Ebla - Kingdom of the Past
A certain amount of excitement and considerable discussion in Christian journals was occasioned by the discovery in 1976 and 1977, on an excavation site in North Syria called Tel Mardih, of many inscribed tablets indicating that an important city, perhaps the capital of an extensive empire, once stood here. The discovery is of intense interest to students of the Bible since the people who dwelt there were of the same race as Abraham, Semitic. It was several generations before his day and they used a language closely akin to Hebrew that may in fact have been the precursor of the Hebrew language itself. Deciphering the tablets, some 18,000, has taken many years and even now the full importance of the find and the light it throws upon the Old Testament is not properly known.
Pending this, all that is being said and can be said about the discovery has to be accepted with a certain amount of reserve. A number of sensational and unscholarly statements were widely circulated, without the endorsement of the archaeologists who made the discovery, such as that one Ibrum recorded as being the King of Ebla was probably Eber the patriarch, progenitor of the Hebrews and an ancestor of Abraham. But aside from these irrelevancies there is no doubt that this discovery is of inestimable value in throwing further light on Old Testament history and adding confirmatory evidence to the accuracy and the antiquity of the Genesis records.
Tel Mardikh is a mound fifty feet high not far from the city of Aleppo in Northern Syria. Its nearest Biblical connection is the town of Antioch (now Antakya) some seventy-five miles away, where Paul served and the early disciples were first called "Christians". One of hundreds of such mounds in the Middle East, each one concealing the remains of some ancient settlement, no one had any idea of its importance until Italian archaeologists began excavating it in 1964. The first few years yielded evidences that the site had been inhabited up to about the time of the Exodus but since then left desolate and gradually covered with sand and earth. As the diggers went deeper they found signs of an increasingly important and more civilized centre until in 1968 there was discovered a statue bearing the name of a king of Ebla. Now Ebla hitherto had only been known in archaic Sumerian inscriptions of the pre-2,000 B.C. period as a powerful city-state situated somewhere in Syria; nothing more was known about it. The fact that Tel Mardih was thus shown to be the capital of this ancient city-state ranked therefore as a discovery of the first importance.
By 1973 the excavators found themselves digging out city remains which they tentatively dated at about 3,000 B.C. (this has since been amended to something like 700 years later). The highlight came in October 1976 when they broke into the royal palace and found in the palace library thousands of baked clay tablets stored on shelves which had collapsed, leaving the tablets lying in heaps, a position in which they had remained undisturbed for more than four thousand years. To date some 18,000 of them have been removed for examination and decipherment; many more remain, and no one yet knows what the rest of the palace may contain.
Of course there are many cuneiform tablets in the hands of scholars and museums—the British Museum has more than 250,000, many still undeciphered although they have been there for sixty years or more. In the main, these Ebla tablets are written, or rather inscribed, in the Sumerian language (that of the sons of Ham), Akkadian or Assyrian (sons of Shem) and sometimes Hittite (of Japheth). Although all these languages are represented on the tablets found at Tel Mardih the scholars were amazed to find that many were in a hitherto unknown tongue, one that was Semitic (of Shem) and strongly resembling a kind of archaic Hebrew. Fortunately for the scholars some of the tablets are "bilingual" texts, i.e. containing parallel passages in the unknown language and in Sumerian or Akkadian. Thus by comparison the unknown language might begin to be understood—something like comparing the Greek and English in a New Testament such as Marshall's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. Various grammatical lists have also been found so that the structure of the language can be understood.
There have been wild assertions that this proves that Abraham and Israel originated, not from Mesopotamia as indicated by Genesis, but from Syria, and that here in Ebla is the source of the Hebrew language and people. All of this can be dismissed as fanciful. This is not the first time that such proto-Hebrew texts have been found in Syria. In 1929 the world was electrified by the discovery at Ras Shamra, on the coast of North Syria, only fifty miles from Tel Mardih, of a similar hoard of tablets, dating roughly to the time of the Exodus, in a very similar form of Canaanite-Hebrew tongue and throwing a flood of light upon conditions in Canaan just before the conquest under Joshua. Then in the period 1936-39 there was found the centre of another important city-state at Alalakh, forty miles from Tel Mardih, with more inscribed tablets covering roughly the same period as these now found. The group of languages applicable to the peoples of Syria and Canaan is called West Semitic in contrast to those spoken and written by the Semitic people of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their predecessors the Akkadians, which is termed East Semitic. It seems probable that the language of Ebla will prove to be of the West Semitic group and perhaps the earliest form of that group. But this is no evidence that the Hebrew people originated here; when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees and took up residence in Canaan he and his descendants would naturally increasingly adopt the language of their adopted country. In just the same way the Jews went into the Babylonian captivity speaking pure Hebrew; they came back seventy years later speaking Aramaic.
One tablet mentions the town called "Ur" (now Urfa in Southern Turkey) and this has revived an ancient idea that the Ur from which God called Abraham was not the famous city near the Persian Gulf but this northern one so much nearer to Canaan. A little reflection disposes of this. The Genesis definition is "Ur of the Chaldees" which defines it as a Sumerian city and not a Semitic one. Then when Terah and his family set out, ostensibly for Canaan, they stayed at Haran in Aram-naharaim for a few years until Terah died and Abraham moved on. The northern Ur (Urfa) is only twenty-five miles from Haran; they were not likely to interrupt their pilgrimage after so short a trek. From Ur of the Chaldees to Haran is little under 600 miles and Canaan 400 miles more; Haran was a likely place for a halt. Most important of all, the first eleven chapters of Genesis, outlining the history up to Abraham's departure from Ur, is replete with Sumerian and Akadian words. The geographical setting and terms of Genesis 2-10 are those of Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium B.C. and could only have been written by a dweller in that land. The evidence is conclusive that Abraham was born and lived in the Sumerian city of Ur on the Euphrates. God called him to make the thousand mile journey to the "land which I will show thee".
One noticeable aspect of the tablets is the similarity of many of the proper names to those of early Bible characters. Names such as Abram, Ishmael, Michael, Israel, Esau, and so on, occur. Here again some enthusiasts are eager to trace a vital connection, such as suggesting that the Biblical Abraham came from these people, but there is really no basis for this. It stands to reason that a great many people over many generations must have borne the same name, such as George, say, in English. Great play is made of the alleged fact that the name of the king of Ebla most mentioned in the tablets, Ibrum, is the same as Eber the patriarch of Gen. 10.24, suggesting that the Biblical Eber was in fact the king of Ebla so that Abraham was of royal decent, even though Ibrum's father in the tablets, Risi, is not the same name as that of Eber's father in Genesis. In fact all the Semitic peoples used names similar to those found in the O.T.—the Arabic nations do to this day—and so to some extent did the Sumerians. Abram is a Sumerian name and often found on Sumerian inscriptions. It is of interest though that many Biblical place-names occur; in particular the mention of Jerusalem is the earliest mention of that city yet discovered, by several centuries.
On the more positive side, the contribution to Old Testament knowledge that will be made when these tablets are fully deciphered, will without doubt be enormous. Particularly is this true in the realm of writing. Not so many generations ago nearly every theologian solemnly averred that writing was unknown before about the 8th century B.C. Since then earlier and still earlier examples have turned up so that at the present time it is usually admitted and held that writing was known in Egypt and in Mesopotamia by about 2500 B.C. and this is roughly about the probable date of the newly discovered tablets. It is being claimed in some quarters that this, together with the very full historical details of the pre-Abrahamic period given in the tablets, a period on which Genesis is virtually silent, infers the probability that language and writing developed in Syria in post-Flood days and not in Mesopotamia as usually believed. This position cannot be maintained without affecting the authenticity of Genesis. It is based on the same principle as the now discredited belief that writing was invented only in the 8th century B.C. on the ground that nothing earlier had been discovered. There is no guarantee that at some future time tablets even earlier than those found at Ebla will appear.
There is an element which has not been taken into account by the proponents of the "Eblawriting-the-first" hypothesis. In the days of Ebla and Sargon of Agade cuneiform writing, in half a dozen languages, Sumerian and Semitic, was already an established art, and must have had at least several centuries of development behind it. But there is a point in Sumerian history prior to which it does not appear and it has been assumed in the past that this point was where cuneiform writing was invented. Ebla has shown that this was not so; it did exist earlier. Now this point does coincide with the last of the three disastrous floods of Sumerian history which over a period of some two centuries devastated the land of the two rivers and swept away much of its culture. The population was extremely small at this early time and it is very possible that most of the written records then existing were destroyed with other property by the floods and any that did survive have not as yet been discovered. This could account for tablets existing in Syria when tablets of the same period in Sumer are unknown. This supposition is reinforced by the fact that prior to cuneiform and prior to the floods, a pictographic script existed of which only a very few examples have been found, at Kish and Uruk. They are sufficient to show that the knowledge of writing existed in Mesopotamia long before the days of Ebla.
The history of the ancient Bible nations will not have to be re-written in the light of these new tablets, as has been somewhat rashly claimed, but it will without doubt be tremendously supplemented by what they will reveal. Particularly there might be a filling up of that tantalizing gap in Genesis, covering the twelve hundred years between the Flood and Abraham, of which Genesis records only one incident, that of the Tower of Babel. There must have been some faithful men of God during that long period and one is tempted to wonder why some records of their lives' work was not included with those of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and so on. Perhaps the man who first compiled Genesis 10 and 11 found himself confronted with this situation; the historical records of his nation were destroyed and he had perforce to content himself with the bare recapitulation of his ancestors throughout the period. It must follow, though, that had detailed knowledge of those days been necessary to the faith and practice of either Jew or Christian during these later centuries, the power of the Holy Spirit of God, overruling all that was written, would certainly have ensured that it was included.
But it will certainly be interesting to read, in due course, what these ancient historical tablets have to say about happenings in those far off days when Eber, the patriarch of all the Israelis and all the Arabs, begat two sons, whose progeny. more than any other of the Sons of Shem, have made the Israeli-Arab world what it is to-day
This artifcle was written 20 years ago. It has been slightly amended to bring it up to date and checked for basic detail against the IVP Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Any more recent authoritative information concerning the above would be appreciated - Editor