Controversy continues to swirl around the discovery of the recently announced lead curse tablet from Mt. Ebal. With the one-sided, highly critical article from the Biblical Archaeological Society’s Bible History Daily column, I thought I’d share my thoughts on this find. I believe some balance is required because of the fact that the author only interviewed scholars critical of the find without reaching out to ABR or Dr. Scott Stripling and the article included factual inaccuracies.
First, the background: if you missed the announcement, I encourage you to watch the press conference from the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). Archaeologist, Dr. Scott Stripling described the discovery of a folded lead tablet (defixio) recovered as part of the Mount Ebal Dump Salvage (MEDS) project in December 2019. The lead tablet was found by wet-sifting material from Adam Zertal’s excavations of the cultic site on Mt. Ebal, which took place in the 1980’s. Epigraphers, Dr. Gershon Galil and Dr. Peter Van der Veen, described the results of the tomographic scan of the tablet. They announced that there is a legible inscription in paleo-alphabetic script inside the tablet, which reads:
“Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will surely die.
Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
Based on the location of the find and the use of the name of the god YHW, they believe this to be a Hebrew inscription, the earliest YHW inscription yet found in Israel. A photo of a drawing of the proto-alphabetic word, YHW, from the inscription was shown at the press conference. Finally, during the Q&A, they suggested the possibility that the curse tablet from Mt. Ebal, might be connected to the covenant renewal ceremony recorded in the Bible (Josh. 8:30-35), where curses were to be recited from Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27:13-26).
Here are my ten thoughts on the lead curse tablet:
- Some have criticized ABR for holding a press conference before the publication of the peer-reviewed article with the actual scans of the inscription. I should note that this is not ABR’s normal practice. A few years ago, when I heard that ABR discovered a ceramic pomegranate at Shiloh, I tried to get the scoop for a blog about it and could not get any information or photos from Scott before he published his article on the find. “Wait until the article comes out,” he kept telling me. Until that pomegranate article was published, Dr. Stripling was like Fort Knox, giving very little away. The discovery of the lead tablet, however, had extenuating circumstances, which Dr. Stripling addressed in his second Q&A conference and which necessitated the announcement before the peer-reviewed article.
- Some have, without any further information than what was provided at the press-conference, essentially written off this discovery. For my part, I believe Dr. Stripling, Dr. Galil, and Dr. Van der Veen should be given the benefit of the doubt. They are scholars who are well-respected, even by those who do not share their views about the Bible.
- Inscriptions from ancient Israel are relatively rare. If this inscription dates to the LB-IA period, and if it bears the name YHW, the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex. 3:14) then it is a very important discovery on this basis alone!
- Epigrapher, Dr. Christopher Rollston was quoted as saying, “I would predict that almost all of the readings posited in the press conference will be vigorously contested, once scholars in the field of epigraphy are allowed to see the image.” I have no doubt that this will be the case. This is always the case! There are still scholars who believe the famous Tell Dan Stele does not say “House of David,” but rather “House of Beloved,” “House of Uncle,” or “House of Kettle.” There will always be critics who interpret things differently, no matter how much of a consensus there is around an inscription.
- Regarding the dating, Adam Zertal dated the construction of the rectangular altar to LBIIB (ca. 1225 BC) and it remained in use until ca. 1150 (Iron Age I). Beneath the rectangular altar, at its exact geometric center, Zertal found a round altar, which he thought belonged to the previous generation (ca. 1250 B.C.). Scott Stripling has suggested that the earlier, round altar may date to the LB IB/IIA horizon (ca. 1400 BC). The lead tablet was found in the dump pile from the excavation of these altars. It may be LB or it may be IA. If it is LB, then it may be connected to the covenant renewal ceremony recorded in the Bible. Even if it is from the IA, it may be commemorating that ceremony making it a very early witness to a biblical event. We have to await the peer-reviewed journal article to see how the authors make the case for the date of the lead tablet.
- If the announcements made at the press conference regarding the inscription of the lead tablet bear up under the scrutiny of other fair-minded scholars, it is yet more evidence that demonstrates that there was an alphabetic script which could have been used to compose the biblical text at the time it purports to have been written.
- One of the things that seems to have been missed in much of the ink that has been spilled is the importance of wet-sifting. This is a technology that ABR is on the cutting edge of and really needs to become standard practice in archaeology.
- The Bible History Daily article made the following claim: “An investigation by Haaretz found that the ABR team failed to get permission for the Mt. Ebal sifting project from either the Palestinian Authority or Israel’s Staff Officer for Archaeology of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, calling into question the legality of the project and the find. Additionally, the ABR team did not receive an export license to take the tablet out of the country for analysis, as is required by Israeli law.” I reached out to Dr. Stripling, who confirmed that these claims are false. First, the material was legally excavated by Adam Zertal in the 1980’s. Secondly, without getting into the politics of the region, he had permission to sift the dump material and the permit to transport the lead tablet from the appropriate authorities.
- Finally, I have been asked whether this discovery will alter my list of the Top Ten Discoveries Related to Joshua and the Conquest. The short answer is, it almost certainly will. Readers will note that I did not reference the lead tablet at all in my list, although the altar on Mt. Ebal came in at #6. When I published my blog on Nov. 12, 2021, I was aware of the lead tablet, but the results of the scans had not yet been completed, so I left it off of my list. My current plan is to wait until the peer-reviewed article is published and then adjust my list accordingly. For this reason, we even postponed a planned Digging for Truth episode on the Top Ten Discoveries Related to Joshua and the Conquest until a later date.
- Full disclosure: I’m honored to be a staff researcher and writer for the Associates for Biblical Research. I consider Dr. Stripling to be an excellent archaeologist, a colleague, and a friend. I trust him, and believe his track-record of publication means he and his team can be trusted to publish this find in a peer-reviewed article in a timely fashion. In addition, I’m trying to be fair in my response to the discovery. I’m not automatically declaring it the greatest discovery in the history of biblical archaeology, nor doubting its veracity. Despite my obvious bias, I’m trying to remain balanced and look forward to seeing the evidence when it is fully presented.
In conclusion, I recommend that people take a wait-and-see approach. Don’t allow your opinions to be swayed by skeptics who have much to say but little evidence on which to base their conclusions. I think it would be unfair not to give these respected scholars the benefit of the doubt and I am waiting with cautious optimism for their peer-reviewed article.
P.S. For a much more balanced review of the press conference and the lead tablet than the article listed above, I recommend listening to the On-Script Biblical World podcast with Oliver Hersey, Mark Janzen, Kyle Keimer, and Chris McKinny or watching Sean McDowell’s interview with Dr. Jeremiah Johnston.