2,800 year old stone altar found in Jordan provides evidence of biblical warfare

A 2,800 year-old stone artifact found in Jordan during an excavation at a Moabite sanctuary in the ancient city of Ataroth in Jordan is providing evidence of a biblical battle.

The cylindrical stone incense altar was discovered in 2010 discovered during an excavation at the sanctuary. An inscription on the altar appears to describe a battle that is mentioned in detail by the Bible, specifically in 2 Kings 3-4, which tells the story of King Mesha of Moab rebelling against Israel after the death of King Ahab in protest of having to pay a tribute of “a hundred thousand lambs and the wool of a hundred thousand rams.”

In response, the new king of Israel raised an army to put the rebellion down.

Upon believing that his enemy had killed each other after noticing a body of water running red, King Mesha approached the camp and received a deadly surprise.

When the Moabites came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and fought them until they fled. And the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree. Only Kir Hareseth was left with its stones in place, but men armed with slings surrounded it and attacked it.

When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom, but they failed. Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.

Mesha was losing the battle up to when he sacrificed his firstborn son to his god Chemosh and the Israelites left, and we aren’t told what happens next. However, the Mesha Stele continues the story by saying that Mesha vanquished the Israelites and conquered Ataroth.

“And the men of Gad dwelled in the country of Ataroth from ancient times, and the king of Israel fortified Ataroth,” the inscription reads, in part. “I assaulted the wall and captured it, and killed all the warriors of the city for the well-pleasing of Chemosh and Moab, and I removed from it all the spoil, and offered it before Chemosh in Kirjath.”

An excavation at the ancient site of Ataroth, now known as Khirbat Ataruz. Image via Khirbat Ataruz Project.
The site of Ataroth. Image via Khirbat Ataruz Project.

The Mesha Stele is the longest Iron Age inscription ever found in the region, discovered in ancient Dibon in 1868. An impression of the stele had been made prior to it being smashed into fragments, forcing archaeologists to restore it via the impression. As a result, the Mesha Stele displayed at the Louvre museum in France is a combination of newer basalt materials in black, and the original pieces in brown.

The Mesha Stele, first inscribed around 840 BC and reconstructed in the 1860s, describes biblical warfare at Ataroth. Image via Wikimedia.

The inscription found on the altar provides more details, claiming that “4,000 foreign men were scattered and abandoned in great number” by Mesha and another part mentions “the desolate city,” which is presumably Ataroth.

The research team, Chang-Ho Ji of La Sierra University, California, Adam Bean of Johns Hopkins University and Christopher Rollston of The George Washington University wrote in their report published by Levant:

“These inscriptions provide a new important historical witness to the period after the Moabite conquest and occupation of Khirbat Ataruz/Atarot described in the Mesha Inscription.”

“One might speculate that quantities of bronze looted from the conquered city of [Ataroth] at some later date were presented as an offering at the shrine and recorded on this altar,” the researchers wrote, referencing the spoils Mesha removed from the city after conquering it.

Still, “much remains unclear about this inscription,” the researchers wrote. Even the Mesha Stele inscription is now incomplete as the final lines were lost.

The inscription, however, also provides evidence of Moabite language. According to Rollston, a professor of northwest Semitic languages and literatures, the inscriptions on the altar “are the earliest evidence we have so far for a distinctive Moabite script.”

“We often talk about the sophistication of the scribal education of ancient Israel, and rightfully so, [but the inscriptions on the altar show] that ancient Moab had some gifted scribes as well,” Rollston told Live Science.

The significance of the altar and the inscription it contains cannot be understated. This is yet another major find that confirms an episode of ancient warfare described in the Bible, following several other discoveries in recent months that seem to confirm other passages, including the discovery of Goliath’s hometown, an ancient fort where another biblical battle took place, and the unearthing of the Church of the Apostles near the Sea of Galilee, just to name a few.

It’s the kind of find that makes one wonder just what else will archaeologists dig up next that confirms something else in the Bible.

Featured Image: Mesha Stele by Henri Sivonen via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic

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