The Mesha Stele in its current location. The brown fragments are pieces of the original stele, whereas the smoother black material is Ganneau's reconstruction from the 1870s.
The Mesha Stele (also known as the "Moabite Stone") is a stele (inscribed stone) set up around 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab (a kingdom located in modern Jordan). Mesha tells how Kemosh, the God of Moab, had been angry with his people and had allowed them to be subjugated to Israel, but at length Kemosh returned and assisted Mesha to throw off the yoke of Israel and restore the lands of Moab. Mesha describes his many building projects.
The stone was discovered intact by Frederick Augustus Klein, an Anglican missionary, at the site of ancient Dibon (now Dhiban, Jordan), in August 1868, having been led to it by a local Bedouin. Before it could be seen by another European, the next year it was smashed by local villagers during a dispute over its ownership. A "squeeze" (a papier-mâché impression) had been obtained by a local Arab on behalf of Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, and fragments containing most of the inscription (613 letters out of about a thousand) were later recovered and pieced together. The squeeze and the reassembled stele are now in the Louvre Museum.
The Mesha stele is the longest Iron Age inscription ever found in the region, and constitutes the major evidence for the Moabite language. The stele, whose story parallels, with some differences, an episode in the Bible's Books of Kings (2 Kings 3:4-8), provides invaluable information on the Moabite language and the political relationship between Moab and Israel at one moment in the 9th century BCE. It is the most extensive inscription ever recovered that refers to the kingdom of Israel (the "House of Omri"); it bears the earliest certain extra-biblical reference to the Israelite God Yahweh, and — if French scholar André Lemaire's reconstruction of a portion of line 31 is correct — the earliest mention of the "House of David" (i.e., the kingdom of Judah). Although its authenticity has been disputed over the years, and some Biblical minimalists suggest the text was not historical, but a biblical allegory, the stele is regarded as genuine and historical by the vast majority of biblical archaeologists today.
Description and discovery
On 8 February 1870, George Grove of the Palestine Exploration Fund announced the find of the stele in a letter to The Times, attributing the discovery to Charles Warren. On 17 February 1870, the 24-year old Clermont-Ganneau published the first detailed announcement of the stele in the Revue de l’Instruction Publique. This was followed a month later by a letter from Frederick Augustus Klein published in the Pall Mall Gazette, describing his discovery of the stele in August 1868:
In November 1869 the stele was broken by the local Bedouin tribe (the Bani Hamida) after the Ottoman government became involved in the ownership dispute. The previous year the Bani Hamida had been defeated by an expedition to Balqa led by Reşid Pasha, the Wali of Damascus. Knowing that a demand to give up the stone to the German Consulate had been ordered by the Ottomans, and finding that the ruler of Salt was about to put pressure upon them, they heated the stele in a bonfire, threw cold water upon it and broke it to pieces with boulders.
A "squeeze" (a papier-mâché impression) of the full stele had been obtained just prior to its destruction. Ginsberg's translation of the official report, "Ueber die Auffindung der Moabitischen Inschrift," stated that Ganneau sent an Arab named Yacoub Caravacca to obtain the squeeze as he "did not want to venture to undertake the very costly [and dangerous] journey" himself. Caravacca was injured by the local Bedouin while obtaining the squeeze, and one of his two accompanying horsemen protected the squeeze by tearing it still damp from the stone in seven fragments before escaping.
Pieces of the original stele containing most of the inscription, 613 letters out of about a thousand, were later recovered and pieced together. Of the existing stele fragments, the top right fragment contains 150 letters, the bottom right fragment contains 358 letters, the middle-right contains 38, and the rest of the fragements contain 67 letters. The remainder of the stele was reconstructed by Ganneau from the squeeze obtained by Caravacca.
The text describes:
- How Moab was oppressed by Omri King of Israel and his son as the result of the anger of the god Chemosh
- Mesha's victories over Omri's son (not named) and the men of Gad at Ataroth, Nebo and Jehaz;
- His building projects, restoring the fortifications of his strong places and building a palace and reservoirs for water;
- His wars against the Horonaim; and
- A now-lost conclusion in the destroyed final lines.
There is no authoritative full edition of the Moabite inscription. The translation used here is that published by James King (1878), based on translations by M. Ganneau and Dr. Ginsberg. Line numbers added to the published version have been removed.
I am Mesha, son of Chemosh-gad, king of Moab, the Dibonite. My father reigned over Moab thirty years, and I have reigned after my father. And I have built this sanctuary for Chemosh in Karchah, a sanctuary of salvation, for he saved me from all aggressors, and made me look upon all mine enemies with contempt. Omri was king of Israel, and oppressed Moab during many days, and Chemosh was angry with his aggressions. His son succeeded him, and he also said, I will oppress Moab. In my days he said, Let us go, and I will see my desire upon him and his house, and Israel said, I shall destroy it for ever. Now Omri took the land of Madeba, and occupied it in his day, and in the days of his son, forty years. And Chemosh had mercy on it in my time. And I built Baal-meon and made therein the ditch, and I built Kiriathaim. And the men of Gad dwelled in the country of Ataroth from ancient times, and the king of Israel fortified Ataroth. I assaulted the wall and captured it, and killed all the warriors of the city for the well-pleasing of Chemosh and Moab, and I removed from it all the spoil, and offered it before Chemosh in Kirjath; and I placed therein the men of Siran, and the men of Mochrath. And Chemosh said to me, Go take Nebo against Israel, and I went in the night and I fought against it from the break of day till noon, and I took it: and I killed in all seven thousand men, but I did not kill the women and maidens, for I devoted them to Ashtar-Chemosh; and I took from it the vessels of Jehovah, and offered them before Chemosh. And the king of Israel fortified Jahaz, and occupied it, when he made war against me, and Chemosh drove him out before me, and I took from Moab two hundred men in all, and placed them in Jahaz, and took it to annex it to Dibon. I built Karchah the wall of the forest, and the wall of the Hill. I have built its gates and I have built its towers. I have built the palace of the king, and I made the prisons for the criminals within the wall. And there were no wells in the interior of the wall in Karchah. And I said to all the people, ‘Make you every man a well in his house.’ And I dug the ditch for Karchah with the chosen men of Israel. I built Aroer, and I made the road across the Arnon. I took Beth-Bamoth for it was destroyed. I built Bezer for it was cut down by the armed men of Daybon, for all Daybon was now loyal; and I reigned from Bikran, which I added to my land. And I built Beth-Gamul, and Beth-Diblathaim, and Beth Baal-Meon, and I placed there the poor people of the land. And as to Horonaim, the men of Edom dwelt therein, on the descent from old. And Chemosh said to me, Go down, make war against Horonaim, and take it. And I assaulted it, And I took it, for Chemosh restored it in my days. Wherefore I made.... ...year...and I....
The Mesha stele is the longest Iron Age inscription ever found in the region, the major evidence for the Moabite language, and a unique record of military campaigns. The occasion was the erection of a sanctuary for Kemosh in Qarho, the acropolis (citadel) of Dibon, Mesha's capital, in thanks for his aid against Mesha's enemies. Kemosh is credited with an important role in the victories of Mesha, but is not mentioned in connection with his building activities, reflecting the crucial need to give recognition to the nation's god in the life and death national struggle. The fact that the numerous building projects would have taken years to complete suggests that the inscription was made long after the military campaigns, or at least most of them, and the account of those campaigns reflects a royal ideology which wishes to present the king as the obedient servant of the god. The king also claims to be acting in the national interest by removing Israelite oppression and restoring lost lands, but a close reading of the narrative leaves it unclear whether all the conquered territories were previously Moabite - in three campaign stories there is no explicit reference to prior Moabite control.
Parallel to 2 Kings 3
The inscription seems to parallel an episode in 2 Kings 3: Jehoram of Israel makes an alliance with Jehoshaphat king of Judah and an unnamed king of Edom (south of Judah) to put down his rebellious vassal Mesha; the three kings have the best of the campaign until Mesha, in desperation, sacrifices to his god Kemosh either his eldest son or the eldest son of the king of Edom; the sacrifice turns the tide, "there came great wrath against Israel", and Mesha apparently achieves victory. This apparent correspondence is the basis of the usual dating of the inscription to about 840 BCE, but Andre Lemaire has cautioned that the identification is not certain and the stele may be as late as 810 BCE.
Proposed references to David and "House of David"
In 2001 Anson Rainey proposed that a two-word phrase in line 12 - 'R'L DWDH - should be read as a reference an "altar hearth of David" at Ataroth, one of the towns captured by Mesha.  The sentence reads: "I (i.e. Mesha) carried from there (Atartoth) the 'R'L of its DWD (or: its 'R'L of DVD) and I dragged it before Kemosh in Qeriot". The meaning of both words is unclear. One line of thought sees 'R'L as the name of a man (literally "El is my light") and translates DWD as "defender", so that the sense of the passage is that Mesha, having conquered Ataroth, dragged its "defender", whose name was "El is my light", to the altar of Kemosh, where he was presumably sacrificed. It seems more likely that some kind of cult-vessel is meant, and other suggestions have included "the lion-statue of its beloved", meaning the city god.
A more widely accepted instance of the word DWD appears in line 31. This section is badly damaged, but appears to tell of Mesha's reconquest of the southern lands of Moab, just as the earlier part dealt with victories in the north. Line 31 says that he captured Horonen from someone who was occupying it. Just who the occupants were is unclear. The legible letters are BT[*]WD, with the square brackets representing a damaged space that probably contained just one letter. Andre Lemaire has reconstructed this as BT[D]WD, "House of David", meaning Judah. This is not universally accepted - Nadav Na'aman, for instance, reads it as BT[D]WD[H], "House of Daodoh", a local ruling family; but if Lemaire is correct, then this is the earliest evidence of the existence of the Judean kingdom and its Davidic dynasty.
The stele is regarded as genuine by the vast majority of biblical archaeologists today. In the years following the discovery of the stele, a number of scholars questioned its authenticity, including Leopold Zunz, Moritz Steinschneider, Moses Gaster, F.W. Schulz, Gustav Jahn, Rupert Storr, and particularly Albert Löwy, who wrote two monographs disputing the authenticity of the stele in 1887 and 1903. Its authenticity was also challenged in detail by Abraham Yahuda in 1944 in his article, "The Story of a Forgery and the Mēša Inscription".
Thomas L. Thompson believes that the inscription on the Mesha stele is not historical, but an allegory. He writes: "Rather than an historical text, the Mesha inscription belongs to a substantial literary tradition of stories about kings of the past... The phrase "Omri, king of Israel," eponym of the highland patronate Bit Humri, belongs to a theological world of Narnia."
- Rollston 2010, p. 53-54.
- Andre Lemaire House of David' Restored in Moabite Inscription Biblical Archaeology Review 20:03 (May/June 1994)
- Rollston 2010, p. 54.
- Mykytiuk 2004, p. 95.
- "The Moabite Stone, With An Illustration," Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 2.5 (1 Jan. – 31 March 1870): 169-183.
- As published in the Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, No. 6, April to June 1870, page 42
- Ginsberg 1871, p. 13.
- King 1878, p. 20.
- Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Bd. 24 (1870)
- Ginsberg 1871, p. 13-14.
- Ginsberg 1871, p. 15.
- Parker 1997, p. 44.
- King 1878, p. 55-58.
- Parker 1997, p. 44-58.
- Andre Lemaire The Mesha Stele and the Omri Dynasty in Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty, Edited by Lester L. Grabbe. Continuum International Publishing Group. 2007
- Rainey 2001, p. 300-306.
- Lipiński 2006, p. 339-340.
- Schmidt 2006, p. 315.
- Green 2004, p. 118 fn.84.
- Albert Löwy, A critical examination of the so-called Moabite inscription in the Louvre, 1903, 3rd issue rev. and amended, p31: "In the domain of Semitology the prominent critics, Professor Steinschneider and the late Dr. Zunz, were almost the only scholars who, when asked for their opinion, expressed their strong doubts about the authenticity of the Moabite Inscription".
- Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Mediaeval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha, and Samaritan Archaeology, Volume 1, Moses Gaster, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1971 "...Moabite Stone, if the latter be genuine..."
- Friedrich Wilhelm Schultz, Professor of Theology at the University of Breslau, wrote in the 1877 Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche (translation from German by A Lowy): "Although the authenticity is acknowledged by all who have expressed themselves on the subject, there are several points which call forth strong doubt." Schulz describes the coincidences: (a) the only Moabite king mentioned by name in the bible left the only Moabite stele discovered, and (b) nearly all the names in the biblical "prophesy against Moab" (chapters 15-16 of the Book of Isaiah) are mentioned on the stele.
- Das Buch Daniel nach der Septuaginta Hergestellt, Leipzig : Eduard Pfeiffer, 1904, "Die Mesha-Inschrift Aufs Neue Untersucht"
- Die Unechtheit der Mesainschrift, Rupert Storr, Laupp, 1918
- Albert Löwy, A Critical Examination of the So-called Moabite Inscription in the Louvre, 1903, 3rd issue rev. and amended. Lowy's arguments against the authenticity of the stele were related to (a) apparent errors in the language, composition and palaeography of the text, (b) signs of plagiarism from the bible, and (c) the rhetorical question "Can an absolute unicum which, as a literary production, is alleged to have emanated from an ancient, now defunct, nation, serve as acceptable evidence of its own genuineness, if such evidence be challenged?"
- "The Story of a Forgery and the Mēša Inscription", A. S. Yahuda, The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Oct., 1944), pp. 139-164
- Thomas L. Thompson (2000). "Problems of Genre and Historicity with Palestine's Descriptions". In Andre Lemaire, Magne Saebo. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, Volume 80. Brill. pp. 323–326. ISBN 978-9004115989.
- Green, Douglas J. (2010). "I Undertook Great Works": The Ideology of Domestic Achievements in West Semitic Royal Inscriptions. Mohr Siebeck.
- Ginsberg, Christian (1871). The Moabite Stone A Facsimile of the Original Inscription. Reeves and Turner. Retrieved June 2013.
- King, James; Palestine Exploration Fund (1878). Moab's Patriarchal Stone: being an account of the Moabite stone, its story and teaching. Bickers and Son. Retrieved June 2013.
- Lemche, Niels Peter (1998). The Israelites in History and Tradition. Westminster John Knox Press.
- Lemche, Niels Peter (2008). The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey. Westminster John Knox Press.
- Lipiński, Edward (2006). On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches. Peeters Publishing.
- Mykytiuk, Lawrence J. (2004). Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E.. Society of Biblical Literature.
- Parker, Simon B. (1997). Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions: Comparative Studies on Narratives in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible. Oxford University Press.
- Rainey, Anson F. (2001). "Mesha and Syntax". In Dearman, J. Andrew; Graham, M. Patrick. The Land That I Will Show You. Sheffield Academic Press Supplement Series, no. 343.
- Rollston, Chris A. (2010). Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. Society of Biblical Literature.
- Schmidt, Brian B. (2006). "Neo-Assyrian and Syro-Palestinian Texts I: the Moabite stone". In Chavalas, Mark William. The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation. John Wiley & Sons.
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