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Possible oldest Hebrew writingThe current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review describes what may be the oldest inscription in Hebrew ever discovered. That alone would make the find important, but it is the possible message contained in the inscription which is truly significant. The possibility exists that this inscription may be contemporary confirmation of the end of the period of the Judges and the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel.

So what is so significant about this inscription? Quite simply, it is what the possible translation tells us about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. The Old Testament describes a period in which Israel was a very loose confederation of tribes ruled by people called “judges.” These were apparently charismatic leaders who emerged, especially during times of crisis. According to 1 Samuel, the prophet Samuel’s sons were corrupt. The resulting instability, along with the need for a more powerful government, able to defend Israel against her enemies, resulted in the desire for a king. Although at first resistant, Samuel is instructed by YHWH to agree to the monarchy, and Saul is chosen to be the first king.

The inscription is referred to as the Qeiyafa Ostracon. It is written on a piece of broken pottery, a common practice in a time when writing material was expensive and precious. It was discovered in 2008 at a site which has been tentatively identified as the Biblical city of Shaarayim (Joshua 15.36; 1 Samuel 17.52). Excavations at the site indicate that it dates from the early Israelite monarchy, and the absence of pig bones suggests that the site was an Israelite, rather than a Philistine or Canaanite fortress.

The same issue of Biblical Archaeology Review contains another article, describing four inscriptions which different scholars consider the oldest Hebrew writing, so we cannot be sure that this inscription is the oldest. It is, however, very ancient, dating to the traditional end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the Israelite monarchy.

As strange as it may appear, scholars apparently cannot be sure that the inscription is Hebrew. Hebrew script would not branch off from Phoenician script until the ninth century BC. We are dealing with a very ancient language that is difficult to pin down. One interesting characteristic is that the inscription is read from left to right, just as English. The Hebrew we know (like most Semitic languages) normally was written from right to left.

The inscription is obviously incomplete and certain of the letters are illegible, so any translation must be considered tentative. At the same time, what has been deciphered is intriguing about what it suggests. Here is the proposed translation given in the article.

“Do not oppress, and serve God …

despoiled him/her

The judge and the widow wept;

He had the power

over the resident alien and the child, he

eliminated them together

The men and the chiefs/officers have

established a king

He marked 60 [?] servants among the

comunities/habitations/generations”

Obviously this translation shows a lot of gaps and problems with the language, so there is much we cannot know about this inscription. But it includes several aspects that correspond to what is recorded in 1 Samuel.

  1.  It seems to describe a new king and was apparently written before the reign of David.
  2. The writing seems to refer to a transition from the judge (to which it refers) to a king.
  3. The message seems intended to be for a governor or tribal leader, explaining that the previous political situation has changed, a new king has been installed, and that the new laws and political reality are expected to be followed.
  4. The inscription also specifically refers to injustices under the judges, especially toward widows, children (perhaps orphans), and resident aliens.  It would appear the new king intended to address these situations specifically.

Obviously, there is more than one possible interpretation of the Qeiyafa Ostracon. But a legitimate case can be made that this is perhaps the earliest Hebrew writing we have and that it is a contemporary reference to the installation of Saul as the first king of Israel. Some Biblical scholars question the very existence of Saul and David, suggesting that they were mythological kings, created by later writers to glorify Israel’s beginnings. This small piece of pottery could provide contemporary evidence that Saul did actually exist and that the Biblical account of the beginning of the Israelite monarchy has some basis in history.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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