is no wonder then that the Canaanites invented the alphabet. They discovered
that their language contained some 30 phonemes and that each one could
by represented by an individual sign. Like many revolutionary discoveries,
its implications were not immediately appreciated and the social effects
of the linear alphabet were not to be felt for several generations.
the 17th and 12th centuries BCE, the primitive, pictographic alphabet
was employed in Shehem, Gezer, Tel al-Hasi, Tel al-Ajul, Bet Mirsim,
and Lahish. These inscriptions are generally called Proto-Canaanite.
Another large group, the so-called Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (1500
BCE) were probably written by a colony of northwest Semitic slaves who
worked in the mines in Wadi Ma'ara in the Sinai Peninsula. It seems
that this script generally served a religious function and may have
been developed by the Canaanite priesthood. Certainly, all official
government documents were written in cuneiform (e.g. the Tel el-Amarna
letters) which obscured the alphabet script.
to view entire chart
was during this period that a novel attempt to employ the alphabet was
initiated at Ugarit (1370-1200 BCE). Perhaps as a result of the desire
to express the local literature in its own medium, a cuneiform alphabet,
influenced by the dominant Mesopotamian system, was devised. A similar
trend may be noted in other Canaanite cities as well (Bet Shemesh, Taanah,
Mt. Tabor). This script as well as an earlier attempt to adapt the cuneiform
signs to surfaces other than clay by giving them linear form did not
survive the disappearance of the Babylonian scribal centers in Canaan
and Syria toward the end of the Bronze Age.
political and cultural break with Mesopotamia, as well as the administrative
needs of emerging young societies, accelerated the development of the
linear alphabet. The letters were simplified, beginning the process
that was to evolve into a cursive form. The first alphabetic system
to emerge was the 22-letter Phoenician script, which appeared by about
1100 BCE, and was to be adopted by the Israelites, Arameans, and later
by the Greeks. The new medium was adopted early in Israel's history
and deeply affected its civilization; monotheism was grasped now in
terms of a written covenant between God and Israel. The central cult
was the Decalogue cut in stone, and later became the written Torah scroll.
Israelite religion thus elevated writing from a means of recording the
mundane to a medium of revelation.
Perhaps it was because of the relative simplicity of the alphabet or
the fact that Israel had no conservative scribal class with vested interests,
that biblical society as a whole became "book-centered." Any
tribesman, even a non-priest, could emerge as a literate leader (Joshua
8:32-35; 24-26). The establishment of the monarchy and the process of
urbanization resulted in a greater diffusion of writing (among members
of the government service, army personnel, the mercantile class, stonemasons,
ivory cutters, potters and others).
by Hezekiah's time, in the eighth century BCE, a great deal of literary
activity was going on. Older written traditions were collected and edited
(Proverbs 25:1). The classical prophets, or their disciples, wrote down
their messages. Prophesies were illustrated by written texts, which
could only have meaning for a literate populace. [*]
Also the wide use of inscribed personal seals bearing fewer designs
and iconographic motifs again argues for a growing literate social body
during the First Temple period.
Isaiah 8:1; Jeremiah 17:1; Ezekiel 37:16; Habbakuk 2:2, Isaiah 10:19
The Hebrew Book, ed. by Raphael Posner and Israel Ta-shema, Keter
Publishing House., Jerusalem, 1975. Based on articles in the Encyclopedia
Table of Contents