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Oldest Hebrew Text, Including Name of God, Unearthed at Mount Ebal?

May 6, 2022

by: Ilse Strauss

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Joshua’s Altar on Mount Ebal

In what could be one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries to date, international scholars claim to have unearthed the earliest proto-alphabetic Hebrew text ever found in Israel: a 3,000-year-old folded lead amulet inscribed with, among other things, the word “cursed” and the Hebrew word YHWH, the Tetragrammaton name of God.

The location of the find? Mount Ebal, near biblical Shechem, the spot where Moses instructed the Levites to pronounce a list of 11 curses for disobeying the voice of the Lord and disregarding His commandments, upon which the Children of Israel were to agree with “Amen!” (Deut. 27:15–26). It is also the place where Joshua constructed an altar to the Lord following the battle against Ai and repeated the curses as originally instructed by Moses (Josh. 8:30).

The 0.78 sq. in. (2 sq. cm.) amulet was discovered last year when Dr. Scott Stripling, director of excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research at ancient Shiloh, led a team to sift through the earth discarded from excavations done in the Mount Ebal area some 30 years ago.

Scholars dated the amulet to 1200 BC. It is the first time an artifact inscribed with ancient Hebrew was unearthed at Joshua’s Altar, a noteworthy discovery in itself.

However, because the amulet was folded in half and the metal too flimsy to unfold, the letters inscribed were illegible. Stripling’s team approached researchers in Prague for help. Using tomographic scans, they managed to decipher the message.

Two epigraphers, Pieter Gert van der Veen of Johannes Gutenberg–Universität Mainz and Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa, then went to work on the text, determining the amulet to be a defixio, a curse tablet.

Stripling announced the findings during a press conference, hailing it as the most significant discovery in biblical archaeology in recent years.

According to the conference, the ancient Hebrew inscription comprises 40 letters. An English translation yields 23 words, with the word “curse” appearing 10 times and the word YHWH twice: “Cursed, cursed, cursed—cursed by the God YHW. You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by YHW—cursed, cursed, cursed.”

“I believe the amulet dates to the Late Bronze II age, or as early as 1400 BC,” Stripling told the Jerusalem Post. “This is older than any Hebrew script that has ever been published by at least 200 years.

“This is earlier than many skeptics believe the Bible existed,” he continued, “making this the earliest appearance of the word YHWH in Israel and it was found at a covenant site. The implications are enormous and will reverberate for many years to come.”

Perhaps chief among these implications is that the amulet dates from the covenant renewal ceremony described in Deuteronomy 27:15–26. Stripling believes this to be the case. Van der Veen concurs. “I think it is plausible that there is a connection,” the Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying. “The very fact that the amulet refers to ‘curse’ and Mount Ebal is referred to as where the curses were read out, I think clinches the connection between this amulet and the covenant renewal ceremony.”

While the find can certainly be described as monumental, experts are reserving their judgment. Stripling and his team still need to publish their find in a peer-reviewed academic journal and submit clear images and scans of the inscription for additional academics to comment.

Photo License: Drawing of Joshua's Altar

Photo License: Joshua's Altar on Mount Ebal

Photo Credit: Click on photo to see photo credit

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