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THE INSCRIBED TABLETS FROM TELL DEIR cALLA
WILLIAM H. SHEA
The Biblical Research Institute
Part I of this article furnished an introduction to the discovery,
context, and general nature of the eleven Deir cAlla Tablets; gave
attention to the matter of decipherment of the script of the three
tablets that were inscribed with texts; and discussed in some detail
the text of the first two written tablets. This leaves for the present
study the discussion of the text of tablet III and the integration of
the information obtainable from all three of the inscribed tablets.
Before proceeding further, however, we first repeat here the
transliteration and translation of tablet I as a basis for relations
with the other two texts that follow. The transcription and linguis-
tic comments given on the text of tablet I stand as they were
presented in Part I of this article. Also, a new "Table of the Letters
of the Script of Deir cAlla" appears on the next page, updating the
listing given in Part I.
Text I: Pethor Smitten
(Deir cAlla No. 1449)
Transliteration and Translation
lkm / mk. / wtm.y / whm / mk. /ptr
(1a) "To you (have come) a smiter and a finisher,
(1b) and they (are) the smiters of Pethor."
Text II was also transliterated and translated in Part I of this
article. It is the most difficult of the three written tablets from Deir
*Editor's Note: Part I of this article appeared in AUSS 27 (1989): 21-37. Part II
continues the sequential numbering of footnotes and sections given in that earlier
portion of the study. The figure depicting the script of Deir cAlla is, however,
renumbered as "I" inasmuch as it represents simply a revision of Figure I in Part I.
98 WILLIAM H. SHEA
Figure 1. Revised Table of Letters of the Script of Deir cAlla
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 99
cAlla to work with because it has suffered the most damage, having
many cracks on its written surface. These cracks confuse the identi-
fication of the letters that were originally written because, in some
instances, they appear to provide additional strokes with those
letters. Since Part I of this article was finished, further progress has
been made in distinguishing the original letters from extraneous
marks due to damage.
While much of the epigraphic and linguistic discussion of this
text given previously still applies, some corrections need to be
made to it. The results of these improved readings have been
incorporated into the transliteration and translation of text II pre-
sented here. These new readings also affect, the historical applica-
tion of this text. As a basis for this new treatment of text II, a new
and more accurate line drawing of it is provided here.
5. Text II: Pethor's Smiters
(Deir cAlla No. 1441)
Transliteration and Translation
(1) csr / wywbbq / mk
(2) czwvt /pt.m / mk
(1) "There was a damming up and the Jabbok (became) a smiter.
(2) Mighty (shocks) suddenly (became) a smiter."
The Line Drawing:
Since text II was written in boustrophedon order, it is difficult
to determine which of its two lines should be read first. The order
of the lines in this text have been reversed here in comparison to
100 WILLIAM H. SHEA
my previous treatment of them. The reasons for this are developed
after text III has been translated and interpreted.
Analysis of the Text
of Line 1
The first word of the first line begins with a clear occurrence of a
half-moon shaped cayin. A yod was previously read following this cayin.
This yod should be rejected now. There is a vertical stroke here, but
further examination of the photographs indicates that a triangular wedge-
shaped stroke extends to the right from its mid-shaft. In addition, a
horizontal stroke of short length was incised across the top of the vertical
stroke. This form resembles that of the dog-legged-shape sade in other
early alphabets, and as utilized here that letter contributes to the identifica-
tion of an intelligible word.
Further examination of the photographs also indicates that a circular
letter was incised above the head of the sade. This circle is faint in the
published photograph, but a copy of that photograph with its lines dark-
ened brings this circle out more clearly. This circle is rather flat across the
bottom, it is pointed in its right lower quadrant, and it contains a t-shaped
incision angling down towards the left within its circle. All of this gives
this sign a head-shaped appearance, which identifies it as a res. This res is
comparable to those that have been identified in text III below.
In conjunction with the previously recognized cayin, these two new
letters make up the word csr. In Hebrew this verb means "to restrain,
retain, shut up, stop." It may function here either as a Qal perfect or a
participle. Its subject should be taken as an indefinite third person, for the
next word is separated off from it by a waw which serves as a conjunction.
The word that is connected in this way is the name of a river (see below).
Since a river is restrained, retained, or shut up when it is dammed up, such
a damming up appears, therefore, to be that to which reference is made
This type of event is known to have happened in this region when the
in its west bank near Damiyeh, biblical Adam, in 1267, 1546, 1906, and
A.D. If a damming up of the
with the Jabbok, then such an obstruction would naturally have had a
similar effect upon the
The first three letters which follow the word divider have been read
correctly previously as w-y-w. This combination may be taken as a con-
junction followed by a consonantal yod and a vocalic waw. Thus this
word begins with w + yo-. Two vertical strokes were written following the
second waw. The first one curves downwards to the right and the second
one curves upwards to the right, but they both look like the same letter,
which has simply been oriented differently in the two positions. At one
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 101
time these two letters were read as gimmels, but the gimmel in text III has
a head that makes a 100° bend to the right, whereas these two letters angle
only slightly at their upper and lower ends. This suggests that these letters
differ from that gimmel. If the curved ends of these letters were expanded
into triangular heads, as has been done with dots for the beth in btym of
text III, these 1etters could easily be read as beths. My suggestion is that the
scribe of this text, working with a somewhat different orthography than
the scribe of text III, wrote these two beths here with this form.
At first glance, the last letter in this word-box looks like a trefoil sign
pointing upwards. This was previously identified as a kaph, but closer
inspection reveals that the part of the stroke that extends upwards to the
right also curves around and bends back towards the left upstroke. That
makes this letter one which consists of a quasi-circular head with a short
tail extending to the left. There are four main letters with closed heads and
tails in the early alphabets: beth, dalet, qoph, and res. Beth, dalet, and res
have been identified elsewhere in these texts and this letter does not look
like them; therefore, by a process of elimination this letter should be
identified as a qoph, its first occurrence in these texts.
From these letter identifications the word written after the conjunction
in this word-box can be identified as ywbbq. This corresponds rather
directly with the way in which the name of the
in the biblical text, with only two minor variations. In the MT the beth of
this name was doubled with a dagesh, but here it appears to have been
doubled by writing out the two letters. This was an irregular practice not
continued in later inscriptions. Given the early date of the alphabetic
writing of these tablets, however, experimental irregularities like this are
only to be expected. The second variation is that this word was written
with an o-vowel in first position while the Massoretes pointed it with an
a-vowel. Since this text is two millennia older than the Massoretic point-
ing, however, the o-vowel should be taken as more original.
The final word of this line, mk, refers to a "smiter," and should be
identified linguistically as it was in Part I. The proper name which
precedes it identifies that "smiter," i.e., the
dammed up and overflowed this area. Text I mentions, but does not
identify, "smiters" of the region. Text II reveals that the river which
overflowed after it was dammed up was one of these smiters.
Analysis of the Text
of Line 2
The first word of the second line remains the same linguistically,
czwvt. This is the word for "strong, mighty," with a feminine plural
ending. Previously I interpreted this word as referring to human forces or,
more specifically, Israelite troops that came from Pithom in
time of the Exodus. Since the next word can no longer be read as Pithom,
102 WILLIAM H. SHEA
however, this interpretation must be abandoned. My new reading of the
next word now indicates that these "mighty" ones, whatever they were,
came upon Pethor "suddenly." Text III, discussed below, indicates that
when these mighty ones came upon Pethor so suddenly, they caused the
collapse of houses there. Since human attackers could be fended off for a
time at least, they do not fit this description very well. The suddenness of
the disaster and its effects suggest rather that the mighty ones that affected
the town in this way were shock waves of an earthquake. Given the
location of this site in the earthquake-prone
area of the
given also the archaeological evidence for earthquakes found in the ex-
cavations, such an occurrence here seems quite reasonable.
Three of the four letters in the next word stand as they were read
previously. The problematic letter is the third one. The clear portion of
this letter consists of a vertical stroke with a triangular wedge extending to
the left from its mid-shaft. In Part I of this article two horizontal strokes
extending to the left were also read as connected to the superior and
inferior poles of the vertical stroke of this letter. These additional horizon-
tal strokes should now be discarded as not connected with this letter for
they appear to be cracks in the tablet due to damage.
An epigraphic indicator for this revision comes from the mem incised
above and to the left of this letter. If a horizontal stroke extended to the left
from the superior pole of this vertical stroke, the right-hand downstroke of
the mem would have crossed it. This is unlikely, for this crossing could
easily have been avoided and does not occur anywhere else in the three
tablets. Thus the faint line here is more likely a crack due to damage and
should not be taken as a part of the letter. The same can be said for the
crack extending to the left from the inferior pole of the vertical stroke.
Without these horizontal strokes, this letter cannot be a he or heth. It
still remains, however, to establish the real identity of this letter. If its
horizontal wedge were extended across the vertical stroke, and the superior
and inferior margins of that wedge were separated, it would resemble the
form of the aleph in other early alphabets. In view of that resemblance
this letter should be taken as an aleph here, the first occurrence of the
aleph to be recognized in these texts. The third word in this line can be
read as ptm, "sudden, suddenly." Whatever occurred by means of the
actions of the "mighty ones" should have taken place "suddenly." This
suddenness strongly suggests that the "mighty ones" are to be identified as
the shock waves of an earthquake. The description of the disaster which
follows in text III fits well with a disaster of this nature.
The word, mk, which means "smiter," stands at the end of this line as
it was previously read. Thus these strong shocks which suddenly struck
Pethor constituted the second of the two smiters mentioned in text I, the
"finisher" referred to there. The reason for this ordering of the statements
in text II is discussed further below.
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 103
The revisions I have proposed for the statements in text II might be
summarized here as a complement to my previous study of this text. Six
letters have now been identified more accurately: the sade and res in the
first word of what is now the first line, two beths and a qoph in the second
word of that line, and an aleph in the second word of the second line. In
addition, these two lines have been reversed in order from the way in
which they were presented previously.
The revisions now set forth provide a transliteration and translation
indicating that the smiters which struck Pethor were not human forces like
the troops of
nature that were unleashed against this site, first by the nearby river and
subsequently by an earthquake. These were the two "smiters" of text I, the
first identified there as a "smiter" and the second as a "finisher."
6. Text III: Pethor's State
(Deir cAlla No. 1440)
Transliteration and Translation
(1) mkk / btym / dry / ccym
(2) wcyn / ngr / mksmy / wysym
(1) "The houses have fallen in heaps of ruins,
(2) and the spring has poured out covering them,
(3) and a curse has been placed."
The Line Drawing:
104 WILLIAM H. SHEA
This final written tablet is in mint condition. Its writing is
very clear. The third line consists of one word written along the
bottom edge of the tablet. Line 1 is the bottom line on the face of
the tablet, and line 2 is the top line on the face of the tablet. The
reason for following this order rather than the reverse is syntactical.
The bottom line begins without a waw, whereas the two statements
in the top line both begin with a waw. These waws should serve as
conjunctions to join their statements to those that have gone pre-
viously. It seems likely, therefore, that this tablet was meant to be
read from bottom to top rather than the reverse.
Analysis of the Text
of Line 1 (Bottom Line)
The first word of the bottom line begins with a broad v-shaped mem
and two trefoil-headed kaphs. These two kaphs have tails, whereas the
kaph in the top line of this text does not, an irregularity in this scribe's
writing. The second kaph is rotated 90Ί in comparison to the first, another
irregularity in this text, but there are parallels to this type of irregularity in
text II. In spite of this rotation, both of these letters are readily recognizable
as kaphs. The Hebrew word mkk means "to fall down, sink down, settle
in." It is used in Eccl 10:18 to refer to houses that fall into ruins due to
neglect. But the houses here were hit suddenly according to the second
text, so their collapse into ruins must have been more abrupt than in the
The subject of this verb follows as the second word in this line, and it
is the plural noun btym, "houses." The beth consists of a three-point
triangular head atop a vertical unbent tail. The taw is standard in form for
this text. The yod has a dotted head. The yod is used four other times in
this text, and the mem of the plural ending is only one of five examples of
that letter in this text. An interesting feature of the btym here is the
presence of the yod, representing the i-vowel of the plural ending -im.
The third word of this line begins with a dotted triangular head that
has no tail. This is similar to the dalet of the later scripts, with which it
should be identified. The second letter is taken as representing another
occurrence of the head-shaped res. It can be compared to the res with
which ngr ends in the top line, even though slightly different in shape.
The most common use of dr or dor in Biblical Hebrew is as a reference to a
"generation." This idea is derived from the root idea of a "cycle" or
"circuit." As a verb, dor means "to pile up," and the noun "dwelling
place" is also derived from this root. Anyone of the foregoing meanings
could make sense here, but the idea of a "circle" or "heap, pile," of ruins
fits best. The final letter of this word is a yod, which serves as an indicator
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 105
for a construct relationship of a masculine plural noun. This word should
thus be taken as in a construct or genitival relationship with the word that
follows it. It is striking to see the yod of this relationship written out here,
in contrast to the practice of scribes who wrote later inscriptions.
The final word of this line begins with two vertical half-moon shaped
cayins. These are followed by another yod and another mem. This form
corresponds well to the biblical word for "ruins" in the masculine plural.
In Biblical Hebrew this word was written with one cayin and two yods,
while here it was written with two cayins and one yod. Presumably, these
cayins were intended to be read or pronounced with i-vowels, and the
yod here represents the i-vowel of the plural ending.
Analysis of the Text of
Line 2 (Top Line)
The first word of the top line begins with what is, for this text, a
normally shaped waw with a semicircular head. This should serve as a
conjunction connecting the second thought in the text with the first
thought written in the line below. The waw is followed by the vertical
half-eye cayin. Next come the dotted vertical stroke of the yod and the wavy
vertical line of the nun. Thus we have here the word cyn. In Biblical
Hebrew this word can mean either an "eye" or a "spring." The latter
meaning makes better sense in the context here, especially in conjunction
with the verbs that follow it.
The nun which begins the second word is virtually identical to the
nun with which the first word ends. This is followed by a gimmel with a
curved head, and then a head-shaped res. The Hebrew word ngr means "to
flow, pour, gush forth." In 2 Sam it is used of water being poured
out, and it is used for wine in Ps 75:9. As a feminine singular perfect (or
participle) in the Niphal, it probably was pronounced with a final a-vowel,
but that vowel was not written out here.
The broad v-shaped sign of the mem occurs twice in the next word,
and its first occurrence is followed by standard forms of the kaph and
samek. The word ends with the vertical stroke topped by a dot to make it a
yod. The kaph-samek combination at the heart of this word provides the
root ksh, which in Biblical Hebrew commonly means "to cover." With a
mem preformative, this form looks like a participle in the Piel, the con-
jugation in which this root commonly occurs. The second mem of this
word should be taken as a masculine plural pronominal suffix inasmuch as
a plural ending on the participle would not fit with the gender or number
of either the preceding subject or verb. The antecedent of this plural
pronominal suffix would most logically be the "ruins" of the "houses"
mentioned in the preceding line.
The yod written after the pronominal suffix may represent an old case
ending. An archaic survival of a similar old case ending appears with the
106 WILLIAM H. SHEA
same suffix on the same verb in the old poem of Exod 15 (v. 5; cf. v. 7).
There this verb was used for the action of the waters that covered the
chariots of Pharaoh and his men. Here it was used for a similar action
of a covering by waters, but in this case it was waters from a spring
that covered ruins of the houses of a town. Evidently the earthquake
which struck this area and toppled houses also fractured the water table
that supplied the spring of the town, thus causing it to pour forth in
The initial letter of the next word is a waw, which should be taken as
a conjunction. This is followed by a word containing two yods and ending
with a mem. The vertical strokes of the yods are undotted. Between them is
a vertical bow-shaped sign of the sin/sin, which Cairus distinguished from
the nun. In Biblical Hebrew ysym parses readily as a third person mascu-
line singular Qal imperfect of sym, "to put, set, place." It is interesting to
note that the central yod of this middle weak verb is written out here.
This verb cannot stand alone. It needs something to go with it--a
subject, an object, or more. The search for such a complement leads to the
word on the edge of the tablet, its third line. Presumably this word was
written there because there was not enough space left on the second line of
the text written on the face of the tablet. According to Franken's study of
the scribal methods employed in writing this text, this was the last word
written on the tablet. It should, therefore, complete the statement that
began with ysym.
The word written along the edge of the tablet was zcm. The cayin and
the mem have been seen previously in the body of the text. The sign that
precedes them is a vertical box-shaped letter with a number of crossbars.
This looks most like a heth, but that letter does not fit well here preceding
an cayin. Cairus has suggested that this sign should be identified as a zayin.
In favor of that identification is the fact that some of the crossbars incline
downwards at an angle to the left, as does the crossbar of the later zayin.
In Biblical Hebrew zcm means "to curse." This word appears, for
example, in a speech made by Balaam of Pethor in which he described
Balak's instructions to him (Num 23:7). Thus it seems quite appropriate to
find the same word in this text from Balaam's home town. As a noun, this
word on the side of the tablet serves well as the subject of the verb at the
end of the second (upper) line on the face of the tablet. The whole phrase
wysym zcm thus translates, "and a curse has been placed." Either the scribe
who wrote this text saw the events that had taken place as the result of a
curse, or a curse was placed upon the site after it was affected in this way.
Summary of Text III
The falling down of houses referred to in the first line of this
text is interpreted here as being caused by an earthquake, presuma-
bly the same earthquake mentioned at the end of text II. Knocking
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 107
down the houses was the first destructive action of this quake,
hence it was mentioned first on the tablet. The quake also fractured
the water table of the spring at the site causing it to overflow upon
the ruins of the fallen houses. This was the "covering" of "them,"
i.e., the ruined houses mentioned in the second line of this text.
The final line of this text refers to the curse, either that from which
these effects resulted, or that which was pronounced upon the site
after its destruction.
7. The Language of the Texts
With the script of these texts deciphered and their contents
translated, the language of the texts can now be analyzed in some
detail. Even though we have only three short texts with which to
deal, they provide a surprisingly large amount of linguistic data,
some of it quite extraordinary for texts from so early a date.
Six verbs occur in these three texts-two in tablet I (nkh and
tmm), and one of these (nkh) is used over again in tablet II. Tablet
III adds four more verbs (mkk, ngr, ksh and sym). Perfects and
participles occur, but only one example of an imperfect (ysym) and
no infinitives or imperatives appear to be present. Four different
conjugations are represented: the Qal, Piel, Niphal, and Hiphil.
All of these roots and forms are readily recognizable from Biblical
Five nouns are present in these texts-the words for "curse,"
strong (ones)," "houses," "heaps," and "ruins." The first of these
is in the singular, the rest are in the plural. One of the plurals is
feminine, and the others are masculine. One of the masculine
plural nouns appears in a construct form. There are no recogniz-
able occurrences of the article with the nouns in these texts, a fact
consistent with the early date of writing. All five of these nouns are
well known in the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew. Two toponyms
occur, the place name of Pethor in text I and the river name of the
Jabbok in text II.
Three pronouns occur in these texts, two of them independent
and one of them suffixed. The second person and third person
plural are represented. The pronouns correspond in form with the
forms used for similar functions in Biblical Hebrew. The waw used
as a conjunction appears in all three of the texts--twice in text I,
once in text II, and twice in text III.
One of the more remarkable linguistic features of these texts is
that they appear to be vocalized in part. The main letter or sign
108 WILLIAM H. SHEA
that was used for this function was the vertical stroke of the yod,
either dotted or undotted. This appears to have represented mainly
the i-vowel, but in one case of a masculine plural noun in construct
it may stand for e. The most obvious vocalic use of the yod is in the
plural masculine ending on nouns, -ym or -im, which occurs with
three words in text III. In one instance--ysym of text III--the
second yod appears to represent the middle weak radical of the
verbal root. In one instance, in mksmy of text III, the yod following
the pronominal suffix may represent an old case ending that may
be compared with the related archaic forms in the Song of the
Sea (Exod 15:5, 7).
In two instances in text II the waw appears to have been used
to represent o-vowels. The more obvious case of this is with the
feminine plural ending -ot. There it is accompanied by an un-
dotted vertical stroke. This appears to be an indicator for the use of
a vowel letter rather than representing a vowel or consonant itself.
The other use of the waw as a vowel letter appears in the name of
which representation of an a-vowel or u-vowel was attempted.
The conclusion from these linguistic data is that either these
tablets were written by Hebrews, or they were written in a Trans-
jordanian dialect of Canaanite that was very close to Biblical He-
brew. These two possibilities are examined further, following a
discussion of the potential historical connections of these tablets.
8. Historical Geography
The major contribution which the Deir cAlla Tablets make to
historical geography is to locate Pethor of Num 22:5 at Tell Deir
cAlla. The reading of this name on tablet I is reasonably clear and
direct. Locating this text as part of a series of tablets that were
found at that site makes it more likely that this text was written
there rather than brought from elsewhere.
In another direction, this discovery provides an explanation
for another major find at the same site, the eighth-century-B.C.
plaster texts from the walls of a later building. These texts, written
in red and black ink on the plaster walls, were discovered in 1967,15
15 See H. J. Franken, "Archaeological Evidence Relating to the Interpretation of
the Text," in J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts from Deir cAlla
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 109
and they were published in 1976.16 They were found in a very
fragmentary condition, and much scholarly ingenuity has gone
into their reconstruction and study.17
The central character in combination I, a narrative dramatic
text, is Balaam the son of Beor. His name and patronym appear in
broken or complete form in at least four places in the first six lines
of this text. His title is given with his name in the first instance-
i.e., "the man who was a seer of the gods." There can be no
mistaking that the individual named and described here is the same
person as the Balaam whose actions are set forth in Num 22-24.
The rest of combination I relates Balaam's experience. The gods
revealed themselves to him in a night dream or vision, and in-
formed him about a coming disaster involving both a "fire of
chastisement" and a convulsion of nature. Combination II is even
more fragmentary and the nature of its contents is obscure.
A. Lemaire has asked the question, "Why were these literary,
probably religious, texts copied on the plaster wall of a room at
Deir cAlla?"18 His answer is that there probably was a sanctuary
nearby. This appears to be correct, but is only part of the answer.
Now, thanks to the Deir cAlla Tablets, we can recognize that this
locale was where Balaams home sanctuary of Pethor was located.
Of all the places in the entire Near East where his memory might
have been preserved, this location is obviously the most likely
because of its being the very spot where he lived and exercised his
16 See the entire report of Hoftijzer and van der Kooij mentioned in the pre-
17 One Ph.D. dissertation has been written on these texts, that of Jo Ann
Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir cAlla (Chico, CA, 1984). Other studies include
Caquot and A. Lemaire,
"Les textes aram'eens
de Deir cAlla,"
189-208; B. A. Levine, "The Deir cAlla Plaster Inscriptions," JAOS 101 (1981): 195-
205; P. K. McCarter, "The Balaam Texts from Deir CAlla: The First Combination,
BASOR 239 (1981): 49-60; Victor Sasson, "The Book of Oracular Visions of Balaam
from Deir cAlla," UF 17 (1985): 284-309; idem, "The Language of Rebellion in
Psalm 2 and in the Plaster Texts from Deir cAlla," AUSS 24 (1986): 147-154; J. A.
Hackett, "The Dialect of the Plaster Text from Tell Deir cAlla," Or 53 (1984): 57-65;
A. Lemaire, "Fragments from the Book of Balaam Found at Deir cAlla," BARev 11
(1985): 26-39; J. Naveh, "The Date of the Deir cAlla Inscription in Aramaic Script,"
IEJ 17 (1967): 256-258. On Balaam in general, see Jo Ann Hackett, "Religious
D. Hanson, and S. D. McBride (
18 Lemaire, "Fragments," p. 38.
110 WILLIAM H. SHEA
prophetic ministry. How appropriate, then, that a narrative text
from him or about him should have been preserved at this site.
The identification of Tell Deir cAlla with Pethor also aids in
clarifying a problem in biblical geography. In Num 23:7 Balaam
introduces his first oracle of blessing upon
that "from Aram Balak brought me, the king of
eastern mountains." This statement is commonly assumed to be a
reference to northeastern
an impression has been found from a remark in Num 22:5, which
says that Balak called Balaam from "the river." Since the unmodi-
fied term "the river" is commonly used in the Bible to refer to the
referring to that river valley and that Balaam was called from that
In light of the new information available from the Deir cAlla
tablets, however, the foregoing proposal deserves reexamination.
Both "the river" and "eastern mountains" (Num 23:7) could fit just
as well for Pethor at Tell Deir cAlla. In this case, the river would be
The major obstacle to making such an identification is the
to the south. A rather direct solution to this problem lies in posit-
ing a very small and simple, but significant, scribal error in the
transmission of the biblical text. Two out of three of the letters in
the names of Adam and
dalet and res. These two letters were written in a very similar
fashion in the pre-exilic Hebrew script. Dalet had a large triangular
head and a short vertical tail, while res had a smaller triangular
head but a longer vertical tail. In Iron-Age Hebrew, Phoenician,
and Aramaic inscriptions these two letters are commonly very diffi-
cult to distinguish.
My proposal for resolving this problem is that while the origi-
nal author wrote "Adam," a scribe later in the course of textual
transmission miscopied it as "
standing the reference or through an inability to distinguish the
correct letter in an earlier manuscript. The scribe who copied Deut
23:4 went even further to gloss in "Naharaim," i.e., "of the two
rivers," to go along with the already miscopied
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 111
way Pethor came to be
was located near Adam by the
of the eastern
Balaam could be called from both Adam and Pethor, according
to the text, because Adam was the residential town in the area and
Pethor was the specific site of the sanctuary there, where Balaam
carried out his prophetic ministry. Excavations at the latter site
have demonstrated its religio-sanctuary nature.
Interconnections between the Tablets
Before potential relations between these texts and external
sources can be explored, their own internal relations need to be
established as firmly as possible. The translations developed above
indicate an interconnection of all three texts in that they all dealt
with the same theme, a disaster of natural origin which overcame
Within that framework these texts can be set in order quite
readily. Text I provides a general introductory statement about the
disaster, text II identifies the factors or "smiters" which brought
about this destruction, and text III concludes the series with a brief
description of the state of the site after these "smiters" struck. The
lexical and thematic relations among the three texts have estab-
lished this as the proper order, and it would be difficult to alter it.
Tablet II has been the most difficult to read, translate, and
understand. It is also the one most difficult in regard to determin-
ing the internal order of its own statements. Because it was written
in boustrophedon order, the tablet can be turned in one way and
read in that order, or it can be turned upside down and read in the
alternate order. The question here is, Which should come first, the
line with the flood or the line with the earthquake? The tablet itself
does not appear to give a clear-cut indication of which direction of
reading was intended, so one must go to its connections with the
other tablets to establish the order of its statements.
While one might suspect that the earthquake of tablet II should
have preceded and caused the river flooding mentioned in this text,
that order cannot be established directly from the text. Text I refers
to two "smiters," an initial "smiter" and a "finisher." Tablet II
112 WILLIAM H. SHEA
identifies two "smiters," each connected with that specific word in
the singular. It is logical, therefore, to take the two smiters identi-
fied in tablet II as the two smiters mentioned by tablet I. Thus the
flood and earthquake of tablet II should be taken as separate and
distinct "smiters," they were not seen as two phases of the same
event. In other words, the earthquake was not mentioned here as an
indication as to why the river flooded, but was mentioned to point
out that it too was a smiter of Pethor.
The question of sequence remains, therefore, and it still needs
to be determined whether the flood was the initial smiter and the
earthquake the finisher or vice versa. Tablet III appears to provide
the best answer to this question by describing the final events at the
site. Its description of the final destruction there is one of an
earthquake, not a river flood. This was the occasion upon which
the houses fell in ruins and the spring at the site poured out over
these ruins. The finality of this sequence of events is emphasized in
tablet III by the mention of the curse at the end of this tablet's
recital. Regardless of whether this curse was a reflection back upon
the course of these destructive events or an active imprecation at
their conclusion, this act of cursing surely was the last event in the
sequence narrated by all three of the tablets.
Applying this information to the question with which we are
dealing indicates that the earthquake was the "finisher" as a smiter,
and therefore the flood of the river should be taken as the initial
smiter of the two. Thus the first tablet mentions the two smiters of
Pethor, the second tablet identifies them by their nature, and the
third tablet sets them in order by indicating which of them finished
the site off. It also describes the state of the site after that finisher
got through with it.
The conclusion here, then, is that the first statement on the
second tablet should be identified as the one that deals with the
flooding by the Jabbok and that its second statement should be
taken as the reference to the mighty shock waves which struck
suddenly. Thus tablet II does not say that the river was dammed up
as a result of an earthquake, nor does it say that it was not dammed
up by an earthquake. It simply does not address that point. If it
was dammed up by an earthquake--something which one might
suspect on other grounds--then that shock wave was an earlier one
of less intensity than the final one that finished off the destruction
of the site.
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 113
By way of conclusion to this point, these tablets may now be
translated together and in order:
Text I To you have come a smiter and a finisher,
and they are the smiters of Pethor.
Text II There was a damming up and the Jabbok became a smiter.
Strong and sudden (shocks) became a smiter.
Text III The houses fell in heaps of ruins,
and the spring poured out covering them,
and a curse was placed.
A Potential Connection to Biblical History
In Part I of this article a connection with biblical history was
proposed, mainly on the basis of a misreading of two words in the
difficult text of tablet II. It is now evident from improved readings
for the letters in these words that the biblical connection pro-
posed--with the Israelite conquest of
tained. That conclusion does not mean, however, that no potential
connection between these tablets and the Bible is available. It
simply means that to address that issue one must look elsewhere to
determine whether such a connection is possible or not.
The nature of the events described by these tablets leads rather
directly to another series of events described in the Bible. This
series, recorded in the book of Joshua, begins with the crossing of
the mid-Jordan Valley, both of them thus being located near the
geological fault that runs north and south through that valley. It is
natural, therefore, to expect that they would also share somewhat
similar fates whenever earthquakes struck the region. If the epi-
center of such an earthquake was near enough to
down its thick and heavily supported and defended walls, it could
easily have had sufficient force to knock down the thinner walls of
houses at Tell Deir cAlla in the mid-Jordan Valley.
Josh describes the way in which the Israelites gained
entrance into the city of
that occasion. Even though the Hebrew text does not use the
specific word for earthquake here, the net effect of what is described
can be referred to as an earthquake. Regardless of whether this was
naturally or supernaturally induced, some sort of quaking of the
114 WILLIAM H. SHEA
earth is the best mechanism through which to understand how
these walls fell. And this quake must have been one of considerable
magnitude in order to accomplish the extent of the destruction at
farther north in the
the quake mentioned in the second line of the second Deir cAlla
tablet, the effects of which are more fully described in tablet III.
Another event took place near
struction, however, and it too could be expected to have had direct
effects upon the region of the mid-Jordan Valley. Josh speci-
fically states that this particular region was affected by a damming
up of the
river from their camp at Shittim.
The waters of the
off at ancient Adam, modern Damiyeh, in order to make it possi-
ble for the Israelites to cross over. The biblical text conveys the
Israelite's viewpoint and participation in these events. Their in-
terest was in being able to cross over the river, something they
normally would not have been able to do at this time. But we must
also take into account the view of the Canaanites who lived on the
other side of this blockage, north and east of Adam. It is reasonable
to assume that conditions were not very congenial for them at that
time in that they most likely experienced a considerable amount of
flooding in their settlements. That is what text II says happened
The river most important to the Israelites in their quest to
cross from one side of the valley to the other was
that is the river referred to in their description of these events. As
the river nearest to Pethor at Tell Deir cAlla, on the other hand, the
Jabbok was of more concern to the residents there. Any damming
up of the
so long as the blockage was located south of the point of their
confluence. Text II does not specifically state that the Jabbok was
the only river dammed up at this time. It simply says that there was
a damming up and that the Jabbok became a smiter of Pethor as a
result. The actual point of the blockage could just as easily have
been on the
rences of this type suggests that it probably was so in this case too.
The relations proposed above can now be outlined by citing
from both sources in parallel:
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 115
Deir cAlla Tablets Joshua.
I. To you have come a smiter and a finisher,
and they are the smiters of Pethor.
II. There was a damming up and the Jabbok struck, = Josh
(then) strong and sudden (shocks) struck. = Josh
III. The houses fell in heaps of ruins,
the spring poured forth covering-them,
and a curse was placed. = Josh
It should be noted here that the biblical text puts a minimum
of two weeks, and probably more time than that, between the
crossing of the
6:20. These brief statements on these tablets do not address that
issue directly, they only indicate that the events occurred in succes-
sion without indicating how long an interval elapsed between
Another aspect of the chronology involved here is the question
of how long a period elapsed from the time these tablets were
tablets were sealed in the later destruction of the sanctuary at
Pethor. Two main dates have been proposed for the conquest of
in the book of Joshua. One view dates this conquest to the end of
Late Bronze Age I, ca. 1400 B.C., while the other dates it to the end
of Late Bronze Age II ca. 1230 B.C. My personal preference favors
the Late Bronze Age I date,19 but the difference between these two
dates is not a major consideration here. The date selected simply
19 A date of 971 B.C. for the accession of Solomon, as established by E. R. Thiele
in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids, MI, 1965), p. 55,
by fixing Solomon's death in 931 B.C., dates the commencement of the construction
of the temple to Solomon's fourth year, 967. I Kgs 6:1 extends 480 years back to the
time of the Exodus, and 40 years should be subtracted from this figure to allow for
the wandering in the wilderness. These figures date the conquest under Joshua to
late in the fifteenth century B.C. Judg supports such a date by indicating that
the conquest took place some 300 years before the time of Jephthah. If Jephthah is
dated to about 1100 B.C., the conquest would be dated to approximately 1400 B.C., or
essentially the same time that I Kgs 6:1 would date it.
116 WILLIAM H. SHEA
determines the length of time these tablets would have been pre-
served in the sanctuary at Deir cAlla. If the earlier date is correct,
then those tablets would have been preserved there for approxi-
mately two centuries. For a thirteenth-century conquest date, the
tablets would have been preserved there less than a century.
A distinction between earthquakes is important here. From his
excavations at the site, Franken determined that the Late Bronze
Age II sanctuary was destroyed by an earthquake.20 The inscribed
tablets were found in this destruction level. Obviously, the earth-
quake referred to by the tablets could not be the earthquake that
caused the destruction in which they were sealed, or they would
have had to be written and stored in the sanctuary simultaneously
with that earthquake. The earthquake to which the tablets refer
must therefore be one which hit this site sometime earlier in the
Late Bronze Age.
With these tablets pointing to an earthquake antedating the
one which finally destroyed the site, the question arises as to how
specific one can be in connecting that first earthquake and sur-
rounding events with those that are mentioned in the Bible in
connection with the fall of
quakes in this area at this and other times, perhaps these tablets
refer to an earthquake and related events other than those which
took place in the time of Joshua.
The reference to the damming up of the river makes the course
of events much more unique and specific, however. While there
have been many earthquakes in the
history, only a few of them have been of sufficient strength or
The most recent work on the pottery of
presented to the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in
strates that the excavator, Kathleen Kenyon, has missed indigenous Late Bronze I
pottery mixed in with the Middle Bronze IIC pottery from the last strata of Middle
Bronze- Late Bronze Age
of the destruction of the last of those strata down from Kenyon's date of 1550 B.C. to
Wood's date of ca. 1400 B.C.
20 H. J. Franken, "The Stratigraphic Context of the Clay Tablets Found at Deir
cAlla," PEQ 96 (1964): 73-78.
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 117
proximity to dam up the
recorded historical times this has only happened on four occasions
since the thirteenth century A.D. It also occurred in the time of
Joshua, according to Josh 3:13, and now these tablets give us a
reference to such an occurrence prior to the end of the Late Bronze
Age, i.e. in the same era in which Joshua lived and fought. That
connection brings these two sources close together in time.
It should also be stressed that these tablets take our knowledge
of this kind of phenomenon two millennia farther back in time
than was previously the case from extra-biblical sources. From the
damming up of the
tablets take our knowledge of this kind of occurrence all the way
back to the Late Bronze Age. It appears that an event of this sort-
or in any case our knowledge of such events-is a rarity.
There is the matter, as well, of the distinctive nature of the
sequence of the events recited by these tablets, as translated and
interpreted above. The earthquake which caused the destruction of
the site was not the shock wave that caused the damming up of the
river, if it was dammed up by an earthquake at all. Tablet I
separates those two events, and tablet III indicates that the more
destructive quake came later. So we have here a damming up of the
river first, and then of the more destructive quake that damaged the
site so badly. This unique order of events is all the more unlikely at
other times, but it just happens to fit precisely the order of events in
the biblical record.
Thus there are four major factors which point to a connection
between the events narrated by these tablets and those described in
Joshua. First, the damming up of the river along with an earth-
quake emphasizes the rarity of the events described by the tablets.
Second, the archaeology of the site places the events of these tablets
prior to the end of the Late Bronze Age, the same age in which
Joshua was active. Third, the contrast with later historical records
adds further emphasis to the rarity of these events. And fourth, the
sequence of the events described in these tablets is the same as the
sequence in the book of Joshua, a factor making them even less
likely to have been replicated at some other time. The conclusion
here, then, is that there is sufficient specificity in the narration of
the events in these texts to connect them with those described in
118 WILLIAM H. SHEA
A final question remains: Who was at the site of Deir cAlla
when the tablets were written? There are two possibilities, and they
have already been raised at the end of the discussion of the linguis-
tic data from the tablets. Either these tablets were written in Hebrew
by Israelites or they were written by some non-Hebrew residents of
very close in form and content to Biblical Hebrew. Historical
contexts can be suggested for either of these possibilities.
An Israelite authorship could be posited from the following
circumstances: The portion of
tribes was conquered and distributed before Joshua led
been part of this conquest and temporary settlement. The Trans-
jordanian tribes promised Moses, however, that they would not
permanently settle upon the lands distributed to them until the
Cis-Jordan tribes had inherited their lands too (Num 32:18-20). In
fact, they were supposed to cross the
Cis-Jordan tribes in the latter's battles of conquest. They might
very well, however, have left a small garrison behind at this strate-
gic site, and one of the soldiers stationed there might have written
up this account after the fall of
A non-Israelite authorship can be suggested from another set
of circumstances: This place was Balaam' s headquarters, and he
may not only have composed his prophetic oracles in poetry (Num
22-24) but may also have written them down. We cannot attribute
the writing of these tablets to Balaam himself, however, for he was
killed before the Israelites crossed the Jordan (Num 31:8); but the
nature of the Deir cAlla site as a religious center would imply the
existence there of other literate persons or prophets. Most likely
there was something resembling a non-Israelite school of the proph-
ets, the staff of which included Balaam for a time; and someone
among the other literate persons could have been responsible for
the writing of these tablets.
Even though no final conclusion has been reached in this
matter of authorship, it still is evident that the texts were written in
Hebrew or in a dialect very close to Hebrew: As translated and
interpreted above, they also indicate that their writer had a knowl-
edge of events in the mid-Jordan Valley contemporary with the
DEIR cALLA TABLETS 119
crossing of the
under Joshua. They simply reflect a perspective of someone located
elsewhere in the valley concerning the way in which the people
there were directly affected by those same events.
I had originally intended to discuss in this second installment
of my article the dotted, unwritten tablets, as mentioned in Part I.
But the study of these tablets is still in a very preliminary state,
and therefore my comments on them will be reserved for another
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org