Lost In Biblical Translation Recovered In High Resolution

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Chances are you have never heard of the Moabite Stele or Mesha Stone (below) but that doesn’t mean it is of no interest to you. On the contrary. Try to get interested as it may lead to discoveries of great importance for your Afterlife. It’s a stele, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris, containing thirty four lines of text celebrating the deeds of Mesha, the Moabite king who lived about 3,000 years ago –according to the official compute– and how he managed to throw off the yoke of Israel and restore the lands of Moab. The story of its “discovery” at the site of biblical Dibon (now Dhiban) in Jordan, is so cinematographic that it deserves special mention –which will come a little further on.

First of all, we’d like to talk about scholarly effort. We find it would be most interesting to begin, albeit briefly, with a school of Jewish scholars in Palestine and Iraq, called the Masorets. Around 600 AD the Masorets undertook the vocalization of the consonantal “Hebrew” of the Jewish Bible (a consonantal language is written without vowels). This task was finished 400 years later, around 10th century AD. It should be taken into consideration that when they started, “Hebrew” had been a dead language for at least 900 years, probably more, and therefore the language of the Jewish Bible was for the Masorets the language of religious scholarship only, and it’s not clear at all to what extent. Obviously, linguistic study of a consonantal language becomes inconclusive when not backed up by the spoken language. Unsurprisingly, errors were inevitable and doubts about the Masoretic vocalization of the Bible texts have existed since the earliest days of Biblical criticism.

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Left: Drawing of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone) by Mark Lidzbarski, published in 1898: The shaded area represents pieces of the original stele, whereas the plain white background represents Ganneau’s reconstruction from the 1870s based on the impression. Centre: the Moabite Stone, front view, in its current location. Right: The photo from the article, with Line 31 marked.

It has just been discovered with the aid of high-resolution photographs that there may have occurred a mistake in rendering a name in Line 31 of the stele, previously thought to read “House of David”. It is now thought that it should read “Balak”, which would be the name of a king of Moab mentioned in the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24). We owe this correction-suggestion to archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Prof. Nadav Na’aman (University of Tel Aviv, Israel) and Prof. Thosmas Römer (University of Lausanne, France), who have published the results of their investigation in The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University under the title “Restoring Line 31 in the Mesha Stele: The ‘House of David’ or Biblical Balak?” According to the article the bottom line is that Balak, just as Balaam before, is not an invented figure, as it was once thought, but a historical one, although these days biblical scholars use the phrase “we cautiously suggest” when postulating their discoveries.

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Fig. 1 from the article; Line 31 enlarged.

The bottom part of the Mesha Stele, which includes Line 31, is broken (Fig. 1). About seven letters are missing from the beginning of the line, followed by the words (“sheep/small cattle of the land”). Next there is a vertical stroke that marks the transition to a new sentence, which opens with the words  (“And Hawronēn dwelt therein”). Evidently a name is expected to follow. Then there is a legible beth, followed by a partially eroded, partially broken section with space for two letters, followed by a waw and an unclear letter. The rest of the line, with space for three letters, is missing. (The Journal, Restoring Line 31)

The above is pure speculation. Why should it be “evident” that a name is expected to follow after “and Hawronen dwelt therein”? Rather, the name would be expected to precede, hence “therein”. And how do we know that there is space for three letters exactly in the part of the line which is missing? The only perfectly clear thing is that letters are partially eroded, broken, unclear or missing.

It should be mentioned here that some scholars say that the Mesha Stone is written in the Phoenician alphabet. Others say it is written in the Old Hebrew script, closely related to the Phoenician. Yet others maintain that it is inscribed in an eastern form of Canaanite, closely akin to “Hebrew”. However, nobody knows what actually is designated by the word “Canaanite” or where and how it originated. Canaan is also called Phoenicia, and the Greeks knew the Canaanites as Phoenicians. Canaan could refer to the whole Palestine west of Jordan or to the coastland of Palestine. In the Bible its population could be called Canaanites or Amorites. Apparently, those are names that hardly name anything or anyone.

We say that it’s not so much the “script” that matters but the language it represents. The Turkish language offers in this respect a good example. Three scripts have been used to write it. Since time immemorial it had been written in the script found on two large monuments discovered in the valley of the Orhon River, dating AD 732 and 735. From around AD 800 until 1923-38 it was written in the Arabic script; since then it has been written in the Latin alphabet.

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Left: Script of the Orhon Inscriptions. Centre: Arabic script. Right: Modern Turkish script. Three scripts, one language.

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Left: Two monuments found in the valley of the Orhon River with the oldest extant Turkish writings (script above, left). Right: A line of poetry in Osmanli Turkish (Arabic script), meaning “Does any rose, in this rose garden world, lack thorns?”

Names such as Phoenician, Acadian, Hebrew, Syriac or Aramaic and many others have been arbitrarily given to mean “languages”. Interestingly, the Bible never uses the term “Hebrew” with reference to any language. Instead, expressions such as “the language of Canaan”, “the language of Judah”, “the language of Ashdod” are used (Isaiah 19:18; 2 Kings 18:26-28; 2 Chronicles 32:18; Nehemiah 13:24), the fact which indicates that “language” is used in the meaning of “dialect”. The only language that might be useful in deciphering Middle East dialects is the Arabic language, spoken until the present day with no interruption. “Hebrew” had been dead as a spoken language for at least 2,500 years until it was reconstructed as Modern Hebrew with the help of the Arabic grammar. More importantly, Arabic is the most acceptable name for those “dialects” since they were all forms of the same language.

If the Masorets had problems with vowelling their consonantal text one thousand years ago, imagine the difficulties of modern investigators who aren’t even sure how to call the script in which the text on the stele is written and for reasons which are far from academic avoid any reference to the Arabic language. Perhaps if the stone were in perfect condition, somebody with excellent knowledge of the Arabic language, preferably a native or near-native speaker, would be able to read it. But this stone is so corrupt that it is not even worth trying. Thus, we are not surprised it has given modern scholars so many headaches.

Scholars have offered a variety of possibilities in an effort to complete and decipher the eroded and missing part of Line 31 after . (The Journal, Restoring Line 31)

What comes in the article after this quote is 18 lines of references (bibliography) covering the period of 110 years (1875-1985) of biblical research, which provided, “notably” according to the authors, no solution for the missing name but we are assured that scholars made every effort to solve the century-and-a half-long puzzle, the fact which resulted in “a variety of possibilities”. Just in case there are not enough possibilities, we are prepared to add several of our own. However, the only question that should be answered is: Does anyone know what letters the “eroded and missing part” contains or not? If there is no certainty, we must accept that it might be “House of David”, Balak, Balal, Ba’al, Barak Bedad, Bedan, even Becher. Or not.

The authors of the study announce in the next paragraph that “a turn in research took place after the publication of the Aramaic stele from Tel Dan”, which affirmation is followed by 19 lines of bibliography covering years 1993-2014 (20 more years of investigation). This particular effort resulted in the decipherment of the missing line or part of the line as “House of David”, interpreted as evidence of the rule of David’s dynasty in southern Moab. However, now, in 2019, scholars have just arrived at a conclusion that this reconstruction,, in this place “raises three serious issues”, which they comment on, adding:

A careful examination of the photograph of the stele and the new images of the squeeze (Figs. 23) sheds new light on the five letters that follow  in Line 31. The beginning of this segment starts with a beth, followed by a space for one letter, still part of the original stone (compare Line 30 above it). Then comes a section restored with plaster, which ends immediately before a waw, the latter again on the original stone; a small piece of the original stone is inserted in the plaster-restored section. The original part of the stone makes it clear that the two letters after the beth were already eroded when the squeeze was produced; this is why no letter is seen in the squeeze between the beth and the waw. (The Journal, Restoring Line 31)

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Fig 2 The part of Line 31. The line marks the top of the characters in Line 31. The rectangle marks the eroded space after the beth of a name with three consonants.

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Fig. 3 The squeeze of the Mesha Stele: The part of Line 31 discussed in the article. The lines mark the top and bottom of the characters in Line 31. The rectangle marks the space after the beth of a name with three consonants.

What personal name with three consonants, starting with the letter beth, could the stele have been referring to? A variety of names might fit here (e.g., Bedad, Bedan, Becher, Belaʻ, Baʻal, Barak), but one name stands as the most likely candidate, i.e., Balak. This name appears in the Balaam narrative in the Book of Numbers, which probably contains the latest texts of the Torah, but also integrates older memories. (The Journal, Restoring Line 31)

Another guesswork, hence the expression “the most likely candidate”. For more details we are requested to read a 9-line long bibliography list. We were forced to decline the invitation. As far as can be understood, Balak is the most likely candidate because it appears in the Bible –the Book of Numbers. In this way the Bible solves the mystery of the Stone, which is supposed to solve one of the problems of the Bible’s historicity. Perhaps a piece of advice would be in order at this point –keep studying the stele but stop publishing the results, if you are really experts. We need conclusions, not a “variety of possibilities” or probable names.

We have already mentioned that the Mesha Stele was discovered and acquired by the Louvre in a truly cinematographic way –as far as can be judged by the existing reports. These reports, however, must be described as based on hearsay since no official version has been so far (after 150 years) published. Basic facts, as declared by most sources with some variations, are as follows:

In August of 1868 Frederick Augustus Klein, a German with French citizenship, an Anglican missionary (some sources say he was a doctor), was led by several members of the Banu Hamida (Bedouin) tribe to the site at Dibon/Dhiban, where the stele was lying on a certain mound. According to some sources Klein informed Julius Henry Petermann, German consul and orientalist at Jerusalem, about the sensational “discovery”.

Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, an interpreter (some say he was an archaeologist) working at the French consulate in Jerusalem, had a papier-mache impression of the stone made. It was made by Yacoub Caravaca, another local Arab, accompanied by two other horsemen, who risked their life (allegedly) in order to carry out this mission. According to some sources it was made just prior to the destruction of the stone. According to other sources a year before. The situation was so dangerous that one of the two accompanying horseman protected the impression (also called the squeeze) by tearing it still damp from the stone in seven fragments before escaping.

News of the finding apparently set off a race between France, Britain and Germany to acquire the piece, with the Ottoman authorities insisting that it be sold to Germany.

Angered by this imposition, the Banu Hamida, the local Bedouin tribe mentioned above, eventually heated the stele in a bonfire, threw cold water upon it and broke it to pieces with boulders. (Bedouins can be truly bad-tempered.)

Clermont-Ganneau (according to some sources together with the British General Charles Warren) independently collected about two-thirds of the pieces. Since Clermont-Ganneau had a full impression of the original, he was able to arrange everything in the form that is now on display in the Louvre. Copies of this reconstruction are in London, Berlin and Amman.   

What is meant by “full impression” bearing in mind the circumstances under which it was obtained? And let us not forget that the impression is only the first step of reconstruction, the next step being the plaster cast obtained (how, this is an unanswered question) from it. And why would the Banu Hamida at all care to which government the stele be sold, even if they did have a bone to pick with the Ottoman authorities?

Klein (1827-1903) and Clermont-Ganneau (1846-1923) are intriguing personalities in their own right and their involvement in the Mesha Stone affair even more so.

Klein studied first at the Basel Mission Institute and then at Church Missionary Society College in Islington (now a borough of London). He arrived in Ottoman Palestine in 1851 and ministered in Nazareth until 1855. For the next 22 years he ministered in Jerusalem and around 1877 he left for Germany. So what was he doing in Dhiban (310 km away from Jerusalem, a 5-hour long trip according to present-day estimates, expensive and dangerous in those days) in August of 1868? Why did the local Bedouin tribe from Dhiban inform precisely him, someone working in Jerusalem? How did they know he existed? What was his exact connection with the German consulate? Answers to these questions are nowhere to be found.

As for Clermont-Ganneau –after an education at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales, Clermont-Ganneau, born in Paris, entered the diplomatic service as an interpreter to the French consulate at Jerusalem. According to several sources he “laid the foundation of his reputation by his involvement with the Mesha Stele” but the fact is, as far as can be ascertained, that he had never seen the undamaged Stele. Nor is it clear if he would have been able to read it if he had. It is clear, on the other hand, that he must have been a precocious young man –he was only 22 when the stone was discovered. Nowhere is it mentioned how he learnt about the “discovery”, the exact nature of his involvement or how he managed to acquire the fragments and piece them together. Moreover, Yaqoub Caravaca, an Arab whom he sent together with two other men to obtain the impression, bears a clearly Spanish name (which means “cow’s face”, literally) –another mystery.

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This is the impression (or the squeeze) obtained by Caravaca by pressing soft, wet, moldable paper pulp into a low relief inscription, which later on served (apparently) for making a plaster cast used in the reconstruction process. (Bible Odyssey, The Mesha Stone by Erasmus Gass)

The whole affair seems to be more entangled than the sources care to admit. It rather sounds like a spy story. What it doesn’t sound like is an archaeological discovery. The whole bit about the ownership dispute, in which four governments got involved (Ottoman, British, German and French) sounds entirely over-the-top, the biggest problem being that no official, or at least independent, record of this alleged international incident is available. What exists is a stele whose exact origins are unclear or confusing. We are not the only ones to express doubt and suspicion of a fraud. According to Wikipedia:

In the years following the discovery of the stele, a number of scholars questioned its authenticity, including Leopold Zuna, Mortitz Steinschneider, Moses Gaster, F.W. Schulz, Gustav Jahn, Rupert Storr, and particularly Albert Löwy, who wrote two monographs disputing the authenticity of the stele in 1887 and 1903. Its authenticity was also challenged in detail by Abraham Yahuda in 1944 in his article The Story of a Forgery and the Mesha Inscription.

Yet, one of its lines has just been the object of another study. Truly gripping! Still, maybe not so much if we take into consideration the many problems biblical scholarship has been facing since its very inception –we have already mentioned the vowelling issue. Above all two aspects should be stressed: biblical scholarship has always been the work of Jewish scholars –thus they were the counsel, the prosecution and the judge at the same time. Secondly, the vowelling of the Jewish Bible started at the time Islam made its appearance on the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, the Masorets, who had full control of all the scrolls, may have felt inspired to introduce changes which could account for some of the many ambiguities and contradictions found in the Bible as we know it today. Any standard encyclopedia will admit that biblical scholars have never found traces of the origins of the “Hebrews” in Mesopotamia or their assumed migration from there to Palestine by way of North Syria. Nor did they find any incontrovertible traces of Israelite captivity in Egypt or of an Israelite exodus from there at any period of antiquity. Even their trek from Egypt to Palestine remains uncertain and any map of the biblical Exodus will give several alternative routes, all of them inconclusive. Also, the new archaeological evidence, dated according to the Egyptian finds, has actually erased all similarity with the biblical narration of the conquest under Joshue.

Palestine has been excavated with a pick in one hand and a Bible in the other. If an archaeologist believes that according to the Scripture an ancient mound should contain buildings from Sulayman’s (Solomon’s) time, it is almost sure that sooner or later he is bound to find structures which fully comply with all the requirements. The false air of biblical authority given to such discovery is capable of securing identification, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, a small industry will have grown around this “confirmation” of the Bible. And yet the evidence to the contrary is piling up.

The new study of Line 31 is just another effort to salvage the debacle caused by the fact that we deal with a people called Jewish, who live in a place called Israel and speak a language called Hebrew. Therefore, although the title of the article mentions restoring Line 31 from the Mesha Stele, those who write about it indulge in more glaring headlines:

Haaretz.com  ✔@haaretzcom

The biblical King Balak was a historical figure, reinterpretation of Mesha stele suggests…

Or:

Scholars Identify Biblical King Balak on the Mesha Stele

Or:

High-tech study of ancient stone suggests new proof of King David’s dynasty

So next time you see a headline of this sort proceed with caution, read the whole article (the primary source) and reflect on your own.

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