An apparent press release from the University of Haifa (though not yet posted on the school’s website) says the oldest known Hebrew inscription — found more than a year ago — calls for social sensitivity to slaves, widows, orphans, and strangers. Those sentiments, similar in thought to biblical texts like Isaiah 1:17, Deuteronomy 10:18 and many others, are bound to engender future studies about the understanding of justice in ancient Israel.
At present, however, its translator is putting more emphasis on what he believes the text reveals about the prevalence of writing in ancient Israel and the date at which the scriptures were composed. The inscription was discovered during excavations led by Yosef Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa near the Elah valley, about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem, and announced shortly thereafter. Written on a pottery shard about six by seven inches in size, it was dated to the 10th century BCE, the time of King David and his immediate successors.
There has been some question about whether the inscription is in Hebrew or some other local language, as several of the ancient Northwest Semitic languages used variations of the same proto-Canaanite script and had much vocabulary in common. Gershon Galil, the University of Haifa professor charged with translating the inscription, insists that the inscription is indeed an early form of Hebrew, pointing to the use of several words or word forms that are common to Hebrew but rare in related languages.
I’m not a good enough linguist to argue with him about that, but I believe he goes too far in his claims for what the text demonstrates. According to the press release, he stated that the text “indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.”
Hold your camels, professor, that’s a stretch. I’m not questioning whether Israel had a king by then, but this inscription doesn’t demonstrate it. The existence of a 10th century Hebrew ostraca in a fortress guarding a highway through the Judean hinterlands does indeed provide extrabiblical evidence for some sort of organized Hebrew presence that might well have been a kingdom, but that can only be extrapolated so far.
The biggest stretch is Galil’s claim that the inscription indicates “at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.” Critical scholars, for a variety of reasons, routinely suggest that the Pentateuch, while containing ancient traditions, may not have reached its final form until the fourth or fifth century BCE. The inscription reflects thoughts similar to sentiments expressed in a variety of biblical texts, and that certainly suggests something about the antiquity of important notions about social justice in Israel. It may indicate the presence of some written traditions, but it doesn’t begin to prove that Deuteronomy or any other biblical books that mention widows and orphans had been completed by that time. If that’s what Galil meant, I believe he’s gone beyond the evidence.
In either case, there’s little question that the inscription is extremely significant, and will be the subject of debate (and competing translations) for years to come. For the record, here is an English version of Galil’s efforts at deciphering the difficult text (brackets indicate where the text is broken and assumed words or letters have been restored):
1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
If Galil’s translation is correct, the ancient text is a reminder that the importance of loving one’s neighbor, especially those who are the least fortunate, has been a cardinal rule among the Hebrews for a long, long time. May that teaching — and practice — never cease.
[Image courtesy of the University of Haifa.]