Curse tablets – flat stones carved with words to ask gods or demons to perform actions on another person or object – have been around since at least Greco-Roman times and probably earlier. A recent discovery may be a curse tablet from biblical times – it contains what appears to be the earliest Hebrew writing and includes the letters YHW (the ancient three-letter name of the Hebrew God) and was found at Mount Ebal, known from the book of Deuteronomy as a place of curses. Is this the first curse tablet?
“This is a text you find only every 1,000 years.”
Haifa University Prof. Gershon Galil, who helped translate it, told The Times of Israel why this is a big deal … although his is an understatement. Discovered by archaeologist Dr. Scott Stripling at a site on Mount Ebal near the modern city of Nablus, the 2 cm (.75 inch) square tablet, if verified, dates back to 1200 BCE – which would make it the earliest evidence of Hebrew writing by several centuries. (Photos here.) That kind of timing, according to the Times of Israel, would be strong evidence that the Israelites were writing the text of the books of the Hebrew bible as the events happened.
“We recovered 40 letters, 40 on the inside and outside of the tablet. And they were all in this proto-alphabetic script which dates to the Late Bronze Age.”
News of the discovery of the tiny curse tablet was announced this week at a Houston press conference held by Stripling. He described the letters found, revealed the big ones that actually spelled the words’cursed’ (ARUR) and God (YHW). He claimed that the combination of archaic proto-Canaanite script mixed with some hieroglyphs is a legal document in the form of a social contract, warning the recipient of the contract what would happen if they did not fulfill their obligations. The researchers provided a loose translation:
“Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW./ You will die cursed./ Cursed you will surely die./ Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
Were these the writings of an early form of the Mob?
Galil says this is evidence the Israelites of the 12th century BCE were literate and capable of writing what came to be known as parts of the Hebrew bible as they happened. Moreover, he says the structure of the writing is a “parallel chiastic” used in the Hebrew bible, and in other Near Eastern texts of the period. Finally, the curse table was found on Deuteronomy’s ‘place of curses’. Is this a ‘drop the mic’ moment for ancient biblical studies?
“The fact that they are publishing it in the news before being published scientifically is a bit off.”
Archeologists and academics interviewed by The Times of Israel also question the dating of the curse tablet because it was found during a 2019 re-examination of earth from a dump pile formed during 1980s excavations at Mount Ebal by a different team – thus potentially corrupting evidence needed to properly determine its age.
Nonetheless, research on this ‘curse tablet’ will continue. After all, who wants to be “cursed, cursed, cursed”?