EBLA, UGARIT AND THE OLD TESTAMENT – Sermons and Biblical Studies


Mitchell Dahood, S.J.

[Fr. Mitchell Dahood is Professor of Ugaritic and Phoenician Language and Literature, and Dean of Ancient Eastern Studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.]

In 1964 the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Siria under the direction of Professor Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome began to excavate the site of Tell Mardikh in north-western Syria, some 55 kilometers south-west of Aleppo. This tell or artificial mound created by the heaping up of successive layers of human occupation covers an area of about 56 hectares and is surrounded by a wall of terra battuta. The first four campaigns or seasons — a campaign lasts usually 8–10 weeks — produced no spectacular results, but the level of excitement rose in the summer of 1968 with the discovery of a large fragment of the torso of a basalt statue. This statue bore a 26-line inscription in Akkadian, and dated to circa 2000 B.C. Professor Giovanni Pettinato, then of the University of Torino, and now professor of Sumerology at the University of Rome, was summoned to Syria to decipher the inscription, and within a relatively short time was able to furnish a translation of the entire text with the exception of a few phrases whose sense remained obscure because of the damaged signs. The translated text reveals that the statue had been dedicated to the goddess Ishtar by the king or

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prince Ibbit-Lim, the son of Igrish-Khepa. He also tells us that he belonged to “the family of Ebla”.

The city Ebla has been mentioned more than a dozen times in Sumerian and Akkadian texts published during the past 75 years, but no scholar succeeded in locating it geographically. Now it appeared very likely that ancient Ebla was to be identified with modern Tell Mardikh, an identification that none of the savants who wrote on the question ever made. With this probable identification, the excavators continued their work with renewed enthusiasm, which was handsomely rewarded in 1974 by the discovery of the first archive consisting of 42 tablets and fragments of an economic character. During the following campaign, in October 1975, the great archive came to light, yielding 14,000 tablets and fragments. In 1976 another 1636 tablets and fragments were recovered, whereas the 1977 season produced only a hundred or so tablets, a rather modest harvest by Tell Mardikh standards, but a banner year elsewhere. The name of the city Ebla recurs frequently in the tablets, so that the question of identification has been definitively settled.

Pre-Ebla Inscriptional Material

Properly to assess the significance of these discoveries and their bearing on the Old Testament, it may prove helpful to review briefly the history of Near Eastern discoveries over the past century. In 1887 the finding of several hundred clay tablets at Tell El Amarna in Lower Egypt created a considerable stir in biblical circles. Though found in Egypt, these tablets had been written in Syria-Palestine around the year 1350 B.C. They were letters sent by the kings of the city-states such as Tyre, Byblos, Megiddo, Shechem, Hazor and Jerusalem to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 B.C.), these reports contain numerous Canaanite words and phrases that give some idea of the character of Canaanite in the period when the people of Israel were moving towards Canaan or the promised land. Since biblical Hebrew is also a Canaanite dialect, one can understand why biblical scholars studied these documents with great interest, hoping to find material that would aid their study of biblical Hebrew, a very difficult language, especially in the poetic books of the Bible.

In 1919 a French archaeological mission began to excavate the mound of Ras Shamra on the north Syrian shore, some 11 kilometers north of modern Latakia, and about 85 kilometers from Tell Mardikh-Ebla, situated inland to the north-east. On 20 May

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1919, the mission discovered 20 clay tablets written in cuneiform, but in alphabetic cuneiform employing only 30 signs, instead of the more than 500 signs that were being used during this period in the writing of cuneiform letters. These were the first of nearly 4,000 tablets in eight different languages to emerge from the soil of Ras Shamra over the next half century; in fact, excavations continue at this site, though at a somewhat reduced scale. Photographs and hand copies were published in 1930 in the journal Syria, and within 8 months the new language was deciphered by the combined efforts of three scholars working independently in three different countries. From the deciphered tablets it became clear that the ancient city was called Ugarit, a city mentioned in the Tell El Amarna letters and described there as a wealthy city whose streets were paved with gold. The new language received the name “Ugaritic”; its importance for the study of biblical Hebrew has formed one of the main disciplines of biblical research in recent decades, and its significance for the evaluation of Eblaite vis a vis the Old Testament will be discussed below.

The third great discovery affecting the Bible was made in 1935 at Mari, situated at the bend of the Euphrates river at the border between Syria and Iraq. Here some 20,000 tablets dating to circa 1800-1700 B.C. were found. Since this was the period of the patriarchs, according to the chronology of many scholars, and since the tablets come from Mesopotamia, the land where the patriarchs presumably took their origins, they have been carefully studied for the light they might shed on the period of the patriarchs.

In 1947 and subsequent years, the biblical world was again shaken by the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea or Qumran Scrolls, dating to the period circa 150 B.C. to 135 A.D. Though these discoveries bear more on the New Testament period, the recovery of the entire text of Isaiah in a copy of circa 150 B.C. shows that the text of Isaiah currently in use is based on a model that proves superior to that on which the scroll from Qumran was based.

These, then, have been the outstanding discoveries affecting biblical research over the past century. The attitude one adopts towards these discoveries will influence one’s disposition towards the new finds at Tell Mardikh-Ebla. Students of the great American orientalist W. F. Albright (1891–1971), of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, agree that part of his greatness lay in his

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ability to intuit the relative importance of each discovery as it emerged. It was Albright who first identified Ras Shamra with ancient Ugarit and who early on steadily stressed the basic importance of Ugaritic language and literature for the proper understanding of biblical language and literature. It was Albright who first recognized the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and who sent to John Trever, who had mailed to Albright a photograph of some lines of the Isaiah Scroll from Jerusalem, a letter with the message, “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times”.

When news of the Ebla discoveries was first transmitted around the world, the question was, “what would Albright, where he alive, have made of these discoveries?” Those of us who knew him would have had no difficulty in guessing how he would have evaluated them, since we knew his openness of mind and generosity of viewpoint. I also knew the late Padre Alberto Vaccari of the Biblical Institute during the last ten years of his life (1956–1965). A very erudite scholar, Vaccari often came to me expressing his regret at not having appreciated the importance of Ugaritic for biblical research, and at not having exploited the tablets from Ugarit for his translation of the Bible into Italian. In 1919 Vaccari was at the height of his intellectual powers, so one is at a loss to understand why he failed to appreciate the discoveries made that year at Ras Shamra and in the following decades. I am not recounting this for the sake of invidious comparison between Albright and Vaccari but merely as a salutary warning that we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of erring vis a vis the Ebla textual materials and their possible bearing on the Bible.

The Language of the Ebla Tablets

After the unearthing of the first archive in 1974, Pettinato was again summoned to Syria to examine the tablets and their script. His initial judgment expressed before the archaeologists gathered in the courtyard of the mission headquarters was, “I can read the tablet, but I don’t understand a word!” Employing the wedge signs of the Sumerian language, a non-Semitic tongue, the scribes of Ebla wrote their own language which, as it turned out, was Semitic. Small wonder that Pettinato, a Sumerologist, was able to read the signs but unable to understand the language. After further study Pettinato discovered the secret of how to read and understand the tablets, and in a lecture inaugurating the Aula Paulina of the Pontifical

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Biblical Institute on 24 April 1975, reported that he had succeeded in identifying the language as Paleo-Canaanite and closely related to biblical Hebrew and Phoenician. This unexpected conclusion found confirmation in the 14,000 tablets and fragments discovered in October 1975, and in subsequent articles Pettinato has elaborated his position by adducing new arguments for the Canaanite classification of Elbaite, as the language of Ebla is now called. To be sure, much of Pettinato’s early evidence was supplied by personal names, which are not the most reliable guides in this matter, but the study of the bilingual vocabularies with lists of words in Sumerian and Eblaite sustains the Canaanite classification.

Most of the tablets from Ebla are economic and administrative in their contents, but numerous letters, commercial treaty texts, bilingual vocabularies, reports on military campaigns, encyclopaedic lists of animals; birds, precious and non-precious metals, ritual texts, and several mythological tablets provide a solid basis for an adequate description of the new language.

Adequately to understand the new language from Ebla, the philologist must have recourse to the Ugaritic tablets which date to a later period but which preserved the consonantal structure more perfectly than any other attested Semitic language, with the possible exception of South Arabic. Written in a cuneiform alphabet, the tablets from Ugarit distinguish 27 phonemes or distinct meaningful sounds, whereas the Sumerian system of writing employed by the Semitic scribes of Ebla permitted them to represent only 10 or 11 phonemes with any sort of precision. One constantly feels the same problem in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, especially in personal and place names; since Hebrew possessed a series of sounds not found in Greek, the translators were obliged to improvise when trying to reflect the Hebrew sounds. To recognise the Semitic roots underlying the syllabically spelled words at Ebla, one must turn to the roots attested in the 2,600 words at Ugarit, and to the vocabulary of the Old Testament. So the importance of Ugaritic is greatly enhanced by the new finds which in the first flush of discovery seemed to reduce the significance of the Ras Shamra discoveries of 1929 and subsequent years. In fact, for the understanding of the Canaanite languages which now number Eblaite, Ugaritic, biblical Hebrew, Phoenician, Moabite and Ammonite, Ugaritic assumes central importance, thanks to its preservation of the Semitic consonants in their pristine purity and the writing of the

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same with admirable precision. To illustrate this point, let us take the Hebrew word for “table”, shlkn; since this word contains two variable sounds, a number of diverse etymologies have been proposed, all of which proved to be wrong with the discovery in Ugaritic of the word for “table”, written thlkn.

Chronologically, Ugaritic serves as a link between the tablets from Ebla dating to circa 2500 B.C. and the Hebrew Bible composed between 1200 and 150 B.C. For the past 50 years scholars have studied in great detail the points of contact between Ugaritic and Hebrew, especially in the poetic books of the Bible, with the happy result that thousands of biblical verses now translate more clearly and convincingly and lend themselves to more rigorous grammatical and prosodic analysis. Now it falls to the lot of these philologists to bring this mass of information to bear on the new corpus of literature from Tell Mardikh. One should not forget that, while Ebla will elucidate many obscure words in Ugaritic and Hebrew, Ugaritic and the Bible will in turn repay the debt by clarifying numerous words and constructions in Eblaite. Hence the title of this paper is not “Ebla and the Old Testament” but “Ebla, Ugarit and the Old Testament”; the most rapid and solid progress in Ebla studies will traverse the highway from Ebla to Ugarit to Palestine, and vice versa.

Business and Religion at Ebla

Recent articles and newspaper reports have underlined the importance of Ebla for understanding the history of the third millennium in Syria. So great has been the impact of these finds that the latest edition of the Cambridge Ancient History regarding Syria is now being considered obsolete, even though it appeared less than a decade ago. Heretofore considered a culturally backward region, sustaining a transient nomadic population at best, Syria in the third millennium turns out to have been a highly urbanized country, its landscape dotted with hundreds of cities of considerable population to judge from the amount of products imported and exported. From the royal archives we learn that Ebla stood at the center of a vast commercial empire whose international trade extended as far north as central Anatolia, as far west as Cyprus, as far south as the Sinai peninsula, and to the east as far as northern Iran and to the southeast to the Persian gulf and Mesopotamia. One tablet records that 11,400 functionaries were attached to the royal palace and archives which housed the records of imports and exports. More than

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10,000 geographical names are preserved in these records, giving some idea of how extensive and intricate was this commercial network whose center was in north-western Syria.

From what has been gleaned thus far from the tablets, the religion of Ebla resembled that of Ugarit in both its form and spirit. From the personal names a total of 460 gods can be identified, and though this number far exceeds the 260 gods of Ugarit, the number of divinities enjoying some standing was around 25. The head of the pantheon in Syria was Dagan who is termed in some of the texts as “Dagan the Canaanite”; the epithet would seem to stress the land of his provenance. The four gates of the city were named after Dagan, Rasap, Baal and the sun-god Sipish. The god Dabir, known in biblical Hebrew as the word for “pest”, was the special patron deity of Ebla. Temples to Dagan, Ashtar, Chamish (biblical Chemosh) and Rasap are mentioned in the tablets as existing at Ebla. Each month the members of the royal family offered sacrifices of sheep to the chief gods of the pantheon. Bread and drinks are also mentioned among the offerings. Several classes of priests are also recorded, as well as two categories of prophets, the makhkhu or ecstatic prophets, and the nabiutum, the classical type of prophet known from the Old Testament.

Ebla and Genesis

Despite our insistence on Ugaritic as a bridge between third-millennium Ebla and first-millennium Old Testament, the reader will remain sceptical that such a chronological chasm can be crossed. Hence it might be helpful to present some concrete instances of contact between the information supplied by Ebla and the Book of Genesis, which preserves some of the oldest traditions in the Old Testament.

In 1974 Thomas L. Thompson published his book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives with the subtitle The Quest for the Historical Abraham, in which he maintains that the traditional view which places Abraham and the patriarchs in the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 B.C.) is mistaken. One year later, in 1975, appeared the book by John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition, in which he arrived independently at a very similar conclusion. Both Thompson and Van Seters argue with considerable force that the social and legal background of the patriarchal stories reflects the conditions of the first millennium, and that they were composed and written during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C. The

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trauma of the Exile created the need to construct and articulate a comprehensible historical past. The Abraham narrative functioned as an effort to establish a corporate identity for Israel at the time when the national dreams stood under the dire threat of total collapse. In his review article, “The Patriarchs and Extra-Biblical Sources” in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 2 (1977) 50-61, S. M. Warner writes: “So compelling are their arguments (T. Thompson and J. Van Seters) that it is doubtful whether the theory for an early (2000-1500 B.C.) dating of the patriarchal period can ever again be resurrected”.

It seems ironic that just when these books were rolling off Western presses, clay tablets were emerging from the Near Eastern dust of Tell Mardikh which might well explode the main propositions of these two learned books. In the Bible, the name Abraham was borne by only one man “our father in the faith”, as St. Paul calls him. In the Ebla tablets this name is borne by several individuals. Other names known first from Genesis, such as Esau, Ishmael, and Eber, the ancestor of the Hebrew people, now all appear in these tablets. The name of the first man created, Adam, is now attested as the name of one of the governors of Ebla under the syllabically spelled form a-da-mu. Till now the name Adam has not been found in ancient documents outside the Bible1 ; this is also true of the name of King David, which appears at Ebla as da-u-dum. When one recalls that thousands of personal names are known from the onomastica of the ancient Near East from sites such as UR III, Nippur, Mari, Nuzi, Ugarit, and Alalakh — to mention just a few of the more important lists of personal names — these first occurrences at Ebla cannot leave the historian indifferent regardless of the supposed chronological differences between the two bodies of literature. The name of the river Euphrates appears for the first time in Genesis 2:14 under the form perat. For this name no etymology has been found; now the name of the river occurs at Ebla as ba-ra-du, “the Cold River”, a fitting name for its cold waters that descend from the snows of the Armenian highlands. The phonetic transition from ba-ra-du to Hebrew perat follows phonetic rules that operate in other instances of this kind. It might be noted here that the river which today forms the oasis of Damascus is called in Arabic Barada, “the cold River”; its waters originate in the snows of the Lebanon mountains.

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Genesis 2:20 records that “Adam gave names to all the beasts and to the birds of heaven and to all the wild animals of the field”. This statement fits into the cultural pattern of Ebla where the scribes and the students of the royal school drew up encyclopaedic lists of animals, including lists of birds, fishes, plants, and trees, objects in wood, lists of metals, of precious and non-precious stones.

The Name of God at Ebla

In Genesis 4:26 one reads the statement that “then one began to invoke the name of Yahweh”, a disconcerting statement in view of Exodus 3:14 and 6:3, which seem to indicate that Yahweh first revealed his name to Moses at a much later period. Yet the author of Genesis employs this divine name throughout his book and ascribes the usage to the beginnings of the human race. Von Rad states that the reference to an original revelation cannot easily be reconciled with the dominant literary tradition in the Old Testament. Biblical theologians see here a theologoumenon, that is, a theological insight: the biblical author was concerned with the revelation of Israel’s God as the Lord of history with benevolent designs embracing all mankind, to which Israel had a special mission. It is often difficult to establish the exact relationship between the theological intuition and historical truth. Ebla bids fair to shed some light on the question of the antiquity of the name of Israel’s God, which appears in different forms in the Hebrew Bible: yah, yahu, yo, and most frequently Yahweh. Ebla attests such names as mi-ka-il, “Who is like God?”, and mi-ka-ya, “Who is like Ya?”; en-na-il, “Have pity, O God!” and an-na-ya, “have pity, O Ya!”; ish-ma-il, “God has heard”, and ish-ma-ya, “Ya has heard”.

These names pointing to the existence of the god Ya at Ebla have created perhaps more excitement than any other single item reported from Ebla. One writer has predicted that this phenomenon is bound to provoke endless argument in the future. Thus in a letter to the Biblical Archaeologist Review 3 (March 1977): 38, Professor Anson Rainey of Tel Aviv University wrote that: “The supposed evidence for Yahweh personal names at Ebla is highly questionable. During Professor Pettinato’s visit to the Department of Near Eastern Studies and Civilizations at Harvard University, it was pointed out by several of us that the -ya endings on personal names are simply shortened forms (hypocoristic) usually used for endearment and then becoming common usage. The names like Mi-ka-il which become Mi-ka-ya have nothing to do with Yahwism”. But Rainey’s

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objections now fall with the discovery of the Ebla personal name dingir-ya-ra-mu, where the divine element ya appears at the beginning of the name and is moreover preceded by the determinative or semantic marker dingir which signifies that the name ya which immediately follows is the name of a god. In other words, the Ebla personal name ya-ra-mu is identical in form with biblical Joram, “Yo is exalted”, the name of a king of Judah.

Ugarit too also knew this divine name. This appears from comparing yrmb’l, “Baal is exalted”, with yrm’l, “The Most High is exalted”, and with yrmy, “Ya is exalted”, the last name being the equivalent of the name Jeremiah. Or when one compares the Ugaritic personal names dmrb’l, “Baal is the sentinel”, dmrhd, “Hadd is the sentinel”, with dmry, it obviously should mean “Ya is the sentinel”. Should doubts remain, then one might consult Exodus 15:2, ‘ozzi wezimrat yah, “Yah is my strong sentinel”, where both the elements of the Ugaritic personal name dmry are juxtaposed. Or again, consider iltm, “God is perfect”, tmy, “Perfect is Ya”, with ytm, “Ya is perfect”, and biblical Jotham in Judges 9:7, “Yo is perfect”. In the El Amarna letters mentioned above a man of Megiddo in central Palestine is named bi-ri-di-ya, which on the basis of the name of the Euphrates ba-ra-du, cited earlier, and the divine element -ya may now be interpreted “Ya is my refreshment” or “Ya is my coolness”, the motif of refrigerium that recurs in biblical poetry and became so popular in the early Christian liturgy of the dead.

Genesis 10:8–11 reports that the first warrior on earth was named Nimrod, but for this name no satisfactory etymology has been found. The study, however, of the pattern of Eblaite and Ugaritic personal names reveals the frequency of the sequence animal name plus the name of a god, as in Eblaite da-si-ma-ad, “the he-goat of the Grand”, or Ugaritic ni-mi-ri-ya, “the panther of Ya”. These suggest that nimrod consists of “panther” plus hd, another name of the Canaanite weather god Baal: hence “panther of Hadd” would be the meaning of Nimrod, just as Ugaritic nqmd signifies the victory of Hadd”.

Ebla and the Historicity of Abraham

Genesis 13:7–8 recounts the dispute between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham. Abraham immediately sought a reconciliation with Lot in these terms: “Let there be no strife between me and you, between my shepherds and your shepherds because we are men, brothers”. The Hebrew phrase “anashim

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‘akhim ‘anakhnu, literally “men, brothers, we”, is unique in the Bible, but now it has a fine parallel in a letter sent by the king of Ebla to the king of Hamazi in northern Iran, some 1200 kilometers distant from Ebla, giving some idea of the extension of diplomatic relationships. In this letter the king of Ebla assures Zizi, the king of Hamazi, “You are my brother and I am your brother; O man, brother, whatever desire issues from your lips I will grant”. The expression “man, brother” resembles that used by Abraham. This correspondence makes it extremely difficult to accept the theory of Thompson and Van Seters that the patriarchal stories were composed during the Exile in the sixth century B.C.

The Abrahamic origins of the Hebrew people are full of enigmas. A few scholars date Abraham to 2000 B.C., some to circa 1700 B.C. and still others to circa 1400 B.C. And there are many who simply deny that Abraham was a historical figure at all. In fact, a prominent American scholar George Mendenhall has recently written in this regard, “The mainstream of biblical scholarship could not conceive of the idea that there are very archaic traditions underlying the narratives of the Book of Genesis; indeed, perhaps a majority of modern specialists in the Bible, especially in Europe, cannot deal with Genesis except as a “myth” produced by Israel sometime after (and preferably long after) the tenth century B.C.”. The heart of the problem is Genesis 14. Because that chapter is so different from all the others concerning Abraham, critical scholars have tended to write it off as unreliable, indeed unusable. More than 70 years ago Herman Gunkel wrote that the narrative contains in blatant contrast very credible and quite impossible material.

Genesis 14:2, 8 are the only two texts listing the five cities of the plain which were destroyed by God for their sinfulness: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Bela. These same five cities and in the same order now appear in a tablet from Ebla! How can this coincidence be explained? Or is it mere coincidence? Hardly, since the same order would not be expected in both if they were independent sources. Nor would a merely oral tradition have preserved the same order.

In his Anchor commentary on Genesis published in 1964, E. A. Speiser does suggest that the author of Genesis 14 may have had access to a cuneiform document listing these five cities, and in the light of recent discoveries this theory now appears very likely. In other words, the tradition in Genesis must go back to the period of

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Ebla circa 2500 B.C. when these cities were still very much alive, since the tablet in question refers to them as still flourishing. What is more, this tablet also mentions Damascus, which too is mentioned in Genesis 14. Genesis 18–19 describes their sudden and violent destruction. Since Abraham and Lot figure in both stories, one may reasonably infer that Genesis 14 and 18–19 belong to the same chronological frame.

Genesis 15:18 describes the covenant God made with Abraham: “to your seed I give the land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates”. In other terms, the promised land of Canaan was considered as reaching from Egypt to the Euphrates by the author of Genesis; later biblical writers ascribe much less extension to the Land of Canaan. Many recent scholars insist that the term “Canaan” has no linguistic or historical meaning before the Late Bronze Age [1500-1200 B.C.]. John Van Seters claims: “The name Canaan is entirely unknown until the early fifteenth century B.C.”, and that “no texts as yet attest to any connection between Ur and Harran in the second millennium B.C.” The first part of his assertion is upset by the use at Ebla of “the Canaanite” to describe their chief god “Dagan the Canaanite”, but Van Seters is correct in the second part of his claim, namely, that no second-millennium texts connect Ur with Harran as done in Genesis. But the third-millennium tablets from Ebla do mention a city Ur in the territory of Harran, so that it would appear that Genesis is reporting third-millennium traditions and that modern scholars might have to look in that period for the historical background of Abraham rather than in the second millennium.

The motive given by the biblical writer for the change of Abram’s name to Abraham is “because I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4–5). Philologists have been unable to provide a viable explanation for this shift other than that suggested by much later Aramaic usage; a glance at usage in Ugaritic shows that this kind of expansion of the root from ram to raham is witnessed in the formation of plural nouns. Thus the plural of bet, “house”, in Ugaritic is bahat, with the insertion of -h-; the plural of amt, “handmaiden”, is amahat, and of um, “mother”, is umahat. Thus in expanding the name from abram to abraham the author is following a Canaanite practice in the formation of plural nouns; since Abram was to become the father of many peoples, it was fitting that his name should assume a plural form though

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remaining singular in meaning.

In the Old Testament the term nasi’ occurs over a hundred times, but in Genesis only four times. In Genesis 23:6 Abraham is called nasi’ ‘elohim, usually rendered “a prince of God”. In his commentary on Genesis Speiser traces this term to Mesopotamia and argues that it signifies “the elected one”; now, however, the term appears frequently in administrative texts from Ebla and translates the Sumerian term ugula which means “superintendent”. Hence one need not go to Mesopotamia to find the immediate source of the word when a solution much nearer to hand is now available.

In the story of Jacob and the speckled goats in Genesis 30:35 occurs the rare word tayish, “he-goat”, that appears only twice elsewhere, namely, in Proverbs 30:31 and 2 Chronicles 17:11. This uncommon noun appears in the Eblaite personal name da-si-ma-ad, “the he-goat of the Grand”, a name which naturally elicits the Ugaritic personal name kry “the male lamb of Ya”, and evokes the New Testament motif “Lamb of God”.

In the stories about Joseph one encounters the term ‘abrek’ found only here in the Bible. Till now an Egyptian etymology has been proposed in explanation, but this word now appears at Ebla in a slightly different form e-ga-ra-gu-um with the meaning “superintendent”. In one of the two calendars preserved at Ebla, the name of the month October is ashtabi, which looks like the name of a Hurrian god. In the Joseph stories the very shadap, “to scorch, burn”, is used to describe the parched ears of grain. It refers to the blighting of the crops, and since October was the month of the sirocco, the scorching wind, this root may underlie the month named ashtabi at Ebla.

From these few examples, we may draw two tentative conclusions. The Book of Genesis contains genuine and very archaic traditions which merit the serious attention of scholars. Second, whereas in the past Genesis studies were understandably oriented toward the milieu of Mesopotamia, the recovery in northern Syria, not far from Harran whence Abraham set forth for the promised land, of third-millennium archives written in a language closely related to Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew opens up a new area of research where the results of comparative study promise to be more direct and convincing.

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Ebla and the Prophets

The textual discoveries at Ras Shamra, beginning in 1929 and still continuing, opened up a new epoch of comparative study that illuminated numberless passages in the prophetic and sapiential books of the Old Testament. Whether the Ebla tablets will prove so fruitful will depend in large measure on the number of poetic texts preserved in the royal archives; this remains to be determined. That the institution of prophecy existed may be inferred from the phrase makhkhu wa-nabi’utu found on one of the tablets. The first term refers to the so-called ecstatic prophets who needed song and dance before they could begin prophetic operations, whereas the second noun nabi’utu exhibits the stem of Hebrew nabi’, the term for the prophet called by God. In recent decades biblical scholars have turned to the Mari archives of circa 1800-1700 B.C. from the Middle Euphrates region to find analogies to the biblical institution, but now Ebla promises to weigh in with some pertinent material. An article published in 1976 by V. W. Rabe with the title “Origins of Prophecy” (Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 221:125–128) concluded that the present evidence is insufficient to determine whether Israelite prophecy came from Mesopotamia or from Canaan-Phoenicia. The Ebla discoveries invite us to look first to Canaan-Phoenicia for enlightenment on the historical development of prophecy.

Let us begin with the names of the biblical prophets. A superintendent of an administrative center at Ebla bears the strange-sounding name wa-na. A closer look at this personal name reveals that it is the same as biblical Jonah, written in Hewbrew yo-na. We know from several examples that Eblaite, like Arabic, preserved the initial bi-labial wa-, which, according to phonetic rules becomes yo- in Hebrew, so that wa-na and yo-na are the same name, though, of course, not the same person! For the first time this name borne by a biblical prophet is attested outside the Bible in an ancient Near Eastern tablet. In the discussion about the occurrence of the divine name Yahweh I had occasion to cite mi-ka-ya, which of course is also the name of the minor prophet Micah. Both Ebla and Ugarit witness da-nilu, the name of the major prophet Daniel, while Eblaite ‘a-gi-a-lum, “the Most High is my feast”, recalls the minor prophet Haggai and the biblical personal name hagiyah, “Yah is my feast”. Thanks to the identification of Ya at Ebla, it becomes possible to explain a series of Ugaritic names that have counterparts

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among the prophets. Thus Ugaritic ily, “Ya is my god”, answers to biblical ‘eliyah, the name of the Prophet Elijah. Ugaritic yrmy materially identifies with the name of Jeremiah; dkry, “Ya has remembered”, signifies the same as the name of the minor prophet Zachariah; ‘bdy “Slave of Ya”, equals Abadiah and yw’il looks much like the name of the prophet Joel. These names tell us much about the cultural matrix from which the Israelites emerged.

When turning to prophetic texts one finds eighth century Isaiah 1:10 employing in parallelism the names of the two famous (or infamous) cities that occur in sequence in an Ebla tablet of 2500 B.C.: “Hear the word of Yahweh, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” This pair of names will be used by subsequent biblical poets and by Christ himself, but Hosea is unique when reaching down to numbers three and four of the list of five cities mentioned at Ebla and in Genesis 14:2, and reporting the questions of the Lord in 11:8, “How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboim?”

One of the new prepositions identified in numerous texts is shi-in “toward”. Scholars cannot as yet account for it, but Isaiah 9:4 ““every boot of the tramping warrior”, may provide a lead. The verb sa’an “to tramp, to march”, may underlie shi-in, “toward”, since such verbs sometimes promote the formation of new prepositions; thus Hebrew darak “to march”, gave rise to the preposition derek “toward”.

To be continued…

(Reprinted by permission from The Month, August and September, 1978.)

BSP 8:1 (Winter 1979) p. 16

BSP 8:1 (Winter 1979) p. 17