New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history

The biblical King Balak may have been a historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE

Balak Mesha Stele
Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone), plaster replica of the basalt original in the Louvre, Dhiban, Jordan, Iron Age IIB, c. 830 BC – Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Photo Daderot,CC0 

The biblical King Balak may have been a historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE.

A name in Line 31 of the stele, previously thought to read , ‘House of David’, could instead read ‘Balak’, a king of Moab mentioned in the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), say archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Prof. Nadav Na’aman and Prof. Thomas Römer, in an article published in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

The Mesha Stele was found in the 19th century in the ruins of the biblical town of Dibon in Moab (present day Jordan), and is now in the Louvre. The stone’s inscription tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavours of King Mesha of Moab, who is mentioned in the Bible. The stele was cracked in the 19th century and parts of it are missing, but portions of the missing parts are preserved in a reverse copy of the inscription, known as a ‘squeeze’, made before the stele cracked.

The authors studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze, and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter beth (a ‘b’ sound).

While the other letters are eroded, the most likely candidate for the monarch’s name is ‘Balak’, the authors say. The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was at Horonaim, a place mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River. “Thus, Balak may be a historical personality like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the Deir Alla inscription, was considered to be an ‘invented’ figure,” they suggest.

“The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading, ‘House of David’ – accepted by many scholars for more than two decades – is no longer an option,” the authors conclude. “With due caution we suggest the name of the Moabite king Balak, who, according to the Balaam story of Numbers 22-24, sought to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel.

“This story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele. Yet, to give a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from the ancient reality, including two personal names: Balaam and Balak.”

 

Press release from Taylor & Francis Group

 

New reading of the Mesha Stele inscription has major consequences for biblical history

Line of the inscription lends credence to the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, Tel Aviv University researchers say

 

The legendary King Balak from the Book of Numbers may have been a real historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, the longest extra-biblical inscription in existence.

The Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone dating to the ninth century BCE, tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavors of King Mesha of Moab, who is also mentioned in the Second Book of Kings in the Old Testament. The stele was found in the 19th century among the ruins of the ancient town of Dibon in Moab, located in today’s Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. The stele is on display at the Louvre Museum.

According to the study, a word on Line 31 of the stele that has until now been interpreted as “House of David” in fact refers to King “Balak,” who is known as a Moab ruler only from the Book of Numbers.

The new Tel Aviv University-Collège de France study was published on May 2 in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. It was co-authored by Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Prof. Nadav Na’aman of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures in collaboration with Prof. Thomas Römer of Collège de France and the University of Lausanne.

A recent exhibit, Mésha et la Bible, held in October 2018 at the Collège de France in Paris in conjunction with the Louvre Museum, showcased the Meshe Stele “squeeze,” a reverse copy of the inscription on paper. This exhibition afforded researchers the unique opportunity to take high-resolution photographs of the squeeze.

Although the stele had been cracked in the 19th century, the parts that went missing were preserved in the squeeze, which was made before the stone broke into pieces.

The authors of the new research studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter bet, which corresponds to the English letter “B.”

The most likely candidate for the monarch’s name is “Balak.” The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was “Horonaim,” which is mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River.

“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,” explains Prof. Finkelstein. “The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading ‘House of David’ — accepted by many scholars for more than two decades — is no longer valid.”

In 1994 the French epigrapher André Lemaire suggested that letters missing in Line 31 of the stele would spell “House of David,” as in the Tel Dan Stele, which features the term in reference to the Kingdom of Judah. Accordingly, Lemaire proposed that in the mid-ninth century Judah ruled in southern Moab, east of the Dead Sea.

“With due caution, we suggest that the line refers to the Moabite King Balak, who, according to the Balaam story in Numbers 22-24, was supposed to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel,” Prof. Na’aman says.

“The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele,” Prof. Römer adds. “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.”

###

American Friends of Tel Aviv University supports Israel’s most influential, comprehensive and sought-after center of higher learning, Tel Aviv University (TAU). TAU is recognized and celebrated internationally for creating an innovative, entrepreneurial culture on campus that generates inventions, startups and economic development in Israel. TAU is ranked ninth in the world, and first in Israel, for producing start-up founders of billion-dollar companies, an achievement that surpassed several Ivy League universities. To date, 2,500 US patents have been filed by Tel Aviv University researchers — ranking TAU #1 in Israel, #10 outside of the US and #43 in the world.

 

Press release from the American Friends of the Tel Aviv University

Dove i classici si incontrano. ClassiCult è una Testata Giornalistica registrata presso il Tribunale di Bari numero R.G. 5753/2018 – R.S. 17. Direttore Responsabile Domenico Saracino, Vice Direttrice Alessandra Randazzo

Write A Comment

Pin It