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:

A Writing System Fit for a King

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were punished and expelled from the Garden of Eden. “To Adam he said, Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field.By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Adam and Eve’s expulsion and the curse place upon Adam appear representative of humanity’s shift from being hunter-gatherers to farming societies. Adam will no longer be able to sustain himself by collecting the fruit on trees, but will be forced to work the land.

The shift from hunter-gather to farmer is a pre-condition for kingdoms and empires. They require the sedentarization and division of labor only found in farming societies, where farmers can produce an excess supply of food which can be traded for other goods. Another required step in the development of organized kingdoms is writing and a degree of literacy.

In 2 Samuel 5, David was made king of Israel. “All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler. When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.”

The Egyptian writing system predated the Israelite kingdom’s writing system. Egyptian hieroglyphs could represent an image, syllable or a consonant. The Old Hebrew writing system was a later development, and supported a simplified writing system. The Old Hebrew organization of its letters is often referred to as an alphabet. The more accurate description of it is an “abjad,” as it contained only consonants, and not vowels, and thus did not have letters for every available sound. 

With a written communication system, a king could send exact orders and instructions across his kingdom and establish an accounting systems to manage his affairs. By the 10th century BCE, the Old Hebrew lettering system was robust enough to be used to communicate in writing across a kingdom.

Large Stone Structure, Head of a Kingdom?

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

Deuternomy 28 offers a series of blessings for Israel: The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail.

In the opinion of at least one archaeologist, in the 10th century BCE, King David achieved some of this blessing.

The City of David sits just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. The ancient city was built on a hill. On the eastern side, archaeologists found what they termed the Stepped Stone Structure, which may have been built to stabilize the hill and prevent erosion, in order to build above it.

Above the Stepped Stone Structure, on the summit of the hill, archaeologists discovered what they have called the Large-Stone Structure, shown in the image above. The Large-Stone Structure was built on an open, leveled platform area. It had walls between six and eight feet wide. Within the rubble was a 5-foot-long proto-Aeolic capital, which would have been supported by a column, pointing to the building’s importance. The building contained ashlar masonry, again pointing to the wealth of the builders of the structure.

There is disagreement about the dating of the pottery above the bedrock and below the wall of the Large-Stone Structure, whether it is 11th, 10th or 9th century BCE, which would have implications for interpretation.

In 2 Samuel 5, after King David captured the Jebusite city, “Hiram king of Tyre sent envoys to David, along with cedar logs and carpenters and stonemasons, and they built a palace for David.Then David knew that the Lord had established him as king over Israel and had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.”

Eilat Mazar interpreted the Large Stone Structure to have been the remains of King David’s palace. She argued that the location on the top of the hill, adjacent to the northern wall of the City of David was deliberate, and designed to provide refuge for residents in the event of an attack. Her interpretation has been challenged, but the possibility exists that the Large Stone Structure was King David’s royal palace and an early example of God making Israel the head, not the tail.

The Stepped Stone Structure

Deuteronomy 22 gives instruction about building safe construction. “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” For the Bible, safety has to be designed into the construction.

The ancient city of Jerusalem had its own construction safety challenges. The original city was built on the hill at the City of David, just south of the today’s Old City. As the city was built on sloping ground, water runoff could potentially undermine the stability of the earth and a building’s foundations.

On the eastern side of the hill at the City of David, archaeologists discovered what they termed the Stepped Stone Structure. The Stepped Stone Structure, shown in the image above, appears to be a wall reaching nearly 60 feet high. The Stepped Stone Structure was built on top of terraces, or boxes. These terraces were smaller walled sections that were connected by shared walls and then filled with stone and dirt. With the terraces in place, the area was then covered by the visible large wall.

The wall of the Stepped Stone Structure could be climbed, making it unlikely to have been a defensive wall. It is more likely that the structure was built as a support for construction above, and designed to protect the integrity of the ground.

There are questions as to the timing and intent of this construction. Pottery found within the foundations can be dated to either the Iron I or Iron IIA period. The question of whether the Iron IIA is 10th century BCE or the 9th century BCE means that its construction and any interpretation is a matter of debate. There are other questions about whether the wall and foundations were built at the same time or at different periods in history.

These questions play a factor in the determination of structures built above it.

King David’s Tsinor Into the Jebusite City

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

In Deuteronomy 17, Moses continued to give Israel new laws. One grouping of laws related to the establishment of a kingship. “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you “a king the Lord your God chooses.” In Deuteronomy 18, instructions are given for Levites, including a Levite who “moves from one of your towns anywhere in Israel where he is living, and comes in all earnestness to the place the Lord will choose.” Deuteronomy 20 mentions how the Israelites are to treat the nations they are expected to conquer. “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them, the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded you.

These laws come together in 2 Samuel 5. The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, which is the City of David. On that day David had said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the ‘tsinor’ to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.”

This is the lone use of the word ‘tsinor’ in the Bible, and so its exact meaning is not fully known. The term is generally believed to translate as tunnel or pipe, which is the current accepted meaning of the term.

The area known as the City of David lies to the south of today’s Jerusalem’s Old City walls, and it is believed to have been the site of the original city. The location was chosen because of the presence of a natural spring which emerged along the eastern side of the hill. That spring is known as the Gihon Spring.

The area below the eastern side of the hill is the Kidron Valley. In the Iron Age IIA, the Kidron Valley was deeper and steeper than it is today. Among the debates about the archaeological record is how the city would have defended itself at the time, if the valley was steep enough to provide a natural defense or if it had a defensive wall.

A key consideration for the city’s residents would have been to ensure access to the Gihon Spring during a siege or attack by an enemy. A defensive wall along the eastern edge, with a north and south wall running down to a tower that enclosed the Gihon Spring was discovered. Its date is disputed, with some placing it in the Middle Bronze Age II, and others positing a date in the Iron II, at least 600+ years later.

In the 19th century, the British archaeologist Sir Charles Warren unearthed what is known as Warren’s Shaft. Warren’s Shaft is a vertical shaft that leads directly down the Gihon Spring, From this shaft, city residents would have been able to draw water safely from within the city. As with the water tower along the eastern hill, its dating is a matter of dispute.

While the timing of these water access points is disputed, it offers two possible explanations for the ‘tsinor’ from which King David’s men were said to enter, and ultimately conquer “the place the Lord will choose,” Jerusalem. David’s men could have entered via the tunnel passageway to the spring or via a vertical shaft leading to the spring.

In recognition of the ways King David’s men might have entered the Jebusite city, a song:

Jerusalem’s Gateway to Hell

In Deuteronomy 12, Moses warns the nation against following a particularly egregious form of Canaanite worship. “The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”

Despite Moses’ warning, the temptation to burn their children was too great. In 2 Chronicles 28, Ahaz, king of Judah, fell into this practice. “He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals. He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”

A century later, Jeremiah warned Israel of what was to come as a result of this practice. “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7)

In the original Hebrew version of 2 Chronicles 28, Ahaz is said to have sacrificed his children at the site of “Gai ben Hinnom,” which is translated to the “valley of the son of Hinnom.” In later forms, the term appears to be condensed into the Valley of Hinnom, or in the Hebrew, Gai Hinnom.

Ancient place names tend to be “sticky.” Jerusalem appears to be same Jerusalem as the Middle Bronze Age town. Megiddo and Hazor are easily identified at their ancient sites. Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod today are on the sites the ancient cities of that name once stood. The Valley of Hinnom today originates along the western edge of the Old City of Jerusalem. The valley runs south and then turns east, until it joins the Kidron Valley, the valley to the east of the Old City. This is likely the same location as the Valley of Hinnom in the Bible.

Jeremiah warned the nation that “they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” The exact location of the Tophet is unknown, but there have been graves discovered at Ketef Hinnom, on the edge of the Valley of Hinnom.

Because of the areas sordid past of child sacrifice, the Valley of Hinnom became associated with another horror. Gai Hinnom was associated Gehenom, the Hebrew word for Hell. The exact location is undetermined, but this area become known as the entrance to hell in later sources.

For a modern day entrance to hell, this fire has been burning continuously for 40 years:

Jerusalem Abandoned for Monotheism


In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tries to instill confidence into the Israelites before they will cross into Canaan and conquer the land. “You may say to yourselves, These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out? But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.”

While the evidence in Jerusalem about the status of Jerusalem in the Late Bronze Age is sparse, evidence from outside Jerusalem points to the city having been a significant entity during that period.

In the mid-14th century, Egypt’s 18th Dynasty king Amenhotep IV led a monotheistic religious revolution in Egypt. He banned the worship of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, and focused all worship on the Aten, the sun disk. To honor the Aten, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten. Akhenaten moved his capital to a new site in central Egypt, and called it Akhetaten.

As the king of Egypt, Akhenaten appears to have expended his energy on his religious movement, at the expense of other responsibilities. Egypt’s earlier 18th Dynasty kings sent Egypt’s military to seize control of Canaan, to give the Egyptians control of trade routes and to provide a buffer zone to protect Egypt from an invasion from Asia. Akhenaten neglected these Egyptian vassal states in Canaan.

Akhenaten’s capital Akhetaten was discovered at modern day Tel el-Amarna in central Egypt. Letters on clay tablets sent by rulers of Canaanite city-states were unearthed at Akhetaten. These letters show increasingly desperate rulers pleading for assistance from Akhenaten to protect them from attacks.

In a series of letters, Abdi-Heba, the ruler of a city in Canaan called Urusalem, seeks assistance from Egypt to protect him and his city from attacks by the Hapiru. The letters sound increasingly desperate, and seem to be ignored by Akhenaten.

The ultimate outcome of the attacks is unknown. What, if any, connection the Hapiru have to the Hebrews cannot be stated with any certainty. But the series of letters demonstrates that in the 14th century BCE, Jerusalem was a significant city, with literate scribes and the resources and connections to communicate with the ruler of Egypt.

The image above is of an Amarna Letter, with both cuneiform and Egyptian hieratic writing.