Nearly 150 years ago, three Arab horsemen were galloping through the desert of Transjordan after completing a secret mission on behalf of a French diplomat stationed in Jerusalem. Local Bedouin had attacked them, injuring one of the riders, but they still got away with an invaluable prize: an archaeological treasure that would reshape the early history of the Bible, of ancient Israel, and, in a way, of God himself.
That treasure was a nearly 3,000-year-old inscription in which the king of Moab boasts of his victories against the Kingdom of Israel and its god YHWH. Called the stele of Mesha, it contains the earliest known extra-biblical mention of the deity worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims and, since its discovery in 1868, it has fueled the argument over the historicity of the Bible.
On one hand, the stele confirms some of the names and circumstances found in the biblical texts on the monarchic period, and may even mention King David himself; and it attests to the existence of a strong cult of Yahweh in ancient Israel.
On the other hand, it suggests that the culture and religion of the ancient Israelites may have been radically different from Judaism today. The ancient Hebrews may have been much closer to their much-maligned Canaanite adversaries than the Bible lets on.
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“Scholars have had the Bible for millennia, and parts of it are considered plausible by historians, but when you find an inscription that comes from the distant past, from the very time when these things happened, it suddenly become real,” says Matthieu Richelle, a professor of Hebrew Bible and one of the researchers behind an exhibition at the College de France, in Paris, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the stele’s discovery.
Found and lost
The history of the artifact’s recovery is no less sensational than its content. The inscription was first reported by an Alsatian missionary, who had seen it among the ruins of Dhiban, an ancient Moabite town east of the Dead Sea.
At a time when amateur archaeologists and explorers were already scouring the Levant for evidence of the Bible’s historical accuracy, the news set off a race between colonial powers – mainly France, England and Germany – to take possession of the stele. It was Charles Clermont-Ganneau, an archaeologist and diplomat at the French consulate in Jerusalem, who had sent those horsemen to take an impression, also known as a “squeeze,” of the text.
This was done by placing a wet paper sheet on the stone and pressing it into the indentations created by the letters. But while the paper was drying, Clermont-Ganneau’s envoys became involved in a brawl with a local Bedouin tribe. With their leader injured by a spear, they snatched the squeeze off the stone while it was still wet (tearing into several pieces in the process) before escaping. This act would prove vital for the preservation of the text, because soon after, the Bedouin decided to destroy the stele, breaking it into dozens of fragments.
Some historians claim they did so because they believed there might be a treasure inside, but Richelle says it was likely an act of defiance toward the Ottoman authorities, who were pressuring the Bedouin to hand over the stone to Germany.
It took years for Clermont-Ganneau and other researchers to locate and acquire most of the fragments, but in the end the French scholar managed to piece together about two-thirds of the stele, reconstructing most of the missing parts thanks to that impression that had been so adventurously saved. The reconstructed stele is still today on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The vessels of God
In the text, King Mesha recounts how Israel had occupied the northern regions of his land and “oppressed Moab for a long time” under Omri and his son Ahab – the biblical monarchs who reigned from Samaria and made the Kingdom of Israel a powerful regional player in the first half of the 9th century B.C.E.
But Mesha goes on to tell how he rebelled against the Israelites, and conquered their strongholds and towns in Transjordan, including Nebo (near the traditional burial place of Moses) from whence he “took the vessels of YHWH and dragged them in front of Chemosh,” the main Moabite god.
The "Mesha" in the stele is clearly identifiable as the rebellious Moabite ruler by the same name who appears in 2 Kings 3. In the biblical story, the king of Israel, Jehoram son of Ahab, sets out to put down Mesha’s rebellion together with his allies, the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom. The Bible tells of miracles wrought by God, who makes water appear to quench the thirst of the Israelite army, which then goes on to righteously smite the Moabites in battle.
But the account ends with an abrupt anticlimax. Just when the Moabite capital is about to fall, Mesha sacrifices his eldest son upon the walls, “and there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.” (2 Kings 3:27)
While the events narrated in the two texts appear quite different, one of the most surprising aspects of Mesha’s inscription is how much it reads like a biblical chapter in style and language, scholars say.
Mesha explains that the Israelite king Omri succeeded in conquering Moab only because “Chemosh was angry with his land” – a trope that finds many parallels in the Bible, where the Israelites’ misfortunes are invariably attributed to the wrath of God. It is again Chemosh who decides to restore Moab to its people and speaks directly to Mesha, telling him “Go take Nebo from Israel,” just as God routinely speaks to Israelite prophets and leaders in the Bible. And in conquering Nebo, Mesha recounts how he massacred the entire population as an act of dedication (“cherem” in the original) to his gods – the exact same word and brutal practice used in the Bible to seal the fate of Israel’s bitterest enemies (for example the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15:3).
Although there are only a handful Moabite inscriptions out there, scholars had no trouble translating the stele because the language is so similar to ancient Hebrew.
“They are closer than French and Spanish are,” explains Andre Lemaire, a philologist and historian who teaches at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris. “We hesitate whether to call them two distinct languages or just dialects.”
So, the first key lesson of the Mesha stele may be that while the Bible often describes the Moabites and other Canaanites as vile pagans who conduct human sacrifices, there were huge cultural and religious overlaps between the early Israelites and their neighbors.
“When the stele was discovered and published for the first time there were a lot of people who claimed it was a fake, because they couldn’t imagine there would be a Moabite inscription displaying the same ideology as the Bible,” says Thomas Romer, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. “Today we can see that, on the contrary, the biblical authors were participating in a common religious ideology.”
One god, two gods, many gods
Based on the stele, it appears that the Yahweh that 9th century B.C.E. Israelites worshipped had more in common with the Moabite deity Chemosh than with Judaism’s later concept of a single, universal deity. The fact that Mesha found a temple of Yahweh to plunder in Nebo contradicts the Bible’s contention that the exclusive worship of a single God had already been established and centralized at the Temple of Jerusalem in the time of King Solomon.
The biblical narrative is also sorely challenged by the findings at the site of Kuntillet Ajrud, in the Sinai desert, where archaeologists discovered inscriptions on rock dedicated to “Yahweh of Samaria” and “Yahweh of Teman” – showing that this god was worshipped in multiple incarnations at different sanctuaries. Dated to the early 8th century B.C.E. (just a few decades after the Mesha stele), these inscriptions at Kuntillet Ajrud also include a crude engraved drawing of a male deity and a female deity, and describe the latter as Yahweh’s “Asherah.”
This has led many scholars to conclude that at that time, around 3,000 years ago, there was no prohibition on making images of God, and that Yahweh had a wife.
This is another possible parallel with Mesha, who tells us that when he massacred the 7,000 inhabitants of Nebo, he dedicated them to “the Ashtar of Chemosh.” Just like Yahweh had his Asherah, it is possible that the Ashtar mentioned in the stele may have been Chemosh’s wife, notes Romer.
Mesha also gives us a clue that perhaps there were even more gods that the Israelites embraced.
Before taking Nebo, the Moabite king conquered another stronghold built by the king of Israel east of the Dead Sea, Atarot, where once again he wipes out the local population (as an offering to Chemosh himself this time), and drags “the hearth of the altar of his Well-Beloved in front of Chemosh.”
Who was this Well-Beloved (DWDH in the original) who was worshipped at Atarot? Experts are divided on this point. Lemaire, the French epigraphist, suggests it was merely a different name for Yahweh. Romer and Richelle point out that since the conquest of Atarot is mentioned before that of Nebo, it would be strange for Mesha to use an alternative appellation first and only name Yahweh on second reference. They believe it is more likely that DWDH was a separate local deity worshipped by the Israelites of Atarot.
Whatever the number of divine figures we are dealing with, scholars agree that the Mesha stele reflects a world in which both Israelites and Moabites were not monotheists, but practiced, at best, a form of monolatry, which is the worship of a principal god while maintaining the belief in the existence of many deities.
“In this inscription, you see very clearly that by this time Yahweh was the god of Israel and Chemosh was the god of Moab,” says Lemaire. “It was not a universal god, each kingdom had more or less its own national, territorial god.” In this world, the gods of other peoples were not worshipped, and might even be reviled, but their existence was recognized.
The idea of a universal, all-powerful God was adopted only much later by the Jews, probably as a way to explain the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E., explains Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University.
When human sacrifice works
While the Bible, written and compiled from different documents over centuries, was edited to reflect this faith in a universal God, we can find echoes of the earlier belief system of multiple national deities between the lines of the sacred text.
For example, Jephthah’s question in Judges 11:24 – “Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess?” implies that whoever wrote that verse believed that the Moabite deity really existed.
The same goes for the abrupt conclusion of the Israelite siege of Mesha’s capital in 2 Kings 3.
The Bible is very critical of human sacrifice, as in the parable of Abraham and Isaac, so it is surprising to find a story in which an enemy of Israel is rewarded for such an abominable act and manages to repel the chosen people. The biblical text does not specify to whom Mesha sacrificed his son and whose “wrath” arose to defeat Israel – though Chemosh is the best candidate for the role.
These verses are likely the remnant of an older story, perhaps a chronicle of the Kingdom of Israel, which would have reflected the belief in other gods, says Romer.
“This is memory of a military conflict that didn’t end very positively for the Israelites,” he says. “Maybe originally the text spoke of the wrath of Chemosh against Israel and then the redactor would have probably dropped the name of the Moabite god.”
But is it possible to reconcile the very different version of events narrated in 2 Kings and in the Mesha stele?
One possibility is that the two texts are somewhat out of sync, with the Bible relating a first part of the conflict, which Mesha barely survived, and the stele relating a subsequent, more successful expansion of Moab into Israel’s Trasnsjordanian territories, suggests Lemaire.
“We should look at both texts critically,” cautions Finkelstein. The Biblical text has multiple layers and its original core was probably not compiled before the 7th century B.C.E., some two centuries after the events it narrates, he says.
Although we cannot date it precisely, Mesha’s stele was written much closer to the facts, but may include elements of Moabite propaganda, Finkelstein says. The text likely reflects the realities of the Levant sometime after 841 B.C.E., when Hazael, the king of Aram-Damascus, conquered vast swaths of Israel and other neighboring kingdoms. Though Mesha keeps all the glory for himself, it is very likely that the Moabites were allies or vassals of the Arameans and simply took advantage of Israel’s recent defeat to liberate what they saw as part of their ancestral lands, Finkelstein says.
King David in the house
Hazael’s own victory is recorded in the so-called Tel Dan stele, discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 1993. In the inscription, which is believed to be more or less contemporary to Mesha’s, Hazael boasts of killing the king of Israel and the king of “beitdavid”, i.e., the House of David.Many researchers interpret "beitdavid" as a reference to the kingdom of Judah and its founding father, which would ostensibly make it the only extra-biblical mention of David. But in fact, Lemaire, the French epigraphist, has been insisting since the 1990s that Mesha’s stele also mentions “beitdavid” (in a section where the Moabite king talks about how, after beating Israel, he expanded his territory south by taking a place called Horonaim).
This part of the text, at the bottom of the stele, is fragmentary and damaged. Only the letters B VD are clearly legible, and the other scholars interviewed for this article did not agree with Lemaire’s extrapolation of the missing letters. But if Lemaire’s reading is correct, this would be the second mention of King David outside the bible, and would further strengthen the argument that, at least in the 9th century B.C.E., he was considered the founder of the dynasty reining over Jerusalem.
The fragile squeeze of Clermont-Ganneau is on a rare public display at the College de France exhibition from Sunday through Oct. 19, Richelle notes, adding that it is possible that some observant researchers may yet unlock more secrets of the Mesha stele.