Wednesday, March 10, 2010


This is an early attempt to interpret the Gath sherd and the Qeiyafa ustracon. For an update go straight to the end of the essay.

 Having already made a survey of the text on the ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa (or  Sha`arayim, "Two Gates", and the object was discovered in a room attached to a gate, a gatehouse), I want to look again at the characters on that shard, in the light of what others have claimed to see there, and after further scrutiny of the various photographs and drawings now available here and there (pdf). The interpretation I will present here differs from those proposed in my earlier account: I am now  contemplating the possibility (mentioned in passing there) that GL[ ] at the beginning of line 3 is the name Goliath.

At the same time, I would like to examine the Gath ostracon, which has been touted as "the Goliath inscription".
I will raise the possibility of the presence of S (Samek) in the text. S (Samek) can be a fish or a spine [ -|-|-| ], and the Izbet Sartah abagadary seems to have the fish. The oval character on Qeiyafa line 3 might be a fish (S); and it looks as if there is another S further to the right. The Gath inscription possibly has a fish lurking unnoticed in the second half of its line of writing.
With regard to Samek, here is a significant principle I have noticed: when  the national scripts arose in the Levant in the ninth century BCE (Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Moabite), the telegraph-pole Samek (the Egyptian djed column, now recognized as a spine, the backbone that gives a person stability, the ability to stand up straight, hence West Semitic samk, 'support') became the standard Samek, and the fish (cp Arabic samak, 'fish') disappeared. Previously the spinal sign had been known on the Lakish dagger (as S), and in the West Semitic syllabary (as SA), but the fish had been ubiquitous (Canaan, Sinai, Egypt), and it represented S, not D (as commonly supposed, invoking dag, 'fish'). The Samek on the  Beth-Shemesh ostracon occurs in SB' ("carousing", followed by BT YN, "in the winehouse"). However, the Gezer calendar and the Tel Zayit abagadary have the column with three crossbars for Samek.

Fishes (with fins and tails) are readily recognizable in the Bronze Age texts, but they are wrongly assigned to the D section on the tables of Benjamin Sass (1988) and Gordon Hamilton (2006); consequently these scholars (as also their teachers and their followers) can not give an instance of S in the Bronze Age: they will not even admit the Djed Samek on the Lakish dagger, because it has only two crossbars, though this is a possible form in the Byblos syllabic texts (as SA).

The door-signs (Dalet, D) are shifted to the Het box, and the real instances of Het (Hh, H.) are left dangling or placed in the house-category B (they are houses, but they have an additional courtyard, h.asir, hence H.).

They also choose the Sadey character (a tied bag, s.rr) as Q, overlooking the true Qaw (cord on a stick), and they seize on one particular form of K to serve as Ss (presumed to be something in the flora category).

They claim (preposterously) that there is only one Proto-Canaanite attestation of Sh (what I understand as a triangular D, in Sinai 357; eventually the triangle Dalet will become Delta); they mistakenly catalog the numerous Sh-signs as Th (the true Th, from Thad 'breast', occurs in the word ThLThT 'three' in Sinai 375); it will in time become the letter Shin, also encompassing Th.

They take all the bomerangs or throw-sticks (which properly represent G) and call them P, failing to recognize the cases where a mouth-sign stands for P

[This is my website so I can speak freely here: Sass and Hamilton are the ones who are always cited for reference, but in my opinion the S/D, Hh/D/B, /Ss/Q/K, G/P, Sh/Th confusion nullifies their system (which is largely borrowed from W.F. Albright); and neither has offered a "linguistic decipherment" (Hamilton), with readings of the texts, as is found on the Cryptcracker and Collesseum sites, and in my series of studies in Abr-Nahrain, 1988-1998.]

Other scholars do not notice fish-signs in Paleo-Canaanite texts, because they are observing them from an Iron Age perspective, whereas I am approaching them from a Bronze Age point of view, based on Proto-Canaanite texts. I would apply the term Proto-Canaanite to the West Semitic logo-consonantary (the proto-alphabet) as evidenced in inscriptions from the Bronze Age (before the 12th century BCE), and Paleo-Canaanite ('Old Canaanite') to texts in the stylized and simplified form of the script, which has the number of signs reduced to twenty-two, in the first period of the Iron Age (extending into the 10th century).

The Izbet Sartah, Beth-Shemesh, Gath, and Sha`arayim ostraca are Paleo-Canaanite (exhibiting 22 letters); the Qubur el-Walaydah bowl apparently has the signs for Sh and Th, and stands on the dividing line between Proto-Canaanite and Paleo-Canaanite.

For a survey of the range of signs employed over the centuries, a copy of my table could be useful.

In my previous study of the Qeiyafa text I catalogued the possible letters represented. Here I want to emphasize that the process of decipherment is expected to include a table of frequency of the letters in a typical text in the language under examination.

Here, then, is my list of the 22 letters in order of frequency based on Ugaritic texts and Sinai inscriptions, though not Biblical Hebrew (in which T is less frequent, and W is more prevalent):

L T B M R ' N K ` Y Sh/Th H D Hh/Kh P Ss W Q S G Tt Z/Dh


Having looked at the Qeiyafa letters closely for a long time, I have some ideas about what is on the similar Gath ostracon, and I have caught a fish (S), with two hooks (W) in its mouth (P), by hand (Y), and also an ox ('A) with a boomerang (G) and two crosses (T). The official reading of the text (BASOR 351, 54a) has seven letters, but I count ten (excluding a few marginal marks).

Instead of  'A L W T | W L T
let us try  'A Y G L W T | W S P T

Gordon Hamilton has released a preliminary account (p. 11-13) of his new study of the Gath ostracon:

He allows the existence of a supralinear G (which I would also like to accept), and so he reads 'LWT as 'LGWT; but, while muttering  (n. 23) about "the sensationalistic connection" made with 'LWT and the biblical name golyat, 'Goliath', he does not see that the G could give us GLWT, a possible Philistine form of GoLYaT, and that is what I propose to do with it (that is, be sensationalistic).

Sequencing along such lines of letters yields all sorts of weird words and wondrous wisdom. Reading from right to left we see 'A, of the type found at the start of Qeiyafa lines 4 and 5 (refer to the drawing below), where the ox-head is inverted, like Alpha, though the original form is used at the end of line 1 and in the middle of line 2, and the reclining head appears as the first character in the text; remember, this scribe does not practise consistency but prefers variety. However, in the Gath text, if the incised line extending as far as the L is merely a "slip of the pen" (50b), and if we removed the crossbar of the 'A, then we would have a G (/\), and GLWT would do nicely for Goliath. On the other hand, if we accept the existence of the 'A, and consider the stroke as significant, combining it with the two parallel vertical marks pointing downwards at the right end and the oblique mark at the left end, then we have a typical Y (yad, arm with hand and elbow), similar to the Qeiyafa examples (in lines 4 and 5). We are told that T (+) is not possible here (50b), so 'AT "you" is out of the question; but 'AY could be "Where?" or "Woe" (as in Oy veh). If for some technical reason I am not permitted to have this Y (which stands out so clearly on red and black photographs alike), I will still be arguing for the text opening with the interjection "Woe!".

A possible letter G for Goliath is sitting above the L; it is a more obtuse angle than the 'A, and a believable boomerang (to be compared with the the G in the top left corner on side 1 of the Beth-Shemesh ostracon, and a whole armoury of them can be seen on the table). The head is thus separated from the body ... as happened to the giant in the story: young David severed Goliath's head from his corpse (1 Samuel 17:51). I am prompted to make such a silly suggestion because half a century ago, one of my Latin lecturers at Sydney University loved rehearsing such a line contained in some Latin poem (I would be grateful if any reader could remind me what it was). We may be dealing with black magic here: this could be an execration ritual (see further below).

The first Waw is not exactly the same as the second, and in the past, working only from drawings, I have thought that this was Y and the other was W; but having accepted the second sign in the sequence as Y (equivalent to the Sha`arayim Y), and admitting it is  different from the long-stemmed Y of the Izbet Sartah ostracon, which is obscure, but apparently has only ) at the top, not \/, then I acknowledge it to be W, and allow GLWT to be a valid form for GLYT (Goliyat, "Goliath"), perhaps an Anatolian name *Gulwatta. Versions of the name are: Goliath (Greek, Septuagint), Gôlôt (Greek, inscription),  Jâlût (Arabic). However, if we disallowed the first Y, this would still be a possible Y; but if the name has an Anatolian form in this (presumably) Philistine text, the regular change from w to y in Hebrew can be invoked to explain the difference.

The second half of the inscription ( after the separating stroke) could be a verb ending in -t, a possibility envisaged by the editors, and offering "interesting implications for furthering our understanding of the Philistine language" (BASOR 351, 59b). Judging from the interpretation proposed here (which is by no means certain), the language is the West Semitic dialect used by the Philistines, and seems to be the same language as found on other inscriptions from the time, including the Qeiyafa ostracon.

The initial W would be "and"; the verb is not LT but SPT. I arrived at this hypothetical reading from comparing the P in the word ShPTt ("judge") at the start of Qeiyafa line 2.  The P is the remnant of a mouth: () becomes ( . The preceding letter would be the fish I mentioned earlier, apparently with a tail, not "most probably 'a slip of the pen' of the scribe", as the editors say (53a). Actually, it was one of the scholars who first edited this inscription (namely Stefan Wimmer) who taught me (in connection with the Shekem plaque) that what appears to be one letter may, on analysis, turn out to be more than one (two or even three).

SPT could be traced to two verbal roots: SWP 'end, perish'; SPH 'be taken away, perish'. The final -t marks it as 3rd person singular Qal perfect: "You are finished".

"Woe ('y), GLWT.  And (w) you have perished (spt)."
As mentioned above, these words might be an execration, used in a ritual in which the bowl was first inscribed, and then smashed. The incomplete letters to the right of the text could suggest that the bowl was inscribed before it was broken, not simply the shard; and the incomplete characters could be part of the original inscription (indeed, Hamilton suggests they are the end of this same inscription). The past or perfect tense could be 'proleptic', anticipating his death through black magic.

However, given that the document was found in Gath, the city of Goliath (if that is who this GLWT really is), then this should not be 'sympathetic magic' but pure sympathy for the departed.

This is a rather terse elegy, but Gordon Hamilton (p. 12) has made the attractive suggestion that the text continued right around the bowl, when it was intact, and the marks to the right of the 'Aleph are the end of the inscription, thus making it much longer.

If we are to be scientific about this, I need to be the first one to try to falsify my hypothesis. Aren Maeir has responded to Gordon Hamilton's proposed G, affirming that it is not part of the inscription, because it was not deliberately inscribed; it is accidental not intentional.  This would spell doom for the Y also, I presume. So we need to clean up the shard and remove all the intrusive material, which shows up so clearly on a white-on-black photograph the editors published (BASOR 2008, p. 49, fig. 8), and offered such interesting possibilities. But the universe is full of coincidences, as I always say.

And what about the fishy S? If we go to Stefan Wimmer's site:
we can see three helpful photographs, including this inverted one:

These photographs seem to show that the editors chose wisely in deciding that there are two examples of L in the text, and thus all four of the additional letters I proposed (G Y S P) are unlikely to be intended by the writer.

Hence we should read (from right to left)  'A L W T / W L T [ ... ?]
The final T (+) has a very short left arm, which could mean either that the scribe had not left enough space for it, or else it was originally complete when written on the vessel, but that part is now on some other remnant of the bowl, possibly with a longer line of text. 

One recourse for saving Goliath is to remove the crossbar of the A-sign (and the line it continues along, possibly continuing right through the L) and produce G L W T (which I suggested in November 2005).

September 2014
However, that looks like a solid Aleph, an Alpha, even. The extension of its crossbar is puzzling: such protrusions on 'alep should be on both sides.  This photograph shows that the supposed G and similar extraneous marks are coloured (pink-orange), but the true letters are colourless. Now, the two strokes hanging down from the extension-line of the Aleph (which seem to form a Yod)  differ from each other in this regard; the one on the right is coloured and the one on the left is of the same hue (silver-white) as the inscribed letters, and it forms a  right-angle G! We are now looking at a sequence ` G L W T, possibly "Where is Goliath?" or "Alas, Goliath!"

But it is not clear from the photograph whether this vertical mark is incised or merely accidental.

It would appear that the phantom of Goliath has been playing ghostly games to get our attention (Look, this is about me, so I have put another G in, so you can find me more easily); but he was a great celebrity, and it would be reasonable to expect that somebody in his hometown Gath wrote his name down somewhere; it seems that we have not found such a document yet, and we are still in the dark when we try to interpret this one.


 This new drawing of the ostracon from Sha`arayim (Khirbet Qeiyafa) differs in a few details from my earlier attempt at delineating the characters of its text of five lines (reproduced below).

The differences are based on closer scrutiny of  the available photographs, and comparing the drawings of  Haggai Misgav, `Ada Yardeni, and Gershon Galil; but none of us has achieved a complete and perfect reading yet.

It is generally agreed that each line of the text runs from left to right (the opposite of the order established later in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic).

Note my transcription system: ' or 'A ('aleph) ` or `O (`ayin "eye") Hh ( Tt ( Ss (Tsadey) Sh (Shin).

(1a)  '  L T ` N [Q] [ ]
The important point in this is the replacement of Sh by N; I think it is equivalent to the N in line 4, not presuming an extra piece at the top, to make it a pair of breasts (Sh/Th), but accepting it as a snake (N); this would destroy the widely publicized ' L  T ` Sh ("Do not do"), and the concomitant claim that the use of this root (`ayin Sin He) proves that the language is Hebrew; nor does it allow the tempting reconstruction T ` Sh Q, hence "Do not oppress", which fitted well with the idea of judgement in the next line. The N opens the way for 'LT as Elat "Goddess", and `N as from the root `anah "answer"; this would make it a plea for an oracle: "Goddess answer!". However, other possibilities are present. The 'curse' word (Hebrew 'alah) should be tried.  The root `NQ has to do with neck and necklace; and the presence of the giant Anakim (`nqym) is looming; and there could be a Mem between [Q] and W, hence `NQM. Only one N appearing in a West Semitic text is anomalous, as N sits in the first half of the table of order of frequency (see above); so the acceptance of this N brings the total to 2.

(1b) W `O B D 'A [L] [ ]
The root `abad is certainly in evidence, either as a verb "serve" or noun "servant", followed by 'A[L] (El, God) it could produce "Serve God" or "the servant of God", preceded by "and" (W).  I would find the same sequence in line 2a; and in line 5, I propose `OBDY "my servant".

(2) Sh P Tt [`O B [D 'A L M [T] [Sh P Tt
The root Sh P Tt "judge" was recognized at the beginning of this line when the ostracon was discovered; the second occurrence, at the end, was noticed by Yardeni and Galil. In each case the Tt is a cross in a circle, but each P has a different stance; and the second Sh has the \/\/ shape, whereas the first has the form like 3, which will eventually become Sigma. These are the only instances of Shin in the text, if N is accepted in line 1a; but its frequency is normally less than N (8th), with Sh in the middle of the scale (12th).

`O (circle with central dot) was resurrected by Gershon Galil; the D is my own reconstruction, from the W that others have seen; but Galil squeezes a small D into the space, using the left side of my D.
I have inserted T between M and Sh, allowing TShPTt 'thou shalt judge', but other possibilities remain. The MT has the scent of death about it, perhaps 'a dead man', or the noun meaning 'man' or 'warrior'.

It seems reasonable to accept with Galil that line 2 continues vertically into a space at the end of line 1, and the scribe has indeed made such a gap, by closing off the end of the writing in line 1. Earlier, based on Misgav's drawing, I proposed ZH, but I will now try TY, or YT (so Galil, YT[M] 'orphan'), with a possible G also in the picture (observable through wishful thinking) and producing GTY. I have said before that this YT could complement the GL (at the start of line 3) and produce Goliyat (again with his head separated from his body, lest they be united again and he rise up from the dead).

(3) [?] G L [  ] B ` L S [R S [. . . .]
 There may be a letter before G (Galil has a small W). The GL[. .] begs us to add [YT] (GLYT, as in the Hebrew Bible) or [WT] (GLWT, as on the Gath shard). (Notice that there may be a reason why the signs in the previous line (2) and the following line (4) have faded.) B`OL is 'Lord', perhaps the title of a deity (Ba`al, Hadad) or of a high-ranking human. This is where the fish apparently makes its appearance, in a pair, separated by a faded character consisting of a dot and a vertical stroke; following Galil, I would choose R (rosh 'head), with a triangular head, rather than Q, with a rounded top. This could be the sought-after srn, 'tyrant', the title of Philistine rulers; but SRS could be srys, a borrowing from Akkadian (meaning the one at the head [of the king]), found in Hebrew and Aramaic; it can mean 'eunuch', or 'high official'; David had some of these (1 Chronicles 28:1); the prophet Samuel warned Israel that if they accepted a king his srysym would receive their tithes (1 Samuel 8:15); in the Joseph story we meet "Potiphar, srys of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian" (Genesis 39:1). These are the four letters I would like to place in the gap at the end: P L Sh T ('Philistia); or even P L Sh T M ('Philistines'). There is yet another possibility instead of SRS, but it is so startling and controversial that I will save it till the end. But I will reiterate here that the missing YT for GLYT could be found in the far right corner (if we reject my hypothetical G (making gty 'Gittite'). I will also comment on this at the close of this essay.

(4) 'A [Q] M W N Q/R M Y Hh D M L K
This time I will retain MLK as 'king' (or 'kingship', less likely), and not have DM LK as 'blood for you'. 'A[Q]M is again "I will arise"' W is 'and''; NQM is generally accepted as the 'avenge' root, but the sign could be R (RM root 'be high'); YHhD could be 'the community' or 'together'. The Hh is not sure; it might be an unusual B, but Misgav considers Hh to be possible; it seems to revert to the original form, of a house with a courtyard.

(5) 'A R/Q M `O B D Y [Ss [D Q T
The last word is (I still maintain, without certainty) SsDQT 'justice' or 'righteousness', here apparetly used adverbially; the Ss is not clear; the D looks like a G, but Misgav's drawing accepts it as D; the Q has a round head (rightly); the T is not in doubt; whether the dots after it are significant remnants of signs is dubious. Ss and Q are at the far end of the frequency table, and R is among the most frequently occurring, so 5 instances of Q and only one R would be a suspect situation; therefore preference should be given to `ARM in this line and perhaps to NRM in the preceding line. Incidentally, I have set aside the possibility of two small letters (MM, MSh, ShSh) above the D of `BDY 'my servant', as shown on Misgav's drawing; but they may exist.

As a prelude to my interpretation of the text according to the Goliath motif, I offer these extracts from the Bible.
"Joshua wiped out the Anakim .... No Anakim (`nqym) were left in the land of the children of Israel; they survived only in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod" (Joshua 11:21-22).
"The champion, the Philistine from Gath, Golyath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke ... "(1 Samuel 17:23).
"The Philistine cursed (qll) David by his gods" (1 Samuel 17:43).
"David said to the Philistine: ... I come to you in the name of YHWH of Hosts" (1 Samuel 17:45).
Through his servants Saul said to David: "The king (mlk) desires no marriage gift but a hundred foreskins of Philistines, so that he may be avenged (nqm) of the king's enemies" (1 Samuel 18:25).
"YHWH has said to David: By the hand of my servant (`bdy) David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines and all their enemies" (2 Samuel 3:18).
He lifts (mqym) the weak (dl) from the dust, he raises (yrym) the poor ('bywn) from the ash heap, to let them sit with nobles, and inherit a seat of honour" (1 Samuel 2:8, Hannah).

(1) The cursing ('lt) of the Anak (`nq) and the servant of God (`bd 'l):
(2) The servant of God (`bd 'l) has judged (sh-p-tt) a warrior (mt); he has judged (sh-p-tt) the Gittite (gty?) (3) Lord (b`l ) Goliyath (GL[..]), the general (srs) [of Philistia?] ([PLShT]) .
(4) I will arise ('qm) and (w) together (y-hh-d) we will avenge (nqm) (or: exalt, nrm) the king (mlk).
(5) I will exalt ('rm) my servant (`bdy) justly (ss-d-q-t).

Synopsis: the writer is apparently a prophet speaking in the name of God (a nabi', a religious role that was practised at that time, 1 Samuel 3:20, 10:10); an oracle announces the defeat ('judgement') of one of the giant Anakim (from Gath?), namely Lord Goliyath, at the hands of the servant of God (and this could be David, 2 S 3:18). God says he will rise up, and together with his assistant he will avenge the king (presumably Saul) of his enemies; God will also exalt his agent justly. 

I don't think too much sleight of hand was needed to achieve this result. It certainly belongs in the category "sensational" ("causing or intending to cause great public excitement"), and when the dust settles and the shouting is silenced we might be left with a contemporary account of the proverbial, legendary, and indeed factual encounter between David the shepherd-boy from Bethlehem and Goliath the giant from Gath.

The document (in an Israelian dialect of Canaanian language) exults in the victory.
(1) The cursing of the Anak and the servant of God:
(2) The servant of God has judged a warrior; he has judged the Gittite (?)
(3) Lord Goliyat, the general ...].
(4) I will arise and  together we will avenge (or: exalt) the king.
(5) I will exalt my servant justly.

Of course, this may be a case (two cases already) of mistaken identity; and Goliath, we are told, had a brother, among the giants in Gath (1 Chronicles 20:5).

We can suspect that the YT of GLYT is placed well away from the GL of line 3, in the space in the far corner, between the ends of lines 1 and 2, with an 'apotropaic' purpose, lest all the king's men try to put him together again. (As I said earlier, I was given an analogy for this when I was a student of Latin at Sydney University, but I can not remember which poet it was.)

September 2014
One is allowed to change one's mind, and I can now see that my presumed YT (top right corner) is actually YH (Yahu, YHWH); the YT for GLYT is found immediately after the GL, with the T written above the Y.


Note GLYT and DWD in line 3, and YH at the end of line 2

Finally (this is one of those surprise endings coming up, a twist in the tail): since this Israelite scribe did not supply a copy of all the letters of his alphabet (as on the Izbet Sartah shard), we cannot be certain that this writer would not have used the spinal-column for Samek, if this rather rare letter was required (note the late position of S on the spectrum of frequency provided earlier), then maybe we could dispense with the two fishes in line 3 (SRS) and read them as D, and the reconstructed R could simply be W (Y-shaped), and thus we would have DWD (David). Somebody is going to make this connection eventually, so I may as well sneak in first. The real fish, with dorsal fin, is actually lurking underneath DWD, in line 4, in the sequence YSD (foundation).

An inscription from the time of King Saul mentioning Goliath and David side by side? Fantastic, I say, and you can take that word in whichever direction you wish.

Remember: to achieve this result a mass/mess of largely illegible writing had to be probed with an unseemly amount of guesswork; never believe what you read in blogs.

July 2021
I have left this essay on the WWWeb to record my constant wrestling with these two documents.

The Gath sherd remains intractable.
The photograph clearly but deceptively offers us:
'Y GLWT / WLT (with a tempting serpent, N)

but the official drawing of the legitimate letters leaves us with:
'LWT / WLT (and a lone snake, N)
To find Golyat in this we could read the 'Alep as G, and achieve GLWT; or import to the WLT the analogy of Germanic W > Gallic G (as in Wilhelm > Guillaume)

With regard to the Qeiyafa ostracon, Golyat and David definitely appear in line 3 as GULUTU and DAWIDI. There is only one fish-syllabogram (SU), in line 4 (YISUDU foundation).

The next stages of my investigation can be viewed here: 

The idea that the different forms and stances of letters are significant, indicating syllables:

Another earlier look at the Goliath inscriptions, for the record:

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