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News & Articles

Echoes from the Past. Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period

05.06.11 | Denver Journal, News, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Shmuel Aḥituv

    Dr. Richard Hess reviews this book for the Denver Journal

    Aḥituv, Shmuel.  Echoes from the Past. Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period.  Trans. and ed. Anson F. Rainey.  Jerusalem: Carta, 2008.  xiv + 512 pp.  Hardback, $98.00.  ISBN 978-965-220-708-1. 

    Aḥituv has contributed an important study text for those who wish to read the major representatives of the Iron Age Northwest Semitic inscriptions of the southern Levant.  The scholarship of Aḥituv was originally published in modern Israeli Hebrew.  Anson Rainey has made this available to English reading students by translating the work.  In addition to his major publications on historical geography and on the Amarna texts, the late University of Tel Aviv professor of Ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures will leave students and scholars further in his debt for this major contribution to Northwest Semitic studies. 

    In the introduction Aḥituv briefly traces the origin and early history of the alphabet that formed the dominant writing system for Northwest Semitic.  He introduces the orthography and paleography, as well as discussing vocalization.  In this he all too briefly addresses the vexed issue of matres lectiones, i.e., the vowel letters and when they appear.  The introduction concludes with a discussion of forgeries and a small review of previous corpora like this one.  Although admittedly not yet settled, Aḥituv follows many in labeling the ivory pomegranate as a forgery.  Overall, this is a helpful introduction but does not replace a full grammatical study of epigraphic Hebrew or of the related dialects.  The second chapter turns to the largest collection of epigraphic texts in the book, those from the territory traditionally attributed to Judah.  Within each chapter the presentation of texts is arranged more or less chronologically.  Although published too early for the Qeiyafa inscription (which is unfortunate, as it would have been helpful to have the perspectives of Aḥituv and Rainey included here), Aḥituv begins with Tel Zayit.  For this abecedary there is a discussion of the provenance, paleography, order of the letters, and a photo and hand drawing. 

    The second Judean inscription is the Siloam Tunnel text.  It is much better known and provides a model for how Aḥituv handles most of the texts he studies.  As with Tel Zayit there is an introduction describing the provenance and background information that may be related to Israelite history and the biblical text.  This is followed by a transliteration in customary Hebrew characters and then a vocalization with Masoretic pointing and a reconstruction that often fills in lacunae.  There is then an English translation followed by philological, grammatical, and syntactical notes that move in sequence through the lines of the text.  A few comments at the end may address items of particular interest.  There is always an up-to-date bibliography to conclude the text.  In every case there are one or more pages, somewhere in the section discussing the relevant inscription, that include a fine black and white photo and a hand drawing.  In this way Aḥituv addresses each inscription as he moves through the corpus.  He is not all-inclusive.  Thus not every Lachish (or Arad or Samaria) inscription is presented; but all the important ones are. Thus all that is necessary to read for an introduction to Iron Age inscriptions in Hebrew can be found here.

    After the chapter on Judah (which ends with a section on Weights and Measures, as do the following two chapters), there follows a chapter on inscriptions from within the traditional region of the northern kingdom of Israel.  This one begins with Izbet Sartah.  The point is not that it represents later Hebrew orthography (and therefore is Hebrew in that sense), but that it is found in the Iron Age within this geographical region.  Subsequent to this there follows in order all the important inscriptions from Iron Age Philistia, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.  The Combinations of the Tell Deir Alla inscription are also discussed, as is the Tel Dan inscription.  Although the latter does not fall within the Canaanite dialects, it comes from the region under study and indeed is so important that it is entirely in order to include it in an appendix.   A discussion on proper names is followed by full sets of indices.

    This is an extremely useful work for learning to read these inscriptions and for regular reference to them.  The only English language competitor is the Princeton volume by Dobbs-Allsopp, Roberts, Seow, and Whitaker.  It is much more complete in the inscriptions that it addresses, and it includes a (more or less) complete set of seal and bullae.  However, there are no Hebrew characters. Everything is in transliteration.  There are no photos or hand copies, either, and this is a great disservice for someone learning to read the texts and their script.   An understanding and familiarity with the orthography is essential.  Even if one is not going to be a professional paleographer, an understanding of what can and cannot be known from the actual inscription is essential to interpreting and working with these texts.  Furthermore, Aḥituv’s volume is the only English language work that includes the important texts from the surrounding dialects.  Thus while Dobbs-Allsopp et al. will remain an essential reference work for the study of all these inscriptions, it cannot compete with Aḥituv for its selection of the texts that need to and can be read, and for its presentation of those texts at all the important levels necessary for their study (including photos and hand copies). 

    This is not to suggest that the work is perfect.  This writer would have appreciated more consideration of some inscriptions such as the ivory pomegranate, with all due caution that they may be a forgery.  But they may be authentic and so should not be ignored.  The understanding of the spelling of “Asherah” and the putative pronominal suffix at Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom does not really appreciate that grammatical rules should be followed unless there is no other explanation, nor does it fully take into account the possibility of the name as Asheratah, in accordance with what is know about every extra-biblical spelling of the deity and about the representation of the long final a in the vocalization of names from this region and period.  Further, while all the other major epigraphers and their contributions are taken into consideration, it is not clear to this reader why the original readings and interpretation of Ziony Zevit seem to be ignored or diminished.  His work, including a great deal of primary source study with the original inscriptions, should have been given more consideration than it was.  Finally, a work like this will inevitably contain the occasional typo.  Happily, this volume seems largely free of them and those that do exist can easily be detected.  I would only mention here that the photo and hand copy of Makkedah no. 6 on p. 227 is erroneously labeled No. 4. 

    This latter error was noted by a student in my class.  Having used it for this past term as a class text book, I will plan to so again (if the work is updated periodically).  It is the best available introduction to the Iron Age Northwest Semitic inscriptions of the southern Levant.  In this way it is a tribute to the scholarship of Aḥituv and a fitting remembrance of Rainey in this one area (among many) of his expertise.

    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Professor Old Testament and Semitic Languages
    Denver Seminary
    May 2011