For the first time, an inscription from the time of the Biblical Judges, and even relating to the Book of Judges, has been recovered from excavations at Khirbat er-Ra‘i, near Qiryat Gat. The rare inscription bears the name ‘Yerubbaal’ in alphabetic script and dates from around 1,100 BCE. It was written in ink on a pottery vessel and found inside a storage pit that was dug into the ground and lined with stones.
The site, located at the Shahariya forest of the KKL-JNF, has been excavated every summer since 2015—the current excavation season is the seventh. The inscription was written in ink on a jug – a small personal pottery vessel that holds approximately one liter, and may well have contained a precious liquid such as oil, perfume, or medicine. Much like today, the vessel’s owner wrote his name on it to assert his ownership.
The inscription has been deciphered by epigraphic expert Christopher Rolston of George Washington University. It clearly shows the letters yod (broken at the top), resh, bet, ayin, lamed, and remnants of other letters, indicating the original inscription was longer.
Prof. Garfinkel and Ganor explain, “The name Yerubbaal is familiar from biblical tradition in the Book of Judges as an alternative name for the judge Gideon ben Yoash. Gideon is first mentioned as combatting idolatry by breaking the altar to Baal and cutting down an Asherah tree. In biblical tradition, he is then remembered as triumphing over the Midianites, who used to cross over the Jordan to plunder agricultural crops. According to the Bible, Gideon organized a small army of 300 soldiers and attacked the Midianites by night near Ma‘ayan Harod.”
“Given the geographical distance between the Shfelah lowlands and the Jezreel Valley, this inscription may refer to another Jerubbaal and not the Gideon of biblical tradition, although the possibility cannot be ruled out that the jug actually belonged to the judge Gideon. In any event, the name Yerubbaal was evidently in common usage at the time of the biblical Judges,” the two researchers said.
Inscriptions from the period of the Judges are extremely rare and almost unparalleled in Israeli archaeology. Only a handful of inscriptions found in the past bear several unrelated letters. This is the first time that the name Yerubbaal has ever been found outside the Bible in an archaeological context – in a stratum dated to around 1,100 BCE, the period of the Judges.
“As we know, there is considerable debate as to whether biblical tradition reflects reality and whether it is faithful to historical memories from the days of the Judges and the days of David,” say the archaeologists. “The name Yerubbaal only appears in the Bible in the period of the Judges, yet now it has also been discovered in an archaeological context, in a stratum dating from this period. Similarly, the name Ishbaal, which is only mentioned in the Bible during the monarchy of King David, has been found in strata dated to that period at the site of Khirbat Qeiyafa. The fact that identical names are mentioned in the Bible and also found in inscriptions recovered from archaeological excavations shows that memories were preserved and passed down through the generations,” they added.
The Yerubbaal inscription also contributes to our understanding of the spread of alphabetic script in the transition from the Canaanite period to the Israelite period. The alphabet was developed by the Canaanites under Egyptian influence in around 1,800 BCE, during the Middle Bronze Age. In the Late Bronze Age (1,550–1,150 BCE), only a few such inscriptions are known in Israel, most from Tel Lachish near present-day Moshav Lachish in the northern Negev. The Canaanite city of Lachish was probably the center where the tradition of writing the alphabet was maintained and preserved. Canaanite Lachish was destroyed around 1,150 BCE and remained abandoned for about two centuries. Until now, there was considerable uncertainty as to where the tradition of the alphabetic script was preserved after the fall of Lachish.
The newly-discovered inscription shows that the script was preserved at Khirbat er-Ra‘i, roughly 2 miles from Lachish and the largest site in the area at the time of the Judges, during the transition from the Canaanite to the Israelite and Judahite cultures. Additional inscriptions, from the time of the monarchy (tenth century BCE onwards), have been found in the Shfelah lowlands, including two from Khirbat Qeiyafa and others from Tel es-Safi (Tel Tzafit) and Tel Bet Shemesh.
The excavations are being conducted on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, under the direction of Prof. Yossef Garfinkel, Sa‘ar Ganor, Dr. Kyle Keimer, and Dr. Gil Davies. The program is funded by Joseph B. Silver and the Nathan and Lily Silver Foundation, the Roth Families Sydney, Aron Levy, and the Roger and Susan Hartog Center for Archaeology at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology.