Decoding the Early Hebrew Sherd

The translation of five lines of writing found on a pottery sherd last year has finally been released. The sherd was found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, southwest of Jerusalem, and is will hereby be known as the The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon!

Using broken bits of pottery as notebook paper was common in the ancient world. What is interesting about this piece is that it was dated to the 10th century BCE. Though not the oldest writing found in that area, it is the oldest writing in Hebrew. Or, rather, “proto-Canaanite”, since it does resemble the Hebrew language, however a much more primitive version of it. Press Release | A More Sober Assessment

News stories like this are always blown out of proportion by religious reporters, who tend to jump to the conclusion that any bit of writing, pottery, or discarded toiletry found in the Levant somehow verifies the historicity of the Torah, no matter what it says.

Though this piece does have some language on it that may seem to echo the sentiment expressed in the Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), it most certainly does not echo any of the language of Exodus. Firstly, it’s not Hebrew, it’s “Proto-Canaanite”, meaning the culture was still evolving and changing. Secondly, the code in Exodus, is made up of commands given from YHWH himself, so merely paraphrasing the rules would not be on the up and up. What the existence of this sherd does do is point to an early stage of the evolution of Hebrew culture which is, oddly enough, exactly what critical scholars have been pointing to all along.

The most interesting knowledge nugget that this left over piece of clay brings us is evidence that literacy may have taken hold in the area a bit earlier than previously thought, though I would say that a single sherd does not a library make. It certainly shows that their culture was not static; that there was at least a considerable change in the language between the 10th and 8th century BCE, the time period many scholars believe the earliest of the Torah writings to be from.

Inscription (English approximation):

Do not do [ ] and servant a[…]
Judge ….. [ ] El(?)…
El(?) and Ba’all
Pe[rso]n will revenge, YSD king (of) G[ath(?)]
Seren(?) a[…] from Gederot (?)

The Proposed translation (by Gershon Galil):

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

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One Comment on “Decoding the Early Hebrew Sherd”

  1. […] earliest Hebrew writing is the Gezer Calendar and the Khirbet Qeiyafa potsherd, both dated to around 1,000 BCE and both very primitive early forms of the […]

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