In Genesis 48, Jacob, now identified by his name Israel, tells Joseph of his ultimate resting place: Then Israel said to Joseph, “I am about to die, but God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers. And to you I give one more ridge of land than to your brothers, the ridge I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow.”
In the Iron Age I and IIA, roughly between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE, this land where Joseph’s remains were to be brought would see an increase in literacy.
Khirbet el-Rai is an archaeological site in the Shephelah lowlands, west of the site of Tel Lachish, between coastal Ashkelon and hill country Hebron. At the site, an ostracon, or pottery sherd, that was once part of a small jar was found to bear an inscription dating to the late 12th or early 11th century BCE. The inscription has been read as containing the name Yerubaal in the early paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician script.
At Tel Beit Shemesh, two inscriptions were unearthed. Two 12th century pottery sherds that were once part of a whole included the word baal, possibly an indication of ownership of the stored contents. A piece of a game board dated to the 10th century BCE with the name Hanan inscribed was also found.
Tel Batash is an archaeological site west of Beit Shemesh, and is associated with the biblical site of Timnah. An fragment of a pottery bowl dating to the 10th century BCE containing the letters n hnn was interpreted to read [Be]n Hanan, potentially the owner.
These examples demonstrate an increasing literacy across the broader region of the Shephelah. The rudimentary proto-Sinaitic alphabetic script that circulated amongst miners in the Sinai had developed into a more abstract lettering system. The simplified nature of the alphabetic script made it easier for people to learn how to read and write. The Izbet Sartah and Tel Zayit abecedaries indicate that an alphabetic script was already being formalized.
Literacy would have contributed to state formation. The presence of literacy would have allowed a ruler in a centralized location to give instruction, collect taxes and store goods with accurate record keeping.
The 10th and 9th centuries are seen as potentially the beginnings of state formation within the southern Levant. These are the centuries that are seen as the time when King David of Judah and the Omride dynasty of the Kingdom of Israel would have solidified their rule. The spread of literacy would have allowed them to take the steps needed to control the territories beyond the cities from which they ruled, from the hill country into the Shephelah and beyond. The increasing number of artifacts bearing inscriptions thus supports the biblical concepts of state formation in the Iron IIA time period.
The image above is of the archaeological site of Beit Shemesh. The game board piece from Beit Shemesh can be viewed via this link: