The Early History of the Alphabet and the Recent Claim that the Northwest Semitic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew: Spoiler Alert, They’re Not.
The Early History of the Alphabet and the Recent Claim that the Northwest Semitic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadm and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew: Spoiler Alert, They’re Not.
By Christopher Rollston
Recently, it has been claimed by Douglas Petrovich that the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions (some of which date to as early as the 18th century BCE) from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew. His volume on these inscriptions will be published by Carta (Jerusalem) in the coming months. Petrovich also presented a paper on this subject at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on Thursday, November 17th, 2016. I was present for his presentation. Alas, I am confident that his proposal for these inscriptions will not get traction with scholars who work in the field, that is, scholars who work in the fields known as Palaeography and Comparative Semitics. I will write a much longer discussion of his proposal fairly soon (around the time the book comes out). But I wish to put pen to paper at this moment as well, so as to help bring some important empirical evidence to the fore.
But before discussing some of the serious problems with the Petrovich proposal, I should like to emphasize first that the core inscriptions that form the basis of Petrovich’s claim are not recent discoveries. (1) In fact, in the case of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem (in the Sinai), these have been known for more than a century (with publications on them going back, for example, to 1906 and 1916 by Gardiner). (2) And as for the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from Wadi el-Hol (also in Egypt), these were published more than a decade ago (Darnell, Dobbs-Allsopp, Lundberg, McCarter, Zuckerman, 2005) in a volume published by the American Schools of Oriental Research for which I served as an external reviewer. Now to some of the salient details about Petrovich’s proposal and some of the empirical problems with it (there are a rather large number of problems, but I’ll focus on some of the most salient ones).
I. Douglas Petrovich argued (in his presentation at ASOR) that root-words such as rb (“great,” “big”), ‘l (“God”), yyn (“wine”) are present in the Early Alphabetic inscriptions and that these are Hebrew words. These words are attested in Hebrew, but that is only part of the story. Namely, these words are actually not just Hebrew but rather they appear in many Semitic languages. For example, this root for “big,” “great,” occurs not just in Hebrew, but also in Phoenician, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Old South Arabic (among others). Similarly, the word ‘El for God is also Common Semitic and it occurs in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Aramaic, Old South Arabic (along with some others). Or again, the word for “wine” (sometimes spelled with two yods and sometimes with one) occurs not just in the Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Arabic), but even in Indo-European languages such as Hittite! (and it comes into Greek and Latin, and ultimately even into the Romance Languages and even English). In short, there is no word that can be considered distinctively Hebrew in the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem, Wadi el-Hol, or any other Early Alphabetic Inscription. Rather, for more than a century, the best that we can say is that these Early Alphabetic inscriptions are written in Canaanite, that is, the language of the Ancient Canaanites (who lived in ancient Canaan and often traveled down into Egypt, a tradition also reflected in Genesis). Thus, to say that these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are somehow distinctively Hebrew is just not going to work. After all, if a word occurs in lots of different languages, that word cannot be considered diagnostic for one language. For that to be the case, that word would have to be present ONLY in one language. And that’s just not what we have with these inscriptions.
II. We have hundreds of Hebrew inscriptions and the earliest of these dates to ca. 900 BCE (see my article in Biblical Archaeology Review on “The Oldest Hebrew Inscription” for some of the most relevant inscriptions) and the alphabet of these Hebrew inscriptions has twenty-two consonantal letters. The Early Alphabetic Inscriptions (e.g., from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol), however, have twenty-seven consonantal letters. Thus, to claim that these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew is an argument that is strained well beyond the breaking point.
III. The Early Alphabetic Inscriptions are written from left-to-right (dextrograde), right-to-left (sinistrograde), and columnar. The Old Hebrew inscriptions are uniformly written from right-to-left (that is, sinistrograde). Thus, even with regard to the direction of writing, the attested inscriptions that are definitively Old Hebrew do not correspond with the diversity of directions that is present in the Early Alphabetic inscriptions. Again, the problem with the claim that these from Serabit and el-Hol are Hebrew is that the evidence doesn’t line up very well. And only the most strained of arguments can make it “line up.”
IV. In one of the Egyptian inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem (i.e., many inscriptions are present at this site, most of them are written in Egyptian, not Northwest Semitic…and as for one of them written in Egyptian…), Petrovich attempts to read the word ‘br, a word that is the root for the word “to cross over,” and when used as an ethnicon is the basis for the word “Hebrew.” The first thing that I would say is that this is a very, very strained reading of the Egyptian inscription. I am confident that few trained Egyptologists will embrace Petrovich’s reading of this text as having the root ‘br. Furthermore, even if this root were to be present, the fact of the matter is that even that root word (ayin, bet, resh) is attested in lots of different Semitic languages, including Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Old South Arabic, Akkadian, and Ugaritic. And in these cases, the word can and normally does mean “to cross over,” “to overstep.” In short, one must be careful to understand and remember that if a word occurs in multiple Semitic languages, it cannot be considered diagnostic or reflective of just one of those languages…and that holds true for all words, including the root ‘br.
V. In short, the things that Douglas Petrovich considers to be markers of Hebrew are, in fact, just markers of the Semitic languages in general. We even have a term of these sorts of words that occur in multiple Semitic languages. We call them “Common Semitic,” because they are attested in so many languages. In short, the only thing that can reasonably be said about the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol (etc.) is that they are written in a Northwest Semitic language and script. There is nothing in these inscriptions that is diagnostic for Hebrew. It would be interesting if there were features that could be considered distinctively Hebrew, but there are not. So, as has been the case for a very long time, we refer to these inscriptions as Canaanite or Early Alphabetic. And from this script called Canaanite or Early Alphabetic, the Phoenician script will later develop during the final decades of the 2nd millennium (and that’s an interesting story in and of itself). And from the Phoenician script, the Hebrew and Aramaic scripts will come in the early First Millennium (and that’s another interesting story). But that’s a long ways down the line in terms of time…long after the scribes of Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol penned their inscriptions. Thus, the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are definitely not Hebrew.
Dr. Christopher Rollston (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University)
George Washington University
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations