Tag Archives: Mount Ebal

Mount Ebal Curse Tablet Deciphered

Mount Ebal Curse Tablet Deciphered

Mount Ebal Curse Tablet
The Mount Ebal curse tablet discovered in 2019.

Could Israel’s presence in the land of Canaan be dated earlier than many scholars have thought? Could the account of the building of an altar on Mount Ebal by Joshua mentioned in Joshua 8:30 be substantiated? Could it be possible that Moses did possess an alphabet enabling him to do the writing the Torah claims he did? All of these questions are raised by the decipherment of the Mount Ebal curse tablet. In a startling announcement this past Thursday ( March 24th, 2022), Scott Stripling, an archaeologist with Associates for Biblical Research (ABR), and provost of the Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, revealed the contents of a curse tablet discovered on Mount Ebal in 2019. If the date of this tablet, currently placed in the Late Bronze Age (1400-1200 B.C.), and it’s translation are confirmed, it will be considered the greatest archaeological discovery in Israel of the 21st century.

The Significance of Mount Ebal

Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim
Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim

According to Deuteronomy 27:1-8, Moses commanded the Israelites upon entering the land to go to Mount Ebal. There they were to build an altar. Six of the tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal and pronounce the curses of the Law, while the other six tribes were to stand opposite on Mount Gerazim and pronounce the blessings of the Law. Joshua 8:30-35 records the obedience of Joshua and the Israelites who do as Moses commanded. (For more on the significance of this area, particularly ancient Shechem, see my article here).

Mount Ebal, Adam Zertal, and Joshua’s Altar

Altar location on Mount Ebal
This map from biblewalks.com (see full article here) shows the location of Joshua’s altar on Mount Ebal.

The backstory to the current discovery involves a survey of the area in 1980, by Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal who also excavated at Mount Ebal from 1982-1989 (see Bible History Daily). Zertal believed that he had uncovered Joshua’s altar. This altar was dated to Iron Age I by Zertal (1200-1000 B.C.). However, there is an earlier altar that is covered by the larger altar. It is this earlier altar that Stripling and his team believes to be Joshua’s altar. This altar dates to the Late Bronze Age, the same age as the Mount Ebal curse tablet.

Joshua's altar
The site of Joshua’s altar as excavated by Adam Zertal. Stripling believes that Joshua’s actual altar is beneath the structure visible in this picture.

Discovery of the Mount Ebal Curse Tablet

In December 2019-January 2020, Stripling and his team received permission and funds to wet sift the archaeological dumps from Zertal’s excavation. Stripling had learned from working at the Temple Mount sifting project (see my article here), as well as at Shiloh, the current site he is excavating with the ABR team, how valuable wet sifting can be in recovering small objects that are accidentally overlooked. It was this process of wet sifting that led to the discovery of the Mount Ebal curse tablet. When it came to light, Stripling and the team knew immediately that the small 2cm led tablet was a curse tablet (also known as a defixio). It was only a question of its age, and whether the inside of the tablet could be read, since the tablet was so brittle. Thanks to modern technological advances, a lab in Prague was able, through special lighting, to obtain images of the letters inside the tablet. With the help of two expert epigraphers (readers of ancient scripts), Pieter Gert van der Veen of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa, Stripling was able to translate the script. The script predates the ancient Hebrew script which was in common use during the monarchical period. This script is known from other sources (see my article here) and is called by various names such as Proto-Sinaiatic or Proto-Canaanite script. Stripling prefers to use the neutral term Proto-alphabetic. The inside portion of the Mount Ebal curse tablet reads as follows:

Translation of Mount Ebal Curse Tablet
Translation of the Mount Ebal curse tablet from ABR.

There are a number of interesting features about this translation. Perhaps most significantly are the words curse (which occurs 10 times), and the name of Israel’s God YHW (Yahweh). The pronouncement of a curse on Mount Ebal confirms the biblical affirmation that this mount was viewed in this way. The use of YHW confirms that this is an early Hebrew inscription. In fact, this inscription is at least 200 years, or more, earlier than any previously known Hebrew inscription found in Israel. As the slide above states, the statement occurs in chiastic parallelism, a form very familiar to those who study biblical literature (see, e.g., my article here).

YHW on Mount Ebal curse tablet
Reading from left to right, the letters yod (Y), he (H), and waw (W) form the name of Israel’s God, Yahweh in the ancient Proto-alphabetic script.

Important Implications of the Mount Ebal Curse Tablet

There are a number of important implications regarding the discovery of this tablet as noted in the introduction above. First, this would demonstrate that Israel was in the land earlier than many scholars believe. The curse tablet would put the weight of evidence for the Exodus on a 15th century B.C. date, rather than a 13th century B.C. date. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that writing and reading did exist in Israel at this early date, and thus portions of Scripture could have been written at this time as the Bible affirms. Third, it demonstrates that texts like Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 have an historical basis.


More to Come on the Mount Ebal Curse Tablet

Stripling and his team are currently in the process of publishing an academic report to the scholarly community. As a result, there are aspects about the tablet yet to be revealed. One of these involves the fact that the tablet has writing on the outside. Stripling states that a translation of this part of the tablet will appear in the full report.

For More Information on the Mount Ebal Curse Tablet

To view the full press announcement (one hour long), see ABR researchers Discover the Oldest Known Proto-Hebrew Inscription Ever Found.

For a shorter interview with Scott Stripling see: Podcast: Does a tiny ‘curse tablet; from Mt. Ebal date to the Israelite settlement?

You can also read the following article from the Jerusalem Post: Researchers decipher oldest known Hebrew inscription on ‘cursed’ tablet.

Shechem: Insights From Biblical Geography

Shechem: Insights From Biblical Geography

Ancient Shechem
Aerial view of the ancient city of Shechem

In my previous two posts (here and here), I have sought to demonstrate how learning biblical geography can be a helpful way of studying the text of Scripture. The ancient city of Shechem, located near modern Nablus, is another example of what can be learned by studying biblical geography. The city of Shechem is mentioned 54 times in the OT, not counting an additional 13 times where it refers to an individual by the same name. It is specifically mentioned twice in the NT (both in Acts 7:16), however, the mention of Sychar in John 4 may be the same city. It is certainly the same geographical area (see discussion below). Because of its frequency, we will only examine the most significant occurrences of this city in Scripture.

Shechem and the Patriarchs

Shechem
Shechem is located in the heart of the Land of Canaan.

The first mention of Shechem occurs in Genesis 12:6 when Abram enters the land of Canaan. We’re told that the Lord appeared to Abram and promised him that the Land of Canaan would be given to his descendants. As a result Abram built an altar. Thus our initial introduction to Shechem involves the Lord revealing Himself to Abram and Abram’s grateful response by building an altar.

Simeon and Levi
Genesis 34 tells the story of how Jacob’s sons destroy the inhabitants of Shechem for the rape of their sister.

Shechem plays a significant role in the story of Jacob after his return to the land (having spent 20 years with his uncle Laban in Haran). It is only the second place in Canaan where one of the patriarchs purchased a part of the land (the other was the cave of Macpelah and surrounding land where Abraham buried Sarah–Gen. 23:16-20). We are told that Jacob purchased some land near Shechem, and then, like his grandfather Abram, he built an altar there which he called “El Elohe Israel” (God, the God of Israel–Gen. 33:18-20). Thus, the first two mentions of Shechem in the Bible represent God’s promise of the land, along with Jacob’s purchase of some of that land, followed by both patriarchs worshipping the true God by building an altar to Him.

Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a man named Shechem (Gen. 34). Shechem was the son of Hamor, the ruler of the city at this time, and for whom, apparently, the city was named. Outraged at the treatment of their sister, the brothers (led by Simeon and Levi) devise a plan that leads to the destruction of the people of Shechem. Jacob fears retaliation by the surrounding inhabitants and God appears to him at that time telling him to go to Bethel. Before leaving, however, Jacob has his household put away all their foreign gods and purify themselves (Gen. 35:2).

As an interesting sidenote: In Hebrew the name “Hamor” means “donkey.” The inhabitants of Shechem are referred to as the “sons of Hamor” or “sons of a donkey.” While excavating the city under the lowest floor of the outer guardroom, what appears to be a donkey was found buried there [Toombs, L. E. (1992). Shechem (Place). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 1182)]. The reason this is interesting is that Canaanites are known to have ritually slaughtered donkeys in dedication to their gods and buried them in the foundation of the city gates. See the following article: Bronze-Age Donkey Sacrifice Found in Israel.

Joshua

Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal. The vicinity of ancient Shechem.
Mounts Gerazim and Ebal provide the backdrop to the city of Shechem.

The Book of Joshua informs us that Shechem was both a city of refuge (Josh. 20:7), as well as a Levitical city (Josh. 21:21). Shechem was located near two mountains–Gerizim and Ebal. Before entering the Promised Land, Moses had commanded the people to build an altar on Mount Ebal and to divide the tribes between the two mountains. Half were to pronounce the blessings of the Law from Mount Gerizim, while the other half were to pronounce the curses of the Law from Mount Ebal. The fulfillment of this command is recorded in Joshua 8:30-35.  Shechem is also the setting for Joshua’s famous speech that includes the words, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. . . But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15; see Josh. 24:1). These important events recall the patriarchal stories, especially the story of Jacob. Just as Jacob had called on his household to put away their foreign gods, so Joshua, centuries later, challenged the nation of Israel to do the same. Except for the horrendous crime committed by Jacob’s sons in the slaughter of the people of Shechem, its early history left a legacy of commitment to God and a repudiation of foreign gods. Shechem was also the place where the bones of Joseph were laid to rest (Josh. 24:32), a reminder of the promise given to Abram at Shechem that God would give his descendants the Land of Canaan. Not too bad of a start for this geographical location. But all that was about to change!

Abimelech

Death of Abimelech
Abimelech was killed when a woman threw an upper millstone on his head, crushing his skull.

The story of Abimelech, the son of Gideon by a concubine, is recorded in Judges 8:30-9:57. Although at one point Gideon had broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah pole (Judg. 6:27-28), leading Israel away from idolatry, by the end of his life he was responsible for leading Israel back into idolatry. Abimelech’s mother was from Shechem (Judg. 8:31) and he was able to convince the leaders of Shechem to make him king (Judg. 9:1-2) and destroy the other sons of Gideon (also known as Jerubaal). Abimelech hires 70 “worthless men” to do the job of slaughtering the 70 sons of Gideon. He hires them by using money from the temple in Shechem dedicated to the god Baal-Berith (Judg. 9:4-6). It is unclear how many temples existed in Shechem. Later in the story a temple dedicated to El-Berith is also mentioned (Judg. 9:46). Many scholars believe that these are two names for the same temple. El, which means god (or God), was the head of the Canaanite pantheon. According to Canaanite religion, Baal was a son (or possibly a grandson). There is also a sanctuary mentioned in Joshua 24:26. After Joshua wrote some words in the book of the Law, we are told that he set up a large stone “under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.” Ironically, this may be the same place later called the temple of Baal-Berith. In other words, a place that was known for turning from foreign gods to worship the true God had become a place where Baal was now worshipped. Another irony of the Abimelech story is that he destroys this temple when he demolishes the city of Shechem (Judg. 9:46-49)–the very temple whose funds had been used to install him as king!

Temple of Baal Berith in ancient Shechem
This photo, the same as the one above, points out the Temple and standing stone discovered at Shechem

Archaeologists have uncovered a temple in ancient Shechem (see the photo above). The destruction dates to the 12th century BC, the same time period as Abimelech’s destruction described in Judges 9. A standing stone was also discovered, part of which is still standing. It is probably this stone which is referred to in Judges 9:6 which states that Abimelech was made king “beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem.” Some also believe that this may be the same stone mentioned in Joshua 24:26. Archaeologists have also uncovered a statue of Baal at Shechem providing firm evidence that Baal was worshipped there. For further information click on the following link: Abimelech at Shechem.

Shechem and The Divided Kingdom

The disappointing history of Shechem continues as it becomes the scene for the coronation of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1). On this occasion, however, the northern tribes presented their grievances and when Rehoboam answered them harshly, the ten northern tribes made Jeroboam their king and created a permanent separation that lasted until the Exile. In fact, Shechem was fortified by Jeroboam and became the first capital city of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 12:25). If the reign of Abimelech emphasized the spiritual apostasy of Israel, the dissolution of the United Monarchy at Shechem was a precursor to the troubles that would plague Israel and Judah eventually leading both kingdoms into exile. Thus bringing to an end (at least momentarily) the promise made to Abram to give the Land of Canaan to his descendants.

The New Testament

Jacob's well at the foot of Mount Gerizim near ancient Shechem
Jacob’s well, now housed inside a Greek Orthodox Church in the area near Mount Gerazim and ancient Shechem is the location of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman.

By the first century A.D., the area around Shechem had become part of Samaritan territory. In fact, archaeologists tell us that Shechem ceased to exist in the first century B.C.. The only direct reference to the ancient city of Shechem is found in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:16, when he is recounting the history of the patriarchs. However, the NT knows another very important episode that happened in the vicinity of ancient Shechem. This is the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well near Sychar (John 4:5). Whether Sychar refers to ancient Shechem or to a nearby town (known today as Askar), is disputed by scholars. One thing that is certain is that the well that Jesus meets this woman at is the well of Jacob and is near the parcel of land given to Joseph (John 4:5). Today a Greek Orthodox Church has been built over the site (see the photo on the left) which sits near the foot of Mount Gerizim. Anyone familiar with the ancient site of Shechem from the OT would immediately recognize that this conversation takes place in the same locale by the reference to the mountain on which the Samaritans worship (John 4:20). The ruins of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim can still be seen today. This Temple, built around the middle of the 4th century B.C., was destroyed probably sometime in the 2nd century B.C. (either by John Hyrcanus, or Simeon the Just).

While Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman has many implications (including her own salvation, as well as those in the town), for our purposes it creates the perfect ending to the sorted tale of the city of Shechem. Jesus’ response to the woman at the well concerns worship that is “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). How fitting that Jesus speaks of the meaning of worship that pleases the Father in a place where Abram and Jacob had built altars to the true God, and where Jacob and, later Israel, had put away their foreign gods in order to worship the God of Israel. How fitting also that Jesus brings the gift of the Kingdom of God to this woman and the people of her town in the very area that had witnessed the division of the Kingdom of Israel! Knowing the stories about Shechem in the OT and understanding that Jacob’s well and the first century village of Sychar is in this same geographical area brings a satisfying conclusion to a city with a mixed spiritual and political heritage. How good of God to bring this region full-circle through providing the living water that only Jesus can give!

For more on Shechem see the excellent article entitled: The Geographical, Historical & Spiritual Significance of Shechem at bible.org.