The Mesha Inscription and the Bible

Article excerpt

One of the most thrilling archeological finds of the last two centuries was unearthed in 1868. It is known as the Mesha Inscription. Mesha was a Moabite king who appears in the Biblical Book of Kings. In his inscription, King Mesha makes mention of other figures who also appear in that Biblical book, most famously the Israelite King Ahab, who according to the Book of Kings was married to the notorious Jezebel, at whose urging Ahab first murdered Naboth and then took possession of Naboth's vineyard. The prophet Elijah confronted Ahab at that moment and upbraided Ahab for his deed with the pungent question that does not have the same effect in English translation: "Have you murdered and also taken possession?"

Ahab isn't mentioned by name in the Mesha Inscription but only as the son of an Israelite king named Omri who himself played a role in the Book of Kings. Omri appears by name in the Mesha Inscription as the conqueror and as ruler, along with Ahab, of Moab for forty years--a very Biblical number that appears over and over again in the Book of Judges.

The Moabites lived across the Jordan River from the land of Israel. They were fierce rivals of the Israelites. They are mentioned repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, and their interaction with Israel is dated in the Bible way back to the time of Moses. In the Book of Numbers 22-24, the king of Moab seeks to have a prophet, Balaam, curse the people of Israel in what has become a famous episode. In Numbers 25, the Israelites "whore" with the Moabite women and start to worship their gods. This results in a plague (an expression of God's wrath) that only abates after Pinchas the Priest's violent intervention. So it is plain from the Torah that there was bad blood between the Israelites and the Moabites--partly because of their religious differences.

Returning to the Mesha Inscription, it is important in the history of the religion of Israel because it has the earliest extra-Biblical attestation of the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered name of God that may be transcribed "NHWH" and that appears in the Hebrew Bible thousands of times. The original pronunciation was lost, and out of reverence, Jews use a different Hebrew word, Adonai (Lord). Apparently, one of King Mesha's triumphs in his revolt against Israel was to demolish and plunder a shrine of YHWH situated in Moab. This shrine is not mentioned in the Bible.

The appearance of the four-lettered Name in a 9th century BCE inscription is significant for a number of reasons. For one thing, scholars in the last century have tended to agree that the name YHWH should be pronounced "Yahweh." The writer of the article, "Names of God," in the Anchor Bible Dictionary assumes this to be correct. That the name was pronounced "Yahweh" is strongly contra-indicated by the fact that in the Mesha Inscription (ninth century BCE) the name of God appears in the four-lettered form. That the Moabite scribe bothered with all four letters indicates that the name of the Israelite deity was something other than Yahweh, because the form 'Yahweh" assumes that the "h" was not pronounced in both appearances. It is highly unlikely that the Moabite scribe, representing a king who was anti-YHWH and pro-Kemosh, the Moabite god who is mentioned in the Torah (Numbers 21:29 "Woe to you, O Moab, you are lost, O people of Kemosh"), would have written the name with two "h's" if neither was pronounced. It is much more likely that at least one was pronounced. Otherwise it is hard to account for the presence of all four letters in a Moabite inscription. More important than the pronunciation of the name of God is the fact that already in the ninth century BCE the name YHWH was known to the Moabites as Israel's God. This attests to the Biblical usage of the Name because the Bible assigns the use of the four-lettered name to an early period.

Another important Biblical connection is the reference in the Mesha Inscription to the tribe of Gad, which according to the Torah settled in Transjordan while Moses was still active. …