Thoughts on the Tel Zayit abecedary

Or should that be abgad? Nevertheless, there is an obvious interest in this building stone from Tel Zayit, now playing at a blog near you. While the importance of finding any literate inscription from the ancient world is a cause for celebration, I’d like to state my reasons for caution in making any conclusions regarding this particular inscription vis-à-vis biblical historiography.

1.) Regarding the skill of the writer:
I don’t see that anyone should deny that this was written by a scribe, whether a newly trained one or one of hoary experience. Throughout the history of writing in the ancient near east, we know that scribes did the overwhelmingly majority of all writing. However, this particular inscription appears to be scratched onto a stone with a completely unprepared surface. You try scratching, with a bronze or iron stylus, a modern alphabet into rock like that and see how far you get without slips, mistakes, and a result that resembles much more the scrawl of a juvenile scribal pupil than your typical (hopefully) elegant penmanship.

2.) Regarding the purpose of the inscription:
Now, if my understanding of the reportage of the find is correct, the stone was inscribed prior to its placement in the wall, as the entire inscription was not able to be read in that location. In the wall above this inscribed stone was another non-native stone of onyx. These were situated so as to be opposite the entrance to a room, the function of which is indeterminate. I think the only two conclusions possible to draw from this placement of two unusual stones in one prominent place is that they are there for either a.) apotropaic, or b.) decorative. For case a.), the apotropaic usage, those placing the stone there may have seen the inscription and recognized it as writing, but not known what it said, if they were illiterate, and perhaps dealt with it as a kind of amulet, displaying a somewhat primitive awe of writing. I find that more likely than that an abecedary was considered apotropaic. For case b.), the decorative, well, interesting scribbles on rocks can be decorative, I suppose. A big chunk of onyx in the wall sounds rather nice. But again, this doesn’t sound as though it indicates literacy on the part of the people who placed the stone in the wall. For my part, I consider the abecedary inscription on the rock to have possibly been scribal practice, perhaps practicing to do an inscription on some similar stone, now lost. Certainly a 40 pound stone is not a very practical practice tablet for scribal teacher or student! This stone, found on the site by an illiterate builder, undoubtedly generated enough interest for it to be considered as striking as the chunk of onyx above.

3.) Phoenician or Hebrew?
Here lies the crux, and the great interest in the inscription. The answer can come from two directions: paleography or archaeology.
a.) Paleography: To be perfectly honest, I think that we need a greater selection of data for comparison, a greater selection which has simply not been discovered yet, indeed may never be discovered due to preservation issues. This especially in the case of earliest Hebrew, and how it diverges from the more northern Phoenician, and how specifically it would differ from southern, strictly Canaanite (southern coastal Palestinian) inscriptional letter forms (of which I recall none, though I hope someone will correct me, if I’m wrong on that). This Tel Zayit inscription (if Hebrew), the Gezer calendar, and the Izbet Sartah inscription do not appear to be in a trained hand. Using them as paleographical reference points (even as nice as the Gezer calendar hand is) doesn’t seem as wise as using something clearly done by a full-fledged professional scribe under ideal conditions, like the Ahirom of Byblos sarcophagus or the Mesha of Moab stele. It’s all unfortunately to our loss that the scribes of Canaan and Israel appear to have favored papyrus over clay for their documentation, as the majority of the exemplars from which a truly representative set of data could’ve been found.
b.) Archaeology: From the reportage, apparently there’s evidence of a change in material culture with the particular layer of occupation to which the building with this inscription is assigned. The earlier layers indicate connections with the coast, while the inscription building’s layer displays connections to the hills. That’s quite interesting. At this point, I have more questions at this point than suggestions. Is the site large enough to have had the resources to be considered strong enough to have made such switches of allegiance on its own terms? If not, is it not logical that either a coalition of eastern towns or a larger eastern city took it from under the hegemony of a coastal coalition or city? (That is, after all, the former, and some would argue current, way of the world.) Does such a change of culture indicate or require an ethnic change? How clear is the connection to hill country and the difference from coastal? Could it be, after all is said and done, that the two lines of evidence, paleographical and archaeological, reinforce one another in this hill country connection, a hill country which we probably have seen called Israel prior to this time (in Merneptah’s stele; I say “probably” because the precise location is debatable, though Chris very well describes the standard reading and possibilities), and know is called Israel from later inscriptions (Mesha’s stele, the Tel Dan stele) and the descendants of that culture’s own writings?

Beyond all of this and the initial excitement and all the flutter, I await full and exhaustive publication. No doubt several of my questions/objections will be answered, and those of others. All talk of “nail in the coffin” seems really quite premature.

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