Egypt for Years of No Reaping

“Now the famine was still severe in the land. So when they had eaten all the grain they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, Go back and buy us a little more food.”

The famine that struck Canaan in Genesis 43 followed a pattern of drought in the Book of Genesis. Abram had faced drought and went to Egypt. Isaac experienced drought and went to Gerar. Now Joseph used the drought to keep his brothers in Egypt.

These stories play out due to inconsistent rains in the seasons in Canaan that interrupted the agricultural cycle. The importance of the agricultural cycle to life is apparent in one of the earlier Phoenician or paleo-Hebrew inscriptions discovered in Canaan.

Tel Gezer is the site of the ancient city of Gezer. The city lies roughly between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, near modern day Ramla. In antiquity it sat along the trade route between Egypt to the south and Syria to the north, where goods could be transported to Mesopotamia, and was a path to reach the central hill country. Because of its strategic location, the city became an important Canaanite city-state. Its importance is evident in the Bible, where in 1 Kings 9 “Pharaoh king of Egypt had attacked and captured Gezer. He had set it on fire. He killed its Canaanite inhabitants and then gave it as a wedding gift to his daughter, Solomon’s wife. And Solomon rebuilt Gezer.”

The Gezer Calendar inscription was discovered at the site. The dating of the inscription is not clear, and it may be a 10th century BCE artifact. The inscription records an annual agricultural cycle:

Two months gathering

Two months planting

Two months late sowing

One month cutting flax

One month reaping barley

One month reaping and measuring grain

Two months pruning

One month summer fruit

The two months of gathering would roughly correspond with our October-November, and the cycle completes with summer fruit collected in the September time frame.

Given the uncertainty about the dating of the inscription, it is unclear if it was written by a Canaanite, Israelite or an inhabitant of the kingdom of Judah. The name of the author of the inscription is incomplete. The last letters on the inscription are Aleph-Bet-Yod, which spell Abi. It is thought that the full name would have spelled Abiyah. The suffix of -Yah to the name would indicate that the author worshiped the Israelite or Judahite God, and was not Canaanite.

The image above is of a replica Gezer Calendar inscription on display at the site of Tel Gezer. The original sits in the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul, Turkey.

A Sign of Southern Literacy

Credit:, 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.

Knowing Your ABCD…LMNPO

In Genesis 37, Jacob’s sons sell their brother Joseph into slavery. “As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood. His brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”

In this exchange between the brothers and the merchants, there is no hint of a written contract, only an oral agreement. The Joseph story is set during a time of limited literacy, when writing was generally restricted to a scribal class trained to write in the more complex writing forms of the time.

In the Iron Age I, between 1200-1000 BCE, it is possible to see the beginnings of an increase in literacy, and the emergence of the simpler alphabetic form of writing with the Phoenician / Paleo Hebrew alphabet.

‘Izebet Sartah is an archaeological site in the Shephelah sitting between the hill country of Samaria and the Sharon Plain, roughly between Shilo and Tel Aviv. The site appears to have been an Israelite settlement in the Iron Age I.

At the site, archaeologists unearthed the ‘Izbet Sartah Ostracon. This ostracon, an inscription on a clay sherd, contained a few lines of text and at the bottom, an abecedary, the 22 letters of the Paleo Hebrew alphabet.

The 22 letters are written from left to right, unlike later Hebrew which is written from right to left. The letters are in an order nearly identical to the order used in the Hebrew alphabet today, from the letter aleph to tav, with one notable exception. The letters ayin and peh are in reverse order, with the letter peh followed by the letter ayin.

It is unclear if the reversal of the order of the letters peh and ayin was intentional or a mistake. An 8th century BCE abecedary from Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai desert also reverses the order of the letters ayin and peh.

Further, the same order is used in three chapters of the biblical Book of Lamentations. An acrostic is a composition where the first letter of each line deliberately spells out a message or an alphabet. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of Lamentations are written in acrostic form, and each reverses the order of ayin then peh to peh then ayin. This suggests that this was the original order of the letters, and the ‘Izebet Sartah abecedary was written in its correct form.

The image above is of a replica of the ‘Izebet Sartah Ostracon, from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Hebrew and Moabite Language Drift


In Genesis 32 Jacob wrestled with a man after crossing the Jabbok. Heading south across the Jabbok River, today’s Zarqa River, would place Jacob in the Transjordan, in the region of Ammon.

Languages evolve over time. Regional dialects develop and can evolve over time to become mutually unintelligible languages. Latin evolved over time in isolated regions to become French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. In the Iron Age IIA, the people of the Levant spoke dialects of an earlier Canaanite language. These closely related languages included Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite, Phoenician and Hebrew.

The Mesha Stele is a 9th century BCE inscription written by the Moabite king of Moab, recounting his victory over Israel and the men of Gad. It is important for understanding the Moabite language and its writing system.

The Mesha Stele demonstrates that Moabite language was very similar to ancient Hebrew, but it had notable differences in its suffixes. Whereas in Hebrew plural words ended with the suffix –im, in Moabite, plural words ended in –in. Thus represented in English sounds and without vowels, the plural word for kings, “Malahchim” in Hebrew is written as MLKN in Moabite. Another difference between suffixes in Hebrew and Moabite was in the female ending suffix. In Hebrew this was limited to –ah endings, while in Moabite the female suffix could be with an ‘–ah’ or ‘–at’ ending.

Differences also emerged in the Phoenician/Archaic Hebrew writing system. In the Old Hebrew script, the letter ‘Heh’ was written with a single vertical line and three horizontal lines on the left starting at the top and moving down. The El-Kerak Inscription was unearthed in Moabite territory. In this inscription, the letter ‘Heh’ was written with four horizontal lines.

The Khirbet el-Mudeyine Incense Altar Inscription discovered in Moabite territory shows further regional deviations in the writing system. The letters Yud, Tav and Lamed all feature differences from earlier forms of the script.

These are all examples of two languages, born from the same language, gradually drifting away from each other over time.

The image above is of a replica of the Mesha Stele, housed at the Jordan Museum

Sailing West with Alphabet in Tow

Photo Credit:, National Museum of Beirut

In Genesis 28, Jacob “had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.”

One blessing that all the peoples on earth have been blessed with from the descendants of settlers in Canaan is the alphabet.

The earliest known alphabetic system is the one used by 19th century BCE turquoise miners at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai. This alphabetic system which relied on images to represent consanants evolved to become the abstract images of the Archaic Hebrew and Phoenician abjad, an alphabet without vowel sounds. The Phoenicians of Lebanon, believed to be connected to the Canaanites, developed an abjad that was limited to 22 characters, which made it far simpler to learn than cuneiform and syllabic writing systems.

The Phoenicians were well positioned to engage in seaborne trade. Coastal Lebanon connected trade routes to markets in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The coastline offered protected harbors for loading and unloading ships. This allowed the Phoenicians to play a major role in trade across the Mediterranean.

Through interactions in trade, Europeans absorbed the Phoenician writing system and adapted it for their own needs. The Greeks adapted it by adding vowels, making the Greek alphabet the first known complete alphabet to represent all sounds within the language. This system was further borrowed and adjusted to become the Latin writing system, the writing system for English and all of Europe.

The alphabetic system would eventually spread globally. Lettering systems stretching from Europe to Africa to India to Mongolia stem from the alphabetic system which developed in Canaan to become a blessing for the whole world.

To see part of the evolution Archaic Hebrew/Phoenician to Greek and to Latin, see the following:

The image above is a model Bronze Age Phoenician boat, from the National Museum of Beirut.

Purple Reign and Alphabetic Script

Photo Credit:, Byblos

The Book of Genesis makes a strong distinction between the early patriarchs and the Canaanites. In Genesis 24, Abraham specifically seeks to ensure that his son Isaac will not marry a Canaanite. “Abraham was now very old, and the Lord had blessed him in every way. He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

Despite the distinction the Bible makes between the patriarchs and Canaanites, both were closely tied by geography, geopolitical events, language and by early use of the alphabet.

Archaeologists generally include the area of Lebanon within Canaanite territory. This area was subject to many of the same pressures as biblical Canaan. When the Egyptian New Kingdom extended its area of control to the southern Levant, it also took control of Lebanon. The Amarna Letters that catalogue relations between Egypt and towns that sit in the territory of modern day Israel also contain correspondences with the rulers in southern Lebanon.

Three important ancient cities in today’s Lebanon, running from south to north were Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. This general area became known by the Greek term Phoenicia, for the purple dye was extracted from ‘Murex’ rock snails native to the coastal region.

This region is considered important in the history of alphabetic writing. A number of inscriptions dating to the 10th and 9th centuries BCE were discovered at Byblos in the early 20th century CE. These inscriptions were written in a script that had developed from the early proto-Sinaitic and proto-Canaanite alphabetic writing systems. These inscriptions included the Abiba’l Inscription, Safatba’al Inscription, andt the Yehimilk of Byblos Inscription. These inscriptions were described as being written in a Phoenician alphabetic script.

The image above is of the Yehimilk Inscription KAI 4. In it, Yehimilk the king of Byblos records that he restored temples, and asks “May Ba’al-shamem and Ba’alat of Byblos and the assembly of the holy gods of Byblos prolong the days of Yehimilk and his years over Byblos. It is on display at the Byblos Museum.

The Gift of Writing

Credit: Israel Museum, Jerusalem,

In the Bible, Abraham displayed his generosity towards the end of his life by spreading his wealth amongst his descendants. In Genesis 25, “Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Ashurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanok, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah. Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.”

An inscription recording a gift is an important piece of evidence in connecting the dots from the earliest form of an alphabet to the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

In the 19th century BCE, miners at turquoise mines in the Sinai, near Serabit el-Khadim, wrote inscriptions in an alphabetic text utilizing a limited set of hieroglyphic symbols to represent individual letters, each forming sounds for the first letter of words in the Western Semitic Canaanite language instead of in the Egyptian language.

This alphabetic system was passed along, as seen in a 17th century BCE inscription from Gezer and an inscription from Lachish. The development of this new alphabetic text continued from the Middle Bronze Age into the Late Bronze Age as evidenced from another inscription found at Lachish.

At Lachish, a jug with a Proto-Canaanite inscription featured an inscription in the Canaanite language that reads “Matan an offering to my lady Elat.” A man by the name of Matan presumably made an offering to a goddess Elat. This inscription is a gift to archaeologists in its connecting the chain from the earliest alphabet to what would gradually become the Paleo-Hebrew and Phoenician script.

The image above is of the Canaanite vessel with its inscription, on display at the Israel Museum.

Sinaitic Miners Conveyed It to Canaan

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai from the 19th-18th century are perhaps the earliest form of strictly alphabetic writing, but there is still a degree of distance between the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet and the Phoenician / Paleo-Hebrew alphabet that was well established in Canaan by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. There are examples of the use of alphabetic writing in Egypt in the early 2nd millennium BCE, but this alone would not demonstrate how the alphabetic text was adopted in Canaan.

In Genesis 21, Abraham is in land of the Philistines. “After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”

The land of the Philistines is the region along the southwestern edge of Canaan, pushing north and east. Artifacts found at two cities along the edge of this region are important in bridging the gap between the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet and the later Phoenician / Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

At Gezer, archaeologists discovered a 17th century BCE pottery sherd with the letter sounds of K-L-B written in proto-Canaanite letters. This demonstrates that the early alphabet migrated north from the Sinai into Canaan.

Another inscription from the border region of the ‘land of the Philistines’ was discovered at Lachish. This pottery sherd contains the letters ayin, bet, and dalet, to spell ‘bd, based on the letters that represent eye (ayin), house (bet) and door (dalet). This inscription dates to the 15th century BCE, and is a later example that demonstrates the acceptance of an alphabetic script in Canaan, the forerunner to the Old Hebrew alphabetic text.

The image above is of the inscription discovered at Gezer, which is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Poor Man’s Writing System

Credit: Egypt,

After Abram settled in Canaan, the land was struck with famine. In Genesis 12, “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.” Egypt was the breadbasket of the region, and the most logical place for Abram to find food.

The route from Canaan to Egypt would have Abram crossing through the Sinai, the site of one of the key stages in the development of writing.

The invention of writing remains one of the most important developments in human history. Writing allowed humans to record information that exceeded the limits of human memory. One application was in trade, where the ability to record detailed records beyond the constraints of human recollection opened the doors for an increase in trade.

One of the earliest centers for the development of writing was in Egypt. The Egyptian writing system began with hieroglyphs that served as pictograms, where each hieroglyph represented an object or action. Gradually hieroglyphs developed to represent both objects and consonantal sounds. A script version of hieroglyphs emerged in Egypt with a hieratic script in which the letters were more abstract.

In around the 19th century BCE, miners at a turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai wrote inscriptions in an alphabetic text. Each letter was based on a hieroglyphic pictogram, but instead of representing an object, it only represented the first consonant. The image of a house, or bayit in ancient Canaanite, represented the sound ‘B.’ The image of a fish, dag in ancient Canaanite, represented the sound ‘D.’ A man in a praying position, hillul in ancient Canaanite, represented the ‘H’ sound.

The miners would not have been trained to write in hieroglyphs or hieratic. These writing systems were difficult to draw and complex, and were accesible only to the well educated. Miners would have been too poor to learn them.

Limiting the writing to consonants, instead of a mix of pictograms, consonantal sounds and consonants, simplified the writing system from a vast collection of specialized meanings to under 30 letters. The simplified form was easier to learn and transmit. This Proto-Sinaitic script would be adopted in the region stretching from modern day Israel to Lebanon, and would form the basis of the Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew alphabets.

The image above is of an ancient Egyptian inscription from near Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai.

The evolution of this original consonantal system of writing into the Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew alphabets can be partially seen in this link:

Noah’s Sons and a Language Family

In Genesis 11, the inhabitants of the earth posed a challenge to God, and God responded by removing an element that unified people: language.

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly. They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Many of the major languages spoken today belong to larger language families that descended from original root languages. Languages as diverse as English, the Germanic languages, Latin languages, Persian and Hindi derive from an original Indo-European language of the Asian steppe, a region of grasslands stretching across western Asia. Chinese in its various dialects is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Genesis 10 lists Noah’s progeny. “This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood…The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan…The sons of Shem: Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.”

The languages of North Africa through the Middle East were originally classified based on this biblical origin stories. They were classified as Hamito-Semitic, with a nod towards Noah’s sons Ham and Shem. These languages today are classified as the Afroasiatic languages, and include Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian and Semitic, that together encompass approximately 300 languages.

Semitic languages have their own sub classifications. The Central Semitic branch includes Arabic, South Semitic includes Ethiopian, and the West Semitic branch contains Aramaic and the Canaanite languages. Today, Hebrew remains the lone surviving Canaanite language, but in Iron Age II, in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE, it included languages including Canaanite, Moabite, Ammonite and Hebrew.

The image above is of Ethiopians, speakers of Amharic, the most widely spoken language of Ethiopia and second-most commonly spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic.

For an example of the similarities between these seemingly unrelated languages, the following: