“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse... thou shalt set the blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and the curse upon Mount Ebal.” (Deuteronomy 11:26, 29)
Now an official curse has been found, engraved on a lead tablet that dates to the biblical age and had sat in the detritus of an excavation of Mt. Ebal for decades, the Associates for Biblical Research of Houston, Texas announced on Thursday.
If the dating of the tablet to the Late Bronze Age – the 14th to 13th century B.C.E. – is accurate, it is the earliest such tablet by a century or two. Inscribed in proto-alphabetic writing also known as Sinaitic script or proto-Canaanite script, which dates to the Late Bronze Age, the hex text is early Israelite, the team claims.
Consisting of 40 ancient proto-Sinaitic letters on a lead sheet that was subsequently folded, and could only to be read by tomographic scanning, the inscription reads:
“Cursed, cursed, cursed - cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will surely die.
Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
The inscription does not leave much room for doubt that it was a curse. What it might mean for the interpretation of the finds at Mt. Ebal is another matter.
A cultic site on Mt. Ebal
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According to the biblical narrative, six tribes, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naftali were sent to the rocky, barren hill that is Mount Ebal, where the Lord commanded that an altar be built of unhewn stones, and attend to the cursing. The erection of the altar is attributed to Joshua, after his forces destroyed the city of Ai, sparing only the cattle, and hanged its king: “Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord, the God of Israel, in mount Ebal” (Joshua 8:30).
The lead tablet containing the formulaic curse, or defixio, was discovered in December 2019, while wet-sifting discarded material from an earlier excavation of Mt. Ebal (today near Nablus in the West Bank) by Adam Zertal from 1982 to 1986. Zertal believed he had found two altars at the site, one of which may have been the actual altar of Joshua.
The ABR sifting team was led by archaeologist Scott Stripling, the director of the Archaeological Studies Institute at The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas.
“Everything we know about Mt. Ebal comes from the Bible,” Stripling said at the press conference in Houston on Thursday, noting that their dry and then wet sifting recovered material that Zertal’s team missed.
When they found the wee tablet, which measures all of 2 x 2 centimeters, they could see some writing on its outside – the interpretation of which the team is not revealing at this stage. Speaking at a press conference in Houston, Stripling explained that reading the writing hidden inside took thousands of scans. Finally, the letters emerged, starting with a very early aleph.
Of the 40 letters on the table, 11 are alephs in the archaic form, older than paleo-Hebrew, Stripling says. “The word ‘curse’ – arur in Hebrew – appears 10 times and the name 'YHW' appears twice, in an inscription from the Late Bronze Age II,” he says, noting that it precedes the known writing of the Bible. Clearly though, people could (and did) write.
Meanwhile the lead itself was analyzed at Hebrew University by Prof. Naama Yahalom-Mack, using bits of the tablet that had broken off. The lead is consistent with ore from Greece.
That, in and of itself, is not entirely surprising. Lead from Greece has been found at Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age sites in this region. A shipwreck laden with lead was recently discovered off the Israeli shore. The metal on the ship was in ingots. Tablets, with curses or whatever, were more typical of later periods.
Words to live by
The hidden text was read with the help of tomographic scans. Given that it was thousands of years old, written in a proto-alphabet and folded up tight, “reading” and deciphering it was a huge labor of love. ABR undertook the effort in collaboration with scientists from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and the epigraphers Pieter Gert van der Veen of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Gershon Galil of Haifa University; along with Ivana Kumpova, Jaroslav Valach, Daniel Vavrik, and Michal Vopalensky.
This documentation of a curse did not arise in a vacuum. The Mesopotamians and Babylonians were notorious for literary expressions of ill-will. One bowl apparently bore the aspiration that the victim’s tongue dry up, that sulfur and fire burn him and much, much more.
But actual tablets with hexes are more familiar from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Never mind those put in graves, dozens of curse tablets were found down a 2,500-year-old well in Athens, through which the ancient Greeks seemed to believe they could communicate with the chthonic gods. Another curse tablet was found in Jerusalem, in the ruins of a luxurious Roman villa in Jerusalem’s City of David.
The tablet from Mt. Ebal seems to be older. If the tablet is as old as the ABR archaeologists have postulated – dating from the Late Bronze or early Iron Age, the same as the pottery excavated by Zertal – it is a stunning find, Stripling said.
Was Joshua there?
Galil of Haifa University, who also consulted on the writing, explains that he recognized the inscription’s formulaic literary structure: “From the symmetry, I could tell that it was written as a chiastic parallelism” – a literary structure known in the Psalms, where consecutive phrases repeat the same grammatical structure.
Reading the folded up tablet through scanning was a tedious process, said van der Veen:“But each day we recovered new letters and words written in a very ancient script.”
How old exactly is still an open question. The Exodus (during which Mt. Ebal became involved according to the biblical tale) and the conquest are thought to date to the Late Bronze Age, but remain unproven in any age.
Daniel Vavrik and his colleagues from Prague ensured the accuracy of the raw data, which the team interpreted, ABR explains. They added that an academic, peer-reviewed article is in process and is expected to be published later this year.
Curse or no curse, the identification of the archaeological site on Mt. Ebal as Joshua’s altar is controversial. Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, director of the Tel Safi (Gath) excavation, who is not involved with this research, is skeptical: It may not even be an altar as Zertal claims, he says.
However, Maeir and the team agree that this was an ancient cultic site from at least the Early Iron Age or before. Was there a Joshua and was he there? We do not know. But we know that somebody was in trouble.
Cursed by Yahweh
Today contracts read somewhat differently, but this was, pure and simple, a legal document, claims van der Veen.
“The curse is a legal inscription with a legal verdict addressing a still-unknown person or group. It is clearly of ancient Israelite origin, refers to its deity [YHWH] and reads like a curse formula. There are good literary parallels in the Hebrew bible,” van der Veen said – and this was quite the custom around the ancient Mediterranean Sea and Middle East. The oldest-known inscription before this one was Hittite andfound in Turkey. This one is roughly from the same period, van der Veen says: “So such scripts were in use at the time.”
To achieve what? “This is most likely a self-imprecatory curse or oath, which one brings upon oneself,” van der Veen explains. “I accept the blessings... and accept the curses if I break the covenant. It may be titular or individual.”
Defending their interpretation of the word transcribed as YHW, he explains that proto-alphabetic writing was not standardized – it could have gone left to right, top to bottom, who knows. But here we have this twice: a yod on the left, a heh in the middle (looking like a stick figure) and a vav. “That is the divine name of god,” van der Veen says.
There are some other very early mentions of YHWH, such as the inscription found at Kuntillat Ajrud in the Sinai from the 8th century B.C.E. (where somebody drew a picture of God, and possibly his genitals and wife too), and in a glyph from 18th dynasty Egypt which mentioned the land of the Yahweh.
And now here it is again, even earlier, in the land of Israel itself, possibly dating to the Late Bronze Age, the divine name.