The Promise of Ebla
“I agree with practically every point you make,” Ebla excavator Paolo Matthiae told BAR editor Hershel Shanks, referring to the September BAR article (Queries & Comments, BAR 02:03) cautioning against sensationalizing the already famous Ebla Tablets. “Nothing we have found can affect the historicity of the patriarchs,” stated the young Italian excavator who has been working at Tell Mardikh (ancient Ebla) for over 10 years.
Echoing his partner’s monition, Giovanni Pettinato, the expedition’s chief epigrapher, said that nothing found at Ebla either proves or disproves the historical accounts in the Old Testament.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls first came to light more than a quarter century ago, sensationalizing publicity resulted in extreme claims that the Scrolls contained references to Jesus and that they would destroy the foundations of Christianity. The team of Ebla scholars from the University of Rome, suddenly catapulted to international fame (even the National Geographic is preparing a story on the Tablets), are aware of the parallels to the Dead Sea Scroll publicity and of the dangers. They obviously want to avoid a repetition. Both emphasize that the new tablets should not be hailed as the ultimate key to unlocking all the mysteries of Near Eastern antiquities.
Comparison of the Ebla Tablets with the Dead Sea scrolls is instructive in several ways. The Scrolls have been of enormous significance to Biblical scholars and have spawned a whole new scholarly “industry”; but the occasional Bible reader would be hard-pressed to name a single instance in which they have modified his or her view of Biblical events. The same is likely to he true of the Ebla Tablets.
But, as in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, none of these qualifications detracts in the least from the extraordinary importance of the new finds nor the unbridled enthusiasm with which they have been greeted by scholars.
Over 20,000 texts have already been recovered on more than 16,000 tablets. The enormity of the collection is reflected in the fact that it is already more than four times as large as the entire corpus of cuneiform tablets previously known to scholars—from such famous caches as Ugarit, Amarna, Mari and Nuzi. Four thousand Ebla Tablets still remain in 23 crates waiting to be cataloged, let alone read. And the excavators are returning to look for more. How many more? They have no idea, but surely in the thousands.
It all depends on the “dio della fortune”, the god of fortune, Professor Pettinato told the BAR. He recalled that almost 10 years ago, the excavators were within one yard of a library room, but were not alerted to it by a single tablet. They went on digging for nearly 10 more years before hitting the royal archives.
The first tablets—but only 42 of them—were uncovered in the 1974 season. No 042more were found in 1975—until the very last week of the excavation season. But in that last week the archaeologists hit the royal archives and uncovered approximately 15,000 more tablets which had been stacked on shelves much as in a modern library, except that the tablets were stacked from front to back in rows rather than side by side. In 1976 an additional 1,600 tablets were found. The Italians will leave for Syria in the spring to search for more.
But Ebla is much more than a cache of cuneiform tablets. The excavations on the large 140-acre mound have revealed the capital of a great Syrian empire of the 3rd millennium B.C. which rivalled the Mesopotamian empire of Sargon the Great. The tablets belong to this 3rd-millennium empire. This Early Bronze Age empire was succeeded in the Middle Bronze Age (about 1800 B.C.) by an important urban civilization which also has many parallels to the culture to the south out of which Israelite civilization grew. For example, Prof. Matthiae has uncovered a Middle Bronze Age temple at Ebla whose three-chambered architectural form is clearly related to the architecture of Solomon’s temple built 800 years later.
For historians, the Ebla excavations will require a thorough rewriting of the history of the 3rd millennium B.C.; for these excavations reveal a great material and spiritual civilization in Syria that was hitherto unknown. “Look at the current histories of this period,” Prof. Matthiae said, “and you will find they describe a large urban civilization in Mesopotamia, but a Dark Age in Syria. Now all that will have to be changed.”
This new chapter in man’s history will be of special interest to Bible scholars, because the traditions of this newly discovered civilization are much closer to the Biblical traditions than either ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt. Instead of looking to Mesopotamia or Egypt for the origins of Biblical traditions, Biblical scholars will be searching the records of Ebla.
Just what the nature of the relationship will be is impossible to tell at this early date. All that can be done for the moment is to record some of the facts—and even this must be done in only a preliminary fashion.
The language of Ebla, though written in syllabic cuneiform, is closely related to Hebrew. Many of the personal names used in Ebla—already referred to in the September BAR (Queries & Comments, BAR 02:03)—parallel those in the Bible—including the first extra-Biblical reference to the name David. The greatest king of Ebla was Ebrum whose name bears a striking resemblance to the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews, Eber (see Genesis 10:21) or it may be related to the word Ibri (Hebrew).
In addition to names of cities like Megiddo, Dor, Hazor and Salim city of Melchizedech, the Ebla tablets also refer to Sodom and Gomorrah and Zoar, the cities of the plain destroyed in a fiery conflagration because of their wickedness (see Genesis 19). An especially intriguing notice is a reference to “Ur in Haran”. Does this mean that the Ur from which Abraham originally came was near Haran rather than 1,000 miles further away in southern Mesopotamia where “Ur of the Chaldees” is supposedly located?
The Ebla Tablets contain a flood story and a creation story. Although these stories have certain parallels to the Genesis stories, Prof. Pettinato told the BAR that the Ebla flood story is closer to the previously known Mesopotamian flood stories than to the Biblical account.
Another fascinating aspect of the Ebla Tablets is that many of the personal names contain a theophoric or divine element. Among these is Il, parallel to the Biblical divine name El as in Elohim, and Ya as in Yahweh, the jealous God of the Hebrews. At one point in Ebla’s history the “Il” names were suddenly changed to “Ya” names. Why this was done is not yet known. Prof. Pettinato told the BAR that he found one instance where a man actually changed his name from Mika-il to Mika-ya.
Other traditions we know from the Bible are duplicated at Ebla. For example, their kings were “anointed” and their governors were called “judges”. Ebla also had its prophets (nabi’utum in Eblait) the word for which is obviously related to the Hebrew word for prophets (nabi (sing.); (nebi’im (pl.)).
Both Prof. Matthiae and Prof. Pettinato have agreed to write accounts of their extraordinary finds for BAR readers. We look forward to publishing these illustrated reports in forthcoming issues of the BAR.
“I agree with practically every point you make,” Ebla excavator Paolo Matthiae told BAR editor Hershel Shanks, referring to the September BAR article (Queries & Comments, BAR 02:03) cautioning against sensationalizing the already famous Ebla Tablets. “Nothing we have found can affect the historicity of the patriarchs,” stated the young Italian excavator who has been working at Tell Mardikh (ancient Ebla) for over 10 years. Echoing his partner’s monition, Giovanni Pettinato, the expedition’s chief epigrapher, said that nothing found at Ebla either proves or disproves the historical accounts in the Old Testament. When the Dead Sea Scrolls first came […]