Wednesday, October 07, 2020



 This mysterious object was excavated on the site of Tell es-Sarem in northern Israel; this ruin-mound (tell in Arabic) is also known as Tel Rehov (in Hebrew); and I will call it by its original name, Rehob,  which means "broad place", and such it certainly was. There is a Canaanian city Rehob mentioned in the Bible as having resisted Israelian conquest by the tribe of Asher (Judges 1:31), but it is near Akko, north of Mount Carmel, and west of the Sea of Galilee; Tel Rehov is south of the Galilee Lake, in the Jordan River Valley, and may have resisted the tribe of Manasseh, like its neighbor Beth Shean (Judges 1:27). The unique feature of this particular Rehob is its large apiary, and this scary artefact was associated with Area C, where an industrial centre for the production of honey flourished for a period; of course the industrious busy buzzy bees did the work, but the  animal depicted on top of the miniature edifice may have had a part to play. However, the box-house itself comes from Stratum IV in the 9th century BCE, and it was found in a building that had been constructed over the remains of the apiary, which had been destroyed by fire. My questions would be: Did this object also belong to the apiary period, and survive the fire? Also, did the depicted animal have a function in both periods, before and after the destructive blaze? Was this the home of the creature? If the animal was a lion, then it was unlikely to be employed or housed there, though Samson used a dead lion as a bee hive to produce honey (Judges 14:8-9); and a lion would not fit in a box that is 15" by 11"
   This object seems to belong to a category known as "portable shrines", clay boxes in which gods were housed, as figurines (in human or other animal forms). Formerly, they were called "snake houses", based on a guess that serpents were kept in them; but  one was found at Ashkelon with a bronze calf inside it, and in the sanctuary of a Philistian temple at Tell Qasile, at the foot of the altar, a clay temple model contained two naked goddesses (G 2018, 146-159, also with particular reference to examples of empty miniature shrines found at Khirbet Qeiyafa). This motif of two nude goddesses is matched at Rehob, on altars (M 2008: 42-47). However, a striking feature of the Rehob clay house (see the picture above) is the presence of two snakes at the entrance!
   More details about Area C of Tel Rehov can be found in this illustrated article by the archaeologists Amihai Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen (the photos are by D. Harris); it gives an account of the Rehob excavations,  and at present it is available here:

Beekeeping at Tel Rehov

   From that helpful source we learn that the surviving beehives are clay cylinders with a lid at one end (for the apiarist to extract the honeycombs) and a small hole at the other end (for the coming and going of the bees). The cylinders each have a volume of fifty-six litres, and they are arranged horizontally in three tiers and three rows. This pattern is still observable in modern Israel, and elsewhere. At first, there was no certainty that these excavated artefacts were beehives, but Dvorah Namdar detected beeswax in the clay walls of the cylinders. Incidentally, and felicitously, Dvorah is the modern Hebrew form of Deborah, which means "bee".
   This large city-site has yielded several short inscriptions, on pots and sherds. We will work our way through these West Semitic texts, searching for clues to understanding more about the honey-industry in the complex of buildings in Area C of the ruins; and of course we want to know the purpose of that gaping box, with a seemingly unfriendly animal on top, poking out its tongue and digging its claws into two heads.
   Presumably, many of the jars that have been unearthed were for storing honey, but at first glance I can not see the Hebrew words for honey (debash, dvash) or bee (deborah, dvora), nor the Canaanian and Babylonian word NBT.
   When studying inscriptions, my first principle is this: only the person who wrote the message knew what the intended meaning was. Moreover, it is hard enough deciphering the handwriting of ancient scribes, even when we have a complete text, but usually the inscription has been damaged in transit or mutilated where it stood.

   Sarem sherd  (C2:49-50)

This is a fragment of a fenestrated stand, with a portion of an inscription that was engraved before baking. When I first published my ideas on this text (C1991:49-50) I played with the possibility that there were words indicating "incense offerings" in this collection of letters, as would seem to be appropriate on such a cult stand; I also noted that the sign for Sh in the centre seemed to have a counterpart to its right, and if that really is a circle at the top, above the M with many waves, then the dotted eye (`Ayin) at the bottom also has a variant counterpart. Since then I have stumbled on what I am calling "the neo-syllabary", whereby the letters of the protoalphabet were employed to show an accompanying vowel as well as a consonant, and this sequence of signs could be showing `i and `a (or possibly `u), and shi and sha. If it really is a syllabic inscription, it joins the illustrious company of the Izbet Sartah Ostracon (a scribe reflects on how this writing system works), and the Qeiyafa Ostracon (a prophet delivers an oracle from Yahu, concerning a momentous event that has taken place in the Valley of Elah: a "servant of God", named "Dawid", has delivered divine justice to the "`Anaq", named "Guliyut", who had cursed him). None of the other inscriptions from Rehob will turn out to be syllabic, but they will fit into the pattern of the international consonantal script (in the style of the Phoenician alphabet).
   With regard to the numbering system that the editors have applied to the Rehob inscriptions, note that they are arranged chronologically from early to late:
R 1-4 are from the lower Stratum VI
R 5 is from Stratum V;
R 6-11
are from the higher level Stratum IV.
   My presentation of them will follow a topical scheme, searching for connections.
   We first consider some sherds, which have only one or two letters on them. Could they be an ancient form of "flash cards" for learning the alphabet? R3 (M 2014:41-42; Fig. 3) has L, but if inverted it could say P; R10 (M 2014:50; Fig.1) has B; R1 (M 2014:40; Fig. 1) has `Ayin and Yod. Or are these labels with abbreviations? `ay can be a word for a "heap", as possibly in a Sinai turquoise inscription, to which we will return at the end of our quest.
   Moving on, it would appear that some of the Rehob pots make reference to their contents.

Rehob 8 (M 2014:47-48)

(M 2003: Fig. 4. Photo by Gabi Laron)






Mind the gap! This damaged clay jar is from what is possibly a cultic building in Stratum IV, and Area E, to the east of Area C, and thus distant from the place where the apiary used to be. What is left of the sequence of letters has a long-tailed M at each end (indicating 9th century BCE or later); we assume that the direction of writing is as normal, from right to left (neosyllabic inscriptions usually run from left to right, as In English alphabetic writing); in the middle there are two strokes that would have been the bottoms of characters with long stems (Q/q for example, or K) or tails (M or N, perhaps); the penultimate letter is `Ayin, though in this period (10th C BCE) we expect a circle to represent the eye from which it is descended, in the pictorial protoalphabet, but it is actually closer to the original (<o>) in this present form, albeit without the pupil. In the beginning the letter M was a symbol for rippling water, and I would like this message to have been MYM N`M, "lovely water" (for drinking); but mayim is generally understood to be plural (as in English "waters"), and the adjective would need to be N`MM (masculine plural). Apparently the second letter is also `Ayin, and so I offer this restoration, with
M as the word for "water" in what old-school grammarians called "the construct state" (, not mayim): M  `N  N`M, "water of the N`M spring" (`ayin can mean "fountain", as well as "eye", for obvious reasons); hence "water of Naomi's spring"; or "water of the Fountain of Sweetness"; whatever the precise intention, we are probably being told that this is water from a good source, and it is a fact that Rehob had "plentiful water sources",  including the Jordan River (M 2007:202); in fact there was a spring quite near Area E (M 2019:165, Fig. 2). I have an analogy for this, in M ` 'M, "water of the spring of the Mother (Goddess)", where the `ayin functions as a logogram, Sinai 357 (C 1990:37-39). However, in the case of this dismembered Rehob 8 inscription, "God alone knows the truth".

Rehob 2 (M 2011:40-41; 190, Fig. 2)






Peering into the gloom to decipher the writing, what we see is a wiggly line on the right, and a straight line on the left; between them is a cross (x) and an Aleph (glottal stop, represented by an ox-head). The same text (damaged) also appears on the other side. The first three signs could constitute a personal name MT'; the editors cite a counterpart for it on an Ammonite seal. However, if it were a label for the jar's contents, and the M was the word for "water" in  "the construct state" (, not mayim), as in Rehob 8, and the final stroke was N (with the bends in the snake straightened out), the meaning might be "fig-water", the T'N representing the Hebrew word for "fig" (te'énâ). Accordingly, this might have been a vessel for fig-juice, perhaps pressed figs mixed with water; syrup made from figs and dates is thought to account for many of the uses of the Hebrew "honey" term debash (M 2018:40). If this was syllabic script, it could say mi ti 'i n-, but this is not absolutely decisive, even though mi could represent mé, and ti could be t + shwa, and 'i could be , but the presumed N has no analogy, either syllabic or consonantal.
One thing remains certain: the scribe who incised these characters (on the already baked jar) knew what they meant, and would be astonished at our incompetence.

Rehob 4 (M 2003:2-3, Fig. 2; M 2014:42-43)






This sherd from Stratum VI preserves part of an inscription that was incised on a jar after firing. The first two letters are discernible as L and N, but they are followed by an incomplete jumble of characters. (I have highlighted three of the  letters [LNB] with a pencil, on the photograph of G. Laron.) It was found in Area B, which was not near the apiary, but if the sequence is LNB... we may have found a reference to honey: by invoking the short stroke, at the end of the sherd, as a cross (Taw) we have L NBT, "for honey"; so this would have been a honey pot. Unfortunately, this word for honey is not used in Hebrew as we know it (though there is an apparently related word, nopet, meaning "runny honey" or "honeycomb honey",  in Psalm 19:11, together with  debash). NBT ("honey") is attested in the West Semitic language of Ugarit, in the far north, and as nubtu ("honey-bee") in East Semitic Akkadian, in Mesopotamia (Iraq). However, if the inhabitants of Rehob were Canaanian, not Israelian, there would be no problem. Incidentally, in the West Semitic syllabary, the symbol for NU is a bee, as on the
Megiddo signet ring.
   I am happy to stick with the honey (it is indeed sticky stuff) but another suggestion for LNB... (M 2014:42) is "for the prophet", l nb', and this possibility leads us to the next inscription.

Rehob 9 (M 2014:48-50; Fig. 10)
Drawing by Ada Yardeni





This inscription is written in red ink on what must have been a single sherd from a jar, an
ostracon, of which only two fragments have been found. It has been reconstructed as L'LYSh`, "for 'Elisha`". This name is known from epigraphic evidence from Israel, Judah, and Ammon, dating from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE (M 2014:49), and it also famously belongs to Elisha` ben Shapat, the 9th century prophet of the Northern Israel Kingdom (1 Kings 19 -2 Kings 13). Like Samuel he was widely recognized as a "man of God" (2 Kings 4:7, 9; 8:7; 1 Samuel 9:6) who moved about the realm (and beyond) for many years, passing judgement on idolaters and kings, and doing good works. He was the successor of Eliyahu (Elijah to the uncouth English): "And YHWH said to Eliyahu: Go ... to the wilderness of Damascus and anoint Hazael to be the King over Aram; and anoint Yehu ben Nimshi to be the King over Israel; and anoint Elisha ben Shapat from Abal-meholah to be the prophet to take your place"(1 Kings 19:15-16). From this we learn that Elisha was indeed a nabi', but if that word really exists in the Rehob 4 inscription, it could not refer to 9th century Elisha, because the sherd belongs to an earlier level, Stratum VI, whereas this Elisha ostracon is from the later Stratum IV, from the time when King Hazael invaded Israel and wreaked havoc; Elisha is said to have confronted Hazael in Damascus, and predicted that he would ravage Israel, burning its fortresses and slaying its soldiers and its people (2 Kings 8:7-15). This celebrated Elisha could certainly be the man on the ostracon, since his hometown Abal-meholah was situated just south of Rehob. Notice also that the patronymic ben Nimshi, of King Yehu, has the same consonants (NMSh) as appear in Rehob inscriptions 5 and 6 (see below).
   But what would this pious prophet be doing in a place like this, "a dwelling that may have been a patrician house" (M 2014:63), in one of three small inner rooms, which had a clay four-horned altar at each of its two entrances, and benches on two of its walls (M 2014:49-50)? In another of the small rooms there was a mold for making female figurines, such as those attached to an altar in the apiary building, though at this time the honey factory had already been destroyed in the previous fire, and this structure would likewise be razed in the general conflagration engulfing Rehob during the war with Aram.  We could imagine "the sons of the prophets" meeting there with Elisha, as they did at Gilgal (2 Kings 4:38); and he was involved when they built a more commodious house for their community, by the Jordan River (6:1-7). The story of the wealthy woman of Shunem, and her husband and son, who regularly gave Elisha hospitality and a guest-room (2 Kings 4:8-10), might provide an analogy for his presence in a secular home.
   Elisha was renowned for his acts of healing (2 Kings 4-5), and there could be a hint of therapeutic action in the next text.

Rehob 7 (M 2014:45-47, Fig. 8)





The provenance of this inscription was an inner room in a small building with three rooms, in Area C. The nine letters were incised on an ovoid storage jar before it was baked, so the purpose of the vessel was already determined. If we are still looking for references to honey, we should keep in mind that we are in Stratum IV, and the apiary no longer exists in Area C; but this house may have had a private beehive or some other source, such as the wild honey that Samson found in the body of a lion (Judges 14:8-9), and the honey dripping from trees that Jonathan picked up in a forest (1 Samuel 14:25-27). The text can be transcribed thus:
   ' L S D [Q] Sh H L Y
This could be a personal name (son and father) but neither 'LSDQ nor ShHLY are known in the Bible; nevertheless, the first is attested at Ugarit, for example; and shahal as a common noun meaning "lion" occurs in a context of overcoming lions and serpents (Psalm 91:13), and this hints at a connection I will make for our mystery object from the Rehob apiary. Meanwhile, this leaves us with an epithet, rather than a patronymic:
   "Elisedeq the Lionhearted".
    Mention could be made of halla, "cake" of bread used in sacrifices, or it could be dismissed as irrelevant
   Notice that the Q is not certain, and, if we ignore the vertical stroke, the letter could be restored as a B. In this case, we would be looking at a sequence DBSh (the Hebrew word for "honey"), and there is a HL root in Arabic that would allow this Rehob 7 HL to mean "sweet".
   On the other hand, the pot may well have been a container for honey, but not labeled as such; and this is a statement of its therapeutic properties, as in ancient Egypt, where honey was used in medicine and ointment (M 2018:40); our New Zealand mânuka honey is famous for its supposed benefits, certainly for aid in healing wounds. Accordingly, I offer this tentative interpretation:
   "Succour for a righteous person who is unwell".
   The first word 'l (possibly "God", "a ram",  "a deer", "a pillar", "a terebinth", or "unto", et cetera) could be a form of 'yl, "help"; in the only Biblical occurrence of this word, in Psalm 88:4 (5), opinion is divided as to whether the person who goes down to the Pit is "without strength" or "lacking help"; certainly in Syriac this word means "aid", "succour".
  The L for the preposition "for" is assimilated into the previous word, presumably.
SDQ is the "righteousness" root, and here it would be for sdyq, "righteous (person)".
   Sh is a relative pronoun.
HLY may be understood as "is sick", stative verb, or participle, such as Hebrew holè in Genesis 48:1, where Joseph's father Jacob "is ill"; Hebrew hly is a noun from this root, meaning "sickness".
   Choices and decisions need to be made. If the "sweet honey" solution is chosen, because it is so tempting, we have to find a meaning for the 'LS that precedes it. Speaking of temptation, the only example we can find for this root is in Judges 16:16, where Delilah
pressingly "urges" Samson, day after day,  to reveal the secret of his strength, and he becomes extremely (deadly) irritated (root QSR), and he tells her about shaving his head. If `SL means "urge", it would lead us to this solution, perchance:
   "Urgent: sweet honey".
Yet again, the solution to this conundrum is hidden in the mind of God.

Rehob 5 (M 2014:43-44; Fig. 5)







 This inscription was incised on its storage jar before firing, so its ownership or its contents were pre-determined. Its provenance is significant: it was found on the floor of the apiary, at the southern end of the eastern row of beehives. It belongs to Stratum V, which may have been attacked in the invasion of Israel by Pharaoh Sheshonq I, known as Shishak in the Bible (1 Kings 11:40, 14:25-26); Sheshonq included Rehob in his list of conquests; but only the beehive area was damaged, and the cause may have been simply local, possibly vandalism, or earthquake (M 2018:47). Stratum IV (above V) would have been ravaged by King Hazael of Aram, from Damascus in his campaigns against Israel and Judah and Philistia (2 Kings 9:14, 10:32-33, 12:17-18, 13:22-25). Hazael is almost certainly the ruler on the Aramaic Tel Dan stele who boasts about his victories over the King of Israel and the King of the House of David.
   The text comprises four letters of the consonantal alphabet, which was being employed internationally in the ninth century, and which appears on
the stele of King Mesha of Moab, and the inscriptions associated with Hazael.
   L N M Sh
We are already acquainted with the preposition l, meaning "to" or "for", and that is the likely choice for the first letter in the sequence. Usually it shows that the container, and presumably its contents, are the property of the nominee: they belong "to", or are there "for" whoever is named, in the present case, NMSh. However, the "for" sense might indicate the purpose of the object: thus, if Rehob 4 says l nbt, then it might mean that the pot is a container "for honey", though Rehob 2 and 8, simply have labels announcing two kinds of water (or fluids). An example of of a "to" or "for" inscription is on the Lakish Jar Sherd (my discussions are here, and there). The text reads:
  P K L S P R 5 hekat (of grain)
This could be: "PKL the scribe (spr)...".
My preference is for finding the preposition l embedded there, with pk as the designation of the jar:
   "Pot (pk ) for (l) measuring (spr) 5 hekat".
   With regard to our L N M Sh, do we have a reference to the contents of the jar, or to the dedicatee of the "for"? Classical Hebrew dictionaries have no "nemesh" stuff, nor any NMSh word related to beekeeping. We could analyse NMSh as N (logogram for nahash "snake", but the original cobra became Nun, meaning "fish", though the fish had in the beginning been Samek, the letter that follows Nun!) and in that combination with MSh we are confronted by a "swamp-snake". This seems unlikely, but further down the line we will need to consider the possibility of snakes in the diet.
   So, will NMSh work as a personal name rather than a common noun? Indeed, we can find it applied to people at Ugarit, and in the Hebrew Bible we meet Nimshi. As cited above. the founder of the dynasty that replaced the Omrides in Israel, was Yehu ben Nimshi (1 Kings 19:16); but Elisha refers to him as Yehu ben Yehoshapat ben Nimshi (2 Kings 9:2, and 14). This leads us to believe that Nimshi was the grandfather rather than the father of Yehu, but there may be another explanation. Yehoshapat  (Jehoshaphat) was King of Judah (c. 873-849) in the days of Elisha, and contemporary with  King Ahab of Israel (c. 869-850); he died a few years before Yehu's seizure of power (842-815);
Yehoshapat, whose name means "Yahu has judged", was deemed to have done, for the most part, "what was right in the eyes of Yahweh" (1 Kings 22:43); by calling Yehu "a son of Yehoshapat", Elisha may have intended to express the prophetic hope that Yehu would bring the judgement of Yahweh to the Northern Kingdom, as Yehoshapat had done in the Southern Kingdom, and Yehu did achieve that, with immense slaughter of the Omri family and the worshippers of Baal, and he received commendation from Yahweh (2 Kings 10:28-31) But what can we say about the patronymic "ben Nimshi"? Could it be another epithet? In 1928 Martin Noth (M 2014:44) recognized the origin of Nimshi in the cognate Arabic term nims, meaning what the English call (using their ridiculous spelling system) "mongoose" (Indian manggûs). (Wikipedia supplies our needs adequately here.) This small mammal is renowned for its ability to kill venomous snakes:  it can withstand their venom, and can also move out of range rapidly when attacking them. It can live for twenty years in captivity. This ferocity may have been applied epithetically to Yehu, or to his father, through the name Nimshi.
   A Nimshi clan is constructed from all the NMSh occurrences (M 2014:43-44)t: setting aside the Ugarit evidence, we have Samaria Ostracon 56, two Hebrew seals, and the Nimshi in the ancestry of Yehu; additionally, the sequence is found incised on pottery, namely Rehob 6 (below), and
Rehob 5 here, and likewise on a jar from Tel `Amal bearing the same letters as Rehob 5 (LNMSh) and with the N and M likewise in a horizontal stance, in contrast to the normal vertical, as displayed in the NMSh of Rehob 6.

 Rehob 6 (M 2014:44-45; Fig. 7)
(M2003: Fig. 6, photo G. Laron)
(M2003: Fig. 5, drawing Rahel Solar)





The Rehob 6 jar from Area C, with the familiar NMSh at the end of its text,  belongs to the top Stratum IV (9th C BCE), whereas the other NMSh pot was from Stratum V in Area C, when the bees were still making honey. We have considered the possibility that NMSh was a personal or family name, and perhaps this hypothetical family owned the apiary, and now also Building F, where this Rehob 6 jar stood. Be that as it may, whatever the NMSh refers to, at Tel Rehov and Tel `Amal, "it" (the unidentified entity) has survived the destruction of the beehives, apparently.
   The text on this jar seems to have seven letters: NMSh at the left end; LShQ on the right (the beginning of the text); and a peculiar sign in the middle, which could well be twosigns joined in a ligature, I will suggest. It might be a shorthand sign for ben, and we could try this analysis of the whole sequence:
   "For ShQ son of NMSh"
   Other options should be explored, though. The sequence LShQ has a possible counterpart in an inscription incised on a storage jar at Ein Gev (M 2014:44-45, Fig. 14), from the same period (9th C BCE):
   This is understood as an Aramaic text (the final 'Alep could be the Aramaic version of a suffixed "definite article", equivalent to Hebrew ha- and Arabic 'al). The meaning might be:"for the cupbearer", a title found in Genesis 40:1,  in the Hebrew form mashqeh, "one who gives someone something to drink", or "butler" for short, and in this case it is the drink-bearer of the King of Egypt. The basic root is ShQY, and looking again at our Rehob 6 jar, we might accept the middle character as a crooked Yod (y) and try "for the cupbearer". I am suspicious of this Yod, as its tail is too long, and I prefer to see a ligature, two letters bound together.
   Earlier in Genesis the ShQ root is used for "watering the ground" (2:6),  and for "watering the garden" (2:10). The word for "garden" is gan, and the sequence GN occurs in the inscriptions at the Sinai turquoise mines, and the longest text (Sinai 357) gives instructions for watering the garden of the West Semitic workers (though the ShQY root is not used), transferring spring-water from a skin-bag to a vessel, for pouring; the word 'B, for the bag, is also found, I suggest, on a jar from Gath (Safi), where L'B could mean "for the waterbag" (Maeir 2012:32).
   In the light of all this, if we analyse the middle sign in our Rehob 6 jar as a Gimel joined to a Nun (lying flat, as in Rehob 5, and a reversal of the Nun next to it), then we have the jar as container for water:
   LShQ GN NMSh "For watering the Nemesh garden".

    It is time to consider the box and its animal. The tongue from an open mouth is a lion motif (M 2007:210). From the Late Bronze Age period of Rehob comes a female figurine with a Hathor hairstyle and leonine face, and protruding ears, nose, and jaw. It is possibly the goddess Ashtart (Astarte), who has a lioness connection, and in this regard she is reminiscent of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet (M 2019:181-182, Fig. 21). If this is a "house shrine" for Ashtart, a consort of Baal, we can imagine a figurine of the goddess inside it, originally. Notice the two snakes at the entrance, which bring to mind the goddess holding a serpent in each hand. 

   The Bible has given us no information about Rehob, and perhaps we should have ignored its Nimshi, in our quest to find the meaning of NMSh in the inscriptions. If nimsh (Arabic nims) or nemesh was the lost West Semitic word for "mongoose", could this be the creature who is depicted on the roof of the house, and did a mongoose actually live in it?
   The mongoose and the snake are certainly known as enemies, and the animal here is confronting two of them at the entrance to the house. The two embedded heads that its front paws are touching (whether destructively or protectively) are not identified. Could they be of the same species as the mongoose, or perhaps rats, or some other nuisance animal? Wikipedia informs us thus: Mongooses feed on rodents, reptiles, birds, fishes, insects, fruits, and eggs (they have a technique for opening them). They are not aggressive towards humans. They have a lifespan of twenty years in captivity. Accordingly, a domesticated mongoose might have protected this area against pests before and after the beehives were destroyed

This photograph shows the tongue, though the upper and lower teeth are not visible. A multitude of mongooses can be found here, Look for the Egyptian mongoose. None of them are seen in the pose represented on the house shrine.

Indian mongoose (Marathi mangûs) and cobra 

We should now review the relevant inscriptional evidence. If we interpret LNMSh (R6) as meaning "for the mongoose", we must also accept that at the place now known as
Tel `Amal there was likewise a mongoose functioning as a guardian of a house, given that a jar bearing the same text has been found there.
   By the way, I am reminded of an inscribed plaque (mentioned above) in one of the Sinai turquoise mines: it has a drawing of a jackal on one side, and  on the other side
a warning that the jackal is guarding the heap of mined turqoise in the cavern. Did they have a real live jackal there, acting like a watchdog? Was it the god Anubis tat they were invoking for this task?
   In the case of our Rehob mongoose, was there really an animal living in the box, or only its representation on the roof?  Was the mongoose identified with a deity, such as `Athtart or the ferocious `Anat? Near the apiary was a small altar (presumably for burning incense, and perhaps also food offerings): it has an incised palm tree between two nude female figures (M 2008: 42-44) and these might represent the three goddesses associated with the storm-god Baal-Hadad, namely `Athirat (Asherah, connected with trees), `Athtart, and `Anat, here functioning as guardians of the bees. Could incense have a calming effect on the bees, as apiarists use smoke for this purpose when disturbing the hives?
   My opinion would lean towards a real mongoose in the little house, who required food and drink (hence the storage jars "for the NMSh"), and who survived the destructive fire, and continued to function in a similar capacity in Area F, in Stratum IV. If the animal was female, it could have been identified with one of the West Semitic goddesses, notably `Anat, the huntress.

C 1990: Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai", Abr-Nahrain 28, 1-52.

C 1991: Colless, Brian E., "The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan", Abr-Nahrain 29, 18-66.

G 2018: Garfinkel, Ganor, Hasel, In the Footsteps of King David. London: Thames and Hudson

ME 2003 Maeir, Aren M. and Eshel, Esther .“Four Short Alphabetic Inscriptions from Late Iron Age IIA Tell es-Safi/Gath and Their Implications for the Development of Literacy in Iron Age Philistia and Environs”. Pp. 69 – 88 in the same volume as M 2003.

M 2003: Mazar, Amihai.“Three 10th–9th Century B.C.E. Inscriptions from Tel Rehov,” Pp. 171 – 184 in Saxa loquentur: Studien zur Archa ̈ologie Pala ̈stinas/Israels. Festschrift fu ̈r Volkmar Fritz zum 65. Geburtstag Edited by Cornelius G. Den Hertog, Ulrich Hu ̈bner and Stefan Mu ̈nger; (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 302). Mu ̈nster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2003.

 M 2007: Mazar, Amihai and Panitz-Cohen, Nava.Beekeeping at Tel Rehov “It Is the Land of Honey: Beekeeping in Iron Age IIA Tel Rehov – Culture, Cult and Economy.” Near Eastern Archaeology 70:4 (2007): Pp. 202 – 219.

M 2008 : Mazar, Amihai and Panitz-Cohen, Nava.“To What God? Altars and a house Shrine from Tel Rehov Puzzle Archaeologists.” Biblical Archaeology Review 34:4 (2008): Pp. 40 – 47.

M 2014: Shmuel Ahituv and Amihai Mazar "The Inscriptions from Tel Rehov and their Contribution to the Study of Script and Writing during IronAge IIA" , 189-

 M 2018 : Mazar, Amihai, "The Iron Age Apiary at Tel Reh.ov, Israel"

M 2019: Mazar, Amihai and Uri Davidovich. "Canaanite Reh.ob: Tel Reh.ov in the Late Bronze Age." BASOR 381, 163-191

M and P Vols 1-VI: A. Mazar and N. Panitz-Cohen, The Excavations at Tel Rehov, 1997-2012.
I have no access to these volumes, and there may well be lots of relevant information that I need to see.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


This ancient inscribed object is a "small-scale heddle jack",  a wooden instrument used in weaving; a glance at my rough sketch of the side view will clarify the shape, as cylindrical with a notch and a pointed end. It is 8.2 cm (3.25 inches) long,  equal to the length of the middle finger of my right hand. It was found in Egypt, though its fir-tree wood is not native to the Nile Valley region, so it must have been brought from elsewhere. The short inscription of five characters is surely West Semitic, and is one of the many discoveries of early Semitic writing made by William Matthew Flinders Petrie in Egypt and the Levant. It is now kept in the British museum (note the date 1912, among other accession numbers, though Petrie first published it in 1890).
   Gordon Hamilton has gathered the material needed to put this artefact in its historical and geographical setting, and has provided information to help us determine what is written on it (with 5 new photographs from the British Museum).
   The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts (2006) 330-331.
   EA 70881, a small-scale heddle jack from Lahun, Egypt, MAARAV, Vol 14, No 1 (2007) 28-32, and 121-125 (Plates I-V).
   This variety of weaving implement ("small-scale") was used on horizontal looms in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (20th C - 17th C BCE), not the upright vertical looms of the New Kingdom (S. Quirke, British Museum).
   The presence of Semites (`Amu, "Asiatics") in Lahun is attested for the period 1850-1700 BCE, approximately (Ulrich Luft). This may have been when the owner of the heddle jack was there, though a Carbon 14 date established for it is 2140-1940 BCE (95% probability!), so it may have passed through many hands through the years, or else it was made from wood that had been serving some other function before it was carved into this form. However, this raises the paradox that this inscription could be older than the invention of the alphabet, and thus be some other script.
   The town now known as Al-Lahun (SW of Al-Faiyum) is celebrated for its connection with the mud-brick pyramid of Pharaoh Senusret II (19th C, 12th D), but it goes back to the time of the early dynasties  (30th C). (Wikipedia, and Britannica)

   This is my drawing of the heddle jack (8.2 cm) and its inscription (please ignore the letter  on it, obviously too big, not drawn to scale, as all the characters are situated below the notch).  This has generally been the preferred stance for interpreting the text, and Hamilton's suggested reading for each letter is transcribed below it.  The name of the maker or the owner would be expected, or else an identification of the object as a weaver's instrument. 
   The assumption is that the letters run from right to left, as was customary though not obligatory in early West Semitic inscriptions known to us (examples: Sinai 349Wadi el-Hol, and also syllabic texts, Colless, Origin of the Alphabet, 2012: 81-82).
   The first character reminds us of the letter A, in its original pictorial form as an ox-head with horns, the original Aleph and Alpha.
   The second sign appears to be Het (H or H.), and for a long time the favoured reading was a name  beginning with 'ah.i. However, there is a small projection at the top left corner, indicating a doorpost, and defining the character as a door, Dalt, hence D (so Hamilton).
   In third position is a sign representing perhaps a bag (which would be Sadey in my view), or a mouth (P on my table of letters of the proto-alphabet), or an eye without a pupil (`Ayin), and this is Hamilton's choice.
   The next letter seems to be a cross, either like a plus sign or a crucifix, hence T (Taw). But Hamilton (playing down the projecting line at the top, and accepting the vertical line as long?) wants to see Sadey (S.), which he traces back to the Egyptian hieroglyph M16, in some Hieratic forms (2006: 203); but he has to find a counterpart on the Izbet  Sartah ostracon, a thousand years later.
   The final letter is taken as B, and it is an even more difficult to document; it looks somewhat similar to the way we write Hebrew Beth nowadays, but to match this character with an ancient identical twin is beyond me; Hamilton cites the three-sided Bet of the Arabian alphabets.
  The result of this exercise is a name 'D`S.B (presumably a woman, being a weaver), which can be analysed as "(Divine) Father ('d) has created (`s.b)".  The usual word for father is 'ab, but 'ad is also known. The root `s.b  can mean "hurt", but also "fashion an image" (attested in the Bible). Note that Meindert Dijkstra offered a solution along these lines, and I must confess that I had proposed a name 'Ah.i`s.b (unpublished, fortunately!) taking the sequence `s.b as a noun (Hebrew and Aramaic) meaning "toil", and the words would describe the tool as "a brother of toil", working together with its owner in his or her laborious task. And two other intriguing inscriptions from Lahun (or Kahun), published with this one by Petrie (Ancient Egypt, VI, 1921, 1-3; reproduced in Sass, Genesis of the Alphabet, Fig. 282-285) seem to have three-sided houses for the letter Bet.
   But the Heddle Jack inscription is regularly exhibited irrregularly, to achieve a proto-alphabetic text: it is upside down. The same mistake is applied to the syllabic inscription on the Megiddo signet ring.


    Ah, that's better! Now we can see it in its true state, as a West Semitic proto-syllabic text. Again we will read it from right to left, which was the predominant direction for Egyptian and West Semitic  writing.
   First take note of the marks above the first letter, though in our earlier topsy-turvy reading they were below the last letter in the sequence.  Hamilton (2007: 29)  suggests that a probable  interpretation of "this deeply incised horizontal line is as a separation mark signaling the end of the owner's name"; but  he is at a loss to explain the "three shorter, shallower nicks".  Let us suppose that the longer incision at the top serves to indicate the start of the text. The two parallel lines are known to be the letter Dh (D) in the proto-alphabet, and is often found as saying "This (is)" at the beginning of Sinai inscriptions at the turquoise mines. The fourth horizontal stroke might indicate that the syllabic inscription now begins The first letter in the main text, if understood as belonging to the WS proto-syllabary, which preceded the WS proto-consonantary (the proto-alphabet) would say ZA (as noted in transcription below it) and likewise mean "This (is)". The character is a simplified version of Egyptian hieroglyph F27, the tail of an animal: by the principle of acrophony, the WS term for tail, zanab (or danab) produces the syllable-sign ZA; the syllabary does not distinguish Z from D (compare zis for this in foreign English).
   So it is possible that the alphabet was already invented when this syllabic inscription was carved into the wood, if the = sign is proto-alphabetic D. It needs to be recognized that a majority of the letters of the proto-alphabet already had a forerunner in the proto-syllabary. This is not the case with Z or D in the proto-alphabet, but the next letter we meet in the sequence is a cross, which is syllabic TU and alphabetic T; whether the cross has a short or a large stem is not significant in the syllabary; here we might have a double T, if the very light incision near the top of the stem is taken into account (not shown on my drawing; slightly marked by Hamilton, but not considered to be significant). Hamilton decided on alphabetic Sadey for this character.
   To add to our ZA TU, we now have PU; and this is a mouth (pu), which also functions as alphabetic P; the example on the Wadi el-Hol horizontal inscription has a diving line to separate the lips [(|)]; from the photograph of this cylinder we could imagine that two internal lines portray parted lips, but these are not deliberate incisions made by the scribe. Remember, Hamilton (who has vehemently denied the P as mouth identification in the alphabet) wants this to be `Ayin, an eye, and this possibility still stands, but the syllabary likes to include the pupil of the eye.
   Moving on to the door (dalt, used in the syllabary and the consonantary) our collection is now ZA TU PU DA.
   Finally,  we can no longer see the ox-head, and I doubt that we can ever find an `Alep or Alpha with a right angle. This is the side view of an eye, showing the white of the eye (lubnu), and hence LU.
   Speaking for myself, I would like it to say: "This is a heddle jack".
   But where can we find an ancient Semitic word for that? In the Bible, at the opposite extreme,  the spear of Goliath is compared to a "heddle rod" (manor) or "weaver's beam" (1 Samuel 17:7).
   A heddle is one of small threads between which warp is passed in loom. Looking at the sequence DALU, we are reminded of the the Hebrew root dll "hang down", and the word dallah "thrum", referring to warp, threads stretched lengthwise on loom, to be crossed by weft. Where the little jack fitted into all this is beyond my ken; and it is supposed to belong in the period of horizontal looms, not vertical (which seems to fit "hang down" better).
   TUPU is reminiscent of Hebrew top "timbrel", a small drum held in the hand. Can we stretch this word to cover the jack, as a small instrument held in the hand?
   The mystery still stands, but the fact remains that this is a West Semitic syllabic inscription, and not early alphabetic.

Thursday, December 12, 2019


William M. Schniedewind has published a new reading of this brief inscription, found on a shard from Lakish (conventionally Lachish), and his interpretation of the bottom line is ground-breaking;  I will place my response to his proposed decipherment here in a new  page,  for the benefit of the hundreds of visitors who have already perused my lengthy essay, since December 2015; but that will still function as a prologue to the solution I am presenting at this time.
 Here is my drawing of the writing on the shard. Photographs are reproduced further down the page.
My two previous suggestions for interpreting the text, reading the writing from right to left, are:
(1) Pikol (pkl) the scribe (spr) ....
(2) Pot (pk) for (l) the scribe (spr) of the temple (B)
Even though Flavius Josephus has a reference to "scribes of the Temple", in a decree of the Seleucid tyrant Antiokhos III, who reigned from 222-187 BCE (Antiquities 12:138-144), now, with the inspiration from Schniedewind's insight into the scribe's intention in line 3, I offer:
(3)  Pot (pk) for (l) measuring (spr 5 hekat 
WMS has recognized that the Egyptian accounting system and the Hieratic script are being employed by the scribe, in the bottom line. The Egyptian sign for h.q3t ("a measure of wheat") is "an oblong circle" in Hieratic, and its hieroglyph (U9, Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, p. 516, cp. par. 266, 1) is a rectangular grain-measure, with a vertical line at its centre, showing the seed pouring out on the left side. Schniedewind sees the 7-shaped character as a Hieratic "5"; hence "5 hekat"; and he concludes that the container would be a "storage jar" for wheat. He has published his discovery in The Finger of the Scribe (OUP 2019) 4-5, and notes 12-19 on p.172; and forthcoming in BASOR, The Alphabetic "Scribe" of the Lachish Jar Inscription and the Hieratic Tradition in the Early Iron Age.
   He agrees with those of us who have suggested that the first line could give a personal name, perhaps Pikol. (However, he does not know about my many ideas on this matter.)
   For the second line he is keen to have spr as "the first example of the title 'Scribe' used in a linear alphabetic inscription" (4), though he acknowledges that other readings are possible, and he gives this example (172, n. 13), which he describes as "plausible": "PN recorded [...] 5 Hekat of wheat". This does not make good sense on a pot that has not been into the kiln yet, as the clay was inscribed before firing; and if spr is a verb it should normally come first in the sentence, but not absolutely necessarily.
   At this point it might be profitable to remind ourselves that the basic meaning of the root SPR is "count" or "measure". In a later inscription (Arad 3.6-7) spr occurs in a command to "count the wheat and the bread" (surely not counting the wheat grain by grain, but by measure). 
   Another instance of spr in connection with grain is found in Genesis 41:49: 
"Yosep stored grain in such great abundance that it was like the sand of the sea, so that he ceased to measure it, as it was measureless". The root SPR (count, number, measure) occurs twice in this sentence: in "to measure" and "measureless". Incidentally, there is a possible play on words, with "store" being the root S.BR (heap up, accumulate).
   WMS actually quotes this very verse (p. 71): he notes the the verbal form of spr often refers to accounting, as when "Joseph measures and records amounts of grain" (Gen 41:49).
   The Lakish jar inscription gives the capacity of the vessel, and so the spr seems more applicable to measuring (as a verbal noun) than to a scribe (common noun). Accordingly, we are informed by the scribe who wrote these words, that this vessel is "for (l) measuring (spr 5 hekat (of grain)", and possibly it should not be described as a container for "storing" grain, but for "measuring" a particular volume of grain.
   There remains the problem of the word our scribe has (apparently) used for the jar: the Hebrew term pak is found in contexts of anointing with oil, variously translated as "flask" or "phial/vial" (commissioning to kingship: 1 Samuel 10:1, Samuel and Saul; 2 Kings 9:1-3, Elisha's plenipotentiary and Jehu). In Modern Hebrew it is given the meanings "jar" and "jug" (Avraham Zilkha, Modern Hebrew-English Dictionary, Yale UP, 1989, 234). The general impression is that a pak was a small object; Jastrow (Dictionary 1174a) has examples of pak (flask, jar) with the adjective "small" (qt.n); this might imply that there could be large versions of the object; but the Lakish "jar" would have held 20 to 30 liters (Yosef Garfinkel to WMS, n. 19, p. 172), and "5 hekat" would have been "about 20-25 liters" (p. 5); WMS takes this as confirmation of his "suggested reading" of the third line of the text; but it requires acceptance of the usage of pak as wide-ranging, as widely as the words "pot" and "jar" are stretched in the discussion about the Lakish vessel.
   Two speculations may be added to the discussion. First, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (ed. David J. A. Clines) vol VI, 681a, has a word *pîk, an emendation in Job 33:6 that produces "I am like a jar from God", parallel to "I too was formed from a piece of clay". Should we still contemplate the possibility that the neo-syllabary was operating here.
   Second, suppose that pk in the Lakish inscription is incomplete, and the correct reading is sh-p-k (pour), hence "Pour to measure 5 hekat". This root is used for pouring molten metal, and shedding blood, and possibly it could refer to pouring grain.
   A final consideration gives me cause for pause to ponder how this jar, when it was a mass of wet clay ready for baking and proudly bearing its inscription, could know its correct volume. How could that be measured? Simply by modeling it to the same size as another jar of that volume? But how did that jar have its volume established? The potter and the scribe probably knew, but now God only knows.

Apologies for the tiny print which has delivered (relentlessly) for this study; the normal size appears on the version I see, before it is posted to the Web. You have my permission to copy it and paste it in a document where it can be enlarged.

Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research,
BASOR  374 (2015): 233–45, Benjamin Sass et al.
A copy of this article (with these illustrations, and drawings of many more inscriptions) is available on Sass's page at ACADEMIA
(Photographs by Tal Rogovski; reconstruction and drawings of the vessel by O. Dobovsky; drawing of the inscription by the late Ada Yardeni )