Archaeologists digging in southern Israel may have found the name of Jerubbaal, scourge of the Midianites, on a broken fragment of a Judges-era clay pot.
The inscription in primitive alphabetic writing from the time of the biblical Judges was found in Khirbat er-Ra’i, near Kiryat Gat in southern Israel. The extremely rare inscription, written in ink on a fragment of clay pot, apparently bears the name “Jerubbaal.”
Whatever else the pot may have said is lost to the mists of time, but that is a name known from the biblical book of Judges and the inscription is roughly from the time of the judges – about 3,100 years ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority reported on Monday. The coincidence is intriguing.
The shard with the rare ancient writing was found in a subterranean storage pit that had been lined with stones, the IAA says. The vessel was quite small, with a capacity of about a liter (a quarter of a gallon). The archaeologists therefore speculate that it held a precious liquid, such as a perfume or medical concoction, and that it may have belonged to a man named Jerubbaal, making it Jerubbaal’s pot.
Khirbat er-Ra’i is being excavated under the direction of Prof. Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University, Sa’ar Ganor at the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Dr. Kyle Keimer and Dr. Gil Davis of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
The name was written in an ancient alphabetic script, which derived from the earliest alphabetic script known (as opposed to cuneiform or hieroglyphics), which had apparently been invented by Canaanite merchants or slaves working in or with ancient Egypt around 4,000 years ago, during the Middle Bronze Age. The theory is that they invented phonetic letters because learning to write in hieroglyphics in adulthood was too onerous.
Very few inscriptions from such distant reaches of history have been found, but a handful exist from the Late Bronze Age – mostly from the town of Lachish, a mere 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Khirbat el Ra’i.
The writing was deciphered by epigraphic expert Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, who discerned the letters yod (albeit broken at the top), resh, beit, ayin, lamed – YRBA’L, i.e., Jerubbaal. The original inscription had been longer but is lost, the archaeologists surmise.
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As for who Jerubbaal may have been remains unclear - he could have been anybody. But based on timing and location, the archaeologists surmise that he may have been none other than the biblical figure Gideon (also known as Jerubbaal), son of Joash the Abiezrite, whose activities are described at length in the book of Judges.
It bears adding that inscriptions from the period of the judges, 3,100 years ago, are extremely rare. This is the first time, the archaeologists say, that the name Jerubbaal has been found in an archaeological context. It also bears adding that the inscription was in Canaanite script and it is possible that Jerubbaal the putative owner of the pot was, simply, a Canaanite.
Anyway, the biblical story (Judges 6) tells of an angel joining Gideon beneath a terebinth tree owned by his father, Joash. Gideon presses the angel over the Lord’s forsaking the people of Israel and abandoning them to the rule of Midianites. The angel explains that the Lord wants Gideon to save Israel from the Midianites. The man demurred that he was the least significant person in his family, which belonged to the least significant clan, Manasseh, but was assured that the Lord would be with him “and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man.”
Gideon makes an offering of meat and bread to the Lord, who accepts it. And that night, the Lord tells him:
“Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it” (Judges 6:25; grove being translated by some as “Asherah” – figurine, wooden image, Asherah pole and more).
And that, Gideon did, anecdotally burning the bull as an offering using the wood of the figurine. The infuriated townspeople demanded Gideon’s head, but Joash suggested that Baal be left to defend himself – which, as we know, did not happen.
“Therefore on that day he was called Jerubbaal, saying: Let Baal contend against him, because he hath broken down his altar" (Judges 6:32).
This, then, is the putative Jerubbaal. Whether the pot belonged to him, we cannot know, but it is an intriguing theory.
Sa'ar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority tends to the theory that it did, on the grounds of his interpretation that the syllables "Jeru" stem from the ancient root of "rav" in the sense of "fight" (not rabbi); and who did he fight? Baal.
"He broke Baal's altar," Ganor points out, according to the biblical narrative. Or alternatively - it could be interpreted as "Baal will judge him," which obviously did not happen.