The Mesha Stele
The historical accounts preserved in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, attest to the existence and activity of not only Israel but also many other nation-states of the early Iron Age. Archaeologists have uncovered many material remains from these civilizations but, as with Israel, most of their records and documents have been lost on account of destruction or decay. And yet a most extraordinary artifact was discovered in the nineteenth century: the Mesha Stele, also called the Moabite Stone, attesting to the existence of Moab and of realities described in the pages of 1 and 2 Kings.
The Mesha Stele was discovered by Frederick Augustus Klein at the site of ancient Dibon in Jordan, having been led there by local Bedouin. The stele was smashed in a dispute regarding ownership; thankfully, a squeeze (a papier-mâché impression) was commissioned before it was smashed; today both the reconstructed pieces of the stele and the squeeze are on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The inscription preserves around 34 lines of text and to this day still represents the longest inscription found in the southern Levant.
The following is my translation of the Mesha Stele:
1 I am Mesha, son of Chemosh[yat], king of Moab, the Di-
2 bonite. My father reigned over Moab thirty years and I reigned
3 after my father. And I erected this high place to Chemosh in Qarhoh…
4 …because he delivered me from all the despoilers and because he let me prevail over all my enemies. Omri was
5 king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days because Chemosh was angry with his
6 land. And his son succeeded him, and he also said, “I will oppress Moab.” In my days he said th[us].
7 But I prevailed over him and over his house, and Israel thoroughly perished forever. And Omri had taken possession of a[ll the lan]-
8 nd of Mehadaba. He lived in it in his days and half of the days of his son(s): forty years, but Chemosh
9 returned it in my days. I built Ba’al Meon and made the reservoir in it, and I bu[ilt] 10 Qir-yaten. Now the men of Gad had lived in the land of Atarot forever, and the king of Israel built
11 Atarot for himself. But I fought against the city and took it, and I killed all the people.
12 The city belonged to Chemosh and to Moab. I brought back from there the altar hearth of its spoil and
13 [dr]agged it before Chemosh in Qiryat. I settled in it the Sharonites and the
14 Maharatites. Now Chemosh said to me, “Go seize Nebo from Israel.” So I
15 went at night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon. I
16 seized it and killed everyone of [it]: seven thousand native men, foreign men, native women, for[eign] 17 women, and foreign slaves—for I devoted it to Ashtar-Chemosh. I took from there th[e ves] 18 sels of YHWH and dragged them before Chemosh. Now the king of Israel had built
19 Yahatz, and he occupied it while he was fighting against me. But Chemosh drove him out from before me.
20 I took from Moab two hundred men, his whole division. I took it up against Yahatz and captured it
21 to annex it to Dibon. I built Qarhoh: the walls of the parks and the walls of the high
22 place. I rebuilt its gates, and I rebuilt its towers. I
23 built the palace and made the retaining walls of the reservoi[r for the spr]ing insi[de] 24 the city. Now there was no cistern inside the city, in Qarhoh, and I said to all the people, “Make your-
25 selves each a cistern in his house.” I dug the ditches for Qarhoh with Israelite cap-
26 tives. I built Aroer and made the highway at the Arnon, and
27 I rebuilt Bet Bamot because it had been torn down. I built Betzer, because it was n ruins:
28 [with me]n of Dibon, fifty, for all Dibon was obedient. I rule[d
29 over] hundreds in the cities which I had annexed to the country. I built
30 [Mehada]ba, Bet Diblaten, and Bet Ba’almaon and I took up there the [?] 31 [?] of the land. And the hou[se of Da]vid lived in Horonen, [?] 32 [And] Chemosh said to me, “Go down, fight against Horonen.” So I went down [?
33 and] Chemosh [retur]ned it in my days, and [?] from there [?] 34 [?] And I [?]
The Mesha Stele was commissioned by Mesha, son of Chemosh-yat, king of Moab, and provided a propagandistic account of his reign and success. Mesha spoke of his father’s thirty-year reign and how Omri king of Israel oppressed Moab in his day because Chemosh (the god of Moab) was angry with them (ll.1-5). Mesha boasted of how Omri’s son (likely meaning later descendants) sought to continue to oppress Moab, but Mesha defeated Omri’s descendant (ll. 6-7). Mesha then boasted of how he captured territory which Israel had taken or had lived in for generations: Medaba, Ataroth, Nebo, and Yahatz; he made special note of his attack on Nebo, how he killed its citizens, and took the vessels of YHWH to drag before Chemosh (ll. 8-21). Mesha spoke of his building campaigns in Qarhoh and even how he used Israelite slaves to dig ditches (ll. 21-25); he also built or re-built Arorer, Bet-Bamot, and Betzer (ll. 26-28). Mesha boasted of the cities over which he ruled (ll. 29-31). The inscription becomes more fragmentary at this point, but Mesha continued to speak of another military campaign against Horonen (Horonaim?), and the inscription may speak of Horonen as controlled by the “house of David” (ll. 32-34).
According to the Biblical account Mesha became king of Moab in the days of Jehoram king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah (2 Kings 3:1-27); Mesha ascends to the throne around 850 BCE, and would have erected the stele some years afterward. The Mesha Stele preserves the earliest recorded non-Biblical reference to YHWH, Omri, Israel, and quite possibly the house of David. The Mesha Stele provides another witness to the events of 2 Kings 3:1-27 and supports the general portrayal of the time period as reflected in 2 Kings.
The dual witness proves quite compelling, in fact. 2 Kings testifies of Mesha’s rebellion against Israel after the death of Ahab (2 Kings 3:5). Jehoram king of Israel is compelled to invite allies/vassals Jehoshaphat king of Judah and the king of Edom to combine forces to meet the rebelling Moabites (2 Kings 3:6-8). The armies were in danger of death by dehydration, and Jehoshaphat appealed to hear from a prophet; Elisha was there and promised both water and victory over the Moabites (2 Kings 3:9-19). Water flowed down the next morning (2 Kings 3:20); to the Moabites it appeared as blood when the sun shone upon the water, and imagining the allies had fought against each other, attacked the Israelite camp (2 Kings 3:21-23). The Israelites and allied forces crushed the Moabites; Mesha attempted to directly attack the king of Edom, but was repulsed; he then offered his son as a burnt offering to Chemosh in desperation (2 Kings 3:24-27a). It is then said that great wrath came out against Israel, and the Israelites returned to their own land (2 Kings 3:27b).
In his stele Mesha boasted of having defeated the king of Israel, even saying that Israel had “thoroughly perished forever” (l. 7). These witnesses do not contradict each other: even though he took significant losses Mesha did not die and Israel did not entirely overwhelm him, his rebellion was able to succeed, and thus he claimed victory over Israel. The Israelites may have killed many Moabites and won the battle, but the “great wrath” meant that Israel could not make good on their initial success (perhaps because the king of Edom left the alliance?), and thus the campaign overall proved to be a defeat, and the text never suggests that Jehoram or later Israelite kings proved able to reassert hegemony over Moab. The Biblical narrative does not speak about loss of Israelite land to the Moabites but does testify to a weakening of Israel’s strength in the days of Jehoram and Jehu kings of Israel: they are constantly defeated by Hazael king of Aram, especially in the Transjordan, and lose territory to him (2 Kings 10:32-34). It would not be surprising if Mesha took advantage of the situation and overran parts of the same area.
The Mesha Stele remains an important inscription; it represents much of what we know of the Moabite dialect and can correlate with evidence in the Hebrew Bible. The Mesha Stele can reinforce our confidence in the historical narrative of the kings of Israel and Judah in the Scriptures; the world of which they speak is similar to that seen in the Mesha Stele. The Mesha Stele provides an independent witness of the existence of the kingdom of Israel, of the house of Omri, of YHWH as the God of Israel, and perhaps even the house of David as well. By providing the Moabite perspective we can better perceive how events were understood and used for propagandistic purposes in the ancient Near East.
The Mesha Stele also testified to the ancient Near Eastern consensus about events: success meant that their god Chemosh was happy with them, while defeat meant that Chemosh was angry with them. Days would come when Moab and other nations would be swept away; out of this milieu only faith in YHWH, the God of Israel, remained, and for good reason. We should be thankful for the witness of the Mesha Stele and do well to serve YHWH as the One True God!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Wikipedia, “The Mesha Stele”, accessed 2017/04/30