Rare Inscription From King David's Era Found Outside Jerusalem

Together with similar findings, the discovery of the name Ishba’al ben Bedaa on a 3,000-year-old clay pot has changed the understanding of how prevalent writing was in ancient Judah.

Ido Efrati
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The ancient Canaanite inscription, on the now-restored clay jar from the Khirbet Qeiyafa site.
The ancient Canaanite inscription, on the now-restored clay jar from the Khirbet Qeiyafa site.Credit: Tal Rogovsky
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

A rare inscription from the time of King David has been discovered southwest of Jerusalem. The inscription was found on a large clay jar dating to about 3,000 years ago, and contains the name Ishba’al ben Beda in ancient Canaanite script, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday.

The rare artifact was discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Elah Valley, during excavations under the direction of Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology, and Saar Ganor of the IAA.

The vessel, broken in many pieces, was first discovered in 2012. On a few fragments, letters in the ancient Canaanite language could be seen. The staff at an IAA laboratory has since pieced together the hundreds of shards and restored the container on which the name appears. The team that deciphered the inscription also included Dr. Mitka Golub and Dr. Haggai Misgav.

The inscription. (Credit: Tal Rogovsky)

This is the first time the name Ishba’al appears on an ancient inscription in Israel, Garfinkel and Ganor said in a statement. "From the Bible we know of Ishba’al son of Shaul, who reigned over the Israelite kingdom in parallel to David. Ishba’al was murdered by assassins; his head was cut off and was brought to David in Hebron (2 Samuel: 3-4). The name Ishba’al appears in the Bible – and now also on the archaeological artifact – only in the Davidic era, in the first half of the 10th century B.C.E. This name was not in use in the later First Temple period."

"The correspondence between the biblical tradition and the archaeological finding attests that this name was common only during this period. The name Beda is unique, too. No such name has yet been found in ancient inscriptions or in the biblical tradition,” the professors stated.

The fact that Ishba’al’s name was inscribed on a large clay jar implies that he was an important man, they noted. He probably owned a large agricultural estate, and the crops harvested there were likely packed and shipped in vessels that bore his name.

The reconstructed 3,000-year-old clay pot (Credit: Tal Rogovsky)

The container also attests to the existence of social stratification and of development of a well-off economic class as the Kingdom of Judah became established in the 11th to 12th centuries B.C.E.

“In 2 Samuel, they weren’t fond of the name Ishba’al, which recalled the name of the Canaanite storm god Ba’al, and so they changed the original name to Ishboshet," Garfinkel and Ganor explain, "but in the Book of Chronicles, the original name Ishba’al is preserved. In the same way, the name of Gideon son of Joash was changed from Jeruba’al to Jeruboshet."

Oldest known inscription

Khirbet Qeiyafa is identified with the biblical city of Sha’arayim. In the course of several seasons of excavation there, overseen by Garfinkel and Ganor, a fortified city, two gates, a palace, a storehouse, residential structures and ritual chambers have been unearthed. The city dates to the era of King David: that is, to the late 11th and early 10th centuries B.C.E.

Unique artifacts not seen anywhere else have been found at the site: For example, in 2008, the most ancient Hebrew inscription in the world was uncovered there. Now another inscription from the same period has surfaced.

The ancient city at Khirbet Qeiyafa. (Credit: Skyview Company, courtesy of Hebrew University, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The researchers explain that until five years ago, no inscriptions from the Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century B.C.E. had been discovered. Since then, four such inscriptions have been found: two at Khirbet Qeiyafa, one in Jerusalem, and one in Beit Shemesh.

These findings have completely changed the understanding of how prevalent writing was in the Kingdom of Judah: Apparently, it was more widespread than previously thought. Researchers now think, on the basis of the inscriptions, that the management of the kingdom’s affairs involved a cadre of clerks and writers.

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