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Mesha stele has been claimed to hold proof of the existence of King Balak

Experts Claim New Mesha Stele Reading Provides Evidence Biblical King Was An Historical Figure

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Researchers in Israel believe that they have found evidence that a biblical king was a historic figure. They believe that a damaged inscribed tablet known as the Mesha Stele offers proof that a Moabite king was a real figure. This could support those who claim that the Bible is a reliable historical document , but some have expressed doubt about the claims and the researchers’ interpretation.

Three academics, Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman and Thomas Römer have claimed that they were able to decipher a smashed tablet and identify a king who is only known in the Bible. They have published their theory in the ‘The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology’. The king in question is Balak, who ruled a small kingdom called Moab, in what is now modern Jordan. According to Exodus, Moses died and was buried here before he could enter the Promised Land.

King Balak: enemy of the Israelites

Balak is shown in the Bible as being the implacable foe of the migrating Israelites as they searched for a new home. In the Book of Numbers, he is portrayed as urging the prophet Ballam to curse the Israelites. The only ancient reference to the king is in the Bible. Later Jewish tradition claims that the king was also a wizard.

Balak (wearing a crown) with Balaam. (The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 580. Balak’s sacrifices /CC BY-SA 3.0)

Balak (wearing a crown) with Balaam. (The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 580. Balak’s sacrifices / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The team made the claim that they had proof that Balak was a historical figure after they deciphered a line from a famous tablet, known as the Mesha Stele . This is named after King Mesha of the Moabites and provides details of his victories over the Israelites and some of the history of his people. According to the Daily Express it is a ‘44-inch inscribed black basalt stone now [that] sits in the Louvre Museum, Paris’. It was made in 840 BC, almost three thousand years ago,  and has the longest inscription found from the period, some 34 lines. It was unearthed in ‘1868 by researcher Frederick Augustus Klein’’ reports Fox News .

The broken Mesha stele

However, there is a problem with the Mesha stele tablet, and that is it is broken. The stone came into the possession of some Bedouin in what is now Israel and they offered to sell it to some European archaeologists, who made bids for the inscribed stone. The haggling led to an argument and in their anger, the Bedouin destroyed the tablet. Thankfully some rubbings were made of the tablet before it was shattered. However, because of the state of the stele, it is very hard to decipher and for over a hundred years researchers have been trying to make sense of the rubbing and fragments of basalt.

The Israeli team pieced together the evidence from the tablet, which is written in a language not dissimilar to ancient Hebrew. In particular, they focused on line 31 of the inscription, where the letter ‘B’ can clearly be read, but the rest of the word is erased.

Line 31, near the base of the Mesha stele. From Drawing of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone) by Mark Lidzbarski, published 1898. (Public Domain)

Line 31, near the base of the Mesha stele. From Drawing of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone) by Mark Lidzbarski, published 1898. ( Public Domain )

This has traditionally been believed to indicate beth or house and was seen as a reference to the House of David, but this interpretation has been challenged since the 1990s. LiveScience reports that ‘Finkelstein and two colleagues thought that it stood for something else: Balak’.

Are the researchers right?

However, the authors of the study, according to LiveScience, urge their readers to take their research ‘with due caution’. For a start, the reference to Balak in the Bible is some two hundred years earlier than the date of the inscription. Although the researchers claim that the problem with the chronology may be the result of later writers manipulating history to promote their own views and ideology.

Furthermore, the authors who made the claim based it all simply on the letter B, and the presumed presence of 3 consonants. It is quite possible that it could refer to another name beginning with the letter. Even one of the authors of the study agrees that the evidence is not compelling. According to the Daily Express , Professor Finklestein admitted that ‘the reconstruction of the name ‘Balak’ is circumstantial.”

If the researchers have proven that Balak was a real figure it would seem to corroborate the biblical story. This is very important because it shows that the biblical account of history is substantially true. Apart from its significance to Christians and Jews, this means that the Old Testament narrates faithfully the history of the entire region in the Iron Age.

Top image: Mesha stele has been claimed to hold proof of the existence of King Balak       Source: CC BY 3.0 /CC0/Public Domain

By Ed Whelan

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