What names teach us about Iron II society in the Land of Israel

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By: Mitka Golub

Names send messages about identity. Today, many African-Americans have first names that are totally different from those of white Americans. But until the early 1970s there was a great similarity between the two communities. Scholars who studied this phenomenon, Roland Fryer and Stephen Levitt, attribute this change to the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. When black parents give their children distinctively black names, they declare and affirm their cultural identity.

Hebrew personal names from the Iron Age II bear witness to the important historical and ethnic changes of that period in much the same way: the interplay between polytheism and monotheism, the rise of Yahwism, and the evolution of ethnic identities. Hebrew personal names also shed light on the relationship between archaeology and the Bible.

(Belonging) to Shema servant of Yarobam (copy). Jasper seal from Megiddo, Iron Age II, first half of the 8th century BCE


(Belonging) to Shema servant of Yarobam (copy). Jasper seal from Megiddo, Iron Age II, first half of the 8th century BCE

The study of African-American names mentioned above is based on quantitative analysis of birth certificates for every child born in California between 1961 and 2000. While the ancient record is relatively poor by comparison, a growing corpus of names from Iron II artifacts is beginning to enable statistically meaningful quantitative analysis. That corpus now contains hundreds of names, mainly from administrative documents such as ostraca, seals, bullae, and stamp seals on jars.


Letter from Arad, Iron Age II, 7th-6th century BCE 

Letter from Arad, Iron Age II, 7th-6th century BCE

Seal impression from legal archive, “(Belonging) to Benayahu son of Hoshayahu,”
City of David, Jerusalem, Iron Age II, 6th century BCE

Seal impression from legal archive, “(Belonging) to Benayahu son of Hoshayahu,”
City of David, Jerusalem, Iron Age II, 6th century BCE


Iron II Hebrew personal names from archeological and biblical sources have contributed to the study of ancient Israel’s religion for over a century and important studies continue to be produced. For example, Jeffrey Tigay studied Iron II personal names from epigraphic artifacts in order to understand the place of polytheism in the history of Israelite religion. He found a high percentage of names containing the divine name YHWH but only a very limited use of other gods in names. This is in contrast with other polytheistic societies in the ancient Near East where only a low percentage of chief deities appeared in theophoric names (personal names with divine elements). Tigay concluded “we may suppose that there existed some superficial, fetishistic polytheism and a limited amount of more profound polytheism in Israel, but neither can be quantified.”

Hebrew seal from Arad, “[Belonging] to Eliashib son of Eshyahu,” Iron Age II, 7th-6th century BCE 


Hebrew seal from Arad, “[Belonging] to Eliashib son of Eshyahu,” Iron Age II, 7th-6th century BCE

Rainer Albertz also investigated Hebrew personal names in his study of family and household religion in ancient Israel. He found a high correspondence between verbs and nouns used in personal names and those used in the individual prayers in the Bible, especially the Psalms. Thus, the majority of Hebrew names do not reflect traditions of Israelite official religion but rather religious crises of the family, predominantly events connected to birth, and the family struggles for survival.

Given the growing number and rich content of Iron II names in the archaeological record, the time seemed right to make a comprehensive study of personal names from archaeological and biblical resources. In a series of studies, I have analyzed names according to geographical provenance, date, political affiliation, type of name, and linguistic elements. Names found in artifacts from the antiquities market were not included since their geographical provenance is unknown.


Išbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa, ca. late 11th century BCE. Photo courtesy of Tal Rogovski and Yossi Garfinkel

Išbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa, ca. late 11th century BCE.
Photo courtesy of Tal Rogovski and Yossi Garfinkel

ʾIšbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa, ca. late 11th century BCE. Photo courtesy of Tal Rogovski and Yossi Garfinkel

ʾIšbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa, ca. late 11th century BCE.
Photo courtesy of Tal Rogovski and Yossi Garfinkel


Many of the Hebrew personal names are theophoric, reflecting religious beliefs and deities that were worshiped. Similar to other West Semitic theophoric names, they are comprised of sentence names, compounded with a divine name or a divine appellative (= the subject), and a verb or a noun (= the predicate). Examples of divine names are YHWH and its variation (יהו, יה, יו), Kemosh (כמש), the chief Moabite deity, and Qaus (קוס) of the Edomites. Examples of divine descriptions or appellative are אדן (lord), מלך (king), אב (father), and אח (brother).

El and Baal may be interpreted as a divine name or a divine appellative; El is the head of the Canaanite pantheon but is also a general term for god. Baal is the Canaanite storm god but is also the divine appellative ‘lord/master.’ Examples of theophoric names are עזריהו (‘zryhw – YHWH has helped), אלרם (’lrm – El/[my] god is exalted), and אבבעל (’bb‘l – [my divine] father is Baal). Some of the theophoric Hebrew personal names are abbreviated names where the theophoric element was dropped. For example, נתן (ntn – [divine name] has given) is an abbreviation of אלנתן (’lntn), יונתן (ywntn), or נתניהו (ntnyhw). Another group of Iron II names do not include a theophoric element and most of them have no religious meaning.

Samaria Ostraca, ca. 9th-8th century BCE.

Samaria Ostraca, ca. 9th-8th century BCE.

The geographical and chronological distribution of theophoric elements in names from archaeological sources displays several notable results: יהו (yhw) and יה (yh) are found only in Judah and therefore are uniquely Judean theophoric elements. בעל (b‘l) is absent from Judah. יו (yw), the northern Yahwistic element, and בעל are the most common theophoric elements in Israelite names. אל (l) is a dominant element in Ammonite names but not unique to them.

Moreover, the distributions of theophoric elements at major Judean sites are remarkably uniform: the overwhelmingly dominant element is יהו (ca. 80%), distantly followed by the element אל (ca. 10%) and divine appellatives (ca. 10%). יה and יו appear in a small percentage. This typical Judean mixture is strikingly different from that found in the Israelite site of Samaria, where יו is the dominant element (50%), followed by בעל (28%).

The predominance of יהו in Judah and יו in Israel and the scant appearance of divine names other than YHWH indicate that YHWH was the leading national deity. This evidence, however, does not require us to deduce that polytheism was not practiced. The Israelites and Judeans could have been henotheists, who favored their national deity but believed in and may have worshiped others deities. Yet, the increase of the Yahwistic theophoric elements during the Iron II age period clearly indicates the rise of Yahwism.

The relationship between archaeology and the biblical text can also be viewed through the lens of personal names. The simplest test of biblical historicity comes through finding names of biblical figures in archaeology. Even with several notable exceptions, including the recent find of a bulla bearing the name of King Hezekiah, such findings are actually quite rare.

Hezekiah seal from the City of David, ca. late 8th century BCE.  Photo courtesy of Eilat Mazar and Ouria Tadmor.

Hezekiah seal from the City of David, ca. late 8th century BCE.
Photo courtesy of Eilat Mazar and Ouria Tadmor.

A more powerful mode of comparing the biblical and archaeological records is through geographic and chronological analysis of the theophoric content of personal names. In a recent study, I found certain similarities between Judean names from archaeological and biblical sources, such as the high percentage of Yahwistic elements (יהו, יה, יו), the limited use of other gods in names, the יהו-יה or יהו-יו exchange in names marking the same person, and a general trend with regard to prefixed/suffixed theophoric elements. By contrast, Israelite names in the Bible are completely different from those in archaeology, but are similar to Judean names. This finding indicates that the Bible reflects Judean and not Israelite onomastic traditions.

Names can provide a rich and durable record of the ethnic, religious, and historical landscapes. As more and more names enter the archaeological record of Iron II, we can expect new insights into the social history of this fascinating period.

Mitka Golub is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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For Further Reading:

Andersen, F. I. and Hess, R. S. 2007. Names in the Study of Biblical History: David, Yhwh Names, and the Role of Personal names. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Archaeology.

Avigad, N. 1997. Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals. Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Davies, G. I. 1991-2004. Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005. Hebrew Inscriptions: Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fowler, J. D. 1988. Theophoric Personal Names in Ancient Hebrew: A Comparative Study. ‎JSOT Supplement Series 49. Sheffield: JSOT Press.

Golub, M. R., 2014. “The Distribution of Personal Names in Israel and Transjordan during the Iron II”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 134/4: 621-642.

Zadok, R. 1988. The Pre-Hellenistic Israelite Anthroponomy and Prosopography. Leuven: Peeters.

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