Christopher Rollston on the Ishba’l Inscription: A Guest Post

The Incised Ishba‘l Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa: Some Things that Can and Cannot be Said

The editio princeps of the Ishba‘l Inscription (note that the noun ba‘l is a qatl segholate and so this noun was monosyllabic in the Iron Age, not bisyllabic) has just been published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (Garfinkel, Golub, Misgav, Ganor, 2015). This editio princeps contains a fine discussion of the archaeological context of the inscription, some very good photographs, a useful synopsis of the script, reliable readings, a translation, and some discussion of the onomastics (personal name and patronymic). The date for the inscription is stated to be ca. 1020-980 BCE, based on radiometric dating of the relevant layer in which it was found. It should be noted that an ostracon was found at Qeiyafa during the excavations of 2008 (Misgav, Garfinkel, Ganor, 2009; Rollston, 2011).

According to the editio princeps, the readings of the Incised Ishba‘l inscription are: [ ] ’šb‘l {bn} bd‘. I believe that these readings are correct. The authors of the editio princeps render the extant portion of this inscription (the very beginning of the inscription is not preserved, though some traces are present) as: “Ishba’l son of Beda.” They refer to the script as Canaanite, an acceptable term, although I have long preferred the broader term Linear Early Alphabetic. The authors of the editio princeps correctly note that this inscription was incised before firing and also that it is written sinistrograde (i.e., right to left).

I shall soon pen a broader article about this inscription, but at this juncture, I wish to reflect briefly on some of the salient palaeographic and historical aspects of this very important inscription.

(1) The script of this inscription is, of course, typologically earlier than the Early Byblian Phoenician, including that of the Azarba‘al Inscription and that of the Ahiram Sarcophagus Inscription of the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE (for discussion of the Early Byblian Phoenician, see McCarter 1975; Rollston 2008a and the primary and secondary sources cited therein). The script of the Ishba‘l Inscription can be classified as the latest stage of Early Linear Alphabetic.

(2) As for the stance of the fully preserved letters which are capable of variable stances (e.g., ‘alep, shin, bet, dalet), it is (i.e., the stance is) essentially rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise from the stance that is attested for the Early Byblian Phoenician inscriptions. To state it differently, the standard stance of these letters in Early Phoenician is rotated ninety degrees clockwise from the stance that is attested for these letters in the Ishba‘l Inscription. In the case of bet, it is written in “mirror image” (this has to do with the variable direction of writing that was possible in Early Linear Alphabetic, that is, sinostrograde, dextrograde, boustrophedon, or columnar), and (as mentioned above), the stance of bet is rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise from the stance of the Early Phoenician. In the case of nun, based on the traces present, it is also written in mirror image (for a chart with some of the variable stances of bet and nun in Linear Early Alphabetic, see Cross 1980, page 16; article republished in Cross 2003, chart on page 228). With regard to lamed, it is mostly preserved and its stance arguably conforms with that attested in Early Phoenician (i.e., Early Byblian Phoenician and the Phoenician texts that come from succeeding chronological horizons). Of course, ‘ayin is not a letter that has a particular stance here, because of its morphology (essentially a circle which represents the eye and a dot that represents the pupil of the eye). It should be emphasized that although the presence of the pupil in the letter ‘ayin is normally considered an archaic feature, it (i.e., the pupil) does persist into the early first millennium, especially in more archaic or archaizing inscriptions.

(3) There is no linguistic basis for determining the precise linguistic affiliation of this inscription. Some might wish to refer to the Ishba‘l Inscription as Hebrew (much as people wished to with regard to the Qeiyafa Ostracon discovered in 2008), but in this case, as in that case, there are no diagnostic linguistic features that permit such a precise classification. For this reason, the most tenable position is simply to state that the language of this inscription is Canaanite. Of course, some might propose that the inscription’s language is Phoenician, and some might propose that it is Hebrew. In the absence of precise linguistic evidence for a precise classification, however, the most tenable conclusion is simply to state that the language is Canaanite. Nothing more can be said.

(4) The script of this inscription is that of a trained scribal professional. There is no doubt about this. The morphology of the letters was executed with precision and deftness. The spacing between words was careful and precise. The word dividers were nicely done and consistent. This inscription constitutes further evidence for the presence of trained scribal professionals in the southern Levant during the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE (see Rollston 2006 for primary and secondary literature on scribalism and scribal education during the 9th through 6th centuries BCE). Those who wish to argue that there were no trained scribal professionals in ancient Israel and Judah during the 10th and 9th centuries continue to find themselves defending a position that is flying in the face of the epigraphic evidence for the entire southern Levant.

(5) This inscription does *not* constitute evidence for widespread literacy, neither at Qeiyafa, nor in the region generally. One inscription with a personal name and patronymic simply cannot carry that sort of freight. There has sometimes been a desire on the part of some to view an inscription, or a handful of inscriptions, as evidence for widespread literacy. This is a very romantic view of the evidence. In reality, however, the lion’s share of epigraphic evidence from the Iron Age is connected in some fashion with officials and officialdom (Rollston 2008b; Rollston 2015), just as it is in the rest of the ancient Near East at this time period. The linear epigraphic evidence (Canaanite, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite) demonstrates that officials (scribes, government officials, military officials, tax personnel, religious personnel) were trained in reading and writing. But the non-elite populace (e.g., carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, pastoralists, etc.) was not literate. Many merchants, of course, probably found it useful to have at least some capacity for reading and writing. In any case, for there to be a convincing case for the ability of non-elites to read and write, we would need to have inscriptions from such people, with content that reveals explicitly that they were carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, and pastoralists (etc.) and that they themselves were capably writing and reading texts . We simply do not have that evidence. Similarly, neither can the Ishba‘l Inscription be construed as evidence for widespread literacy. After all, it is a jar inscription with a personal name and a patronymic.

(6) The personal name Ishba‘l is certainly interesting. The name means, of course, “man of Ba‘l” and it is also the given name of King Saul’s son (for discussion of this personal name, see Rollston 2013, pages 377-382 and the biblical and epigraphic literature cited there). It is important to emphasize that the divine name Ba‘l (MT: Ba‘al) was not considered “religiously problematic” during early Iron II in Israel and Judah. Notice in this connection that there is reference to a Benjaminite in the court of King David with the personal name “Ba‘alyah” (1 Chr 12:6), a name that means “Yahweh is Ba‘al.” Along those lines, therefore, the presence of the “Ba‘al” theophoric in the Old Hebrew Samaria Ostraca is certainly not necessarily evidence for the presence of “Ba‘al worship” in early 8th century Israel, as this theophoric element was considered acceptable as a means of referring to Yahweh early on (again, cf. the personal name Ba‘alyah, etc.) By the mid to late 8th century in Israel and Judah, however, this theophoric element succumbed to pejoration and so (at least in some circles) was no longer considered an acceptable means of referring to Yahweh. In any case, the presence of the personal name “Ishba‘l” is not something that can said to be evidence for dating this inscription to a precise time-frame, nor can it be used for attempting to argue for some sort of linguistic classification of this inscripton. The evidence for dating must come from palaeographic analysis, archaeological context, and associated carbon remains, and evidence for linguistic classification would require some sort of true diagnostic element. The theophoric element ba‘l does not constitute such evidence.

In conclusion, this is an important inscription. It constitutes evidence for scribalism at the site of Qeiyafa during the late 11th century (which is when I would probably date this inscription to) or the early 10th century BCE. Of course, in the Phoenician homeland, the transition from Linear Early Alphabetic script to the Phoenician script had already occurred during the late 11th century, but in the southern Levant (Israel, Judah, Moab, etc.), the transition to the Phoenician script would, predictably, occur slightly later than in the homeland of the Phoenician script (i.e., Lebanon). It will be important during the coming days for the importance of this inscription to be emphasized, but it will also be important for this inscription not to be sensationalized. The via media is the best approach.

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University

Cited Sources

Cross, Frank Moore. “Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts.” BASOR 238 (1980): 1-20.
______. Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy. HSS 51. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003.

Garfinkel, Yosef; Golub, Mitka R.; Misgav, Haggai; Ganor, Saar. “The ‘Ishba‘al Inscritpion from Khirbet Qeiyafa.” BASOR 373 (2015): 217-233.

McCarter, P. Kyle. The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Scripts. HSM 9. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975.

Misgav, Haggai; Garfinkel, Yosef; Ganor, Saar. “The Ostracon.” Pp. 243-257 in Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor, eds. Khirbet Qeiyafa, Volume 1: Excavation Report 2007-2008. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Rollston, Christopher A. “Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence.” BASOR 344 (2006): 47-74.
______. “The Dating of the Early Royal Byblian Inscriptions.” Maarav 15 (2008-a): 57-93.
______. “The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy.” Pp. 61-96 in Literature Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context, eds. Ron E.Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008-b.
______. “The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon: Methodological Musings and Caveats.” Tel Aviv38 (2011): 67-82.
______. “Ad Nomen Argumenta: Personal Names as Pejorative Puns in Ancient Texts.” Pp. 367-386 in In the Shadoz of Bezalel: Aramaic, Biblical, and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Bezalel Porten, ed. Alejandro F.Botta. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
_____. “Scribal Curriculum during the First Temple Period: Epigraphic Hebrew and Biblical Evidence.” Forthcoming in Literacy and Orality, ed. Brian Schmidt. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

4 thoughts on “Christopher Rollston on the Ishba’l Inscription: A Guest Post

  1. larrym1

    Thank you for these excellent, balanced, sensible comments on this inscription. It is a pleasure to gain the perspective of someone who has observed enough epigraphic material to make clear, discerning remarks that place a particular inscription in larger perspective. I especially appreciate your sense of time regarding 1) the tardiness in the southern Levant in adopting changes that occurred earlier in Phoenicia, and 2) the early, unproblematic use of the divine name Ba’l in personal names.

    As an aside, if I ever read something you are said to have written that does not include either the word “juncture” or the word “sage,” the stated authorship will be suspect (smile).


  2. Koert van Bekkum

    Very nice post. Surely, this does not add anything, for the spelling is different, but interestingly, I came across a verse in which similar names appear together, that is Jerubbaal and Bedan (LXX: Barak) in 1 Sam. 12:11.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Antonio Garcia Hurtado

    יליצדי מך עין איהרי כל עין,
    This is the correct reading, the only problem is the sign tsade, cause contains a inverted dalet on the top and yod on the bottom, tsadi.


  4. Brian Colless

    You agree with the editors that the period for Qeiyafa is around 1000 BCE, and thus covering late Saul and early David, though Emile Puech, Israel Finkelstein, and myself emphasize Saul rather than David; I presume Saul would be the MLK (if it does mean king and not kingship or kingdom) on the Q ostracon (end of line 4).
    You suggest there are no diagnostic features on the two Q inscriptions to allow us to say “Hebrew”, so we should settle for “Canaanite” (the lip of Kana`an, Isaiah 19:18). But the Izbet Sartah and Qeiyafa ostraca do have intelligible texts, and their language looks like “Israelian Kanaanian” to me (on the analogy of “American English”) . The Sartah text has a name BN H.G; the Q ostracon has ‘LHM (twice) and YH in the first two lines, and the dark photograph published in this new BASOR article allows us to see quite legibly the names GLYT and DWD in the third line.
    You affirm: “for there to be a convincing case for the ability of non-elites to read and write, we would need to have inscriptions from such people, with content that reveals explicitly that they were carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, and pastoralists (etc.) and that they themselves were capably writing and reading texts . We simply do not have that evidence.”
    Who wrote the Gezer agricultural calendar? Was it a farmer, or an official stipulating what had to be done?
    The writer of the Izbet Sartah text ( who placed his ostracon in a silo, perhaps as a “time capsule”) using the letters in different stances to denote -a, -i, -u syllables, declares:
    “I am learning [‘LMD, ‘a-la-mu-du] the letters (‘tt); I see that the eye gives (ti-ti-nu) the breath (rh.) of the sign into the ear (‘u-z-ni) through a stylus on (`a-la) clay (t.i-t.i) …..”
    The smiths at the Sinai turquoise mines and the Timna copper mines wrote the Semitic inscriptions, and the Sinai smiths were also pastoralists, praying (in writing) to their goddess (Ba`lat) for pasture for their goats.
    And now we have a jar with the potter or vintner (as on the Jerusalem pithos) writing the purpose and credentials of the pot.
    I think we have a bit of evidence for literacy among the populace of Israel if we take the trouble to examine it more closely.
    Thanks for this reference: {a Benjaminite in the court of King David with the personal name “Ba‘alyah” (1 Chr 12:6), a name that means “Yahweh is Ba‘al.”} ; it is a case I have been looking for. I have long said that Yahweh combined the roles of El and Baal (and even Asherah and the rest of the West Semitic pantheon).
    I am sorry that I have to talk aloud on the web to disseminate my ideas, but the fact is that I have officially passed my expiry date (b.1936) and time is running out.
    My own thoughts on this second Q inscription, which does not appear to be syllabic, though the ostracon certainly is (line 2 has sha-pa-t.a “judged” and shi-pi-t.i “judgements”) are being jotted down here:
    Brian Colless PhD ThD


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