Do the adornments on the Qeiyafa shrines contradict the Israelite ban on images?

Some scholars point out a seeming contradiction with the newly-announced shrines from Khirbet Qeiyafa. The Qeiyafa archaeologists conclude that the city’s inhabitants observed the Israelite ban on religious images, yet they show us a model temple adorned with lions and birds. Could the Qeiyafa excavators be making such a blatent contradiction?

The answer is no. A fresh look at the biblical text reveals key distinctions in the Israelite ban on religious images.

Let us first examine the main texts that prohibit images. (There are other texts, but these three make the point.) Besides the ban on images, what do the following statements have in common?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5 ESV)

“You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 26:1)

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Deuteronomy 5:8-9)

You may notice that these texts associate banned images with worship (“bowing down”). These passages do not forbid ordinary works of art. They prohibit any “image” used as an object of worship. This is an important distinction.

Bible students may recall the bronze serpent made in response to an outbreak of poisonous serpents in the Israelite camp. (Numbers 21) That image was obviously considered acceptable until it became an object of worship, leading to its eventual destruction (2 Kings 18).

Perhaps the most important examples of this distinction are found in the tabernacle and the temple built by Solomon. These two structures were considered ritually pure by the priests and were according to divine blueprints. They didn’t include any images, did they?

The Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle’s Most Holy Place:

 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark.” (Exodus 25:17-21)

The first Israelite temple:

“In the inner sanctuary [Solomon] made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. And the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.” (1 Kings 6:23-29)

We see the tabernacle and the temple originally contained images of cherubim – winged mythical creatures frequently associated with God. (Psalm 18:10; Ezekiel chapter 10) The temple sanctuary had carved images of cherubim and various flora on its inner walls.

Does this mean that the tabernacle and temple violated the ban, or does it mean the Israelites understood the prohibition differently than we do? Putting the texts together, we see the law banned any image that was an object of worship. Other types of images were permitted, even in the most sacred places of Israelite religion.

What does all of this mean for the Qeiyafa shrines? The lions and birds on the clay shrine appear to be consistent with Israel’s understanding of the prohibition during the First Temple period. With all of the cultic finds at Qeiyafa, there are no idols or religious figurines to inhabit these shrines. Thus, Garfinkel and Ganor do not contradict themselves when they say the shrine may indicate an aniconic (“no images”) society.

The clay shrine, adorned with images of lions bellows the columns and birds on the roof. Does this violate the biblical ban on images? No, it doesn’t. The difference is found in the lack of an idol/figurine as an object of worship. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

One thing must be said… The biblical text admits that many Israelites worshiped images such as Asherah and Baal. Even the most conservative interpretation of the Bible must accept that true monotheism suffered a slow acceptance in early Iron Age Israel and Judah. We should not expect to find many pure examples of aniconic practice, but it is certainly reasonable that pockets of it existed in places.

Evidence of aniconic cult is in large part based on the absence of certain artifacts. This somewhat complicates any determinations based on physical evidence. We must all keep one thing in mind: An aniconic religion as described in the Bible would include the kinds of evidence seen so far at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

The jury is still out on exactly how to understand the Qeiyafa shrines, but an aniconic interpretation is certainly reasonable. We’ll see how things go with this over the coming months and years.

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About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister in English and Spanish with the North Terrace Church of Christ and participates annually in archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke also leads tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
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11 Responses to Do the adornments on the Qeiyafa shrines contradict the Israelite ban on images?

  1. Tom Verenna says:

    This really misses the point. Whether or not the images on the shrines are graven or not makes no difference; it is completely irrelevant. The point being made is that these shrines are no different in style than any other Canaanite model shrine. I’ve shown several examples on my blog. In fact the lions at the pillars and the birds on the roof are indicative of Asherah shrines (per Dever) and they are common regional artifacts. These are perhaps useful for establishing cultic practices in Qeiyafa but to claim that these are ‘free of graven images’ and therefore ‘Jewish’ or ‘Israelite’ in nature is simply an unfounded claim. And frankly the manner in which the excavation at Qeiyafa has been handled is worrisome; I do not believe we know of the full context of these artifacts, but I don’t believe they can shed any light on a Biblical tradition. Any attempt to claim otherwise, especially at this point, is a tenuous effort that can’t be successful.

    • Jared Saltz says:

      Tom, while I agree that to rip these single artifacts out of the greater context of the dig and then claim that they might/could/probably imply Israelite worship practice rather than simply more Canaanite religion would be extremely tenuous, I feel that when seen with the other aspects that KQ brings to the table makes the claim more legitimate. Note, I do say “legitimate” rather than “true,” because we still don’t have enough information to make a hard conclusion, but when you look at the date, placement, architecture, inscription, standing stones, lack of _explicit_ idol worship, and the eating habits of the inhabitants, this begins to look more like a logical possibility rather than fanciful wish. Again, any “tampering” would obviously invalidate these conclusions (among other things), but at the moment it seems like a possible connection and I look forward to learning more.

  2. lukechandler says:

    Greetings Tom,

    Thanks for your comments. My post was a response to several in the blogosphere who have mistakenly interpreted the “aniconic” concept to require a complete absence of any kind of image. This may have developed in later periods but was not true earlier. I was not seeking to compare or contrast with other Canaanite shrines. I saw the photos on your post from yesterday and have heard from a friend who found more parallels from another, later site.
    As I mentioned toward the end of my post above, similarities to Canaanite shrines are certainly reasonable, even expected, for anything Iron Age Israelite. We simply have limited physical evidence from 11th and 10th century Israel. Anyone interpreting finds from that period has to fill in blanks with assumptions (presuppositions?). This is a potential pitfall for both sides of the fence. As I mentioned above, the jury is still out on the full meaning of these shrines. However, an aniconic possibility cannot be simply dismissed at this point. Qeiyafa has not yielded a “typical” Canaanite assemblage of physical evidence, so we can’t just assume the cult is a known quantity. If we had figurines with the shrines, that would certainly make the cult more “normal” for some scholarship.
    I assume your concern about the excavation of these artifacts is based on comments from Finkelstein and Fantalkin’s recent article. The best one to respond to the full range of criticisms is naturally Garfinkel, but I can respond to part of it. Finkelstein and Fantalkin tried to illustrate their criticism of Garfinkel’s methodology with a photo from 2009 taken off my blog. (They requested and received my permission to use it in their article, though I did not know its intended purpose at the time.) They claim the photo “speaks for itself” in their critique, but their claim is problematic. The photo does not represent typical excavation methodology at Qeiyafa. We do *not* excavate without sun shades. We do not use a bulldozer to excavate. (It comes out occasionally to transfer fill and discarded rocks from the khirbet to a dump down from the hill.) We do not wear matching blue t-shirts. (A local kibbutz sent a bunch of teenagers out for a couple of days to observe us and even participate a bit under the direction of square supervisors. You may notice how many of the blue shirts are basically standing/sitting around with little to do.) The photo was taken during the last couple of days of the 2009 season when the baulks had been removed and volunteers (including a few blue shirts) were beginning to clean the site for photography. Some of the regular workers at at the bottom of the rear casemate and are not visible in the photograph. I could go on. Like an inscribed ossuary on the black market, the photo was taken out and presented without its true context. I intend to post my own response on the use of the photo soon. It simply does not represent what it is claimed to represent.
    A slow, meticulous pace is essential for multi-layered sites like Megiddo. At Qeiyafa, the only area that has revealed more than two strata (Hellenistic and Iron IIA) is Area A, the summit of the site. Work there has proceeded at a slower pace due to levels from other periods. I have excavated at Qeiiyafa for the past three seasons. I can attest that every level is carefully documented, each square has 4 or 5 workers under a qualified square supervisor, artifacts are assigned specific loci, height levels are regularly taken, floor levels are intensively sifted (both wet and dry sifting methods are used, depending on the nature of the locus), etc. You can cover a lot of ground with 90 to 100 people working the site at any given time. Most excavations run half that number or less.
    I was in the square adjacent to the clay shrine. That square and mine were both in the same building. The shrine came out of a clear Iron IIA level with only bedrock below. Site-wide, there is nothing between the Iron II level and the Hellenistic level some 7 centuries later. The soil is even a different color in the later period. The context of the shrines is well-established. The only questions lie in their interpretation, not in their provenance.
    Thanks for letting me get a little wordy. The information from the press conference has produced many words in the blogosphere, yes? I imagine they will continue to flow for a while.

    Best wishes,
    Luke

  3. Great job Luke moving forward the discussion on the shrines, but I think we must be careful to define our terms and stay with the widely used definitions. Aniconism is, in fact, a religious belief or practice that is without images, and that shuns physical representations that are anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, in any form, either drawn or sculpted. It can also evidence religious cult that avoided any graphic representation of any kind, even geometric shapes. On the Kh. Qeiyafa shrines we see lions and birds and graphic-geometric representations, therefore, these shrines are not and cannot be classified as aniconic. It’s not a matter of interpretation, it’s simply a matter of definition. They simply are not aniconic.

    The masseboth, on the other hand, at Khirbet Qeiyafa are aniconic. They have no inscriptions and no imagery on them whatsoever. In fact, they are natural stones that were not carved, nor worked in any manner. Thus, the masseboth in the shrine rooms at Khibert Qeiyafa are true representations of an aniconic cult. Please see this article from BAR by Uri Avner who is one of the world specialists on aniconism and masseboth in the Negev: http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=27&Issue=3&ArticleID=2

    What we observe at Khirbet Qeiyafa is a synthesis of several religious traditions, the aniconic traditions from the Negev desert in the form of natural-stone masseboth, and the temple shrines just released that feature iconic representations of birds, lions, columns, triglyphs, etc. Birds perched on the roof of a shrine in the Southern Levant have been associated with Asherah and either Canaanite or Canaanite-Phoenician shrines, etc. In a different context in Egypt one can observe a similar iconic portrayal of the sky god Horus as a falcon perched on the roof. Due to their archaeological context the Kh. Qeiyafa shrines are more likely the influence of Canaanite-Phoenician artistic forms, not Egyptian, but you are hard-pressed to in any way describe these shrines as aniconic.

    This mixture of aniconic masseboth and iconic shrines is something that we see in proto-Israelite and Israelite artistic forms. The representations of “YHWH and His Asherah” is a common theme among current scholarship, the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud drawing and inscription being an example where a text describes the imagery. But Uri Avner made these comments, quoted here from the article linked above:

    “The word “Asherah” occurs about 40 times in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars wonder if these figures represent Egyptian gods or Yahweh and his consort…; they are also unsure whether the Hebrew inscription above the drawing means “Yahweh and his sacred place,” “Yahweh and his symbol” or “Yahweh and his consort.”

    Regardless, finding aniconic masseboth and iconic temple shrines with symbols associated with Asherah by some current scholars is what one would expect at an early Judean site like Khirbet Qeiyafa. My personal opinion is that we see in the biblical text the purest form of the Hebrew religious tradition that was first passed on orally from generation to generation and then eventually written down and edited to form the Hebrew Bible that we have today. The biblical prohibitions are what the writers of the texts saw as the true form of worship of YHWH, and it was these same writers who observed that the ancient Israelites were not following YHWH in the proscribed manner, and thus, wrote prohibitions on non-YHWHistic worship, as well as the Prophets calling for a return to the true worship of YHWH, etc. This has nothing to do with aniconism.

    The forms of worship and the temple cult in the Hebrew Bible need not be aniconic. Anyone with any basic knowledge of the Bible can easily see that the cult of the ancient Hebrews, Judeans, and Israelites, was not aniconic, for the written descriptions of the cult of the tabernacle and later the temple evidences a high-degree of iconic representations of angelic beings, oxen, lions, palm trees, flowers, wreaths, and bull’s horns. And this, after all, is what is characteristic of Judean cult, the synthesis of ancient traditions of aniconism along with iconic regional artistic forms.

    [Note: If criticizing archaeological methodology at Khirbet Qeiyafa, as one of Luke’s supervisors at the dig and a graduate student in archaeology who was training at Khirbet Qeiyafa for my first two seasons working as an archaeologist, I would benefit from knowing what specifically was methodologically problematic with the excavation. I’ve heard this raised by another person but it has not yet been explained what this meant.]

  4. lukechandler says:

    Thanks for the information, Peter. I do need clarification on a point. What has Yossi meant when using the term “aniconic” in relation to the basalt altar found in 2010? I have his PowerPoint file from 2010 ASOR that shows the altar as part of what he calls an “aniconic” cult in the Area C sanctuary (slides 37 and 38), yet the altar is shown to have images representing palm branches and possibly a doorway. Any thoughts on this?

    • Hi Luke, great job on the blog. With all respect to Yossi, who is my thesis supervisor, I think we must make a strict distinction between the terms “aniconic” and “iconic”. I made two sections to describe each below.

      ANICONIC

      Aniconic is the absence of all things iconic, and in a religious belief system and cult it is the shunning or avoidance of any representations of deities in human or animal form, or any other graphical representation of a belief system that today, we would call religious art. Here is a link to an old BAR cover that shows an aniconic massebah cult site in the Negev: http://members.bib-arch.org/bswb_graphics/BSBA/27/03/BSBA27030c100L.jpg

      The clearest example of an aniconic representation of YHWH was found in the Israelite Temple at Arad from the Iron Age, where was found a massebah in the Holy of Holies as an aniconic representation of, we assume, YHWH. Early researchers found two masseboth in the Holy of Holies, which they argued was YHWH and his consort, or some such variation. Current research indicates that there was only ONE massebah found in the Holy of Holies at the Israelite Temple at Arad with the second having been replaced and buried in the Holy of Holies. Thus, today in the Israel museum, the Arad sanctuary is reconstructed with only one massebah: http://www.bibleplaces.com/images/Arad_Iron_Age_holy_of_holies2_tb_n062400.jpg

      At Khirbet Qeiyafa, several examples of masseboth have been found in shrine rooms, but in each case, there was only ONE massebah per shrine as in the Holy of Holies at Arad and can be argued might have been a representation of a monotheistic faith.

      ICONIC

      Iconic, on the other hand, is the use of representations of deities in human or animal form and graphical representation of a belief system. The basalt altar that was found in the Area C sanctuary is not aniconic. It is an iconic altar as it has representations of palm branches or horns or some other feature that is yet to be determined. Here is an example of an iconic massebah from Tel Hazor, Area C from the Late Bronze: http://www1.chapman.edu/~bidmead/hazor%20stones.jpg

      The iconic massebah from Tel Hazor shows carvings of the human hands and a symbol of a crescent with a circle disc inside, interpreted as part of a Canaanite cult of the moon god.

      What is interesting is that in the Hazor shrine to the moon god you see the iconic massebah surrounded by aniconic masseboth. Based on the research of Dr. Uri Avner, I believe these represent the two traditions of masseboth we find in the Levant, iconism found in urban contexts of “the sown” such as Hazor, Ugarit, etc, and the older aniconic tradition of the desert masseboth in the Negev, etc. I’ve written an academic paper on the subject as this related to Khirbet Qeiyafa that has been received for Peer-Review at an academic journal, but regardless, eventually I’ll publish the paper in some shape or form.

      The point that Prof. Garfinkel argues is that Khirbet Qeiyafa has a strong link to the aniconic tradition. And clearly the natural stone masseboth are aniconic.

      But for the sake of clarity of terms, as Prof. Aren M. Maeir commented in his response to the press release, all the other cultic items are all iconic. Thus, I see a synthesis of aniconic and iconic traditions at Khirbet Qeiyafa. As the masseboth at Khirbet Qeiyafa are natural stones not showing any human working/carving nor any imagery or inscriptions, they are clearly aniconic, and belong to the masseboth tradition of the Negev desert.

      ANICONISM, ICONISM, AND THE HEBREW BIBLE

      To be sure, the Hebrew religious tradition that enters the biblical narrative with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was aniconic, and in Genesis 35:14 we read that Jacob set up a stone pillar – a massebah מצבה which appears to be in the category of the uncarved, natural stone masseboth of the desert tradition, and as we see at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

      But as we read Jacob becomes Israel, and the father of the Israelites and when the Israelites leave Egypt, we see a shift from Hebrew religious tradition to Israelite religious tradition, and read of the worship of YHWH in the tabernacle and temple. Here we see this same synthesis of religious belief combining aniconic elements with iconic. It was forbidden to make idols depicting YHWH or “any kind of image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea” which appears to be the preservation in the Torah of the aniconism of the desert tradition which forbade imagery as part of a religious cult (Exodus 20:4).

      In contrast to this, we read that in the Temple of Solomon there were images of things in heaven and on the earth, specifically images of cheribum, seraphim, oxen, bull horns, palm trees, flowers, wreaths, and a rich assemblage of graphical iconography (see 1 Kings 5-7).

      Is this a contradiction? Some might say so. But the iconism of the Temple of Solomon (or the Tabernacle that preceded it) did not make the imagery the object of worship, rather, it was explained that the Tabernacle and Temple were built according to the pattern that YHWH revealed himself as a picture of the sanctuary in Heaven (also a widely-known Semitic belief, not exclusive to the Israelites). Why was this important?

      It was not, as many argue, that YHWH through Moshe presented the Israelite Temple cult as something unique from the ancient Semitic temple tradition that we see in the Levant from the Chalcolithic period forward. Rather, the details of how to build the Tabernacle and Temple were to place the divine stamp of approval upon the Temple form that the Israelites should adopt, but with the distinguishing command to worship YHWH exclusively, and to reject and shun all idols and imagery in the worship of other gods as was commonly practiced among their Semitic cousins (and as we know from the biblical text and archaeology that the Israelites continued to do anyway, thus, the prophets explain the exiles of the 8th century BCE and 6th century BCE).

      Nevertheless, this hearkens back to the aniconic tradition of the Negev Desert that dates to the Natufians in the Epipaleolithic-Neolithic period, arguably, the first Semitic people. The Israelites were a Semitic people, and the Torah does not remove them from the Temple cult of their Semitic cousins, but presents a purified divinely authorized version of the Semitic Temple tradition in the Torah. How the other Semites came up with their temple forms, we don’t know but they too thought they had received this form from the Heavens, as the Psalmist writes in Tehilim “the heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship” (Psalm 19:1), teaching the Israelites that the knowledge of God is something accessible to all humanity through the physical world.

  5. Paul D. says:

    Though a “fresh look at the biblical text” is always worthwhile for its own sake, I fail to see any relevance. It’s a bit like arguing whether Balrogs had wings — playing detective work on something that is ultimately a literary fiction. I mean, you do know that Exodus, Leviticus, etc. are *literary* works that date to exilic or post-exilic times, right? Their relevance in explaining and identifying eleventh-century Canaanite artifacts is very limited indeed. Certainly nothing like the Ten Commandments or the Levitical codes existed at that time.

    “Bible students may recall the bronze serpent made in response to an outbreak of poisonous serpents in the Israelite camp. (Numbers 21) That image was obviously considered acceptable until it became an object of worship, leading to its eventual destruction (2 Kings 18).”

    Bible students should know that Numbers 21 was probably written a great deal later than the Deuteronomic history and may provide an aetiology for the snake god Nehushtan and its cultic worship at the Jerusalem temple. (It also seems to take inspiration from Jeremiah 8 in creating the “plague of snakes” story.)

    • lukechandler says:

      “Certainly nothing like the Ten Commandments or the Levitical codes existed at that time.”

      Well, that is the classic minimalist view. Are you really “certain” nothing like this existed in the 11th-10th century? Nothing at all like this? How can you be sure? The third paragraph of your message uses a different vocabulary, such as “probably… may provide… seems to take…” Those are not terms of certainty. Is there any room for alternate explanations/views, or is the minimalist view absolute truth? The statements you make speak with the vocabulary of conjecture, and for good reason. The conclusions you mention are not certain.

      For the sake of discussion, let’s go ahead and assume that the books you mention were written during or after C6 BCE. Those books and the ones after them cite earlier source materials: The Book of the Wars of Yahweh (Numbers 21:14), An ancient victory song (Num. 21:27-39), The Book of Jasher (Joshua 10:12-13), The Book of the Kingship (1 Samuel 10:25), books of the Chronicles of Israel/Judah (1 Kings 14:19, 29, et al.) From what materials would later authors (or compilers) have worked? There seems to have at least been *something* like the Commandments/Levitical codes in earlier centuries. There may have been more material than many scholars assume. It wouldn’t be the first time established scholarship was mistaken on something.

      One more thing… it is odd that books written during/after the exile would not mention Jerusalem. The only reference to Jerusalem in the Torah is a passing mention (as “Salem”) in an account of Abraham in Genesis 14:18. Why would such a Jerusalem-centric culture omit any mention of the city? If someone was fabricating a history, replete with prophecies, why would Jerusalem be completely omitted?

      There is certainly room for healthy debate on authorship of Old Testament books. That is the key reason why Khirbet Qeiyafa is the center of so much discussion. Someone built this fortress city to protect the Elah Valley entrance to the Judean highlands. The highway from Qeiyafa leads to Hebron, Jerusalem and Gibeah (Saul’s city in biblical text). Who would be protecting the entrance to these areas in Judah and Benjamin in the 11th-10th centuries? Someone was there, able to project power from a distance and under the watchful eye of the Philistines, in the early Iron Age. If not Israel/Judah, then who? Let’s not repeat minimalist arguments from 15 years ago (and even longer) in the face of new evidence.

      • Paul D. says:

        By all means, show me a single iota of evidence that Judah had a literary or scribal tradition around the eleventh century. Heck, Hebrew doesn’t seem to have even been a written language.

        “There is certainly room for healthy debate on authorship of Old Testament books.”

        Indeed, but a lot of people seem to be about 30 years behind on the scholarship. Debate means engaging those findings, not pretending they don’t exist so we can pretend our Sunday School stories are historical.

      • lukechandler says:

        Hello Paul,

        Hebrew certainly may have been a written language in that period. I’ll refer you to Christopher Rollston’s recent article, “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” in the current issue (May/June 2012) of BAR. He looks at four inscriptions, including the Qeiyafa inscription (discovered 2008), the Gezer Calendar (1908), and the Tel Zayit abecedary (2005). These three were discovered in or along the border of Judahite territory, and are thus relevant to the question of early-Iron literacy in that region.

        To summarize, Rollston concludes it is not possible to know for sure whether these are Hebrew, though they could indeed be. He cautions that script and language are two different things. In the 11th-10th centuries, languages such as Hebrew, Ugaritic, Moabite, Ammonite, Aramaic, etc. were typically written with one of a couple of common alphabetic scripts, namely Phoenician or Early Alphabetic. (Similar to cuneiform, which was used to write in multiple languages.) Rollston believes the Qeiyafa inscription likely dates to the 11th century, uses Early Alphabetic script, and could be Hebrew, though it could also be Phoenican or Canaanite language. Other scholars consider Hebrew as a possibility for the language. [Rollston also mentions the possibility that “a fledgling state will sometimes write in a foreign prestige language (here Phoenician or Canaanite), rather than its own native tongue.”] As for the Gezer Calendar, it *could* be Hebrew, but again this is not definitive.

        As for the late-10th or early-9th century Tel Zayit abecedary, Kyle McCarter believes it to be a transitional script between Phoenician and Hebrew. In his words, “It already exhibits characteristics that anticipate the distinctive features of the mature Hebrew national script.” Rollston doesn’t go quite that far, but their conclusions are fairly close together. McCarter considers the Tel Zayit abecedary “as evidence of Judahite literacy” in that period.

        Thought none of these three can be confirmed as Hebrew language, McCarter, Rollston, and other scholars named in the article consider them to be evidence of a literary tradition in Judah during the late-11th to early-9th centuries. As Rollston points out, though the Hebrew script was not yet evolved in that period, the language did exist and was likely written in Early Alphabetic, Phoenician, or transitional script. The earliest texts of the Bible, whether complete books or earlier source materials, did not have to be written in the Hebrew script.

        This shows illustrates how literacy in 11th-10th century Judah is a viable possibility for many scholars. Two of the three inscriptions above were discovered within the past 7 years, so we are dealing with fairly recent evidence. No one can be dogmatic in asserting that the biblical texts in question were only written during or after the exile. later. We do have evidence for alternate, legitimate viewpoints.

        I know the “Sunday School” remark was intended as a dig, but it just doesn’t really work here. Our discussion is a difference of insisting that the Torah could only have been compiled in the 6th century or later, versus accepting that it or its source materials could have been written earlier. Scholars such as Rollston, McCarter, Misgav, Galil, Puech, Millard, and others accept the possibility of literacy in early-Iron Judah. We can enjoy respectful discussions on the subject and engage the available evidence, much of which is fairly new and still being worked out.

        Best wishes,
        Luke

  6. G.M. Grena says:

    [Applause!!!] Excellent points Luke! Thank you for sharing your insight with us!

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