Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Aituv, Shmuel, Echoes from the Past. Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical World (trans. A. Rainey; Jerusalem: Carta, 2008). Pp. xiv + 512. ISBN 978-965-220-708-1.

English-speaking epigraphists and students already have at their disposal several recent collections of Paleo-Hebrew texts: G. I. Davies' Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions[1] aims to be a comprehensive corpus of transcriptions of texts accompanied by a concordance, but without critical discussion or illustrations; the collection Hebrew Inscriptions (by scholars from Princeton Theological Seminary)[2] has the same purpose (albeit excluding the most fragmentary inscriptions), but provides notes on readings, philology, and onomastics; J. Renz' Handbuch der altenhebraïschen Epigraphik[3] includes detailed bibliographical, philological, and paleographical information, including rich script charts and facsimile. However, the handbook written by the famous Israeli epigraphist S. Aituv was only available in Modern Hebrew[4] and for years it was a desideratum to have it translated into English. This work has now been done by A. Rainey, who is also credited as “academic editor” since he made many suggestions adopted by Aituv here and there in the book, although they are not indicated. Notable additions to the Hebrew edition are a short section on the Tel Zayit abecedary and an appendix on the Tel Dan stela. As the title suggests, Echoes from the Past is basically a collection of annotated texts, but with some special features.

First, the scope of this work encompasses epigraphic finds from languages “cognate” to Hebrew. While most of the book is devoted to texts from Judah and Israel, it includes five other chapters on texts from Philistia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and on the Deir ʿAllah plaster inscription, as well as an appendix on the Tel Dan stela. At the same time, there is no claim to be comprehensive since it is only a selection of texts in each category. Moreover, this book leaves aside seals and bullae, for which Aituv recommends consulting the Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (N. Avigad/B. Sass).[5] Thus, the scope of this book is both larger than other comparable works in that it extends the study to other corpus than Paleo-Hebrew, and more limited with regard to the number of Paleo-Hebrew inscriptions it studies. Let us have a brief look at the choice made for each category.

Judean texts (ch. 1) comprise: the Tel Zayit abecedary; the most important inscriptions from Jerusalem (Siloam inscription; stela fragment and ostraca from the City of David; stela fragment and ostraca from the Ophel, and an inscription on a pithos; inscriptions from burial caves of the Kidron Cliff and Ketef Hinnom amulets); samples of the “classical” collections from Arad and Lachish, as well as from the now entirely published corpus from orvat ʿUzza; ostraca from various sites (Tell Qasile, Mead ashavyahu, Tel Masos, Tel ʿIra, Kadesh-Barnea, Khirbet Beit Lei). It should be noted that the book says that 17 Paleo-Hebrew ostraca were found at orvat ʿUzza, whereas twice as many are published in the final excavation reports (cited in the bibliography). Other supports are represented, with the papyrus from Murabbaʿat, jar handles from Gibeon and Moa, graffiti from Khirbet el-Qôm, and some weights. The selection also includes eight unprovenanced ostraca, indicated by an asterisk, probably in fact from Khirbet el-Qôm. All in all, inscriptions from Beersheba, Aroer, Eshtemoa, Khirbet el-Meshash, Tell el-ei, Tell Beit Mirsim, Mareshah, Tell el-ʿAreni, Tel Batash, and Ramat Rael are left aside. It is notable that the Tel Zayit abecedary appears here as a Judean text, although this classification remains uncertain. The editio princeps considered it as a “transitional script that developed from the Phoenician tradition of the early Iron Age and anticipated the distinctive features of the mature Hebrew national script,”[6] and C. Rollston treated it as a Phoenician script.[7] It could indeed be Philistine, as Benjamin Sass proposes.[8]

Israelite texts (ch. 2) include: the ʿIzbet arah ostracon and the Gezer tablet; inscriptions from Samaria (samples of the ostraca, a stela fragment and a weight) and from Kuntillet ʿAjrûd; an ivory inscription from Calah; incisions from Hazor and Tel Kinrot. It would have been interesting to include the Beth Shean ostraca, since they seem to be economical texts roughly contemporary to the Samaria ostraca, and the Tel Reov inscriptions because they exemplify the script of the ninth century. It is to be noted that the classification of some of the oldest inscriptions is debated. Aituv considers the Gezer tablet to be Israelite, as many authors do, though he acknowledges that there are “no distinguishing features of the text that would set it apart as Israelite Hebrew in contrast to Phoenician” (p. 252). Indeed Aituv states that the classification rests on the “provenance” of the object, but apparently in the 10th century Gezer was successively Philistine and Israelite, so making a decision about its classification proves to be equivalent to making a decision about its date. And yet the paleography simply indicates a date in the 10th century, according to him. It would have been appreciated if Aituv had given a supplementary argument for his view that there is support for an Israelite origin and not for a Philistine one, as A. Lemaire advocates.[9] It is significant that P. K. McCarter prefers to speak here of a “South Canaanite” dialect rather than Hebrew.[10] As for the ʿIzbet arah ostracon, an Israelite classification is very difficult to ascertain; G. Garbini thinks it is written in Phoenician script, the first lines possibly in a Philistine language,[11] while A. Lemaire suggests that it could have been an exercise by an Israelite learning to write in contact with the Canaanite-Philistine culture of Apheq.[12] In any case, no reader will complain about finding a presentation of such interesting items in the book.

The space devoted to Philistine inscriptions (ch. 3) is relatively short, since this section presents only a few texts from Ekron (the Dedicatory inscription and some ink inscriptions on vessels), two ostraca from Tel Gamma, and a weight from Ashkelon. Yet many other texts could be classed as Philistine, as Lemaire has shown.[13] Similarly, there are only two Edomite texts (ch. 4) in this book (an ostracon from orvat ʿUzzah and another from Tell el-Kheleifeh), partly because there are only a few discovered and published inscriptions, and partly because of the choice to leave aside the sigillography. Conversely, the Ammonite corpus (ch. 5) is well represented, since the Amman Citadel inscription, the Tell Siran Bottle inscription, the Amman theater inscription, the Amman Statue inscription, and some ostraca from isban, Tell el-Mazar and Calah are studied. The section discussing the Moabite texts (ch. 6) is also satisfying, with the Kemoshyat and Mesha inscriptions, the new royal Moabite inscription published for the first time by Aituv himself in 2003, and the Marzea papyrus (both unprovenanced), as well as the Incense altar incision from Khirbet el-Mudeiyineh. An enigmatic inscription from the same site could, however, have been included.[14] Finally, the special chapter treating the “Balaam book” is relatively substantial and the appendix on the Tel Dan inscription proves to be useful, although it is intentionally short.

Overall, the most important items in each category are present, so students will get a very good overview of South-Levantine epigraphy through this selection. Moreover, they will find it very practical to have all this material gathered in the same handy volume.

The second distinctive feature of this book, and one of its more remarkable qualities, is that it provides photographs of virtually all the inscriptions it presents. Exceptions prove to be rare: the Ketef innom amulets (p. 49ss), two inscriptions on alabaster vessels (p. 242s) that were published in 1906 by Ch. Clermont-Ganneau, a weight (p. 248) Samaria ostracon No. 23 (p. 282), No. 32 (p. 291) and No. 63 (p. 309), a “literary” text from Kuntillet ʿAjrûd, (p. 324ss), the photographs of which are still unpublished (p. 324ss), and the Deir ʿAllah plaster combinations (p. 433ss). The photographs are in black and white, but are generally of reasonable quality and a good size. Aituv does a great service to users by offering easy access to these illustrations, since otherwise one has to navigate the very disparate literature to get some photographs and check the readings (note that none of the three works cited in the beginning of this review offers any photographs). Of course, epigraphists now have at their disposal some very high quality photographs thanks to the excellent database of the West Semitic Research Project,[15] but many inscriptions are not yet included, and in any case it is very practical to have them in a single book. Furthermore, in most cases the picture is accompanied by a hand drawing which will clarify the reading Aituv makes. Many of them have been taken from other publications but he has sometimes corrected them. For example, the facsimile of the Mesha stela comes from Lidzbarsky (p. 391), but Aituv has erased the last three letters of line 6 because Lidzbarsky did not transcribe them and because Aituv did not see them on the photograph of the squeeze (p. 401). He also takes up A. Lemaire's discovery of the reading BT[D]WD in line 31, and a supplementary facsimile of lines 30–32 is provided (p. 417) in order to support a reconstitution proposed by A. Rainey. There is an error on p. 227, where the photograph and the facsimile are of Khirbet el-Qôm inscription No. 6 and not No. 4 as indicated. Similarly, the transcription and the translation of Samaria ostracon No. 18 do not fit the photograph p. 278 (and the sketch).

A third aspect of this book should be emphasized: the focus of the annotations is on grammatical issues. A great deal of attention is devoted to questions relating to orthography and phonology (use or not of mater lectionis, reduction or not of diphthongs, etc.), as well as to morphology (especially when dealing with attestations of verb conjugations); this appears to be a good strategy to take advantage of studying texts which are often fragmentary. When possible, syntax problems are carefully addressed, with reference to comparable situations in the Hebrew Bible or to other epigraphic texts. Furthermore, Aituv offers not only a transcription of the text, but also in another column a vocalization of it. This is not an attempt to reconstruct the real pronunciation of the text at the time it was written, but it was done according to the Masoretic system in order to indicate which interpretation has been adopted for each word. Of course, this choice can be debated with respect to the principle as well as the detail of many propositions, in particular for texts written in non-Hebrew dialects.

In comparison, other aspects of the study of the inscriptions are less developed. General information given in introduction to the study of each text (or group of texts), whether about its provenance, its archaeological context (when known), or its date is generally very brief. In particular, the dating is often given without any explanation; sometimes the only indication is the opinion of one scholar. This leads to some debatable statements, especially for the Transjordan texts. According to Aituv, the Amman theater inscription “evidently dates to the end of the sixth century BCE” (p. 367), but one wonders how this can be claimed, since no stratified context was given by the excavator and the suggested paleographic dating is earlier (e.g. Cross proposed ca. 600 or slightly later,[16] Puech ca. 600 or slightly before[17]) and, given the few letters available for typological comparison, highly approximate. Regarding the Amman Citadel inscription, there seems to be an error: Aituv writes that “Cross has dated it to somewhere between the last quarter of the ninth and the first quarter of the eighth century BCE” (p. 357); in fact the epigraphist from Harvard University proposed 875–825 BCE,[18] Moreover, this inscription more likely dates to the first part of the 8th century.[19] No precise date during the 9th century is given to the Mesha stela, only the fact that it postdates Jehu's coup ca. 842 (p. 401). It could have been interesting to mention that many scholars situate it shortly after this event, and that another view is taken by A. Lemaire who considers this stela as a commemorative inscription of the end of Mesha's reign, ca. 810.

This leads us to two related matters which are not addressed in detail: the historical background and the paleographic discussion. Given the degree of detail that is accorded to grammatical considerations, it would have been conceivable to devote a little more space to these important topics. For example, a short paragraph pointing out the most significant letter shapes of each inscription or group of inscriptions would have been appreciated, and it would have furnished some basis for the dating. Moreover, a general comparative paleographic chart would have been useful (the one which is provided on p. 16 is very limited). With respect to the historical issue, there are only a few texts in this entire collection that give rise to detailed discussions, but although this is relatively well done for the Lachish ostraca, it could have been interesting to add some more remarks when dealing with the Mesha stela, or to mention Lemaire's hypothesis connecting the new royal Moabite inscription and the king Shalmân appearing in Hos 10:14 and probably as Salamanu in Tiglath-Pileser III's annals.[20] In addition, two seals mentioning a “servant of ʿAmminadab” (WSS 858 and 859) could have been cited during the study of the Tell Siran Bottle, because they probably refer to the ʿAmminadab it mentions in line 3, and this would reinforce the dating. Finally, Aituv writes that the Amman statue “is obviously a votive object dedicated to a temple” (p. 370), but one wonders why, since the statue probably represents a prince or a dignitary and its exact original archaeological context is unknown.[21]

Concerning the readings, Aituv has widely used former publications by other epigraphists and he has tried, as far as possible, to check them himself and correct them when necessary. However, he has not tried to revise the entire corpus with the same accuracy or to defend his own new readings in detail, because such a long task would have greatly complicated his work. He indicates by a dot above the letter when its reading appears uncertain, but does not provide alternative readings separated by slash marks. In some cases it could have been useful to indicate that some letters are under discussion among scholars. For example, Aituv adopts the reading MPQD as certain in both lines 1 and 3 of the ostracon from Tel ʿIra (p. 179–180), as recently proposed by Demsky,[22] but he does not report that in line 3 other epigraphists have read MWQR, and it seems exaggerated to consider the new proposal as proven without discussion. Similarly, for the Amman statue inscription, he retains the reading [Mʾ]ŠW for the first word (p. 369) after Starcky, but the Š should have been noted as uncertain since it is possible to read this letter as a M and to reconstruct DMW (cf. DMWTʾ on the Tell Fekherye statue),[23] which indeed is probably a better hypothesis. Moreover, Starcky proposed to read [M]ŠW and not [Mʾ]ŠW.[24] On the other hand, Aituv fairly and wisely reproduces the three main readings proposed for the Khirbet Beit Lei graffiti (by Naveh, Cross and Lemaire) because he was not able to decide between them (p. 233–236). As for the Samaria ostracon No. 44, his transcription and his sketch have only one line, which is surprising since one can easily see some letters of two supplementary lines on the photograph that he himself provides (p. 297). Admittedly, the reading is difficult but some letters are clear; on line 2, one should perhaps read MHPʾR, and on line 3, HYN.[25] Some improvements could be made with regard to the Ammonite corpus, where Aituv seems to rely generally on the editio princeps. For example, in the case of isban ostracon No. 1 he follows Cross, although some corrections would be necessary; some have already been pointed out by Puech[26] in a transcription and hand drawing (albeit without translation or interpretation of the new words it creates), while other and new interpretations of the corrections are proposed in a recent article by the reviewer and M. Weigl.[27] In this very case, a contradiction appears in the book between the reading of the relative pronoun as ʾŠ (line 6, p. 372) and the statement made (p. 424) that Ammonite uses Š (in contrast with ʾŠ in the Khirbet el-Mudeiyineh incense altar inscription). Indeed, the correct reading in isban ostracon A1 is Š.

Overall, it is evident that any epigraphist would have many remarks to make on particular points, as is inevitably the case in this field, and this is due to the very nature of this kind of handbook which is not intended to be a definitive edition of the texts it includes, nor to provide very detailed information about them—for the latter readers should consult Renz's work and further bibliography. Rather, the challenge for its author was to succeed in making a good selection among an immense corpus, gathering many dispersed data and presenting them in an efficient and accessible manner, with all the material which is necessary for a first study of each text, that is, not to offer an encyclopaedia but a real handbook. There is for the moment no equivalent manual (we are looking forward to the publication of the Epigraphic Handbook that C. Rollston announced at the ASOR and SBL annual meetings). One should be very grateful to Aituv for having accomplished this tour de force and for having thus provided a magnificent tool for teaching and studying epigraphy, and to Rainey because this book, which was already a reference work in Modern Hebrew, will receive a larger audience thanks to his English translation. It is regrettable that the price will perhaps discourage individuals from purchasing what is nevertheless a “must-have”.

Matthieu Richelle, EPHE-Sorbonne

[1]G. I. Davies, Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions. Corpus and Concordance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).reference

[2]F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, J. J. M. Roberts, C. L. Seow, R. E. Whitaker, Hebrew Inscriptions. Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2005).reference

[3]J. Renz et W. Röllig, Handbuch der althebraïschen Epigraphik, 3 vols. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1995).reference

[4]S. Aituv, HaKeTav VeHaMiktav. Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions from the Land of Israel and the Kingdoms beyond the Jordan from the Period of the First Commonwealth (The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library; Jérusalem: Bialik Institute, 2005²).reference

[5]N. Avigad/ B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997).reference

[6]R. E. Tappy, P. K. McCarter, M. J. Lundberg, B. Zuckerman, “An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century B.C.E. from the Judaean Shephelah,” BASOR 344 (2006), 5.reference

[7]C. Rollston, “Paleographic Notes on the Tel Zayit Abecedary,” in Ron E. Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter (ed.), Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 49.reference

[8]I. Finkelstein, B. Sass and L. Singer-Avitz, “Writing in Iron IIA Philistia in the Light of the Tēl Zayit :Zētā Abecedary,” ZDPV 124 (2008), 1–14.reference

[9]A. Lemaire, “Phénicien et Philistien: paléographie et dialectologie,” in M. E. Aubet/M. Barthelemy (ed.), Actas del IV Congreso Internacional de Estudios Fenicios y Púnicos (Cádiz: Universidad de Cádiz, 2000), 247.reference

[10]P. K. McCarter, “The Gezer Calender (COS 2.85),” in W. Hallo and K. L. Younger (eds), The Context of Scripture, vol. 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2003), 222.reference

[11]G. Garbini, Introduzione all’epigrafia semitica (Studi sul Vicino Oriente antico, 4; Brescia: Paideia, 2006) 96.reference

[12]A. Lemaire, “Phénicien et Philistien,” op. cit., 247.reference

[13]A. Lemaire, “Phénicien et Philistien,” op. cit., 243–49.reference

[14]Michael Weigl, “Eine Inschrift aus Silo 4 in Ḫirbet el-Mudēyine (Wādī eṯ-ṯemed, Jordanien),” ZDPV 122 (2006), 31–45.reference


[16]F. M. Cross, “Ammonite Ostraca from Heshbon,” AUSS 13 (1975), 11.reference

[17]E. Puech, “L’inscription de la statue d’Amman et la paléographie ammonite,” RB 92 (1985), 12.reference

[18]F. M. Cross, “Epigraphic Notes on the Amman Citadel Inscription,” BASOR 193 (1969), 17, reproduced in Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook (HSS, 51; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 98.reference

[19]E.g. S. H. Horn, “The Ammān Citadel Inscription,” BASOR 193 (1969), 8 ; A. Lemaire, “West Semitic Inscriptions and Ninth-Century BCE Ancient Israel,” in H. G. M. Williamson (ed.), Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (Proceedings of the British Academy, 143; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 281; see also G. van der Kooij, “The Identity of Trans-jordanian Alphabetic Writing in the Iron Age,” in A. Hadidi (ed.), Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan III (Amman: Department of Antiquities, Jordan 1987), 109, 111.reference

[20]A. Lemaire, “Essai d’interprétation historique d’une nouvelle inscription monumentale Moabite,” Comptes-Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (2005), 95–108.reference

[21]F. Zayadine, “Note sur l’inscription de la statue d’Amman J. 1656,” Syria 51 (1974), 129–30.reference

[22]A. Demsky, “The MPQD Ostracon from Tel ʿIraʾ: A New Reading,” BASOR 345 (2007), 33–38.reference

[23]A. Lemaire, “Notes d’épigraphie sémitique,” Syria 61 (1984), 251–54; H. Hübner, Die Ammoniter (Abhandlungen des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins, 16; Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1992), 24.reference

[24]J. Starcky, “Note additionnelle,” Syria 51 (1974), 136.reference

[25]See e. g. A. Lemaire, Inscriptions hébraïques, t. I, Les ostraca (Littératures Anciennes du Proche Orient 9), Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 35.reference

[26]E. Puech, “L’inscription de la statue d’Amman et la paléographie ammonite,” op. cit., 13–14, 16 fig. V.reference

[27]M. Richelle/ M. Weigl, “isbān Ostracon A1: New Collation and New Readings,” ADAJ 53 (2009), in press.reference