Biblical Archeology

The Ebla Tablets. What began as a dig into a supposed Arab citadel may end up to be the archeological find of the century!

By Paul L. Maier, Ph.D., professor of history at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.


"Sensational!" "More important than the Dead Sea scrolls." "The find of the century." Even scholars are using expressions such as these to describe the Ebla excavations in northern Syria, announced in recent months.

What constitutes a great archeological discovery? Bringing a lost civilization to light? Uncovering a previously unknown language? Pushing history a thousand years farther into the past? Causing scholars to rewrite their textbooks? Ebla is all of these—and more.

Several of the more fascinating items translated from the 20,000 cuneiform tablets unearthed at Ebla include:

1. Reference to a god whose name has the same root as Yahweh of the Old Testament.

2. Mention of such Biblical place names as Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jerusalem long before they appeared in the Bible.

3. Names such as Adam, Israel, Saul, and David being used for Eblan citizens a millennium before such names would be written in Scripture.

Until now, Mesopotamia has dominated the scene in the cultural genesis of the ancient Hebrews. Now in the ashes of a lost Syrian empire, tablets in the earliest Semitic language yet known have opened up the ancient world a thou sand years farther back in time. If, as seems most likely, Eblaite is a direct ancestor to Hebrew, then Ebla's culture may be parental as well. The effect on Biblical studies, as well as on Judeo-Christian faith, can only be intriguing, fascinating, and positive.

How it all happened is a tale that may one day rank among the great archeology stories. In 1964 a young professor of Near East archeology at the University of Rome, Paolo Matthiae, arrived in Syria with a small archeological team to explore what was generally deemed an unpromising area, a series of mounds in northwestern Syria. The mounds, or tells, as they are called in that area, denoted ruined ancient villages, but so many similar tells in Mesopotamia and Egypt—the great empires of the ancient Near East—remain to be explored that col leagues wondered at Matthiae's interest in the northwestern "Fertile Crescent." This area, midway be tween the two superpowers of the time, was generally deemed the boondocks of antiquity.

Nevertheless, Matthiae, only 24 at the time, started digging into the largest of the mounds about 30 miles south of modern Aleppo. Locals called it Tell Mardikh, a massive rise that jutted 50 feet above the Syrian plain and sprawled across it for 140 acres. Why was the mound so large? Four thousand years earlier this had been the storied metropolis of Ebla, capital of an immense empire ex tending from Egypt to Assyria and beyond. Strangely, nearly all information on Ebla had slowly disappeared since, and the young Italian archeologist could not even know the name of the site into which he was digging. At first he imagined it was an Arab citadel from the seventh century A.D. !

Tell Mardikh was slow to yield its secret. It was not until the fourth year that the archeologists discovered a statue that bore a dedicatory inscription by one Ibbit-Lim, king of the city of Ebla. An identification at last! Tell Mardikh was ancient Ebla. Still, it was no occasion to contact the wire services. Ebla was barely known to ancient -historians. On several cuneiform tablets, the Akkadians, people of one of the earliest Mesopotamian empires, boasted that they had conquered a place called Ebla, but since hundreds of other ancient sites had received similar passing notice, Ebla had been deemed nothing more than a large village.

Persistence and patience, how ever, finally paid off for the Italians. After a decade of digging at Tell Mardikh, Matthiae and his team finally uncovered items far more significant than the usual pottery, tools, or jewelry artifacts. In 1974 they came upon 42 tablets in the cuneiform wedge-writing system first developed in Mesopotamia. The fol lowing year they unearthed two rooms stacked with an astounding 16,000 tablets. This was no less than the royal archives, a treasure trove that will take decades to fully process, translate, and interpret.

Some translation, nevertheless, began almost at once. Professor Matthiae called in a philologist col league at the University of Rome, Giovanni Pettinato, who began trying to decipher the scramble of triangular wedge marks on the clay tablets. A little more than a century ago this task would have been impossible. But so far has our knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages progressed that Pettinato was soon reading Sumerian on the tab lets. The world's oldest written language, Sumerian was developed by people of the first civilization known to history.

Ebla was not a Sumerian cita del—Sumer lay 500 miles down the Euphrates to the southeast—but soon the riddle cleared itself. On about 20 percent of the tablets, Pettinato discovered other cuneiform characters that did not convey Sumerian at all, but a hitherto unknown northwestern Semitic language that he dubbed "Paleo-Canaanite," or Old Canaanite. (Whether that tag will endure, or if "Eblaite" will take its place, the future will decide.) Evidently the scribes at Ebla had borrowed the writing system developed at Sumer—cuneiform—as a vehicle for their own language at Ebla, much as the alphabet employed in this article serves French or German, for example, as well as English.

What made this find so important was not merely the discovery of a lost ancient language, but the antiquity of that language. From the archeological stratum in which they were found, and on the basis of in formation on the tablets themselves, the Italian team dated them to 2400- 2250 B.C. Thus they predate the earliest writings in the Old Testament by a thousand years. But they were produced in an era reported by the Bible, so that any correlations of names, places, and institutions dis covered in the Ebla tablets with the earliest books of the Old Testament would be of obvious import.

Matthiae and Pettinato suggest that it may take two hundred years to explore the rest of Tell Mardikh, as well as the surrounding northern Syrian sites, and to digest all the data. Still, they have translated enough of the royal archives to group the tablets into certain categories.

Economic and administrative texts appear most often, as would be expected. If our civilization were suddenly to vanish, but all its written records remained to be discovered thousands of years hence, the largest category would similarly be commercial paper, bills, checks, ledgers, advertisements, and the like. The tablets at Ebla report lists of rations and inventories, tax rolls, records of grain and livestock, and particularly some sophisticated international ledgers of trading in metals and textiles—Ebla's export specialties. These show that Ebla's commercial and political horizons, astonishingly, extended from Sinai and the borders of Egypt in the southwest to Mesopotamia in the east and the headwaters of the Tigris River in the north.

No Near Eastern scholar had imagined commerce to be this extensive this early in history, especially from a trade center that until two years ago was deemed little more than pasture land for nomadic tribes. One tablet places Ebla's population at the time at an incredible 260,000 people—although this quarter million may have been spread across her empire, rather than merely in the city. The city of Ebla itself was divided into two main sectors: the upper city, or acropolis, where government officials had their residences, and the lower city, where everyone else lived.

Scientific and geographical lists include school exercises; animal, fish, and bird lists; enumerations of places and occupations; and other materials that relate closely to similar lists from Mesopotamia. So far, some five thousand place names have been identified on the tablets, a majority of which were previously unknown to scholars of ancient history.

Historical texts convey an impressive amount of detailed information about the structure of the government at Ebla and its foreign relations. A king was clearly in charge of the state, and his queen was held in equally lofty regard. Their firstborn, the crown prince, ran the domestic affairs and administration, while the second-born son controlled foreign affairs. A group of elders at Ebla also exercised significant political power. What could only be an inflated bureaucracy of no less than eleven thousand civil servants staffed the palace.

The texts also tell of Ebla's most important challenges from the east. While the Eblaites preferred to trade rather than fight, they did go to war on occasion. One day, for example, the city of Mari (halfway to Babylonia on the Euphrates) quit paying tribute to Ebla. An Eblan army stormed its way eastward into Mari and collected 11,000 pounds of silver and 880 pounds of gold—back taxes with interest!

But such strong-arm tactics alarmed the great King Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia. He sent his armies up the Euphrates to snatch Mari back and punish Ebla besides. It was a dark hour for Ebla, until her new king, one Ebrium or Ebrum, boldly reannexed Mari. Ebrum went on to expand Ebla's empire until he collected tribute from no less than proud Akkad herself, making Ebla the greatest power in the ancient Near East at the time—a place all but unknown three years ago!

Finally, a later Akkadian king named Naram-Sin laid siege to Ebla, broke through its walls, and put it to the torch, ending the history of the city and empire.

Juridical writings cover every thing from contracts to crimes. The penalty for adultery with another's wife was three oxen, but that for raping a virgin was death. Polygamy was permitted, at least for the king, and one is reported to have sired thirty-eight sons.

Literary texts are quite religious in content, as is typical of similar writings elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Mythological texts and lists of prescribed sacrifices and rituals abound. Mesopotamian deities such as Enki or the primal storm god Enlil show up in such texts, as do the names of some 500 other divinities, including Dagon, whose temple in Palestine would later be pulled down by Samson (Judges 16). Proverbs also appear on the literary tablets. One of them goes, "The gift is all, the gift is life."

Dictionary or parallel word lists include thirty-two bilingual vocabularies with translations from Sumerian into Eblaite. It was such lists, the earliest found in recorded history, that permitted Pettinato such a rapid translation of the new language. Some terms show no common root. For example, "king" in Sumerian is en, while it is malik in Eblaite. (The similarity to the future Hebrew term melek is obvious, and Eblaite seems to be the most important North Semitic root of the He brew language.) Other words, how ever, do show similar etymology. Sumerian for "mother," for example, is ama-mu, and u-mu-mu in Eblaite.

Since the early Biblical books were not written until many centuries later than these tablets, one might expect to find no connections whatever between the new discoveries and the Bible. The Old Testament, however, tells of events transpiring long before its accounts were written down. Abraham would be making his move from Mesopotamia into Canaan, for example, just three or four centuries after the fall of Ebla.

Indeed, the Ebla tablets provide many probable and many actual correlations with the Bible. The Eblaites were polytheists—not monotheists, like the Hebrews—but one of their deities is named II, or El, which is most likely also their general term for any god. But El is also one of the Hebrew terms for God. Israel, for example, means Isra (contender with) El (God), while Michael means "Who is like God?" Indeed, both these very names—Isra-Il and Mi-ka-Il—appear on the Ebla tablets.

The great and inexpressible He brew word for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh, and even the possible root for this term appears on the tablets. With the reign of Ebrum, the conquering king of Ebla, Ya as a divine name finds sudden prominence, and such personal names as Israel and Michael are now apparently expressed Is-ra-Ya and Mika-Ya. Until now, the element Ya was unknown outside ancient Israel.

The tablets also contain personal names of Eblan citizens that were never before found outside the Bible: Adam, Abraham, Ishmael, Esau, Saul, and David, in addition to the aforementioned Israel and Michael. It should, of course, be emphasized that these are not the same people who appear in the Bible, but the same names.

And what of King Ebrum himself? In Eblaite, his name reads in one of two ways. If Eb-ru-um is correct, this is virtually the same name as the Biblical character Eber of Genesis 10 and 11, the ancestor of the He brews and great-great-great-great grandfather of Abraham. If Eb-rium is the reading, the term translates approximately "Hebrew." In either case, critical Old Testament scholarship, which had previously dis missed most personalities in the first twelve chapters of Genesis as symbolic or mythical, may have some reevaluations to pursue. There is, however, no present proof that the Eblan king is the Eber of Genesis.

Even more fascinating are the Biblical place names, many of which were thought to be only mythical by the majority of critical scholars. The Ebla tablets mention, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah, with which Ebla carried on extensive trade—the first time these place names have been found outside the Bible. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone, Lot escaped to a town called Zoar (Gen. 19), and Zoar appears on the tablets also. So do Salem (the city of Melchizedek), Lachish, Megiddo, Byblos, Sidon, Akko, Hazor, Gaza, Dor, Sinai, Ashtaroth, and Joppa. A place called "Urusalima" is also cited in what must be history's earliest reference to Jerusalem.

Ur, the well-known Sumerian site that has been systematically excavated in southern Mesopotamia, is generally considered Abraham's hometown, although a few scholars have opted for a more northern lo cation. There may indeed have been two ancient Urs, since one of the Ebla tablets describes a city by that name situated in Haran in the northern Fertile Crescent. Abraham stopped at Haran, near Ebla, on his way into Canaan, so possibly the patriarch's home was the Ur not of the southern, but of the northern Near East.

Other interesting parallels with the Old Testament include references to kings of that day being anointed with oil, which is reminiscent of similar coronations in the Bible. The Eblan Creation account has the heaven, earth, sun, and moon created in that order—a sequence similar to Genesis—while another tablet testifies that a great flood sent by the storm god Enlil inundated the countryside with six days' worth of water.

Since 95 percent of the royal Ebla archives are still untranslated, one can only imagine the headlines yet to come. Meanwhile, a cautionary note should be sounded. To date, no official transcription and translation of any of the Ebla tablets has yet been published, so all conclusions must thus far be reckoned as preliminary and subject to future confirmation or rejection.

It seems apparent, however, that the excavations at Ebla should have far-reaching implications for Biblical scholarship, particularly in the area of chronology. Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, may have to be dated earlier, as well as the patriarchs. Professor David Noel Freedman, director of Jerusalem's Albright Institute, concludes: "We may suppose, therefore, that the events described in Genesis 14, which have never been located satisfactorily in the second or first millennia B.C. by scholars, actually be long to the third millennium, and also that the patriarchs, or at least Abraham, must go back to the same period." —LSA (Spring, 1977), p. 18.

Such revisions, plus greater dimensional depth on persons and places in the Old Testament, should follow further translation of the Ebla tablets and well qualify this as the Biblical find of the century.

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By Paul L. Maier, Ph.D., professor of history at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

May 1978

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