May 17, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Hebrew Curse Tablet from the 12th Century BCE May Still Be Cursed

In 2019, a small, folded lead tablet was discovered on Mount Ebal near what is now the territory of the West Bank, but in biblical times was known as Shechem and near the city of Nablus. The tablet was discovered in a mound of dirt and debris removed during excavations dating back to the 1980s and deemed not worthy of study. How wrong those archeologists were! In the book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew bible, Mount Ebal is called “a place of curses” and some of the “debris” in the pile looked more like possible artifacts from an altar. Analysis of the lead tablet indicated that may have been true, as it was announced in March 2022 that writing was found on it which appeared to date back to 1200 BCE. That writing was said to include the words “curse” and “YHWH” – which would make it the earliest proto-alphabetic Hebrew text ever discovered in ancient Israel, the earliest mention of Yahweh and the earliest curse tablet. The official finding confirming this translation and analysis has just been published in the journal Heritage Science … and that study is already being ‘cursed’ by other researchers as premature. What exactly is going on with this tiny lead tablet? Who did it curse and might that curse still be in force?

Mount Ebal
  • You are cursed by the god yhw, cursed.
  • You will die, cursed – cursed, you will surely die.
  • Cursed you are by yhw – cursed.

Well, that seems pretty clear. In a press release by the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) announced the publication of the translation of 48 letters on the small, folded lead tablet found in 2019 when archaeologist Scott Stripling, Director of the Archaeological Studies Institute at The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, did a wet sift of a discard pile on Mount Ebal accumulated from excavations over the years 1982 to 1989. After finding the tablet, Stripling joined forces with four scientists from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and two epigraphers (specialists in ancient scripts) - Pieter Gert van der Veen of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa – to conduct advanced tomographic scans on it in an attempt to locate and recover any hidden text. Unfortunately, the tablet would have to be damaged in order to unfold it, but Stripling notes that the team carefully worked on the prats that are visible for over a year in this tedious process. Gershon Galil detailed how the analysis evolved after he recognized the formulaic literary structure of the tablet’s text. (Photos here.)

“From the symmetry, I could tell that it was written as a chiastic parallelism. Each day we recovered new letters and words written in ancient proto-alphabetic script from the Late Bronze Age. Eventually, the entire inscription came to light.”

From a historical standpoint, the tablet dates to around 1200 BCE, putting it 500 years before the first known usage of the letters ‘YHWH’ and centuries before any other Hebrew text in Israel, which supports the idea that the Israelites were literate when they entered Holy Land. The only similar text was discovered in the Sinai Peninsula and dates to the 16th century BCE. From a biblical history standpoint, the book of Joshua talks about an altar being built on Mount Ebal and the curse tablet was found in debris from a structure that archeologist Adam Zertal had excavated in the 1980s and suspected was from an altar that could have been the one referred to in the Hebrew bible.

“This is a text you find only every 1,000 years.”

Galil believes the team’s finding and analysis of the text are a groundbreaking discovery in the history of the area and its link to biblical history. Other archeologists aren’t so sure and that in a sense is the curse of the curse tablet.

“I had released photos of the outside of the tablet not knowing there was writing on the inside as well. It was my fault. Once those photos were out, people started to decipher letters on the outside. So because of that, we had the press conference because we had to stake out that this is our inscription, academically.”

Hebrew for YHWH

In March 2022, Stripling jumped the gun by publishing photos of the tablet and the inscription before they had been scientifically analyzed and peer reviewed. Others began translating the characters and he feared losing the distinction of finding it first. He was criticized on one side for unofficially releasing photos of the tablet and on the other side for not releasing drawings of the characters and other data. Now that those detailed photos and drawing have been released, the ‘curse’ continues as others come to different conclusions about what they see. He noted that “We’ve had many months to study those scans, so when someone looks at them for the first time, it may take time for their eyes to acclimate, and we did our best to point this out in the article.” That didn’t matter to Prof. Christopher Rollston, an expert in Northwest Semitic languages and the chair of the department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University, who read the article, viewed the photos and drawings, and said this to The Times of Israel:

“The published images reveal some striations in the lead and some indentations (lead is, of course, quite soft and so such things are understandable), but there are no actual discernible letters. “This article is basically a text-book case of the Rorschach Test, and the authors of this article have projected upon a piece of lead the things they want it to say. Facts are facts, and this article is very short on facts and very long on boundless speculation. The ‘readings’ in this article are basically a chimera.”

Ouch! Bar Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir agrees with Rollston and told The Times of Israel he will publish his own analysis in another academic journal. Finally, even the way the curse tablet was first discovered – by wet sifting dirt from a discard pile – has drawn criticism because it means the tablet had been disturbed and moved, possibly multiple times, from its original location. Stripling says he understands the criticisms and awaits the other analyses.

At some point, all of the curses of the unknown may finally be lifted and we’ll know the true age and origin of this curse tablet.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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