Researchers decipher oldest known Hebrew inscription on 'cursed' tablet

Mt. Ebal discovery aligns with biblical texts in Deuteronomy, Joshua • ‘Post’ photographer Sellem's photos help decode wording

 Tablet found on Mount Ebal in the Samaria mountains in the West Bank containing the word "curse" 10 times.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Tablet found on Mount Ebal in the Samaria mountains in the West Bank containing the word "curse" 10 times.

Researchers say they have deciphered a 3,000-year-old formulaic curse inscription recovered on a small, folded lead amulet found on Mount Ebal, making it the oldest proto-Hebrew text ever found in Israel.

In the 23-word English translation of the inscription, the word “curse” appears 10 times and the word “YHWH,” the biblical spelling of God’s name, appears twice, the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) said in a press conference on Thursday night.

“Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW. You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”

In Deuteronomy 27:15-26, Moses instructs the Levites to lead all the people of Israel from the top of Mount Ebal in a series of 11 curses against anyone who partakes in a variety of actions such as making an idol, dishonoring their mother or father, or moving their neighbor’s boundary stone.

In Joshua 8:30, Joshua builds an altar on Mount Ebal following his battle with the Ai, makes a burnt offering to God, and repeats the curses of Moses.

The ancient Hebrew inscription consists of 40 letters and is centuries older than any known one from ancient Israel, according to the researchers.

The amulet, known as a defixio or curse tablet, came to light in December 2019 when Scott Stripling, ABR’s director of excavations and the director of the Archaeological Studies Institute at the Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, led an ABR team to wet sift the discarded material from excavations conducted in 1982-1989 by the late University of Haifa archaeology Prof.

Adam Zertal, a former head of the university's Archaeology Department, who discovered what has been called the Altar of Joshua on Mount Ebal in Samaria.

Zvi Koenigsberg first reported the discovery of the amulet in an article in the February 7 issue of the Jerusalem Report. He said photos taken for the article by Jerusalem Post chief photographer Marc Israel Sellem helped them figure out a way to uncover the writing on the amulet.

Koenigsberg, who assisted Zertal in the excavation of Joshua’s Altar, described in January the process of how the amulet was found in the many piles of dirt that had been left after the excavation. He said a group of Zertal’s friends moved them to a safe place where they could be inspected when the appropriate means of examining the dirt were developed.

Discovering that the amulet contained something inside, it was taken to a lab in Prague to perform sophisticated photographs that allow for the construction of a three-dimensional model for objects of that size.

Initially, he explained, they had discovered that the amulet contained ancient Hebrew script, a mark reminiscent of a lotus flower and the ancient Hebrew letter “Aleph.”

Stripling formed a collaboration with four scientists from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, led by Daniel Vavrik, and two epigraphers – specialists in deciphering ancient texts – Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa and Pieter Gert van der Veen of Johannes-Gutenberg-Universitat Mainz.

The scientists used advanced tomographic scans to recover the hidden text to enable the deciphering of the proto-alphabetic inscription. Van der Veen described the process as tedious, with the researchers recovering letters and words on a day-by-day basis.

Galil almost immediately recognized the formulaic literary structure in the symmetry of the inscription where phrases are repeated in what is called chiastic parallelism.

“These types of amulets are well known in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but Zertal’s excavated pottery dated to the Iron Age 1 and Late Bronze Age, so logically the tablet derived from one of these earlier periods," he said. "Even so, our discovery of a Late Bronze Age inscription stunned me.”

Ivana Kumpova, Jaroslav Valach and Michal Vopalensky were also part of the collaborative team.

An academic, peer-reviewed article is being written and is expected to be published later this year.