Cuneiform in Canaan

Cuneiform Sources from the Land of Israel in Ancient Times

by Wayne Horowitz and Takayoshi Oshima. Seth Sanders (Alphabetic Cuneiform Texts)

Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2006, 256 pp.
$48 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Hershel Shanks

If someone selling property does not know how to write, he signs the deed with an X. But what if the deed is a clay tablet and the writing the owner does not know is cuneiform, those little chicken scratchings impressed into the clay? The answer is provided by a fragmentary clay tablet found at Tel Hadid in the Judean Shephelah: He just impresses his fingernail. The text reads “Fingernail of Aya-sebsi,” for example.

Another tablet from the same site evidences a loan of one mina plus a number of shekels of silver (the number has not survived) for the repayment of which the borrower pledges his wife Hammaya and his sister Munahima.

A text from Aphek from the Late Bronze Age (just before the emergence of Israel) blesses the recipient with these words: “May the gods…bless you (and) keep you,” reminiscent of the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24–26 (except that God is in the singular) that traditional Jews still use to bless their children before the Sabbath meal.

I picked up these disparate tidbits from a curious scholarly volume—curious because the only thing that holds the book together—somewhat artificially—is that these cuneiform inscriptions were found in the ancient Land of Israel. But most of them long ante-date the emergence of Israel, and others date to the eighth century B.C.E., when most of the Land of Israel was under Assyrian sovereignty. In short, these texts are all part of a variety of different cultural spheres, none of them, in any real sense, Biblical. Some relate to Mari in Mesopotamia, others to el-Amarna in Egypt, still others to Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, and finally some to the neo-Assyrian empire that dominated Israel in the time of King Hezekiah of Judah.

Still, it is an impressive volume—just to realize that 91 cuneiform inscriptions have been recovered from 28 sites in this land. The variety is amazing—a literary text (part of the Gilgamesh Epic), letters, administrative texts, a royal inscription, abecedaries (in cuneiform!), a multiplication table, a slave sale contract and a magical/medical text. In addition to clay tablets, cuneiform inscriptions have been recovered on coins, on a stone bowl, on seals, on magic liver models, on a ceremonial knife and in a posy in a bronze ring.

The languages of these inscriptions also vary: Akkadian (the largest number), Sumerian and Elamite, among others. It is perhaps not surprising that one text is trilingual: Sumerian, Akkadian and a West Semitic language. One seal has both a cuneiform inscription and a hieroglyphic inscription. I must express admiration for the authors’ detailed knowledge of cuneiform: One text is “sloppily inscribed.” Another tablet is “beautifully written” (it came from a royal archive).

In all these cuneiform inscriptions, there is only one Hebrew name—Netanyahu, the same name as a former prime minister of modern Israel.

A cuneiform archive has never been uncovered in the Land of Israel. At Hazor, 15 cuneiform inscriptions have been found, supporting the view that a cuneiform archive lies buried somewhere on the site, undiscovered despite decades of excavations.a What the authors of the volume under review call a mini-archive has also been unearthed at Tanaach—17 inscriptions. Will an archive be found there someday? I guess questions like these are what give archaeology some of its excitement.




a. See Sharon Zuckerman, “Where Is the Hazor Archive Buried?,” BAR 32:02.

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