SYNOPSIS: A recent study has come up with a new interpretation for one of the oldest and most important ancient inscriptions related to biblical history. The Mesha Stele references important biblical figures, but the new reading may change how many view this era of biblical history. A curious mind is often asking “Is there evidence?
Mesha Stele: Does New Reading Really Change Biblical History?
“Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and he had to deliver to the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.– 2 Kings 3:4-5 (ESV)
Restored Line in Ancient Stone Tablet: Does It Refer to Biblical King Balak?
The Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone, is one of the oldest and most remarkable artifacts connecting biblical history to the ancient world. The stele erected by King Mesha of Moab (modern-day Jordan, east of the Dead Sea) in his 9th century BC capital city of Dibon, tells the story of Israel’s occupation of lands that Mesha considered to be part of Moab. It then commemorates the king’s military victories and building projects.
King Mesha of Moab is also mentioned in the third chapter of 2 Kings in the Old Testament (see verse above). Several other biblical names and events are mentioned on the Mesha Stele with amazing specificity. These will be covered later in the update. But now a new study examining the inscription has reinterpreted one of its most famous lines.
The conclusion of the report is as follows, “…we dismiss Lemaire’s proposal to read (‘House of David’) on Line 31. It is now clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned there, and that the first is a beth. We cautiously propose that the name on Line 31 be read as Balak, the king of Moab referred to in the Balaam story in Numbers 22–24.”
News of this different reading has flashed across news sites around the world, often with sensationalized headlines and overstated claims of the biblical ramifications of this revised wording. As covered in last week’s Thinker about the Lachish City Wall discovery aligning with Isreal’s kings, there is general skepticism in the world of archaeology about the Bible’s account of the early history of Israel. The reinterpretation of the inscription on this stone enters right into that debate.
How does one sort through all of the claims, often from experts in the field, to arrive at thoughtful positions? To make headway on that goal, the available evidence needs to be examined to see if a pattern of evidence fits with a close look at the biblical account.
Background of the Mesha Stele
Stelae (plural of stele) are monuments in the form of upright stone slabs or pillars that are often inscribed. Frederick Augustus Klein, an Anglican missionary discovered the Mesha Stele in the ruins of Dibon in 1868. It is made of black basalt and measures 45” tall. Its 34 preserved lines of text make it the longest ancient inscription ever found on a monument in the area of Israel and Jordan.
The language of the inscription is Moabite, which is very similar to Hebrew, and it uses an alphabetic script almost identical to the Old Hebrew (or Paleo-Hebrew) investigated in our most recent film, Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy.
Much of the inscription had to be reconstructed after the stone exploded to pieces after local Bedouins heated it over a fire while pouring water on it. This happened during an ownership dispute and bidding war that began for possession of the stele. They set out to destroy it after it became clear that it was about to fall into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, whom they hated.
Fortunately, a “squeeze” (a papier-mâché impression) of the inscription had been made just prior to its destruction. Many pieces of the splintered stone were later recovered with the squeeze allowing the missing portions to be reconstructed. It now sits in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The Results of the Tel Aviv Journal Study
The team involved with the study consisted of professors Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na’aman, both of Tel Aviv University, and Thomas Römer from the Collège de France. The researchers used new high-resolution photos of the squeeze of the stele in their evaluation. The focus of the disputed reading was line 31, an area of the inscription that is damaged and partly unreadable.
A previous interpretation of line 31 was thought by several prominent scholars to include the phrase “House of David.” This was taken as a reference to the dynasty of King David who ruled the southern kingdom Judah after the death of David’s son Solomon when Israel split in two. The new findings would overturn that reading.
Scholars Seek Improved Interpretation of Inscription for the Historicity of the Bible
Now Easier-to-read Elements on the Moabite Stone Indicate a New Reading.
The results of the new research can be found at: Restoring Line 31 in the Mesha Stele: The ‘House of David’ or Biblical Balak? The study group’s reading of “Balak” for the damaged area is based on a number of clues, including a phrase preceding the damaged section that normally would be expected to be followed by the name of a monarch. The amount of space allowed for this name is only three letters long. The images made it clear to the authors of the report that it begins with the letter beth (B).
The first alphabets used only consonants – no vowels. This means that even if the group’s approach is correct, a number of different names could potentially fit the damaged section. According to the report, this includes the names Bedad, Bedan, Becher, Belaʻ, Baʻal, Barak. This elicited some of the appropriately careful language in the report, “…we cautiously suggest restoring the name Balak…”
However, the conclusion of the group is clear: “The most likely candidate for the monarch’s name is ‘Balak,’” the group wrote in the article. “We believe Balak was a historical figure like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the famous Deir Alla inscription in Jordan in 1967, was considered an ‘invented’ character.’”
The Biblical Account of Balak
Before assessing this new proposal, it is crucial to see if these ideas fit the biblical account. The Bible mentions Mesha the king of Moab only once (see verse at top of article). It states that he rebelled against Israel’s rule after the death of Israel’s King Ahab the son of Omri. This puts Mesha’s rebellion in the 9th century (800s) BC, in line with when scholars date the Mesha Stele.
However, Moab’s King Balak did not reign in this period. According to the Bible’s Book of Numbers, Balak was Moab’s king at the time of the conquest of Canaan. Balak was fearful of Israel’s numbers, so he commissioned Balaam, who practiced divination, to curse Israel. The plan backfired when Balaam blessed Israel instead of cursing them.
“…Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me…”– Num 22:3-6 (ESV)
A Problem with New Study Proposing Biblical Balak
The important point is that according to the Bible, Balak did not live in the 9th century BC (at the time of Mesha), he lived more than 500 years earlier in the 15th century BC. This was before nearly a century of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah until Ahab’s death, before the united monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon, and before the lengthy period of the judges in Israel. Yet the Mesha Stele is an account of events happening in Moab during Mesha’s own time.
How then can the report conclude that the stele is most likely speaking of the biblical Balak? Additionally, are news sites reporting accurately on what this find may mean for biblical history? These questions will be addressed next week in the second half of this article.
This study, and the way it is reported by the press, illustrates a crucial issue regarding the historical credibility of the Bible that many people are unaware of. So stay tuned for Part 2 and see the amazing ways the Mesha Stele actually does match biblical history. Until then – Keep Thinking.
TOP PHOTO: The 9th century BC Mesha Stele also known as the Moabite Stone. wikimedia Commons