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How the Mesha Stele Links to Israel’s Kings

How the Mesha Stele links to Israel’s Kings

SYNOPSIS: A new reading of the name “Balak” on the Mesha Stele has sent shock waves through news sites across the world. But have they thought through what they are reporting? What if the new proposal actually erodes confidence in the biblical account? See how the Mesha Stele actually supports the Bible’s version of the story in remarkable ways. This is Part 2 of Part 1: New proposed reading of the Mesha Stele.

Mesha Stele Provides Remarkable Links to Kings of Israel – Part 2

This is a light thing in the sight of the LORD. He will also give the Moabites into your hand,

– 2 Kings 3:18 (ESV)

Last week’s Update reported on the new reading of the name ‟Balak” being proposed for a line on the 9th century Mesha Stele, a stone monument that is one of the premier artifacts related to biblical history ever discovered. Today’s update, as Part 2 of the story, will look at how the new reading gives valuable insight to the group that produced the study, which promotes a viewpoint that is eroding confidence in the Bible’s version of history. It will then show the remarkable ways the Mesha stele actually connects to the biblical history of Israel.

Problems with the Proposed Link Between the Mesha Stele and Biblical King Balek

Historical Timeline When Omri Was King of Israel Conflicts with Scholars’ Thinking.

The group concludes that this ‟Balak” is the king of Moab named Balak in the Bible’s account (Numbers Ch. 22-24) of the seer Balaam being called by Balak to curse Israel after they came out of Egypt in the exodus and were encamped opposite Jericho prior to the conquest of Canaan. The scholars in the study surmise that this gives the biblical figure of Balak genuine historical credibility.

However, there are problems with this thinking. The events on the Mesha stele are all contemporary with King Mesha of Moab in the 9th century BC at the time of Israel’s kings Omri, Ahab, and Joram (Jehoram). This period was over 500 years after the time of the biblical Balak and Balaam at the time of the conquest. So how can this mention of “Balak” relate to the Bible’s account?

To understand the critical issue in play with this story, one needs to understand the camp the scholars involved with the study belong to.

The Paradigm of Israel Finkelstein and the Bible Unearthed

Professor Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University Led the New Study, a Digital Hebrew Epigraphy Project.

The archaeology department at this school has a reputation for being skeptical about much of biblical history. The scholars involved in the study are of like mind when it comes to their view of the early history of Israel in the Bible. This may influence their study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions.

Professor Finkelstein is best known in popular circles as the coauthor (along with Neil Asher Silberman) of The Bible Unearthed, a very influential book and documentary series that gives archaeological evidence and arguments for how the authors believe the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) came to be constructed over time. The Bible Unearthed, championed a paradigm for viewing the Torah as something written long after the time of Moses – during the reign of Judah’s King Josiah around 630 BC.

Professor Finkelstein believes the further back in time one goes from the time of Josiah, the less reliable the biblical accounts become. His view actually puts the writing of the Torah in an older period than many mainstream scholars. For instance, as seen in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Moses ControversyProfessor Doug Knight, who taught for many years at Vanderbilt’s divinity school, expressed the popular opinion that the Torah was first written in the Persian Period around 400 BC.

Israel Finkelstein at the Megiddo excavation site. (© 2012, Patterns of Evidence LLC.)

Beyond the late date for its authorship, Professor Finkelstein and most other mainstream scholars point to clues in the text they believe show that the Torah (and many other books of the Old Testament) were produced by multiple authors, each with their own agenda. They propose these writings were a complex combination of oral traditions that had been corrupted over time, which were then added to fictional accounts to create origin stories for Israel and to support the political and religious agendas of the various writers. These separate writings were then combined at some point to make the books of the Bible as we have them today. This idea has become so widespread, that in most circles it is no longer even controversial.

Israel Finkelstein does not see himself as a minimalist (someone who sees no historical value to the accounts in the biblical text), because he thinks there are grains of truth embedded in the Scriptures. However, he contends that many aspects of biblical stories are based on other historical realities from different periods. For instance, he has recently argued that the Bible’s legend of the wealth and power of Solomon reigning over a united Israel is actually based on the conditions present during the time of Jeroboam II. For Finkelstien, the evidence points to David and Solomon being rustic chieftains over a weak tribe of herdsmen isolated in the hills of Judah.

The Tel Aviv School’s Approach to the Mesha Inscription

How then can Finkelstein, Na’aman, and Römer (the authors of the study) conclude that Line 31 of the Mesha Stele is most likely speaking of the biblical Balak, supposedly conveying on him historical validity? A quote by Professor Römer is revealing:

‟The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele. But to proffer a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from ancient reality, including the names Balaam and Balak.”

In other words, Römer believes the author of the Book of Numbers (who he thinks was not Moses, but someone writing about 800 years after Moses) added the characters of Balak and Balaam to the biblical story of Israel at the plains of Moab, before crossing the Jordan River, to make it more realistic – even though he believes the real Balak (and Balaam) actually lived more than 500 years after the time of Moses, based on his reading of ‟Balak” on the Mesha Stele.

The hypothesis of reading the biblical “Balak” into the Mesha Stele is consistent with this group’s quest to peel back the layers of the biblical text to discover where its ideas came from and how it developed over time. One challenge to this theory is that there is no direct evidence of any of these supposed multiple authors. Another challenge is that there is no other known example of a book being constructed in this way in ancient history.

Ironically, the claim that line 31 in the Mesha Stele references the biblical Balak of Numbers chapters 22-24 does not actually give historical credibility to the Bible – if true, it would destroy the idea that things happened the way the Bible portrays them.

The Balak Proposal Announced in the Media

A striking reality is that this point seems lost to many of the news articles written on the topic with headlines like ‟Bible BOMBSHELL: Ancient stone tablet ‘PROVES’ Old Testament king WAS real” (the UK tabloid Express), ‟Scientists Find Proof Biblical King Was a Real Historical Figure” (Sputnik News), and ‟New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history” (Phys.org). Some of these sites may find it exciting to overturn a thousand years of Old Testament understanding (if Finkelstein’s theory is true), but many don’t take the time to think through the implications. For an example of media bias, see our update DNA discovers modern Canaanites and stirs up a media Bible blunder.

An article in Fox News does include a scholar noting that the Bible’s King Balak existed 200 years prior to the tablet’s creation, so a reference to him is doubtful (it would actually be at least 350 years prior, even if using the predominant Ramesses Exodus Theory, and at least 550 years prior if one goes with the early Exodus date as explained in our films. It then quotes Finkelstein as saying, ‟[T]he study shows how a story in the Bible may include layers (memories) from different periods which were woven together by later authors into a story aimed to advance their ideology and theology. It also shows that the question of historicity in the Bible cannot be answered in a simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.”

If the Bible’s account were not a straightforward history, but rather a hodgepodge of traditions stitched together as Professor Finkelstein and the Tel Aviv camp assert, then it really would be an extremely vague and uncertain issue. But are they letting the evidence shape their understanding or are they making the evidence fit their preconceived paradigm?

Does the New Reading of ‟balak” Really Support Biblical History?

One point to reiterate is that the interpretation of the damaged Line 31 on the Mesha Stele may not be ‟Balak,” as Finkelstein himself concedes. ‟At the end of the day, the reconstruction of the name ‘Balak’ is circumstantial.”

Even if the line actually does include the name ‟Balak,” that does not mean it is the same Balak as in the Bible. The Numbers 22-24 Balak lived in the 15th century BC and appears to have been a leader among the kings of Moab. The Balak of the Mesha Stele lived in the 9th century BC and appears to be the ruler over Horonaim, which in both the stele and in the Bible seems to be a city or small region on the border between Edom and Moab, when Mesha was the ruler over Moab.

Balak may have been a common name in the area of Moab, just as Israel and Judah had more than one king with the same name, and there were at least two kings named Jabin in Hazor, and there were many kings named Ramesses in Egypt. The only reason to tie this Balak with the Biblical Balak is to satisfy the theory of those who posit that the late author of the account used the name of a more recent king he was familiar with to inject into the story of Balaam in order to supposedly give it more credibility.

Another observation that could be made is that just because the current interpretation makes it unlikely that Line 31 says ‟House of David,” this does not really say anything about the reality of King David’s existence. An oft-quoted maxim is ‟absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There are many things accepted as true history for which there is little to no archaeological evidence.

The Tel Dan Stele with “House of David” highlighted in the lower right. (from Wikimedia Commons)

In the case of King David, many scholars doubted his existence until the Tel Dan Inscription was found in 1993 at the city of Dan in northern Israel, at the foot of Mount Hermon. It was also from the 9th century BC and it references the ‟House of David,” which was the ruling dynasty of the southern kingdom of Judah whose kings were all descended from David.

Amazing Connections Between the Biblical Account and the Mesha Stele

The debate over the reading of Line 31 may have obscured the bigger picture of the Mesha Stele and its connection to biblical history. These references, which in many cases come from undamaged sections of the stele, are part of its account of conflicts between Moab and Israel.

Mesha Stele Inscription References to Biblical History:

  • ‟YHWH” (This is one of the oldest references to Israel’s God ‟YHWH” outside the Bible. Two of the oldest come from Egyptian inscriptions)
  • ‟Israel” – six times (This is the third oldest known use of the name ‟Israel” in an inscription, behind the Berlin Pedestal and the Merneptah Stele.)
  • ‟Omri …king of Israel” (Omri reigned in Israel a half-century after the death of Solomon split the nation in two.)
  • ‟The men of Gad” (Gad was one of the Israelite tribes that settled east of the Jordan River, north of Moab.)

Moab and Israel had a long history of interchange and conflict in the Bible with control of certain areas shifting back and forth over the centuries. In fact, the great-grandmother of King David was Ruth, a Moabite who emigrated to Judah. However Israel Finkelstein in the article written by the study group, claims that the Mesha Stele account does not match the Bible. He made the following statement:

‟…not only is there no evidence for the assumed possession of southern Moab in the late 9th century BCE by the weak Jerusalem dynasty, the assumed Judahite conquest of the area south of the Arnon River contradicts the narrative in 2 Kings 3, which recounts a failed campaign of the kings of Israel and Judah to this territory.”

But is this actually the case? Here is part of the account from the Bible’s book of 2 Kings:

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. So King Jehoram [Joram] marched out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. And he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to battle against Moab?” And he said, “I will go. I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”

– 2 Kings 3:4-7 (ESV)

The biblical chronology has Omri ruling Israel for 12 years, his son Ahab then rules for 22 years, followed by Ahab’s son Ahaziah ruling for 2 years, and Ahaziah’s brother, Joram (also called Jehoram), ruling for 12 years after that. The 2 Kings chapter 3 campaign of Joram with his ally Jehoshaphat of Judah against a rebellious Moab is actually a good match to the campaign mentioned in the Mesha Stele. This is because the stele mentions 40 years from the oppression started by Omri to the conflict Mesha had with an unnamed descendant (son) of Omri. This would be the Joram of the Bible.

Notice that the Israel coalition in the biblical account included Edom, and it was through the unexpected southern route (south of the Dead Sea) that they chose to attack. This matches the Mesha Stele’s mention of a conflict with Horonaim on the line where Balak is possibly mentioned.

Then he said, “By which way shall we march?” Jehoram answered, “By the way of the wilderness of Edom.” So the king of Israel went with the king of Judah and the king of Edom. And when they had made a circuitous march of seven days, there was no water for the army or for the animals that followed them.

– 2 Kings 3:8-9 (ESV)

Human Sacrifices Match Biblical Account

Importantly, the Bible is unclear about the details of the campaign. It appears to portray the forces of Israel meeting with widespread initial success in overthrowing Moabite cities and stopping up their springs during a time of drought. They then seemingly retreat because of God’s wrath against Israel (in verse 27). This occurred after an incident where the king of Moab sacrificed his oldest son on the wall of the city as a burnt offering.

This matches the Mesha Stele, which mentions Mesha’s order to all the Moabites for every man to dig a well in their house. The mention of human sacrifice in the Bible is also consistent with the character of Mesha in the stele where it speaks of him sacrificing the Israelite women of Nebo to the Moabite god Ashtar-Chemosh (an idol) after he captured the city.

Unlike the claims of Finkelstein, however, the Bible never says which areas of Moab were occupied by Israel before or after the rebellion. Did Mesha retake the areas that had been invaded after the withdrawal of Israelite forces? Did Edom take up the occupation of some of those areas? The Bible does not say. When Finkelstein states ‟..the assumed Judahite conquest of the area south of the Arnon River contradicts the narrative in 2 Kings 3, which recounts a failed campaign of the kings of Israel and Judah to this territory.” One wonders what version of the Bible he is referring to.

…the Israelites rose and struck the Moabites, till they fled before them. And they went forward, striking the Moabites as they went. And they overthrew the cities …

– 2 Kings 3:24-25 (ESV)

A Patterns Approach to the Biblical Account of Israel’s Kings

So, if one takes the Bible’s account as innocent until proven guilty and applies common sense to the available data, the following thoughts arise: The damaged section of the stele may not say “Balak” at all, and if it does, there is no reason to think it is speaking of the biblical Balak who reigned over five centuries earlier and does not fit other biblical information. A careful comparison of the biblical text shows that Finkelstein’s alleged contradictions seem to be purely manufactured with no foundation. The Bible does, in fact, portray an invasion into the Moabite territory in the time and manner consistent with the Mesha Stele. And the Mesha Stele matches the Bible’s account in remarkable ways.

This highlights the importance of taking a closer look at evidence of the biblical account and then seeing where the patterns of evidence, both inside and outside the Bible, emerge. – Keep Thinking!

TOP PHOTO: Lines 12–16 of the Mesha Stele, reconstructed from the squeeze, with the middle line (14) reading “Take Nebo against Israel.” (from Wikimedia Commons)

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