A clay tablet found at Ebla, Syria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The new findings at Ebla are possibly the most significant discovery yet made so far as they relate to the background of early Bible times. The impact on some areas of Biblical knowledge will indeed be startling.
Where Ebla is Located … and the Work Begins
Tell Mardikh -- the ancient Ebla -- is on the main road to Aleppo in Northern Syria, being not quite half way between Hamath and Aleppo. It is nearer to Aleppo than to Hamath. There is a mound and a small village about one kilometer off the highway. Professor Paolo Matthiae of the Rome University has been excavating there since 1964, but his work was not spectacular until 1968 when his team produced a statue dedicated to the goddess Eshtar, and bearing the name of Ibbit-Lim, a king of Ebla. This endorsed the positive identification of the city. The kingdom of Ebla had previously been known in Sumerian, Akkadian and Egyptian texts, and the excavators had good clues when they began digging in this 50-feet high mound. Now their hopes were bright for the future.
In the 1975 season some 15,000 tablets were recovered. To bring the report up to date, the excavators recently reported (with a smile!) that 1976 was a poor season -- only 1,600 tablets were found! One tablet stated that the city had a population of 260,000.
Professor Giovanni Pettinato, also of the University of Rome, is the epigrapher working on the tablets, and some of what follows stems from his reports, both in the Biblical Archaeologist of May, 1976, and in public lectures and discussions at the University of Michigan in November 1976. Professor Matthiae also lectured at that time, and both professors were most cooperative in two days of lectures, discussion, and question and answer sessions. It was this writer's privilege to participate in these public functions, as well as in more private meetings with the archaeologists and with a number of leaders in the field of Biblical archaeology and Semitic studies.
What the Tablets Are All About
It is probable that the 17,000 tablets so far recovered are not from the major royal archives, but are rather a collection of records that were kept near the central court. Here the provisions were stored, tribute was collected, and apprentice scribes did their copying from the tablets which they would take temporarily from the royal archives themselves. A wide variety of tablets were copies, and this is of tremendous importance, for it means that today we have a wide range of these copied tablets available for study.
The two rooms where the main body of 15,000 tablets were recovered were close to the entrance to the palace. If the royal archives themselves are found as excavation proceeds, the potential for the study of Bible backgrounds and ancient history is tremendous.
As Professor Pettinato has pointed out, these are the sorts of tablets that scholars dream about, but rarely find. Personal names are included, and in one text alone 260 geographic names have been given. Other texts give lists of animals, fish, birds, professions, and names of officials.
There are a number of historical texts which can be tied in with other known records, such as those of the city of Marik, coming down to the time of Narim Sin who eventually defeated the Eblahites decisively. It appears that the city was defended by mercenaries rather than by its own army. Professor Pettinato conjectures that this is probably the reason why Akkad finally prevailed over Ebla.
The tablets would appear to date to the two last generations of the city, somewhere about 2,300 B.C.-- possibly 100 years earlier. The final destruction was about 2250 B.C.
There are literary texts with mythological backgrounds, incantations, collections of proverbs, and hymns to various deities. Rituals associated with the gods are referred to, many of these gods being known in Babylonian literature of a later period. These include Enki, Enlil, Utu, lnana, Tiamut, Marduk and Nadu. The god of the city of Kish is also referred to.
Most of the tablets deal with economic matters, tariffs, receipts, and other commercial dealings. However, other matters such as offerings to the gods are also dealt with.
The city was in contact with other cities all over the Near East. One of the interesting illustrations of this comes from the list of nations given to messengers as they traversed certain routes, with the names of the cities given. There are lists of towns in their geographic regions, and even lists of the towns that are subject to Ebla. Biblical towns known in later times are included, such as Ashdod and Sidon.
Vocabulary Lists in Two Languages
There are syllabaries of grammatical texts, making it possible to go from one language to another. There are no less than 114 Sumerian Eblahite vocabularies, these being the first such lists recovered from any ancient site. One of these vocabulary tablets contains nearly 1,000 translated words, and it has 18 duplicates.
It has long been known that scribes in Assyria copied tablets from Babylonia, but it is now established that scholars in Mesopotamia had also copied some of their tablets from the Syrian libraries.
When the first tablets were found, it was soon realized that this city used a very ancient language in the North West Semitic group which was previously unknown. Professor Pettinato labeled this "Paleo-Canaanite." In layman's terms, this means "ancient Canaanite." At the close of this article in Biblical Archaeologist Professor Pettinato tells us,
The pronominal and verbal systems, in particular, are so clearly defined that one can properly speak of a Paleo-Canaanite language closely akin to Hebrew and Phoenician.
These Ebla tablets are written in a Sumerian script, with Sumerian logograms adapted to represent Akkadian words and syllables. About 1,000 words were recovered initially (hundreds more later) in vocabulary lists. The words are written out in both Sumerian logograms and Eblaic syllable-type writing. These offered an invaluable key to the interpretation of many of the Ebla texts.
The vocabularies at Ebla were distinctively Semitic: the word "to write" is k-t-b (as in Hebrew), while that for "king" is "malikum," and that for "man" is "adamu." The closeness to Hebrew is surprising.
It is relevant to note that some of the tablets deal with judicial proceedings. There are elaborations as to the penalties incurred when a person is injured, and there are details about various trials. Some of these points make foolish the former criticisms against the possibility of the existence of a Mosaic law-code. Here is a civilization about 1,000 years earlier than that of Moses, and in writing it gives all sorts of details about the administration of justice. It is clearly a highly developed civilization, with concepts of justice and individual rights to the fore. To suggest that Moses could not have dealt with such cases is ludicrous.
Some tablets deal with case law, and the law code of Ebla must now be recognized as the oldest ever yet found. In dealing with the penalties for injuries, distinction is made according to the nature of the act. An injury caused by the blow of a hand merited a different penalty from one caused by a weapon such as a dagger. Differing penalties are prescribed for various offenses.
There is elaborate discussion of case law, with varying conditions recognized for what at first sight might seem to be the same crime. In the case of a complaint involving sexual relations, if the girl was able to prove that she was a virgin and that the act was forced on her, the penalty against the man was death. Otherwise he would pay a fine that varied according to circumstances. It is remarkably like Deuteronomy 22:22-30, supposedly very late according to liberal scholarship.
In the public lecture series referred to above, Professor David Noel Freedman pointed out that about 17,000 tablets and significant fragments have been found at this site, and they date to approximately 2,400 B.C. to 2,250 B.C. This would be about four times the grand total of all tablets found, dating to that period, from all other sites. The nearest in magnitude for the number of tablets would be Mari, dating several hundred years later.
Personal Names and Places In the Tablets
A number of personal names in the Ebla documents are very similar to names used at later times in the Old Testament. One such name is Michael (mi-ka-ilu) which means, "Who is like El?" A related form, also in the Ebla texts, is mi-ka-ya which is well-known in the Bible, with the ya ending replacing the el. Other names are e-sa-um (Esau), da-'u-dum (David), sha-'u'-lum (Saul), and Ish-ma-ll (Ishmael), this last meaning "II (El -- God) has heard me."
Other examples given by Professor Pettinato are En-na-ni-ll which gave over to En-na-ni-Ya (II/Ya has mercy on me); A-dam-Malik (man of Milik); 'il-ha-il, II is strength; Eb-du-Ra-sa-ap, Servant of Rasaph; Ish-a-bu, A man is the father; Ish-i-lum, A man is the god; I-sa-Ya, Ya has gone forth; I-ad-Damu, The hand of Damu; and Ib-na-Malik, Milik has created. Hebrew scholars recognize remarkable similarities to later Hebrew in the Old Testament, and Professor Pettinato himself states, in the Biblical Archaeologist referred to above, "Many of these names occur in the same form in the Old Testament, so that a certain interdependence between the culture of Ebla and that of the Old Testament must be granted."
Hebrew Words Akin to Ebla Words
At Ebla, the king has the Sumerian title 'en,' and according to the vocabulary lists already referred to, the Paleo-Canaanite equivalent is "Malek." This is virtually the same as the Hebrew word for "king" in the Old Testament "melek." The elders of the kingdom were the "abbu," remarkably close to "abba" (father) of the Old Testament. At many points the similarity to Old Testament Hebrew is very close.
Man's search for the true God and for spiritual truth is shown by some of the personal names at Ebla. "Mi-ka-Ya," meaning "Who is like Ya?" replaced "Mi-Ka-ll," meaning "Who is like ll (El)?" "En-na-ni-Ya" meant, "Ya has mercy on me." Re-i-na-Adad," telling the world that "Adad (a god) is our shepherd," reminds the Christian of Psalm 23 where the ultimate of that searching for divine leading and protection is found as the psalmist exclaims,"The Lord is my shepherd."
Professor Pettinato discusses the names of some of the gods attested at Eber, including "II/El of the Ugaritic texts," and tells us that "from Eber on, ll was substituted for by Ya… it appears evident that under Ebrum a new development in West Semitic religious concepts took place that permitted the rise of Ya. It would be more correct to see it as renewed acknowledgment of Yahweh. Dagan of the Old Testament is well-known, being associated with several places already known to scholars, including "Dagan of Canaan." This indicates that the term "Canaan" was known much earlier than previously believed.
One aspect of special interest to Bible students is that a number of Old Testament cities are referred to. There are cities that were previously known in lst and 2nd Millennium records, but now they are referred to in these 3rd Millennium B.C. tablets. There is Salim, possibly the city of Melchizedec, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, Gaza, Dor, Sinai, Ashtaroth, Joppa and Damascus. Of special interest is Urusalima (Jerusalem), this being the earliest known reference to this city.
Although a city called Salim is referred to in the tablets, there is no indication just what its geographic location is. It is referred to separately from Urusalima (Jerusalem), and this would indicate that the two cities are separate.
Two of the towns mentioned are Sodom and Gomorrah. Here we are transported back to about 2,300 B.C., and we find that these towns were regularly visited, being on the route of the King's Highway that ran down from Damascus. There are actually references to five "cities of the Plain" (to use the Biblical term at Genesis 14:2), and these were Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar. We are told in that same verse that an earlier name for Zoar was Bela.
Another of the towns referred to is Carchemish, and Professor Pettinato made the point that the prophet Isaiah (at Isaiah 10:9) has a remarkable knowledge of this name, as shown in the text preserved at Isaiah 10:9. This preserves the ancient name of the god "Chemosh," the Moabite god known in later Bible times.
There is a creation record remarkably similar to the Genesis account. There are dealings with Hittites long before Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah from the Hittites of his time -- it is not so long since it was argued there were no Hittites so early. There are treaties and covenants similar to those in Exodus, and for the protection of society there are laws that point towards the concept of justice so prominent in Exodus. There are ritualistic sacrifices long before those of Leviticus, and before the Canaanites from whom some critics claimed the Hebrews borrowed them. There are prophets proclaiming their message long before the nevi'im (prophets) of the Old Testament, though the Old Testament's superiority in the realms of ethics, morality, and spiritual values stands unchallenged. The Old Testament records have that indefinable something that is different. Metaphorically, they bear within them the imprint of the finger of God.
The story has only just begun and there will be echoes from Eber for generations to come. It is at least thought-provoking that findings such as those at Ebla consistently support the Bible as a thoroughly acceptable record. To this writer it is far more than a wonderful history text: it is God's Word of Truth, His revelation of Himself in the Person of His Son.
* Dr. Clifford Wilson is an archaeologist, linguist and Bible scholar. He has a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics from the University of South Carolina and is a member of the faculty at Monash University in Australia.
The foregoing material is taken from Dr. Clifford Wilson's new book EBLA TABLETS: Secrets of a Forgotten City, published by Creation-Life Publishers, San Diego, CA 92115. (Publication date: April, 1977 - Price: $1.95)
Cite this article: Clifford Wilson, M.A., B.D., Ph.D. 1977. EBLA: Its Impact on Bible Records. Acts & Facts. 6 (4).