Yussel

The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Take a letter, kid, right to left




You go practice that alphabet on the stone right there and don't start a fireEvery time you dig a hole in Israel or the adjacent areas, you stand good chance of digging up something interesting. On July 15, the last day of digging in the site called Tel Zayit, archeologists from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins uncovered the oldest known writing of a full alphabet, what is called, lovingly, an abecedary, of early Hebrew. What makes the finding so remarkable is that the archeologists claim have been able to date it precisely, late 10th century BCE, and to trace it to the kingdom of Israel founded by Solomon and David.

All it is are the 22 letters of the alphabet, slightly out of order from the modern Hebrew alphabet, but the find is interesting for several reasons. The abecedary was probably written by a scribe practicing his letters, which meant formal writing and probably a bureaucracy, and was inscribed on a limestone boulder embedded in a wall, probably as a good-luck charm. The charm didn’t appear to work: a fire soon destroyed the place.

The writing also shows that the ancient Israelites were literate 3,000 ago, according to Pittsburgh’s Ron E. Tappy. Biblical Hebrew is thought to derive from Phoenician and the inscription appears to many scholars to reflect that transition. The letters are clearly on their way to being the aleph, bet, gimmel of Hebrew, written from right to left. All western alphabets eventually derived from the same source.

The Zeitah Excavations at Tel Zayit are halfway between the Israeli city of Ashkelon and the West Bank city of Hebron, south of Tel Aviv. The ancient town was apparently part of a border settlement protecting the southern approaches to the capital at Jerusalem. The site reflects the Caananite culture, the foundation of the kingdom of Israel and may have been written about the time of David and his son, Solomon, who took over in 1037 BCE or shortly thereafter. Following Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, Israel and Judah. The Tel Zayit find would have placed it in Judah.

The formal presentation of the find will be next week in Philadelphia. And, as with all archeological finds in the area, there also will be controversy. Not everyone is convinced it is what Tappy says it is, with the dating, as usual, the source of most of the contention. And people who want to believe in what's in the Bible (in this case, Kings 1) will claim it as proof and those who don't won't.

But wait. There is more. Would you believe a reference to Goliath? Israeli archeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, an ancient Philistine city and the biblical city of Gath, have found a small ceramic shard with the earliest Phoenician inscription ever found. It was written in “proto-Canaanite” letters and contains two non-Semitic names, one of which, is etymologically related to the name Goliath, and Gath was supposed to be the home of the giant slain by the young David. The archeologists from Bar-Ilan University don’t claim the Goliath on the shard is the Goliath of the Bible as it apparently was a common name. The shard is dated about 50 years after little David hurled his stone. Nice story anyhow.

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