A Sign of Southern Literacy

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Israel, Judah and the Dead Sea

In Genesis 41, after Joseph interpreted the pharaoh’s dreams, the pharaoh gave Joseph the keys to his kingdom. “Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and traveled throughout Egypt. During the seven years of abundance the land produced plentifully. Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities. In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it. Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure.”

In order to execute this policy, Egypt would have had a sufficient degree of literacy to direct efforts to collect produce in an orderly fashion, store it and later distribute it equitably during the period of famine.

For the Bible’s King David to be able to manage a kingdom, it would imply a certain level of literacy across the territories under his control.

The Izbet Sartah Alphabet, in which the letters ‘ayin’ and ‘peh’ are switched from today’s Hebrew alphabet, demonstrates a degree of literacy in the 12th century BCE in the proximity of Shilo in the Samarian central hill country.

Another site revealed an ancient alphabet. Khirbet Zeitah el-Kharab, or Tel Zayit, is in the Shephelah, the lowlands before the coastal plain. It lies further south than Izbet Sartah, roughly 20 miles east of Ashkelon.

At Tel Zayit, archaeologists discovered a limestone boulder that contained the Phoenician / Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. At the top of the stone were the letters ayin-zayin-raish, spelling out Ezer, possibly the inscriber’s name. Below it was a 22 letter alphabet. The letters of the alphabet are in roughly the same order as the modern Hebrew alphabet, with a number of the letters switched in places.

The dating of the Tel Zayit Abecedary is disputed, in either the 10th or 9th centuries BCE. It is also unclear if the inscription is Phoenician, meaning Canaanite, or Paleo-Hebrew and thus associated with Israel or Judah.

The biblical Davidic Kingdom is often associated with the 10th BCE. If the artifact is indeed 10th century BCE, and the artifact a Judean one, it would provide evidence for a literacy a distance from Jerusalem, and it would support the idea of the Davidic kingdom being able to control territories beyond its immediate sphere.

The image above is of the archaeological site at Tel Zayit.