Found in the Ground #1: The Mesha Stele

This is the first in a series of posts about important artefacts/archaeological sites that relate to the historicity of the Bible. I’m not out to “disprove the Bible”, but to explore the complicated relationship between the biblical texts and the archaeological reality.

Found in the Ground #1

The Mesha Stele (AKA Moabite Stone)

Now on display in the Louvre, this gorgeous victory stele was found in Dibhan, Jordan in 1868. What is it? A rock, with words carved into it. Cool! We can read the words, because it’s in a language very close to Biblical Hebrew. Turns out it was carved by/for a dude named Meshe, who was king of the Moabites. In approximately 840 BCE, to celebrate a successful revolt against the king of Israel, he set up this rock in the city of Dibon. (Yes, Dibon = Dibhan.) A millennia later (a fucking millennia!) somebody dug it up and now you have to read about it.

This stele is important for several reasons (early mentions of Yahweh and David, historical correlation with 2nd Kings) so let’s us take a look-see.

Moabite 101

Moab (מואב) was a Transjordan tribe, situated east of the Jordan river (that’s what “Transjordan” means!) between Ammon to the north and Edom to the south. These tribes were ethnically and culturally pretty much like Israel and Judah, except they didn’t go for the whole Yahweh thing. According to Israelite lore, the Moabites and the Ammonites were both products of the unholy union between Lot and his rapist daughters. They are involved in the Balaam story in Numbers 21-23, and Moab is where Moses stands and recites the entire book of Deuteronomy (w/no notes!). In Judges 3, the judge Ehud delivers Israel from the Moabite king Eglon. In 1st Samuel 22, a fugitive David mysteriously leaves his family in Moab’s protection. But then, in 2nd Samuel 8, he suddenly pulls this shit:

And he smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And [so] the Moabites became David’s servants, [and] brought gifts.

Harsh, dude. True or legendary, this sets up Moab as a vassal state to Israel, which was the state of events until Meshe said “enough”.

He Said, She Said

The stele contains 34 lines carved in paleo-Hebrew script, the same used to write the Hebrew Bible. (The language itself is very close to Biblical Hebrew.) Here is the full text of the stone, transliterated into modern script:

Transcription of Mecha Stele in Modern Hebrew (I have borrowed this from here and am working on typing it up myself.)

Let’s see what it says. The first 21 lines of the stela, in English translation, taken from the Wikipedia article:

  1. I am Mesha, son of KMSYT (Kemosh[-yat]), the king of Moab, the Di-
  2. -bonite. My father was king of Moab thirty years, and I reign-
  3. -ed after my father. And I built this high-place for Kemosh in QRH (“the citadel”), a high place of [sal-]
  4. -vation because he saved me from all the kings (or “all the attackers”), and because let me be victorious over all my adversaries. Omr-
  5. -i was king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days because Kemosh was angry with his
  6. land. And his son replaced him; and he also said, “I will oppress Moab”. In my days he spoke thus.
  7. But I was victorious over him and his house. And Israel suffered everlasting destruction, And Omri had conquered the lan-
  8. -d of Madaba, and he dwelt there during his reign and half the reign of his son, forty years. But Kemosh
  9. returned it in my days. So I [re]built Baal Meon, and I the water reservoir in it. And I bu[ilt]
  10. Qiryaten. The man of Gad had dwelt in Ataroth from of old; and the king of Israel
  11. built Ataroth for him. But I fought against the city and took it. And I slew all the people [and]
  12. the city became the property of Kemosh and Moab. And I carried from there the altar of/for its DVD (“its Davidic altar”?) and I
  13. dragged it before Kemosh in Qerioit, and I settled in it men of Sharon m[en]
  14. of Maharit. And Kemosh said to me, “Go! Seize Nebo against Israel.” so I
  15. proceeded by night and fought with it from the crack of dawn to midday, and I to-
  16. -ok it and I slew all of them: seven thousand men and boys, and women and gi-
  17. and maidens because I had dedicated it to Ashtar Kemosh I took [the ves-]
  18. -sels of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Kemosh. And the king of Israel had built
  19. Yahaz, and he dwelt in it while he was fighting with me, but Kemosh drove him out before me. so
  20. I took from Moab two hundred men, all his captains. And I brought them to Yahaz, And I seized it
  21. in order to add (it) to Dibon. I (myself) have built the ‘citadel’, ‘the wall(s) of the forest’ and the wall

Ultra-condensed version: Omri has control of Moab; Moab finally revolts halfway through the reign of Omri’s son; lots of cities get destroyed, then rebuilt. Much tribute is taken to Chemosh.

So wow. This would be a fascinating historical document in its own right, but what’s more: the events recorded in this stele are also recorded in the Hebrew Bible- we get both sides!

Nestled amidst the surprisingly Jesusy stories of Elisha in 2nd Kings ch. 3 is a brief account of Meshe’s revolt (NKJV):

4 Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheepbreeder, and he regularly paid the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams. 5 But it happened, when Ahab died, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. 6 So King Jehoram went out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. 7 Then he went and sent to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, saying, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?” And he said, “I will go up; I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” 8 Then he said, “Which way shall we go up?” And he answered, “By way of the Wilderness of Edom.” 9 So the king of Israel went with the king of Judah and the king of Edom, and they marched on that roundabout route seven days; and there was no water for the army, nor for the animals that followed them. 10 And the king of Israel said, “Alas! For the LORD has called these three kings together to deliver them into the hand of Moab.”

To begin the story: shortly after the death of Ahab, the kings of Israel (Jehoram), Judah (Jehoshaphat), and Edom team up to thwart a rebellion by the Moabite king Meshe. (Note: I’m ignoring the Elisha content on grounds of it being silly stories about a magic man.)

The Moabites are Revolting!

Already a contradiction is obvious. The stele says the events happened in halfway through the reign of Omri’s son (unnamed, but would be Ahab). The Bible says they happened shortly after the death of Ahab, when Omri’s grandson Jehoram was king. (The Bible seems to have temporarily forgotten about Ahaziah, Ahab’s other son, who reigned for two years between Omri and Jehoram. This gets very confusing, because Ahaziah is *also* the name of a Judean king with a short reign. Israel’s Ahaziah only gets short mentions in 1st Kings 22 and 2nd Kings 1.) Let’s suss this out. The stele claims that “Madaba” had been held by Israel for 40 years, which included Omri’s reign and half that of his son:

And Omri had conquered the land of Madaba, and he dwelt there during his reign and half the reign of his son, forty years.

I’m assuming that “conquered the land of Madaba” is a poetic way of saying “conquered Moab”. According to the Bible, Omri ruled for 12 years, Ahab for 22, Ahaziah (first son) for 2, and Jehoram (second son) for 12. Does this equal 40 years? Let’s crack out the arithmetic:

Omri’s + 1/2 of Ahab’s reign = 33 years. Hmm. A bit off.

Omri’s + Ahab’s + Ahaziah’s + 1/2 of Jehoram’s = 43 years. Pretty close- especially if Omri captured Madaba a couple years into his reign. (Or if Ahaziah is just a product of garbled history.)

So there is a discrepancy, either in who was Israel’s king during the incident, or who Omri’s son was. Is this really a big deal? Maybe Meshe had false information. Maybe they got Ahab and Omri confused. Maybe “son” meant “male ancestor”. Maybe the Bible thinks six years into a reign is “shortly after”. Maybe Madaba doesn’t mean all of Moab. It could be any number of things. Seems like a contradiction to me, but I’m not playing the “prove the bible wrong once and all theism will instantly crumble under my cunning logic” game. We have more interesting stuff to get to.

I’m just noticing, by the way, that according to the Bible, we saw King David put Moab under vassalage a good 150 years before this revolt. Lots of ways you can “fix” this (e.g. multiple revolts) but I’ll just assume that the 2nd Samuel 8 story is apocryphal, placing later events into the hand of David.

So anyway, how does the revolt turn out? According to the Meshe stele, it is a victory for the Moabites. They take back several cities (Baal Meon, Ataroth, Nebo, Yahaz) and drag their booty “before Kemosh”. (All these cities are named in the Bible, mostly in the censuses of Numbers 32 and Joshua 16. But none appear in the narrative story in 2nd Kings. More on Ataroth below.) Here is how the Israelite side of the story in 2nd Kings 3 concludes (after a magical Elisha tale we’ll ignore):

21 And when all the Moabites heard that the kings had come up to fight against them, all who were able to bear arms and older were gathered; and they stood at the border. 22 Then they rose up early in the morning, and the sun was shining on the water; and the Moabites saw the water on the other side as red as blood. 23 And they said, “This is blood; the kings have surely struck swords and have killed one another; now therefore, Moab, to the spoil!” 24 So when they came to the camp of Israel, Israel rose up and attacked the Moabites, so that they fled before them; and they entered their land, killing the Moabites. 25 Then they destroyed the cities, and each man threw a stone on every good piece of land and filled it; and they stopped up all the springs of water and cut down all the good trees. But they left the stones of Kir Haraseth intact. However the slingers surrounded and attacked it.

The Israelites attack Moab and raze it to the ground. Apparently, every city. I suspect this may be a convenient “explanation” for why Israel no longer held Moab under sheepy tribute. They were all dead! Also very convenient is the story explaining why they did not defeat Meshe himself:

26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too fierce for him, he took with him seven hundred men who drew swords, to break through to the king of Edom, but they could not. 27 Then he took his eldest son who would have reigned in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering upon the wall; and there was great indignation against Israel. So they departed from him and returned to their own land.

The final half of the Meshe stele tells how Meshe rebuilt cities; apparently those so thoroughly razed by the Israelites:

  • in order to add (it) to Dibon. I (myself) have built the ‘citadel’, ‘the wall(s) of the forest’ and the wall
  • of the ‘acropolis’. And I built its gates; And I built its towers. And
  • I built a royal palace; and I made the ramparts for the reservo[ir for] water in the mid-
  • -st of the city. But there was no cistern in the midst of the city, in the ‘citadel,’ so I said to all the people, “Make [for]
  • yourselves each man a cistern in his house”. And I hewed the shaft for the ‘citadel’ with prisoner-
  • -s of Israel. I built Aroer, and I made the highway in the Arnon.
  • I built Beth-Bamot, because it was in ruins. I built Bezer, because it was
  • a ruin [with] the armed men of Dibon because all of Dibon was under orders and I ru-
  • -led [ove]r [the] hundreds in the towns which I have annexed to the land. And I bui-
  • -lt Medeba and Beth-Diblaten and Beth-Baal-Meon, and I carried there [my herdsmen]
  • [to herd] the small cattle of the land, and Horonain, in it dwelt the house of [D]VD…
  • [and] Kemosh [s]aid to me, “Go down, fight against Horonain”. And I went down [and I fou-
  • -ght with the city and I took it and] Kemosh [re]turned it in my days. Then I went up from there te[n...]
  • [...a high] place of justice and I [...]

If you cross-reference the two sources, here is what apparently happened: Shortly (or six years) after the death of the king of Israel (either Omri, Ahab, or Ahaziah), the tribe of Moab, then under vassalage, revolted. Israel (with allies?) struck back, and totally pwned the hell out of a bunch of Moabite cities. But then the Moabites rebuilt everything, regaining control of their territory. And they all lived happily ever after.

ARAL DVD

Now, we turn to several references in the stele that deserve attention. I promised more on Ataroth. Check dis out:

MS lines 10-11: The man of Gad had dwelt in Ataroth from of old; and the king of Israel built Ataroth for him.

What does the Bible say about Ataroth?

Num 32:34 And the children of Gad built Dibon, and Ataroth, and Aroer

Damn yo, that’s some olde timey concordance. Gad, of course, was a tribe of Israel, who were said to have territory in the Transjordan. I guess they really did! Dibon is where the stele was found, and Aroer is mentioned on it as well.

And hey, how about these mentions of King David? Could they be a big deal?

MS lines 12-13: And I carried from there the “altar (ARAL) of/for its DVD” ( אראל דודה) and I dragged it before Kemosh in Qerioit.

Despite what the translation says, the word “altar” is uncertain. Whatever it is, it’s “of David”, since the ה in דודה is a possessive suffix. This is most probably a reference to the Davidic lineage. So what’s a אראל? This word occurs once elsewhere in the Bible:

2Sa 23:20 And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man, of Kabzeel, who had done many acts, he slew two lionlike (אראל) men of Moab: he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow

Well, it can’t mean altar, because altars can’t fight. The KJV’s choice of “lionlike” is a nice guess. Other translations also guess (“champions”) or just say “two ariels” (a transliteration). What does “ariel” mean? Who knows. From the Wikipedia page I see Anson Rainey raises the possibilty that it is related to the words lion (ארי) and god (אל) etymologically. I won’t speculate further.

At line 31 is a word that can possibly be reconstructed as David. This would refer specifically to the “House of David”, which is an even more direct reference to the Davidic lineage. This means that King David was a real person and that all the stories in the Bible about him are 100% true.

Chemosh, B’gosh!

The stele makes extensive mention of Chemosh (כמוש), the Moabite deity, in a manner remarkably similar to the biblical references to Yahweh. What is the Moab explanation for being under Israel’s yoke? Because they had displeased their god!

MS lines 4-6: Omri was king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days because Kemosh was angry (תאנף) with his land.

This is astonishingly similar to many such theological explanations in the Hebrew Bible. This example from Deuteronomy even uses the exact same verb for “angry” as the Meshe stele!

Deut 9:8 Also in Horeb ye provoked the LORD to wrath, so that the LORD was angry (ויתאנף) with you to have destroyed you.

Israelite exceptionalism my butt. Chemosh himself appears several times in the Bible:

Num 21:29 Woe to thee, Moab! thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: he hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters, into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites.

There is a slightly garbled reference in Judges that apparently refers to Chemosh as the God of the Amorites, but “Amorites” is a vague term I don’t want to get into now.

Let’s check out another religious convergence. In 1st Kings, Solomon undertakes some questionable (to the Biblical authors) building projects:

1Ki 11:7 Then did Solomon build an high place (במה) for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that [is] before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon.

Solomon builds a high place for Chemosh? Meshe Stelle, lines 3-4:

And I built this high-place (במת) for Kemosh in QRH (“the citadel”), a high place of [sal-]vation

Both texts are referring to the same structure: במת is simply the plural form of במה. These “high places” are mentioned frequently in the Bible, especially in Kings, where they are endlessly decried as pagan idolatry by later editors. Sure, Solomon’s ungodly building projects are “explained” by his having so many foreign wives. But I’m struck by the absolute similarity between Solomon’s buildings and those of King Meshe. To a lesser extent, I see perhaps a thematic connection between the litany of glorious buildings erected by Meshe and the descriptions of Solomon’s works we get in 1st Kings, down to details such as the use of forced labor.

Just as the biblical texts mention Chemosh, Meshe returns the favor with a Yahweh name-drop. Stele, lines 14-18:

And Kemosh said to me, “Go! Seize Nebo against Israel.” so I proceeded by night and fought with it from the crack of dawn to midday, and I took it and I slew all of them: seven thousand men and boys, and women and gi-[?] and maidens because I had dedicated it to Ashtar Kemosh I took [the ves-]sels of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Kemosh.

No way! Yes way! Yahweh! The spelling, יהוה, is identical to in the Bible. This is apparently the earliest written record of the deity Yahweh we have. But more interesting, who is this Ashtar Kemosh (עשתר כמש)? Ashtar (עשתר) is associated with Astarte (עשתרת), AKA Ishtar, a goddess popular throughout the region. She appears a few times in the bible:

1Ki 11:5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth (עשתרת) the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.

The KJV’s spelling as “Ashtoreth” is a result of obfuscating vowel-marking. Here she is associated with the Zidonians, aka Phoenicians. So who is the “Ashtar Kemosh” of the stele? Two great gods that taste great together? The closest parallel to this I’m aware of is “binomial” names, mentioned by Mark S. Smith in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. One example from the Ugaritic texts given is “Kothar Hasis”, which is more commonly found as “Kothar and Hasis”. A similar binomial appears in the Bible:

Gn 2:8 . And the LORD God (Yahweh Elohim) planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

The association between Astarte and Chemosh is initially puzzling, because I assumed the former is female and the later male; but hey all these gods are made up anyway, I guess their traits varied.

I think I’ve squeezed all the blood from this Moabite Stone

What do we take away from our look at this old rock that was found in the ground? To me, the most interesting revelation is the general continuity between Israelite and Moabite culture. The Moabite conception of Chemosh is startlingly similar to (certain) biblical author’s conception of Yahweh. Plus, it is a fascinating “he said” to the Bible’s “she said.” Does it prove the Bible is true? No, of course not. Does it prove the Bible is false? No, of course not.

It proves that a very brief account from 2 Kings is roughly based on a historical incident. The account is obfuscated with a crazy magic-man story, tagged on to “explain” the events in some manner. I believe this is what much of what Samuel-Kings is: Authentic annals (however biased) re-interpreted, at a later date, with magical and/or propagandistic stories. The history had time to get a bit jumbled, but there is an authentic core there. Stuff like the Meshe stele helps us tease it out.

Yay for old crap found in the ground!

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6 Responses to Found in the Ground #1: The Mesha Stele

  1. Ebonmuse says:

    Thanks for this excellent and lengthy analysis. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse at the real history of ancient Israel and see to what extent the Bible is a genuine record of historical truth – even if that truth is dimly remembered, mashed up with legends, or distorted for polemical purposes. And of course, both sides claiming they won a battle was standard operating practice in the ancient world. :)

    • אביגיל says:

      I’ve actually read somewhere that the Babylonians kept unusually honest record-keeping, and could admit a defeat.

      A great example happens later is 2nd Kings with Sennacherib of Assyria. He is so proud of his siege of Lachish that he has relief sculptures made of it; but he fails to take Jerusalem. The biblical authors make quite a story out of the Jerusalem incident, while “forgetting” to mention Lachish at all.

  2. Robin Marie says:

    Hi – I saw your comment on Great Christina’s blog complaining about Sam Harris’s take on Islam and violence in the Middle East, and I just want to say I completely agree, and to direct you to a four part essay I wrote on this question over at the atheist blog I blog for. Glad to know there are plenty of us out there,

    Best,
    Robin Marie

    http://anamericanatheist.org/2010/12/15/atheists-islam-part-i/

    • אביגיל says:

      Oh no… I wrote that screed in a weird fury and I didn’t know if it made any sense at all.

      Your posts are an excellent critique. Thank you!

      I think the issue is this: “New Atheism” is largely an American and British phenomena. It’s propagators, despite their liberalism, betray certain biases.

      We both singled out Harris, but I think Hitchens and Dawkins both have issues. Hitchens, of course, is a neocon who supported the Iraq war, and while I love his wit, I do not look to him as a moral compass. And while Dawkins is of course amazing, his website contains a creepy amount of Islamophobia, which I think you rightly suspect is a more British phenomena.

      I find the far-left’s postmodern anti-Enlightenment relativism infuriating myself, which is why I think “new atheism” as a movement is somewhat wary of “progressivism”. Jamie Kilstein, comic and progressive radio-show host, is one of the few people I know who truly bridges the gap: he is rabidly progressive as well as proudly atheist and anti-religion. They are in no means incompatible.

      Oh man so now my biases are out.

  3. Eric says:

    Love this post. It’s a great overview of an important topic that I had wanted to know about.

    Nitpicking, don’t you mean that במה is the singular form of במת, rather than the other way around?

    • אביגיל says:

      Wow, good catch! Fixed. I probably got confused because the stele translation I used treats it as singular. For, uh, those who can’t read Hebrew: במה (“bamah”) is singular, במת (“bamot”) is the plural, ת being a feminine plural suffix.

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