By Gordon Franz
Dr. Robert Cornuke, the founder of the BASE Institute, claimed at the 2007 Promise Keepers events to reveal what would be an astonishing archaeological discovery. He has photographs of what he claims is an ancient stone artifact from Mount Sinai that is inscribed with the name of the LORD, “Yahweh,” on it! If the inscription on this stone is what he claims it is, then the headline of every archaeological publication and newspaper should state: “YAHWEH INSCRIPTION DISCOVERED AT MOUNT SINAI!” But has he really revealed a monumental discovery of biblical significance?
A concerned Christian contacted the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) and inquired as to the validity of this claim, which was forwarded to me for a response. This individual had watched the six Promise Keepers video clips on the BASE Institute website. On one of the videos, two pictures are shown of the stone object with the inscription (see line drawing below). The discussion of the “Yahweh inscription” begins at 5:17 minutes into the video and goes for about a minute. In order to find the video in question on the website, the duration of this video is labeled 6:16 minutes.
The Claim about the “Yahweh Inscription”
Here is what is stated on the video about this ancient stone artifact: “This, this particular stone — now I have not shown this before publicly. This is a, ah, this particular shot I mean. This is – You see this stone here? This is found around the mountain [Jebel al-Lawz]. Why is this important? Because if this is the real Mount Sinai, we have these different letters inscribed on rocks over there. And this particular rock, umm, has a very unique appearance to it. You can see the front of it? That’s a, ah, that’s a ‘Y’ ‘H’. And in the back side has a ‘W’ ‘H’. O.K., that spells Yahweh [YHWH].
This is an ancient stone with ‘Yahweh’ on the face. What did Moses have when he came down from Mount Sinai? The glory of God was on his face. These stones are crying out today. Can we prove this with DNA and fingerprints? No. But the evidence is starting to mount slowly.”
The claim, if I understand it correctly, is either that this is a portrait of Moses that is inscribed with the name of “Yahweh” on it in order to represent the “glory of God … on his face” (cf. Ex. 34:29-35), or it is the face of Yahweh.
Illustration: Line drawing of the “Yahweh Stone.” The obverse side (left) has the face of Moses or Yahweh with two South Semitic letters on it. On the reverse (right) there are two more South Semitic letters. This drawing was traced from a screen capture of the stone with the inscription.
Critique and Analysis of this Claim
A vigorous critique and scholarly analysis of this discovery is in order. First, there is no discussion of the initial discovery or provenance (where it was found) of the inscription. Nor is the identity of the individual revealed who found this stone at Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia, the mountain that Cornuke believes to be Mount Sinai. Did Cornuke himself find the stone, or did somebody else actually find it there? If the latter is the case, we are not told if the actual stone was given to Cornuke or he just received the photographs of the stone. Assuming the stone was given to Cornuke by somebody else, that individual is not identified, nor are we told how or where it was obtained by this other party. Was the stone actually found at Jebel al-Lawz or somewhere else?
Second, little is said about the stone itself. We have no idea from the picture how big or small this object is. Was it a hand held stone, or a standing stele? There was no scale in either picture. What is the geological make-up of the stone? Is it made of basalt or something else?
A word of caution is in order. Unless an artifact is found in situ (in place in a controlled scientific archaeological excavation), there is always the possibility that it is a modern-day forgery, something that is very common in the Middle East these days. Proper scientific protocol should be followed and this stone should be inspected by a professional epigraphist for authenticity and a public report from the epigraphist should be issued, as to whether it is authentic or not.
Third, where is the present location of this object? Was it deposited with the Saudi Arabian Department of Antiquities, as required by Saudi law? Or, was it bought on the antiquities market and now held in a private collection, or is it on display in a museum? If so, which museum? Also, when, and in what scientific journal will this inscription be published?
Fourth, and most importantly, how was this text deciphered and translated? To my knowledge, Bob Cornuke has no training in Middle Eastern field archaeology or Semitic languages, so we are not told how he arrived at the identification of these letters. Did he identify them and translate the word himself? Or did somebody else identify the letters and translate them as a single word? If somebody else did, who was that individual?
I am a field archaeologist and a Biblical geographer but not a Semitic language expert, so I contacted two Semitics scholars and an archaeologist who worked for the Saudi Department of Antiquities. I shared with them contents of the video published on the Internet.
Michael Macdonald, a Semitics scholar, is a research associate at the Oriental Institute at the University of Oxford. He has had over 30 years of field experience, recording and cataloging tens of thousands of inscriptions from Syria, Jordan and the Arabia Peninsula. In other words, he is very familiar with ancient rock graffiti and with the forms of letters in ancient scripts. He once published a comparative chart of South Semitic alphabetic scripts (1992: 3: 419). Thus readers can now compare the script on the “Yahweh stone” with what is known from archaeological excavations and field research. But note his words of caution when using the chart: “The stance and shape of many letters in Safaitic and Thamudic may vary considerably.”
The second Semitics scholar I consulted with was Dr. K. Lawson Younger Jr., Professor of Old Testament, Semitic Languages and Ancient Near Eastern History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Both Semitics scholars, independently of each other, concluded that this unprovenanced sculpture is most likely a crude modern day forgery. In personal correspondence with the author, Macdonald wrote: “I am almost certain that the sculpture is a fake. Quite a lot of these very crude carvings are appearing on the market nowadays but they bear no relation to the types of ancient Arabian sculptures found in scientific archaeological excavations. The two letters [on the obverse side] have genuine shapes, but this is not a surprise since published script tables of the ancient scripts are widely distributed in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. I have come across small boys in remote villages able to write their names in the ancient scripts!”
The third person consulted was Dr. Majeed Khan, an archaeologist retired from the Saudi Department of Antiquities. He is a specialist in the rock art of Saudi Arabia and worked on the comprehensive archaeological survey of the Jebel al-Lawz region for the Saudi Department of Antiquities. Dr. Khan also believes that the stone with the inscription is a recent forgery. He says, “Such false stones are on sale in Yemen and Najran area [of Saudi Arabia]. You can buy many stones like these particularly in Yemen. All are false and recently sculptured.” Dr. Khan personally worked on the comprehensive survey of the Jebel al-Lawz area, where this sculpture is said to have come from, and he never saw anything like this sculptured rock.
It is claimed that the inscription has the Divine Name “Yahweh” (yhwh) on the rock. Is this a valid claim? The side with the face on it (the “obverse”) is presumably the beginning of the inscription. As with many Semitic languages, South Semitic scripts included, the inscription should be read from right to left. The first letter, to the right of the nose, is transliterated as a “w”, not a “y.” The second letter, to the left of the nose, is an “h with a dot under it” (?) Macdonald points out that this is an entirely different letter from the “h” in “Yahweh.”
On the reverse side of the stone are two more letters. The letter on the right is transliterated as “h with a line under it” (?). Macdonald observes that it is pronounced as a “kh” (like the last sound in Scottish “loch”). This letter is not present in the name “Yahweh” and is not a “w.” The last letter, to the left of the “?”, is a “y” and not an “h.”
If these letters did form a single word, which is highly unlikely, it would be spelled “w??y”, and not “yhwh.” Macdonald points out that “the letters would make no sense as a single word or name in a Semitic language since the sounds ‘kh’ and ‘h with a dot’ cannot occur in the same word.” Younger further comments: “This is an impossible word in any Semitic language which would never have these two gutturals in a row.” He continues, “This is absolute proof that the inscription is a forgery!” On a lighter note, Younger says, “It yields a word that could not be pronounced! It would ruin someone’s throat trying!”
Younger sums it up this way: “I can say most emphatically this is not the Hebrew divine name Yahweh (yhwh). There is an obvious wrongness to the order of the consonants, and the consonants themselves are wrong!” Macdonald and Khan concur.
These are very important questions and serious objections that need to be answered by the BASE research team. It is hoped that an answer will be posted to all these questions and objections, as well as a report from a professional epigraphist as to the stone’s authenticity in the very near future. A good place to share the answers to these questions and objections would be under the “Investigations” category of the BASE Institute website. There is no article in the “Inscriptions” file, except four short paragraphs. The last one says: “Continue to check back here at the Institute for further information release.” This statement has been up for about two years. Now (October 2009), would be the time to add a report about the “Yahweh Inscription.”
Another important question raised is that the inscription was alleged to be found at a site other than a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula. Mount Sinai is located in the Sinai Peninsula according to all the biblical data, and not at Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia where the discovery was allegedly made. Ancient writers included the Sinai Peninsula within the province of Arabia in the first century AD. The Apostle Paul was perfectly consistent with these ancient writers when he stated in Galatians 4:25, “Mount Sinai in [first century AD] Arabia.” Mount Sinai is named in accordance with the Sinai Peninsula (not Arabia), and thus does not lie in the boundaries of modern Saudi Arabia, which excludes the Sinai Peninsula (Franz 2000: 101-113).
To sum up: the sculpture of the bearded man or deity is thus more than likely a modern-day forgery carved thousands of years after the Exodus. It was also not written in genuine paleo-Hebrew and can not be translated “Yahweh.” The facts surrounding the chronology and paleography of this inscription would negate this artifact as being clearly connected with the visit of the Children of Israel to Mount Sinai.
The men that attended the Promise Keepers events and heard this presentation, or those who view the video clip, should not share this information with others as proof that the Bible is true. The Bible is true regardless of whether this discovery has any biblical significance. The assertion that Mount Sinai is at Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia still lacks credible and verifiable historical, geographical, archaeological, or biblical evidence.
For further reading:
2000 Is Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia? Bible and Spade 13/4: 101-113.
1992 Inscriptions, Safaitic. Pp. 418-423 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.