By Steve Willis
“I am Mesha, son Chemosh[it], king of Moab, the Dibonite — my father (had) reigned over Moab thirty years, and I reigned after my father, — (who) made this high place for Chemosh in Qarhoh….” This is the beginning of the text inscribed on the Moabite Stone, one of the major finds relating to biblical archaeology. The inscription goes on to tell of Mesha’s successful revolt from Northern Israel and mentions his conquest of Israelite territory.
After Israel’s kings Saul, David, and Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel divided into two sections, Israel to the north and Judah to the south (see 1 Kings 12). Judah’s kings, ruling from Jerusalem, would all be from the family of David. Northern Israel would be ruled by several families in Tirzeh and Samaria. The kingdom was never again united: “Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (1 Kings 12:19).
Texts and excavation in archaeology have provided background for the time of the Divided Kingdom. A few significant finds include Syrian’s king Benhadad’s Stele, the monolith of Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, and the Moabite Stone, which is the subject of this article. The Moabite Stone is also called the Stele of Mesha. Mesha was king of Moab, Israel’s neighbor to the East beyond the Dead Sea (see 2 Kings 3:4).
The nation of Moab figures importantly into the Bible accounts of Lot, Israel’s Wilderness Wanderings, Ruth, and the United and Divided Kingdoms of Israel. Moab had been subjected to United Israel during the time of David (2 Sam. 8:2). By Solomon’s time they were probably allied, for Solomon loved a Moabitess and built a temple to her god, Chemosh (2 Kings 11:1, 7). Sometime after the division of Israel, Moab was subjected to the northern king Omri (880-874 B.C.) and received a tribute from Moab of 100,000 lambs and 100,000 rams with their wool (2 Kings 3:4). Moab’s king Mesha would rebel against Omri’s Dynasty when Omri’s son Ahab (874-853 B.C.) died. Mesha also revolted against Omri’s grandsons, Ahaziah (853-852 B.C.; 2 Kings 1:1-2) and Jehoram (852-841 B.C.; see 2 Kings 3:4-27). (For dates and problems with determining chronologies, see Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings; Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament.)
Setting up the Moabite Stone
2 Kings 3 gives the Bible account of the rebellion of Moab under their king Mesha against northern Israel, whose king was Jehoram (Joram):
Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and used to pay the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. But it came about, when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. And King Jehoram went out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. Then he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat the 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.” And he said, “Which way shall we go up?” And he answered, “The way of the wilderness of Edom.” So the king of Israel went with the king of Judah and the king of Edom; and they made a circuit of seven days’ journey, and there was no water for the army or for the cattle that followed them. . . . But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites arose and struck the Moabites, so that they fled before them; and they went forward into the land, slaughtering the Moabites. Thus they destroyed the cities; and each one threw a stone on every piece of good land and filled it. So they stopped all the springs of water and felled all the good trees, until in Kir-hareseth only they left its stones; however, the slingers went about it and struck it. When the king of Moab saw that the battle was too fierce for him, he took with him 700 men who drew swords, to break through to the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land. (Text taken from 2 Kings 3.)
Each side could claim a victory, and this is what Mesha did when he would later erect the Mesha Stele, or Moabite Stone, in Dibon, the Moabite capital. The Mesha Stele was made of basalt rock. It was 3 feet 10 inches tall, 2 feet wide, and 2-1/2 inches thick. It was rectangular except that the top had been rounded to a semi-circle. It had 39 lines of text inscribed into the rock in the Moabite language. Mesha described victories and building projects, including building a “high place,” probably for worship in gratitude for his various victories. Here is Mesha’s version of events in 2 Kings 3:
As for Omri king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years (lit. days), for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, “I will humble Moab.” In my time he spoke (thus), but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel hath perished forever! Now Omri had occupied the land of Medeba, and (Israel) has dwelt there in his time and half of the time of his son (Ahab), forty years; but Chemosh dwelt there in my time. (Moabite Stone, lines 5-10). (One may read the entire inscription from The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, volume 1; ed. James B. Pritchard; Dr. A. Neubaurer’s translation, with Bible references inserted, in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr.)
However, this is not the only victory he claims against Israel. He also says he slew all in Antaroth, took Nebo, and he slew many thousand men, women, boys and girls, devoting them to his god, Chemosh. The stone also describes other cities Mesha reclaimed and rebuilt as well as other building projects he is said to have finished. It was set up to honor Mesha’s god, Chemosh, who is mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 11:33; 2 Kings 23:13). The Mesha Stele was probably set up between 850 and 830 B.C.
The Moabite Stone in Modern Times
In August 1868, in Dhiban (biblical Dibon), German missionary F.A. Klein (V. Klein, in ISBE) was shown an inscribed slab by an Arab sheik. Before that the French scholar Clermont-Ganneau had heard reports of its existence in Jerusalem, but Klein saw it first. The British Museum, German and French consular authorities, and eventually the Turkish officials showed interests in the Stele. In 1873, Arabs broke the Moabite Stone into many pieces by kindling a fire under it, then pouring water on it. This caused it to crack. Fragments were carried away as charms to bless their crops.
The French, however, had previously taken a “squeeze” (impression) of the Stone before it was broken. With that, and efforts to recover as much as possible (two large fragments and eighteen smaller pieces), archaeologists were able to reconstruct about two-thirds of the texts inscribed on the stone. Parts of 34 of the 39 lines are readable, as scholars have restored 660 of the estimated 1,100 letters. An edition of the text was prepared by Professors Smend and Socin in 1886. William F. Allbright’s translation is in “Palestinian Inscriptions” in The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, ed. James B. Pritchard (1954, 1958).
By 1873, the Stele was taken to the Louvre museum in France, where it is on display. (For more on the history of the Moabite Stone, see The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr; The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney; The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer.)
The Value of the Moabite Stone to Biblical Archaeology
The Moabite Stone is historical confirmation of the biblical narrative and is a historical document of the first order for a number of reasons. First, it is a text written close to the time it describes. It was written by — or at least commanded to have been written by — a person named in the Bible, Mesha (2 Kings 3:4). The name “Israel” is mentioned six times on the Moabite Stone. The text names Israel’s sixth king Omri and refers to his sons as well. The Bible hints at Omri’s greatness (1 Kings16) whereas the Moabite Stone and confirms it so by reporting Moab’s vassalage to Israel until Mesha’s revolt.
Initially, there were few ancient texts to compare to biblical Hebrew, but by careful comparison (paleography), the Mesha Stele helps scholars understand the language used in Old Testament times. Moab and Israel’s languages were probably mutually understandable. “With the political and economic domination of Moab by Israel during parts of the 10th and 9th centuries (B.C.), it is not surprising that the Moabite would be similar to Hebrew . . .” (Dearman and Mattingly, in “Mesha Stele,” Anchor Bible Dictionary). The inscription on the Moabite Stone was written in an Aramaic dialect and in early cursive Hebrew-like script, which was very similar to the language used in ancient Israel. The inscription on the Moabite Stone has allowed scholars to see the early alphabet and formation of letters (orthography), the use of punctuation marks, word dividers and the use of phrases from that time period. Mesha used “high place” as a place of worship to his idol (cf. 2 Kings 23:15). The use of “Chemosh” — his god — in his father’s name is comparable to the forms of Jehovah (Yahweh, Yah) in Israelites’ names (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, etc.). The term or rite of “cherem” (devoted, under the ban) is used by Mesha much as it was in Bible times (Josh. 6:17-18; 1 Sam. 15:21), and has been better understood since finding the Moabite Stone. Another term used by Mesha is “forty” of the length of Omri’s oppression, which has been thought to have been used figuratively, indefinitely, or at least as an upward-rounding of numbers. R.K. Harrison wrote that even combining Omri and Ahab’s reigns, could “. . . hardly have been more than twenty-three years at the very most” (Introduction to the Old Testament 1164). Some have suggested the Bible uses this term this way as well in a few places.
The Moabite Stone confirms the geography of many Bible place names. In the acquiring of cities by war and rebuilding campaign of Mesha, we can read many places named in the Bible. Arnon (Num. 21:13, Deut. 2:24; 3:16), Aroer (Josh. 13:16), Ataroth (Num. 32:34), Baal-meon or Beth-baal-meon (Josh. 13:17; Num. 32:38), Beth-bamoth (Bamoth-baal, Josh. 13:17), Beth-diblathaim (Jer. 48:22), Bezer (Josh. 20:8), Dibon (Num. 32:34; Josh. 13:17; Isa. 15:2), Horonaim (Isa. 15:5), Jahaz (Josh. 13:18; Isa. 15:4), Kerioth (Jer. 48:24), Kiriathaim (Josh. 13:19; Jer. 48:23), Medeba (Madeba, Josh. 13:9, 16; Isa. 15:2), and Nebo, where Moses stood to view the Promised Land (Num. 32:38; Deut. 34:1; Isa. 15:2). (From Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, Vol. 1, 189]. Mesha also credited himself with building the highway in Arnon (river valley, cf. Judg. 11:18; Jer. 48:20). (One should consult one of the Bible atlases to locate these on a map. See Baker’s Bible Atlas; The Harper’s Atlas of the Bible; Oxford Bible Atlas.)
Last, and certainly not least, the Moabite Stone was the first non-biblical text or inscription found in modern times using “Yahweh” (YHWH, or Jehovah), as a name for the God of Israel; Mesha knew “Yahweh” was Israel’s God:
And I took there the […] of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh.
Some have supplied “vessels” in the space where the text it lacking. Since finding the Moabite Stone, there have been other secular sources found with this biblical name of God, but the Moabite Stone was the first witness of it found in modern times. In addition to Israel’s God, the Moabite Stone supplies the names of Mesha and Moab’s gods which are named and condemned in the Bible: Chemosh (Num. 21:29) and Ashtar, which is known in the Scriptures in the plural as Ashtaroth (see 1 Sam. 12:10). Again we can see the trustworthiness of the biblical account as witnessed by the Moabite Stone.
The Moabite Stone: Archaeological Light on the Bible
In 1925, R.A.S. McAllister wrote, “The chief light shed by excavation upon Palestinian political history has come, not from Palestine itself, but from foreign countries which from time to time influenced it in one way or another” — to which Oswald T. Allis added in 1972, “The statement is largely true today” (McAllister quoted in Allis, The Old Testament: Its Claims and Its Critics 180). Few archaeological discoveries show this to be truer for the time of the Divided Kingdom than the Moabite Stone.
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