When Words Create Worlds

In Genesis 21, Abraham enters into an oral treaty with Abimelek: Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?” He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

The use of an oral treaty follows an earlier pattern in Genesis. In Genesis 15, God made an oral covenant with Abram, saying “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” In Genesis 17, God told Abram “this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations…the whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

By contrast, the later Ten Commandments is a written covenant. In Exodus 24, God instructs Moses to “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” According to the Bible, this covenant is written in stone.

The presumed setting for the Abraham story is Canaan in the first half of the 2nd millennium. This would have been a time of limited literacy in Canaan. The Phoenician alphabet, the world’s first known alphabet and precursor to the Hebrew alphabet, had yet to be invented. Treaties in Canaan would primarily be oral agreements.

If during this time period Canaan was a backwater, Egypt was a developed state. By the first half of the 2nd millennium Egypt had a fully established writing system.

The invention of writing was driven by the need for recordkeeping in bureaucracy and trade. A thousand years earlier Egypt had already established a kingdom able to unify southern Upper and northern Lower Egypt. Egypt’s trading networks stretched from southern Africa to the region of today’s Afghanistan. These factors drove the adoption of writing.

Egypt’s writing system began with hieroglyphs that were simple images of the items they represented. Eventually hieroglyphic writing evolved to include a mix of images, consonants and individual letters. Hieroglyphs morphed into the simplified forms of the hieratic writing system and later the Demotic writing system.

By the early 1st millennium CE, hieroglyphic writing fell out of use, and with it the ability to read the writings of the ancient Egyptians. Nearly everything we know about ancient Egypt today can be traced back to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

In 1799 a French soldier in Napoleon’s army discovered the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone contained an inscription in three forms: hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek. A brilliant French scholar by the name of Jean-François Champollion successfully deciphered the scripts and in doing so opened up the ancient Egyptian world to us. This has allowed us to learn about ancient Egypt and better understand the backdrop for the stories in the Bible.

The Rosetta Stone itself has its own fascinating history. When the English defeated the French army, the Rosetta Stone was turned over the British as part of the French surrender agreement. It was sent to London where today it still makes its home at the British Museum.

The oral and written covenants in the Bible opened up a new world going forward. The Rosetta Stone opened up the world of the past.