Biblical Archeology, Course 4, Lesson 1

Jul 9, 2021 | Biblical Archeology Course | 0 comments

The Mesha Stele (popularized in the 19th century as the “Moabite Stone”) is a black basalt stone, bearing an inscription by the 9th century BC Moabite King Mesha, discovered in 1868 at Dhiban (biblical “Dibon,” capital of Moab). The inscription of 34 lines is written in the Moabite language. It is the most extensive inscription ever recovered that refers to ancient Israel. It was set up by Mesha, about 850 BC, as a record and memorial of his victories in his revolt against the Kingdom of Israel, undertaken after the death of his overlord, Ahab.

1891 photograph of the 9th century BC Mesha Stele, inscribed in the Moabite language by king Mesha of Moab

The stone is 124 cm high and 71 cm wide and deep, and rounded at the top. It was discovered at the ancient Dibon now Dhiban, Jordan, in August 1868, by Rev. F. A. Klein, a German missionary in Jerusalem. “The Arabs of the neighborhood, dreading the loss of such a talisman, broke the stone into pieces; but a squeeze had already been obtained by Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, and most of the fragments were recovered and pieced together by him”.[1] A squeeze is a papier-mâché impression. The squeeze (which has never been published) and the reassembled stele (which has been published in many books and encyclopedias) are now in the Louvre Museum.

The stele, which measures 44″x27″[1], describes:

   1. How Moab was conquered by Omri, King of Israel, as the result of the anger of the god Chemosh. Mesha’s victories over Omri’s son (not mentioned by name), over the men of Gad at Ataroth, and at Nebo and Jehaz;
2. His public buildings, restoring the fortifications of his strong places and building a palace and reservoirs for water; and
3. His wars against the Horonaim.

This inscription can be interpreted as supplementing and corroborating the history of King Mesha recorded in 2 Kings 3:4-27, thereby earning it a prominent place in the corpus of Biblical archaeology. However there are significant differences. In the Bible it is Ahab, Omri’s son, who conquers Moab, and the rebellion is against Ahab’s son Jehoram. Further, in the Bible, it is not Chemosh who gives victory to Mesha but Jahweh who gives victory to Jehoram. Israel withdraws, according to the Book of Kings, only because they are disconcerted when they see Mesha sacrifice his son.

(Omri king of Israel) explicitly mentioned on the stele. Click on picture to enlarge it

With the exception of a very few variations, such as -in for -im in plurals, the Moabite language of the inscription shares much in common with an early form of Hebrew, known as Biblical Hebrew.[2] The language of ninth century BC Moabite inscriptions is an offshoot of the Canaanite language commonly in use between the fourteenth to eighth centuries BC in Syria-Palestine.[2] The form of the letters here used supplies very important and interesting information regarding the history of the formation of the alphabet, as well as, incidentally, the arts of civilized life of those times in the land of Moab. This ancient monument, recording the heroic struggles of King Mesha with Omri and Ahab, was erected about 850 BC. Here “we have the identical slab on which the workmen of the old world carved the history of their own times, and from which the eye of their contemporaries read thousands of years ago the record of events of which they themselves had been the witnesses.”

In 1994, after examining both the Mesha Stele and the paper squeeze of it in the Louvre Museum, the French scholar André Lemaire reported that line 31 of the Mesha Stele bears the phrase “the house of David” (in Biblical Archaeology Review [May/June 1994], pp. 30-37). Lemaire had to supply one destroyed letter, the first “D” in “[D]avid,” to decode the wording. The complete sentence in the latter part of line 31 would then read, “As for Horonen, there lived in it the house of [D]avid,” וחורננ. ישב. בה. בת[ד]וד. (Note: square brackets [ ] enclose letters or words that have been supplied where letters were destroyed or were on fragments that are still missing.) Most scholars find that no other letter supplied there yields a reading that makes sense. Baruch Margalit attempted to supply a different letter there: “m,” along with several other letters in places after that. The reading that resulted was “Now Horoneyn was occupied at the en[d] of [my pre]decessor[‘s reign] by [Edom]ites.”[3] However, Margalit’s reading has failed to attract any significant support in scholarly publications.

In 2001, another French scholar, Pierre Bordreuil, reported (in an essay in French) that he and a few other scholars could not confirm Lemaire’s reading of “the house of David” in line 31 of the stele.[4]

Whereas the later mention of the “House of David” on a Tel Dan stele fragment was written by an Aramaean enemy king, this inscription comes from a Moabite enemy of Israel, also boasting of a victory. If Lemaire is right, there are now two early references to David’s dynasty, one in the Mesha Stele (mid-9th century) and the other in the Tel Dan Stele (mid-9th to mid-8th century).[5][6]

The identifications of the biblical Mesha, king of Moab, and of the biblical Omri, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, in the Mesha stele are generally accepted by the scholarly community, especially because what is said about them in the narrative of the Mesha stele agrees well with the narrative in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.

The identification of David in the Mesha stele, however, needs more investigation. This is partly from the fragmentary state of line 31 of the Mesha stele and partly from a tendency since the 1990s, largely among European scholars, to question or dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). In Europe, P. R. Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, and Niels P. Lemche show a strong tendency to reject biblical historicity and are highly prejudiced against anything that shows the reliability of the Bible, whereas André Lemaire, K. A. Kitchen, Jens Bruun Kofoed, and other European scholars are exceptions to this tendency. Many scholars lean in one direction or the other but actually occupy the middle ground. In general, North American and Israeli scholars tend to be more willing to accept the identification of the biblical King David in the Mesha stele. The controversy over whether ancient inscriptions confirm the existence of the King David mentioned in the Bible usually focuses less on the Mesha stele and more on the Tel Dan stele.

The Stele is also significant in that it mentions the Hebrew name of God – YHWH. It is thought to be the earliest known reference to the sacred name in any artifact.

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