A small, ancient tablet made of folded lead that features an early Israelite curse inscription is once again igniting the debate regarding the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Alongside this conversation, there are also tough questions about the management of archaeological sites in the West Bank – specifically: to whom do findings discovered there belong, and what is the difference between archaeologists and antiquities looters?
Last month, headlines worldwide heralded “an earthquake in biblical studies” after Israeli and U.S. archaeologists reported on the discovery of the inscription from the 13th century B.C.E., which, they said, makes it the earliest Israelite inscription discovered to date.
If that were not sufficient, those who deciphered the inscription – 40 ancient proto-Sinaitic letters on a lead sheet that was subsequently folded – identified the word “YHW,” which is a clear representation of the Hebrew God.
'It’s a group of Evangelicals that are not interested in findings and science. It is part of a missionary process of messianic prophecies'
The origin of the inscription, Mount Ebal in Samaria, reinforces the belief of those who say the site, just north of the Palestinian city of Nablus, is an ancient Judahite ritual site from the period of settlement, and perhaps even the altar built by Joshua himself during his campaign of conquest.
The researchers believe not only that the 0.3-square inch (2-square-centimeter) lead tablet confirms the identification of the place as Joshua’s altar, but also that the Israelites were literate during that period, which enabled them to write the Bible earlier than commonly believed.
According to Prof. Gershon Galil – head of the Institute for Biblical Research and Ancient History in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa, and one of the three scholars who published the finding, this is the “silver bullet” that will eliminate all doubts about the Bible in Israeli archaeology.
“This finding is insane, and every day that passes I realize that,” Galil says. The folded lead tablet has an inscription on both sides and inside, and . Galil says this was a regular practice for legal documents in the ancient world. “They wrap the contract and write what’s written inside on the outside. And then, if there’s a disagreement, they break it and see what’s written – because what’s inside can’t be forged,” he explains.
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The researchers – Galil; Prof. Scott Stripling, provost and professor of biblical archaeology and church history at the Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, and director of excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research at ancient Shiloh; and Pieter Gert van der Veen of Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, initially tried to open the tablet in order to read the inscription.
However, they realized that this was likely to lead to its disintegration, so instead they sent it to a laboratory in Prague. There, scientists used advanced tomographic scans (like CT scans) that, according to the researchers, enabled them to decipher the script – which they identified as proto-Canaanite (also known as proto-Sinaitic).
The researchers have released some of the deciphered script and claim the inside of the tablet states the following:
“Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will surely die.
Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
The dating to the 13th century B.C.E. is at least 300 years earlier than the earliest Hebrew inscription known to date. That dating is based on the shape of the letters, some of which are similar to archaic writing discovered in Sinai. Galil pedantically calls the writing proto-Canaanite rather than Hebrew, but his research partners are less meticulous about this point and boast of finding the most ancient Hebrew inscription in the world.
Support for dating the tablet to the 13th century was also found in a study conducted by Prof. Naama Yahalom-Mack from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in which it was discovered that the source of the lead was probably a Greek mine that was active at the time.
The dating is also based on the original study of Mount Ebal, which was excavated by the late Prof. Adam Zertal in the early 1980s.
Zertal, who directed a huge project surveying archaeological sites in the West Bank region of Samaria, found some 200 small sites in the mountains – and Ebal is the most famous of them. There, Zertal discovered a large structure that he identified as an altar built by Joshua during the campaign of conquest (as described in the Book of Joshua). Interpreting the structure as an altar and attributing it to the Israelites was one of the most heated debates within Israeli archaeology.
The maximalist camp, which considers the Bible a historical text, supported Zertal and saw the Mount Ebal site as proof of the immigration or growth of the Israelites in Samaria in the 13th century B.C.E. The minimalist camp, which emphasizes the disparity between the Bible and archaeology, interpreted the findings as a Canaanite ritual structure without any identification with the Judahites – who appeared on the scene 300 years later in Jerusalem.
The new findings, if the researchers’ interpretation is accepted, will reinforce the belief of the maximalist camp regarding the connection between what is written in the Bible and findings in the field.
“Why am I calm?” asks Galil. “Because we read this [inscription] a million times and because it appears three times – on both sides and inside – and the name of God appears twice. When we direct the X-ray beam on a specific letter, you can read it like the signs in the Azrieli shopping mall.
“This inscription will be no less important than Merneptah [the Merneptah Stele in Egypt, also dated to the 13th century B.C.E., where the name Israel appears for the first time], if not more so. When things die down and people understand what insane work we’ve done here, everyone will understand it.”
As of now, just over a week after the dramatic press conference in Texas, it’s hard to say the archaeology world seems to share Galil’s enthusiasm. Prof. Israel Finkelstein, also from the University of Haifa, is one of the strongest voices arguing against the maximalist, biblical view in Israeli archaeology, and he refuses to see the curse tablet as a breakthrough.
“In general, I get annoyed by claims about discoveries that supposedly change everything we know about the Bible and the early history of Israel in one fell swoop,” he wrote in a long Facebook post.
According to Finkelstein, first we have to be cautious about deciphering the findings at such an early stage in the process. Second, he disagrees with the dating of the entire site and the finding; he thinks it is no earlier than the 11th century B.C.E. He argued that, unlike other sites, the Mount Ebal site that was excavated many decades ago was not scientifically dated with carbon 14 but according to pottery at the site, and the debate about its dating has not been settled.
In addition, the events described in the Bible regarding Mount Ebal were written about hundreds of years after they took place, if they even did occur – therefore, any attempt to connect the events with the findings at the site are doomed to failure.
Prof. Christopher Rollston, head of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at D.C.’s George Washington University, is extremely skeptical about the finding and its deciphering.
“It’s a recurring pattern,” he says. “Researchers make huge declarations about the dramatic importance of their finding and then discover that it’s actually nice but not so dramatic. That happens again and again – especially when they hold a press conference before there’s an article that has undergone peer review.
“They didn’t show any photos of the words they claim to have found, only a drawing – and the drawing looks very schematic, it’s no proof of anything,” Rollston says. The fact the item was found separate from any archaeological context arouses suspicion of the sweeping interpretation given to it by the researchers, he adds.
Another problem is the text itself, he says. “They claim they have 40 letters, but 30 of them are the word ARUR [cursed] that is repeated 10 times. The rest of the letters are MT [dead], EL [God] and YHW, so in the end we have only four words. On the basis of four words, they’re trying to prove there was an exodus from Egypt and there was someone during that period who could have written the Bible? That’s totally illogical.”
Rollston says all the words mentioned, with the exception of YHW, also exist in neighboring languages that are not Hebrew. Regarding God’s name he says: “I don’t believe this word is really there, and even if it is, it doesn’t have to be the name of God but could be a verb. Cautiously, I think it could be a far later finding than what they’re proposing.”
Rollston also points to the fact that although the researchers mentioned there were organic finds during the sorting work, they didn’t present carbon-14 tests that could date the site scientifically.
Before even considering the raging academic debate about the curse tablet, we have to ask a more fundamental question: How did a finding from a site under Palestinian control come into the hands of Israeli and U.S. researchers? Was it excavated legally, and what is its legal status?
The Israel Defense Forces’ Civil Administration, which is in charge of all archaeological activity in the West Bank, called the dig “private activity.” The Mount Ebal site is in Area B of the West Bank – in other words, nominally under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control. According to the Oslo Accords and international law, Israel can’t issue an excavation license at the site. And, of course, removing findings from it without such a license is forbidden. An attempt to get answers from the Civil Administration via the staff officer for archaeology proved unsuccessful.
As far as is known, Stripling, together with Aaron Lipkin – a resident of the settlement of Ofra and an activist on issues of tourism and archaeology in the occupied territories – and Associates for Biblical Research, under the auspices of the Samaria Regional Council, organized a group of volunteers in 2019.
The volunteers arrived at Mount Ebal and worked on three large piles of waste that remained from Zertal’s excavations in the ’80s. They loaded the waste into dozens of large plastic bags and drove them to the Samaria Touring and Study Center, in the settlement of Shavei Shomron. The researchers claim the soil was dug manually in order to avoid damage at the site. However, the quantities taken and the time that had passed from the time it was originally excavated, arouse suspicions that a tractor may have been used too. The volunteers and archaeologists clearly didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong, because you can find video clips on Facebook of them documenting the soil transfer to the settlement.
In the past year, the soil has undergone a process called wet sifting, in which the soil is rinsed in water through a sieve, in order to try to find small items that escaped the eyes of the original site excavators.
The method was developed by archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay, Tzachi Devira and the Elad NGO, which for years used volunteers to sift the soil discarded by the Waqf (Muslim religious trust) after it dug illegally at the Temple Mount.
The tablet finding itself was discovered at least a few months ago. Two months ago, the Samaria Regional Council issued a report about the finding –but didn’t include the tablet curse that dominated the press conference last month. Meanwhile, a researcher who worked with Zertal on the original excavations, Zvi Koenigsberg, is quoted in the regional council’s announcement as saying that a drawing of a lotus flower – an important symbol from ancient Egypt – was found on the tablet, which hints at the Egyptian origin of the writer. The lotus has not been mentioned since that announcement.
Another problem is taking the tablet outside Israel for a tomography scan conducted in the Czech Republic – presumably in violation of the law, since any removal of an antique from Israel requires an export license from the Antiquities Authority. Such a license, as far as is known, was not issued.
Archaeologist Alon Arad is the CEO of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to prevent the politicization of archaeology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He believes that a preoccupation with the finding is in itself problematic.
“What difference does it make whether it’s the 11th century or the 13th century?” he asks. “Simply paying attention to it cleanses its dubious origin and subverts the professional foundations of archaeology. An archaeological dig is fundamentally supervised demolition, and therefore it requires a license and must be carried out under a consensual methodology. When a finding arrives that originates in a pirate dig, it is treated accordingly,” says Arad.
“There are two questions here: how did they get the finding, and why?” Arad adds. “In an ideal situation, the why is scientific curiosity and the how is an organized dig with a license, with a clear research methodology. Here, the how and the why are not related to archaeology. In terms of the why, it’s a group of evangelicals that are not interested in findings and science, they are looking only for things designed to confirm and illustrate known history, that is part of a missionary process of messianic prophecies.
“In terms of the how, as far as we know, in December 2019 a group of volunteers went to a known antiques sites in Area B, which is under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, and removed material from there to a nearby settlement. Excavating archaeological waste is excavation for all intents and purposes, and requires an excavation license. Where is the license for this activity?
“And after that, they even remove the finding outside the West Bank and even outside Israel,” he continues. “In this case, we have to hear the voice of the archaeological staff officer [at the Civil Administration], of the Antiquities Authority and of Israel’s academic community. They can’t turn a blind eye to what has happened here.”
PA officials say the Israeli and U.S. researchers did not ask for permission to take the soil or to work at the Mount Ebal site, and in any case didn’t receive such permission. “We condemn this activity, which was done in violation of international law,” said a senior official in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
Aaron Lipkin referred Haaretz to the spokeswoman of the Samaria Regional Council.
The Civil Administration responded: “In 2019, soil from archaeological digs carried out at the Mount Ebal archaeological site in the 1980s was taken. The removal and sifting of the soil were done privately, without intervention and coordination with the archaeological staff officer.”
Samaria Regional Council responded: “Samaria Regional Council is proud of the fact that an archaeological heritage was found and preserved. In recent years, the PA, barbarically and criminally, has been deliberately and systematically destroying the biblical sites in Judea and Samaria – of course in violation of the law and international conventions.
“Needless to say, every issue in which the regional council is involved is done only according to the law. We recommend that Haaretz deal with the daily destruction of the historical sites of the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria even if the destruction is done by the PA.”