Mesha stele

8 May 2019

At ... a new reading of the Moabite Stone by a team led by Finkelstein, Na-aman, and Romer, using high resolution photography (imaging) seems to read somewhat different to earlier attempts at translation. The problem is that the stone was broken up and the text is damaged. The previous transliteration of the text claimed it mentioned Beth Dwd (the House of David) but this is now under dispute. Mesha was a contemporary of Jehoram of Israel, against whom he claims to have rebelled. There is a mention of a great tribulation, the meaning of which is disputed. Was it an oblique reference to an earthquake or some other kind of natural disaster that affected the ability of Israel to control the Transjordan zone. Or was it a reference to changing political alliances. One would suppose that natural disaster is implicated as Mesha is said to have sacrificed his son on the walls of his city. This appears to have been in fear of the god Chemosh - and that god may have been assumed to have played a role in the natural disaster. Nice theory but unprovable without an explicit written reference. All we have is a 'great tribulation' - which may be anything. However, as this was also the time of Elijah ande Elisha and the former records the 'passing by' of Yahweh when he was holed up in a cleft in the rocks, one may wonder what any of this means.

The new interepretation is that the name of Balak is written on the stele rather than Beth Dwd. This has caused a certain amount of scepticism by other historians and archaeologists as Balak was a king of Moab during the Israelite arrival on their migration out of Egypt, where they encountered the Moabites. Balak chose to resist them and appealed to Balaam, a seer, who made a prophecy. This, rather than favouring Moab, came out in favour of the Israelites, and prophesied that Moab would be devastated, or ravaged, or struck by natural disaster (various people have had different ideas on the meaning of the prophecy). My preferred interpretation is that it was an oracle in that Balaam predicted the future of the various tribes of Israel (and not all of them survived intact but were instead overwhelmed by newcomers such as the Arameans). It would seem that King Mesha was well aware of the Oracle of Balaam and Moab had a sort of love hate relationship with them. One may ask, why were the Omrides in control of the Transjordan when they had been driven out or absorbed by the Arameans a century or so prior to Ahab and Jehoram. One theory is that the Omrides were vassals of a resurgent Egypt during the Libyan period. If so, the Israelites (in this context, the northern kingdom), were surrogate rulers of the Transjordan, and their presence was resented by the Moabites (who seem to have remained independent in spite of the Aramean inroads). Likwise, we don't really know when the oracle was spoken, although in Biblical chronology it is very much earlier than either Ahab or Mesha.

The problem for Finkelstein now is to come up with a legitimate reason why Mesha would refer to a king of Moab who lived 500 years earlier than him (assuming the Moabites were not new arrivals with the Arameans). In the Bible the King of Israel seeks the help of the King of Judah to join him in a campaign against the Moabites (and quell the rebellion). In the context that Ahab and Jehoram were vassal kings of Egypt this would also make sense as he was calling on his neighbour as part of the Egyptian empire in the Levant. As the senior partner he had the ability to order Judah to join his army raised to re-subjugate Mesha. The fact the Omrides failed to retake the Transjordan zone, and somewhat later, Aram Damascus was able to conquer not only the Transjordan but most of the northern kingdom as well, a very low period in the Monarchy, hints at something untoward happening at this point in time (quite apart from Elijah being whisked up into the heavens). If this was as a result of a natural disaster of some kind it begins to make sense. In addition, it is unlikely Judah had control of anywhere in the Transjordan as she was more or less subject to the directives of the northern kingdom. The alliance between the two did not survive the overthrow of the Omrides. In other words, the former interpretation was unlikely. All we need to do now is try and understand why Mesha invoked Balak (or the oracle of Balaam).