The Mount Ebal Lead ‘Curse’ Inscription in Late Bronze Age Hebrew: Some Methodological Caveats
Christopher Rollston (firstname.lastname@example.org)
George Washington University, Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures, Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Setting the Stage:
Some sensational claims were made in a press conference on March 24, 2022 about a small lead ‘inscription’ that is purported to hail from the Late Bronze Age, to be written in the Ancient Hebrew language, to consist of forty letters, to be full of curses (i.e., with the tri-literal root ’rr occurring ten times), and to twice mention Yahweh. And as part of these claims, it was asserted in the press conference that there are a lot of firsts for this inscription (e.g., oldest Hebrew inscription, earliest reference in a Hebrew text to Yahweh, etc.). (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrWTCgQZ_eA ).
These are some mighty sensational claims. However, sensational claims require sensational evidence, that is, evidence that is absolutely overwhelming and entirely compelling. And in this case, I would suggest that some methodological doubt is probably a very useful thing. Of course, this find does hail from Mount Ebal, the famous site which was excavated by Adam Zertal during the 1980s. Therefore, this find is interesting, and it is ostensibly important. But something else that is normally just as important is methodological caution regarding sensational conclusions! After all, dramatic claims have been so very common during recent years, and the end result is almost always the same: the dramatic and sensational claims crumble under the weight of scrutiny, and then more sober conclusions rise to the fore as the most compelling.
Some Further Details
Here are some of the basic facts. On March 24, 2022 at Lanier Theological Library (in Houston, Texas), Scott Stripling (Provost of The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas; and the Director of Excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research at Khirbet el-Maqatir and Shiloh, Israel), along with Pieter van der Veen (Johannes Gutenberg-University, Mainz), and Gershon Galil (University of Haifa) held a press conference to announce the discovery and putative decipherment of a 2 cm x 2 cm folded lead inscription (nota bene: the inscription remains folded, that is, it has not been opened). According to Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen, the forty letters on the inside of this folded lead object are not discernible via the naked eye. However, via imaging that was conducted in Prague at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, they (i.e., van der Veen and Galil) believe that forty letters can be seen, that these letters can be read, and the words that result can be deciphered. Here is their translation: “Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God Yhw [Yahweh], You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by Yhw – cursed, cursed, cursed.” Furthermore, these scholars contend that the script of this inscription is “Proto-Alphabetic” (it is perhaps useful to mention that a standard means of describing the alphabetic script at this time period would be Early Alphabetic or Proto-Canaanite, rather than “Proto-Alphabetic). Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen also state that there are some letters on the outside of this folded lead object, but they do not mention which letters or words they might be reading on the outside.
Significantly, this inscription was not found in a stratified context during excavations at “Mount Ebal.” Note that Adam Zertal directed the excavations at Mount Ebal in the 1980s, and he believed that he had found at this site a “structure” which he (Zertal) believed was probably an altar and could be connected in some fashion with the altar mentioned in Joshua 8:30-31 (on this, see now an update below, as an addendum to this blog post of mine). Rather this inscribed lead object was found in 2019, as part of a process of wet sifting and dry sifting some of the dirt that had been removed as part of the 1980s excavations. Perhaps also useful to mention: the press conference at Lanier Theological Library references some carbon remains that were found during the sifting, but there is no reference, alas, to any carbon dates (e.g., AMS, etc.). Also important to mention is the fact that Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen have not yet finished writing the scholarly article about this find. They are hoping to complete it in the coming months and then to submit it for publication somewhere.
Some Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Background
The Claims of Stripling, van der Veen, Galil…and Some Responses
There are some rather striking claims in the press conference about this lead inscription and about its implications. First and foremost, I would emphasize that reading and deciphering Early Alphabetic inscriptions is difficult. Thus, is hard for me to believe that all of the readings of Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen will stand the test of time. In fact, I would predict that almost all of the readings posited in the press conference will be vigorously contested, once scholars in the field of epigraphy are allowed to see the images of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. Furthermore, I am certain that the translations of the readings will also be contested.
And it should also be emphasized that at the press conference *no* images from the Academy of Sciences of the Czeck Republic were shown. Thus, claims were made, but the real evidence was not shown! Normally, even during a press conference about a new inscription, a good image or two of the inscription is shown. But in this case, None! Also of import: it is striking that the only drawing presented at the press conference was a single drawing of a single putative occurrence of the divine name Yhw. And I would emphasize that this drawing struck me as particularly schematic in nature. As a result of all of these sorts of things, my hermeneutic of suspicion is, therefore, quite heightened.
But it’s worth looking even more at some of the dramatic claims. Stripling stated that: “One can no longer argue with a straight face that the Biblical text was not written until the Persian Period or the Hellenistic Period, as many higher critics have done when we clearly do have the ability to write the entire text [of the Bible] at a much, much earlier date.” Galil makes the same basic statement: “No one can claim the Bible was written in later periods, the Persian Period or the Hellenistic Period.” Similarly, Galil stated: “the person who wrote this was a genius, not only a scribe, but a theologian!” Stripling also stated that “our friends from the other side of the academic aisle have disparagingly spoken of us [that is, those] who believe that the Bible was written at an early date as this, because that was not [supposed to be] possible because there was no alphabetic script with which to write it. Clearly this [inscription] flies in the fact of that.” Galil goes on to state that “the scribe who wrote this important text….believe me…he could write every chapter in the Bible.” Galil also goes on and states that this “is the most important inscription ever found in Israel.”
It’s useful to step back for a moment. First, I would emphasize that with all due respect to Striping, most epigraphers believe that the alphabet was invented by the 18th century BCE. Thus, his statement that scholars have contended that there was no alphabet to write with doesn’t make enormous sense. Note also that Ugaritic is also an alphabetic language (and dates mostly to the 13th century BCE).
Second, I was also struck by the “loose language regarding chronology” in the press conference. For example, I think that what Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen were intending to say is that this inscription (as they understand it) provided evidence that writing of the Pentateuch (or portions of it), or the Hexateuch (i.e., Genesis through Joshua) could have been written prior to the Persian or Hellenistic Period. The fascinating thing is that normally they did not use very precise language and seemed to speak about the writing of the Bible as a whole. Thus, someone who is not familiar with the field might assume that this inscription proves that the whole Hebrew Bible was written in the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE (their date for this inscription). I don’t think that’s what they intended to say (as books such as Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 1-2 Chronicles, etc. are obviously all Second Temple, and none of the Latter Prophets or the book of the Twelve could have been written so early, based on the material in these books and the chronological reference points contained therein, etc.).
Also, it is perhaps worth mentioning that people such as I have argued for some time that there was a fair amount of alphabetic writing in the late 2nd millennium BCE (e.g., Rollston, “Inscriptional Evidence for the Writing of the Earliest Texts of the Bible: Intellectual Infrastructure in Tenth- and Ninth-Century Israel, Judah, and the Southern Levant.” Pp. 15-45 in The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America, eds. Jan C. Gertz, Bernard Levinson, Dalit Rom-Shiloni, and Konrad Schmid. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016). And so I found it striking that these authors did not seem to know about the history of the field in this regard.
Also, and perhaps even more importantly, even if we assume everything that Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen state about the readings and translation is correct (and that’s a big assumption), they have told us that there are 40 letters. They have also said that the word curse or accursed occurs 10 times. There are three letters in that root (’rr). So that’s 30 of the 40! And the remaining 10 letters are used to write “God,” “die,” and “Yhw.” If we do have those four words or roots: namely, “curse,” “God,” “die” and “Yahweh,” I’m happy to say that somebody back then and there could write, and hopefully somebody else back then and there could read it. But to say that based on those four words or roots that somebody could write the whole Bible….well, that’s a bridge (way) too far for me. After all, there are 8500+ words in the Hebrew Bible (counting verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, particles, common nouns, proper nouns), and four is a pretty small fraction of the whole, therefore!
Furthermore, Galil also stated: “this is not just a curse. It is actually a legal text, not just a legal warning.” Van der Veen also is of the same mind: “It is a legal verdict about an unknown person or group who are addressed in the inscription.” This too is quite a leap. After all, we have 40 letters, four basic root words, and all of a sudden we have a legal text! I don’t think that my own esteemed master-teacher of law and diplomacy in the ancient Near East (the late Raymond Westbrook) would find these statements by Galil and van der Veen to be the least bit compelling. And neither do I.
But it gets even more interesting. When Stripling is asked by someone in the audience if this inscription coincides or correlates with the Covenant Renewal Ceremony in the book of Joshua, he replied: “I believe the answer is ‘yes.’” And when someone in the audience asks if this inscription impacts the way in which we should conceive of the Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest, he replies that this inscription reveals that “the Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest of the land of Canaan would have occurred at an earlier date” than has usually been supposed. He elaborates further than this inscription “tips the scale in favor of an earlier date.”
It is perhaps useful for me to mention in this connection that the consensus view (among those, such as I, who believe that there was some sort of Exodus, and that there was also some sort of entrance into the land of Canaan for at least some of the Proto-Israelites, and that there were at least some battles as part of that) is that the 13th century BCE is the operative century for the Exodus and Conquest (based on the convergence of a fair amount of evidence, biblical and otherwise…in other words, I fall into the same category as Richard Elliott Friedman in his volume entitled Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters). However, a date in the 15th century has been the darling of a few scholars through the years (especially because of the statement in 1 Kings 6:1 that the First Temple was built 480 years after the Exodus. As for me, I mostly feel that 40 is a stock numeral in the ancient Near East and in the Bible, and since 12 is the number of the tribes of Israel, well, 480 sounds like a schematic numeral that plugs in two very common biblical numerals). In any case, Stripling even concludes on the basis of this little inscription that he finds support for the early date. That’s quite a leap on the basis of a lead inscription that cannot be dated with enormous precision and contains zero personal names (of historical people) and zero references to any historical event! Again, this is a bridge too far.
It is also worth mentioning that I am not too certain that the divine name Yhw is in this inscription (although I hope that it is). Moreover, I would emphasize that the script of this inscription (if there actually is a legible inscription) is Early Alphabetic, not Hebrew. Thus, I’d really be very disinclined to call it the earliest Hebrew inscription (in terms of script or language). In this connection it is worth noting that the words “God,” “cursed,” “die,” “death,” are all Common Semitic. That is, they are present in several different ancient Semitic languages (e.g., Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Akkadian, etc.); thus, they are not “diagnostic” for any particular Semitic language, since they occur across the Semitic languages. Sometimes I hear someone say, “Oh, this text must be Hebrew, because this is a Hebrew word.” Well, the problem with that is that the word may be Hebrew, but it is not *exclusively* Hebrew. But rather it occurs in several different Semitic languages (hence the term “Common Semitic”). Of course, someone might say in reply to me, “Yes, those other words in this inscription are Common Semitic, but the word Yhw is the name of the God of Israel.” And I would reply that we can talk more about this when good images of this inscription are available. But even if these three letters are present (yhw) and are to be read in this order (which may not be the case), that’s not the only word that those letters could be. In short, I tend to believe that it’s best to try to avoid making precarious statements. And I’ll stick with that methodology for this inscription as well.
In sum, I would mostly suggest that we step back and let the dust settle on this one. It seems to me that Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen have made a fair number of big assumptions. Moreover, I am far from convinced of their readings….especially since they have not even provided so much as a single good image!
And it also seems to me that the best predictor of the future is the past, and in the past, time and time again, sensational claims turn to ash in the crucible of serious, philological and epigraphic analysis. So, let’s wait and see how this turns out. But as for me, I’m afraid that I’m too methodologically cautious to embrace the sensational assumptions of Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen.
Addendum: Prof. Amihai Mazar has emphasized to me (personal communication) that Zertal’s suggestion that he had found an altar at Mount Ebal is “much debated within the archaeological community.” He has also emphasized that in this region, “no one has seen, before or after this discovery, an altar of approximately 8m x 9m in size.” Prof. Mazar has also noted that “the earlier installation could have been used in a cultic context, but does not resemble an altar.” I’m very grateful for Prof. Ami Mazar’s note and for the data contained in it. Sincerely, Chris Rollston