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The Mount Ebal Curse Inscription: Response to Scott Stripling

Mount Ebal is in the news. The site of a biblical altar built by Joshua and a physical altar discovered by Adam Zertal is now the site of a proposed 40-letter inscription of curses and the name Yahweh (Yhw). The announcement was made by Scott Stripling on March 24, 2022, at the Lanier Theological Seminary. As one might expect, the notice caused a disturbance in the force as the sensational claims rippled through the world of biblical scholarship.

The purpose of this blog is not to address the inscription itself. Instead it is to follow up on Stripling’s answers to some of the questions raised by the audience. They referred to the Exodus, its occurrence and its dating. In his response, Stripling stated the discovery “tips the scale in favor of an earlier date” by which he means the 15th century BCE and not the more commonly used 13th century BCE date of Ramses II. He also mentioned that his views on the Exodus were recently published in the book Five Views of the Exodus.

As you can see from the image of the book, Scott and I were two of the contributors to the book. Since the publication in 2021, he has a new inscription and I have another Exodus-related book, The Exodus: An Egyptian Story. Two of the remaining contributors, Jim Hoffmeier and Gary Rendsburg, have just published a co-authored article on the route of the Exodus. So far, only the fifth contributor, Ron Hendel, seems resistant to the allure of the Exodus!

The format of the book deserves notice. Each of us wrote a 10,000-word article for the book. Once that was edited by Mark Janzen, we each then received copies of the contributions of the other four writers. Then we wrote up to 2,000-word responses on each one or 8,000 words in total. Finally, we then responded to the responses in a 1,000 word rejoinder increased to 1,500 words. So when you read a chapter, you see the original contribution, the responses of the other four writers, and your response to them for 19,500 words in total. This allows the reader (student) to encounter five different views (and they were different!) in dialog with each other in a single book, a clever format. Naturally none of us convinced the others of the merits of our own view. When it comes to the Exodus, no one ever changes their mind although Jim has shifted between early (Stripling) and late (me) datings for the Exodus.

Below is a slightly emended version of my “Response to the Scot Stripling” in the book Five Views of the Exodus.

Stripling takes the position that an historical Exodus occurred in the 15th century BC. He is aware that his position is at variance with the other contributors to this book as well as with most biblical scholars, especially those who completely reject an historical Exodus. In his contribution, Stripling takes great pains to substantiate the 15th century claim both archaeologically and biblically.

There is a problem in his intentions as expressed in the final paragraph entitled “Theological Implications.” He claims that the archaeological truth of an historical Exodus suggests other biblical stories also should be considered historical: they “deserve a presuppositional expectation of accuracy.” In other words, the Bible is true. This truth is not simply limited to the historical act of human beings leaving Egypt, but true in a theological sense. His concluding sentences reveal the truth of this contribution: “Ultimately, if the Bible is true, then the God of the Bible holds a moral claim on all of humanity.  Nothing could have more far-reaching implications.”

That’s the problem. Consider another historical conundrum involving text and archaeology: the Trojan War as told in the Iliad. Suppose archaeologists definitively proved that a war between the Mycenaeans and Trojans really did occur and in the 12th century BC. Actually, such a claim is hardly farfetched. It is quite reasonable now for classical scholars to accept the historicity of such a confrontation. Does that prove anything about Zeus? If one accepts the historicity of the Trojan War, is one then obligated to accept the existence of the gods of the Mycenaeans and be guided by their moral claims?

If the American Revolution really occurred in history, does that mean the United States is a city on a hill and God’s New Israel?

If the Russian Revolution really occurred in history, does that mean that the Soviet Union really was the “wave of the future”?

Similarly Stripling is wrong to suggest that a 1446 BC historical Exodus means “the God of the Bible holds a moral claim on all of humanity.”

In my own contribution to this book, I, too, claim there was an historical Exodus. However, I make no religious or theological conclusions based on that historicity.  I am quite willing to accept that Ramesses II really did pray to his father Amun-Ra at the battle of Kadesh shortly before the Exodus without accepting or even commenting on the existence of that deity or any claims that deity has on all humanity. Similarly, I am quite willing to accept that Moses prayed to the God of Israel before and during the historical Exodus without it meaning that such a deity exists, chose Israel, or intervened in history. So even if Stripling and I agreed on the date, our understandings of the meaning of the historicity of the Exodus are substantially different.

These differences carryover into the proof itself. Suppose archaeologists not only could confirm the historicity of the Iliad but the existence of individuals like Achilles, Hector, and Agamemnon. What would that prove about their dialog, motives, and actions? Not much. Suppose one excavated Valley Forge, Saratoga, and Yorktown and proved that there really had been a war between England and the United States. What would that prove about what the human characters who participated in the war actually said, did, and their motives? Even with voluminous correspondence and documents authentically dated to specific people on specific dates about specific events there is still much room for debate. What exactly does the Declaration of Independence mean? Now eliminate all those texts and try to write a history of the American Revolution based on the archaeology alone.

In response, you may say, we have the equivalent texts from the Exodus, we have the biblical texts. Stripling is aware of this problem. He writes: “The Pentateuch is clearly of ancient origin.” He cites some example from the eighth century BC to suggest that a biblical account of the Exodus is much older. That still leaves centuries between the 15th century date and the earliest Israelite writing about the foundational of event of their own history. By contrast, I subscribe to the view that the Song of Miriam among other brief writings and names originated as part of the 13th century BC Exodus. Israel did not exist in silence for centuries after its creation in the midst a world that had writing and songs.

Turning to the biblical evidence, Stripling places great emphasis on I Kgs 6:1 to calculate his historical Exodus in 1446 BC. Other contributors to this book have raised questions regarding this supposition in their own original contributions even before the responses. They apparently anticipated the citation of this verse [by Stripling] and launched a preemptive strike. Therefore there is no need for me to repeat here what they already have said.

I do wish to elaborate on two points raised in Rendsburg’s contribution. He notes that Babylonian king Nabonidus in the sixth century BC claimed that an Akkadian named Naram-Sin ruled 3200 years earlier. This archaeologically authentic text from the sixth century postulates a date based on the formula of 40 years x 8 x 10 periods. The number “40” will be familiar to biblical readers and from the Mesha Stele which Rendsburg does not site. The point here is not to attempt to understand what these and similar numbers in other texts meant to the Babylonians or Moabites or Egyptians; instead the intention is to recognize that numbers convey non-literal messages. Regardless of what the precise message was, it was not a literal message. It was not a literal message in Moab. It was not a literal message in Babylon. It was not a literal message in Egypt. And it was not a literal message in Israel. The recognition that I Kgs 6:1 should not be taken as a literal number invalidates the basis of Stripling’s approach. He starts with an inappropriate interpretation of the biblical text to determine his date of the Exodus and then turns to the archaeology to prove it.

There are additional issues with the dating. How exactly did Israel maintain such a detailed and precise chronological measurement for all those years? If the Egyptian and Mesopotamian states with their vast bureaucracies employed round numbers that delivered messages and little Moab did too, the likelihood is that Israel did as well. Furthermore, the biblical texts have a very extensive chronological framework. How does this date fit within the larger scope? One might think that its placement is part of a larger message. Did a biblical writer seek to proclaim that not only was the temple in Jerusalem the cosmic geographic center, its creation also was at the cosmic chronological center of the universe? Stripling extracts a verse from the Bible without providing any context or explanation for it.

The same considerations apply to Stripling’s use of Judges 11:26. I agree with him that Jephthah is an historical figure. I also agree that 1100 BC is a reasonable date for him. I disagree with the implication that the written story dates to the same time. I disagree that the writer of this verse had any access to the actual words historical Jephthah spoke just as Homer did not have access to the actual words of any of the figures in the Iliad. His judgment may also be questioned.

The 300 years cited in this verse also is likely to have been a symbolic figure delivering a message even if we can’t quite decipher it. In a separate publication on time, I focused on the number “40” [Peter Feinman, “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories,” in Beal, Richard and Scurlock, Joann, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019), 136-151]. I noted in passing the usage of numbers based on 3 (30, 300) without offering any explanation for it. In Rendsburg’s contribution to this book, he suggests that the average generation may have been 30 years. Typically, scholars consider 25 years to be the biological generation and, perhaps, 40 to be the symbolic duration. Rendsburg’s observations raises the possibility that perhaps different writers employed different numerical schemes, one based on 3 and the other based on 4. I don’t know if this is so but in reading these contributions, I think it is an idea worth exploring. The point here is that Stripling simply accepts numbers on face value as literally true. While that may be valid for an economic document when someone is buying sheep or goats, it does not seem to be accurate in the official narratives in the ancient Near East. And I haven’t even mentioned the issue of body counts!

Another historical question concerning the 15th century BC date for an historical Exodus, is where’s Israel? In other words, where is Israel prior to Ramesses II and the 13th century BC Exodus? Stripling is aware of this issue. He attempts to fill the gap by citing the work of Douglas Petrovich on early alphabet inscriptions including “three of which purport to document the exodus and associated people and events.” “Purport” is not the strongest of affirmations available to use. This uncertainty is reinforced further on when Stripling writes “If Petrovich is correct…” Stripling is aware that Petrovich’s interpretations have not met with wide acceptance. I suspect it is limited to those who already accept a 15th century BC date for the Exodus and are wrestling with the challenge of filling the gap.

It isn’t as if there were no Egyptian records during this period from 1446 BC to the documented appearance of Israel in the Merneptah Stele c. 1207 BC.  No Pharaoh mentioned Israel during this time despite the various campaigns to Canaan with their lists? Instead, Israel is mentioned precisely when one would expect it to be identified by name: after its creation in the time of Ramesses II.

As for the Habiru/Hebrew connection, the best that can be said is that it is one of the great false leads in biblical scholarship. Stripling presents them as “nomadic marauders in the Late Bronze Age.” They are better described as displaced people who at times served as warriors or mercenaries. There is no archaeological connection between the biblical Hebrews and the archaeological Habiru. The basis for the purported connection is the need to find Israel in history prior to Ramesses II.

Stripling is right to mention the Shasu and their god Yhw. These intriguing people and deity are a necessary part of the attempt to reconstruct the historical context in which Israel emerged. However one should not overstate the case. Stripling’s comment that “Yhw is broadly understood to refer to Yahweh, the God of the Israelites” is slightly deceptive. Yes, Yhw is broadly understood to refer to Yahweh. The questions then to be raised are, first, how Israel, a people named after El, became connected with that word, and second, how that Shasu deity Yhw became defined as the deity who led Israel out of Egypt. Stripling states that the “Bible refers to the nomads or semi-nomads in fourteenth-century Palestine Yahweh as Hebrews or Israelites” but provides no verses to substantiate this assertion. Personally, I lean towards the Midianite or Kenite hypotheses [I actually revised this hypothesis in a previous blog (Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus) to account for the contact between Moses and the Shasu during Seti’s campaign against them in Year 1.] In this scenario, Moses allies with anti-Egyptian nomads. He then redefines the Shasu deity into an Israelite one who acts in history in what becomes the Exodus. Regardless of whether or not one accepts my view, more is needed than Stripling provides to explain how Israel shared a deity name with the Shasu.

These ruminations lead to my last point. At some point an historical Exodus in 1446 BC requires real human beings to have decided to act against Pharaoh, the mightiest human in their known world. There is no such consideration in Stripling’s contribution. The implicit assumption that the biblical text provides the explanation for the human motivations should be made explicit and justified. The issue of “where is the man Moses?” arises with other contributors as well and will be elaborated on in my final comments.

This response was written while I was working on The Exodus: A Egyptian Story published six months later. Some of the points raised can be raised again in regard to the Mount Ebal curse inscription. Chris Rollston has touched on some of them in his own post on it. I am sure there is more to come when the inscription is made available to the public.

The Mount Ebal inscription reminds me of déjà vu all over again as Yogi Berra once said. Think back to the discovery of the Tel Dan Stela. Remember how it could be anything except a mention of David? There was no explanation that couldn’t be accepted as long as it did not accept the name David. The same applies to the altar at Mount Ebal itself. Once again, it could be anything except an altar. As it turns out, that altar routinely is dated to the Iron I period which is later than Stripling dates the inscription. He offered no explanation for that gap. So at this point it is probably correct to say: “More to come.”