Earliest known Hebrew inscription bolsters biblical account of David’s kingdom… or does it?

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

It does according to The Hedgehog Blog (political and social observations from two aspiring hedgehogs who love the Isaiah Berlin essay), the work of lawyer Ralph Kostant (The Kosher Hedgehog) and Lowell Brown. They aren’t alone in their enthusiasm, to judge from various press reports in recent weeks. However, is everything as clear-cut as the headlines would have us believe?

An ostracon with a proto-Canaanite text interpreted as Hebrew
An ostracon with a proto-Canaanite text interpreted as being written in Hebrew. Image courtesy of the University of Haifa.

The sherd was found in 2008 during an excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa, some 37 km west-south-west of Jerusalem, by Professor Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The site, which is a fortified town, was occupied only briefly in the late eleventh to early tenth century BCE and has been identified with the Sha’arayim of Joshua XV.36, 1 Samuel XVII.52 and 1 Chronicles IV.31-2, which seems reasonable enough. The language of the text painted onto the sherd (technically, it is not an inscription, but an ostracon) was not immediately evident, although the characters used are proto-Canaanite. It was only in 2009 that Professor Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa identified it as Hebrew on the basis of vocabulary and verb forms. Professor Galil’s conclusions have not been universally accepted among Israeli scholars and other archaeologists, who believe that the text could be proto-Canaanite rather than Hebrew.

A drawing of the proto-Canaanite text
A drawing of the proto-Canaanite text. Image courtesy of the University of Haifa.

The text has been rendered into modern Hebrew characters (with restorations of missing or obscure letters) as:

[…אל תעש ועבד א[ת
שפט [ע]ב[ד] ואלמנ[נ] שפט ית[
[ו]גר [ר]ב עלל רב [ד]ל [ו]
א[ל]מנ שקמ יבד מלך.
א[ב]ינ [ו]עבד שך גר ת[מך

This transliterates as:

’l t‘ś w‘bd ’[t…….]
špt yt[m] [‘]b[d] w’lm[n] špt
[w]gr [r]b ‘ll rb [d]l w
’[l]mn šqm ybd mlk
’[b]yn [w]‘bd šk gr t[mk]

Professor Galil offers the following translation: “You shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord]. Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and] the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king. Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.” It is not a biblical text, although it has echoes in a number of passages (Professor Galil compares it with Exodus XXIII.3, Isaiah I.17, Psalms LXXII.3 and others).

It is an interesting text, unusual for its social concerns but not without parallels in Middle Eastern and Egyptian texts of the period. However, is it really evidence for truly Judaic thought?

The Hedgehog claims that:

As noted in an editorial in the Jerusalem Post, the Elah shard would appear to prove that, contrary to the revisionist thesis:

  • There was an expansive Kingdom of David which extended well beyond the hill country, out to the Valley of Elah.
  • The Hebrew language was sufficiently developed in the 10th century. It reinforces what many scholars have long appreciated – that parts of the Bible are very, very old.
  • During the reign of King David there were scribes who were able to compose complex literary texts such as the books of Judges and Samuel.
  • The find establishes that scholarship was taking place away from kingdom’s hub, implying that even greater learning was going on at its heart.

Let’s look at these claims one at a time.

Firstly, the sherd is just a piece of pottery onto which someone has scratched a religious message. It says nothing about king David, about the kingdoms of Israel or Judah. Indeed, it doesn’t mention anything beyond the fact that there is a king, but a king of where?

Secondly, I don’t think that there is really much doubt that the Hebrew language is likely to have developed long before the earliest records of it as a written language. The earliest English texts began to appear at the start of the seventh century, but there’s nothing to suggest that the language had newly developed then.

Is this sherd really a “complex literary text”? To compare it with much later biblical compositions is like comparing a limerick with a Shakespeare play. There is a good deal missing from the original text, some of which has had to be restored. One of the most significant of such restorations is in the very first sentence: worship the [Lord]. Can we be sure that the text originally read Lord? Well, the first letter is א (’aleph), but the restoration of the second letter as ת (tav) appears to have no justification in the text to judge from the published photograph and drawings. But Lord in Hebrew is אדני Adonai (technically, it means ‘my Lords’); it was also the term used by Phoenicians and Canaanites for the gods Tammuz and Ba‘al-Hadad, and developed into the Greek Adonis. So, even if we allow the restoration of the text to read אתני (as a putatively archaic form), there is no guarantee that it refers to ‘Lord’ as a way of avoiding writing יהוה (Yahweh) for the divine name rather than a reference to one of the Canaanite gods. And as we have only one (or perhaps two) letters, it could easily be the divine name ’Atirat (Asherah in Hebrew, the wife of ‘El) or ’Athtart (Astatre). It is only the fallacious chain of reasoning that (a) this is a Hebrew text, therefore (b) it will reflect Jewish religious practices, therefore (c) it will avoid using a divine name: an unsupportable chain of hypotheses.

Can the existence of an ostracon really show that “scholarship was taking place away from kingdom’s hub” when that presupposes the existence of a centralised kingdom, something that the text does not demonstrate at all? Of course not. This brief text looks like a bit of conventional wisdom and its transcription onto a potsherd is a typical practice of the first millennium BC in the Middle East.

The problem is with the headlines and the claims that derive from them. Professor Galil may well be correct in deducing that the language of the ostracon is Hebrew rather than proto-Canaanite, but it seems that the press stories have not made it clear that his opinion is not shared by all scholars. Allowing that the text is the oldest record of the Hebrew language – which would be a really significant discovery – it says nothing about the supposed kingdom of David and its cultural accomplishments. It is the enthusiasm for ‘proving the Bible’ that’s carried people along with the story, not the evidence this short text actually provides.

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