Ebla and the Bible.
by Alan Millard
What’s left (if anything)?
I remember it well. It was early October 1975. We were sitting on top of the tell having lunch. One of our guests, Afif Bahnassi, the director of the Department of Antiquities of Syria, had come to visit the British Archaeological Expedition to Tell Nebi Mend (ancient Qadesh), where Pharaoh Ramesses II had fought the Hittites in about 1275B.C. Bahnassi brought us astonishing news: Italian archaeologists digging at Tell Mardikh, farther north, had found 16,000 cuneiform tablets!
Archaeologists in Syria might dream of finding a few dozen tablets, or even a couple of hundred. At the famous site of Ugarit, a few thousand cuneiform tablets had been dug up over many seasons. Only at Mari, far to the east, down the Euphrates, had an Ebla-sized hoard been discovered—between 20,000 and 30,000; they were found in a palace dating to about 1800B.C.
If finding a few dozen cuneiform tablets is an archaeologist’s dream, finding 16,000 might well be an archaeologist’s nightmare! To study and publish a collection of texts of this size is a gargantuan task. The texts from Mari, discovered since 1933, are still not fully published.
The Tell Mardikh tablets soon created a world-wide sensation. The ancient name of Tell Mardikh—Ebla—became a household word. Even the man in the street knew about the Ebla tablets.
The director of the excavation, Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome, had been digging at Tell Mardikh since 1964. In 1968 he had uncovered a piece of a statue with a dedicatory inscription engraved in a cuneiform script. Matthiae had invited the Italian Assyriologist Giovanni Pettinato to translate the inscription (which turned out to be critical in identifying the site of Tell Mardikh as ancient Ebla), so he naturally turned to Pettinato for an explanation of the subsequently discovered cuneiform tablets.
It was Pettinato who first found the biblical connections that soon electrified scholars and laymen alike. Biblical sites such as Hazor, Megiddo, Lachish, Dor, Gaza and perhaps even Jerusalem (in the form Salem) were referred to in the tablets. Even Sodom and Gomorrah were there, suggesting that these supposedly half-legendary cities had an undreamt-of reality. Personal names also were found in the Ebla tablets, including many of the same names we find in the Bible (although referring to different people)—even David, never before attested in an ancient text outside the Bible. Even the Israelite God Yahweh was known at Ebla a millennium or so before his appearance among the Hebrews.
Perhaps the crowning linguistic achievement was the discovery of a creation story at Ebla with remarkable parallels to the Bible’s creation story:
“Lord of heaven and earth:
the earth was not, you created it,
the light of the day was not, you created it,
the morning light you had not [yet] made
Today, nearly 20 years later, the name of Ebla has been all but forgotten, at least by the layman. One by one the sensational claims have been retracted or refuted. What then is left of the Ebla tablets? And how did all this happen?
Another question inevitably arises: Do the Ebla tablets still have any meaning for biblical studies? The answer to his question, as I shall try to show, is clear: Ebla and its tablets will make a considerable contribution to our understanding of the Bible, but not in the ways first headlined.
Long before the excavations at Tell Mardikh, Ebla was own as a prominent city conquered by the famous Sargon of Akkad and his grandson Naram-Sin in about 2300–2250B.C. This period is known to archaeologists as the Early Bronze Age. The early years of the Tell Mardikh dig were spent excavating a later city, however, a Middle Bronze City from about 1800B.C. —roughly the age of the patriarchs. The excavators uncovered the Middle Bronze Age defenses of the city, the city gateway, a temple and a palace. The finds from this period also included the inscribed statue fragment, referred to above. According to the inscription, the statue was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar by King Ibbit-Lim in Ebla. It was this statement that first identified Tell Mardikh as the site of ancient Ebla. Of course the king who set up the statue may have honored the goddess of one city in another city, or the statue may have been moved from its original site. But it is more likely that the appearance of the name Ebla on the statue correctly identified the site and this encouraged Matthiae to dig for earlier remains.
After some unproductive soundings, in 1973 Matthiae finally located remains of the Early Bronze Age city on the edge of the acropolis. The next season, 1974, among some large brick walls, he discovered the first group of 42 clay tablets. As extended the excavation, it became clear that the walls were part of a palace that had been unusually well preserved because a fire had burnt the brickwork. The heat had also baked many of the clay tablets, so that they too were well preserved.
In 1975, tablets were found in two other rooms of the palace—in a small chamber beside the staircase well and in the “archive room,” a secondary building on the east side of the great courtyard. The archive room contained the main collection. The excavation of Tell Mardikh is still continuing, but only a few additional tablets have been found.
When Pettinato tried to read the tablets, he found that he could read the cuneiform signs, but he could make sense of only a few words here and there as Sumerian. Sumer was an Early Bronze Age civilization far to the east of Ebla, in Mesopotamia. Its language—Sumerian—was not Semitic and was far different from the Semitic languages that would be expected in Syria. After weeks of study, Pettinato observed that some tablets had two word signs at the end that he could read in Sumerian to mean “written tablet” (dub-gar). Then he found a couple of tablets with two signs in a position where he would have expected to find dub-gar, but in these tablets the signs made no sense as Sumerian. However, if read with Semitic syllabic values they yielded ik-túb (he wrote). With this clue, Pettinato proceeded to read the texts as written in a Semitic language with a number of common terms in Sumerian word-signs.a
Pettinato presented his conclusions to fellow Assyriologists at Göttingen in June 1975 and published them shortly afterward.2 Nothing like this had ever been found before. Pettinato’s readings were not simply Semitic: They were West Semitic words and forms that he asserted were close to Phoenician and Hebrew. He proposed calling the language paleo-Canaanite (Old Canaanite).
The pace of discovery soon overtook Pettinato’s plan to publish the 42 tablets found in 1974. In the summer of 1975, Pettinato flew to Tell Mardikh to examine another 1,000 tablets that had been found. While doing so he was summoned to an excavation trench to watch the great archive of thousands of tablets coming to light.
Among the first tablets handed to him was one clearly dealing with affairs of Ebla. The identity of the site was soon established from this and other tablets.
At the annual congress of Assyriologists held at Birmingham, England, in July 1976, Pettinato’s account of his readings created a sensation. Hastily written on a blackboard were some of the most remarkable findings: the names of Ebla’s kings, Sumerian words with their Semitic equivalents contained in ancient “dictionaries,” place-names such as Mari, Emar and Carchemish on the Euphrates, Kanesh in Anatolia and, surprisingly, the Palestinian cities Hazor, Megiddo, Lachish, Dor and Gaza. There was also a treaty between a king of Ebla and a king of Ashur, Assyria’s first capital.
Matthiae and Pettinato were soon invited to lecture all over the world. In 1976 the archaeologist and his epigraphist toured the United States, giving a number of lectures on their finds.
In his presentations, Pettinato painted a picture of Ebla as the center of a great commercial empire. Its influence extended to Assyria an Anatolia, to Palestine and Egypt. The names of places in Palestine took the history of those towns back 500 or a 1,000 years earlier than previously known. Most amazing of all was the decipherment of names otherwise recorded only in Genesis 14, the account of Abraham’s military expedition to rescue Lot after the defeat near the Dead Sea of the kings of the five Cities of the Plain—cities which included Sodom and Gomorrah. In an Italian article, Pettinato wrote, “We find mentioned the existence of the fabulous cities remembered in Genesis (Sodom, Gomorrah, etc.) ….” Later, the story grew to cover all the Cities of the Plain and some of their kings.3 Many Old Testament scholars had regarded Genesis 14 as a piece of fiction from the mid-first millennium B.C. The appearance of these place-names in documents written long before any date proposed for Abraham opened a new perspective for the study of the biblical narrative.
In addition to such “biblical” place-names, Ebla was also producing biblical personal names—Ishmael, Israel, Abram, David. These were not the same people, but the same names, showing that they were already current before 2000B.C.
One king of Ebla was named Ebrium or Ebrum. Was this Abraham’s ancestor Eber (Genesis 10:25)? Was the name linked with the term “Hebrew” itself (Ivri)?
Pettinato even identified a flood story with similarities to the flood story in the Bible.
Newspapers and journalists had a field day. Ebla was front-page news! Ebla’s tablets showed Old Testament stories were true. Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, had really existed. The name of Ebla’s King Ebrium and the similarity of the Eblaite language to Hebrew could mean that the people of Ebla were actually ancestors of the Jews.
As early as 1977 Matthiae began objecting to the exaggerated claims, calling them “silly” and unscientific. Pettinato continued lecturing however and the press continued its reporting. The stones grew: For example, all five Cities of the Plain were named in a single tablet. But the tablet was not published.
Another scholar, Mitchell Dahood at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, soon joined Pettinato in making biblical connections. Dahood detected more and more Eblaite words that were like Hebrew. He began to explain Old Testament passages in the light of the Ebla texts.4
Matthiae wrote a book about his excavations, the second half of which was devoted to the tablets; here he relied on Pettinato’s reports to him.5 Pettinato too wrote a book, based entirely on the inscriptions.6 Dahood wrote an afterword, “Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible,” to the English edition of Pettinato’s book.7
Ripples from the excitement in the West soon reached Damascus. Syrian authorities invited Matthiae and Pettinato to make statements minimizing the biblical aspects of their finds.
What upset the Syrians? Statements such as: “the ancient Eblaites may have been early Hebrews”; and the suggestion that a ruler in Syria was an ancestor of Abraham, hinting that Ebla may have been the Hebrews’ homeland. For most nations, such light on early times would be an interesting piece of history, just as it is well known that the ancestors of the Welsh once occupied much of England. To Syria it could be more sinister. As the Syrian ambassador to Washington stated, “Mr. [Menachem] Begin [then prime minister of Israel] is trying to use the Holy Bible as a real estate register. Today he wants the West Bank. In a few years it may be Aleppo or Damascus.”b
In February 1978, a Syrian propaganda magazine, Flash, publicized a declaration given by Pettinato and an interview with Matthiae that satisfied the Syrian authorities. Both scholars were at pains to refute ideas of any direct connection between Ebla and the Israelites or their forebears. It needs to be said clearly, however, that there was no attempt by the Syrian authorities to deny access to the tablets. Rather, they did whatever they could to help the program of editing move forward.
Pettinato published a catalogue of the tablets in 1979.8 He estimated that 16,500 items were registered—about 1,800 complete tablets, 4,700 pieces of tablets and 10,000 chips and flakes. He thought there had originally been about 4,000 tablets in the archives.
Shortly before the publication of Pettinato’s catalogue, intense personal differences between Matthiae and Pettinato, not unrelated to what were often seen as exaggerated biblical connections in the tablets, led to Pettinato’s resignation as epigraphist. In his stead, Alfonso Archi of the University of Rome was appointed. Pettinato, in the meantime, has continued with major publications of tablets based on a set of photographs he retained. Archi and a committee of scholars earlier appointed to assist in editing and publishing the texts are also engaged in major publication projects.9
Some of the Ebla tablets are in Sumerian only, others have a Semitic translation for some of the words, and a few are in Semitic alone.
Most of the tablets are very dull! About 80 percent of them are the regular records of palace administration, files of accounts and receipts. Clerks wrote them to keep track of their master’s income and expenditure, not for curious readers 4,300 years later! They used formulas and abbreviated phrases that are now obscure. Their documents spoke clearly to them, but they may not speak so clearly today when most of the circumstances are unknown. Because of the number of unknown and unknowable elements, some of the editors are not always providing full translations of these accounts and receipts. Some of the tablets are very large, as much as 12 by 8 inches, with 20 to 30 columns of writing, containing up to 50 transactions, covering several months or a year. Usually a final note gives the total of major items registered in a tablet, for example, “88 garments.” Other tablets are much smaller, down to three-quarters of an inch square, and contain only one transaction.
Reading account books can be very boring, yet it can also be informative. The editors of these tablets have painstakingly built up indexes of words, place-names, divine names and personal names. They are a treasury of details about Ebla and its society and culture. Whatever problems persist in understanding the documents, many of the individual terms are clear. Woolen cloth was common; linen was also used. The cloth was made into a variety of garments of different qualities, styles and colors. Gold and silver trimmings adorned some of them. Gold and silver also decorated all sorts of equipment, from knives to chariots with two and four wheels.
Other tablets contain letters from the king of Ebla to his officials about movements of palace workers and their rations. From such letters we learn about the palace staff, their duties and the range of the palace’s involvement in the life of the region.
One specially interesting tablet contains a treaty that illustrates how difficult it is to translate these texts. Scholars have come up with widely differing translations, and they themselves acknowledge the difficulty. As one stated of his own translation, “[it is] far from satisfying.” He reminded his readers, however, that we are dealing with “texts written in an as yet very little known dead language.”10
Other tablets are, in effect, textbooks. They contain lists of words by class or in a particular order (lexical texts). One sets out the names of birds; another, human occupations. Still others list Sumerian word-signs, which are then spelled out in Semitic syllabic signs. Since Ebla’s scribes did not speak Sumerian, they added the Semitic meanings of the words, thus producing the oldest known bilingual dictionaries. Large dictionary-like tablets have hundreds of entries; small ones, a dozen or two. The latter were probably scribal exercises. One tablet lists the numbers one to ten spelled out in Sumerian. A few tablets present mathematical calculations. Others contain magical charms and hymns, with examples in both Sumerian and Semitic. Many of these have parallels from Babylonian sites in the east.
Three tablets contain myths in Sumerian, two of them concerning a god of Uruk and the land of Aratta to the east, an association known from poems preserved elsewhere in later versions.11
Cuneiform writing was almost certainly invented for recording the Sumerian language. Later it was used for a completely different, Semitic, language. The shift was awkward because the two languages had different sound-patterns. Sometimes, for example, the scribes used Sumerian signs for syllables starting with G for syllables starting in Semitic with Q, a sound that Sumerian did not use. Thus scribes at Ebla wrote in syllabic Semitic qa-ra-turn for garradum (hero).12
What is the Semitic language of the Ebla tablets? Scholars previously identified three major groups of Semitic languages: South Semitic (principally Arabic, Ethiopic and South Arabic), East Semitic (Akkadian, that is, Assyrian and Babylonian) and North-West Semitic (Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Ugaritic, Amorite). The Ebla tablets are certainly not South Semitic. Pettinato thought they were written in a North-West Semitic language that he called “Old Canaanite.” Other scholars incline to the view that it is closer to Akkadian and therefore East Semitic. As more of the texts are published and studied, a clear North-West Semitic grouping seems less supportable; on the other hand, the language is not quite Akkadian either. Certain similarities with the language of tablets uncovered at Mari and a few other documents from Babylonia have led to a new term, North Semitic or Old North Semitic.
Our knowledge of Semitic languages in Mesopotamia before 2300 B.C. is almost nil, so rethinking old categories is natural when new finds are made. That the Semitic language at Ebla reflects a time before East and North-West Semitic were clearly differentiated is one possibility. Or the texts may simply preserve an intermediate dialect arising in an area of constant movement.
With this background, we can now turn to the alleged biblical connections of the Ebla tablets.
Let’s begin with some of the place-names from Palestine, especially Sodom and Gomorrah.
Scores of place-names appear in the Ebla tablets. It would be natural to suppose most of those places were near Ebla, since the texts deal with the affairs of the kingdom. However, they could reach farther afield in trade and diplomacy. There are clear mentions of Mari and other towns on the mid-Euphrates, far to the east of Ebla. Did the scribes also know of places some way to the south, stretching through Syria into Palestine?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Superficial similarities caused some of the confusion that led to the identification of the cities of Hazor, Megiddo, Lachish, Dor and Gaza. But another cause was our initial ignorance of the way Ebla scribes used cuneiform signs, an ignorance excusable in the early stages of studying the tablets.
Take, for example, a word that read ga-saKI (KI is a nonphonetic sign, simply indicating that the word is a city). On first reading, the name was read as Gaza. But now it is clear that the sign sa did not double for za; whenever Gaza is written in other Semitic languages it has a z. That fact alone makes it difficult to read ga-saKI as the place Gaza. What makes it impossible, however, is the initial g. That is the letter the Greeks used as the best they could do to mark the Semitic ‘ayin, a guttural sound in Hebrew. In Hebrew, the name of the city begins with ‘ayin; cuneiform texts have kh where Hebrew has an ’ayin. No Semitic language ever uses g in the name of the city. The reading ga-saKI only seems like Gaza to the non-Semitic speaker. The city mentioned in the Ebla tablets lay somewhere in northwest Syria.13
Similar explanations account for other names that were read as the names of Palestinian cities.
The name si-da-muKI was identified as Sodom, and é-ma-raKI as Gomorrah. These identifications too have now evaporated.
Let’s look at Gomorrah first. The initial sign é could correctly reflect the initial ‘ayin with which Gomorrah begins in Hebrew. But the name is almost certainly not Gomorrah; much more probably it is a major town on the Euphrates River, ancient Emar, where a French team has found an archive of cuneiform tablets from the Late Bronze Age (13th centuryB.C. ). Emar is mentioned many times in the Ebla tablets, as would be expected, for it lies at the point where travelers from Babylonia would leave the Euphrates’ route to move westward to Ebla and the Mediterranean coast.
Sidamu has not yet been located, but nothing favors a location near the Dead Sea (where Sodom lay), Indeed, a site in northwest Syria is indicated by the names associated with it. The only link with the biblical name is the resemblance in the sound. Similar arguments have disposed of the identification of virtually all the biblical cities supposedly mentioned in the Ebla tablets.
As for the personal names mentioned in the Ebla tablets, it was never claimed that these were the same as the biblical personages. The only claim was that the names were the same. In the Fertile Crescent, where the majority of ancient peoples spoke one Semitic language or another, the same names may occur in places hundreds of miles away from each other and centuries apart. Finding Israel, Ishmael, Michael and Abram among the Ebla names was not an enormous surprise. Ishmael, for example, was a widely favored name, for it means “God has heard,” probably referring to the parents’ prayer for a child (compare Genesis 16:11).
These names, familiar to us from the Bible, should not lead anyone to suppose there is any direct relation between the people who bore them at Ebla and the biblical characters of the same name.
This is also true of the name Ebrium, or Ebrum, the name of a vizier (not a king) at Ebla. This name has been compared with the name of a distant ancestor of the Israelites, Eber (Genesis 10:21), or with the term “Hebrew” (Ivri in Hebrew). Ebrium (or Ebrum) might have the same base as biblical Eber (‘br), but this is unlikely: Other names at Ebla have similar elements to Ebrium; for example, da-brí and ab-rí-a-hu. These are explained as coming from the verb “to see” (Akkadian baruÆm); it is most likely that Ebrium belongs to this group of words, meaning “he has seen,” the subject being a god.14 If this is the case, Ebrium (and Ebrum) would have nothing at all to do with the similar sounding biblical names.
Was the Hebrew God Yahwehc worshipped at Ebla? The claim was made, based on the element ya in names at Ebla. The divine name Yahweh is commonly contained in Hebrew personal names in the form -yah (or -yahuÆ), as in Isaiah, Hezekiah, Michaiah (in English spellings, i replaces y). The divine name also appears as yoÆ or ye-hoÆ in names like Jonathan, Joram or Jehoshaphat (in English, j replaces the y). Pettinato carefully avoided associating the Ya of Ebla with the God of Israel, saying simply that it might be an abbreviation of a name Yaw. Mitchell Dahood, however, contended that this was evidence for a Canaanite deity Ya equated with the name of Israel’s God, found as Yah in some texts.15 This link, however, has been refuted by several Assyriologists.d
Why do they disagree? Many personal names at Ebla contain the Sumerian sign NI. Pettinato read NI with the value yà in Semitic. He did so because in some cases this sign (NI) stands in the position taken by a god’s name in parallel forms. Take the name Mikael (English Michael), which means “who is like god [el]?” Here the ending el incorporates the divine element (the god El, also serving as the word for “god”). Later, the name Mi-ka-NI appears. How is the Sumerian sign NI to be read? Pettinato assumed, since it stands in the same place as el, that it too was a divine element, to be read in Semitic as yà (or yah). Thus, he read this name as “Mikaya,” which would then mean “who is like Ya?” But the sign NI, which Pettinato read yà (or ià), also has the values ni, ì and ’a at Ebla, and may be read variously according to the context. As the final part of a name, it marks a shortened form. Thus Mikaya could be short for Mika-El or Mika-Dagan, or similar combinations.
The existence of alternate forms, some with divine name in the final part of a personal name, as in Mika-el:Mika-NI, is not evidence in itself that this final element is a divine name in the latter form. Where NI occurs in other positions it may simply be part of the syllabic spelling of the word. Thus in ìl-NI-ra-mu, the word “god” (il) precedes NI; here NI may simply be the possessive suffix iµ so that the name begins “my god.” (The entire name means “my god is exalted.”)
Nothing else at Ebla points to the existence of a god Ya or Yaw, although divine names can be preserved in proper names alone. Incidentally, evidence supposedly showing that a god Ya existed at Ugarit is equally unsatisfactory. Also unconvincing is the evidence from Amorite names in the Mari tablets. Clearly, the NI sign does not mean ya as divine name.
The origin of the name Yahweh is a continuing scholarly quest. Finding a wholly acceptable explanation of this distinctive feature of Israelite religion would make historians more comfortable, for the unexplained always creates unease, and the biblical claim of a divine revelation to Moses falls outside the historian’s scope. However, Ebla offers no help.
At the beginning of this article, I quoted Pettinato’s translation of what he considered to be a creation story. As he translated it, it surely had echoes of the majestic creation story in Genesis 1. It began “Lord of heaven and earth.” That, as it turns out, is the only phrase that has survived scholarly reservations about the rest of Pettinato’s translation. Here is the text as translated—still quite hesitantly, I might add—by the German scholar, Dietz Otto Edzard:
“Lord of heaven and earth…you do not.
As on (the) earth (?) like a father,
You don’t let the orphan live a life bound
by debt (?)”16
Here there is not the slightest hint that this is a creation poem.
Years ago, an eminent British Assyriologist taught, “If your translation is nonsense, it is certainly wrong; if it makes sense, it could still very well be wrong.”17 His caution is justified. It is easy to think we understand ancient texts because we can translate their words and see how they fit into a grammatical pattern, and yet we may miss the authors’ intentions because we don’t know that one phrase is an idiom, or because some expressions have meanings almost the opposite of what they appear to say, or because we know the language well for one period and assume it operated in the same way in an earlier or later period or in a different region. An American host would bewilder a British guest with an invitation to “wash up” on arrival, for the visitor would think it was an invitation to wash the dishes!
Edzard’s translation of the Ebla “creation story” is less fluent, less exciting, more prosaic than Pettinato’s, but it is more in keeping with ordinary Sumerian, in which three of its four copies are written. More important, Edzard’s translation does not involve the leaps of linguistic daring that led Pettinato to present the text as a hymn “referring to the origin of the cosmos as the creation of God.”18
After all these negative conclusions, do the Ebla discoveries have any value for biblical studies? The answer is definitely yes! Like many excavations, the Ebla dig has yielded valuable information for the general background to the Bible; the results even illustrate particular biblical episodes.
Third millennium Ebla (the period of the tablets), with its splendid palace, reveals the height that culture had reached in north Syria about three centuries before the age of Abraham. From the archives, as well as from the many objects lying in the ruins, we can discern the strong links between Ebla and Babylonia to the east, where Abraham came from. Stone vases also prove a connection with Egypt. Clearly, at that early date, Syria was already a bridge between the two centers of civilization. Trade and knowledge flowed in every direction.
What is most striking is the extensive use of writing. Ebla’s archive happened to survive; it happens to have been found. But letters, treaties and other documents in it indicate that other towns and cities had equally active secretaries and bureaucracies. Ebla was one of several Syrian kingdoms where cuneiform was read and written. (It is also possible that Egyptian documents were received at Ebla, but that the papyrus on which they were written perished.)
Fire destroyed Ebla’s great Early Bronze Age palace between 2300 and 2200 B.C. That ended one phase in Ebla’s history, but life continued. Little has been found from the next phase, which also ended in a great conflagration, about 2000B.C.
Reoccupation followed quickly, but with a new look. This was the start of the Middle Bronze Age, the time of the mighty defensive rampart, fine city-gates, palaces and temples. With some changes, this era lasted until approximately 1600B.C., when Ebla fell in flames again and declined into insignificance.
About 2000 B.C., the patriarch Abraham moved from Haran to Canaan. Notwithstanding the present fashion of treating Israel’s ancestors as fictional figures of first millennium B.C. imaginations, I am convinced the Genesis narratives have a strong historical core19 and that the Middle Bronze Age is their clear context. Middle Bronze Age Ebla, then, was standing in the patriarchal period, and Abraham probably passed near it as it was being freshly reestablished. Links with Babylonia were as strong as they had been earlier. Although no local archive of texts proves the connection between Ebla and Mesopotamia at this time, tablets from the Third Dynasty of Ur in Babylonia do reveal the connection just before 2000B.C. ; and a few tablets, cylinder seals and some jewelry found at Ebla reflect the connection not long after that date. As the Middle Bronze Age progressed, Egyptian objects again reached Ebla, whether indirectly through trade, or as gifts from the pharaohs, is unknown.
The kings lived in considerable luxury in well-organized palaces. Wooden screens were ornamented with carved stone inlays. Ivory in Egyptian style enhanced wooden furniture. Finely cut and polished stone vases were decorated in precious metals. A small archive unearthed at Alalakh, about 40 miles northwest of Ebla, reveals the sort of trade and diplomacy that rulers of the time engaged in.20 Other cuneiform texts from Mari reveal them commanding troops and forming alliances for mutual support in war. Extant treaties reveal the extent of international relations.
Of course, state alliances could change as rapidly then as they do today. The alliance of kings that faced Abraham in Genesis 14 was not at all unusual.
The Ebla archive includes a list of kings and their royal ancestors. This was probably used in a commemorative cult of the dead.21 Middle Bronze Age Babylonia has provided us with a similar list. Late Bronze Age Ugarit also had such a list. Reciting the names of forebears was evidently normal in ruling circles; we may suspect it was done in humbler families as well, maintaining identity and emphasizing solidarity. The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 may have their basis in this conceptual realm.
A further, physical sign of that idea is the family tomb. Sarah’s sepulcher at Hebron became the burial place for Abraham and his descendants in this pattern (Genesis 23, 25:9, 10, 49:31, 50:13). Many Middle Bronze Age tombs in Babylonia lay under the floors of the houses, and some were found beneath a palace courtyard at Ebla. Abraham, however, had no fixed abode, so he had to buy a place for his family outside the town.
A series of tomb chambers were discovered beneath the Middle Bronze Age palace court at Ebla. One of these tomb chambers had escaped ancient tomb robbers. Fine gold jewelry lay on the skeleton of a “princess.” Both in style and technique these pieces of jewelry have parallels in gold jewelry from Babylonia, as well as from the Levant—at Byblos and at Tell Ajjul near Gaza.22 When Genesis reports that Abraham was rich in gold (Genesis 13:2), we may imagine some of his capital was stored in such a form and carried for him by Sarah on her head and arms! More specifically, Abraham did not want to give his son Isaac a bride from outside the family circle (and certainly not from among the Canaanites in whose land he lived), so he sent his steward, Eliezer, to find a suitable wife for Isaac among his relatives around Haran (Genesis 24). Eliezer met Rebekah as soon as he arrived in the region and judged her to be right for his master’s heir. To mark his favor, Eliezer gave Rebekah a gold ring and two gold bracelets modern translations make clear, the ring was not a finger-ring, like a modern engagement ring, but a ring that Rebekah wore in her nose. The “princess” whose burial was unearthed at Ebla also wore a nose-ring and bracelets. Looking at them, we may imagine Rebekah’s jewelry as rather similar.
While the cities of Middle Bronze Age Canaan were less wealthy and developed than the Syrian centers, they shared the same overall culture and can therefore provide some background to the patriarchal narratives. Other aspects of Ebla’s culture can also be brought into correlation with the biblical world such as the temple plan at Ebla prefiguring Solomon’s Temple plan. Excavations at Ebla are continuing, so we may expect further fascinating finds to enrich not only our understanding of the history of Syria, but, perhaps as well, our understanding of the Bible.
This article is condensed from two more-detailed studies originally submitted by the author.
The Complexities of Cuneiform
Writing in Babylonia began as pictures. A cow’s head stood for “cow”; a leg and foot, for “to stand” or “to go”; a human head with a bowl beside it meant “to eat.” Gradually the pictures became stylized until they were unrecognizable unless seen in that developmental context. (Illustrations of these examples appear below. The forms in the left column are found in the earliest tables from Babylonia [before 3000B.C.]; the forms in the right column were current at Ebla about 2300 B.C.)
To denote shades of meaning and to write abstract ideas, some signs came to be use for the sounds of the words they represented, rather than the meaning, although they continued to be used for meaning as well. For example, “thinking” might be difficult to show in picture writing, but a picture of a thin man beside a king could give the sound, in English of course, “thin-king.” Ancient scribes developed ways to mark the kind of meaning intended with non-phonetic signs called determinatives. Context would also help to indicate how the signs should be read; by context, the reader would know whether to read “thinking” or “the thin man is king” or “the king is a thin man.”
The earliest pictographic cuneiform writing was a most certainly developed for Sumerian, a non-Semitic language. When the signs created for writing Sumerian were adapted for Semitic Akkadian, many of them continued to be used with the same meaning, but now they were read in Semitic. Thus, the Sumerian sign DU (to go) was read as alaµkum (to go) in Akkadian (compare Hebrew haµlak).
At the same time, Sumerian signs were used in Akkadian purely for their values as sounds in Sumerian. Thus, the Sumerian sign DU was commonly used to write the syllable du in Akkadian words.
The sign DU in Sumerian could mean not only “to go” but also “to stand.” When it meant “to stand,” it was pronounced “gub.” So scribes writing Semitic languages like Akkadian also used this same sign for the syllable gub in Semitic words. And they also used it for some similar such as kub, gub, gup, kup, gup; Sumerian had no need to distinguish these sounds, but Semitic words do distinguish them, although in cuneiform one sign may be used for all of them.
So a particular sign could mean many different things. And they varied from time to time an place to pace. Knowing which signs were used with which values—and when and where—is essential for accurate interpretation of cuneiform tablets. Only as a large number of the Ebla tablets are published can the habits of the scribes in that city be defined and their methods of writing be understood.
Many of the disagreements over the readings of the Ebla tablets arose in the initial stages when scholars did not know enough about the way cuneiform was used at that early time in Syria. The situation is much clearer now, but many uncertainties remain.