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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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Thursday, February 04, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: Introduction
In the "Introduction" Seth lays out the four chapters, paying particular attention to the questions that will be raised, and thus providing engaging teasers drawing the reader in.

The book as a whole is situated within a framework which stresses both the direct appeal of biblical texts to their hearers ("you") and to the (usually) communal identity of those hearers ("Hear, O Israel!"). As a Baptist, inheritor of the Anabaptists, I love the stress on the way Scripture produces and moulds the community that reads it. This emphasis will be crucial to the book as a whole.

So, the first chapter will situate the discussion in the broad sweep of intellectual history, and is intended to make a case for the claim that this book aims at a significant paradigm shift to viewing language and its literatures as constituitive of social identity as well as its product.

Chapter two focuses on the Ugaritic literature that precedes and in many ways prefigures the Hebrew Scriptures. It will claim that the combination of the technological form of that writing (alphabet rather than Cuneiform syllabary), its language (Ugaritic rather than Akkadian) and its literary style (address to "you") combine to make it revolutionary. It will also trace this political consciousness back into the Mari texts as well as onward into the Hebrew writings.

With this much (hopefully) in place the second half of the book promises to trace more closely the development of these literary phenomena against the history of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. This seems to be where the book will become more than merely very interesting! In particular the notion of Assyrian vassals "pirating" the "genres of imperial sovereignty". It is here that Sanders will claim that in this process local rulers "invented" their local languages, and deliberately distinguished them. I love Seth's commentary here (6) on the opening words of the Mesha stele: "'I am Mesha, king of Moab, man of Diban.' Rather than claiming to be king of the universe [as Assyrian rulers routinely did] Mesha claims to be a native of his hometown." I resonate too with the recognition that: "Alphabetic writing, low-budget and easier to learn and produce, circulated outside the court" allowing Levantine communities to speak back to their rulers :)

The discussion of scribal culture and training sounds really exciting too, and the claim that alphabetic scribal practice (in cultures of the Levant) may not have been like that of Imperial syllabic scribal culture seems both obvious and interesting. Here Sanders' determination to deal with the datable (epigraphic) texts from the period sounds excitingly new and powerful.

Yes! I'm sold, this is a book I'll enjoy reading, but already in ways I have not had time to explore here I am aware that it will not merely confirm my prejudices but also challenge and enlighten them, not least by the way Seth intends to situate the discussion rigorously in a broader than biblical context.

This is a proud book, the first sentence under "Limits and goals" claims: "This book is not a history of biblical literature, but ... an explanation of how shuch literature became possible." (7)

[Yesterday, I planned to deal with the "Conclusion" as well as the "Introduction" today, but time is passing and thoughts of land and earth call me back to Amos...]

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: First impressions
At SBL Seth told me that in exchange for a review here (and/or in a journal) his publisher would be willing to send me a copy of his new book:
Sanders, Seth L. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

How could I refuse, the pre-publication hype and Seth's own descriptions of the book suggest that I'll either love or hate it. It seems it addresses my passionate interest in the intersection of culture and technology, especially writing and communications technologies. And it is focused on the "invention of Hebrew". My only sadness was that I had to wait till I returned home from a ten week working trip/holiday in Thailand and other interesting places. I'm home, and along with other goodies the book was waiting for me :) I'll post the review here in several parts, and I'll follow my usual procedure for reading a book (rather than for writing a traditional review, which aims to become a seamless whole) and post piecemeal as I read.

So first I looked at the most important bits (at least for getting an overall idea of a book):
  • Publishers blurb
  • Table of contents
  • (Index etc.) not a read just a quick scan
  • Preface (unless the first sentence or two suggest it is a waste of time)
The Invention of Hebrew is an attractively produced small volume (171 pages of text - no small is good, big just means more waffle like an airport block buster a waste of time, and in an academic book probably not entertaining either). The paper feels nice, though the print could be larger and sharper or I could be younger and sharper. It has a short but useful looking index and a bibliography. (Don't you hate books where you have to hunt the notes for the first mention of a work you need to consult!) Priced at $50 but the publisher (University of Illinois Press, who have a strong stable of interesting Bible related works now) it is even better value at Amazon for $40. By only complaint so far - and if you read this Seth please pass it on to the series editor - is that it follows the idiotic habit of listing the notes at the back and numbering them separately for each chapter. (This device developed in the BC period when it was hard work for poor writers and editors to keep track of all the notes and difficult for typesetters to place them at the foot of the relevant page. Computers changed all this. But graphic designers like "clean-looking pages" and actual users are not considered, once we have bought a copy publishers have no interest in our reading experience. Readers of academic texts need references, so either use the Harvard system of inline references, or use footnotes!)

The publishers blurb claims that Seth's book is groundbreaking: "absolutely innovative", "makes new knowledge", "first book to..." It also suggests that the work has an interesting thesis that Hebrew was a "self-conscious political language" promoting "a source of power previously unknown in written literature: 'the people' as the protagonist of religion and politics". Which is nicely sweeping and in a bookstore would lead me to open the work.

The preface is not at all one of the dead and dull ones that give "preface" a bad name, it is lively, quasi-autobiographical, and tells us that Seth intends to address loads of interesting questions:
  • Language and identity: "Did writing always flow from your spoken language and everyday identity, or did the relationship change? And if it did could that change who you were?"
  • Bible and politics The history of how "the Bible exercises power: through the manner in which it speaks to people". Have maximalists and minimalists both connived at reducing politics in Ancient Israel to the exercise of state power? (A question dear to the heart of every aspiring Anabaptist ;)
  • Biblical Studies and the academy "What does biblical studies have to say to the rest of the academy?"
The table of contents reads as if the book were a collection of unrelated essays:
  1. Modernity's Ghosts: The Bible as Political Communication
  2. What Was the Alphabet For?
  3. Empires and Alphabets in Late Bronze Age Canaan
  4. The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel
The four chapters are enclosed by an "Introduction" and a "Conclusion", but their titles do not strongly suggest their coherence and progression. Each looks interesting but they do not obviously work together. However, the sort of questions foregrounded in the "Preface" suggests that the blurb may not be exaggerating, this could be a ground breaking and interesting book. So I am hoping the "Introduction"will reveal how the chapters work.

All in all, I can hardly wait to read the "Introduction" and "Conclusion" tomorrow!

(But today I must make more progress on my chapter for The Gospel and the Land of Promise. My chapter will either be titled: "'Exile away from his land:' is landlessness the ultimate punishment in Amos?" or perhaps: "Land and earth, judgement and gospel in Amos".)

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Monday, January 11, 2010
  Wordplay
J.K. Gayle at Aristotle's Feminist Subject has a brilliant (shining, sparkling, sharply cut) post the Prostitute... or probably "the Prostitute, Post-Pentateuch Persuasion, and Play in Bible Translation". I won't spoil it by sumarising, or ruin it by excerpting (much ;) but I do want to encourage you to read it. I hope that people who read this blog will really enjoy the post in full, as I am.

To encourage you I will just offer this small gem: the post talks much of wordplay:
By "wordplay," I mean both playfulness with words and wiggleroom in their interpretation.
With that sentence in the opening of the first full section I am hooked.  But it is only a detail, so DO read the post in full, please :)


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Sunday, January 10, 2010
  The Earliest Hebrew Inscription (so far)
Some 18 months back the excavators of Khirbet Qeiyafa near the Elah valley in the Judean Shephelah announced the discovery of an ostracon (potsherd) with an inscription they believed to be in Hebrew. The ostracon was dated from its context to the 10th Century BCE, the time many people would date the United Monarchy of David and Solomon. At the time photos were published that did not really allow one to read the inscription and only a few words had been tentatively deciphered.

Now a text and English translation have been published (at least informally in the news media). Since this publication is NOT scholarly but promotional, and since no other scholars have had access to either the text or to good photographs this text must be treated with some caution!

Credit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa Usage Restrictions: This image may only be used with the given credit.

However, if Prof. Galil's reading of the text is even approximately correct this discovery is very important. He reads (and translated) the text like this:
1' you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2' Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3' [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4' the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5' Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
If this is roughly correct, while it does not (despite the quoted claims in the press article) either contain ideas that were "unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society" and alone it certainly cannot support Prof. Galil's claim that:
It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.
But it might help support the likelihood that biblical accounts of Daviod and Solomon are not entirely fictional, and cause significant increase in estimates of the likelihood that significant texts could have been composed and written in Hebrew at that time. And, unless closer examination shows that it was not written in Hebrew, it IS the earliest evidence for Hebrew writing so far!



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Wednesday, August 12, 2009
  Language and shibboleths
Philip Davies has a fine rant at Bible and Interpretation, it is neatly titled Watch Your Language! Non-minimalist readers will have to plough through the ritual shibboleths at the start, reminding them that Davies is a card-carrying minimalist, and dares to believe that we know nothing about "Israel" prior to the Persian period, but that suddenly at that time (despite a similar quantity of archaeological and textual evidence from beyond the Bible, though less from within ;) we can speak of a real historically verifiable entity. But once past this ritual bellowing, the short article is a fine reprise and development (in a commendably short space) of the reminder he first made some two decades ago that much of the language biblical scholars use is fossilised religious speak. Do read it. I doubt you will agree with everything (I doubt Philip agrees with everything Davies writes here ;) but it should make you think and that was his purpose in writing!

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Monday, July 13, 2009
  Hebrew Bible (plus Appendix ;) podcasts
Chris Heard has a post in which he asks what sort of things people would be interested in hearing in a series of short podcasts on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. My answer would sound something like this "short (5 mins only) somewhat scholarly, but accessible to all, material that helps make sense of the Bible". This is what I try to offer at 5 Minute Bible. Do let me know, or drop a comment on Chris's post, if you think I should focus the material differently.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009
  Carnival 41
James McGrath has produced another copious Biblical Studies Carnival, the fourthy first! As usual there are lots of posts to notice that one failed to notice. I had not seen at the time The Floppy Hat's interesting post On Literacy in Ancient Israel, in case you missed it my own ראשׁ as headland? got a mention. Life has still been too busy for me to convince myself one way or the other on the question, so if you have thoughts on whether  רֹאשׁ הַכַּרְמֶל is a "crest" or a "headland" do add your comments so I can ponder them!

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Sunday, March 29, 2009
  Gentle (though firm) wisdom on Bible copyright issues
Peter Kirk has put up two fine well thought out and researched posts on the issue of copyrighting Scripture:
In the first he deals primarily with the issues around Zhubert's Re:Greek. In the process providing much (though speculative) light on the murky world of commercial Bible publication. The second homes in on copyright applied to the Bible and translations of the Bible.

These are both fine works. I suggest you all read them, and I suggest they both get listed in the next Biblical Studies Carnival.

After all the discussion of copyright and of the practicalities of funding Bible Sosiety work has settled there are practical issues left open.
  • What is the legal status of MorphGNT?
    • If it is street legal then other projects can use it.
    • If not, then "we" need an open source project to produce a good legal morph analysed Greet text
  • Can something be done to produce an equivalent for the Hebrew Bible? (Here as Peter points out there are no legal complications with eclectic texts MorphMT could be simply based on The Westminster Leningrad Codex (see its licence document).


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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
  Biblical Narrative: A One Paragraph Summary
I'm teaching "Biblical Narrative" this semester, David Hymes has just published three posts of full and well documented introduction to biblical narratology:
I have no desire to compete, and no intention of offering a corrective, but we are asking writers of Bible Dictionary articles (By the way have YOU offered an article for this free online dictionary project?) to provide a one paragraph summary of their entry. So I wondered, how would my paragraph read?

This is a false task because I have not written a dictionary article, but prepared a course, but still... What are the most important things to say about Biblical Narrative if one only had a few sentences?

Biblical Narrative in one paragraph:
Prose Narrative is the most widespread genre in the Bible, with examples in both Hebrew Bible - comprising most of Gen-Kings, plus other "historical" books and several shorter more focused stories like Ruth, Jonah and Esther as well as episodes elsewhere - and New Testament mainly in the Gospels and Acts. Events are recounted very much as if "seen by an observer", with minimal interpretation or interpretative clues offered by the writers, there is also minimal description, so these accounts are "fraught with background"1 meaning hearers/readers have to interpret meaning for themselves (as we do in real life). Working within such a framework, hinting much while saying little, encourages hearers to engage with these narratives rather than just enjoy them.

That's my first draft, what would you write?



1. This is Auerbach's phrase (Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 50th ed. Princeton University Press, 2003, 18.) RETURN

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009
  Hebrew Bible audio
For a course on Biblical Narrative I am teaching this year I want to give some students (who are beginners at Hebrew) a text that has parallel Hebrew and English translation, with also the Hebrew as audio. The Worms Document System allows me to create this, not just as a video but so that a student can click on a phrase to hear it, or hear each chapter while the text is highlighted and scrolls. (See Learning Jonah below for a video of this in operation.)

The trouble is that the Hebrew audio Bible commonly available on the web, by Shmuelof, is copyright and the copyright holders are difficult to contact and might not be willing to give permission. My own Hebrew reading is not good enough. I used it for the Amos commentary, but it was criticised in Ehud Ben Zvi's review of the published version (he suggested I could have used the Shmuelof version, perhaps unaware that it was copyright protected).

There are bound to be others who would be glad of such a resource. In fact I know that Charles Grebe, who produced the magnificent Jonah Comic, as well as a load of other brilliant Hebrew learning tools online, would be. So, does anyone have suggestions of people able (i.e. with good clear voices and good clear Hebrew) and willing to start recording the Bible under a CC or public domain licence? I'd be delighted to give technical assistance and encouragement!

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