Brian E. Colless

Note that this is "work in progress" and is continually being modified.

    (1) ’ l m d ’ t y t  [  ] | ’ ‘
    (2) k t t n ‘ r h. ’ t b ’ z |[n b ‘ ] t. 
l t. t. 
   (3) s. m q m r q
   (4) r ‘ r g/p b n h. g ’ t l h |d z q n?  ‘ t ‘ ’ ‘ l ’ h. l d ‘ l m
   (5) ’ B G D H M W H. Z T. Y K L  N | S P ‘ S. Q R Sh T 

The ostrakon to be studied here is a piece of a large jar; it was discovered in 1976 at ‘Izbet (near Aphek), possibly Eben-ezer (1 Samuel 4:1); it was published by Moshe Kochavi (1977). The sherd contains five lines of alphabetic script, the fifth being a copy of the alphabet (Kochavi 1977:4-6); the technical term for this is "abecedary", though my word is "abagadary" (or "abgadary"), because the first four letters are 'ABGD (see Abagadary). 

On archaeological and palaeographical grounds the object can be dated to the 12th or 11th century B.C.E. (Kochavi 1977:12). It is deemed to be an exercise of a student practising his alphabetic writing skills with a stylus on hardened clay (e.g., Kochavi 1977; Demsky 1977; Naveh 1978; Cross 1980; Dotan 1981; Sass 1988). I will argue that the words on the ostrakon affirm this, and that lines 1-4 constitute a coherent continuous text, not simply random letters or jottings. Dotan (1981:162-169) has also attempted to extract a meaning from the inscription, interpreting it as Hebrew; and likewise Shea (1990). 

A drawing of the text is offered above (based on the published photographs), together with my proposed reading of the letters on the ostrakon (the vertical bar indicates the break-line, where the two pieces of the sherd have been joined). Photographs are provided by Kochavi, Dotan, Cross, and Sass. I have seen the sherd in the Israel Museum, where it is on display, and Alexandros Zaharopoulos made a colour photograph for my use.

Previous analyses have been made by:
    Kochavi (1977:6-12), with table of letters, fig. 4;
    Cross (1980:8-12), with a comparative table of signs, fig. 13;
    Puech (1986:171-173), with a comparison table, fig. 8;
    Sass (1988:67-69), with a table of letters, p. 185.
These all need to be consulted, and I will add my own comments, as I deal with such matters as the order of the letters in line 5, the relative frequency of the consonants in the inscription, and the pairs of signs which are difficult to distinguish from each other. 

Some letters are not in the usual order of the ’abgad system, notably Z and H., ‘ayin and P, and M.

M is in the position (after H) where W is expected, apparently through confusion of bilabial consonants (Cross 1980:10). The W has possibly been inserted here subsequently, below the line on which the letters stand, where an enigmatic vertical stroke is found, possibly . There seems to be a correction mark (a vertical stroke) in the wide space between L and N, where the M should be.

H. and Z are out of order, and a mark at the top right corner of the Het perhaps indicates that their positions should be reversed. Z has the shape of a copper ingot (Cross 1980:10-11) or a manacle (ziqq). Such a double triangle figure appears in the middle of lines 2 and 4.

There does not seem to be a correction mark between P andayin; this order (as opposed to ‘ayin  Pe, and O P in the Greco-Roman alphabet) is known to be acceptable in Hebrew practice (Demsky 1977:17-18). In the evolution of the alphabet there are two forms of Samek: the Egyptian Djed pillar, a spinal column, a support (samk) for the body; and the fish (cp. Arabic samk 'fish').

If the first four lines constitute a Hebrew text, then there are some oddities in the relative distribution of consonants. In another connection I have compiled a table of consonant frequency for West Semitic writings, including Sinai proto-alphabetic inscriptions, early Phoenician inscriptions from Byblos, Biblical Hebrew prose (Colless 1992:94-95, 100). There are variations for the positions of several signs, which can be explained by particular circumstances, but this is a useful tool for decipherment. The occurrences of each consonant are ranked over the whole five lines of the ostrakon, so that each letter should have at least one instance. Anomalies in the results will be addressed in the discussion.


         BB SN HB IS
    ’    07  07  02  02 (9)
    B   04  02  08  08 (4)
    G   17  15  20  16 (2)
    D    16 17  14  08 (4)
    H    15 13  13  16 (2)
    W    13 19  05  16 (2) [1]
    Z    19  11  21  13 (3)
    H.   08  12  15  08 (4)
    T.   21  22   22  08 (4)
    Y    09  20   07  06 (6)
    K    05  09   09  16 (2)
    L    01   05   04  04 (7)
    M   02  04   01  07 (5)
    N    06  03  12  02 (9)
    S    18  14  18   21 (1)
    ‘     11  08  10  01 (10)
    P    14  18  16  13 (3) [1 or 2]
    S.   22  16  19  16 (2)
    Q   20   21 17  08 (4)
    R    12   10  03 13 (3) [5?]
    Sh   10  06  06  21 (1) [2?]
    T    03   01 11  04  (7)
There are over eighty letters in this sample, and the most frequent are ‘ayin and ’aleph. The letter ’aleph certainly scores highly in Hebrew, but ‘ayin is normally around the middle of the range in West Semitic texts. My explanation for this irregularity will emerge later in the discussion, but anticipating this it may be said that five of the ten occurrences of the sign ‘ayin are apparently used as word signs for ‘yn, "eye" (noun and verb). This adds five more instances of Y and of N; so Y moves from the lower end of the table to the high position it normally merits, while N moves to its expected level near the top.
    The consonants T. and Q (Tet and Qop) are usually at the bottom of the scale, yet they both stand in eighth place here. If the four lines are merely made up of arbitrary signs and not sequences of words, then it may well be that the scribe felt the need to practise forming circle-letters (‘ayin, T., Q). However, if this is a coherent text, the presence of the word t.t. ("clay") in line 3, preceded by a word ending in T., will seriously distort the results in this limited sample. Similarly, by chance there are three words containing Q in my reading of the inscription.
    In Hebrew prose, Waw occurs frequently as a conjunction, and it also functions as a marker for the vowels U and O; similarly Yod appears often as a vowel-marker, and as a verbal prefix. In the text of this ostrakon, there are no vowel-markers (matres lectionis), no verbs with y-, and not a single case of w as "and". Other apparent abnormalities will be discussed in the next section.

It has long been acknowledged that there are sorting problems with regard to several pairs of similar signs on this ostrakon, and here we need to consider G/P, B/L, Q/W, Q/R, D/R, M/Sh. This situation is complicated by the variant stances which particular letters have in the text (lines 1-4). The question then arises whether these variations are merely arbitrary or significantly
intentional, and whether the different shapes and stances of the characters might indicate which vowel goes with each consonant.

G/P. Both letters have a vertical stem with an angle at the top. The only possible occurrences are in the first half of Line 4., and both instances seem to be G,  even though the oblique line of the G goes to the right in one case and to the left in the other. Perhaps the only P is the one in line 5, and it is not clear what form it takes. Both signs appear in the second half of the frequency scale, as would be expected.     

B/L.  B is much smaller than L in line 5, and they are different in shape; the B is like 9, and the L is like 6 (as on the drawing of Cross, whereas Kochavi and Sass have it incorrectly like 9, and likewise in the case of the second letter in the first line); this corresponds to the LA syllabogram of the Qeiyafa Ostracon; but there are instances of 9-shaped L in lines 2 and 4. Generally speaking, the B is squarer and the L is rounder; accordingly the likeliest B in the text would be the fourth sign in line 4, while the tenth letter would be L, In line 2, the ninth letter is fairly square and comparatively small, and could be B. In the second half of line 2, the presumed L is a variant form of the 6-shaped L in the ’abgad line. This could mean that more than one scribe has been at work on this tablet, as assumed by Kochavi (1977:4) and Demsky (1977:18-19), though it may simply be a variant from the same hand; and they did not take into acount the possibility of a syllabary. The interpretation I am proposing for the text allows four instances of B (one hypothetical, presumed to be obliterated, in line 2), and seven cases of L; this puts each of them in an appropriate position on the scale of frequency.

Q/W. When I first studied this document (Colless 1988:49-50) I thought I had found additional confirmation for my hypothesis that proto-alphabetic Q was a cord wound on a stick (Hebrew qaw, "line"); the Egyptian hieroglyph shows the string around the middle of the stick, with one end of the string protruding at the top, and the examples of Q in the Sinai inscriptions have at least one protrusion at the top (for example, 363 and 376; Colless 1990:5, 8, 9); the Q of the Arabian scripts has this shape, but in the Phoenician alphabet Q has been reduced to a circle on a stem, which was the original shape of Waw ("hook"), and so Waw had to open its circle at the top to distinguish it from Q (Colless 1988:36-37). There is a diagonal line emanating from the top of the Q in line 5 of this ostrakon, but editors disregard it, presumably seeing it as another of the cracks and scratches which litter the surface of the tablet, and I have accepted this as a possible explanation (Colless 1992:30). When I came to examine the inscriptions in lines 1-4, I decided that there are perhaps three examples of Q, none of which has an obvious projection at the top, and so the stroke on the Q in line 5 could be accidental; perhaps it projects too far above the circle to be an intentional part of the sign; but see further below. As for W, there is only a stroke below the alphabet line at the point where W should stand, but M has apparently taken this position (as noted above).

Q/R. Having removed the top stroke from Q, how do we distinguish it from R, which is also shown by this scribe as a ring on a stem? In its pictorial form R was a human head (Colless 1988:50; 1991:30), and perhaps the head of R in this text is not a circle but an oval? However, as we grope around the four lines of text this rule does not seem to help us; the instances I would select are the fifth characters in line 2 and 3 (the latter standing next to Q, in the sequence mrq).

D/R. The fourth sign from the end of line 4 looks like a typical R, with a neck-stem, and it is generally accepted as such; but I would argue that this supposed R could be D: it has been written small and it has sprouted a stem in the process (as on the Tel-Dan inscription from the 9th century), but it is a possible D. Cross has taken the fourth letter in line 1 as possibly R, but it is surely D. Another D stands beside the break-line in line 4.   

M/Sh. As noted above, M is apparently in the place where W is expected, after H. There is no real confusion between M (a wavy line representing water) and W (a hook), but Sh is a problem. The form of Sh in the alphabet line is not matched by any other character in the text, and following Dotan (1981:162) I accept all the wavy lines as M. The third letter in the first line could well be Sh, but it comes to a point at the centre, not a curve. The second and fourth characters in line 3 are quite small (and the first is very faint), but they qualify as M, while the large sign at the end of line 4 is a final flourish for M, rather than Sh. The phoneme M is usually at the top of the scale of frequency, but its presumed five occurrences here give it a fairly high position. In stark contrast, Sh stands at the bottom, rather than around the middle; this must be an accident, in a text where sh is not found as a relative pronoun or in any of the words chosen by the writer to express his ideas.

In my attempts at reading Bronze Age alphabetic inscriptions I have stumbled on a principle that has escaped the notice of others: the pictophonograms of the proto-alphabet could function  not only as consonant signs, but also as logograms (Colless 1988:65; 1990:5). Each alphabetic sign could acrophonically represent the initial consonant of the word it denoted, or else the whole word. The characters were not simply phonographic but also logographic. The same seems to be true of the signs in the Canaanian syllabary, otherwise known as the Byblos pseudo-hieroglyphic script (Colless 1992:99); each glyph could be a logogram as well as an acrophonic syllabogram (initial consonant plus vowel); therefore it is in effect a logo-syllabary. 

Some examples of proto-alphabetic pictophonograms acting in this way will be offered here. The Gezer sherd is a fragment of a terra-cotta cult-stand, inscribed K (kap, "hand") N (nakhash, "snake") B (bayt, "house" or "temple"); thus the object is appropriately labelled as a "temple stand" (Hebrew ken, "stand"), with the B-sign standing for the whole word bayt (Colless 1991:31-32). In this instance the word bayt would presumably have a genitive case ending (-i), but vowels do not matter in this system of transcription. In this respect it resembles Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, where the consonants of the word depicted can be used, by the rebus principle, for any other word that has the same consonants, irrespective of the vowels. This idea may provide a clue for interpreting the Izbet Sartah text, where some problematic combinations of ’aleph and ‘ayin may be resolved by invoking this principle. 

In the inscriptions from the turquoise mines of Sinai, a water source bears the name ‘(yn) ’m, "Spring of the Mother (Goddess)" (02=377; Colless 1990:13); and another text (32=357; Colless 1990:37-39) speaks of "filling the jug with water of the spring of the Mother", ml kd m(ym) ‘(yn) ’m, where two signs are to be read as logograms. The pictograph for an eye is here employed in the extended sense of "water-well", and the wavy line for water represents the word for water (though this may simply be mu, rather than mayim). 

Presumably this practice would have ceased when the meaning of the signs was forgotten. I had previously thought that the Izbet Sartah text was too late in time for this principle to work, but apparently it was applied, even though the letters are no longer pictorial.


The proposed syllabograms are mine, based on the principles set forth in the article cited above: Izbet Sartah line 5 mostly has signs with -a;  and letter-forms in the later international consonantary ('Phoenician alphabet') are mostly -i signs in syllabic inscriptions; the rest would mostly be -u signs, such as the semicircular `ayin at the start of line 4, in contrast to the dotted circle in line 5 (`a), and circle without dot (`i). With regard to Q, the sign for qu would have a circle on a stem, qi would have the stem intruding in the circle (as in the Phoenician alphabet), and qa would have the prokecting line at the top, as in line 5. The main inscription for comparisons is the Qeiyafa Ostracon, but two shorter texts are available (Qubur Walayda Bowl, Beth Shemesh Ostracon). However, there are idiosyncrasies in each of these  examples, and so complete consistency is not found in the evidence.

C Cross D Dotan K Kochavi  S Sass Sh Shea
(their proposed readings are only consonantal, not syllabic)

1.1  [] ’a (C D K S Sh) pointing westwards
1.2  [L] la (D K Sh) (b C K S) like 2.18 and L in line 5
1.3  [M] mu (D)  (others: Shin or Sin) same as 4.28 and possibly 3.2
1.4  [D] du (C D K S Sh) same as QO 4.10
1.4a [?] (C K S Sh)
1.5  [
] ’u (C D K S Sh) pointing NW
1.6  [T] tu (C D K S Sh)

1.7  [Y?] yu? compare QO 3.5 yu
1.8  [T] t- (not noticed)
[] (C D K S Sh)
1.10 [
] (C D K S) no dot in the circle

2.1  [K] ki (C D K S Sh) differs from K (ka) in line 5
2.2  [T] ti (C D K S Sh)  same as QO 5.14
2.3  [T] ti (not noticed,
except by Shea)
2.4  [N] nu (C D K S) differs from N (na) in line 5
2.5  [
] ‘ (C D K S Sh)
2.6  [R] ru (D) differs from R (ra) in line 5
2.7  [H.] h.a? h.u? (C D K S Sh)
2.8  [
] ’u (C D K S Sh) same as 1.5
2.9  [T] ti (C D K S Sh) same as 2.2
2.10 [B?] bi? (K S) [L?] li? (C D K S Sh)
[] ’u (C D K S Sh)
2.12 [Z] zi? (C Sh)
2.13 [N?] ni? (D)
2.14 [(B?)]
[(‘)] ‘i?
2.16 [T.] t.u? (C K S)
[] ‘a (C D K S Sh)
2.18 [L] la (C D K S Sh) equivalent to 1.2 and L (la) in line 5
2.19 [T.] t.i
(C D K S) same as QO 2.15, and the Tet in line 5
[T.] t.i (C D K S) same as 2.19 (the cross has same stance as ti)

3.1  [S.] s.a (K D S)
3.2  [M] mu (K D) 
3.3  [Q] qu (K S)
3.4  [M] ma (C D)
3.5  [R] ru (D)
3.6  [Q] qu (C D K S)

4.0  [R?] r- (Shea) space for a letter, and it is R, so Shea, or perhaps Q)
[] ‘u (C D K S Sh) apparently a semicircle rather than a circle
4.2  [R] r-? (D Sh) w (C) q (K S)
4.3  [P]  pa (D K S) matches P (pa) in line 5?
g (C S Sh)
4.4  [B] bi (C D K S) l (C K S Sh)
4.5  [N] nu (C D K S)
4.6  [H.] h.a (C D K S Sh)
4.7  [G] gi (D K S) reversed form of ga
4.8  [
’a (C D K S Sh)
4.9  [T] tu (C D K S Sh)
4.10 [L] l- (D K S Sh) b (C K S)
4.11 [H] ha (C D K S Sh)
4.12 [D] da (C D K S Sh) matches D in line 5, with flat top, whereas di has round top
4.13 [Z] za (C D K S Sh)
4.14 [Q] qi  (D K S Sh)
4.15 [N] n- (b/l D K S)
[] ‘i (C D K S)
4.17 [T] ti (C S) or the alternative Samek (si), with 3 crossbars (Shea)
[‘a (C D K S)
[’a (C D K S)
[‘a (C D K S Sh)
4.21 [L] l- (D K S) b (C D K S Sh)
[’a (C D K S Sh)
4.23 [H.] h.u (C D K S Sh)
4.24 [L]  l- (D K S Sh) b (C D K S)
4.25 [D] du (r C D K S) like 1.4 but seems to have a stem, and a dot
4.26 [
‘a (C D K S)
[L]  l- (D K S) b (C D K S)
4.28 [M] mu (D) (sh C K S) same as 1.3

An interesting attempt to find continuous meaning in the first four lines has been made by Dotan (1981:162-169); initially Kochavi (1977: 6) and Demsky (1977:19) tried this approach, but both eventually decided that it was simply an exercise in writing the letters of the alphabet.

Click on this photograph to see it in an enlarged form

Here is my interpretation of the text, with spaces between the proposed words, followed by a translation.

    (1) ’lmd  ’tyt   ’‘(yn)
    (2) k ttn ‘(yn) rh. ’t b ’z[n b ‘]t. ‘l  t.t.
    (3) mrq
    (4) r‘ w p b nh. g ’t l hd zqn  ‘t ‘(yn) ’‘(yn) l ’(lp) h.ld ‘lm 

    (1) a la mu du u tu yu tu a (yn)
ki ti ti nu
(yn) ru h.a u ti bi u z ni [  ] t.u a la t.i t.i
    (3) s.a mu q- mu ra q-
r- ‘- r- g/pa bi n- h.a gi a tu bi/li ha da za qi ni i ti ‘(yn) ‘(yn) l (lp) h.ld ‘lm

    (5) a B- Ga Da Ha Ma Wa? H.a Za T.i? Ya Ka La  Na  Sa Pa a S.a Qa Ra Sha Ta

    (1) I am learning the letters (signs). I am seeing
    (2) that the eye gives the breath of a letter (sign) into the ea[r by a styl]us on clay
    (3) (which is) dried (and) polished.
r-‘- r- p/ga bi na h.a gi has come to the splendour of old age (zaqini iti??). See,  I shall be seen for a thousand lifetimes of the world.  

 There are many variables opening up the floodgates of speculation and subjectivism:  no matres lectionis, no word separaters. Thus, line 4 could well begin with the  subject  of the verb as "The eye  (`) and (w) the mouth (p) with the resting (nh.) of the voice (g)"; or the name of the writer as`wp bn h.g, something like `iwpai bin H.agi (both attested Hebrew names) . The -w- would be part of the root, not an indication of a vowel o or u; but it may not be  Waw. Another reading (recognizing another letter at the beginning of the line) would be r`r p/g- (r`urapa)..

In working out his own interpretation Dotan presented a great variety of possible words, and three of his rejected items will be taken up here: ’lmd, ’t ("sign"), t.t. ("clay"). The word "clay" did not suit his context of named people transporting food and clothing to other people; and yet the ostrakon itself is made of clay. The word ’t  was taken to be a verb, root ’ty ("come" or "bring"), rather than the noun ’ot, "sign"; but the tablet is covered with "signs", and I take that to be the signification of the word in lines 1 and 2; but in one case, in line 4, I do see 't as a verb ("has come"). As for ’lmd, the root lmd ("learn") is apposite in this setting, where a student is learning to write. 
    Line 1
    ’lmd (
’alamudu, for’almudu, Biblical Hebrew ’elmod) 1. p. sg. imperfect, "I learn" . Of course, by the principle of the letter as a logogram or a polysyllabogram (showing consonants but not vowels, as in the Egyptian system) only the first two letters needed to be written, namely ’aleph and Lamed, producing ’l(md); but that would be too ambiguous, suggesting the word El, God. Note that Dotan (166) considers the reading ’lmd, but does not notice its possible meaning.
    ’tt. Hebrew ’ot, "sign", used in later Hebrew for letters of the alphabet, with plural ’wtywt; actually there does seem to be a Y after the
’t ; and below the T there is another Taw, though only its cross bar is clearly visible (compare and contrast the double T in the second position in line 2); this combination would produce ’tyt, "letters"; a syllabic reading is difficult, but ’utuyutu seems viable. (Another faint possibility is that ’aleph taw means "the alphabet".) The space between the two words has faint marks, possibly representing H, and thus the definite article, which is not a feature of old Canaanian; but there seems to be no other case of such ha- determination in the text, even though my translation uses "the" several times.
    ’‘. This strange combination ('aleph-`ayin) is known in Aramaic, as the word for "tree"; but this is not applicable in Hebrew; here the ‘ayin could be understood as a logogram, or better a "polyconsonantogram" (or even an ideogram for "sight"?), while the ’aleph provides the verbal prefix; hence "I am seeing"; the verb ‘yn is found in Ugaritic and in Hebrew, meaning "to eye" or "look at" or "perceive" (which would be a suitable translation here).
    Line 2
    k (ki,  BHbr. kî) subordinating conjunction, "that".
    ttn (titinu, tittén). 3. p. f. sg. imperfect, root ntn, "give". Note that one T stands above the other T, next to the K, but other interpreters only record one T at this spot.
    ‘(ayin). Logogram, "eye"; feminine subject of the feminine verb
    rh. (ruh.a,  Hbr. ruah.) "breath, spirit, sense, mind"; here it presumably means the sound that the sign represents (the phonetic value of the letter). If the reading
ruh.a is correct, the noun has the -a ending for accusative case, as the object of the verb. 
’uti). As in line 1, "sign", "letter" (of the alphabet). The form has the ending -i of the genitive case, for "the breath of the letter".
    b ’z[n]. Preposition b, "in(to)", or perhaps l, "to"; Hbr. ’ozen, "ear".
    [b ‘]t.. Preposition b, here "by (means of)"; Hbr. ‘et., "stylus, pen". with (b) a stylus of iron `u-tu or `i tu  or h.rtu
    ‘l.  Preposition ‘al (
‘ala, and the final -a is silent; but if the sign is li and not la, given that it is not exactly the same as 1.2 and the L of line 5, even though the QO li has a vertical arm, as does the L of the Phoenician alphabet, then ‘ali would attest the older form ‘alé) "upon".
( Hbr. (m.) "clay" or "mud"; here has the genitive ending -i, after the preposition. On the other hand, the second -i is in accordance with the principle of synharmony, whereby a syllable with a mute vowel is given the same vowel as an adjacent syllable.The question remains, whether the case inflexions were still applicable in Hebrew at this stage (early in the Iron Age).
    Line 3 Passive participle, qualifying t.t., "dried clay"; used in BH of dry breasts (Hosea 9:14) and dried grapes (raisins).  Is it the qutal (Exodus 3:2) or the qatul form (MH s.amuq) or simply the active participle? Unfortunately the writing in this short line is obscure, but the Sadey closely resembles the prototype in Line 5
(s.a), and Kochavi's drawing has a faint mu (similar to 1.3).
    If grammatical agreement is shown,  then the final syllable would be -qi here and on the accompanying word mrq; but synharmony may be at work here, producing  s.amuqu  muraqa.When more of these neo-syllabic inscriptions are available, we may expect to sort out the syllabograms  
. Passive participle, qualifying t.t., "polished clay", Hbr. mrq, "rub, polish". Could this refer to the "wet-smoothing" process applied to the surface of the sherd (Kochavi 1977:4) before firing (Sass 1988:66)? The attested passive participle is  maruq (2 Chron 4:16, referring to "burnished bronze"), but again Kochavi depicts a mu. There is no conjunction between the participles; a faint possibility would be rq, "dried and empty", with enclitic -ma as the conjunction, and the Hebrew adjective req, "empty". Note that the English translation likewise does not need a conjunction: "polished dried clay" (as against "clay that is dried and polished").
    Line 4
The first clearly visible letter in this line is ‘ayin (`u), but there are marks in the anomalous space preceding it. The traces there seem to form R, a rough circle on a stem, like 3.5 (ru?). As  noted above, the writer's name might be found here:
R ` R P/G BN H. G
r` (ru`u). This is a name attested in the Bible (if it is not shepherd, friend, or evil); the Patriarch R`û was the son of Peleg and the father of Serug (Gen 11:18-21);
R`û'él was the father-in-law of Moses (Exodus 2:15-22), and others bore this name, one of the sons of Esau, for example (Gen 36:10).
rp or rg. In deciding between  P and G here, it is noticeable that the G in line 5 is larger than this character in line 4, which is equal in size to the P in line 5, and smaller than the G further along in line 4; this seems to favour P as the correct reading. The name Rg' (Raga) is known from three inscriptions (Arad, Samaria; Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew VII, 408b-409a). Numerous examples of Rp' (Rapha) are found in inscriptions (Clines, VII, 535b-536a), and also as a son of Benjamin (1 Chron 8:1-2).
r` rp bi h.g (ru`u  rapa binu h.agi). Are there three separate names here?
    R`u (son of?) Rapa son of H.agi?

    R`urapa son of H.agi? 
The personal name H.aggi  (as distinct from H.aggai) is attested once, as a son of Gad (Gen 46:16), and there is a gentilic, referring to the family of H.aggi (Num 26:15). Our author was apparently one of the children of Israel, living at Ebenezer..

`wp bn h.g, something like `iwpai binu H.agi. Or else it could be: "The eye and the mouth/voice of Ben Haggi have come to the splendour of old age".
    ‘(ayin). Logogram, "eye"; cp. line 2.
    w. Conjunction, "and", as in Hebrew, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic. But r is a more probable reading, like 2.6. Waw is Y-shaped at this stage of its development.
    p. Logogram, "mouth"; even though the pictophonetogram has lost most of the bottom lip by this time, apparently its meaning had not been lost (Semitic pu, "mouth", Hbr. peh, a  monosyllabic word, so the logographic principle need not necessarily be invoked here).
    b nh.. Preposition b, "in" or "with", and nh., an infinitive or a noun, root nwh., "rest, repose, settle".
    g. Noun, Ugaritic g, "voice"; found on the Beth Shemesh ostrakon (Colless 1991:47).

    ’t. In lines 1 and 2, I have taken this combination to be a noun, "sign", but here it could be the verb 'ty, "come"; the reading
’atu might  be 1. p. sg. m. impf. with the same final -u as ’almudu in line 1, with a reduction of glottal stops. "I am coming to the splendour of old age".   
    l hd. Preposition l, "to", with noun hd (hada, BHbr. hod, "splendour, majesty".
    zqn. Noun, cp. Hbr. zoqen, "old age" (Genesis 48:10), or possibly "beard", BHbr. zaqan. Either the writer is learning to be a scribe at a mature age, or else he has now become a man with a beard. Reading zaqini `iti ("old time" = "old age"?) usually `t zqn(t), 'time of senescence' (1 K 11:4, Solomon).
    ‘t. Either a noun, "time, season", or an adverb, "now". The writing is not easy to read here, and the following ‘ayin may have a tail and be Q, hence ‘tq, "move on" or "grow old", and Hif. "copy out, transcribe"; all these ideas have interesting potential for the line of thought being pursued here. (zqn `tq, "venerable old age"?). Shea sees not T but S (not the fish, but the djed column, with three crossbars
    ‘ ’ ‘ . This strange sequence apparently supports the view that the signs are being practised at random; but taking the first ‘ayin as a logogram (as in line 2 and at the beginning of this line), vocative noun, perhaps with 1. p. sg. suffix, and the next two signs as saying "I see" (as in line 1) we have " eye, I am seeing". But another interpretation is offered below.
    l ’ h.ld ‘lm. The l is a preposition. The ’aleph could be a  rebus (polyconsonantogram): instead of "ox" (or even "has learned")
it is "thousand". Finally there are two more words with "time" connotations: h.ld, Hbr. h.eled, "duration, lifetime" or "world", and ‘lm, Hbr. ‘olam, "perpetuity" or "world". Thus, "for a thousand lifetimes of the world", or the like. Finding the intended syllables at this point is difficult, but the peculiar H. with only two crossbars might be h.u (to go with the Arabic cognate huld).

The message obtained from the proposed interpretation for lines 1-3 seems fairly plausible: a student has been learning to write with the alphabet and muses over the art of writing on tablets. If line 4 is a continuation of this, we might suppose that the scribe's name is embedded in the long uninterrupted sequence of signs (bnh.g could be "son of Haggi"), and the writer is saying that he will be remembered forever, because he has written something that will endure; but the translation "I am seeing" does not convey this idea. However, if we understand the first ‘ayin not as a vocative noun ("Eye!") but as an imperative verb ("See!"), and regard the ’alep-‘ayin combination as a Qal passive or Nifal ("I shall be seen"), then the expected meaning emerges before our very eyes: "See, I shall be seen in perpetuity".

The writer of this text has apparently produced an ancient equivalent of a "time capsule", that is, an object stowed away as a memorial, to be found at a later point in time. That is why he speaks of being seen in the distant future, and this might explain why the document was found in a silo, a storage place (Kochavi, 4).


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Colless, B. E. 1991. The Proto-alphabetic Inscriptions of Canaan, Abr-Nahrain 29:18-66.
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Colless, B. E. 1995. The Syllabic Inscriptions of Byblos: Texts B, E, F, I, K. Abr-Nahrain 33:17-29                                    
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1998, The Canaanite Syllabary, Abr-Nahrain 35: 28-46.  

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Brian E. Colless, PhD ThD (b. 1936), Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.