Name of Gideon Discovered in Israel
Archaeologists have discovered a very early inscription with Gideon’s other name, “Jerubbaal” (see Judges 6:32; 7:1). The discovery was made at Khirbet al-Ra‘i, a site in southern Israel, west of the better known city of Lachish. The name is inscribed in ink on a potsherd that comes from a small bottle. It dates to roughly 1100 BC, which is toward the end of the Judges period, about the time of Ruth and Boaz.
The name “Jerubbaal” means “May Baal be great.” Although biblical writers often associated the name Baal with the Canaanite deity, the word is also used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a lord or master (Isa 16:8), or even a husband (Ex 21:3). In Gideon’s case, it is possible that it did not refer to the Canaanite deity at all, but rather would have been understood as meaning “May the lord be great,” referring to the Israelite god Yahweh (cf. Hos 2:18).
The person named in this inscription is unlikely to be the biblical Gideon for two reasons. One is that Gideon lived about 70 miles further north; the other is that Gideon was probably earlier than this inscription, by about 50-100 years. This inscription is considered to date to about 1100 BC. According to Andy Steinmann, Gideon’s clash with the Midianites took place around 1172 BC.
The graphic below illustrates the letters of the name Jerubbaal on this ostracon. Reading from right to left, the consonants are YRB’L (Heb. ירבעל). The shape of the Iron Age letters on the ostracon are different from those of the modern Hebrew letters shown above them, reflecting an earlier period in the well-documented development of the Hebrew alphabet. In fact, it is this archaic script that indicates the sherd should be dated to the middle of the Iron Age I (c. 1200-1000 BC). It may be worth noting that Hebrew has no letter “J,” which is sometimes used in English to represent the Hebrew “Y.”
The appearance of this name in an early Iron Age context points to authenticity of the names in the Hebrew Bible. Discoveries like this, which is the first time this name has ever been found in an ancient context, also highlights the fact that the archaeological record is very spotty in what it preserves, and our knowledge of the archaeological record itself is, in many ways, very thin.