TEXT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: Earliest Form of Writing In Israel

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Writing Before the Flood

It is impossible to definitely establish that some of the histories that are mentioned in the book of Genesis had been written prior to the Flood, as the Bible does not contain any reference to pre-Flood writing. However, we should note that there were cities being built, and there was the development of musical instruments, as well as iron and copper tools prior to the Flood. (Ge 4:17, 21, 22) Moreover, it should be noted that before the Flood mankind was closer to human perfection and all of those listed in the genealogical logical list of Genesis Chapter 5 lived hundreds of years, Methuselah specifically, for example, live to be 969 years old. Certainly, it is no stretch to say that humans that lived to be close to one thousand years old certainly had a superior intellect, especially when we know they were closer to human perfection. Reasonably, therefore, humanity prior to the Flood would have had a very little difficulty and developing an alphabet and a writing method. Further, it seems logical that the small humanity of a few hundred to a few thousand would have had only one language, which I would argue it is the very language that would later become known based on the fact that she Shem was not punished at the tower of Babel when everybody else is language was confused. This suggests that alphabet writing could have existed before the Flood.

Assyrian King Ashurbanipal spoke of reading “inscriptions on stone from the time before the flood.” (Light From the Ancient Past, by J. Finegan, 1959, pp. 216-217) However, these inscriptions may well have simply preceded an enormous local flood, making the reference to “the time before the flood,” meaningless as to the flood of Noah, Or it could have been that it referred to the account of events prior to the Flood of Noah, We cannot say for certain.

Biblical chronology places the global Flood of Noah’s day around 2400-2300 B.C.E. Archaeological finds have assigned dates much earlier than this too numerous clay tablets that have been excavated. However, it should be noted that these clay tablets do not have dates on them. Thus, the dates that have been assigned to them are simply conjectural and cannot tell us with certainty that there was writing prior to the Flood. Thus, none of these artifacts can be placed to a time before the flood with any great certainty. However, while it would be arguing from silence, there is nothing to say that they did not exist prior to the flood either.

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Writing After the Flood

After the Flood, God confused the languages of the people who were rebelling against his commands at the tower of Babel. It was after this that various systems of writing came into existence.

Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31:  indicates that there were many languages, while 11:1 says “one language.” Why?

Genesis 10:5, 20, 31 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations. 20 These are the sons of Ham, according to their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations. 31 These are the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, according to their nations.

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Genesis 11:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

11 Now the whole earth had one language [literally, “one lip”] and the same words.

This is talking about two different time periods. In the earlier of the two, the tribes of Ham, Shem, and Japheth all spoke the same language. Later, the people rebelled against Jehovah’s explicit command to spread out and fill the earth. (Gen. 9:1) Therefore, God confused their languages, to facilitate his purpose that they fill the earth. Now that they could no longer understand each other, they had no alternative but to spread out and fill the earth. It should be noted that each person did not receive a new language, each family did, which kept the families (tribes) together.

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The Bible is the most trusted historical source, which gives us evidence of the origin or beginning of the Hebrew language. “In July 2008 Israeli archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel discovered a ceramic shard at Khirbet Qeiyafa “Five lines of ancient script on a shard of pottery could be the oldest example of Hebrew writing ever discovered, an archaeologist in Israel says. The shard was found by a teenage volunteer during a dig about 20km (12 miles) south-west of Jerusalem. Experts at Hebrew University said dating showed it was written 3,000 years ago – about 1,000 years earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Lead archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel identified it as Hebrew because of a three-letter verb meaning ‘to do’ which he said was only used in Hebrew. ‘That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found’[1] Up until 2008, “the earliest Hebrew inscription thus far discovered, the Gezer Calendar is from the tenth century B.C.E. and the Mesha Inscription from the ninth century B.C.E.”[2]

Hebrew, of course, was spoken by “Abram the Hebrew” (Gen. 14:13), who was born around 2000 B.C.E., and his descendants. In turn, Abraham was a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. (Ge 11:10-26) Hebrew is, of course, a Semitic language (Shem being the forerunner). It is true, not all of Shem’s descendants continued to speak the “one language” (Gen. 11:1) that seems to predate the flood in its pure form. This is apparent from the differences that developed among the Semitic languages, which would include Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, as well as the various Arabic dialects. Making some inferences here, we note that of the post-flood people living in the Mesopotamia area, it was Shem alone who received a blessing from God. (Gen. 9:26) Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Shem did not have his language changed like the others who rebelled at the Tower of Babel. (Gen. 11:5-9) It only seems reasonable that Shem spoke the language of Hebrew and being that it was likely not changed, it was the same as it had been previously before the flood. In other words, it was the “one language” that had existed from Adam and thereafter, until the rebellion at Babel. (Gen. 11:1) Yes, we are inferring that the first language of man was what would later be called Hebrew. However, this does not mean that every language derived from and are related to early Hebrew, as was said above every family and tribe except Shem had their language changed when they rebelled at Babel. What we are saying is, it seems likely that Hebrew preceded all of the other languages, as secular history knows no other.

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The Old Testament Text Prior to 400 B.C.

Since there is so little evidence concerning this early period, we are left with several significant questions. First, in what language(s) were the earliest biblical manuscripts written? Bruce Waltke and Michael O’Connor believe that Moses wrote in some form of Hebrew, but they also point out that several languages of the period were fairly similar:

A variety of related languages and dialects, more or less closely related to Hebrew, were recorded at the time Hebrew scriptures were being written. The Iron Age (1200–500 B.C.) forms a convenient watershed in the history of Syro-Palestinian languages, though the significance of the year 1200 should not be exaggerated: the earliest Biblical Hebrew had a great deal in common with Ugaritic and Amarna Canaanite.[3] [It should be remembered that Moses penned the first five books between 1500 and 1470 C.C.E., according to Bible chronology, three hundred years earlier than what is being spoken of here. – Edward D. Andrews]

Drawing of a potsherd from Gezer

Figure 3.1. (1) Drawing of a potsherd from Gezer, (2) a plaque from Shechem and (3) a photo of a dagger from Lachish with inset of inscription [Israel Antiquities Authority]

Some of these early Semitic alphabetic inscriptions go back to the early second millennium (e.g., graffiti from the turquoise mining area of Serbit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula [c. 1475 B.C.], inscription from Byblos [c. 2000 B.C.], a potsherd from Gezer [c.1800–1650 B.C.])[4] and have striking similarities to paleo (early)-Hebrew (e.g., they are an alphabetic language, have similar vocabulary, and a similar script, see fig. 3.1).

Thus the earliest biblical texts were probably written in paleo-Hebrew script,[5] though there are no actual extant Hebrew texts that predate about 800 B.C. (e.g., seal of Jeroboam II, c. 786–746 B.C., see fig. 3.2; Hezekiah’s tunnel inscription, c. 701 B.C.; silver amulets, c. mid-seventh century B.C.)—the earliest extant texts are written in this script.

Seal found at Megiddo carved in jasper “Belonging to Shema, servant of Jeroboam”

Figure 3.2. Seal found at Megiddo carved in jasper: “Belonging to Shema, servant of Jeroboam” (c. 786–746 B.C.) [Israel Antiquities Authority]

The changeover from paleo-Hebrew to square (or Aramaic) script took place between the fifth and third centuries B.C.[6] and would probably have been hastened by the Jewish exile in Babylon, where Aramaic was the common language.[7] Knowing about the similarities between specific letters in both paleo-Hebrew and square script can help identify and date certain copying mistakes. For example, the wāw and the yôd were very similar in the Hebrew square script written at Qumran, but they are not as similar in paleo-Hebrew script (see figure 3.3).

Paleo-Hebrew Script Square Script
waw                  yod

wāw                yôd

 

   ו          י

wāw     yôd      waw yod waw

Qumran Text

 

 

 

Figure 3.3. Differences between paleo-Hebrew script and square script [8]

 

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Phoenician Alphabet

Phoenician alphabet

The Cuneiform

Of the literature of Canaan before the Israelites entered it the remains consist of a number of cuneiform tablets found since 1892 at Lachish, Gezer (Samaria ostraca, the Arad ostraca, and the Lachish ostraca; dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries B.C.E.), Taanach and Megiddo, but especially of the famous the Tell el-Amarna Letters, discovered in Egypt in 1887. Although this non-alphabetic script was in use in Canaan when the Israelites entered it, they do not seem to have adopted it. When Abraham the Hebrew entered the land of Canaan, he clearly had no difficulty in communicating with the Hamitic people. (Gen. 14:21-24; 20:1-16; 21:22-34) There is no mention of interpreters, but then again when he entered into the land of Egypt there is no mention of interpreters either. (Gen. 12:14-19) Abraham perhaps knew Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) because he spent the first 75 years of his life in Ur of the Chaldeans. (Ge 11:31) For some time, Akkadian was an international language. There is also the possibility that the people of Canaan, living in close proximity to the Semitic people of Syria and Arabia, were able to speak two different languages. Then, again, the alphabet clearly is of Semitic origin, which could also have played a considerable role in influencing the use of Semitic tongues by persons of other language groups, predominantly rulers and officials.

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Name Meaning

Phoneme

Origin

Corresponding Letter In

Text Aram. Hebrew Syriac
𐤀 ʾālep ox ʾ [ʔ] 𓃾 𐡀 א ܐ
𐤁 bēt house b [b] 𓉐 𐡁 ב ܒ
𐤂 gīml throwing stick/camel g [ɡ] 𓌙 𐡂 ג ܓ
𐤃 dālet door d [d] 𓇯 𐡃 ד ܕ
𐤄 window h [h] 𓀠 𐡄 ה ܗ
𐤅 wāw hook w [w] 𓏲 𐡅 ו ܘ
𐤆 zayin weapon z [z] 𓏭 𐡆 ז ܙ
𐤇 ḥēt wall, courtyard ḥ [ħ] 𓉗 or 𓈈 𐡇 ח ܚ
𐤈 ṭēt wheel ṭ [tˤ] 𓄤 𐡈 ט ܛ
𐤉 yōd hand y [j] 𓂝 𐡉 י ܝ
𐤊 kāp palm (of a hand) k [k] 𓂧 𐡊 כך ܟ
𐤋 lāmed goad l [l] 𓌅 𐡋 ל ܠ
𐤌 mēm water m [m] 𓈖 𐡌 מם ܡ
𐤍 nūn serpent n [n] 𓆓 𐡍 נן ܢ
𐤎 sāmek fish, djed s [s] 𓊽 𐡎 ס ܣ, ܤ
𐤏 ʿayin eye ʿ [ʕ] 𓁹 𐡏 ע ܥ
𐤐 mouth p [p] 𓂋 𐡐 פף ܦ
𐤑 ṣādē ? (papyrus?) ṣ [sˤ] 𓇑 𐡑 צץ ܨ
𐤒 qōp needle eye q [q] 𓃻 𐡒 ק ܩ
𐤓 rēš head r [r] 𓁶 𐡓 ר ܪ
𐤔 šīn tooth š [ʃ] 𓌓 𐡔 ש ܫ
𐤕 tāw mark t [t] 𓏴 𐡕 ת ܬ

Phoenicia

References to Writing in the Old Testament

The earliest reference to writing in the Old Testament is Ex. 17:14. The next is Ex. 24:7, mentioning the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:1-26 through Ex 23:1-33). The Book of the Wars of Jehovah is named in Num. 21:14. Other early references are Jg 5:14 margin; Jg 8:14 margin. By the time of the monarchy, the king and nobles could write (2Sa 11:14; 8:17), but not the common people, until the time of Amos and Hosea, when writing seems to have been common.

Inscriptions after Settlement in Canaan

The Phoenician script prevailed in Palestine after the conquest as well as in the countries bordering on it. This is shown by the inscriptions which have been discovered. The chief of these are the Baal Lebanon inscription found in Cyprus (beginning of the 9th century); the manuscript of about the year 896 of the ordinary chronology; a Hebrew agricultural calendar of the 8th century; fifteen lion-weights from Nineveh of about the year 700; the Siloam Inscription of the time of Hezekiah; about a score of seals; and, in 1911, a large number of ostraca of the time of Ahab.

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The orthography of the Period

In this oldest writing, the vowels are rarely expressed, not even final vowels being indicated. The only mark beside the letters is a point separating the words. There are no special forms for final letters. Words are often divided at the ends of lines. The writing is from right to left. The characters of the Siloam Inscription and the ostraca show some attempt at elegant writing.

Thomas Hunter Weir and Edward D. Andrews

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[1] “(Oldest Hebrew script’ is found: BBC News. 30 October 2008. Retrieved 28 November 2018. http://tiny.cc/xoib1y)

[2] Susan Anne Groom, Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew (Carlisle, Cumbria; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003), 8.

[3] Bruce K. Waltke and Michael O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990), pp. 3, 8.

[4] See Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 79–81.

[5] See Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 4; Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), pp. 218–20; David Diringer, “The Biblical Scripts,” in CHB 1:12.

[6] William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1960), pp. 149–50; Frank M. Cross, “The Oldest Manuscripts from Qumran,” JBL 74 (1955): 147–72 (repr. in QHBT, pp. 147–76); Frank M. Cross, “The Development of the Jewish Scripts” in BANE, pp. 133–202.

[7] Franz Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, Porta Linguarum Orientalium (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1974), pp. 5–6.[5]

[8] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 59–60.

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