The Multifaceted Mesha Stele

In Numbers 22, the king of Moab, Balak, sought out Balaam to curse Israel, but that plan failed when Balaam blessed Israel. If Moab could not effectively fight or curse Israel, they could love them to death. In Numbers 25, “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.”

Centuries later in the Bible, Moab remained a rival to Israel and Judah. In 2 Kings 3, Moab was controlled by Israel, and under its king Ahab was forced to pay a large tribute to Israel. After Ahab died and was replaced by his son Joram, Mesha king of Moab rebelled against Israelite control. While the Israelites appeared to have been winning the fight, “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.”

The end of this story appears to show Moab having succeeded in expelling Israel from its land.

A similar version of this account is recorded on one of the most significant archaeological artifacts that relate to the Bible, the Mesha Stele. The stele was discovered in Dhiban, Jordan, biblical Dibon, in the region of Moab.

The Mesha Stele is important for numerous reasons. It contains the first known mention of Israel’s God YHWH. It shows evidence of the Moabite language, which was closely related to Hebrew. It mentions the Moabite god Chemosh, the same one that, “On a hill east of Jerusalem, [King] Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.” Depending on the interpretation of the damaged letters, it may also have a reference to the “House of David,” the kingdom of Judah.

The Mesha Stele references “Gad.” In the Bible, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh settled on the eastern banks of the Jordan River. In Numbers 32 “The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, the land the Lord subdued before the people of Israel are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes, they said, let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.” In Numbers 33, during Israel’s travels “They left Iye Abarim and camped at Dibon Gad.” In the Mesha Stele, “And the men of Gad dwelled in the country of Ataroth from ancient times.”

On top of all these, it appears to reference the revolt that is mentioned in 2 Kings 3. In the Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stele, Mesha revolted against Ahab’s son and defeated the Israelites to capture Ataroth, Nebo and Jahaz. In the biblical account, it is Israel that triumphs on the battlefield before Mesha sacrificed his son, while on the Mesha Stele, Moab succeeds on the battlefield. Whatever the actual result, the Bible and the Mesha Stele appear to be referring to the same event.

The Mesha Stele is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.