One of the most exceptional biblical archaeology artifacts ever found, the three-foot-tall Mesha Stele contains a 34-line inscription celebrating the Moabite vassal king Mesha’s rebellion against the Israelites. Renowned epigrapher André Lemaire identified in line 31 of the ninth-century B.C.E. stele the phrase בת[ד]וד (bt[d]wd), or “House of David”—a tantalizing reference to King David on an artifact discovered before the famed Tel Dan inscription that also references David. Scholars Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman, and Thomas Römer have recently re-examined the inscription, however, and propose a new reading: Line 31 references not the “House of David,” but the Moab king Balak from the story of Balaam in the Bible (Numbers 22–24).
How the Mesha Stele—also called the Moabite Stone—became public is an incredible tale itself. As described in Bible History Daily:
[The] black basalt Moabite Stone was first brought to the attention of scholars in 1868 by Bedouin living east of the Jordan River and just north of the Arnon River. After several failed negotiations to purchase it, the Mesha Stele was broken into dozens of pieces and scattered among the Bedouin. In the 1870s several of the fragments were recovered by scholars and reconstructed—comprising only two-thirds of the original Moabite Stone. A paper imprint (called a squeeze) that had been taken of the intact inscription allowed scholars to fill in the missing text.
In the May/June 1994 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, André Lemaire describes how his reading of the “House of David” on the Mesha Stele helps to contextualize the inscription:
Enough has been preserved at the end of line 31 […] to identify the new enemy of Moab against whom Mesha fought in the last half of the inscription: bt[d]wd, the House of David. Having described how he was victorious against Israel in the area controlled by it north of the Arnon, Mesha now turns to part of the area south of the Arnon which had been occupied by Judah, the House of David. In the tenth and first half of the ninth centuries B.C.E., the kingdom of Edom did not yet exist. The area southeast of the Dead Sea was apparently controlled by Judah. Thus, during Mesha’s rebellion against the king of Israel (2 Kings 3:5), the king of Israel asks for assistance from the king of Judah, who agrees to provide the aid. The king of Israel instructs the king of Judah to attack the king of Moab by going through the “wilderness of Edom” (2 Kings 3:8) because apparently it was an area controlled by the kingdom of Judah. No doubt the missing part of the inscription described how Mesha also threw off the yoke of Judah and conquered the territory southeast of the Dead Sea controlled by the House of David.In its way, the […] fragmentary stela from Tel Dan helps to confirm this reading of the Mesha stela. At Tel Dan, as in the Mesha stela, an adversary of the king of Israel and of the House of David describes on a stone monument his victories over Israel and the House of David, Judah.
Finkelstein, Na’aman, and Römer recently analyzed new high-resolution images of the Mesha Stele as well as of the squeeze that had been made before the stone was fragmented. Noting that the bottom portion of the stele, including part of line 31, is broken, the scholars write in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University that Lemaire’s reconstruction of bt[d]wd in line 31 is unpersuasive:
The original part of the stone makes it clear that the two letters after the beth were already eroded when the squeeze was produced; this is why no letter is seen in the squeeze between the beth and the waw.
Three observations follow:
1. The taw that follows the beth in Lemaire’s rendering of בת[ד]וד does not exist.
2. More importantly, before the waw of ב[- -]וד a vertical stroke appears, that—like many similar strokes in the stele—marks a transition between two sentences. In most cases, it is followed by a word starting with a waw, as is the case here. This stroke can be seen in the squeeze and the upper part of it can also possibly be detected in the small original part of the stele that was inserted into the plaster restoration; this, in turn, may explain the full restoration of a dividing line in the plaster-restored section.
3. The letter after the waw is indeed a dalet, the left side of which is slightly damaged.
These observations refute any possibility of reading בת[ד]וד in Line 31. Instead, we are dealing with a three-consonant word which is most probably a personal name: it starts with a beth, followed by a space for two missing letters that is followed by the vertical stroke, and then begins a new sentence ([… .]וד).
What personal name with three consonants, starting with the letter beth, could the stele have been referring to? A variety of names might fit here (e.g., Bedad, Bedan, Becher, Belaʻ, Baʻal, Barak), but one name stands as the most likely candidate, i.e., Balak.
The scholars deserve credit for their use of high-resolution photography to bring attention to a potential new reading of this important stele, notable among Northwest Semitic inscriptions for its unusual length and connection with the biblical text.
However, Lawrence Mykytiuk, professor at Purdue University and author of several BAR articles examining the archaeological evidence for people mentioned in the Bible, finds the reference to the biblical Balak on the Mesha Stele to be dubious.
“A reference to King Balak in this stele seems anachronistic for Mesha’s first-person narration of his experience, since the Hebrew Bible associates him with Israel’s journeys before the settlement period, centuries earlier than Mesha and the Omride dynasty,” Mykytiuk said in an email to Bible History Daily. “Could there not have been a later Balak, perhaps from the same location, who is not mentioned in the Bible?”
“Regarding the observation, ‘before the waw of ב[- -]וד a vertical stroke appears,’ one could wish that the apparent vertical stroke were clearer,” Mykytiuk added. “This is especially true because of the claim to have found a previously overlooked transition marker between putative sentences, in a crucial place. No doubt the vertical-stroke transition marker, if correctly perceived and interpreted, is the most decisive element in this new reading.”
Follow Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman, and Thomas Römer’s argument for identifying the biblical Balak by reading their full article “Restoring Line 31 in the Mesha Stele: The ‘House of David’ or Biblical Balak?” in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.
This story first appeared in Bible History Daily in May, 2019.
André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1994.
Siegfried H. Horn, “Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1986.
Joel S. Burnett, “Ammon, Moab and Edom: Gods and Kingdoms East of the Jordan,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2016.
P. M. Michèle Daviau and Paul-Eugène Dion, “Moab Comes to Life,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2002.
Baruch Margalit, “Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1986.
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