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The Alphabet from ‘Izbet Sartah

The State of Writing in the Period of the Judges

Stephen Broyles

The Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah (1200–1000 b.c.) showing characters of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to which our modern alphabet is related.


In August 1976 a joint expedition of Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities was excavating the site of an ancient Israelite village. The site was occupied during the period 1200-1000 B.C., but not before that time or after. The place has the modern Arabic name ‘Izbet Sartah.

The village is roughly two miles east of the ancient Philistine city Aphek, on the road running between Aphek and Shiloh. It was the far outpost of Israelite holdings during the time before the Philistine wars. The site may be biblical Ebenezer, where the Israelites mustered their army at the beginning of the war (1 Sa. 4).

During the course of the excavation, two fragments from a large earthenware jar were found at the bottom of a storage pit. The fragments fitted together, and upon close examination, proved to bear writing (Moshe Kochavi, “An Ostracon of the Period of the Judges from ‘Izbet Sartah,” Tel Aviv 4 [1977]:1-13).

The find itself was modest: a bit of broken pottery on which someone had scratched an alphabet and a text that seemed to be a copying exercise: eighty-something letters in all. The text (if text it is) could not be understood. The scholars who originally examined it had no difficulty reading the individual letters, but they could not discover that the letters spelled anything. And yet this scrap of writing has its story to tell.

To begin, it bridges a gap in our knowledge of the development of writing. The earliest system of writing, dating around 3500 B.C., was pictographic. That is, to represent a thing, you drew a picture of it. The system of pictographs had its uses, but it was clumsy if you wanted to express complex ideas. Eventually it was replaced by alphabetic writing. The ‘Izbet Sartah inscription dates from the time when writing was undergoing this fundamental change.

Pictographic elements are present in several of the letters. The aleph is still drawn like an ox’s head, horns to the left. Kaf is drawn like a hand with three (or five?) fingers. Even so, this is a true alphabet deviating only slightly from the twenty-two-letter alphabet known to later Hebrew. Aaron Demsky, summing up the significance of the find, says that it is “the missing link in the evolution of the alphabet from Proto-Canaanite to the Old Hebrew and Phoenecian scripts. Some of the letters hark back to the older alphabets while others anticipate later forms” (Aaron Demsky, “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 inscription, furthermore, bears witness to Hebrew literacy in the period of the Judges. It tells us that in a rural Israelite village, two centuries before the monarchy that began with King Saul, someone picked up a piece of broken pottery to practice making his or her letters. Where there are letters there is literacy, and where there is literacy there is the possibility, at least, of literature.

Other nations of the Fertile Crescent possessed rich literatures long before there was a nation of Israel. The literature of the Bible is a relative late comer. Most of the biblical literature, indeed, was written long after these letters from ‘Izbet Sartah were scratched on this piece of broken pottery. But the Bible does mention writing in the early stages of its history. The commandments were written; the Song of Moses was written; Moses kept a written travel itinerary (Exodus 24:4; Deuteronomy 31:22; 32:1-43; Numbers 33:2).

The inscription from ‘Izbet Sartah shows how this literature was kept alive. The aristocratic poetry and chronicles of other Near Eastern peoples lay buried for thousands of years until recent excavations dug them up again. Or else they were inscribed on tomb and temple walls in a language which remained, until recently, unreadable. But the Hebrew literature remained alive for every generation that valued it, because it belonged to king and commoner alike, and because its treasures were open to anyone who had learned an alphabet of twenty-two letters.





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