Update on Ebla

The clay tablets in Ebla's archives have been hailed as "one of this century's most important archeological discoveries." Now two recent publications give the English-speaking world its first detailed look.

The Bible tells us quite a bit about Abraham and his descendants, but very little about their predecessors. In those distant third-millenium B.C. days, what was life like in the Fertile Crescent—that agriculturally and economically important corridor through which Abraham traveled from the valley of Euphrates and Tigris rivers through Syria down into Palestine? Perhaps historians of the ancient Near East could fill in the gaps left by Genesis. Unfortunately they have not been all that helpful. As recently as 1971 the author of the revised and prestigious Cambridge Ancient History wrote that nothing was known of the ethnic makeup or language of third-millennium Syria. He saw its inhabitants as primarily nomadic and even questioned their familiarity with writing.

But now all that has changed! As readers of MINISTRY know (see "Archeological Update From Syria, Israel and Jordan" February, 1977; "The Ebla Tablets: Archeological Find of the Century?" May, 1978; "Ebla Reveals Her Secrets," November, 1979), the archeological excavation of Tell Mardikh in Syria since 1964 and the discovery there of some 17,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments since 1974 have already provoked wide interest and even debate on the relation ship of the contents of the third-millennium archive to the historical, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of the Biblical patriarchs.

Even if one ignored the possible Biblical "connections," this find would be exciting. The tablets from Ebla (Tell Mardikh's ancient name) constitute the earliest such archive ever found. In fact, all the tablets produced by excavations in Mesopotamia that date from the introduction of writing to the end of the third millennium B.C. amount to about one fourth of the documents from Ebla. Its archives compare in both intrinsic worth and extent with the great cuneiform libraries of the second and first millennia found at Ugarit and Mari in Syria> Bogazkoy (the Hittite capital) in Turkey, and Nineveh and Ashur in Mesopotamia.

The story of the discovery of Ebla is now fairly well known. The Italian team from the University of Rome worked at Tell Mardikh in comparative obscurity until the discovery in 1967-1968 of a part of a statue containing a 26-line inscription whose decipherment permitted the identification of Tell Mardikh with ancient Ebla, already known from other cuneiform sources. The second important landmark in Ebla's philological discovery was the 1974 uncovering of 42 tablets and fragments scattered on the floor of the royal palace. This resulted in the decipherment of the language of Ebla—and it turned out to be a hitherto unknown Semitic language related among others to Biblical Hebrew! The following year Ebla's royal library was uncovered—at least 5,000 complete or partially restorable tablets, with thousands of other fragments.

New books

In the intervening years there have been exaggerated claims, vehement denials, political intrigues, and heated debates about the finds and their significance. Scientific articles began to appear—mostly in obscure Italian journals. However, 1981 saw the publication of two important books in English. The first Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered (Doubleday, $14.95), was authored by Paolo Matthiae, the director of the archeological expedition. It gives the history of the dig and details the most interesting discoveries in their ancient Near Eastern historical context. In September the second book appeared: The Archives of Ebla: An Empire Inscribed in Clay (Doubleday, $15.95), by Giovanni Pettinato, the scholar originally in charge of deciphering and publishing the tablets. To expect the final word so soon on such a huge collection of documents would be asking too much, but the volume is nevertheless extremely important because it gives the English-speaking world its first detailed look at the contents of many of the clay tablets.

The tablets were written in a wedgeshaped writing system (cuneiform) common to ancient Mesopotamia, but the language of most of them was not Sumerian—as were other third-millennium documents—but a previously unknown Northwest Semitic language now called Eblaite. Though there is a debate among linguists as to just how this new language should be classified, Pettinato argues that it is an Old Canaanite language demonstrating a close relation ship with Ugaritic, Phoenician,!and Biblical Hebrew. He was able to decipher the new language because some of the documents were bilingual.

Date of tablets

There is also a debate as to the exact date of the archive. Matthiae and most archeologists argue for a date about 2250 B.C., while Pettinato and most linguists are convinced the tablets are 250 years earlier—contemporary with the dynasty of Mesalim of Kish in Mesopotamia and with the fourth-dynasty pyramid builders in Egypt. The only sure synchronism so far is between Ar-Ennum, the third king of Ebla, and Iblul-Il, a king of Mari, whose date is not certain.

Most of the documents from the royal archive are economic and administrative in character and are important for under standing the structure of the Eblaite state, the division of power, and the society and daily life of the imperial capital. The second main category of documents are historical and juridical—that is, royal ordinances, edicts, letters of state, inter national treaties, contracts of purchase and sale, et cetera. The third category includes lexical texts, school exercises, scientific lists, and bilingual vocabularies. Finally come the literary texts, including twenty myths, epics (especially the Gilgamesh Epic, which in later recensions contains the Flood story), hymns, incantations, rituals, and collections of proverbs. In many ways these last, though most interesting, are the most difficult to interpret and understand successfully. Hence very few appear in Pettinato's book.


One such text that is translated, how ever, apparently echoes the words of Genesis 1:

"Lord of heaven and earth:

the earth was not, you created it,

the light of the day was not, you created it,

the morning light you had not [yet] made exist."

Evidently the writer saw the existence of the cosmos due to a Superior Being who created it. Pettinato theorizes that the Eblaites evolved from polytheism into henotheism, the worship of a supreme creator-god within the pantheon. Furthermore, there is impressive evidence for the existence at Ebla of the name Ya for a deity—perhaps linguistically related to Yahweh, the Biblical Hebrew proper name for Israel's God. Under king Ebrium this name replaced II (related to Hebrew Elohim) as the divine component in personal names. It is clear, however, that the Eblaites were primarily polytheists and that the divinities in their pantheon were predominantly Canaanite. Familiar ones included Baal, Chemosh, Dagan, the son god Sipish, the storm god Hada, and the goddess of the primordial ocean waters Tiamat. Both priests and priestesses were "anointed," and "prophets" moved from one city to another announcing the divine message. These holy men were called nobiutum, a term related to the Biblical Hebrew word for "prophet." Temple offerings included both unbloody (bread, beer, oil) and bloody offerings (smaller livestock), as well as ex-votos of cloth and metal, including gold.

Feasts of purification, anointing, and consecration were observed. There is yet no evidence, however, of a weekly day of rest, a day when all operations ceased, though the related verb shobat, "to cease, desist," was used at Ebla. For that matter, there is no evidence of a weekly cycle, either. Their year, however, was a solar year divided into twelve lunar months. Synchronization was achieved by the occasional introduction of an intercalary month.

A preliminary study of the tablets indicates that five large groups formed the body politic of Elba: employees of administration, merchants, artisans, peasants, and laborers. In addition to these citizens, Elba contained foreign mercenaries, prisoners, slaves, and guests (traders, scribes, and prophets). The state was presided over by an elected king, sometimes joined by a coregent. He could negotiate treaties, as is illustrated by a particularly interesting treaty with Ashur. This treaty—as do treaties preserved from the Biblical world—concludes with a curse formula: "Whenever (he) does wrong, may the sun god, the god Hada, and the stars who are witnesses, scatter his decision in the steppe: for the merchants who undertake a journey, let there be no water; may you have no stable abode; may you undertake a journey of perdition!"

Greater Ebla, with a population of at least 260,000 permanent residents, was made up of some 250 towns and villages. The entire personnel of the state totaled 11,700 functionaries, of whom 4,700 worked in the palace. Eblaite women were not necessarily relegated to the home, but participated in important decisions and bore considerable responsibility in certain sectors of the economy.

The economy

The wealth of the Eblaite kingdom lay in its farm products (cereals, malt, olives, grapes, and other fruits) and livestock (breeding cattle was intensely developed). The texts seem to reflect a patrician economy created and maintained by a number of great families who ran an economic-commercial empire rather than a political-military complex. Their textile industry produced wool and flax fabrics in the state spinning mills, which materials were then shipped to points as far away as modem Iran. They were well known for their damask (linen or woolen fabrics intertwined with gold threads), a Syrian tradition that continues to this day in the city of Damascus. The metal industry dealt with copper, tin, lead, and bronze, but especially precious metals.

Because of its ideal geographical position, Ebla must have also coordinated the flow of goods among many lands remote from one another. To the south, Ebla's range of influence extended through all of Syria and Palestine as far as Sinai. Familiar cities mentioned include Byblos, Ashdod, Jaffa, Akko, Sidon, Megiddo, Lachish, and Damascus. To the west, Ebla traded with Cyprus, and to the north, with many cities in Turkey. However, it was to the east that Ebla's commercial activity flourished most. It controlled the Euphrates region of northern Mesopotamia* but its influence reached farther, to northern Iran and to central and southern Mesopotamia.

The tablets reveal not only a booming economy but a high culture at some distance from the only previously known academies of southern Mesopotamia. Ebla's corpus of texts includes lists of cuneiform signs, syllabaries (the earliest ones previously known date only to 1800 B.C.) revealing the pronunciation of Sumerian words, the oldest dictionaries and vocabularies on record, lists of words arranged by subject (perhaps school hand books) , and a gazetteer of the ancient Near East that embraces the entire area of the Fertile Crescent, with particular emphasis on Syria-Palestine.

Ebla and the Bible

Many scholars consider the Ebla tablets to be much too early to be relevant for Old Testament studies. After all, Abraham did not live for another 500 years! But in an afterword ("Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible") to Pettinato's new book, Mitchell Dahood, Catholic Biblical scholar and author of The Anchor Bible Psalms, argues that the careful employment of early material to elucidate later expression and practice is legitimate. He suggests that the written documents uncovered at secondmillennium Ugarit may serve as a bridge between third-millennium Ebla and the mostly first-millennium Old Testament. He proceeds then to illustrate his thesis by specific linguistic insights. Many scholars consider his methodology weak because he lacks rigid controls, but some of his suggestions seem plausible and helpful.

For instance, until now the only attestation of "man" (Adam) outside the Bible appears in the form of personal names in Old Akkadian texts from about 2350 B.C. Now precisely the same personal name has cropped up at Ebla, too. In Ugaritic one of the titles of El, the head of the pantheon, is "El, the father of mankind (Adam)." Compare Genesis 1:26. The unique spelling of the god-name Chemosh in Jeremiah 48:7 has also turned up at Ebla. Dahood says such preservations are not accidental, but suggest long continuity in religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions.

With regard to the theologically inter esting Hebrew root kpr, which underlies "ransom," "payment," "atonement," et cetera, Dahood says, on the basis of its appearance in an Eblaite bilingual vocabulary: "Hence biblical koper could originally have meant 'copper,' and since the setting of differences between Israelites them selves or between Israelites and God involved the transfer of something of value (a person, an animal or commutation of such in the form of commodity or currency), this etymology would accord with the subsequent development of this institution. "—Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered, p. 282.

Based on linguistic parallels from Ebla, Dahood claims he can correctly translate such difficult passages as Genesis 4:7 and Proverbs 26:23, and better understand such words as the following that appear only once in the Bible: 'abreic, in Genesis 41:43 ("the superintendent of the royal palace" instead of "bow the knee"), and mnlm, in Job 15:29 ("his property" paralleled with "his wealth").

Dahood suggests that one is able to understand fully the polemical significance of a text like Isaiah 60:19, 20 only when it is read against the background of the pervasive cult of the sun god, popular as early as the days of Ebla. He also points out the significance for dating of Biblical material when words formerly thought to be only late are now found as early as Ebla. For instance, he suggests that the Aramaic form shum, "name," found eleven times in the books of Ezra and Daniel and which has sometimes been ascribed to Akkadian influence, may well be an alternate Canaanite form already documented at Ebla. Or the unit of weight known in the Bible as rmnah (e.g., 1 Kings 10:17), considered by some to be of Babylonian origin, may well be Canaanite in origin, since it appears repeatedly in Ebla's economic texts.


Such specific suggestions are sure to be debated in the days ahead. But Dahood is surely right when he suggests that Ebla will have an impact on Biblical studies in at least three ways: (1) the gradual demolition of the psychological wall that has kept the Ras Shamra-Ugarit discoveries out of Biblical discussions (the continuity of linguistic and religious traditions in Canaan); (2) the attitude of Biblicists toward the literary capacity of Old Testament writers (they had fallen heir to a venerable literary tradition and deserve to be taken seriously); (3) the utilization of evidence from Ebla for Biblical philology and lexicography (many Biblical hapax legomena, or words of a single occurrence, are being found at Ebla).

From a historical point of view, we now have the evidence in Matthiae's and Pettinato's books that the first great Semitic empire may not have been built by Sargon and the other kings of Akkad, as we had thought, but rather by the Eblaites, whose most illustrious king was Ebrium. Ebrium bore the same name as Eber, the patriarch listed in Genesis 10 and 11, from whom the Hebrews descended. Though it is conceivable chronologically that Ebrium and Eber were one and the same individual, it is improbable. We know from the Bible that Eber's sons were Peleg and Joktan; neither of these names seem to appear among Ebrium's twenty-five or so sons' names in the tablets. But it is probable that they all came from the same cultural milieu and that for the first time we are now beginning to get a glimpse of what life was like for Abraham's forebears, whom the Bible indicates were Syrians (Deut. 26:5).

Pettinato himself says: "But if Ebla of 2500 B.C. is beginning to throw light on the preceding millennium, many shadowy zones of the second millennium are also coming to assume clearer shapes. The chief beneficiary is the West Semitic world in which fourteenth-century Ugarit stands out, to be followed by Phoenician culture and the world of the Old Testament of the first millennium."—Op.tit., p. 268.

These new books only whet our appetite for the results of continuing excavation and continuing decipherment of the tab lets already found. We can be sure that Ebla is just beginning to share her secrets, a knowledge of which will be bound to illuminate the background of the patriarchs and the language in which the Old Testament was written.

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January 1982

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