While visiting a Bedouin encampment near the site of the ancient Moabite city of Dibon in 1868, F. A. Klein, an Anglican medical missionary from Alsace (Horn 1983: 497-98), learned about a large inscribed black stone lying in the adjacent ruins of Dibon. After examining the stele, making a crude sketch and transcribing some of the letters, Klein agreed to purchase the monument and returned to Jerusalem to report his discovery to the Prussian consul. News of this sensational find inevitably spread to others in Jerusalem’s diplomatic community. The series of events that transpired next involved repeated attempts to copy as well as to purchase the stele by French and Prussian representatives and the Turkish authorities. For reasons still uncertain, the Bedouin at Dibon heated the stele over a fire and shattered it in many pieces. They then distributed the stele fragments among the families of the tribe. Undaunted by this horrific turn of events, a young French scholar, Charles Clermont-Ganneau retrieved and purchased as many of the broken fragments as possible. British engineer Charles Warren also saved a few pieces. Eventually, Clermont-Ganneau collected about two-thirds of the original stele and, with the help of a badly damaged paper squeeze made by an Arab colleague, was able to reconstruction nearly the entire inscription. The text, once translated, revealed the Mesha‘ stele as a ninth century B.C. Moabite royal monument commemorating military victories against Israel and Judah after a period of subjugation, as well as a platform for boasting about various building projects carried out by King Mesha‘, a Moabite king mentioned in the Old Testament. The revolt itself probably occurred between 853-848 B.C., dating the stele years, if not decades later.
Relevance to the Biblical Account
The Mesha‘ inscription refers to Moab’s rebellion against Israel after serving as a vassal for forty years during which Israel’s Omride dynasty controlled and fortified northern Moab, specifically the Madaba Plains and the Dhiban Plateau. Mesha‘ describes conquering 100 town occupied by the Israelite tribe of Gad, including Dibon, Ataroth and Nebo, annihilating or enslaving their population, and taking religious objects devoted to YHWH. He then describes rebuilding cities and towns, constructing new roads and reservoirs, by using Israelite prisoners for laborers. On the other hand, details of Mesha’s revolt, not to mention his building projects, are not described in the Old Testament (2 Kgs 3:4-5). Rather, the Bible reports that Israel, along with Judah and Edom, launched a major retaliatory military campaign against Moab, laying waste to most of the kingdom, but withdrawing before conquering its capital, Kir-hareseth. In turn, a later campaign against Judah by Moab, Ammon and the Meunites (a Bedouin tribe) failed when the three armies turned on each other (2 Chr 20:1-30; Rainey 2000b). Therefore, the Mesha‘ inscription provides a splendid example of an ancient monument collaborating with and expanding upon information given in the biblical account. This priceless narrative superbly complements the Old Testament, but from a Moabite (and therefore hostile) perspective.
The Mesha‘ stele is a finely crafted black basalt monument about 3 feet tall and two feet wide. As a stele, it has a flat base and rounded top. It contains 34 lines of incised writing surrounded by a raised margin. The missing base probably contained additional lines of writing, but this was missing when Klein first inspected it. Currently on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris, the example in the Horn Museum is one of only a handful of exceptional quality replicas specially commissioned and sold by the Louvre. The stele gave scholars an excellent sample of Moabite language, which displays close similarities with Hebrew. There is no doubt an Israelite and a
Moabite could easily converse and understand each other in their respective dialects (e.g., Ruth).
The Mesha‘ stele remains the longest monumental inscription dating to the period of the Israelite monarchy (ca. 1000-580 B.C.) known from the Holy Land (e.g., Horn 1983: 497; 1986: 53). Its historical significance for biblical history is beyond measure. Not only is Israel, king Omri, the tribe of Gad and the Israelite God YHWH mentioned, by a careful study of the stele, biblical scholar André Lemaire (1994; 2007) restored the title House of David on line 31, which Mesha‘ used as an alternative name for the Kingdom of Judah. Moreover, such a long text written in a West Semitic language very close to Hebrew, provides scholars with the opportunity to closely define Hebrew terms by reading them in another context (e.g., Rainey 2001: 304-305). The inscription also reveals a window into Moabite history, showing it to be a powerful polity during the ninth century B.C. and afterwards. Continuous scholarly interest and suggested new readings for certain portions of the text reflects the lasting importance of this monument.
Other royal inscriptions, notably the ninth century B.C. Aramaean stele fragments found at Dan and the eighth century B.C. Siloam Inscription from Jerusalem, as well as Ammonite and other Moabite fragmentary texts, demonstrate that biblical era rulers in the Holy Land recorded their achievements on stone for the public to view and read. Small fragments of Hebrew monumental inscriptions from both Samaria and Jerusalem also exist (see conveniently, Aḥituv 2008: 25-26; 30-32; 257). A Hebrew monumental text, called the Jehoash inscription, derives from the Israeli antiquities market and its authenticity, at the time of this writing, remains highly suspect.
2008 The Mesha‘ Inscription. Pp. 389-418 in Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, trans. A. F. Rainey from Hebrew. Jerusalem: Carta.
Dearman, A., ed.
1989 Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab. Archaeology and Biblical Studies 2. Atlanta: Scholars.
Horn, S. H.
1983 The Discovery of the Moabite Stone. Pp. 497-505 in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, eds. C. L. Meyers and M. O’Connor. American Schools of Oriental Research Special Volume Series 1. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
1986 Why the Moabite Stone was Blown to Pieces: 9th-Century B.C. Inscription Adds New Dimension to Biblical Account of Mesha’s Rebellion. Biblical Archaeology Review 12/3: 50-61.
1994 “House of David” Restored in Moabite Inscription. Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3: 30-37.
2007 The Mesha Stele and the Omri Dynasty. Pp. 135-144 in Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty, ed. L. L. Grabbe. Old Testament Studies 421, European Seminar in Historical Methodology 5. London: T & T Clark.
Rainey, A. F.
1998 Syntax, Hermeneutics and History. Israel Exploration Journal 48: 239-251.
2000a Following up on the Ekron and Mesha Inscriptions. Israel Exploration Journal 50: 116-117.
2000b Mesha’s Attempt to Invade Judah (2 Chron. 20). Pp. 174-176 in Studies in Historical Geography and Biblical Historiography Presented to Zecharia Kallai, eds. G. Galil and M. Weinfeld. Leiden: Brill.
2001 Mesha‘ and Syntax. Pp. 287-307 in The Land That I Will Show You: Essays on the History and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Honour of J. Maxwell Miller, eds. J. A. Dearman and M. P. Graham. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 343. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
Jeffrey P. Hudon