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The Eshbaal Inscription

Yosef Garfinkel, Mitka R. Golub, Haggai Misgav, and Saar Ganor

Photography and Drawing

The jar and the inscription were photographed in three dimensions by Absalom Karasik at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Regular studio photographs were taken by Tal Rogovskey. Technical drawing of the inscription was made by Ada Yardeni.

Eshbaal Inscription

Technical photographing and drawing of the Eshbaal son of Beda inscription

Eshbaal Inscription Eshbaal Inscription

The Letters:

The letters are large and clear, similar in size and evenly spaced, written by a skilled hand in Canaanite script. A short, straight vertical line (a word divider) appears between each pair of words.

The new incised inscription reads from right to left, unlike the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon, which was apparently written from left to right. Accordingly, some letters on the new inscription face the opposite direction, one of the features that characterize the Canaanite script and differentiate it from the Phoenician script.

The new inscription differs from all the other late Canaanite inscriptions known to date: the letters are clear, evenly spaced and standardized in stance, and the words are clearly separated. As a result, it was easy to decipher the preserved part of the inscription. The skilled hand points to the existence of trained scribes alongside people with poor writing ability. This new inscription marks a transitional stage between the simple writing system used for 800 years in non-elite circles and the official, standardized Phoenician script of kingdoms and states.

The Eshbaal son of Beda inscription after restoration.

Eshbaal Inscription

Eshbaal Inscription

Eshbaal Inscription

Eshbaal Inscription

The Names:

As in any other aspect of human history, personal names change over time. If a particular name appears within a limited period of time in both ancient inscriptions and the biblical tradition, it is an indication of authentic historical memories of that era.

In the Bible, Eshbaal was the second king of Israel, the son of King Saul and a rival of David (1 Chr 8:33). The commonly accepted interpretation of this name is "man of Baal". Baal is the Canaanite storm god and his name, meaning "lord/master", is also an appellative of a deity. Unlike Chronicles, the book of Samuel uses for the same king the name Ishbosheth (2 Sam 2:10), commonly interpreted as "man of shame". Reflecting a negative attitude to the Canaanite god Baal, the author/editor of Samuel censored the original name and replaced Baal with the word Bosheth ("shame"). Other examples of the replacement of Baal in biblical names are the names of Gideon - Jerubbaal (Judg 6:32) and Jerubbesheth (2 Sam 11:21); the names of Jonathan's son - Meribbaal (1 Chr 9:40) and Mephibosheth (2 Sam 4:4); and the names of David's son - Beeliada ("Baal knows") (1 Chr 14:7) and Eliada ("God knows") (2 Sam 5:16; 1 Chr 3:8). Moreover, it has been suggested that three other individuals bore the name Eshbaal, but that the element Baal in their name was replaced and the final form became Jashobeam ('isb'm) (Noth 1928, Nos. 232, 749, 754, 756). These individuals are: David's mighty man (1 Chr 11:11), the Korahite who joined David at Ziklag (1 Chr 12:7) and the head of David's first course (1 Chr 27:2). All of these names occur in the context of David's period or earlier, and the Bible mentions no other name with the element Baal in Israel or Judah in later periods. Likewise, the name Eshbaal is not found on any of the hundreds of inscriptions and over a thousand seals and seal impressions known from ancient Israel, dated between the 9th and 6th century BCE and recording over 2,000 names. Personal names with the element Baal, uncovered in excavations in contexts of the 9th to 6th century BCE, occur in Israel, Philistia, Ammon and Phoenicia but are absent from Judah.

We can clearly see onomastic layers in ancient Israel. In the 10th century BCE the name Eshbaal was common and is recorded for one biblical king and three other biblical individuals. In the following centuries, however, the personal name Eshbaal or any other personal name with the element Baal disappears from the biblical text. Similarly, Eshbaal occurs in the current inscription, dated to the 10th century (the time of King David), but is absent from ancient inscriptions dated between the 9th and 6th century BCE. Names with the element Baal are also absent from ancient inscriptions from Judah between the 9th to 6th centuries BCE. The correlation between the chronological distribution of personal names in the biblical tradition and that of names in ancient inscriptions indicates that the biblical text preserves authentic traditions relating to the period of King David.


In the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE we see a widespread knowledge of writing in a rather limited geographical area. Most of the inscriptions come from the area in which the Judean kingdom developed: Khirbet Qeiyafa (two inscriptions), Beth Shemesh (one inscription) and Jerusalem (one inscription). This widespread knowledge of writing goes hand in hand with the transition from tribal social organization in the 12th-11th centuries BCE (archaeological period: Iron Age I; biblical terminology: time of the Judges) to state formation in the 10th century BCE (archaeological period: Iron Age II; biblical terminology: time of the monarchy).

The idea that in this chronological phase the knowledge of writing should be associated with the Philistine city state of Gath can now be rejected. While the various sites in Judah present an impressive assemblage of inscriptions, all we have from the intensive twenty-year excavations at Tell es-Safi (Gath) is one poorly executed inscription of seven letters. Indeed, the city state of Gath, like all other Philistine city states (Ashkelon, Ashdod, Eqron) and all the Canaanite Late Bronze Age city states, managed their administration without the use of writing. On the other hand, the rise of a nation state required the intensification of social, administrative and economic networks and increased the need for communication.


The Khirbet Qeiyafa Archaeological Project is sponsored by J. B. Silver and the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The restoration of the jar and its study were sponsored by Prof. Jonathan Waybright.

Media (Associated Press):

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's antiquities authority says archaeologists have discovered a rare 3,000-year-old inscription of a name mentioned in the Bible. The name "Eshbaal Ben Beda" appears on a large ceramic jar. Eshbaal of the Bible was a son of King Saul.

Archaeologists Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor say the jar belonged to a different Eshbaal, likely the owner of an agricultural estate. They said Tuesday it is the first time the name was discovered in an ancient inscription. It is one of only four inscriptions discovered from the biblical 10th century B.C. Kingdom of Judah, when King David is said to have reigned.

Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu examines the Eshbaal inscription in his office.

Eshbaal Inscription

Eshbaal Inscription