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Proof in the writing


WORLD Radio - Proof in the writing

A lead tablet found at a dig site in Israel bolsters early Biblical accounts

Photo courtesy of Associates for Biblical Research

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, April 7th, 2022. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In 2019, a team of archeologists began meticulously sifting a pile of rubble. It was the cast-off from a 1980’s dig site on Israel’s Mount Ebal—a location mentioned by name in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 at the time of the conquest.

BROWN: For years, critics have argued that the first five books of the Old Testament couldn't have been written down until centuries after Moses and Joshua lived: Arguing that written Hebrew didn’t exist at the time. Therefore—they claim—the Biblical account of the conquest is unreliable, mythological.

EICHER: But a small piece of lead found at the Mount Ebal site two years ago suggests that Hebrew writing is much older than many skeptics want to believe. WORLD’s Paul Butler is here to sift the details of the story.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: It’s hard to believe that a small, folded sheet of lead—no bigger than a first-class postage stamp—could cause so much excitement.

STRIPLING: On a scale of one to 10, this is a 10. It doesn't get any bigger than this.

That’s Scott Stripling, director of excavations for the Associates of Biblical Research - or ABR. He’s speaking here at a March 25th, 2022, press conference.

STRIPLING: We talk about verisimilitude or a consistency between what we read in a text and what we find in the material culture, that correlation. It doesn't get any better than this. If the text were true, this is what you would anticipate finding. And indeed it is what we found.

Stripling is referring to a lead tablet, or amulet, that is just over three quarters of an inch square. It’s what’s called a “defixio” or curse tablet. Scott Lanser is ABR director.

LANSER: They would take a small sliver of lead and take an iron pen and they would etch into that lead that curses will follow if they do not follow through on this binding commitment and they understand the consequences of that.

The defixio is not a charm, or talisman, or written incantation. It’s actually a legally binding document that holds the person who wrote it to the terms of the agreement.

LANSER: Then the amulet is folded in half and is sealed at that point and then placed into the altar area there.

This curse tablet came from inside Joshua’s altar on Mt. Ebal. The team of archeologists and volunteers discovered this defixio through a process called “wet sifting.”

LANSER: There are two processes that have been followed. More traditionally is dry sifting which of course you take grates and you shake the dirt and what’s left is maybe small artifacts—and again that’s common to be done—but we have really strongly emphasized the use of wet sifting.  So that we can pass all of our material through that wet sifting station and wash everything down and through. Of course much of the effort—you’re just washing dirt away but then these artifacts come to the surface after the washing…and that’s always exciting.

In 1982 archeologist Adam Zertal began a seven year excavation of the Mt. Ebal site. As he uncovered the altar, he piled the unwanted material in two dump sites nearby. That’s what the ABR team began re-sifting—with water.

Again, Scott Stripling from the March 2022 press conference.

STRIPLING: With our new process, having gone back and checked old dump piles from the 1980s, we knew that they were full of scarabs, bullae, and other glyptic material. And so it was not a shock to us that we did recover something of this importance.

When the team discovered the curse tablet, they knew almost immediately what it was. But the lead was so hard and brittle, they couldn’t pry it open to read the inscription inside.

Since the tablet was found in a refuse pile—and not in context with other buried finds—it’s more difficult to date. So the team sent a piece from the tablet to be analyzed by a metallurgy expert. He concluded that it was consistent with other Late Bronze 2 samples: placing it easily within the date range of the conquest.

So Stripling collaborated with four scientists in Prague at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic to scan the interior of the defixio.

STRIPLING: So our hope was that we would be able to topographically scan it which we were in addition to the two outer surfaces, you also have two inner surfaces, which we have now been able to read.

Two epigraphers then began deciphering the ancient text. After months of analysis, the Associates for Biblical Research announced the results two weeks ago:

STRIPLING: On the inside of the tablet, we recovered 40 Hebrew letters. And this is in a script that we would call proto-alphabetic script.

In other words, early Hebrew script that includes both figures and symbols. It predates pure representative letters, and thus, proto-alphabetic.

STRIPLING: 11 of these letters are ‘alefs’—the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet—and they are all the archaic form…And so you have an ox head that is morphing…into an aleph. And in the 23-word English translation, the word curse appears 10 times. And ladies and gentlemen, the name Yahweh appears twice.

The inscription is a chiastic parallelism—found frequently in Hebrew poetry:

STRIPLING: And so what it reads is this:

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

Stripling believes this is a self-imprecatory curse—similar to what we read in Deuteronomy 27 and 28. In the Biblical account, the Israelites gathered on Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim for a covenant renewal ceremony:

STRIPLING: So if you go back and read those portions of the biblical text, you are saying I accept the blessings that come by keeping the covenant and I accept the curses that will come upon me if I break this covenant.

We don’t know who wrote the tablet. We don’t know if it was from the covenant renewal ceremony or something created afterwards. But even with the many remaining questions, this once discarded curse tablet is a significant find.

STRIPLILNG: The implications of this are enormous. And they will echo on and reverberate for many, many years to come. We now have the name Yahweh, the biblical God of Israel, in an inscription dating from earlier than many skeptics would argue that the Bible existed or that there was even the ability to write down a sacred text. So the implications of this are enormous. And they will echo on and reverberate for many, many years to come…

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.

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