Gershon Galil on the Ophel Inscription

Ophel Inscription

Image: The Ophel Inscription

In a previous post, I wrote about the 3,000 year-old inscription found on a clay jug in Jerusalem. In that post, I wrote the following:

The inscription was found by a group of archaeologists from the Hebrew University. The team was headed by Dr. Eilat Mazar. The inscription on the clay jug is said to be the most ancient Hebrew inscription to be found by archaeologists in their excavation in Jerusalem.

According to Professor Galil, the eight-letter inscription, dated from the time of King Solomon, provides valuable information about the administrative system during the reign of Solomon.

A few days ago, Professor Galil, an archaeologist who teaches at the University of Haifa, sent me a PDF copy of his article, “‘yyn ḥlq’: The Oldest Hebrew Inscription from Jerusalem.” The article was published in Strata: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 31 (2013): 11-26.

In his article, Professor Galil discusses the translations of the inscription proposed by S. Ahituv, by C. Rollston, and by A. Demsky. In his study of these proposed translations of the inscription, Professor Galil evaluates the merits of each translation and finds them to be inadequate because of faulty reading of the late Canaanite script.

After evaluating the proposed translations, Professor Galil studies the inscription by looking at the letters and vocabulary of the inscription. He offers his own translation and focuses his study on the words yyn and ḥlq and their meaning.

Professor Galil’s conclusion that the historical context of the inscription reflects the second half of the tenth century BCE is significant to students of the history of ancient Israel. If his conclusion is correct, then the inscription may reflect the practice of giving cheap wine to workers who labored in Solomon’s building projects and thus pointing to the historicity of Solomon’s kingdom.

After I read the article, I wrote Professor Galil and asked his permission to publish the conclusion of his article on my blog, which he graciously allowed me to do. Below is the conclusion of Professor Galil’s article:

Historical and Cultural Context

The new inscription unearthed in 2012 at the Ophel in Jerusalem is extremely important and fascinating, even though only a few letters survived on these two potsherds. It is written in late Canaanite script, in (southern) Hebrew, and should be dated to the second half of the 10th century BCE. It is therefore the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found in Jerusalem, perhaps even 250 years earlier than other Hebrew inscriptions from there. Although it is impossible to fix the inscription’ exact date, any attempt to understand its historical context must be restricted to the chronological framework presented above, namely the second half of the 10th century BCE which opens with the third decade of Solomon’ reign.

The controversy over the historicity of the biblical descriptions of the kingdom of David and Solomon is well known and this short article is not the place to reexamine this complicated issue. The following scenario is based on my judgement that the Kingdom of David and Solomon was a real historical phenomenon, and that the biblical description of its formation and consolidation is reasonable (see Galil 2007; 2009 [2010]; 2012a; 2012d, and forthcoming).

In his third decade, Solomon completed his monumental building projects in Jerusalem including the Temple and his palace. In a recent study I have pointed out that it is within reason to suggest that the Temple was built in the days of Solomon, and the building story was composed by Solomon’ scribes, since no king in the Ancient Near East caused his scribes to compose a building story or inscription in honor of another king. It is even less plausible that a king would build a temple or a palace and say that it was the work of one of his predecessors (see Galil 2012b). These projects, the Temple and the palace, were started in Solomon’ fourth year, and were completed ca. 20 years later, in the third decade of his reign (1 Kgs 6, 38; 7:1; 10:24; 11, 26–7, 40).

Only a few years later, in 944/3 BCE, Shishaq became king of Egypt, and this fact probably accelerated the process of a popular uprising against Solomon, headed by Jeroboam who was in charge of the forced labour of the house of Joseph. Jeroboam’ revolt and escape to Shishaq, king of Egypt, is related to the project of the building of the Millo. Whether one accepts the identification of the Millo with the Ophel or not, it is reasonable that Solomon was the king who inhabited the Ophel and it was he who built the wall of Jerusalem which united its three main quarters: the Temple Mount, the Ophel and the city of David (1 Kgs 3:1; 10:15).

The new inscription suggests, in my opinion, that large quantities of inferior wine were used in Jerusalem. This cheap wine was certainly not served at Solomon’ table or used in the Temple. So one could suppose that it was served to the manual laborers who were engaged in the large-scale building projects in Jerusalem and perhaps also to the soldiers who served there. The food needed for these forced laborers (barley, water, cheap wine, and more) was probably held in the Ophel. Inferior wine was also served to the Cypriot mercenaries in Arad and in later times to workers and soldiers in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

The inscription also indicates that there were scribes able to write texts in Jerusalem as early as the second half of the 10th century BCE. These scribes may have been Canaanites or other non-Israelites since David and Solomon employed non-Israelites in their government, even in very senior positions, including the office of the Chief Scribe. David’ scribe was Shisha, and his sons were appointed as Solomon’ chief scribes (Mazar 1986: 111–138). So it would not be surprising that this inscription was written in the ‘Late Canaanite script’(as was the Qeiyafa inscription), and that it indeed reflects the southern Hebrew dialect; but it also uses archaic technical terms like .lq to define this inferior wine.

The forms and stances of the letters in this inscription (as well as in the Qeiyafa inscription) are not yet fixed –a phenomenon typical of pictographic scripts. But this inscription is written from right to left, while the Qeiyafa inscription runs from left to right. This fact may indicate that it is the beginning of the regulation of the reading direction.

Scribes who were capable of writing administrative texts are also able to compose literary and historiographic texts (as clearly demonstrated recently by the Qeiyafa inscription). This fact is of major importance for reconstructing the process of the crystallization of the Bible, and even more for the understanding of the history of Israel and Jerusalem in Biblical times.

Professor Galil also allowed me to make his article available to a wider audience. If you are interested in reading Professor Galil’s article, you can download a PDF copy of the article by clicking here.

I want to express my appreciation to Professor Galil for allowing me to publish the conclusion of his article and for allowing me to make the article available to readers of my blog.

NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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