Biblical Archeology

Biblical Archeology:Hebrew Inscriptions and the Word

Like an intricate puzzle, each piece of archeological knowledge fits into the Bible picture.

By Dennis Pardee, as assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization of the University of Chicago.


In 1869 a young official in the French consulate in Jerusalem, C. Clermont-Ganneau, who was destined to become one of the greatest Palestinian archeologists of his time, received word of an ancient inscription on a stele located in Diban, southeast of the Jordan, in an area occupied by the Moabites in Biblical times.

Clermont-Ganneau was unable to travel to Diban himself, but he had copies made of the inscription, both by hand and by squeezing damp paper onto the surface of the stone (the paper, when dry, retains an imprint of the inscription, called a "squeeze"). The interest shown in the stone aroused the suspicions of the local inhabitants. Deciding that it must contain treasure, they built a fire around it, then dashed cold water on it, shattering the stone into more than a score of pieces, but there was no treasure within, of course. Clermont-Gannneau was able to purchase several of the fragments, and eventually some twenty of these, together with the hand copy and the squeeze, found their way to the Louvre in Paris.

The restored text contains about thirty lines (the exact number is uncertain because the fragments from the bottom of the stele were not recovered) written in a dialect slightly different from Hebrew, commonly called Moabite because of the location where it was found and the contents of the text. The inscription is in the name of Mesha, king of Moab, contemporary of Ahab in Israel (about 850 B.C.), and recounts a Moabite rebellion from Israelite hegemony, a rebellion mentioned only briefly in the Bible: "After the death of Ahab, Moab re belled against Israel" (2 Kings 1:1, R.S.V.). More than one hundred years after its discovery, the Mesha inscription is still the longest single inscription in a dialect closely related linguistically and chronologically to Hebrew. Its importance for the reconstruction of ninth-century Israelite and Moabite history is commensurate with its rarety.

Another inscription with Biblical significance dates from about one hundred and fifty years after the death of Ahab in Israel, at a time when the northern state of Israel was no longer in existence (having been brought to an end by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.). Hezekiah, king of Judah, found himself under the threat of imminent attack by the Assyrians also in his turn. As a means of assuring water for the inhabitants of Jerusalem in case of siege, he had a tunnel cut through the bedrock underlying the city's east hill, from a spring on the east side of the hill to a pool within the walls at the south end of the hill. About twenty feet from the south end of the tunnel, someone inscribed a text on the tunnel wall relating how the project was finished. Two crews of workmen, tunneling from opposite directions, met in the middle, "pick against pick" as the inscription describes it. When the union was made, "the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits." —W. F. ALBRIGHT, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 321.

First discovered by chance in 1880, the inscription was cut out of the wall in 1890 and eventually found its way in several pieces to a museum in Istanbul. Fortunately, squeezes had been made of the writing, and by comparison of the fragments and the squeezes, an almost complete text has been constructed. The inscription illuminates vividly the laconic statement in 2 Kings 20:20, R.S.V. (cf. 2 Chron. 32:30), that Hezekiah "made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city." The visitor to Jerusalem can still traverse the tunnel from the spring to the reservoir and feel against feet and legs the clear, cold water that Hezekiah was attempting to store for a time of need. Though one would today have to travel to Istanbul to see the inscription, recalling its words while in the Siloam tunnel can almost bring forth the sound of the picks and the voices of the workmen who per formed this marvelous engineering feat nearly 2,700 years ago. 1

Another century later brings us to the time of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, two of the last rulers of Judah (609/08-598 and 597-586 B.C., respectively), and to a remarkable group of texts from Tel Arad, a site in the northeastern Negeb near the southern border of ancient Judah. This site, named after the ancient city of Arad, has furnished more than two hundred inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Arabic, including a group of letters written on broken pieces of pottery shortly before the destruction of the city in about 597 B.C. These pottery shards, of which there are thousands in most city ruins of the Near East, furnished a cheap and easily accessible writing medium—the scratch pads of the ancient world. The in scribed shards, called ostraca, rep resent the greatest amount of pre-Qumran epigraphic Hebrew extant today.

Most of the Arad letters are ad dressed to a certain Elyashib, who was evidently commander of the Arad fortress. Several deal with mundane distributions and transport of foodstuffs, but even these are highly interesting to the philologist and historian of culture for the evidence they provide on Hebrew grammar and lexicology, on the one hand, and on the organization of Judean society, on the other. For ex ample, most of the letters addressed to Elyashib are from a superior (or superiors) who gives very curt and direct orders and who is obviously located elsewhere (otherwise there would be no need of a letter). Thus Arad was only one element in a southern defense system that was organized and directed from else where.

As a further example, the letters refer to most of the foodstuffs as distributed for transport and, partially, for consumption by persons called Kittim. The Kittim are well known to Bible students (Isa. 23:1, 12; Jer. 2:10; Eze. 27:6; Dan. 11:30; Num. 24:24) as people originally from Cyprus, whose capital city was Kition (kt or kty in consonantal writing, whence kitti, "someone from Kition"). The term also appears in certain Biblical texts and in the Dead Sea scrolls in the sense of "foreign conquerors," e.g., Greeks -and Romans, so it is uncertain whether the term in the Arad texts denotes Cypriots or Greeks. It is, in any case, of interest that the Judeans at this period were including foreign mercenaries in their defensive structure.

Other of the Arad texts contain allusions to more martial events. Arad 24, for example, refers to troop movements in the Negeb. The first part of this text is almost totally effaced, but from line 12 on, the message is clear:

12) from Arad fifty [men] and from Qinah [x number of men]

13) and send them to Ramat- Negeb under

14) Malkiyahu son of Qerabur. He is to hand

15) them over to Elisha son of Yirmeyahu

16) at Ramat-Negeb lest anything happen to

17) the city. This is an order from the king—a life and

18) death matter for you. I have sent you this message to

19) warn you now: these men [must be] with Elisha

20) lest [the] Edom [ites] go there.

It is precisely this type of interference from Edomite bands, just when Judah was endeavoring to muster her strength to resist the Babylonian threat, that earned Obadiah's condemnation (verses 12-14, R.S.V.):

"But you should not have gloated over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; you should not have boasted in the day of distress. You should not have entered the gate of my people in the day of his calamity; you should not have gloated over his disaster in the day of his calamity; you should not have looted his goods in the day of his calamity. You should not have stood at the parting of the ways to cut off his fugitives; you should not have delivered up his survivors in the day of distress."

Another main group of ancient Hebrew letters comes from a site excavated before Arad (in the 1930's), Tell ed-Duweir, commonly identified with Biblical Lachish. These letters date about a decade later than the Arad texts, or just shortly before Nebuchadnezzar's final invasion of Judah (588-586 B.C.). These letters are primarily of a military nature, having been written to the commander of the post where the letters were found, by a subordinate who was probably in charge of one of the lesser military installations in the immediate area. The writer refers to himself as "your servant" and to the addressee as "my lord." One of the most revealing phrases is the expression used three times to open the body of the letter: "Who is your servant but a dog (that you should send him the king's letters, et cetera)?" The formula is used to express thanks on the part of the writer, but in such a way as to stress his inferior status in contrast to his correspondent.

The content of the Lachish letters reveals a state of military readiness, probably in preparation for an expected Babylonian invasion, as evidenced by the fact that the ostraca were found in a layer of debris left by the destruction of the city during the 588-586 invasion of Judah. Letter 4, for example, says: "... we are watching the Lachish (fire-) signals according to the code which my lord gave us, for we cannot see Azeqah." We know from sources as disparate as the second millennium B.C. Mari texts and the Christian era Mishna that fire signals were used to spread information over relatively great distances at a faster speed than could be attained by human messengers. It is possible also that the fire signals were being prepared for use in case of Babylonian siege, when it could be impossible for human messengers to circulate.

Nearly all the Hebrew inscriptions that have come down to us from the Israelite royal period were written on hard materials such as stone monuments, tomb walls, ostraca, and in miniature on seals and weights. We can be certain that writings on softer materials (papyrus or skin) were being circulated, for we have the clay sealings, called bullae, from some of these documents, with traces of the tying cord or of the papyrus itself impressed on the back of the sealing. Because these more perishable texts have disappeared, we are without many of the documents needed to reconstruct the minutiae of Israelite society. We can only hope that in time a cache of such documents as marriage certificates, land sales or rental contracts, sharecropping agreements, adoption contracts, divorce settlements, et cetera, will appear at a site in one of the drier parts of the country, where organic materials are more likely to escape deterioration.

The types of documents that do appear in the Hebrew inscriptions are as follows: The most impressive, but the rarest, are the large stone inscriptions such as the Mesha stone or the Siloam tunnel inscription. There are also a growing number of inscriptions carved in the sides of rock-cut tombs. The ostraca are much more numerous than the large stone inscriptions and deal with different matters, consisting almost entirely of letters and administrative documents. Some of the latter are name lists, ration lists, and dockets providing information on shipment of commodities. Items in the last category, that of small inscriptions, were written primarily for purposes of identification, such as signet seals. A seal indicated the owner's name, often his father's and even grandfather's name, and/or his official title or position. Examples of such seals are: "(Belonging) to Azariah son of Shemiah," or "(Be longing) to Shama servant of Jeroboam." From excavations and from illicit treasure hunting, we have a great number of ancient seals, as well as quite a few bullae bearing ancient seal impressions.

Thus we have at our disposal a great body of personal names for comparison with the personal names found in the Bible. Besides the study of personal names, these texts are also useful for the study of Hebrew epigraphy (the history of letter forms), orthography (the conventions used in spelling), and social structure (relationships and titles mentioned). Even the smallest texts do their part in providing extra-Biblical evidence for reconstructing ancient Israelite society.

A striking example of how a very minor inscription can elucidate the Biblical text is furnished by a single word that has been found inscribed on several ancient weights, averaging about a quarter of an ounce each. The inscription is pym. This word is found once in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament—in 1 Samuel 13:21, R.S.V., there written with a vowel as pim. Before this inscription was found, translators were uncertain of the meaning of the word. The King James Version, for example, translated it as "a file." But when the pym weights were found, they proved to weigh about two thirds of a shekel,2 an exorbitant but not implausible charge for sharpening large tools. On the basis of this evidence, The New English Bible translates: "The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for ploughshares and mattocks." 3

It should be clear even from this very brief introduction to the He brew inscriptions that such finds are few and far between, frequently in complete when found, and that they often do not furnish the kind of in formation that modern historians are looking for in reconstructing the political and cultural history of a people or of a civilization. On the other hand, we must be grateful for what we have. The concentration of texts from the period of 625 B.C. to 586 B.C. has taught us a great deal about the language and history of that particular time. When placed alongside the information available from other extra-Biblical sources and from the Bible itself, the resultant picture is much clearer than it was before the era of modern archeology.


1 A recent description of the state of this tunnel (though without comment on the inscription) may be found in "Hezekiah's Tunnel Re-Opens," The Biblical Archaeology Review II/2(June 1976):9-12. This article contains several good photographs and a plan of Jerusalem with the tunnel's course indicated.

2 According to The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 4.832, the shekel weighs 11.424 grams (0.403 ounce), and the pim weighs 7.616 grams (0.268 ounce). It should be kept in mind that modern precision in standard measurement was unknown in ancient times, that standards fluctuated with time and place, and that weiglit losses may have occurred as a result of wear, dishonest shaving of weights, et cetera. Thus the modern equivalents given for ancient units of weight are the result of averaging of several or many examples.

3 From The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission. A photograph of the pym weight, alongside other inscribed weights, may be seen in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, in the article just cited, page 832.

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By Dennis Pardee, as assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization of the University of Chicago.

July 1978

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