A City Rises Up the Hill

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Jerusalem, Israel

Exodus 26 describes the desert Tabernacle structure. Its dimensions can be calculated based upon the description. “Make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. Each frame is to be ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide, with two projections set parallel to each other. Make all the frames of the tabernacle in this way. Make twenty frames for the south side of the tabernacle and make forty silver bases to go under them, two bases for each frame, one under each projection. For the other side, the north side of the tabernacle, make twenty frames and forty silver bases, two under each frame. Make six frames for the far end, that is, the west end of the tabernacle, and make two frames for the corners at the far end. At these two corners they must be double from the bottom all the way to the top and fitted into a single ring; both shall be like that. So there will be eight frames and sixteen silver bases, two under each frame.”

The Bible is very exact about the dimensions of the Tabernacle, but archaeologists are less certain about the exact dimensions of the Iron IIA city of Jerusalem.

In the Bible, King David established Jerusalem as his capital. In 2 Samuel 5, “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.” Later, in 1 Kings 6-7, Solomon expanded the city by building a temple and a palace for himself.

One of the challenges of matching the archaeology to the biblical account is that in the Iron IIA period, Jerusalem appears to be at best a small town. There may be reasons for this. Capitals might start out small and nomadic dwellers in the vicinity may not show up in the archaeology.

In the Iron IIA period, Jerusalem appears to have grown in size. A hectare is the equivalent of 10,000 square meters, and equal to nearly 2.5 acres. The early Iron IIA site of Jerusalem appears to have covered 5 hectares, and an expansion to include a temple up the hill would grow the city to a size of 12 hectares.

A city of 12 hectares could be home to up to 2,000 people. This is sizeable enough to be a center for a tribal confederation, but still considerably smaller than other large centers in Canaan and smaller than other ancient Near Eastern capitals. Canaanite cities such as Hazor and Megiddo were larger than Iron IIA Jerusalem, and Babylon at its peak encompassed over 1000 hectares.

Still, if the Iron IIA can be said to have been in the 10th century BCE, than the development and the expansion of the city could be said to have been the work of Kings David and Solomon.

The image above is of Jerusalem, facing west. The City of David is on the hill to the south of the Jerusalem’s Old City wall. The Iron IIA city would expand from the City of David up the hill towards the Temple Mount.

Relative and Absolute Dating Difficulties

In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro advised Moses how to do implement a process to settle disputes. “You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. But select capable men from all the people, men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain, and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

Without access to all the judges of Israel, one method that has been used to settle disputes in archaeology is radiocarbon dating.

One of the key goals for archaeologists is to establish dates and times. Artifacts recovered that trace back to the Iron Age do not reveal the year they existed, and thus archaeologists use other methods to determine when an object was in use. Where they cannot establish an absolute chronology, they can attempt to determine a relative chronology.

By studying the movement of the earth and the moon, the Bur-Sagale solar eclipse that was recorded during the reign of the Assyrian king Ashur-dan III was determined to have occurred on exactly June 15, 763 BCE. By establishing this date, archaeologists can track the dates of the reigns of kings and establish an absolute chronology of fixed years for royal reigns and events that followed.

For events that occurred before this date, where there are no kings’ reigns to establish the dates, archaeologists attempt to establish a relative chronology. This is one of the key goals of pottery research, to determine what pottery was in use at a particular point in time and then compare that across other sites to ascertain that archaeological layers with the same style of pottery represent the same period of time.

For example, by analyzing pottery across sites, it can be established that the archaeological layers Megiddo VB, Lachish V, Arad XII were active in the Early Iron IIA period. Megiddo VA–IVB, Rehov IV, Lachish IV and Beersheba V represent the Late Iron IIA period.

As made obvious in the names, the debate between supporters of the High Chronology and Low Chronology is a debate about establishing a fixed chronology. The High Chronology allows for a King David and King Solomon to rule a united kingdom in the 10th century BCE. The Low Chronology argues that King David was only a relatively insignificant tribal chieftain. Those who support the High Chronology believe that the Iron IIA period lasted from the early 10th century through the late 9th century, while the Low Chronology sees a narrower time period for this relative period that lasts primarily in the 9th century BCE.

To establish a more fixed absolute chronology, archaeologists have attempted to use carbon dating to determine the actual years of these archaeological layers. Carbon dating works by measuring the amount of carbon remaining in a once living object, and estimates a time based on rates of decay. At archaeological sites, this can often come by analyzing burnt wood or olive pits in a city’s destruction layer.

One of the limitations of carbon dating is that it can only provide an estimate of a wide band of time. Additionally, the field is hindered by disputes about the use of statistics. These limitations have hindered attempts to affix dates at sites such as Megiddo and Tel Rehov. The probability bands of the material analyzed from these sites can be as wide as 100 years, and thus cannot be narrowed to state definitively if something happened in the 10th or 9th century, the exact period of the debate about the size of King David’s kingdom.

Shoshenq I’s 10th Century Raid

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Karnak Temple, Egypt

In Exodus 14, after the pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt, he had a change of heart. “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services! So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops, pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.” This Egyptian attack was thwarted by God, and the Egyptians were ultimately defeated when the waters which had been split returned.

Where the pharaoh in Exodus failed, in 2 Chronicles 12, the Egyptian pharaoh launched a successful attack against King Solomon’s son Rehoboam’s Kingdom of Judah. “Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem in the fifth year of King Rehoboam. With twelve hundred chariots and sixty thousand horsemen and the innumerable troops of Libyans, Sukkites and Cushites that came with him from Egypt, he captured the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem.”

Shishak’s attack of the southern Levant in the 10th century BCE is recorded in the archaeological record.

The Karnak Temple is in southern Egypt, on the east bank of the Nile River. It was the major temple site for Egypt’s southern capital at Thebes. At the Bubasite Portal in the Karnak Temple complex, Shoshenq I, as this king is known in the Egyptian language, recorded his incursions into the southern Levant. The record shows that Shoshenq did not limit his attack to the Kingdom of Judah. He also attacked cities in the northern Kingdom of Israel. One place Shoshenq I is said to have attacked is Rehov.

Tel Rehov is an archaeological site 3 miles south of Beth Shean. It has become an important site for the High Chronology vs. Low Chronology debate about the dating of pottery and the status of King David and King Solomon.

In the simplest of terms, Late Bronze Age to Iron Age I Canaanite pottery was unburnished and unslipped, meaning it was not smoothed and not covered in a paint or coloring. After the archaeological layers with Canaanite pottery, a new type of pottery appears, one that is hand burnished and red-slipped, meaning hand smoothed with a reddish coloring. This type of pottery appears in a layer that was destroyed, and then in the next layer that was destroyed, followed by new forms of pottery.

Proponents of the High Chronology argue that the hand burnished and red-slipped pottery was in use in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, while proponents of the Low Chronology believe this type of pottery to have been confined to the 9th century BCE.

The High Chronology argues that the first layer in which the hand burnished red-slipped pottery was found was destroyed by Shoshenq I in the latter part of the 10th century, continued in use, and then the second layer was destroyed in the 9th century during an Aramean invasion. Proponents of the High Chronology maintain that there are too many archaeological layers containing the hand burnished and red-slipped pottery for it to have only been in use during the 9th century BCE.

The implications of this are as follows. For supporters of the High Chronology, the burnished and red-slipped pottery that is the indicator of the beginning of the Iron IIA period starts in the 10th century. And if the burnished and red-slipped pottery at Tel Rehov is from the 10th century BCE, then it also is from the 10th century all over the rest of the southern Levant. Thus signs of a centralized kingdom in this archaeological layer, including signs of monumental construction and literacy, are from the 10th century BCE, and can be used to argue for King David and King Solomon ruling a confederation of tribes in the 10th century, without interference from the later, powerful, Kingdom of Israel that dominated the northern hill country in the mid-9th century BCE.

The image above is of the representations of the place names of the towns defeated by Shoshenq I in his raid of the southern Levant, from the Bubasite Portal in the Karnak Temple.

A Defenestration Site at Jezreel

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Samaria and the Center, Israel

After Moses met God at the burning bush, Moses went a number of times to visit the pharaoh, presumably at the pharaoh’s palace. In Exodus 10, the pharaoh told Moses to not come back. “Pharaoh said to Moses, Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”

In 1 Kings, Jeroboam ben Nebat led the tribes to secede from Rehoboam’s kingdom to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, while King Rehoboam was left with the much reduced Kingdom of Judah. After a series of coups, Omri took hold of the Kingdom of Israel.

Omri built his palace at Samaria in 9th century BCE, but his dynasty appears to have also established a royal residence further north at Jezreel.

In 1 Kings 21 Omri’s son Ahab sought to take control of Naboth’s vineyard at Jezreel, and the Queen Jezebel devised a plan to allow him to seize the land. In 2 Kings 8, Ahab’s son Joram was wounded in battle against the Arameans and Joram went to Jezreel to recover. When Jehu overthrew Omri’s dynasty, Ahab’s widow Jezebel was thrown from the window at Jezreel.

At Jezreel, archaeologists discovered a large fortified and enclosed area. The area was surrounded by a wall with earthen ramparts, towers in the corners, and further encircled by a moat. The site was short lived, with little in the way of remains after the Iron IIA period that ends in the late 9th century BCE.

The dating of the structure touches on issues in the High Chronology-Low Chronology debate. Proponents of the High Chronology argue that the Iron IIA period began in the early 10th century BCE and lasted throughout the 9th century BCE, while the Low Chronology supports an Iron IIA period lasting mainly through the 9th century BCE. Despite the differences, both schools of thought argue for a 9th century BCE dating of this large structure. Thus both would agree that the large structure at Jezreel is the likely site of the royal residence of the Omride dynasty featured in the biblical story, and thus the site of the biblical story of the defenestration of Jezebel at Jezreel.

The image above is of the Jezreel Valley from the archaeological site of Jezreel.

Megiddo’s Masonry Marks

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Samaria and the Center, Israel

In Exodus 1, the Egyptian enslaved the Israelites and “made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.” In Exodus 5, after Moses told Pharaoh that God said the Israelites should have a festival in the desert, Pharaoh penalized the Israelites through bricks. “Then the slave drivers and the overseers went out and said to the people, This is what Pharaoh says: I will not give you any more straw. Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all. So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw. And Pharaoh’s slave drivers beat the Israelite overseers they had appointed, demanding, Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”

In 1 Kings 9, King Solomon is said to have engaged in a construction program. “Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.”

The contents of the walls in Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer have become part of a debate as to the status of King David and King Solomon.

In 1 Kings, after King Solomon’s reign, his son Rehoboam increased the tax burden on the tribes within his monarchy. In response, Jeroboam ben Nebat led the other tribes to secede and establish a new kingdom. King David and King Solomon’s descendants led the Kingdom of Judah in the south, while King Jeroboam established the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of Israel struggled with palace intrigue, with a quick succession of kings being overthrown, until King Omri took hold of the throne and built his palace at Samaria.

Similarities between the gate systems and walls at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer led to the hypothesis that these were all rebuild by King Solomon, per 1 Kings. One of those similarities was the ashlar masonry, the cut stone blocks used in the walls. These were believed to be similar to the stones used in Solomon’s construction projects in Jerusalem in 1 Kings 7. “All these structures, from the outside to the great courtyard and from foundation to eaves, were made of blocks of high-grade stone cut to size and smoothed on their inner and outer faces.”

However, archaeologists noticed that the stones at Megiddo bore distinct mason’s marks, designs carved into various stones. A similar pattern was discovered in the remains of the palace at Samaria. The palace at Samaria is assigned to the 9th century BCE. In the Bible, this palace was built by the Israelite King Omri, a half-century or more after King Solomon’s reign.

This led proponents of the Low Chronology, who maintain that King David lived in the 9th century BCE, to proclaim that this proved that the gates at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer were all constructed in the 9th century BCE, and were associated with the northern Kingdom of Israel, and not with King Solomon.

Others who maintain the High Chronology, and argue that King David and King Solomon were active in the 10th century BCE, maintain that either these mason’s marks were not particular to a specific mason, or that the stones at Megiddo could have been transported from an earlier construction at Megiddo and repurposed into the palace at Samaria.

The image above is of ashlar stones within a stone wall at Megiddo. An example of a mason’s mark at Megiddo can be seen via the following link:


The Uncertain Dates of Gates

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Samaria and the Center, Israel

In Exodus 1, the Egyptians saw the Israelites as a potential enemy and took steps against them: Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.

Where the Egyptians were the Israelite oppressors in Exodus, in 1 Kings 9 they were King Solomon’s ally: “Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. 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.”

In this account, King Solomon used his labor resources to build the walls of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.

Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer had all been important Canaanite cities in the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze Age, before the establishment of the Israelites in the central hill country. These cities all corresponded with the pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE, as recorded in the Amarna Letters. They sat astride the trade routes between Egypt to the south and Lebanon’s ports, Syria and Anatolia to the north, cut into the Transjordan, continued along to the Euphrates and into Mesopotamia. Thus they would have been important cities for a king to command and defend.

Gates were an important part of a city’s defense system. The entry points were typically the most vulnerable part of the wall, and thus required enhancements beyond a wall. Many walled cities in Canaan had four-chambered gates, two extra chambers facing each other beyond the outer wall or entry point followed by another two chambers facing each other. Each chamber was likely separated by wooden doors as barriers to prevent forced entry.

In the mid 20th century CE, archaeologists noticed similarities between the outer gate systems at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. These cities all had six-chambered gates, an additional defense layer, which were of similar size with similar masonry. The claim was made that these were the gate systems built by Solomon in the Iron IIA period, in the 10th century BCE, in line with the Bible’s “wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer” which Solomon built with conscripted labor.

A key dividing line in views about the archaeology of the southern Levant relates to the dating of pottery in the various layers and the centuries to which they should be assigned. Proponents of the High Chronology place the Iron IIA beginning in the 10th century, while supporters of the Low Chronology place the Iron IIA period in the 9th century. A 9th century BCE beginning would pose a challenge to the biblical claims about King Solomon constructing of these gates.

Along these lines, the assigning of the six-chambered gates at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer to Solomon has been challenged. Proponents of the Low Chronology place the gates of Megiddo in the 9th century BCE, and some argue for a date as late as the 8th century BCE, and therefore unconnected to King Solomon.

Similar challenges have been made about the gate system at both Hazor and Gezer. In the mid-2010s new digs were undertaken to learn more about Gezer, and the findings still await publication.

The image above is of the gate system at Megiddo. An aerial view of the six-chambered gates can be seen via the link below:


A Game Board and State Formation

Credit: BiblePlaces.com

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:


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: 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.

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.