No one can deny the magnitude and the importance of the Ebla tablets. Hebrew scholars will have much work before them to assess their full significance.

Spectacular discoveries have been made recently at Tell Mardikh, ancient Ebla, which lies about 40 miles south of Aleppo in northern Syria. The 50-foot-high mound covers 140 acres, and is one of the largest in an area which has had little exploration.

The site has been excavated since 1964 by Italians under the direction of Paolo Matthiae. No one, however, could have guessed the importance of Ebla before the discovery there of texts in 1974. With the clearing of Palace G in 1975, a royal archive of about 15,000 tablets was discovered just lying in heaps! An additional 1,600 tablets were recovered in 1976.

There has been sharp disagreement between the excavator, Matthiae, and the epigrapher, Giovanni Pettinato, over the dates of these texts. On the evidence of paleography (comparative scripts), Pettinato prefers a date of 2580–2450 B.C. On the basis of archaeological correlations, Matthiae suggests 2400–2250 B.C. The recent discovery of a seal of the Egyptian king, Pepi I (2332–2283 B.C.), would favor the later date.

Preliminary analyses by Pettinato indicate that about 80 percent of the texts are in Sumerian and 20 percent in a hitherto unknown Semitic language, Eblaite, which he classifies as Paleo-Canaanite, akin to such West Semitic dialects as Ugaritic and Hebrew. On the other hand, I. Gelb argues that Eblaite is an independent Semitic dialect with many affinities with Akkadian, the East Semitic language used by Babylonians and Assyrians.

It should be explained that the Sumerian words functioned as logograms, that is, they were pronounced as Eblaite, just as the Chinese characters borrowed by the Japanese are given Japanese pronunciations. In a somewhat similar fashion in English, the Latin abbreviations e.g. and etc. are read “for example” and “and so forth,” rather than “exempli gratia” and “et cetera.”

In any case, the texts promise to be of tremendous importance for the study of the words of the Old Testament. Some tablets are huge. There is one super text that contains up to 6,000 lines of inscriptions written on both sides of a single tablet! There are bilingual Sumerian/Eblaite word lists; one example (with 18 duplicate copies) lists 1,000 words. Among literary texts is a flood story and a creation narrative. The latter reads in part: “Lord of heaven and earth, You had not made the earth exist, you created [it], You had not established the solar light, you created [it], You had not [yet] made exist the morning light.…”

Administrative tablets reveal that the population of greater Ebla totaled 260,000. Among the 1,500 place names noted are the earliest references to such sites in Palestine as Salem (i.e., Jerusalem, cf. Gen. 14:18), Akko, Hazor, Megiddo, Dor, Joppa, Lachish, Ashdod, and Gaza.

Most startling—and even electrifying—was the declaration by Pettinato at a conference in Saint Louis in 1976 that there were five names in the Ebla texts corresponding to the five cities around the Dead Sea mentioned in Genesis 14:2—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela. Prof. David Noel Freedman of the University of Michigan, and editor of The Biblical Archeologist, had arranged the visit of the Italian excavators to the U.S. At a meal with Pettinato one day, he asked him if he could recall the names of the kings of any of these cities. Pettinato thought awhile, then wrote a name on a piece of paper and handed it to Freedman: he had written the name of a king of one of the five cities—the king of Gomorrah, Birsha.

Later, however, much to Freedman’s chagrin, Pettinato retracted much of what he had said to Freedman. Upon rechecking, he found no Birsha, king of Gomorrah. Matthiae and the new epigrapher, A. Archi, deny identification of sa-du-ma with Sodom. In a recent interview, Pettinato maintained that si-da-mu (another name) and i-ma-ar “remind” us of the names of Sodom and Gomorrah, and za-e-ar recalls the district of Zoar on the southern shore of the Dead Sea.

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The possibility that Sodom is named in the Ebla texts has stimulated Professor Freedman to reevaluate the patriarchal narratives in a highly positive direction. He wishes to raise the date of Abraham to the period of the Ebla texts, that is, to the Early Bronze III, or about the twenty-fourth century B.C. This would fit the view of W. Rast and R. Schaub. They have identified five Early Bronze tells on the southeast shore of the Dead Sea—Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira, Safi, Feifa, Khanazir—as the five cities of the plain. Thus far, only the first two tells have been excavated. There is evidence that Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira were destroyed by fire in the Early Bronze III period, c. 2300 B.C. Burned spongy charcoal is found on the surface, and the sites were never reoccupied. The lowering of the waters in the southern part of the Dead Sea in recent years reveals no remains of ruined cities there, as some had suggested. These five tells therefore seem to Rast and Schaub to be the only suitable candidates for the five cities of the plain.

Such a raising of the date of Abraham by three to even five centuries from the twenty-first to nineteenth century B.C. horizon that has usually been assigned to the patriarch, creates obvious problems. Other scholars, including Pettinato, think the Ebla materials are prepatriarchal. The occurrence of an Ur in the region of Harran in the Ebla texts has raised again the possibility of a northern Ur for Abraham’s home rather than the famous Sumerian Ur, a suggestion long maintained by Cyrus H. Gordon.

To illustrate the fact that archaeology is not a pure science but an activity where politics and personalities are involved, we must note two unfortunate controversies that have developed over the Ebla discoveries.

Matthiae, the excavator, had been working for ten years at the site when the first texts were discovered. One can understand his chagrin when he found that the epigrapher, Pettinato, the only man who could read the texts, was receiving all of the publicity. Eventually the two men no longer spoke to each other. There followed an attempt to work together on a ten-man committee of international scholars who were assigned the responsibility of publishing the texts. Then, Pettinato resigned after Matthaie found he was assigning texts he had been working on to other scholars. He was replaced by the new epigrapher, A. Archi, who has criticized many of Pettinato’s readings. In response, Pettinato describes Archi as a Hittitologist who should learn to read Sumerian!

Matthiae has written to publishers and editors asking them not to publish Pettinato’s materials. Pettinato, who had already made numerous copies, published a catalogue of 6,643 tablets in 1979. This includes a listing of 90 percent of the Ebla materials; the other 10,000 catalogued numbers represent but tiny fragments. Pettinato and some unnamed colleagues are now preparing transcriptions and translations which they hope to publish within the next ten years—at a faster rate than those of Matthiae’s rival committee.

Another disturbing aspect has been the intrusion of Middle Eastern politics. The excavations are in Syria, a country hostile to Israel. The Syrian authorities, disturbed at the alleged biblical connections being published by the press, put pressure on Pettinato and on Matthiae. As a result, in a letter to a Syrian periodical in 1977, Pettinato denied that there were any such connections—even though in his 1976 article in The Biblical Archeologist he himself had made such claims.

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No one can deny the magnitude and the importance of the Ebla tablets. But one should not prematurely exaggerate their importance for biblical studies. That will be possible only after scholars are able to assess for themselves the evidence of published texts. Then, the true significance of Ebla will emerge.

Post Script

After completing this article, I received copies of Paolo Matthiae, Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered (1981), and Giovanni Pettinato, The Archives of Ebla: An Empire Inscribed in Clay (in proof), both released by Doubleday. The first work is a translation of the Italian, Ebla: Un Impero Ritrovato, published in 1977, and the latter a translation of Ebla: Un Impero Inciso nell’Argilla, published in 1979.

Matthiae’s book, which is dedicated to the personnel of the Directorate-General of Antiquities of the Syrian Arab Republic, gives an excellent overview of excavations in Syria, Lebanon, and northwestern Iraq. He stresses the fact that Ebla reveals the unsuspected antiquity and originality of a Syrian city in the third millennium B.C. The numerous photos of the excavations are unfortunately poorer in the English than in the Italian edition. The “Bibliographical Note” is simply a translation of the Italian, as no attempt has been made to list works published after 1977.

Pettinato’s volume will be eagerly welcomed by scholars. Not only is it based on his firsthand knowledge of the texts, but it also provides scores of texts both in transcription as well as in translation. The erstwhile epigrapher of the Ebla mission discloses that as of 1979 there were still 23 cases of perhaps 4,000 tablets and fragments awaiting inventory. He gives a moving account of the excitement he sensed as he first read and deciphered the texts. He summarizes what was known of Ebla from cuneiform texts before its identification with Tell Mardikh. He then deals systematically with what the texts reveal as to the language, history, society, economy, culture, and religion of Ebla.

Matthiae and Pettinato differ sharply in interpretation of both major and minor points. They still differ on the dating of the archives, and disagree on how the tablets were arranged on the shelves. Pettinato affirms the existence of the divine name Ya, and the attestation of the legendary Dudiya of Ashur—both of which Matthiae denies.

In his final chapter on “The Significance of Tell-Mardikh-Ebla …,” Matthiae omits any discussion of implications for Palestine or the Old Testament. In an English preface written in 1979, Matthiae denies that there is any documentary evidence at Ebla for “proof of the historical accuracy of the Bible patriarchs, news of a cult of Yahwe at Ebla, a mention of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and other cities of the plain, and a literary text with the story of the Flood” (p. 11).

Pettinato, who emphasizes the importance of the Ebla texts for the better understanding of Sumerian and Canaanite languages, believes that Eblaite can shed light on Hebrew. In an appendix to his book, Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible, Mitchell Dahood, the well-known Ugaritic scholar, provides specific examples of the clarification of Hebrew texts from the Eblaite evidence. Hebrew scholars will have much work before them to assess fully the significance of some 3,000 Eblaite words (cf. 2,600 Ugaritic words) for the Old Testament.

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