Monday, February 08, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter One
The first chapter has the grand title "Modernity's Ghosts: The Bible as Political Communication". In a little over 20 pages it sets the scene for the study on a broad canvass of the several centuries of "bibilical criticism". It also makes the case for the revolutionary significance of the rest of the book. I confess I found it less interesting and inspiring than the Introduction or than the opening and closing sections of the other chapters suggest they will be. John Hobbins found the engagement with Hobbes "engaging" is a strong reminder to my readers that the cool response to this chapter here probably tells more about the reader than the work being reviewed. Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm can be understood by remembering that here with this reader Sanders is preaching to the choir, or perhaps my less than mastery of the history of enlightenment philosophy is to blame...

Whatever, I have done my duty, and later today can begin to relish chapter two, whose much more exciting title is "What Was the Alphabet For?

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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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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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