The Ebla Tablets and the Abraham Tradition

David Noel Freedman

David Noel Freedman, “The Ebla Tablets and the Abraham Tradition,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 67–78.

Mormonism has uniquely inherited, as part of its Pearl of Great Price, a book of Abraham of ancient origin. Much attention has focused on Joseph Smith’s discovery and interpretation of the facsimiles of Chandler’s Egyptian mummies, and too little on their contextual implications. Now, biblical archeology, which usually moves by inches, has provided a dramatic breakthrough to the setting of the man Abraham, the times and places in which he lived.

This discovery has been chronicled by one of the late William F. Albright’s students, David Noel Freedman. In the pages of the Biblical Archeologist, of which he is editor, are the first glimpses of the story of nearly fifteen thousand clay tablets discovered in upper Syria at Tell Mardikh. Preparing for this symposium, Freedman discovered that in Joseph Smith’s account of Abraham there is record not only of the sacrifice of Isaac but the sacrifice of Abraham himself, a tradition, he said, he had never encountered before. And then, on second thought, he acknowledged that a similar tradition can be found in a document first discovered in the 1890s.

Professor Freedman, well known for his work in Hebrew literature and his editorship of the Anchor Bible series, here outlines some of the revolutionary implications of Ebla for understanding Abraham’s world.

T. G. M.

The figure of Abraham is a central and dominant one in the biblical religions. In a unique way Abraham is the father of the faithful—in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and, I’ve learned more recently, among the Mormons. In fact I had the pleasure recently of reading the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, and I must confess that I learned some things I did not know before concerning the tradition of the sacrifice of Abraham.

The important thing is that in all the traditions it is taken for granted that Abraham is a historical person. This was the general assumption in the narratives, commentaries, and documents about him until some modern scholarly research questioned it. Among scholars, opinions range from a rather skeptical view of his historical identity to a fairly straightforward notion that the biblical account presents the story of a real man. In either case, however, his symbolic importance is the greatest. I don’t think we have to make a simple choice that he is either a symbolic figure or a historical figure. In some ways he could be both.

Now I want to suggest that new evidence is available which affects our understanding of the Abrahamic tradition. This is one of those remarkable finds that you can count on the fingers of two hands that bear on biblical questions and make a contribution that will permanently affect the course of biblical studies in the future. I refer to the sensational story of the discovery of the Ebla tablets. Archeologists use the word sensational the way other people use the word ordinary, so when something really sensational happens they have no vocabulary to describe it.

On the first of October, 1975, this remarkable discovery was made near an obscure village in northern Syria called Tell Mardikh, the site of the ancient city of Ebla. On that day an Italian archeological team from the University of Rome, headed by Professor Paolo Matthiae, came upon a room containing the royal archive of Ebla, consisting of about fifteen thousand cuneiform tablets and fragments of varying sizes and shapes, substantially intact and undisturbed since the place was destroyed and abandoned forty-five hundred years ago.

This was no accidental discovery in the sense that so many great finds of the past were made by people with no training or experience, who either were looking for something else or not for anything at all when they came upon some priceless treasure of antiquity. It is well known that a couple of goatherds stumbled on the first of the Dead Sea scrolls while chasing errant animals; a camel driver digging for nitrate-rich soil near a cemetery in Egypt found the Nag Hammadi manuscripts; and peasants plowing a field at Ras Shamrah (ancient Ugarit) came upon an ancient tomb which led to the discovery of the famous tablets in Canaanite cuneiform.

In contrast, Ebla was a planned excavation in its twelfth annual campaign. The tablets were found exactly where they had been left, in a stratum of the mound previously identified and dated in a general way by pottery and other artifacts. An earlier find in 1974, consisting of a small cache of forty-two tablets, had alerted the excavators to the likelihood of finding more tablets in the vicinity. In fact, another room in the main courtyard of the royal palace had yielded a large collection of about a thousand tablets and fragments earlier in the 1975 season, so there was already a high pitch of excitement and expectation in the camp as the team entered the last two weeks of the digging period. Even with this successful experience behind them, they were not at all prepared for the discovery of such a huge archive with its contents in such an excellent state of preservation. The sheer numbers of a find of this magnitude are overwhelming, and even the most basic tasks of recording, photographing, and numbering all the items became an enormous burden for the overworked staff.

The work could not be completed in the short time remaining, so the season was extended for two more weeks, while efforts continued in collecting and organizing the thousands of tablets in some systematic fashion. The object was twofold: to gather and store the tablets so that they would be safe and readily accessible for examination and study by experts; and to register the tablets and their findspots in such a way that the original scene could be reconstructed down to the last detail. While the bulk of the tablets could be sorted and examined in a preliminary way by the expedition’s epigrapher, Professor Giovanni Pettinato, many remained to be looked at when the season ended. Along with the others, these were boxed for shipment to the National Museum of Archeology at Aleppo to await investigation and identification at a later date. During the season which ended in October, 1976, an additional sixteen hundred tablets were found in other rooms associated with the palace; only a fraction of these have been examined, so we may be sure that many surprises await scholars as they undertake the painstaking and arduous task of deciphering and interpreting each tablet in turn.

A preliminary reading of batches of tablets established beyond question that this was the archive of the royal palace of ancient Ebla. It consisted mainly of the economic accounts (covering trade and tribute) of the rulers of the city-state during a period of perhaps a hundred to a hundred and fifty years in the middle of the third millennium B.C. While the bulk of the tablets reflected the vast trading interests and commercial activities of this prosperous kingdom, there were many others which dealt with diplomacy and foreign relations, internal and domestic affairs, and cultic and cultural matters, all illustrating the many-sided character and quality of life in this teeming metropolis, direct knowledge of which was almost totally lacking before the current excavations and discoveries.

The importance of the new finds can hardly be exaggerated, not only because of the size of this practically intact archive but also because of the period to which they belong and the place from which they came. The tablets are in two languages, Sumerian and a previously unknown Semitic dialect which scholars have named Eblaite. Scholars are already debating whether it belongs to the east Semitic branch (Akkadian, with a strong western accent) or to the west Semitic branch (Canaanite, with an eastern drift). Among the better-known Canaanite dialects are Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Biblical Hebrew. There are 114 vocabulary lists in both languages which will provide a very ample glossary for the study of the other texts and of the Bible. Individual items will ultimately affect the interpretation of almost every page of the Hebrew Bible as research continues.

Of particular interest are the names of places and persons. We find an extensive area of overlap between the Ebla tablets and the biblical text. Among the many personal names in both the Bible and the tablets are the following: Abram, David, Esau, Ishmael, Israel, Micaiah, Michael, and Saul. We have normalized the spelling of these names to conform to the biblical pattern, but the spelling in Eblaite is so close in all cases that there can be no question of the identity of the names. (In no case can we say the persons are identical, however.) In some cases, notably that of David (which in Eblaite is spelled da-ud-um), the name is not known from any other source in ancient times. Such occurrences point back to a common basis in language and culture for the ancestors of the Israelites and the people of Ebla. Actually, this is no surprise, because the Bible, while not mentioning Ebla, does point to this region as the fatherland of the Israelites. The patriarchs came to Canaan from Haran, where elements of their kinship group continued to live long after Abraham and his family had departed. A bride was brought from there for Isaac; and Jacob returned to his kinsmen there when prudence called for a rapid removal from Canaan. Haran is not very far away from Ebla, and is often mentioned in the Ebla texts. If an archive exists at Haran at the same stratigraphic level, and is ever found, those tablets should contain even more specific information about the patriarchs and their forebears, and should have closer contacts and correlations with the Bible. As it is, Ebla draws from the common pool of terms, names, and traditions which was shared by the biblical people.

Place names are of great significance, especially since Ebla, being west of the Euphrates, was oriented mainly toward the west and south, and therefore its trade and other concerns overlapped heavily with the biblical territory. Many names of places in Syria and Palestine are the same as those mentioned in the Bible. Often the cities in the Ebla texts are mentioned as the receivers of shipments of goods from Ebla, as the senders of raw materials in trade, or as the payers of tribute in precious metals (i.e., gold and silver with a ratio in value of about ten to one in favor of gold), precious stones, or other commodities.

On the Ebla tablets we have a gazetteer of most of the famous names in biblical history. For example, there is a so-called messenger text which gives the itinerary of a salesman from Ebla. He starts at Ebla, and his first recorded stop is at Byblos (ancient Gebal) on the north Lebanese coast. From Byblos he goes down the coast to Sidon, then to Acco (apparently border problems were of a different nature then), and from Acco to Carmel to Dor. Ancient Dor today is a modern seaside resort just north of Caesarea. (Now, if Caesarea had turned up in the tablets someone might be a little suspicious, since Herod the Great built this city in honor of Caesar Augustus more than two millennia later.) From Dor he goes to Ashdod. (Ashdod has some importance for me because I excavated there some years ago. We did not reach the Early Bronze Age level before the money ran out. In an archeological dig, the further down you go the more expensive it gets. So you have to stop somewhere, and the scholarly consensus is to stop in the Middle Bronze Age, where most conservative scholars date Abraham. Now we realize we’ll have to dig a little further down.) From Ashdod he goes to Gaza. Then we would have expected him to turn around and go home, but he goes on to one more place—Sinai. That’s a surprise: first, that it’s mentioned at all; second, that it could be a city on the coast, since all the others are, and it could be somewhere in the vicinity of El Arish, where there are some Early Bronze Age sites. This may have a great deal of bearing on the entirely unrelated question of the location of Mount Sinai in connection with the Exodus account.

There are different theories as to just where Mount Sinai was or is. The choice of the traditional site at Santa Katarina dates only to the time of Jerome in the fourth century A.D. And a very popular theory supported by some of the greatest names in our field has located Mount Sinai in the region of Midian (which is the border area between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, east of the Gulf of Aqaba). It seems to me, and no doubt there would be considerable debate over it, that the occurrence of the name Sinai, in a third millennium B.C. tablet, in the same place that is called the Sinai Peninsula to this day, indicates that the name was already attached to that area long before the time of Moses. So we can expect incidental information from the Ebla tablets to shed light on many questions.

Now we will come to the heart of the matter. This has to do with some other names—cities like Hazor, Meggido, Lachish, and Jerusalem are all mentioned in the tablets, but perhaps the most important single piece of information that we have derived so far came on a very dramatic occasion, October 29, 1976, when Professor Pettinato delivered a speech to the twenty-five hundred assembled members of three learned societies in St. Louis. I announced to that gathering that they would hear something that they would never forget and that they would tell their grandchildren.

What Pettinato said was that he had found something very significant on one of these nondescript Ebla tablets. Among thousands of tablets with commercial information on them was one on which he found, among scores of other geographical names, the names of the five cities of the plain. The five cities of the plain are mentioned together as a five-city league in only one chapter in the Bible—Genesis 14. Now, from a mathematical point of view, to have the same five names in the same order is remarkable. It means there is some relationship yet to be defined between the list in Genesis 14 and the list on the Ebla tablet. You could be forgiven for not knowing what all five cities were, but you will at least recognize the first two. They have become household words, not necessarily because of the story in Genesis 14, but nevertheless you would know them: Sodom and Gomorrah. The next pair are a little less well known, but if you had had to wrestle with the book of the prophet Hosea for the last ten years as I have, you would recognize them too: Admah and Zeboiim. The last city in the list is Bela.[1]

According to biblical tradition, these cities were flourishing at the time that Abraham and his nephew Lot came to the Holy Land and settled there. When given a choice, Lot selected Sodom as his home (see Genesis 12–19). The story is well known. When the cities were destroyed by a violent catastrophe, Lot barely escaped. Even though the cities lived on in tradition as prime examples of the consequences of wickedness, no trace of them has ever been found. Until the discoveries at Ebla, no mention of them has been noted in any source of early times outside of the Bible. Now, for the first time, they are listed in an ordinary economic tablet from Ebla.

Why is this so important? Well, it means that somehow the person who wrote down the story in Genesis 14 had access to the same information that is found in this tablet from Ebla. The opinion of most scholars is that Genesis 14 was written much later. Even if you accept the most conservative tradition, that Moses wrote the chapter, that is still a minimum of one thousand years later than the Ebla tablets. That isn’t all. In Genesis 14 we have the curious comment that the last city, Bela, is also called Zoar. Usually in the Bible (although not in this chapter) if two names for the same place are given it means that one represents an earlier name and the other the current name. But that is not true here. The place seems to have had both names at the same time. That sounds odd. But according to Professor Pettinato, another tablet has the same reading. Zoar is in the district of Bela. In other words, there is a precision here in the Ebla tablet that you don’t have in the Bible, but the Bible reflects a reality that, in my opinion, only somebody living at that time would know.

One other point—the city before Sodom in this list on the Ebla tablet is Damascus. Curiously enough, in the story in Genesis 14 Damascus also is mentioned. In other words, the points of contact are rather striking, and I would suggest as a way to account for it that identity of content means proximity in time. History does not repeat, and one rarely finds two situations exactly the same hundreds or thousands of years apart. This raises a large question, of course, about the date of the patriarchs.

In the meantime we can ask whether this information has bearing on the question of the historicity of the account in Genesis 14. Scholars have differed widely on this particular subject. To this day it has never been resolved. My teacher, Professor William F. Albright, was very conservative, and he believed that Genesis 14 did have a historical substratum. He spent a good deal of his career trying to place this story in a historical context. He investigated the entire half millennium from 2000 to 1500 B.C. and came up with a variety of solutions, none of which ever appealed to his colleagues and students, or even fully satisfied himself. More recently an eminent scholar has argued that Genesis 14 is not a historical account at all; it is really a thinly disguised midrash or story about the vicissitudes of the Babylonian Exile. In other words, his theory is that it is a product of the middle of the first millennium B.C. Albright thought that it was about the middle of the second millennium. Now I have a hypothesis that it is actually a story out of the middle of the third millennium B.C. This shows what disarray scholarship is in. I think that it is going to turn out that if the story is ever going to find a home it will be in the middle of the third millennium B.C. Not only does this information from the Ebla tablets show that such information derives from the third millennium, but so do the circumstances described.

This is such a long reach back that it is no wonder that no scholar to date had ever suggested it. But the only concrete evidence we have points there. I should add that the date of this material is now becoming more and more firmly fixed. In the last campaign at Ebla the cartouches (hieroglyphics carefully marked out in a box) of two Egyptian Pharaohs were discovered on various artifacts. These were little unguentaria, alabaster vessels. One of the Pharaohs is Pepi the First, the first Pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty dating late in the twenty-fourth century B.C..; the other is Kephren, the builder of the second largest pyramid, which dates between 2550 and 2525 B.C. Since Egyptian chronology for this period is regarded as the most accurate, the synchronism promises to be very reliable. That would give us a date of roughly 2500 B.C. for the tablets.

A few days after Professor Pettinato’s talk in St. Louis, I was with him in Chicago. He was on a lecture tour and we had breakfast together. I used this opportunity to learn a little more from him. He asked, “What would you like to know?” “If you put it that way,” I responded, “how about the name of a king or two?” He said, “There is the name of one king of one city in the tablet with the five cities of the plain.” Now, the names of the kings of four of the five cities are mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 14:2 and nowhere else. To my knowledge they never occur anywhere else outside the Bible, and it would be a fair guess that these are some of the least-known kings in the history of the world. I can report that the name on the Ebla tablet was one of those names in Genesis 14:2. It was identical, given the difference in spelling systems, and not just consonant for consonant, but also vowel for vowel, precisely the way the Massoretes preserved it thirty-five hundred years later. We have occasionally been a little less than complimentary to the Massoretes about the way they established the vocalization of the Hebrew text. On this occasion they deserve all the medals we can give them. The name was exactly the same. Furthermore, although this is beyond proof, I think there is a reasonable chance that it is the same person. It could be a nephew or a grandson, but I won’t concede much more.

Now I believe that we have, for the first time, a positive contact between Genesis 14 and outside authentic information. The historicity of the Ebla tablet presents no problem because it is a simple commercial text, not legendary or mythological. This must have some bearing on the question of the historicity of the Bible account. A minimal view would state, “Whoever wrote this story stumbled over a tablet one day, copied off the names, and then invented the rest of the story.” There are some scholars who will say that. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who will say, “Well, what’s new? Why is this of interest? We knew this was historical all along.”

For those names to survive, intact, over such a long period of time is remarkable, especially when you consider that in the biblical tradition (and I think there is more evidence now to support that, too) those cities were destroyed and were obliterated from the face of the earth in the same generation. According to the biblical tradition, Abraham and Lot figure in both stories, so it happened within their lifetime. Sodom and Gomorrah don’t figure in the biblical story at all, except in relation to Abraham and Lot. They disappeared from view long before the Israelites came on the scene. Now, this is another one of those tricky questions of historicity. The biblical account is straightforward. The reason why this story (which deals with great international events) is in the Bible is that it is connected with the patriarch Abraham. Many scholars would say that the actuality was the other way around: namely, that the story was there because it was important, that it was linked to the patriarchs, and that their connection with it is secondary. And as far as hypotheses go, you can go either way.

It seems to me, however, that in this case we have another bit of evidence, and that is the cities of the plain. Where were they? Where are they? This isn’t the matter of Ebla anymore, except for the dates. I think that the cities of the plain have already been discovered but we didn’t know what they were. More than fifty years ago Professor Albright identified the Bronze Age site of Bab edh-Dhra. That is the modern name. We don’t know what the ancient name was. But I would not be surprised if it turned out to be either Sodom or Gomorrah. Why? It has approximately the same history of occupation as Ebla itself. It was a gigantic city in the Early Bronze Age. It would have interested Ebla very much, because the people of Ebla don’t seem to be interested in moral judgments but only in the quantity of trade. And this place would have served the purpose very well. In addition, Bab edh-Dhra is famous for having the largest cemetery of any city so far discovered in the Near East. Over one hundred thousand multiple graves have been found. Now, while it’s purely speculative, it may well be that this was the common burial ground for several cities, especially if they formed a pentapolis. There is other evidence, but the main evidence is that these cities were all destroyed in the Early Bronze Age. Now, if they correspond in time and place, then they could be the same cities. I think that the evidence in the Bible itself points to the east side of the Dead Sea rather than the south or the west for those cities, contrary to the tradition. And this would be another piece in the reconstruction of the picture—namely, that these things all happened before the end of the Early Bronze Age around 2500 B.C.

If there is one more point to be made it would have to do with the role of Sodom and Gomorrah in the biblical tradition. Why is it that these places were singled out for special consideration? Since they have such a peripheral place in the actual history of the people, why did they become symbolic names which only have to be mentioned to evoke a reaction in hearers who are widely separated in time and place? Here again, it seems to me that the answer is that the patriarchs were involved, not the other way around.

The destruction of cities may be the most common phenomenon in the Ancient Near East. Most of them were rebuilt and then destroyed again. Certain cities are singled out for attention in the Bible because of their important role in the history of Israel and Judah. Samaria, which was destroyed by the Assyrians, gets a whole chapter of reflection and analysis and evaluation (2 Kings 17). Jerusalem gets similar extended treatment, not in the books of Kings but by the prophets, who reflected on the theological significance of the destruction of a capital city. But Sodom and Gomorrah get almost as much attention. Why? It seems to me that it is because of their association with the patriarchs, and because these cities were destroyed in a particularly spectacular manner and were never rebuilt. These things provide an example from the beginning that has contemporary application. It is customary to understand the symbolism of Sodom and Gomorrah in terms of the collapse of the north and the south in the first millennium B.C. However, in my opinion the basic theological view that people are punished by the gods when they rebel was not only widespread in the world in the third millennium, but was already present in the patriarchal traditions.

So with this and the story of Genesis 14, and, if we had time to mention it, the question of human sacrifice, the setting in the third millennium now becomes historically much more consistent with the picture presented in the Bible.


[1] After this chapter had been typeset, word was received indirectly from Pettinato modifying his report on the tablet mentioned: he is now able to confirm the occurrence of the names Sodom and Gomorrah, and not those of the other cities. It is necessary to await full publication of the tablet in question for a clarification of this matter.