An Ancient Poem from Mount Ebal

I’ve been keeping a secret for over two years, but now the news is out, so I can finally spill the beans.

In December of 2019, I was part of a team that wet sifted the dump piles from the archaeological excavation at Mount Ebal. When Adam Zertal excavated the site in the 1980s, his team made piles of the dirt that they removed from the excavation area. Our project was to remove those piles and sift and wash the material in order to find any artifacts that Zertal’s team might have missed. They had done a good job in the excavation, but they didn’t wet sift the material, and there are some artifacts that cannot be found without washing away the dirt.

The archaeological remains at Mount Ebal. Drawing by Abigail Leavitt

We found a lot of small items, but one was way more important than the rest. At the time, though, we didn’t know quite how important it would be.

Frankie Snyder, our small finds expert, had been running the wet sifter all day without finding anything particularly exciting. Then she spotted it, laying in her sifting tray. Someone with less experience might have mistaken it for a rock and thrown it out, but Frankie knew better. It was a flat, square object made of lead and measuring 2 x 2 centimeters. The surface was irregularly dimpled. A line ran around three of the four edges, indicating that it had been folded in half.

Three views of the lead tablet. Drawing by Abigail Leavitt

Frankie recognized it as a defixio, an ancient curse tablet. She showed it to me and to our dig director, Scott Stripling, and we both recognized it, as well.

Defixiones are magical charms for cursing enemies. Most of them date to the Roman period. They often contain inscriptions cursing business competitors, disliked neighbors, or unfaithful spouses. In the ancient pagan world, it was believed that if you performed the appropriate magical ritual, wrote a curse on a piece of metal, and put that curse where the gods could find it, one of the gods might enact your curse. Of course, you would have to hope that the god was in a good mood, since the gods could be very petty and irrational.

According to Deuteronomy 27, Mount Ebal is the mountain of the curse. Moses instructed the Israelites to go to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim and hold a ceremony there. From Mount Gerizim, the Israelites were to pronounce the blessings that God would pour out on them if they obeyed him. From Mount Ebal, they were to pronounce the curses that God would enact upon them if they disobeyed him. This was basically a legal contract between the Israelites and God in which they accepted him as their supreme ruler.

Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in the distance. Photo by Abigail Leavitt

When we found a defixio on Mount Ebal, we realized that it made sense, because Mount Ebal was the place of the curse. We speculated that perhaps someone remembered that Mount Ebal was associated with curses and placed the defixio there for that reason.

We had an expert attempt to open the tablet so that we could see what was written inside, but the lead was brittle and started to crumble. Our time in Israel came to an end, and still we didn’t know what the defixio said. Then, COVID became a thing, and we were unable to return. In the meantime, however, we discovered that there was a lab in Prague that had the ability to scan lead. We had a friend in Jerusalem take the tablet to Prague. The scans were successful, but it took a long time to get results. Finally, they were ready. We teamed up with two epigraphers, experts in deciphering ancient texts. They began working on it and soon had some surprising news for us.

The tablet was much older than we had thought. The letters belonged to a very archaic form of the Hebrew alphabet. In fact, the epigraphers realized that this tablet contained the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found in Israel. They dated the inscription to the Late Bronze Age.

They began working on translating the inscription. They deciphered a curse, a poem in chiastic form. This means that the lines of the poem parallel each other. Basically, you can read the poem backwards or forwards and get the same meaning. Here is what it said:

Cursed, cursed, cursed - cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will surely die.
Cursed by YHW - cursed, cursed, cursed.

Wow! That’s a lot of curses! But, if you read Deuteronomy 27–28, what you find there is a lot of curses. In fact, it almost seems as if someone took those chapters, condensed them down to their barest form, and turned them into a poem.

The name of God as written inside the tablet. Drawing by Gerson Galil

The word “YHW” that appears twice in the poem is a shortened form of the name of God that appears in the Bible, YHWH, typically pronounced Yahweh in English. It is not uncommon to shorten the name of God. For example, Psalm 68:4 and Isaiah 12:2, 26:4, and 38:11 shorten it to YH.

This is by far the oldest reference to YHWH that has ever been found in the land of Israel. Because the Israelites were the only people group known to worship YHWH, this inscription strongly suggests that the Israelites were at Mount Ebal in the Late Bronze Age. This is exactly when the Bible says that they arrived there. This will likely be problematic for the vast majority of biblical scholars, who believe that the Israelites did not arrive until about 200 years later.

The epigraphers noted that this inscription is very well written and that whoever wrote it was fully capable of writing the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Many biblical scholars believe that the Old Testament was not written until much later, during the Persian period. This idea is based on the supposition that the early Israelites were not literate. This inscription demonstrates that not only could they write, but they could write very well.

Another thing that the epigraphers commented on was the fact that this inscription is not just a curse or a poem. It is clearly a legal document. This is obvious from the way that it is folded and sealed, similar to other legal documents from that period. This accords nicely with the ceremony that Moses instructed the Israelites to hold at Mount Ebal – a legal ceremony between them and God.

This small lead tablet from Mount Ebal turned out to be a very exciting find, one that makes a major contribution to biblical archaeology.

Later this year, a scholarly peer-reviewed article will be published containing all the details. The epigraphers mentioned that they have not yet deciphered the entire text, so there is more yet to come!

5 responses to “An Ancient Poem from Mount Ebal”

  1. Reblogged this on J. Carl Laney and commented:
    This report by Abigail Leavitt provides details of a most exciting archaeological discoveries—a Hebrew inscription older than any previously discovered. The author was on the site when the discover was made and gives us a first person account.

    Like

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