Ancient ‘curse tablet’ may show earliest Hebrew name of God

The tablet is barely larger than a postage stamp.Archaeologists estimate the "curse tablet," made from a folded lead sheet and inscribed with proto-alphabetic characters, may be at least 3,200 years old.

Archaeologists estimate the “curse tablet,” made from a folded lead sheet and inscribed with proto-alphabetic characters, may be at least 3,200 years old. (Image credit: ABR/Michael C. Luddeni)

Updated Dec. 6, 2023: The original findings were published in a paper in May 2023 in the journal Heritage Science. In December 2023, archaeologists skeptical of the find published three articles arguing that the so-called curse tablet may actually be a fishing weight, and what looked like Hebrew letters on it were made by natural weathering. 

Archaeology mystery as ancient 'curse tablet' could show earliest Hebrew  name of God | Science | News | Express.co.uk

Archaeologists working in the West Bank say they’ve discovered a tiny “curse tablet,” barely larger than a postage stamp, inscribed with ancient letters in an early form of Hebrew that call on God to curse an individual who breaks their word.

While the dating hasn’t been verified and the find hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, its discoverers think the tablet is at least 3,200 years old.That would make the inscription the earliest-known Hebrew text by several hundred years, and the first to contain the Hebrew name of God, they say.

However, several archaeologists who were not involved with the discovery say they can’t assess the find until details of it are published in a scientific journal; and at least one expert cautions the tablet may not be as old as its discoverers claim.

Project leader Scott Stripling, an archaeologist and the director of excavations for the U.S.-based Associates for Biblical Research (ABR), told Live Science that his team found the curse tablet high on Mount Ebal, just north of the city of Nablus, in December 2019.

Stripling and his colleagues announced the find at a press conference in Houston, Texas, on March 24.

Scholars expound on Mount Ebal curse tablet with oldest Hebrew text -  JNS.org

Details of the tablet — a piece of folded lead sheet about an inch high and an inch wide (2.5 by 2.5 centimeters) — will be published in an archaeological journal later this year, but the team wanted to make the announcement before news of the object leaked out, Stripling said.

Forty proto-alphabetic letters, inscribed in an early form of Hebrew or Canaanite on the outer and inner surfaces of the folded lead tablet, warn what would happen if someone under a covenant — a legally binding agreement — didn’t meet their obligations.

“Cursed, cursed, cursed — cursed by the God Yahweh,” the inscription reads, using a three-letter form of the Hebrew name of God that corresponds to the English letters YHW.

Curse tablet

Tiny Hebrew 'curse tablet' including name of God uncovered by  archaeologists | The US Sun

Stripling and his team found the curse tablet by a process of “wet-sifting” material — that is, washing sediments with water — that had been discarded during archaeological excavations on Mount Ebal in the 1980s.

This particular sediment pile was likely the cast-off material from excavations of the ancient stone structure called “Joshua’s Altar,” high on a ridge of the mountain, he said.

Some think the structure may be where the biblical figure Joshua – the successor to Moses as leader of the Israelites – sacrificed animals to God, while others think it is a sacrificial altar from the Iron Age, several hundred years later.

The stratigraphy of the site — in other words, the dates of different layers of earth determined by archaeological excavations — suggest that the tablet dates to around 1200 B.C. at the very latest, and perhaps as early as 1400 B.C., Stripling said.

An analysis of the chemical isotopes of the lead used in the tablet shows that it came from a mine in Greece that was active during this period, and the very early proto-alphabetic letters — some of which still have forms derived from earlier pictorial symbols, or hieroglyphs — match the presumed dates.

Related: Ancient ‘hangover prevention’ ring found in Israel

Image 1 of 4  The 40-character inscription of proto-alphabetic characters on the inner and outer surfaces of the folded lead tablet appears to include a three-letter version of Yahweh, one of the Hebrew names of God.(Image credit: ABR/Gershon Galil)  Archaeologists found the curse tablet by sifting through a pile of debris that had been removed during archaeological excavations on Mount Ebal in the West Bank in the 1980s.(Image credit: ABR/Michael C. Luddeni)  The pile of debris, where the tablet was found, appears to be from excavations in the 1980s of Joshua’s Altar on Mount Ebal, which is thought to date to between the 11th and the 14th centuries B.C.(Image credit: zstadler Source: File:IHM מזבח הר עיבל.jpeg – Wikipedia)  Mount Ebal, just north of the city of Nablus in the West Bank, is said in a biblical passage to be one of the first locations in Canaan seen by the ancient Israelites.(Image credit: Someone35 Source: File:Mount ebal, near nablus 3.jpg – Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible, Mount Ebal was one of the first locations in Canaan seen from afar by the ancient Israelites after they had been led out of an eastern wilderness by Moses.

In a biblical passage, Moses called on one group of Israelite tribes to proclaim curses from Mount Ebal, while another group of ancient Israelite tribes proclaimed blessings from nearby Mount Gerizim.

The newly-found object is the only known example of a “curse tablet” found at the site, although they are common at Jewish sites elsewhere that date from the much later Hellenistic and Roman periods, after about the late fourth century B.C., Stripling said.

Ancient Israelites

If the date can be verified, the inscription on the curse tablet would push back the earliest-known date for literacy among the ancient Israelites by several hundred years; until now, the earliest evidence was the Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription, dating from about the 10 century B.C., according to researchers at Israel’s University of Haifa.

ABR describes itself on its website as a nonprofit ministry dedicated to demonstrating the historical reliability of the Bible, and Stripling believes the Mount Ebal curse tablet could be evidence for the biblical story of the ancient Israelites arriving in the region — then called Canaan — from farther east.

“We have an ancient text saying that the Israelites arrived around 1400 [B.C.], and then we have evidence of them on a mountain where the Bible says that they were, writing a language that the Bible says that they used,” Stripling said. “I think a fair-minded person might be willing to draw the conclusion, inductively, that there were Israelites there.”

Other archaeologists, however, suggest there’s little evidence of the biblical story that the Israelites were led to Canaan by Moses; instead, archaeology suggests that at least some of the Israelites originated in the Canaanite lands that became the Israelite kingdoms.