Mesha Stele

The Mesha Inscription, or Moabite Stone, is an Iron Age text in a language related to Hebrew inscribed on a large stone near Dhiban in Jordan (ancient Dibon).

The history of its discovery in 1869 is a bewildering and amazing story. The Arab Bedouins interpreted the interest of westerners as an indication that the stone might contain a great treasure and hence blew the stone into 40 pieces. The stela and the inscription could be reconstructed on the basis of a squeeze or papier-mâché of the inscription made by an Arab named Yacoub Caravacca.

The Moabite stone contains a royal inscription. The activities narrated are presented from a royal perspective. Comparable to the Neo-Assyrian ‘letters to the god,’ the Mesha stela is a text that vouches for the deeds and doings of the Moabite king. Mesha is reporting to the god Chemosh – in the form of a self-presentation – what he has made out of his appointment as a king. The events are not narrated in the order in which they occurred. The text gives words to the ideology of a good king who brought his country from times of despair to a period of peace.
Mainly two kinds of events are narrated: (1) military activities – Mesha reconquered much of the terrain lost to Israel; and (2) building activities – the making of a sanctuary for Chemosh, the reparation of devastated cities and irrigation projects, all aiming at better circumstances for the population.
Lines 17-18 contain an interesting remark. In the section on the conquest of the city of Nebo it is narrated:
‘I took from there t[he ve]ssels of Yahweh.’
‘I hauled them before the face of Chemosh.’
The cultic vessels from an Israelite shrine are seen as the deified image of the god Yahweh, who is now under the control of Chemosh. The Mesha inscription also makes clear that the Moabites knew the institution of ḥerem or consecration of the spoil: as part of the spoliation Israelite captive were set apart to work as prisoners of war in the rebuilding of the city of Qarcho (lines 16-17, 25-26).

King Mesha is refered to in 2 Kings 3. In the biblical text events are narrated from a Judahite point of view. It is almost impossible to assemble the different memories to a coherent historical whole.

Further reading

Dearman, J. Andrew, and Gerald L. Mattingly. “Mesha Stele.” Pages 708-09 in vol. 4 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.