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Cuneiform Tablets

QUESTION: Cuneiform Tablets


Cuneiform was a system of writing used by different language groups in the ancient Near and Middle Eastern regions to inscribe information in a variety of languages. It was used for over three thousand years, from the dawn of the postdiluvial civilizations until after the Jewish Diaspora in A.D. 70. The word “cuneiform” derives from the Latin word “cuneus” which means “wedge.” “Cuneiform” literally means “wedge form,” or “wedge shaped.” The wedge-shaped letters were pressed into a clay tablet using a stylus usually made of reed. The wet clay was then baked or left to dry. Cuneiform was for the most part deciphered by archaeologists Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Georg Friedrich Grotefend in the mid to late 19th century, though there are many cuneiform tablets written in languages which are yet to be deciphered.

Archaeologists have discovered vast libraries of cuneiform tablets in archaeological sites across the Near and Middle East. King Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh, for example, yielded over 22,000 cuneiform documents. The tablets from these libraries have taught archaeologists a great deal about the cultures of the ancient Middle Eastern region. Of more importance to biblical archaeologists, cuneiform tablets have served to verify various aspects of the biblical account, especially names and places.

Critics of the book of Daniel once believed that King Belshazzar of Babylon was an imaginary figure made up by the book’s author. This was because at that time there were no references to Belshazzar outside of Jewish literature. That was until cuneiform tablets discovered in the Mesopotamian region were deciphered and found to contain mention of the Babylonian king. Now Belshazzar is universally recognized to be a historical character.

A Babylonian tablet contains a reference to the seizure of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar during the reign of Jehoiachin.

Perhaps the most significant instance where we find a cuneiform reference corroborating a biblical event, is the mention of a Noah’s flood-like event in the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic. The Gilgamesh epic, written in cuneiform, discovered in Nineveh, recounts the adventures of a Sumerian king, Gilgamesh. Upon the death of his friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks upon an adventure to obtain immortality. He comes across a Noah-like figure, Utnapishtim, who along with his wife survived a global deluge. This is not the only extra-biblical reference to a worldwide deluge (there are in fact hundreds of them from all over the world), nor is it the only cuneiform reference to the flood (the Sumerian King List for example). It merely serves as an intriguing example of how an ancient cuneiform reference corroborates an important biblical event. Perhaps as more and more cuneiform artifacts are deciphered and translated we will see more such as examples as this.

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