Biblical Archaeology in the News Again!

By Daniel H. King

Two Important Finds

Over the last several months some very exciting things have been reported in many newspapers across the country with reference to discoveries in Jordan and Syria which appear to have either direct or indirect relevance for students of the Old Testament. In reading the accounts I have been tempted on a few occasions to write up a critique on the basis of the mass media reports but my better judgment consistently got the better of me. For several reasons I was determined to wait for reports issuing from the scholarly publications. One major reason is that one does not always get the facts right when dependent upon those untrained in a particular discipline (journalists are usually only expert reporters and not specialists in technical fields of endeavor); there is a well-known tendency on the part of news people to over-estimate and exaggerate for the sake of a mass readership; in addition scholars are usually more apt to be deliberate and reserved in their judgments since their scholarly reputations are “on the line” when they offer their opinions. One will have to wait a while longer to enjoy the fruit of their expertise, but in most cases the wait is justified. Too often we have rushed into print with insufficient information at our disposal and been embarrassed at a sudden change in scholarly mood and sentiment at a later date. Throwing caution to the wind is like spitting into the wind. We never like the results!

I therefore hope that my remarks are not premature or exaggerated. Conservative religious folk are often faulted for over-playing the value of Archaeology in the realm of Evidences. And, perhaps we sometimes deserve it. I have never heard of anyone yet who obeyed the gospel because of the Moabite Stone or the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, although both of these certainly fit into the class of those discoveries which are monumental in their impact upon historical and biblical studies. If I did I would most likely eye them with skepticism, since both things now are clearly aspects of knowledge rather than faith. Knowledge is demonstrable and amenable to validation through scientific means. Faith is not. Faith is “a conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). It comes by the hearing of the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), not by scientific and historical testing and validation. I believe the Bible is true not because Archaeology has proven it to be true (which it has not done and cannot do) but because God said so. People believed the Bible before Archaeology was ever thought of and believed it no more or less since its present popularity. Those who believed the Bible before the many recent discoveries are encouraged and strengthened by them. But, on the other hand, nonbelievers have merely back off momentarily, rallied

their forces, revamped their strategy, changed their tactics somewhat, and mounted a fresh assault on the Scriptures. Nothing has really changed.

So, why do we bother to keep up with the latest finds in Archaeology? For numerous reasons. Assuredly it sets a tone of historical credibility and veracity for the book as a whole as demonstrated by those parts which have been tested in the arena of knowledge. As well, it has out-dated many of the older works which leveled criticism at the Scriptures from the standpoint of historical criteria and has set a mood of caution and solicitude (even gingerliness) over the whole of liberal biblical scholarship which has long been overdue. For these reasons and others we will ever remain in the debt of the many dedicated men who have spent untold hours sifting through the dust of ages past with the hope of giving posterity a greater insight into the text and background of the Bible.

The Balaam Inscription

From Deuteronomy 27:2-4 we learn that the children of Israel were to set up stone monuments in Mount Ebal when they inherited the land of Canaan and to overlay them with plaster. In the plaster was to be inscribed “very plainly” the words of the law. Apparently this passage reflected a custom of monument-making which was frequent in the ancient East, for the text of a similar inscription was discovered in 1967 and reported in the March, 1976 Biblical Archaeologist which bears indirectly upon the story of Balsam as reported in Numbers 22-24. The fragmentary text (or possible texts) was found at Tell Deir — ‘Alla in Jordan by Dr. H. J. Franken. It is written in a dialect of Aramaic which has many affinities with biblical Hebrew and dates from around 700 B.C. The lines are written in a kind of poetic idiom. Herein lies one of the important aspects of the discovery: heretofore Aramaic poetry dating before the Christian era was unknown. Further, the character of the material is prophetic and this makes it the first prophecy of any scope from the ancient West Semitic world outside the prophecies of the Old Testament. Here are a couple of important comments from Jacob Hoftijzer as to content:

“The first combination contains a prophecy In the name of the prophet Balaam, the son of Beor, known in the Old Testament (Num. 22-24; Deut, 23:5-6; Josh. 13:22; 24:9-10; Neh. 13:2; Mic. 6:5, and see also Num. 31:8 and 16). According to Old Testament tradition, this non-Israelite prophet had been summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites, who were marching through Tranalordan Into Palestine proper; but through God’s Intervention Balaam was obliged to bless the Israelites rather than to curse them. In the Old Testament Balsam is clearly a figure who belongs exclusively to traditions about Translordan, it is noteworthy then, that our texts in which be plays a central role, likewise come from a Translordanian holy place. Also, in oar teats Balaam has no connection whatever with anything that can be considered characteristic of typically Israelite religion. If one combines the biblical data with those of Deir– ‘Alla, one moat conclude that for a considerable period of time the figure of Balasm took up a prominent position In a specific religious tradition In Transjordan.

The form in which the prophecy Is narrated resembles those in which certain Old Testament prophecies have been handed down ….

The second combination contains-so far as it is Intelligible–a series of curses, parallels for which are found In many passages of the Old Testament and In other ancient Near Eastern literature . . . (pp. 12-13).”

He further points out that “It is striking how many points of contact there are between this. text and the Old Testament” (p. 14). Certainly scholars are now in possession of a significant piece of evidence in this inscriptional material. We shall anxiously await further details on these Deir — Alla texts. For now we are grateful for the several points of confirmation which are obvious from this material.

The Ebla Archives

During the years 1974 and 1975 in the excavations at Tell Mardikh in North Syria, the Italian Archaeological Mission of the University of Rome unearthed around 16,000 texts from the 3rd millennium B.C. The language of the city called in ancient times Ebla has been labeled Paleo-canaanite and was previously unknown. Surprisingly though, this language represents only about a fifth of the texts. The rest are clearly in Sumerian, the language of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization known as Sumer. Under the direction of Professor Paolo Matthiae, the Italian archaeologists uncovered an entire era of ancient Near Eastern history with the finding of these tablets.

The texts reveal the history of the city of Ebla. They date from the Early Bronze IV period, or about 24002250 B.C. This is before the time of Abraham. Every kind of material is found in these documents: mythological stories, hymns to divinities, incantations, collections of proverbs, royal ordinances, international treaties, legal texts, school exercises, economic and administrative texts, etc. In addition, historical texts of many kinds bespeak the political history of Syria during the term of Ebla’s power.

More importantly for students of the Old Testament, however, is the fact that there are several points of contact worthy of notice. Firstly, in the texts we find third millennium documentation of cities hitherto attested only in the first and second millennia B.C., such as Salim, the city of Melchizedeck, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, Gaza, Dor, Sinai, Ashtarot, Joppa and others.

Among the kings of Ebla appears the name of Ebrum, third in the list of Eblaite monarchs. His name is written Eb-uru-um with two possible readings: Eb-ru-um, which resembles the biblical Eber, the father of the Semites according to Gen. 10:21; or Eb-ri-um, which reminds us of the name Eb-ri or “Hebrew.” In his article in the May, 1976 Biblical Archaeologist, Giovanni Pettinato chooses the second as the better alternative (p. 47). Many other names which appear in the Ebla texts appear also in the Old Testament in roughly the same form. The name Da-wi-dum (David) is present in the texts, over a thousand years before the son of Jesse wore it; Ish-ra-il and Ish-ra ya both also appear. And, notably, the name Ya (the Old Testament shortened form of “Yehovah”) and the name II (the Old Testament term El, or “God”) both appear in the texts and seem to point to a specific deity.

Much more could be said about this important archaeological find, but as yet the details are scanty and the interpretations varied. It will take many years to sort out and evaluate properly the mass of data that is now made available through the Ebla excavations. It is certain, though, that exciting days lie ahead for those of us who are intrigued by such things!

Truth Magazine XXI: 35, pp. 556-557
September 8, 1977