We love an accurséd ancient relic here at IFLScience. Whether it be an enormous black sarcophagus filled with delicious mummy juice, a millennia-old and definitely deadly slab of tomb cheese, or the Ark of the Covenant itself, there’s no escaping the fact that the discovery of a connection to our ancestors – especially the really pissed off ones, apparently – is endlessly fascinating to our modern minds.
So the recent unearthing of an ancient “curse tablet” in the West Bank has understandably piqued some interest.
At around 6 square centimeters (1 square inch) in size, the folded lead tablet is only about the size of a postage stamp – but it carries a big message.
“Cursed, cursed, cursed — cursed by the God Yahweh,” reads an inscription written on the inner and outer surfaces of the lead in 40 proto-Hebrew letters. “You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by Yahweh – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
It’s a warning, and quite an adamant one, to those who break the terms of a covenant.
While the find hasn’t been independently verified or dated and is yet to be peer-reviewed, the excavation team responsible claim the tablet is likely around 3,200 years old. If true, that’s huge news: it would predate all other curse tablets – in fact, all other examples of ancient Hebrew writing – by centuries.
“We now have the name ‘Yahweh’, the biblical God of Israel, in an inscription dating from (Late Bronze Era II), which is earlier than many skeptics would argue that the Bible existed or that there was even the ability to write down a sacred text,” said Scott Stripling, director of the Archaeological Studies Institute at The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, who led the excavation.
While “curse tablets” like this have been found in other sites, they’ve never been uncovered at the West Bank before – though the team actually discovered the find by “wet-sifting,” or washing sediments with water, material discarded from excavations on the nearby Mount Ebal more than 30 years ago. That’s rather fitting, as Ebal is known in the biblical books of Joshua and Deuteronomy as “the mountain of curse,” according to a statement seen by IFLScience.
“But this text is not just a curse. It is actually a legal text,” Gershon Galil, a professor of biblical studies from the University of Haifa, told reporters at a press conference about the discovery. “Not just a legal warning – [it] is a kind of sentence.
“It is a legal document … similar to other ancient middle eastern legal economic inscriptions,” he said.
The age of the Tanakh, or Old Testament, is a subject of fierce debate among biblical scholars and archeologists. Currently, the definitive dating artifacts are the Dead Sea Scrolls, written between the third and first century BCE. Other historians believe the so-called Deuteronomistic Theory, which posits that the biblical books from Deuteronomy to Kings were written all at once at some point between 300 BCE and 600 BCE as a kind of historical handbook for events that happened many centuries beforehand.
Stripling, however, belongs to a third camp: he thinks stories like the book of Exodus are nothing less than first-hand accounts written by those present at the time. A big problem with that position was the prevailing idea that, more than 3,000 years ago, the Israelites couldn’t write these stories down – but the discovery of the curse tablet changes that, Stripling explained.
“One can no longer argue with a straight face that the biblical text was not written until the Persian period or the Hellenistic period as many higher critics have done, when here we do clearly have the ability to write the entire text at a much, much earlier date,” he said.
Of course, Stripling may be biased – the Associates for Biblical Research, where he acts as Director of Excavations, describes itself on its website as a “Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” While he hopes the curse tablet will help prove the historical accuracy of the stories of Moses and Passover, other archeologists accept that little to no evidence has ever been found of a real-life Exodus.
“The conclusion – that Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible – seems irrefutable,” archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman wrote back in 2002.
“Repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence for activity … not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees.”
And that same skepticism should be applied today, says Finkelstein. There’s a “big gap” between the description of the curse tablet and the claims made by Stripling and his colleagues, Finkelstein told Live Science, and there are many questions that will need answers before we start rewriting any history books.
While Finkelstein, who wasn’t involved in the discovery, accepted that no detailed analysis of any claims would be possible until the publication of peer-reviewed results – a paper is due later this year, ABR researchers say – he questioned the dating and translation of the tablet, as well as the context in which it was found.
“In general, I am irritated by sensational claims of discoveries which ostensibly change everything that we know about the Bible and the history of ancient Israel,” he told Live Science.