Religion: New Grounding for the
Scholars debate 45-century-old writings found in Syria
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 exist.
Those lines seem a modern rewrite of Genesis, Chapter 1. In fact, the words are far older. They come from a hymn of praise to a creator-god, written some 45 centuries ago and preserved in the buried remains of the ancient city of Ebla, in present-day Syria. Between 1974 and 1976, 16,500 tablets and fragments were unearthed by a team of Italian archaeologists at Ebla, perhaps the most complete record of an ancient civilization ever recovered.
This week the English-speaking world gets its first detailed look at the contents of those tablets in The Archives of Ebla (Doubleday; $15.95) by Giovanni Pettinato, the team member originally in charge of deciphering the ancient inscriptions. The book is translated from Italian, as was an earlier 1981 title, Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered (Doubleday; $14.95), an overview by Paolo Matthiae, head of the Ebla dig. Pettinato’s translation of the creation hymn sharpens a question that has already tantalized laymen and provoked squabbles among the experts: Do these tablets have any bearing on the Bible?
Enthusiasts claim that Ebla could revise theories on the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; alter many scriptural interpretations; make all current Bible translations obsolete; and require scholars to credit the Old Testament with greater historical accuracy. These and related matters are, of course, vital to millions of believers.
On the other hand, the theological significance of Ebla may be nil. Although the city was once a great commercial center, trading with Canaan and regions beyond, Matthiae insists that tablets from the 3rd millennium B.C. are far too old to have any important links with the much later texts of the Old Testament. Moreover, Ebla’s language is problematic. “Eblaite” is a Semitic tongue written in cuneiform characters borrowed from Mesopotamia.
The reigning cuneiform expert at the University of Chicago, Ignace J. Gelb, who classifies the Eblaite tongue as most akin to the Mesopotamian languages of Old Akkadian and Amorite, and thus distant from Hebrew, believes that the discoveries at Ebla add “nothing directly to biblical scholarship.” But Pettinato, who first deciphered Eblaite, considers it an early Canaanite language closest to the northwestern Semitic languages of Hebrew and Ugaritic (the latter was discovered in 1929 at an earlier dig in Ugarit, Syria). One specialist in Ugaritic and Hebrew, American Jesuit Mitchell Dahood of Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, goes further. He contends that Eblaite is more directly tied to Hebrew than to Ugaritic, although Ebla was closer to Ugarit in both geography and chronology. Against a considerable scholarly onslaught, Father Dahood has now become the leading proponent of ties between Ebla and the Bible.
Some of the earliest controversy over the Ebla findings was sparked when famous names in the Bible—Adam, Eve, Jonah and David among them—turned up on the Ebla tablets. This did not mean the same persons were being written about, but indicated that Ebla and the Bible could have come from similar cultural milieus.
Especially tantalizing was the appearance of two names which later appear in the Hebrew tradition: Abraham, the spiritual forefather of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and his biblical ancestor Eber (whose name formed the root of the term Hebrew). Even Matthiae, who now scorns such Bible links, had once suggested that Ebrium, the king during Ebla’s golden age, might have evolved into the Eber of Genesis 10.
Pettinato was more certain. He proposed that Abraham was a native of northern Syria. An intriguing Ebla text shows a town named Ur near Haran, the biblical town in Syria from which Abraham moved into the promised land. Genesis, however, says that Abraham grew up in “Ur of the Chaldees,” understood by both the biblical and Islamic traditions to be the famous Ur in lower Mesopotamia. Ebla aside, the Israelites were instructed in Deuteronomy 26: 5 to recite that Abraham was “a wandering Aramaean.” In other words, the Bible labeled him a Syrian.
The merest suggestion that the Elaites might have been the ancestors of today’s Israelis fell into Middle East politics like a missile. Israeli archaeologists shuddered. The Syrians detected Zionist designs in the notion and persuaded Matthiae and Pettinato to warn other scholars publicly against making ethnic linkages between the 3rd millennium B.C. and the 20th century.
Pettinato’s new book cannily avoids this issue and also skirts another heated dispute involving Abraham. The only part of the Abraham narrative in Genesis open to archaeological corroboration is a military story in Chapter 14. It specifies nine kings and numerous sites, including Sodom and Gomorrah and three other “Cities of the Plain” along the Dead Sea. In 1976 Pettinato startled a convention of U.S. professors of religion by reporting that references to all five of those cities crop up at Ebla. More recently, he has modified his claim: three of the five names occur— Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar — and he explains that these might not be the same as the cities mentioned in Genesis. But Father Dahood contends that these cities, once commonly thought by experts to be mythical, “were probably doing business with Ebla around 2500 B.C.”
Findings from Ebla may have an even broader impact. Many liberal Bible scholars treat Abraham not as a historical figure but as a sort of Semitic King Arthur. Their view is that the stories about Abraham and the other Patriarchs must have been written down more than 1,000 years later than the events they purport to describe. Now, in the area of the world that produced the Bible, Ebla has established that sophisticated and extensive written culture existed well before Moses and even Abraham, as early as the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. According to the ebullient Dahood, “After Ebla, we’ve got to take the Bible much more seriously as a historical document. The people who wrote those books had a long literary tradition behind them.”
Because of that possibility, Pettinato’s new account of religion at ancient Ebla is especially significant. The bulk of the 1,000 tablets and fragments are dreary (though revealing) marketing or political records. But about 150 are literary, including myths, epic narratives, hymns to deities, rituals, collections of proverbs, and incantations against everything from demons to scorpions. Some of Ebla’s 500 deities had the same names as the ones which were later to tempt the Israelites in Canaan, notably Baal.
Pettinato theorizes that the Eblaites evolved from polytheism into henotheism, the worship of a supreme creator-god within the pantheon. Ebla’s pre-eminent deity was Dagan, a name which reappears as the Philistine god in the biblical account of Samson. Pettinato writes that in some Eblaite personal names, the syllables ya and el mean “god,” and that Ya might have been the proper name of a specific deity. Naturally that brings to mind the later Hebrew names for the one God, Yahweh (Jehovah) and El (Lord). Pettinato also finds in Ebla a possible Flood story, prophets and tribal leaders whose function is reminiscent of the biblical Judges.
All such theoretical links depend upon transliterations and translations from the tablets themselves, and here the disputes give ample reason for caution. In the hybrid Eblaite language, a single sign can have a dozen meanings. Indeed, Alfonso Archi of the University of Rome, now the Ebla epigrapher, accuses both Pettinato and Dahood of distorting Eblaite religion by mistranslations. Harvard’s Frank Cross, an authority on the Old Testament, believes that solid application of the Ebla findings remains a generation or two away. The majority of scholars concur.
Because of the difficulties, Father Dahood insists that all ancient Near Eastern languages must be studied in order to understand any one of them. He contends that “Ebla is clarified on point after point by the Bible,” and vice versa. In a 48-page addendum to the Pettinato book he offers extensive technical examples from specific Bible texts. Dahood reckons that nearly a third of the poetic passages in the Old Testament still “evade precise translation and gram matical analysis.” The major reason: 1,700 of the 8,000 Hebrew words in the Bible occur only once. Dahood reported last month that 70 of those perplexing words have already been found at Ebla. Thus, he says, “not a single one of the Old Testaments in English is up to date.” For accuracy, he thinks future translators and historians must rely far more on Ebla and Ugarit, and less on the back ground from Egypt and Mesopotamia.
It is here that Ebla’s biblical implications are least open to skepticism. The ancient inscriptions, with their extended bilingual word lists, are almost certain to clear up numerous textual obscurities. When Dahood began his work on Ugaritic and the Old Testament many years ago, a conservative colleague in Rome said: “It’s hard to believe that God would make us wait all these years for these dirty tablets to find out what the Bible means.” To an extent that is what happened with the Ugarit find, and then the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now Ebla is vying to be come the 20th century’s third great breakthrough in biblical archaeology.—By Richard N. Ostling