Wednesday, February 24, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 2: What was the alphabet for?
Chapter two does live up to my expectations, though it challenges some of my preconceived ideas. I had accepted the conventional view that, since the alphabet is a much simpler technology of writing, it of itself promoted a "democratisation" of writing in cultures that adopted it by comparison with syllabic writing. In particular I have assumed and taught that this was so in the (Southern) Levant compared with Mesopotamia or Egypt. Now Seth asks the very good question: If alphabetic writing was so superior to sylabaries how come it was adopted so slowly between the first known examples and its widespread use?
A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script from Wikipedia
For most of the second half of the 20th century the earliest alphabetic writing seemed to be the Proto-Siniatic inscriptions from around 1500BCE. However, since 1999 the Darnells' discovery of an earlier example of alphabetic writing at Wadi el-Hol pushes the likely date of the invention of the alphabet back to probably between 2000 and 1800BCE.

If the superior or easier technology of alphabetic writing was not the driver of its adoption, what was? "What was the alphabet for?"

Sanders suggests the new form of writing, associated as it was by its origin with those on the margins of organised society (as is the [presumed?] case for examples of Proto-Siniatic), was adopted to express a different and more inclusive vision of society. At Ugarit (Late Bronze Age) one ritual text was found in multiple locations, while all others were found only in one copy. The exception is a communal liturgy of atonement.

In Hebrew too, in the biblical texts (presumed to come from the [late?] Iron Age), one text stands out, the scapegoat ritual in Lev 16. It was retained among the traditions preserved in Scripture, despite fitting poorly with the ethos and ideology of Leviticus or of its presumed Tradents. It like the ritual at Ugarit involves "the people" as a significant actor.

Alongside this Sanders criticises the tendency among biblical scholars to focus on the state (witness all the excitement recently about some substantial walls in Jerusalem that may now be dated to the tenth century), whilst there is evidence for an alternative politics not based on the polis or state, but rather tribal, and typical of speakers of West Semitic languages. He writes eloquently of the flexibility (with membership determined not merely by birth, but also and perhaps more significantly by ritual and declaration) and durability of tribal authority when compared with a "state" and its kingship.

[An interesting, almost throwaway line, suggests a connection between the Hebrew Bible's unusual prominence of narrative prose and the somewhat lengthy and discursive political addresses found in the Mari diplomatic correspondence.]

Intriguingly, but frustratingly, chapter two does not explicitly answer its title. To discover, for sure, what Sanders believes was the purpose of the adoption of the alphabet one has to read on...

As you can see this is page-turning stuff ;) indeed this chapter alone asks biblical scholars to overturn a number of (too little examined) presuppositions. If even most of Seth's many theses are widely accepted this book will be a landmark in the discipline of Old Testament studies.

If you have read this book, and have reviewed it please post a link in the comments to your review, if you have not (but either agree or disagree with the opinions and reactions poszted here) please post a comment explaining how. I am finding this book exciting reading and one reason for posting my reactions as I read is in the hopes of reading with other interesting and interested readers!

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