.Kyle McCarter in to assist with the publication. The editio princeps will be completed during 2014, co-authored by the three of us, with formal publication probably appearing during late 2014 or early 2015 (e.g., ADAJ and also something such as Levant, ZDPV, BASOR, or Maarav). This preliminary synopsis, however, is something I have written, based primarily on the document that I previously submitted to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan when I agreed to publish it. I wish to express again my gratitude to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and to Excavator Chang-Ho Ji for permission to publish it.

Prologue to the Discussion of the Ataruz Moabite Pedestal Inscription: The Mesha Stele and the Bible

The Moabite site of Atarot (Ataruz) is prominently mentioned in the Mesha Stele, along with several additional sites (Dearman 1989). Namely, after four lines of introductory material (including reference to King Mesha’s dedication in Qarḥoh of a high place for Kemosh, the national God of Moab; cf. 1 Kgs 11:7), King Mesha, son of King Kemoshyat, states that because Kemosh was angry with his land (Moab), he (Kemosh) gave the land of Moab into the hand of King Omri of Israel (r. 876-869). Mesha then continues, noting that Omri’s son (bn) succeeded him (Omri) and wished to continue to maintain hegemony over Moab, but Mesha rebelled. Several sites are selected for particular emphasis in this section of the Mesha Stele, notably Madaba, Atarot, Nebo, and Yahaṣ. Regarding the land of Madaba, Mesha states that “Omri had taken possession of all [the land] of Madaba, and he dwelt in it during his days and half of the days of his son, (around) forty years. But Kemosh returned it in my days.” Regarding the land of Atarot, Mesha states that “Now the people of Gad had dwelt in the region of Atarot for a long time, as the king of Israel had built Atarot for them [cf. Num 32]. But I fought against the city and I took it and I killed all the people of the city, (as) it was for Kemosh and for Moab. And I brought back from there the altar hearth…and I [drag]ged it before Kemosh in Qiryat. And I settled the Sharonites and the Maḥarites in it.” At that point, the narrative continues with Mesha’s conquest of Nebo, including its “seven thousand [Israelite] warriors, as well as male sojourners (grn), women, female sojourners, and young maidens.” All of these Mesha, “devoted to ‘Aštar of Kemosh.” Moreover, Mesha took from Nebo “the vessels of Yahweh and dragged them before Kemosh.” Regarding Yahaṣ, Mesha states that “Now the King of Israel had built Yahaṣ and he dwelt in it while he was fighting against me. But Kemosh drove him out from before me”(Rollston 2015). Much of the remainder of the Mesha Stele is devoted to the public works of King Mesha of Moab, coming on the heels of his military successes against the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

It should be remembered that the language of the Mesha Stele is Moabite, with the consistent use of the nun throughout this inscription to mark the masculine plural, thus, distinguishing the Moabite language from the Old Hebrew language (and also from Phoenician, etc.). Furthermore, the phonology of the Mesha Stele distinguishes it from the Aramaic language and from the Deir Alla Dialect (Garr 1985; Huehnergard 1989). That is, the Mesha Stele is written in the Moabite language and this is not something that can be disputed on linguistic grounds (pace Segert 1961).

Within the Hebrew Bible, there is a similar account of Omride hegemony over Moab and Mesha’s subsequent rebellion, with reference to (an annual) tribute from Moab to Israel of 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams (2 Kgs 3:4-27). The Israelite account in Kings and the Moabite account in the Mesha Stele are different in some respects, though. (1) For example, the Israelite account states that Mesha rebelled after the death of King Ahab of Israel (r. 869-850 BCE), namely, during the reign of Ahab’s son, King Jehoram of Israel (r. 849-842 BCE), the brief reign of King Ahaziah of Israel (r. 850-849 BCE) not part of the equation. The Moabite account, however, suggests that this rebellion occurred after Omri’s death and, thus, during the time of Omri’s son (Ahab). (2) Furthermore, the Israelite account in Kings states that King Jehoram of Israel was successful in crushing the rebellion of Mesha (but with the human sacrifice of his [Mesha’s] son and the ensuing wrath of Yahweh or Kemosh precipitating an Israelite military withdrawal). However, the Moabite account in the Mesha Stele declares that Mesha was very successful in the rebellion against Israel and won major victories against Israel, regaining lost Moabite territory, and even gaining new territory. (1) The first difference (i.e., son of Omri in the Mesha Stele over against son of Ahab in Kings) is not necessarily much of a tension because the term “son” could be used in a broader sense to refer to a son or grandson of Omri (cf. also Rollston 2010, 52-55). Nevertheless, it is also possible that there is a real tension and that the Israelite account or the Moabite account got it wrong. (2) The second difference (the Israelite account claiming victory over Moab and the Moabite account claiming victory over Israel) could be understood as a demonstration of the fact that in the ancient Near East kings preferred to proclaim victories, regardless of the precise facts and actual outcomes. Note, for example, that both Ramesses II and the Muwatalli II claimed victory against the other in the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE. Conversely, it could be that the Moabite account and the Israelite account are of different military episodes or different victories in the longer conflict. It should also be mentioned here that the events described in the Israelite account would be dated to ca. 849 BCE (i.e., the time when Jehoram was on the throne of Israel and Jehoshaphat was on the throne of Judah).

Finally, it should also be emphasized that the repeated campaigns of King Shalmaneser III (r. 859-825 BCE) of Assyria into the Levant during the middle of the 9th century (cf. Kurukh Monolith, Black Obelisk) arguably provided the Moabites with some relief from Israelite hegemony, probably contributing to some of Mesha’s military successes and public works. Of course, the Aramaic (Tel Dan; Biran and Naveh 1995) and Hebrew (2 Kings 8-9; cf. 1 Kgs 19:17) narratives about the deaths of King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah around 842 BCE (and thus the usurpations of King Jehu of Israel and Hazael of Damascus) are also part of the broader tableau as well.

The Tell Ataruz Moabite Pedestal Inscription

The inscribed pedestal contains seven lines of text incised into the stone (of the pedestal). Four lines of the inscription are written along the vertical axis and three lines are written along the horizontal axis. This inscription was not written by one hand. The inscription is abraded in some places. Based on the morphology, stance, and ductus of the script, I date the writing comfortably to the 9th century BCE. It would be most difficult to date the script of this pedestal to the 8th century. After conveying my palaeographic date of this inscribed pedestal to Ji, he indicated to me that he dated the temple and its associated finds to the 9th century as well. Also of substantial import, Finkelstein and Lipschits also have indicated that the architecture of this component of this site dates to the 9th century (2010; 2011), and they have indicated to me (personal conversation) that the pottery and objects can be dated to this chronological horizon as well.

It should be emphasized that during the 9th century BCE, the script used to write inscriptions in the Moabite language was the Old Hebrew script, arguably a fact related to the hegemony of Northern Kingdom of Israel during the Omride period (Naveh 1987, 65; Rollston 2010, 54). Of course, this hegemony is something that King Mesha of Moab discusses in his stele. Nevertheless, the Moabite script developed further during succeeding chronological horizons into an independent national script, that is, the distinctive Moabite national script, something demonstrated very nicely by the script of the Mudeyineh Incense Altar Inscription (Dion and Daviau 2000; Rollston 2010, 62-63).

The Khirbet Ataruz Moabite Pedestal Inscription is written in the Moabite language. The linguistic markers in the Ataruz inscription correspond with those of the Mesha Stele. Most prominently and importantly, the masculine plural marker used in the Ataruz inscription is the nun, rather than the mem of Phoenician and Hebrew (and congeners). The fact that this inscription is written in the Moabite language is not surprising, based on the location of this site and the historical details about this site that are contained in the Mesha Stele (namely, Mesha of Moab conquered this territory, establishing Moabite hegemony). Of substantial importance in this inscription is the presence of some rather impressive hieratic numerals, some of which are particularly high in numeric value (in the thousands). Word dividers do occur in this inscription, as expected, but not with absolute consistency (this too is quite customary).

The structure of the initial line of the inscription is a hieratic numeral, followed by /mn/ and then an additional lexeme. A similar structure is present in line three and arguably (a truncated version) in line two as well. There are a finite number of possibilities for the semantic domains of the words that are present, but the brevity of the inscription does complicate the matter. In any case, the structure is numeric + mn + lexeme. Because this inscription was found in a temple context, I believe that it is reasonable to propose that the numeric refers to the amount of a commodity offered. The word /mn/ is arguably the prepositional morpheme “from” (I am less inclined to think that it is a reference to a “mina,” that is, a unit of measure). The prepositional /mn/ does not occur in all cases (it is clearly present in lines one and three). The lexeme following /mn/ can be understood to refer to the source of the offering. It is plausible to understand the source (i.e., the lexeme after the word “from”) as a person, a category of persons, a place (and there is some semantic bleeding and overlap with regard to these enumerated categories). In any case, the first line seems paradigmatic in this respect. The hieratic numeral is followed by “from” (mn) and after the word divider the consonants present are /‘brn/, with nun the masculine plural marker in Moabite. The lexeme after /mn/ in the first line could refer, for example, to a category of people “those across” (e.g., a wadi, or some geographic feature or territory), or a people group (e.g., “Hebrews”), or something such as an eponymous ancestor of a clan. Lexical and textual support can be found for all of these (e.g., Deut 32:49; Num 27:12 for the mountainous district in northwestern Moab and associated with Nebo; a Gadite chief mentioned in 1 Chr 5:13; and the common gentilic “Hebrews” attested in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomistic Literature, and the Prophets). As for the second line, there is a hieratic numeral and then the consonants /grn/, with nun arguably as the masculine plural marker (although /grn/ “threshing floor” must also be considered). It should be mentioned that /prn/ is also a possible reading (palaeographically), which could, of course, refer to a category of offering, “bull” or the like. I should note that reading a dalet here (instead of a resh) is not really plausible. The absence of the /mn/ “from” in such a terse text as this does not necessitate the supposition that the structure of this line is entirely different from the first line and third line, but that possibility must be considered. The fact that /grn/ (“sojourners”) occurs in the Mesha Stele is of some importance, of course. Also of import, line two is rather long and arguably contains the lexemes gdl (reading a /p/ for the first letter rather than a /g/ is palaeographically possible; note that I am disinclined to read the second letter as a possible /r/ because of the shortness of the stem) and šlm (with the various lexical possibilities for this sequence of letters, including those with the semantic domain of “pay,” and those with the semantic domain of “peace offering,” etc.). As for the third line, the preposition “from” recurs. The fourth line is difficult, but reasonably legible in the best of the photographs at our disposal. The final three lines of the inscription (or, one could argue, the first three lines of the inscription) are different in terms of formula, and perhaps most interesting mathematically. More precisely, in lines five and six, the formula is: hieratic numerals + /sh/ and /L/, arguably a shortened form of the word for sheqel. The seventh line contains /kl/ and then after this a hieratic numeral as well.

At this juncture, we now have access to additional (and better) photographic images of this important inscription and we will begin working in earnest on this text in the coming months. Kyle McCarter and I have most (probably all, I suppose) of the lexical and syntactic options on the table (not all of which are included here, of course) and Stefan Wimmer has reasonable and cogent readings for the hieratic numerals (and he is also a fine scholar of Northwest Semitic in his own right). Because this inscription hails from the period very shortly after Mesha’s conquest of the site (remember that the inscription is written in the Moabite language, a fairly diagnostic indicator of those controlling the site at the time of the production of the inscription, I believe), the inscription provides useful and important data for attempts to reconstruct the nexus of power in the second half of the 9th century. In addition, this inscription lends credence to the claims Mesha makes in his stele (e.g., his conquering of Atarot, etc.), something that may suggest that the materials in Kings about the victory of Jehoram over Moab were either legendary or short-lived, or about a slightly different chronological horizon. The reflections detailed here will not necessarily be those embraced in the final publication, but they do convey the interpretive contours that have been part of my preliminary reflections and will probably be formative for the final publication.

Basic Bibliography

Biran, Avraham and Naveh, Joseph.
1995 “The Tel Dan Inscription: A New Fragment.” IEJ 45:1-18.

Dearman, Andrew, ed.
1989 Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Dion, Paul E. and Daviau, P.M. Michèle
2000 “An Inscribed Incense Altar of Iron Age II at Ḫirbet el-Mudēyine (Jordan).” ZDPV 116: 1-13.

Finkelstein, Israel and Lipschits, Oded.
2010 “Omride Architecture in Moab: Jahaz and Ataroth.” ZDPV 126: 29-42.

Finkelstein, Israel and Lipschits, Oded.
2011 “The Genesis of Moab: A Proposal.” Levant 43: 139-152.

Garr, Randall.

1985 Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000-586 B.C.E. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Huehnergard, John.

1989 Remarks on the Classification of the Northwest Semitic Languages. Pages 282-93 in The Balaam Text from Deir ‘‘Alla Re-evaluated. Proceedings of the International 84 Symposium held at Leiden 21–24 August 1989. Ed. J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij; Leiden: Brill.

Ji, Chang-Ho
2012 “The Early Iron Age II Temple at Khirbet Atarus and Its Architecture and Selected Cult Objects.” Pp. 203-221 and Plates 44-49 in Temple Building and Temple Cult: Architecture and Cultic Paraphernalia of Temples in the Levant (2m-1. Mill. BCE), ed. Jens Kamlah. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Naveh, Joseph.
1987 Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography. 2nd ed. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Niemann, Hermann Michael
1985 “Ein Statuettentorso von der Ḫirbert Aṭārūs.” ZDPV 101: 169-177.

Rollston, Christopher A.
2010 Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic
Evidence from the Iron Age. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Rollston, Christopher A.
2015 Northwest Semitic Royal Inscriptions: Writings from the Ancient
World. ed., Theodore Lewis. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Schottroff, Willy.
1965 “Horonaim, Nimrim, Luhith und der Westrand des „Landes Ataroth“:
Ein Beitrag zur historischen Topographie des Landes Moab.” ZDPV 81: 163-208.

Segert, Stanislav
1961 “Die Sprache Der Moabitischen Königsinschrift.” Archiv Orientální:
29: 197-267.

Timm, Stefan
“Die territoriale Ausdehnung des Staates Isael zur Zeit der Omriden.” ZDPV 96: 20-40.

Wimmer, Stefan
2008 Palästinisches Hieratisch die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräischen Schrift. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.