Biblical Archeology

Ministry previews soon-to-be-published findings illuminating the world of the patriarchs.

William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


A publishing event of major importance in the history of the study of the Old Testament is due this winter when Giovanni Pettinato's book on Ebla rolls off Doubleday's presses. The major find of cuneiform tablets was made at Ebla in Syria in the fall of 1975. This landmark publication of some of those texts comes four years later, at the same time that Old Testament and Near Eastern scholars are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the Canaanite tablets at the site of ancient Ugarit, on the Syrian coast. This earlier discovery opened to our view a whole new horizon of Canaanite culture, history, language, and thought from the late 2d millennium B.C. The discoveries at Ebla push that horizon back another millennium and provide an even wider range of texts to study.

I recently had the opportunity of at tending a seminar on Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible conducted by Prof. Mitchell Dahood, from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, on the Denver campus of Iliff School of Theology in August of 1979. Dahood is a specialist in ancient West Semitic languages, which include Ugaritic and Hebrew, while Pettinato is a specialist in East Semitic, or Babylonian, cuneiform, and Sumerian. The collaboration between these two scholars has been a fruitful one and illustrates the type of interdisciplinary cooperation that will be necessary to understand these interesting texts. The book soon to be published by Doubleday has been translated from Italian into English by Dahood, who has added one hundred pages dedicated to the topic of Ebla and the Bible.

Some sixty texts will be published in this volume, and the subjects covered range from the story of the discovery and decipherment of the texts to the religion of Ebla. This is not to say that Pettinato has been working only on this book. He has already published some twenty Eblaite texts in two dozen articles. Unfortunately for American scholars, these articles are scattered among European journals that sometimes are difficult to obtain in the United States. In spite of this, Professor Pettinato should be congratulated for putting some eighty texts in two dozen articles and a major monograph before the scholarly world in the four years since the major find was made.

Brief history of the find

The first forty-two Eblaite tablets were found at Tell Mardikh in 1974 by the Italian Archaeological Mission in Syria, under the direction of Prof. Paolo Matthiae. As the epigrapher of the mission, Pettinato was summoned from Rome to see the tablets. Pettinato, a Sumerologist, noted at the time that he could read the Sumerian signs that were written on the tablets but could not make sense of them. After further study, Pet tinato determined that the scribes who wrote these tablets were using the Sumerian writing system to write a non-Sumerian, West Semitic (Syro-Palestinian or Canaanite) type of language.

By April of 1975 Pettinato had made sufficient progress in deciphering the language of the first forty-two tablets to present a paper to the Pontifical Biblical Institute. This landmark study was subsequently published in the journal Orientalia with what may become the most famous footnote in scholarly history the addendum at the end of the article reporting the find of 14,000 tablets and fragments in August of 1975! An additional 1,635 tablets and fragments were found in 1976 and 100 more were found in 1977.

The political vicissitudes that these tablets have gone through since their discovery need not be recounted here. (They have been described in some detail in recent issues of the Biblical Archaeology Review.) The sad result is that Professors Matthiae and Pettinato have come to a final and irreconcilable parting of the ways. This means that there will be two series of publications of these texts. Pettinato's series will be published by the University of Naples, and Matthiae has assembled an international panel of scholars to work on his publication committee. Pettinato appears to have photographs and hand copies of about one thousand texts to work on. All of the tablets are stored in the museum at Aleppo, Syria.

A word of caution should be noted about the figures published by the popular press as to the number of tablets found at the site; these figures have reached as many as forty thousand. The actual inventory numbers come closer to twenty thousand. It is also important to understand that every broken fragment of a tablet receives a separate accession number. Thus the figures given include some complete tablets and many individual fragments. A final total of the original number of tablets is not yet known, but current estimates are that between five thousand and six thousand original tablets are represented.

The language of the tablets has commonly been said to be about 80 percent Sumerian and about 20 percent Canaanite. This observation should also be qualified because of the nature of the writing system involved. Sumerian could be written with logograms or ideograms, in which one sign stood for one word or idea. However, these signs also had phonetic values, and the clear-cut examples of Eblaite are those in which the scribes wrote out the West Semitic words with several signs, using the syllabic value of each. On the other hand the Eblaite scribes also could, and obviously did, use Sumerian logograms to stand for their own Eblaite words. This is difficult for the modern scholar to detect because he sees only the Sumerian sign and does not know how the Eblaites read or pronounced the word represented by that sign.

An example of this is the combined phrase that occurs in one tablet, EN u ma-lik-tum. EN is a Sumerian logogram that stands for "king," while maliktum is the phonetic spelling of the Eblaite word for "queen" (the u between them is the conjunction "and"). According to the interlinear dictionary texts, the Sumerian logogram EN was read and pronounced ma-li-kum by the Eblaites, which is essentially the equivalent of the Hebrew word for "king," melek. Thus this phrase clearly means "king and queen," and undoubtedly was read by the Eblaites as malikum u maliktum. In other words, Sumerian logograms were frequently used by Eblaite scribes as a kind of shorthand to avoid spelling out whole words phonetically. This was convenient for them but unfortunate for us, for as we look at these logograms we can sometimes only guess at the Eblaite word for which they stood. In any event, much of this "80 percent Sumerian" writing undoubtedly was read by the Eblaite scribes as Eblaite.

Content of the texts

Pettinato now divides the texts into three main groups based on content. The first consists of economic and administrative texts and constitutes about 70 percent of the total. The second category, about 20 percent of the total, is literary texts. The remaining 10 percent falls in the historical category. The percentages of texts in the last two categories have been raised considerably since Pettinato's first general assessment of them in 1976. Since literary and historical texts are generally more interesting than economic and administrative texts, this distribution should make the corpus all the more interesting to study.

The growth in the reported number of treaty texts illustrates the progress made by cataloging and studying these tablets in more detail. When Pettinato first described the contents of these texts he referred to one main treaty text a lengthy agreement between the king of Ebla and the king of Assyria governing commercial relations when they traded with the same cities and towns of Anatolia. Since that time Pettinato has identified ten more treaty texts. Since these are the oldest known examples of what is known in the Bible as a covenant, they are of considerable interest to the student of Bible history.

Reference has been made on occasion to a Flood story and a Creation story from Ebla. The Flood story is rather disappointing, since it is just one line on a schoolboy practice text that states that Enlil, the Mesopotamian storm god, sent the rainstorm of the flood for seven days. This parallels the later, more complete examples of the Flood story from Mesopotamia.

The text about Creation is known from three copies written in Sumerian, not Eblaite, and bears some resemblance to the story of Creation in Genesis 1. A translation of the text is included in the chapter on Eblaite religion in Pettinato's forthcoming book. In that chapter, Pettinato develops the interesting hypothesis that although the Eblaites were polytheists with a pantheon of five hundred gods, an early stage of henotheism was also developing. (Henotheism is the special worship of one supreme god while recognizing the existence of other gods.)

Much of the work done on these texts in relation to the Bible has to do with the study of individual words. A perennial problem for Biblical scholars has been how to translate the more than one thousand words that occur infrequently or only once in the Old Testament. These words are presently translated ac cording to context or cognate evidence from other Semitic languages. But what does the scholar do when the word is not attested in another Semitic language and the context is not clear? He simply does the best he can under the circumstances. Eblaite will help here. There are 114 partial copies of the three basic dictionaries used by scribes at Ebla. These texts provide a total of about three thousand words written in Sumerian and Eblaite. Only about four hundred of these words have been studied carefully thus far, but in these and other texts twenty words have already shown up that were previously known only in Biblical Hebrew.

Given the cognate relations of Eblaite with other Semitic languages, these texts are going to be helpful as well to Sumerologists, since about twice as many of the Eblaite words can be understood as the Sumerian words. This interesting relationship can be seen clearly when the Geographical Atlas of Ebla (published in 1978 in the journal Orientalia) is com pared with a duplicate text recently dis covered and published from Abu Salabikhin central Sumer. Prof. R. Biggs, of the University of Chicago, previously published the long geographical list from Abu Salabikh, but it was largely unintelligible because it was written in Sumerian logograms. The names in the duplicate list from Ebla, however, were commonly spelled out with the phonetic values of the signs, which makes them much easier to identify. Thus this list from Ebla has helped to explain the similar list from Abu Salabikh.

Other texts contain long lists of stones, fish, birds (142 in all), and the professions of mankind. Professor Dahood states that he has identified thirty-two of the professions listed. An interesting illustration is the word lu a-gu-ra, which might be translated "tailor." It can be equated with the Hebrew word hagoroth, the name of the garments that Adam and Eve made for themselves after the Fall (see Gen. 3:7). The Eblaite word has the determinative lu for man in front of this word and a feminine singular ending, while the Hebrew word has a feminine plural ending. Using the Sumerian writing system the Eblaite scribes could not write the strong h sound, so they used the a to stand for it. Until the discovery of the Eblaite texts this word was known only from the He brew Bible.

Controversies regarding the texts

Controversies regarding certain aspects of the Eblaite texts have already cropped up. One is the question about whether there was a god named Ya at Ebla. Since Ya is quite similar to the short form of the personal name of God in the Old Testament, this question is of some significance for later Israelite religion. The more information that comes to light, the more evident it is that such a god was known at Ebla. In the list of over one hundred officials that Pettinato has now published, more than a dozen bear names that include Ya as the divine element. In some pairs of names the element Ya appears in the same place where the names of other gods appear in other personal names. A striking example is eb-du-ya, or "servant of Ya," which can be related quite directly to the Hebrew name Obadiah. These names in these texts come from quite an early period, in the third millennium B.C. (Pettinato and Matthiae still differ by two centuries on the precise date). That locates them in what we might call the protopatriarchal period of the Bible, prior to the separation of the worshipers of the true God from those of false gods in the time of Abraham.

Other personal names of the Eblaites are of interest because of their similarity to Biblical names. Some examples that have been published previously are: Addmu, a governor of Ebla (Adam); Ebrium, a king of Ebla (Eber); Abramu (Abram); Israilu (Israel, which originally was a personal name of Jacob); Esaum (Esau); Daudum (David); Saulum (Saul); Danilu (Daniel); and Wana (Jonah).

Two precautions should be mentioned here. The first is that these are not the same individuals that are known by these names in the Bible. The appearance of these names at Ebla simply indicates that these names were in use at this early time. This relationship does suggest, however, some kind of cultural—not necessarily directly religious—continuum between these people and those we know from later times in the Bible. It should be recalled that the patriarchs, in particular, maintained their relationship with this general area. Although Ebla was west of the Euphrates and Haran was east of the Euphrates, this was the same general region to which Abraham sent his servant to obtain a wife for his son Isaac, and to which Jacob fled when he left home as an exile.

Second, it should be kept in mind that there are many other personal names at Ebla that bear no resemblance to later Israelite names. Some of these were compounded with the names of various . gods of the Eblaite pantheon. In spite of this, some of the personal names from Ebla remain strikingly reminiscent of those borne by Biblical characters, such as the woman's name 'a-wa, which can be identified with Eve.

Another controversy that has arisen over these tablets concerns their mention of Sodom and Gomorrah. The king of Ebla maintained far-flung trade relations and kept records of his representatives' itineraries. When Pettinato first reported publicly (fall of 1976) on a text that was said to mention the same cities of the plain as those in Genesis 14, he stated that all five cities were mentioned in the Eblaite text. They were said to have been listed in reverse order from the Genesis account and were followed by a reference to Damascus, indicating that the king's representative was traveling from south to north on his way back to Ebla.

Since that time Pettinato has disa vowed the reading of the names of the last three of these cities—Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar, or Bela. He has not, however, disavowed the reading of the names of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the contrary, he now states that he has found the names of these two cities in more than one text! These texts have not been published yet, but as Pettinato gains more experience working with Eblaite, that interpretation becomes more likely.

In the recent course that Professor Dahood taught on this subject, he organized his material according to the Biblical text, commenting on those pas sages where Ebla now appears to provide some illumination or understanding of a word or phrase. In so doing he covered two dozen passages from Gene sis, a dozen passages each from Job and Psalms, and a half-dozen passages each in Proverbs, Isaiah, and the minor prophets. Since we still are in a very early stage of the study of these important texts, this undoubtedly is but a faint harbinger of what may be expected of this corpus in enriching our understanding of the Bible and the history of the ancient Near East. The publication of the Pettinato-Dahood book will be a giant step toward that goal.

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William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 1979

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