Ancient ostracon records ark's wanderings

The Izbet Sartah ostracon may be the earliest extrabiblical source that names a biblical personality and supplements the Bible's account of a historical event.

The Izbet Sartah ostracon may be the earliest extrabiblical source that names a biblical personality and supplements the Bible's account of a historical event.

In the time of the judges Israel suffered a major reversal when it lost the ark of the covenant to the Philistines for several months (see 1 Sam. 4-7). The Philistines had massed their troops at Aphek, in the central coastal plain. To meet this threat of invasion, the Israelite troops came down from the hill country to their camp at Ebenezer.

Today the ancient site of Aphek lies in a park operated by the town of Petah Tikvah on the east side of Tel Aviv in Israel. Until very recent times the location of Ebenezer was unknown. Thanks to some excavations by archaeologists from Tel Aviv University at a site named Izbet Sartah, we now have a candidate for Ebenezer. This site is located in the low foothills on the eastern edge of the coastal plain, just three or four miles from the site of Aphek. A road, a railway spur, and agricultural fields lie between these two sites. Those fields would have been the location for the encounter between the Israelite and Philistine troops.

In actuality, two battles were fought here. The first resulted in serious losses for the Israelites, but left them with a viable army. The elders of Israel gathered in camp after this defeat and asked the question ''Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines?" (1 Sam. 4:3, RSV). They hit upon a solution to their problem: ' 'Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies" (RSV).

This they proceeded to do. They sent to Shiloh, and Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, brought the ark down to the camp of the Israelites. This encouraged the Israelite troops; when the priests entered the camp with the ark, they gave a shout so loud that the Philistines could hear it in their camp. What provided encouragement for the Israelites brought discouragement to the Philistines, who resolved to acquit themselves "like men" on the field of battle, even in the face of opposition from the God of Israel.

When they met on the field of battle the next day, the troops on both sides were surprised by the outcome. The conflict resulted in a massive defeat for the Israelites, the deaths of Hophni and Phinehas, the custodians of the ark of the covenant, and the loss of the ark itself, the very object that they thought was going to ensure their victory. They had brought it to the battle like a magic talisman, attempting to use God for their purposes.

The rejoicing of the Philistines over their great victory soon turned to mourning. When the troops got back to their home territory, the authorities placed the ark in the temple of Dagon, their god, in the coastal city of Ashdod. Disaster resulted, both for Dagon and for the populace. Dagon was found tipped over on the floor in front of the ark. Worse yet, a plague broke out in the city. The people were afflicted with "tumors," probably buboes or swollen lymph nodes inflamed from bubonic plague. The people concluded that these reverses resulted from having the ark in their midst, and they decided to get it off their hands.

When the people of Ashdod complained, the lords of the Philistines ordered the ark removed to the city of Gath, a Philistine city inland from the coast. When the people of Gath suffered similar afflictions, the ark was taken to Ekron, another inland city of the Philis tines. But the people of Ekron refused to accept it, demanding that the ark be returned to Israel. The Philistine lords acceded, and the ark was sent to the Israelites at Beth-Shemesh.

All told, the ark was in Philistine territory for seven months, and the Philistines sent it back with a special offering to appease Yahweh and to avert His plagues.

With the excavation of the site of Aphek and of the probable site of Ebenezer, the question arises whether any thing found at either of these two locations sheds light upon this biblical episode. Although the site of Aphek turned out to be very interesting archeologically (it was the residence of an Egyptian governor in Canaan during the thirteenth century B.C.), nothing was found relating to the battle we are considering.

Ostracon of Izbet Sartah

But the site of Izbet Sartah has turned up an object that is of considerable interest in this connection. The site lies on a low hill at the outer edge of the foothills of Israel. At the time of the battle the settlement was not large, consisting only of a small complex of houses. These houses were of construction typical in Israel at the time of the judges. They consisted of four rooms arranged in a parallel and perpendicular fashion.

In a small courtyard on the north side of the site several grain silos were found cut into the ground and into a rock shelf. One of the silos contained a rather large ostracon. (An ostracon is a potsherd that has been written on, either by pen and ink or by scratching.) This particular ostracon is about the size of the palm of a man's hand. The letters it contains were scratched on the surface of the sherd.

When the ostracon was first found, a discussion ensued among the diggers. Some thought that it had writing on it; others did not. Eventually the fragment was given to two of the most unskilled volunteers to see whether they thought it had writing on it. They decided that it did, so the sherd was saved as a special object.

It took Aaron Demsky, an Israeli scholar, only a week or two to determine that the bottom line of writing on the sherd was an early example of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. This was a real breakthrough in understanding the text. It provided the key with which the other four lines could be deciphered. Unfortunately, those other lines have proved to be very difficult to read. Most scholars who have worked on the ostracon have given up, concluding the writing to be a practice text produced by a scribe writing the letters of the alphabet in random fashion for practice.

The first clue that the four upper lines comprised an intelligible text came from another Israeli scholar, Aron Dotan. In a published article he argued that the text above the alphabet told of the gift of some garments from one person to an other, both of whom the text named. He found the name Baal as a part of the name of one of those persons; he found the word for "garment" at the beginning of the second line, and he found the verb "to come" occurring in three of the four lines of the text. These insights represented major advances toward understanding this text.

The ostracon seems to reflect an early concludstage in the development of writing of Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew reads from right to left, but the writing on the ostracon must be read from left to right to make sense of any of its words.

I was led to a study of this text by Dotan's work. At first I interpreted the text in a similar way, as a donation text. However, I suggested that the garments were given to a statue of Baal in a temple rather than to an individual whose personal name incorporated that of Baal. I wrote up my findings as an article and submitted it to a professional journal, which accepted it. As it awaited publication, I came to some different conclusions about the text and withdrew the article.

A graduate student's inquiries about the ostracon led me back to it again.

This time I noticed that Dotan and I had misread the first word at the beginning of the second line. We had taken the consonants as ktn, standing for the Hebrew word ketonet, "garment." Closer inspection revealed that the word read more accurately as kttm, that is, as Kittim (with the vowels supplied).

Kittim originally denoted people from Cyprus, but it soon came to mean any people who entered the Near East from the Mediterranean: "Sea Peoples," as it were. Since the Philistines were such a group, I wondered if this text might have something to do with contacts between the Philistines and the Israelites.

Further work on published photo graphs of the text revealed some place names in the last half of the second line and in the third line. Since two of the names appear in the story of the loss of the ark to the Philistines, I began to think this text might be an extrabiblical reference to that event.

Elucidating this matter has taken a lot of work. I am pleased now to present to the readers of Ministry in popular form the results of that research. In this presentation I provide a line drawing of the text and a proposed transliteration and translation. The line drawing (see figure) is taken from a comparison of the photographs of the text that have appeared in scholarly journals and the original in its display cabinet in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

In the transliteration and translation that follow, the slash indicates the break in the middle of the sherd.

Line 1 'el idy 'atyn / ' apq msl

Unto the field we came, / (unto) Aphek from Shiloh.

Line 2 kttm Iqh 'at I'azr / dgn b'l 'asdd gt

The Kittim took (it) and came to Azor, (to) / Dagon the lord of Ashdod, (to) Gath,

Line 3 y'rm qryh

(and to) Yearim Kiriah.

Line 4 r' rglm Hpn 'at Igh/ d zqnm sws ba' 'al 'ah Iqbrn

The companion of the foot soldiers, Hophni, came to / tell the elders, "a horse has come (and) upon (it was my) brother for us to bury."

Line 5 'a, b, g, d, h, n(l), w, h, z, t, y, k, I, m, I s, p, ', s, q, r, s/s, t

The alphabet.

Deciphering the ostracon

The first half of the first line can be read with relative ease. The second half is more difficult because of the damaged condition of the sherd. This line tells of the Israelite approach to the battlefield where they subsequently engaged the Philistines.

The first part of the second line is also easier to read than its last part. The first word, Kittim, mentioned above as a designation for the Sea Peoples, included the Philistines. The verb "to take" follows. From the biblical narrative we may infer that the object taken here must have been the ark. The verb "to come" follows after this, and then comes a preposition (le) that introduces a series of place names.

The first one listed before the break in the sherd reads quite clearly as Azor. The Bible does not mention Azor, but other ancient sources, such as Sennacherib's Annals, do mention it. From these sources we know that it was located in the central coastal plain. Brief excavations at this site have revealed its thoroughly Philistine character.

At the end of the second line, along the edge of the sherd, the name of Ashdod appears. Just below it are the two letters gt that stand for Gath. (Ancient texts, including pre-Christian biblical manuscripts, did not use vowel letters.)

The short third line proved confusing until I recognized that the words relate to the place name Kiriath-jearim, except that the writer inverted their order. The inversion of the two elements in the name may have been by design in order to indicate the direction of motion, the return of the ark to Israelite territory. After a very short stop at Beth-shemesh, the ark came to rest at Kiriathjearim for 20 years. This longer, more significant stay probably indicates why the text skipped over Beth-shemesh.

Of the four place names written in the second and third lines, three occur in the biblical narrative of 1 Samuel 4-7: Ashdod, Gath, and Kiriath-jearim. The mention of Azor adds to our knowledge of the stops that the ark made traveling through Philistine territory. This stop probably was more in the nature of a way station on the return to the Philis tine homeland in comparison with the more prolonged stops in the major cities.

The ostracon skips over the last Philistine site mentioned in the Bible (Ekron) and also the first Israelite site to which the ark returned (Beth-shemesh). Ekron would only have added to the list of the sites in Philistia, and the significance of Kiriath-jearim has already been mentioned above. If I have read the difficult portion of the text in the middle of the second line correctly, this text also implies a knowledge of the confrontation that occurred between Yahweh and Dagon at Ashdod.

The first line of the ostracon, then, refers to Israel's coming to the battle. The second and third lines mention the sites to which the ark traveled after the Philistines captured it, including an Israelite site to which it was returned. The fourth line returns to the scene of the battle to give a more intimate glimpse into the course of events there. The name Hophni, written with a reasonable degree of clarity, appears in this final line of the account. Hophni is described as returning to the camp along with some soldiers to give a report to the elders waiting there. The battle is not over yet, but already he could give a report that portended a disastrous conclusion. In his report he told the elders, "A horse has come [and] upon [it was my] brother for us to bury."

This statement reveals a touch of poignant literary artistry. Seeing Hophni returning to the camp empty-handed, and hearing that his brother was slain, the elders perceived all they needed to know about the fate of the ark. It had been lost in the battle!


By way of a summary we observe that the ostracon provides the same general outline of the events as does 1 Samuel 4-7. The biblical account naturally includes more than this brief four-line text. Nevertheless, there are some details recorded on the sherd not mentioned in the biblical record.

For example, the text notes that Israel's troops mustered out of Shiloh (the location of the tabernacle), about 20 to 25 miles east of Aphek. We can only imagine that Eli offered sacrifice in behalf of the warriors and sent them with his priestly blessing. The text also refers to Azor as the first stop for the Philistine army returning from the battle. The biblical record does not mention this site, probably because it served only as a way station. The biblical record describes the scene at Shiloh when the news of the disastrous defeat was received. But the text indicates Hophni brought more immediate intelligence on the course of the conflict to the elders at the base camp while the battle was in progress.

The end result, later reported to Eli at Shiloh, could already be seen as developing and probably inevitable even by that time. This detail also gives us a relative time frame in which the two priestly brothers died. Phinehas died before Hophni, for Hophni reported his death back to the camp. Hophni then returned to the battle, where he too fell.

Judging from its contents, a scribe who was well acquainted with the details of the tragic conflict wrote this account of the battle of Aphek and related events after the ark was returned to Kiriath-jearim.

Outside of this text, the Izbet Sartah ostracon, the earliest reference we know of from an extrabiblical source to an Old Testament event is Shishak's inscription on the wall of the Karnak temple in Egypt. There he referred to the campaign mentioned in 1 Kings 14:25, 26. This campaign occurred in the latter half of the tenth century B.C. The Philistine campaign described in 1 Samuel 4-7 and in the Izbet Sartah ostracon occurred in the first half of the eleventh century B.C., or about a century and a half earlier than Shishak's campaign.

The earliest extrabiblical reference to a person known from the Old Testament occurs in several Assyrian texts, which name Omri, the king of Israel who built Samaria as his capital. In this new text we have a reference by name as early as the eleventh century B.C. to an individual Israelite who is known from the Bible, a reference made approximately two centuries before the time of Omri.

So, though difficult to read, the Izbet Sartah ostracon has extended our knowledge of events and persons mentioned both in the Bible and in extrabiblical sources by approximately two centuries. And it has provided us with several new items of information about the important episode described in 1 Samuel 4-7, the battle of Aphek and the events surrounding it.

Kochavi, M. "An Ostracon of the Period of the Judges
From 'Izbet Sartah," Tel Aviv 4 (1977): 1-13. (A
preliminary report on the excavations at Izbet Sartah
and the discovery of the ostracon.)
Finkelstein, I. 'Izbet Sartah: An Early Iron Age Site
Near Rosh Ha'ayin. Israel, BAR, International Series
299. Oxford: B.A.R.. 1986. (The final report on the
excavations at Izbet Sartah.)
Demsky, A. "A Proto-Canaanite Abecedary Dating From
the Period of the Judges and Its Implications for the
History of the Alphabet," Tel Aviv 4 (1977): 14-27.
(The initial decipherment of the alphabet on the ostra
Dotan, A. "New Liaht on the 'Izbet Sar tah Ostracon,"
Tel Aviv 8 (1981): 160-172. (The initial attempt to
decipher the text of the ostracon as a whole.)
Shea, W. "The 'Izbet Sartah Ostracon," Andrews
University Seminary Studies'2% (Spring 1990): 59-86.
(The decipherment upon which this review and abstract
is based.)

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The Izbet Sartah ostracon may be the earliest extrabiblical source that names a biblical personality and supplements the Bible's account of a historical event.

July 1991

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