The Alphabet from ‘Izbet Sartah
The State of Writing in the Period of the Judges
The Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah
(1200–1000 b.c.) showing
characters of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to which our modern alphabet
In August 1976 a joint expedition of Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan
Universities was excavating the site of an ancient Israelite village.
The site was occupied during the period 1200-1000 B.C., but not before
that time or after. The place has the modern Arabic name ‘Izbet Sartah.
The village is roughly two miles east of the ancient Philistine city
Aphek, on the road running between Aphek and Shiloh. It was the far
outpost of Israelite holdings during the time before the Philistine
wars. The site may be biblical Ebenezer, where the Israelites mustered
their army at the beginning of the war (1 Sa. 4).
During the course of the excavation, two fragments from a large
earthenware jar were found at the bottom of a storage pit. The fragments
fitted together, and upon close examination, proved to bear writing
(Moshe Kochavi, “An Ostracon of the Period of the Judges from ‘Izbet
Sartah,” Tel Aviv 4 :1-13).
The find itself was modest: a bit of broken pottery on which someone
had scratched an alphabet and a text that seemed to be a copying
exercise: eighty-something letters in all. The text (if text it is)
could not be understood. The scholars who originally examined it had no
difficulty reading the individual letters, but they could not discover
that the letters spelled anything. And yet this scrap of writing has its
story to tell.
To begin, it bridges a gap in our knowledge of the development of
writing. The earliest system of writing, dating around 3500 B.C., was
pictographic. That is, to represent a thing, you drew a picture of it.
The system of pictographs had its uses, but it was clumsy if you wanted
to express complex ideas. Eventually it was replaced by alphabetic
writing. The ‘Izbet Sartah inscription dates from the time when writing
was undergoing this fundamental change.
Pictographic elements are present in several of the letters. The
aleph is still drawn like an ox’s head, horns to the left. Kaf
is drawn like a hand with three (or five?) fingers. Even so, this is a
true alphabet deviating only slightly from the twenty-two-letter
alphabet known to later Hebrew. Aaron Demsky, summing up the
significance of the find, says that it is “the missing link in the
evolution of the alphabet from Proto-Canaanite to the Old Hebrew and
Phoenecian scripts. Some of the letters hark back to the older alphabets
while others anticipate later forms” (Aaron Demsky, “A Proto-Canaanite
Abecedary Dating from the Period of the Judges and Its Implications for
the History of the Alphabet,” Tel Aviv 4 : 14-27).
The inscription, furthermore, bears witness to Hebrew literacy in the
period of the Judges. It tells us that in a rural Israelite village, two
centuries before the monarchy that began with King Saul, someone picked
up a piece of broken pottery to practice making his or her letters.
Where there are letters there is literacy, and where there is literacy
there is the possibility, at least, of literature.
Other nations of the Fertile Crescent possessed rich literatures long
before there was a nation of Israel. The literature of the Bible is a
relative late comer. Most of the biblical literature, indeed, was
written long after these letters from ‘Izbet Sartah were scratched on
this piece of broken pottery. But the Bible does mention writing in the
early stages of its history. The commandments were written; the Song of
Moses was written; Moses kept a written travel itinerary (Exodus 24:4;
Deuteronomy 31:22; 32:1-43; Numbers 33:2).
The inscription from ‘Izbet Sartah shows how this literature was kept
alive. The aristocratic poetry and chronicles of other Near Eastern
peoples lay buried for thousands of years until recent excavations dug
them up again. Or else they were inscribed on tomb and temple walls in a
language which remained, until recently, unreadable. But the Hebrew
literature remained alive for every generation that valued it, because
it belonged to king and commoner alike, and because its treasures were
open to anyone who had learned an alphabet of twenty-two letters.