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Hebrew as the Language behind the World’s First Alphabet? - The ASOR Blog

Hebrew as the Language behind the World’s First Alphabet?

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Douglas Petrovich

What is the language behind the world’s first alphabet? For over 150 years, scholars have studied the world’s first alphabetic script, the second millennium BCE Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, found at Serabit el-Khadim in the southern reaches of the Sinai Peninsula.

Map of Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

While surprisingly few scholars have invested themselves into the narrow field of the proto-consonantal script, virtually all of them have agreed that this previously undeciphered script is Semitic. But which Semitic language remains unresolved.

Over 100 years ago, the great Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner convinced the majority of scholars that this script consisted of a number of Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs, that is alphabetic pictographs that represented consonants, using an acrophonic system. Let me illustrate how this works. If English had no script, and we were to create one for it using acrophony, we could draw a picture of a feather, so that whenever an English speaker sees it, he/she would pronounce the f sound. The pronunciation of the n letter could be made by drawing a nose, and so on.

Chart of Pro-Sinaitic signs and alphabetic letter equivalents (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

If we were to draw a feather and a nose together, this would spell any word that uses a combination of those consonants in succession, such as ‘fan,’ ‘fin,’ or ‘fun.’ The difficulty that comes with the world’s oldest alphabet is that no vowels were included, and that the text was written in continuous script, meaning that there was no break between words, and no punctuation. Thus, the sentence ‘Lend me your ears!’ would have been written LNDMYRS. Only one r would appear for the r in ‘your’ and the r in ‘ears,’ because they refused to write the same consonant twice in succession if no differing consonant intervened.

Over recent decades, some of the letters of the original pictographic alphabet have been recognized universally as making a certain consonantal sound, such as the drawing of a house to represent the letter b, since the word for ‘house’ – bayit - begins with b in virtually all Western Semitic languages. Other letters have remained in dispute, such as the fish-pictograph, which some scholars have identified as the letter d, and others have called the letter s.

I have come to believe that Hebrew is the language behind the proto-consonantal script. I came to this understanding by weighing the options systematically and allowing the context of various inscriptions to determine which option is correct. How I came to know that the inscriptions were written in Hebrew is completely accidental. As I was studying the archaeology of the Levant in the Iron Age, I fell into evidence for Israelite presence in Egypt during the middle of the 15th century BCE, the time when—according to biblical history—the Israelite exodus from Egypt supposedly took place.

I then followed a long archaeological trail that led to the identification of what I believe are Semitic Israelites who were living at an important site in Egypt, at the time when biblical chronology indicates that Jacob would have moved his family to Egypt (1876 BCE). This trail included the identification of several biblical figures of that generation, as inscribed on Middle Egyptian inscriptions of the 19th century BCE, which will be detailed in my second book. One of these individuals actually composed a number of inscribed stelae at Serabit el-Khadim, the site of many annual mining expeditions to extract turquoise.

At the bottom of these stelae, he often drew himself seated on a donkey, with his Egyptian attendant to the left and a Semitic child of varying heights, which changed from year to year on the stelae, to the right. Above one drawing, he inscribed his own name and official office. Above another drawing, he named the others. Above the drawing on one of the last of the stelae that he inscribed (Sinai 115), he added a mostly hieroglyphic caption that includes one Canaanite syllabic (or ‘syllable’) and one proto-consonantal letter. 

Sinai 115 photograph (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

Sinai 115 drawing (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

This is the oldest attested proto-consonantal letter in the world, dating to Year 18 of King Amenemhat III (ca. 1842 BCE). The oldest inscription completely inscribed in the proto-consonantal script (Sinai 377)—which derives from Wadi Nasb, the nearby water source for mining expeditions to Serabit—dates to only two years later. According to my reading, the caption on Sinai 115 reads, “Six Levantines, Hebrews of Bethel, the beloved.”

This reading of Sinai 115’s caption thus confirms that the engraver whom I previously had identified as a biblical figure from the 19th century BCE is Hebrew. The reference to Bethel is not surprising, because, according to biblical history, that site was the hometown of Jacob when Joseph was taken into captivity, and when Jacob relocated his family to Egypt. Sinai 115 also moves back into time by hundreds of years the oldest attested reference to the Israelite/Hebrew people.

Of the 15 proto-consonantal inscriptions that were full enough for me to translate, five were composed during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, while the other ten were composed during the New Kingdom. Interestingly, the Middle Kingdom inscriptions are almost completely optimistic and positive in their tone, while the New Kingdom inscriptions are almost completely pessimistic and negative in their tone. The number of original alphabetic letters is 22, which conflicts with the long-held conjecture that originally there were 27 letters, probably the result of incorrect extrapolation back from Ugaritic, a Semitic language with more than 22 consonants.

These findings are discussed in my book, The World’s Oldest Alphabet: Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script (Carta: Jerusalem, 2016). According to my new readings, three of the proto-consonantal Hebrew inscriptions contain references to biblical figures: Asenath (Sinai 376), Ahisamach (Sinai 375a), and Moses (Sinai 361). Each of these names is used of only one individual in the entire Hebrew Bible, unlike more commonly used names, such as Joshua.

Sinai 375a photograph (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

Sinai 375a drawing (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

Sinai 361 photograph (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

Sinai 361 drawing (Courtesy of Douglas Petrovich)

Asenath is the wife of Joseph (Gen 41:45), and Sinai 376 probably refers to her posthumously, since she was born over 130 years before it was composed, and because it refers to the ‘house of the vineyard of Asenath’ honorifically. Ahisamach is the father of Oholiab (Exod 31:6), who was one of the two men reportedly assigned to construct the Israelite tabernacle. Sinai 375a designates Ahisamach with the office of Overseer of Minerals (?), probably signifying that he was responsible for the mineralogical work related to the acquisition of turquoise.

Moses, who needs little or no explanation, is the man attributed with having led the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity (Exodus 12). The Hebrew author of Sinai 361 complained that their bound servitude had lingered, then stated that Moses—whose name appears in the emphatic position—then provoked astonishment, and that this was a year of astonishment, due to Baalath (the female consort of the storm-god deity, and who in Egypt was identified with Hathor).

The thesis of my book challenges many longstanding theoretical constructs that have been created in the fields of biblical and ancient Near Eastern historical studies, such as the Documentary Hypothesis and its derivatives. The thesis also argues against models of Israelite origins suggesting that they migrated from Transjordan, or arose from among pastoralists already present in Canaan’s western highlands.

Despite the strong opposition that already has come against the claims in my book, I felt responsible to publish these findings, fully expecting that over the coming decades, time will prove them able to withstand the rigors of scholarly criticism.

Douglas Petrovich teaches in the history department at Wilfred Laurier University.


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