An inscription that dates to the time of the judges of Israel (1100 B.C.), has been discovered. The 3100 year old inscription was written in ink on a pottery vessel. Epigrapher Christopher Rollston of George Washington University has deciphered the letters as the name “Jerubbaal.” The piece of pottery was uncovered at Khirbet el-Ra’i, an archaeological site not far from the ancient cities of Gath and Lachish in the southern Judean foothills. The alphabet used was the ancient script that was current in Canaan at the time (see my articles, “Alphabet’s Missing Link Discovered“, and “Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?“).
Who Was Jerubbaal?
Jerubbaal is better known by his other name, Gideon. Gideon was the biblical judge who was famous for attacking a large army of Midianites that had invaded the land with only three hundred men carrying torches and pitchers (Judges 7). The name Jerubbaal comes from an incident where God commanded him to tear down the altar of Baal (Judges 6:25-32). Not only was this a risky venture that could have cost Gideon his life, but his father, Joash, was also a priest of Baal! The Bible notes, however, that Joash protected his son and told the towns people who wanted to punish Gideon that if Baal was a god he could contend for himself. Thus Gideon is given the name Jerubbaal, “let Baal contend.”
It should be pointed out that it is not possible to prove that the inscription found refers to the Jerubbaal of Scripture. There may well have been others with that name. However, the archaeologists that discovered the inscription (Yosef Garfinkel and Sa’al Ganor) are not ruling out the possibility that it could refer to the biblical Jerubbaal. It does come from the correct time period and Gideon was a powerful and well-known figure of that time according to the Book of Judges.
The Significance of the Inscription
Whether this inscription refers to the actual Jerubbaal of Scripture, or not, the inscription is still very significant. Garfinkel and Ganor state, “As we know, there is considerable debate as to whether biblical tradition reflects reality and whether it is faithful to historical memories from the days of the Judges and the days of David.” The fact that the name Jerubbaal is only found in Scripture during the period of the Judges and that this inscription dates to that period offers some corroborating evidence that the Bible has preserved reliable information. Garfinkel was also the archaeologist responsible for discovering the name Ishbaal on a pot in his excavation of Khirbet Qeiyafa (see my post The Ishbaal Inscription at Khirbet Qeiyafa). The name Ishbaal only occurs in Scripture during the reign of King David (2 Sam. 2-4). The remains at Khirbet Qeiyafa also date to the time of David. This leads these archaeologists to conclude: “The fact that identical names are mentioned in the Bible and also found in inscriptions recovered from archaeological excavations shows that memories were preserved and passed down through the generations.”
An ostracon (piece of broken pottery with writing) discovered at Tel Lachish, has been hailed as the alphabet’s missing link by Austrian Archaeologist Dr. Felix Höflmayer. The discovery is being referred to as the alphabet’s missing link because until now a chronological gap existed between the earliest evidence for the alphabet and its appearance in ancient Canaan. The earliest form of alphabetic writing known comes from the Sinai (Serabit el-Khadim) and Egypt (Wadi el-Hol) and dates to the 19th century B.C. (see my article Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?). Previous to this discovery at Lachish the oldest alphabetic writing in the Levant (the area which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) dated to the 13th century B.C. This discovery helps to close the chronological gap and demonstrates that writing existed in ancient Canaan earlier than previously thought.
Alphabet’s Missing Link: What Does It Say?
The ostracon contains a total of nine letters. Two words of three letters each appear, along with 3 miscellaneous letters. Reading from right to left, the first word, written diagonally in the upper left, contains the letters ʿayin (ע), bet (ב), and dalet (ד) which spells the Hebrew word ‘ebed meaning “slave.” Höflmayer suggests this may be part of a name since names containing these components are common in all Semitic languages (e.g., Ebed-Melech–Jer. 38:7ff.). The second word, at the bottom, reading right to left contains the letters, nun (נ), pe (פ), tav (ת) which spells the word “honey” or “nectar.” The two letters in the upper righthand corner and the letter between the two words are all the letter nun (נ). The significance of these letters is not known, although it appears there was more to the inscription than what appears on this potsherd. It needs to be noted that the words “slave” and “honey” are conjectural. During this period when the alphabet was being developed there was no standard direction for writing letters, so the letters might be read from left to right or right to left (sometimes they were even written vertically!).
Why Is a Small Piece of Pottery With 9 Letters On It So Significant?
For Bible believers, the discovery is significant because it shows that writing was possible and more widespread than previously thought. Some have argued that Moses couldn’t have composed the writings contained in the Torah because an alphabet hadn’t been invented yet. The alphabetic writings from Egypt, Sinai, and now Lachish, demonstrate that the alphabet not only existed during the time of Moses but was being used throughout the region the Bible locates the Israelites in.
The discovery is also significant because it can be precisely dated. Höflmayer writes, “The newly discovered inscription from Tel Lachish is currently the earliest securely dated example of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant.” Other examples of early writing exist, but either they were not found in a secure archaeological context, or it is disputed if the writing is alphabetic. One example of this, which also comes from Lachish, is the Lachish Dagger (photo can be found here). This dagger, discovered in 1934 at a tomb in Lachish contains what most scholars believe is four alphabetic symbols. This dagger dates to the late Middle Bronze Age (1650 B.C. – 1550 B.C.). Some, however, dispute that the symbols are alphabetic.
The discovery of this “missing link,” along with the dagger, and other writings, has some scholars believing that Lachish was an important center of writing. Höflmayer states, “Indeed, Lachish has yielded more examples of Late Bronze Age early alphabetic inscriptions than any other site.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced today (Tuesday March 16, 2021), the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll. The scroll is 2,000 years old and contains portions of the 12 minor prophets. It is not intact but consists of over two dozen fragments. and was written in Greek. Interestingly, the name of God is written in paleo-Hebrew script.
The scroll contains parts of Nahum and Zechariah and is thought to be a missing part of a Minor Prophets scroll discovered in 1952 which included parts of Micah. One of the fragments reads, “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.” These words from Zechariah 8:16-17 seem like a particularly appropriate admonition for our world today.
A New Intensive Search for Dead Sea Scrolls
This recent discovery is the result of a new intensive search for Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists have long believed there are other scrolls yet to be discovered. The number of caves in the Judean Wilderness is vast and many remain unexplored. The cave that yielded the recent finds was explored in 1960 by the famous Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin. It was dubbed “the Cave of Horror” because of the remains of the skeletons of 40 men, women, and children discovered there. No scrolls were recovered at that time, however, a Greek copy of the Book of the Twelve (the Minor Prophets) was discovered later. This is why it is assumed that the recent discovery is part of this same scroll. To date, only about 50% of the caves have been investigated. There is a renewed urgency in examining these caves and finding any potential scrolls before antiquities thieves discover them and seek financial gain from their sale.
Antiquities Forgery is Big Business!
It is important that the scrolls, and any antiquities for that matter, be found in a legitimate archaeological context by professional archaeologists. When items appear on the antiquities market, there is always the danger of forgeries. The 16 Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D. C., all revealed to be forgeries this past year, is a painful reminder of this reality. (See my former article here when these scrolls were thought/hoped to be original.)
Other Recent Discoveries in the “Cave of Horror”
The cave has also yielded other interesting finds, including the skeleton of a child, dated 6,000 years old and a weaved basket in excellent condition, carbon-dated to 10,000 years old (see below). Finally, some coins from the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 A.D.) were also discovered (see photo above).
More evidence has been found confirming the historical existence of Pontius Pilate, the infamous Roman governor who ordered Jesus’ execution. A ring that has the Roman Prefect’s name inscribed on it has come to light. The ring, along with thousands of other artifacts, was actually uncovered in a dig 50 years ago led by Gideon Forster from the University of Jerusalem. The excavation took place at Herodium in 1968-1969, but no one knew the significance of the ring until recently. The (re)discovery of the ring is due to a thorough cleaning and technological advances in photography which revealed a Greek inscription with the name “PILATO” surrounding a wine vessel (see photo on right). The letters “PI” (ΠΙ–Greek) are on the right as one looks at the ring, while the letters “LATO” (ΛΑΤΟ–Greek) are on the left. There seems to be little doubt that the ring is in someway connected with Pontius Pilate. Professor Danny Schwartz in an article in haaretz states, that the name was rare in the Israel of that era. The fact that the ring was discovered at Herodium, one of King Herod’s ancient palace fortresses, also suggests it was connected with a government or administrative official of the time.
One of the intriguing features of the ring is the way in which the name is spelled. Robert Cargill, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, in a recent post points out that when a name was inscribed on an ancient coin or ring it was usually done in the nominative or genitive case. The name in the nominative (subject) case in Greek would read “PILATOS” (Pilate). In the Greek genitive (possessive) case, it would read “PILATOU” (belonging to Pilate). In other words, the form of Pilate’s name as “PILATO” is unusual. Cargill notes that one explanation of this form, offered by Cate Bonesho of UCLA, is that “PILATO” is a Greek transliteration of the Latin dative form (Latin of course being the language of Roman officials such as Pilate). The dative form denotes an indirect object. Therefore, this form of Pilate’s name would suggest something that is being sent to him. In other words, it would be used by someone working for Pilate (an administrative official) who would use the ring to stamp the goods (taxes) being sent to Pilate. Therefore, whether the ring was worn by Pilate or by an official who sent goods to Pilate–which seems more likely– it still acts as an authentication of the historical existence of Pilate
The ring, however, is only one of two physical evidences for the historical Pilate. In 1961 an inscription was discovered at Caesarea Maritima that contains the name Pilate. When Pilate commissioned this inscription in the first century it served to honor his benefactor and current emperor Tiberius. The stone was reused centuries later and became part of the nearby theatre in Caesarea. As a result, it suffered damage and the inscription is only partially readable. The final letters of Pontius (the “us”) and the name Pilate (PILATUS–the common Latin nominative form, see discussion above), along with the name Tiberius are clearly visible. For more information on Caesarea see my article here and for further information on this inscription see Pilate Stone.
An exciting new discovery has recently been announced regarding the discovery of a small (2 inch/5 cm) sculpted head at Abel Beth Maacah. The discovery is exciting for at least two reasons. First, no human likeness like this has ever been discovered in Israel that dates to this time period. Eran Arie, the Israel museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology states that it is one of a kind. “In the Iron Age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality. And this is of exquisite quality.” Second, the likeness appears to be that of a king. More on that below, but first, where is Abel Beth Maacah and what is its significance? (For a YouTube video that shows a fly-over of Abel Beth Maacah click here).
Location and Biblical Significance of Abel Beth Maacah
Abel Beth Maacah is located on the northern border of present-day Israel (bordering Lebanon), at the northern end of the Huleh Valley. This ancient tell, lies 4.5 miles (6.5 km) west of Tel Dan and a little over 1 mile (2 km) south of the modern town of Metulla. It is one of the largest tells (a little over 24 acres or 10 hectares), that remained unexcavated in Israel until a few years ago. Although this important archaeological site was initially identified in the 19th century as the probable site of ancient Abel Beth Maacah, an extensive survey of the mound was only conducted in 2012 with excavations beginning in 2013 under the auspices of Robert A. Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, Los Angeles and Naama Yahalom-Mack and Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The site consists of a large lower mound on the south, a smaller upper mound on the north, and a moderately high “saddle” that connects them. Evidence of settlement begins in Early Bronze II and continues through the Iron Age (I & II), and includes the Persian, Hellenistic, Medieval, and Ottoman periods. Continuing into the modern era, an Arab village existed on part of the site until 1948.
The Bible refers to Abel Beth Maacah in three places. The first occurrence is found in 2 Samuel 20:14-22. Following Absalom’s revolt against David, a man by the name of Sheba son of Bichri attempts to draw Israel away from David. His rebellion is not nearly as successful as Absalom’s (which ultimately ends in failure also) as he retreats to Abel Beth Maacah. Joab, David’s commander, in hot pursuit besieges the city. A wise woman intervenes and saves the city by having Sheba’s head cut off and thrown over the wall. One of the interesting asides of this story is the wise woman’s characterization of Abel Beth Maacah as “a city and a mother in Israel” (v. 19). Furthermore, she claims that Abel was known as a place for seeking wisdom and ending disputes (v. 18). The wise woman’s words testify to the ancient significance of Abel Beth Maacah, which the size of the tell also suggests. The next mention of Abel is found in 1 Kings 15:20. It is this reference that may be the most significant regarding the discovery of the sculptured head. The story in 1 Kings 15 tells of Asa king of Judah asking for the help of Ben Hadad I of Syria (Hebrew–Aram) against his rival from Israel, Baasha. War had broken out between Asa and Baasha and it appears that Baasha had the upper hand. As Baasha fortified the city of Ramah (the prophet Samuel’s hometown)–a city only a few miles from Jerusalem–Asa sent treasures from the Temple to enlist the aid of Ben-Hadad. According to 1 Kings 15:20, Ben Hadad came against Israel and among the cities he attacked was Abel Beth Maacah. The head sculpture fits roughly within this period of time. We shall return momentarily to discuss the significance of this. Finally, Abel is also mentioned in 2 Kings 15:29 among a list of cities conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pilesar III. As a border city (bordering the kingdoms of Israel, Aram, and Phoenicia), Abel was always vulnerable to attack by foreign enemies.
Is This a Royal Face and Can We Identify Him?
The sculptured head discovered in last summer’s excavation is made of faience, a glass-like material that was popular in jewelry and small human and animal figurines in ancient Egypt and the Near East. According to Yahalom-Mack, “The color of the face is greenish because of this copper tint that we have in the silicate paste.” There are several reasons why the archaeologists at Abel Beth Maacah believe this is the face of a Semitic king. First, the hair-do is very decisive for suggesting this is an ancient Near-Eastern king (see my article on the significance of Absalom’s hair and Niditch’s quote regarding hair here). Second, this is the way ancient Egyptian art depicts its Near-Eastern neighbors. Yahalom-Mack states, “The guy kind of represents the generic way Semitic people are described.” Third, the striped golden diadem that surrounds the head seems to clinch the idea of royalty. But who is this bearded wonder? Can archaeologists identify him?
The royal head has been dated to the 9th century B.C. There are two reasons for the dating. First, carbon dating has placed it in the 9th century B.C., but cannot pinpoint it more exactly. Second, after digging through the floor of a massive Iron Age structure, the head was found in the layer underneath dated to the 9th century B.C. Because, the head cannot be dated more precisely than sometime in the 9th century, and because Abel Beth Maacah was a border city and changed hands several times in the 9th century, it is not possible at present to identify what royal figure the head may represent. There are a number of candidates. If it is an Israelite king, the archaeologists suggest either Ahab or Jehu as possibilities. Because Abel was conquered by the Arameans during this time Ben Hadad I and his son Hazael are also candidates. Finally, because Abel was also on the border of Phoenicia and because Ahab was married to the infamous Jezebel (who was from the city of Tyre in Phonecia), her father, Ithobaal I is also considered a possibility. What is interesting about each of these candidates is that they are all mentioned in the Bible (1-2 Kings). Those excavating at Abel Beth Maacah remain hopeful that this summer season (2018) may reveal further evidence regarding this enigmatic (but exciting) find. Perhaps another part of the statue, or some other evidence will one day unravel the mystery. If further news comes to light, be sure that I will be informing the readers of this blog!
For information on the story of Abel Beth Maacah in 2 Samuel, or the characters of Absalom and Joab check out my book: “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” Available at Amazon USA / UK, Barnes & Noble, or WestBow Press.