An ancient Canaanite inscription including a name shared with a biblical rival to King David was found by archaeologists on a pot unearthed at a site in the Elah Valley, west of Jerusalem, researchers said Tuesday. One of them described it as a “once in a lifetime” find.
The inscription on a large clay storage jar found at Khirbet Qeiyafa dates to the Iron Age, from around 1020 to 980 BCE, and bears the name of Ishba’al son of Beda, researchers wrote in an article published in the latest edition of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
Before the jar was fired some 3,000 years ago, the name was inscribed in clear, large Canaanite letters in the clay, suggesting the hand of a skilled scribe, the scholars said.
The centimeter-high script retains some of the pictographic elements of its antecedents — the aleph has the horns of a bull, the bet looks house-like, and the ayin a staring eye — unlike later proto-Hebrew writings.
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A character with the name Ishba’al is mentioned in the Book of Chronicles as the son of King Saul and referred to in the Book of Samuel as Ishboshet, a rival to King David for rule over the nascent Israelite kingdom.
According to the biblical text, he was assassinated by former captains loyal to his late father and was buried in Hebron.
Both the inscription and the biblical character Ishba’al relate to the 11th and 10th centuries BCE, after which names bearing Ba’al, a Semitic storm god, fall out of favor among Judeans.
Professor Yosef Garfinkel of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority said Tuesday this was the first time an inscription with the name Ishba’al had been discovered.
“It is interesting to note that the name Ishbaʽal appears in the Bible, and now also in the archaeological record, only during the reign of King David, in the first half of the tenth century BCE. This name was not used later in the First Temple period,” the two said in an IAA statement.
Speaking at the IAA labs in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Garfinkel said that this latest inscription, found during excavations in 2012, was a discovery made “once in a lifetime, more or less.”
Five or six years ago, he said, there were no known Judean inscriptions from the period associated with the biblical King David; now there are four, including that of Ishba’al from Khirbet Qeiyafa.
“Minimalists would say that writing only started in Judah in the 7th century BCE,” he said. With the discovery of a second inscription at Khirbet Qeiyafa, “you can see that it existed; before this we didn’t even have any evidence that writing or literacy existed at all.”
“Researching any culture we would like to know if the people knew to read and write,” he said. “In this specific case study it’s even more important because it’s the beginning of the biblical tradition, and then it’s not just of interest to 40 archaeologists but to billions of people.”
The name Ishba’al could also possess multiple interpretations, Dr. Mitka Ratzaby Golub, an expert on biblical-era names at the Hebrew University who studied the inscription, explained to The Times of Israel. It likely meant “man of Ba’al,” the ancient Semitic storm god. Among Judeans, personal names evoking Ba’al fell out of fashion after the 10th century, but not so among their Israelite cousins to the north.
“It’s interesting that also in the Bible you find people with the name Ba’al only up till the end of the United Monarchy,” she said. “Then it disappears entirely.”
Beda, however, doesn’t appear in any inscriptions or texts from the ancient Near East, Golub said, leaving its meaning and origin uncertain.
While there is no connection between the biblical figure and the one mentioned in the inscription, Dr. Haggai Misgav, one of the co-authors of the article, said that it showed that the name was popular during the early Israelite period. The use of a Canaanite script at Judean site such as Khirbet Qeiyafa reflected a cultural exchange between the two peoples.
“This new inscription marks a transitional stage between the writing system used for 800 years and the oﬃcial, standardized Phoenician script used by kingdoms and states in Canaan by at least the 10th century BCE,” the authors of the study wrote.
During the Iron Age, the period associated with many of the historical events in the biblical narrative, Khirbet Qeiyafa was a fortified city. Earlier excavations in the valley known as the site of David’s famous slaying of Goliath yielded clay temple models and an edifice archaeologists involved in the dig said was King David’s palace.
The absence of pig bones and the discovery of proto-Israelite writing at the site suggests it was inhabited by Judeans before it was destroyed between 1006 and 970 BCE. Seven years of excavation at the site between 2007 and 2013 yielded evidence of extensive international trade, including alabaster and scarabs from Egypt, pottery from Cyprus, and basalt from the Golan Heights to the north.
Only two of the projected eight hefty volumes of excavation reports have been published to date, and while the Ishba’al inscription found at Khirbet Qeiyafa was the “cherry on top,” Garfinkel said, there remains plenty of “bread and butter archaeological work” to do to examine the finds from the site.
“I think it’s just the beginning” of archaeological discovery from the Davidic period, he said.