For over 50 years, Associates for Biblical Research has labored to show that the Bible is historically accurate, and a recently uncovered artifact is proving to be the most amazing piece of evidence the ministry has ever found. On March 24, 2022, ABR held a press conference to explain the significance of the postage-stamp-sized “curse tablet” that its team found on Mount Ebal, a key site in Israel’s history. During the conference, professor Gershon Galil, an epigrapher at Israel’s University of Haifa, said that the tablet is “absolutely the most important inscription ever found in Israel.” Over 3,000 years ago, a Hebrew hand used a metal stylus to scratch words of cursing onto this fragile lead artifact, but its discovery is a blessing to everyone who is committed to confirming the truth of the Bible.
Scott Lanser, the director of ABR, spoke with The Lancaster Patriot about this recent discovery and about the history of ABR’s ministry. As he discussed the work of finding artifacts, he pointed out that most people don’t realize how archaeology works. A team can’t just go hunting for a famous missing object, like the ark of the covenant, and expect to turn it up. Instead, the effort is slow and painstaking and often involves working with small, initially disconnected clues and bits of evidence. “Archaeology is like the widget factory,” he explained. “You have this piece and this piece and this piece, but eventually it forms a picture.”
Associates for Biblical Research is dedicated to doing this hard work to shed more light on the history found in God’s Word. The Bible often tells of God using the few or the forgotten to defeat large forces or to accomplish great things, and ABR lives out this concept. The small ministry operates from a modest office space in a simple brick building in Akron, Pennsylvania, but it has made large strides over the past five decades.
The late David Livingston founded ABR in 1969 after returning to the States from his time abroad. His passion for archaeology began in the early 1960s while he was serving as president of Eastern Korea Christian College in Gangneung, South Korea. One summer evening while he was digging a hole in his yard to install a tetherball kit for his children, he turned up piece after piece of ancient pottery. He was awestruck, and his family, equally excited and curious to know what else might lie beneath the soil, helped turn the yard into his first “dig.” For a year, they excavated the land until they had exposed the remains of a Stone Age home.
Livingston’s new interest in buried history coincided with his growing need for further education, and in 1966 he moved his family to Israel, where he studied for a time at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, now known as Jerusalem University College. While he was there, a visiting professor shocked him by declaring that the Israelite conquest of Canaan had never happened because there was no archaeological evidence for what is described in the biblical account. This stark assertion disturbed Livingston for months, since he believed that if any story from the Bible was historically untrue, that would call all of the Bible into question.
Convinced of the Bible’s accuracy, he began to envision a ministry committed to rigorous archaeological research and the defense of the Bible, a ministry that would contend with unbelief and encourage believers. He hoped to gather Christian archaeologists who could both do their own research and assess the evidence and claims of others. Fundamentally, his desire was to help restore confidence in the inerrancy of the Bible.
Livingston’s work started with Ai, the first city that Joshua and the Israelites had destroyed after Jericho. The professor who had first challenged Livingston’s view of the Bible had claimed that evidence from the site commonly accepted to be Ai invalidated Joshua’s conquest. But what if archaeologists had been wrong about Ai’s location? Livingston believed that if he found the right site, the evidence would match the Bible’s description. In 1978, ABR obtained permission to conduct its first dig in Israel, and the following year a team began excavating a site that Livingston thought might be the true location of Ai.
The quest for Ai continued for nearly 40 years, first in one location, then in another. In 2016, ABR concluded its search after the site known as Khirbet el-Maqatir was confirmed to match all the details of Ai given in the book of Joshua. Since then, the ministry has done annual digs at Shiloh, Israel’s spiritual center for 300 years.
ABR typically holds just one month-long dig each summer, but sometimes teams visit Israel for an additional trip during the Christmas season. In 2019, during one of these December digs, a volunteer named Frankie Snyder found the curse tablet at Mount Ebal — a discovery that would eventually be reported around the world.
To understand the importance of her find, we must know something of Mount Ebal. Before Moses died, he commanded that after the people of Israel entered Canaan, six tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim, where blessings for obeying God’s law were to be announced, and six tribes were to stand on neighboring Mount Ebal, where curses for disobeying God’s law were to be announced. As a token of mercy, God also commanded that an altar be built on Mount Ebal for the sins that would surely be committed.
In the 1980s, Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal discovered two structures on Mount Ebal that he identified as altars. One altar is round and is located directly underneath a much larger, elevated altar. Zertal believed that these structures were built at or shortly after the time of Joshua, who had followed the commands of Moses. ABR believes that the evidence points strongly to the smaller altar being the one built by Joshua and the larger one being built a generation or more later to commemorate the first one.
Zertal was thorough in his investigations, but every dig leaves mounds of sifted earth and debris. ABR got permission from Israeli authorities to go through the discard piles using wet-sifting, a process that was not used 40 years ago. By using water to carefully wash the soil through a screen, archaeologists often find items that were previously missed.
Frankie Snyder had gained years of experience in wet-sifting and artifact identification while working on digs in Israel. She had moved to the country in 2007, then joined ABR in 2008 after meeting an ABR team in Jerusalem while they were both volunteering in the public Temple Mount Sifting Project. When she uncovered the tiny tablet while sifting debris from Mount Ebal, she knew it was significant, and she asked Scott Stripling, ABR’s director of excavations, to look at the discovery with her. Stripling knew immediately that they were holding an ancient curse tablet.
A curse tablet was used to symbolically bind a person under a curse for disobedience. These tablets were inscribed with a metal stylus, then usually folded in half and buried in the ground or thrown into a well — or in this case, into the area near the altar. Stripling knew that as a curse tablet, the small object would have writing on it, but he could not read the external writing in the field or unfold the tablet to read the inside without destroying it. Yet even without being able to read the tablet, he knew that its discovery was a historic moment and a dramatic connection to the biblical account.
That discovery at Mount Ebal came just weeks before the world shut down because of COVID-19. The shutdown hampered the inspection and analysis of the tablet, but after long delays, scientists at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague were able to scan and photograph the tablet in a way that allowed them to see the internal writing without opening it up.
After two years of waiting, Stripling revealed the words of the tablet at the March press conference. Translated, the inscription reads: “Cursed, cursed, cursed — cursed by the God Yhw. You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by Yhw — cursed, cursed, cursed.” Stripling believes that the deciphering and translating done by skilled epigraphers will stand the scrutiny of peer review during the forthcoming publication of the team’s detailed academic article.
If the translation and dating of the tablet are correct, the artifact is remarkable for several reasons. First, it shows that the Israelites connected Mount Ebal with cursing. Second, it shows that the Israelites could write far earlier than most skeptics believe that they could — many skeptics suggest that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch because the Hebrews did not have a written language until well after his death. Third, it takes away the credibility of long-standing theories that the first books of the Old Testament were not written by Moses but by a collection of authors long after his death.
In short, the tablet could become one of the greatest legacies of David Livingston, who founded ABR because contemporary archaeologists could find “no evidence” for the conquest of Canaan.
From the beginning of ABR, Livingston intended that it would be more than a fraternity of scientists or adventurers who kept to themselves and wrote academic papers. He wanted the research to serve the church and the world. Since his death in 2013, ABR has continued to make communication a significant part of its ministry, and the discovery of this tablet has boosted its efforts. News sources around the world have covered the story.
Press conferences are not regular fare for ABR, but a committed team works constantly to share new discoveries. The ministry’s website, biblearchaeology.org, is overflowing with articles on archaeology, young earth creationism, the flood of Noah’s day, and more. The site contains links to ABR’s popular “Digging for Truth” TV program, which is broadcast by Lighthouse TV in Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, Lancaster and Harrisburg and is available free on Lighthouse TV’s Vimeo channel and ABR’s YouTube channel. Four times a year, a colorful and sharply printed magazine called “Bible and Spade” is mailed to subscribers, and Christian radio stations will soon be able to air a regular radio program. In addition to these media outlets, ABR staff speak at conferences, universities, churches and even local Bible studies.
For people who want more than armchair archaeology, ABR has a solution. Lanser said that much of the actual dig work is done by volunteers who pay their way and are trained to work under the supervision of the professional staff. Ongoing opportunities exist for those who want to get their hands dirty. He said that taking part in a dig often becomes a life-transforming experience for volunteers: “They just are so blessed to be digging in the soil of Israel.”
Lanser enjoys talking to the community about what he does, and people usually respond enthusiastically. Most are fascinated by archaeological discoveries, even if the finds relate to lesser-known biblical accounts. But he said that fewer people are as interested in the Bible’s morality as in its history, preferring to keep the message about sin and salvation at arm’s length. There are also some who regularly oppose ABR’s work and convey the attitude that just because the research is conducted by Christians, it can’t be serious or accurate work. Lanser suggested that the opposite is true, and he pointed out that the work at Shiloh is one of the largest and most advanced digs in Israel. It is also well funded, he said, “because God’s people want us to be doing this. And so we’re doing it, but we’re doing it with excellence.”
Associates for Biblical Research invites everyone to attend the annual ABR Friends Banquet at the Shady Maple Banquet Center in East Earl on Wednesday, October 12, at 6:30 p.m. There, ABR staff members will give reports from this year’s activities, and Scott Stripling will keynote the evening with a detailed account of the Mount Ebal tablet and some important implications for the church today. Tickets cost $35 for adults and $25 for children ages 12 to 17. Discounted tickets are available for church groups of eight or more. Registration must be done in advance, and the deadline is noon on September 28.