In the first article we looked styles of writing from Akkadian cuneiform, Ugaritic cuneiform, through the development of Proto-Sinaitic and Paleo-Hebrew.
As readers we grow up having been educated in the writing conventions of our language. For most of us we have very little appreciation for how much these rules help us by making reading and writing easier.
From the logographs (individual symbols representing words) and syllabaries (individual symbols representing the sound of a syllable) of cuneiform to the consonantal alphabet of Paleo-Hebrew we covered just a few improvements in writing. But those improvements are extremely important.
The introduction of alphabetic writing to replace logographs and syllabaries reduced the learning curve, increased literacy rates. Writers and readers no longer had to learn up to 400 different symbols to express their thoughts in the written word. The switch to alphabetic writing expanded the kinds of materials to use for writing. Clay was ideal for the cuneiform, rock could be inscribed. But with the development of a small alphabet even simple charcoal paint could be used on leather, papyrus, and random pieces of bark, rock or pottery.
The simplification of writing made literacy available to more than just a specially trained group of scribes. With wider literacy several significant social changes were able to take place.
We saw that alphabetic writing was used both for farm calendars as well as royal inscriptions.
The instructions of Deuteronomy 6:6-9 rest on the assumption of widespread literacy. These words are, in effect, a command that the people of God teach literacy to all their children for the sake of preserving God’s written Word:
6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
In God’s providence He fostered the development of the alphabetic script from the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians. What we seem to be able to say about the epigraphic evidence is that this development took place among Semitic peoples and the Phoenicians in areas under Egyptian rule and influence during the 400 years the children of Israel were sojourning in Egypt. From this evidence we might hazard to conjecture that God used this sojourn to prepare His church for the written word, giving them the tools to read and write in a simple alphabetic script — and thus to preserve that written Word and teach it to every member of His people.
The writing methods we know about from the time of Moses imply a constant reading out loud of the Word of God so that those instructed knew where words started, how they were to be pronounced and so on. The evidence we have shows that the books of Moses (and probably of Job) were written in consonantal alphabets (called abjads today) without spaces or divisions between words.
The Phoenician letters which grew out of the Proto-Sinaitic script became the standard for the early Hebrew and Aramaic writings as well-even though those two languages had more consonants than the 22 Phoenician letter system.
The introduction of the word divisions greatly eased the reading of the text, giving a visual clue to the start and end of each word. This took one more burden off of the reader, who would otherwise have to know the text fairly well before trying to read it aloud. The earliest evidence of word dividers we have found come from alphabetic cuneiform scripts like that of Ugarit, and from Phoenician inscriptions at Byblos, both north of ancient Israel. For example:
|[image from Promotora Espanola Alfabeto Fenicio arcaico]|
|[image from Bibliotheque Trajan Alphabet phénicien]|
But the use of word dividers in Phoenician inscriptions was not universal, as can be seen in
|[Image from Monuments of the Hittites: Karatepe]|
There are many other improvements that were made.
There are several different examples of inscriptions that have been discovered that could be used to show how various features of writing developed. We will take a look at just a few as examples of how writing developed
The Lachish Letters (7th cent. B.C.)
How they were found
Up to the time these inscriptions were found the only ancient Hebrew inscription of any length that was known was the Siloam Tunnel Inscription. The Samaria Inscriptions discovered in 1910 were basically trade/tax inventories, of historical value, but not really literary. The discovery of the Lachish Letters made historians aware of how Hebrew was written in non-Biblical literary contexts.
In the early months of 1935 J.L. Starkey was digging at Tell ed-Duweir, about 45 miles by road south-east of Jerusalem. Starkey had been in charge of this archaeological expedition from 1932. But that January 29th, 1935 the expedition hit the jackpot. Among the broken pottery found in the gate house of the city were 18 ostraca, 3 more were found in the 1938 expedition. But that year Starkey “was murdered by a party of armed Arabs on the track leading from Beit Jibrin to Hebron.” 1 His co-worker Harry Torcyner2 published the original report on these ostraca in 1938. An additional ostracon was found by the 1968 expedition led by Yohanan Aharoni, published in 1975.3 Then eleven more were discovered by David Usshishkin‘s team during their 1973-1994 expedition. The most recent publication and interpretation of all 33 ostraca was by Andre Lemaire in 2004.4
What are the Lachish Inscriptions?
The Lachish letters are ostraca: broken pieces of pottery reused for writing notes or letters. The ink was made of carbon and iron, probably mixed from lampblack. The pen is described by Roland de Vaux as a stylus with a broad but thin tip that needed frequent trimming with a knife, which the scribe neglected at some points in Letter III.5
The archaeological context, the content of the letters, and the style of handwriting place these letters at a time just before the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar in 589/8 B.C. Before the letters were discovered most archaeologists believed that another location, Tel Hasi, was biblical Lachish. With the discovery of the letters and several other finds at Tell ed-Duweir, people began to realize some of the biblical and historical significance of the site.
The ostraca are letters or transcriptions of letters sent from one person to another. There has been debate on whether the ostraca are the original letters, whether they are practice drafts, or are simply transcriptions of letters received.6
There are three features we should bring out about these letters.
1) They show an early use of letters as vowels.
2) The content of some of the letters is evidence of a presumed literacy.
3) They were written with pen and ink quickly.
The following images are of a museum reproduction of Lachish Letter III crafted to make it easier for students to see the letters. Some of the letters on the original were only visible via special lighting and photography.
|[Image from מכתבי לכיש]|
|[Image from מכתבי לכיש]|
Transcription and Translation7
עבדך הושעיהו שלח ל
|1||Your servant Hosha’yahu has sent to|
הגד לאדני יאוש. ישמִעַ
|2||tell my lord Ya’ush: May|
יהוה את אדנִי שמֻעת שלֹם
|3||the LORD let my lord hear tidings of peace|
ושמֻעַת טֹב ועתָ, הַפְקַח
|4||and tidings of good. And now open|
נא אֶת אֹזֶן עבדךָ לַסֵפֶר אשר
|5||please the ear of your servant to the letter which|
שלחתה לעבדך אמש. כי לֵב
|6||you sent to your servant yesterday for the heart|
עבדך דָוֵה מאז שלחֶךָ אל עבד
|7||of your servant is sick since you have sent to your servant|
ךָ. וכי אמר אדנֹי: “לא ידעתה
|8||and because my lord says, “Do you not know|
קרא ספר”. חַיהוה אם נסה א
|9||how to read a letter?” As the LORD lives if any man has tried|
יש לקרא לי ספר לנצח. וגם
|10||to read me a letter ever! And the same for|
כל ספר אשר יבא אלי, אם
|11||every letter which comes to me, if|
קראת אתה, ועוד אֶתנֶנהוּ
|12||I should read it. Furthermore I would put it down|
אל מאוּמ[ה]. ולעבדך הֻגַד
|13||to nothing. And to your servant it has been reported|
לאמֹר ירד שר הצבא
|14||saying “The commander of the army has gone down,|
כניהו בן אלנתן לבֹא
|15||Konyahu son of Elnatan, to go|
|16||to Egypt and|
הוֹדַוְיָהוּ בן אחיהו ו
|17||Hodawyahu son of Ahiyahu and|
אנשָו שָלַח לקחת מזה.
|18||his men he has sent to take from here.|
וספר טֹביהוּ עבד המלך הבא
|19||And the letter of Tobiyahu, the servant of the king, who came|
אל שלם בן ידע מאת הנבִא לאמ
|20||to Shallum the son of Yaddua, from the prophet to say|
ר: “הִשמֵר”! שלָחֹה עב[ד]ך אל אדנִי
|21||“Beware!” your servant is sending it to my lord.|
1. Development of Vowel Letters
One of the main developments this inscription shows in comparison with earlier epigraphic texts is the fuller and commonly accepted use of some consonants as vowels. While the occasional use of a consonant as a vowel can be seen quite early in the inscriptions, at this point in the development of the language the ‘aleph א, he ה, yod י, and waw ו were used as vowels not only occasionally at the ends of words but frequently and even in the middle of words to help the reader understand how to pronounce the words. For example the word “man” איש ‘ish is written with the yod in lines 9-10.
Though there were not yet vowels written for every syllable, what this meant for readers of the Bible is that the common spellings in Hebrew at this point included not just the consonants of the words, but in some places there were vowels written also. This made understanding the text and reading out loud easier.
The full use of vowels in the text would not come until much much later with the introduction of vowel points (Nikkudim) in three different systems we know of: The Tiberian, the Babylonian, and the Palestinian traditions.8
2. Literacy Presumed
Since these letters were discovered there has been debate about whether to interpret the text as saying that the servant is claiming to be illiterate or that he is defending his ability to read.
The translation above follows Torcyner’s interpretation that the servant is defending his inability to read. If this is the case, then the presumption of his master was that he thought his servant was reading the letters he was sending.
Frank Moore Cross interpreted the text as the servant’s defense of his ability to read instructions carefully. If this is correct, then the literacy of the servant is still the presumption of his master, but the master is disappointed that the servant failed to follow instructions properly. Reading the same consonantal text Cross understands lines 8-13 as saying: 9
and that my lord said, “you did not understand it.
Call a scribe!” As Yahweh lives, no one has tried
to read a letter to me ever, and furthermore,
any scribe who might have come to me, I did not
summon him and, further, I would pay him
In either case, the letter points out that at the time just before the Babylonian Exile (589/8 B.C.) literacy was not limited strictly to a group of scribes but could be presumed of servants and soldiers. Letters were written out, either as they were composed or as they were recited by a military courier who had memorized them for secrecy. 10
3. Writing Quickly
The ability to read well, however, is not the same as the ability to write legibly. Nor does the ability to write mean that a person can do so quickly. Combining both legibility and speed is a commodity in any literate society. This letter was probably written by a professional scribe rather than by the servant. Because of the similarity in handwriting this scribe also appears to have transcribed the majority of the first set of ostraca discovered.
Some readers might have a romanticized image of a scribe: a middle aged or old man sitting over parchment laboriously copying documents, back bent from years of labor, fingers stained from ink. Perhaps there were scribes that more or less fit that image. The location of the ostraca at the city gates, the fact that ostraca II, VI, VII, VIII and XVIII came from the same pot,11 the variety of their content, and the similarity of handwriting for most of the letters suggest a couple of observations.
This scribe conducted his trade at the city gate where communiques and other correspondence would enter and leave the city. One of the ostraca, XVII, was re-used after being washed or rubbed out.12 His neat and clear handwriting style shows good uniformity and signs of quick writing. The texts themselves show a diversity of subjects from lists of names to official correspondence. And in this correspondence we have testimony that the name of God, Yahweh, was invoked for blessing and oaths, and that an unnamed prophet was referenced.
There is a possible related Biblical event, though this may just be coincidence. Jeremiah 26 records the name of an Elnathan. In Jeremiah this Elnathan was sent to Egypt to go after a prophet who spoke the warnings of the Lord in accordance with Jeremiah:
20 Now there was also a man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Urijah the son of Shemaiah of Kirjath Jearim, who prophesied against this city and against this land according to all the words of Jeremiah. 21 And when Jehoiakim the king, with all his mighty men and all the princes, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death; but when Urijah heard it, he was afraid and fled, and went to Egypt. 22 Then Jehoiakim the king sent men to Egypt: Elnathan the son of Achbor, and other men who went with him to Egypt. 23 And they brought Urijah from Egypt and brought him to Jehoiakim the king, who killed him with the sword and cast his dead body into the graves of the common people.
While we can not say that this is the same event, there certainly is a strong similarity. And the ability to write legibly and quickly was an important commodity useful not only in the area of teaching the Bible but also in official state correspondence.
Well, originally I had planned on a series of 3 articles on this topic, but each article would be very long. So I will be splitting them up into a few more.
God willing, we will look at the The Moussaieff and Ketef Hinnom Inscriptions next time and then the transition to the Aramaic alphabet after the Babylonian Exile. Following that we will look at the development of Greek writing to see how our writing conventions changed and became more structured as well as easier to read.
^back 1. League of Nations Report find: Starkey.
^back 2. Hebrew name: Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai.
^back 3. Hebrew transcriptions of the 22 available here
^back 4. Andre Lemaire, “Ostraca and Incised Inscriptions” in chapter 29, section A of The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994) volume IV, ed. David Ussishkin. (Tel Aviv) 2004.
^back 5. “Les Ostraka de Lachis,” Revue Biblique, 48(1939), p. 183.
^back 6. Hans Barstad, “Lachish Ostracon II And Ancient Israelite Prophecy,” Eretz-Israel 24(1993):9*-10*
^back 7. The transcription and vocalization is based on Tur-Sinai and Achituv.
^back 8. for more read the Jewish Encyclopedia on Vocalization.
^back 9. F.M. Cross, “A Literate Soldier: Lachish Letter III” in Kort and Morschausen Biblical and Related Studies Presented to Samuel Irwy, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1985, pp. 41-47.
^back 10. Yigal Yadin “The Lachish Letters–Originals, Copies, or Drafts?” in Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel, Shanks and Mazar, Washington D.C. 1984, pp. 1979-186, see Biblical Archaeology Review 10:2 (1984) pp. 774-777.
^back 11. de Vaux, “Les Ostraka De Lachish,” p. 183; Torcyner et al. Lachish I-The Lachish Letters, Oxford U. Press, 1938, p. 220.
^back 12. de Vaux p. 184.