From the end of the third millenium BCE, the art of writing was practiced in the ancient Near East. Here, the pictographic, cuneiform, and hieroglyphic scripts were invented and developed. In particular, Canaan, situated on the cultural crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia and beneficiary of their scribal traditions, produced new indigenous writing systems. Some, like the Bublian pseudo-hieroglyphics, the enigmatic Balua stele, or the inscribed bricks from Dier Alla, ancient Succoth, were limited to specific centers. These short-lived systems indicate a high degree of scribal experimentation and originality.

It 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.

Between 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.

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It 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.

The 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).

Certainly 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.

footnotes [1] Isaiah 8:1; Jeremiah 17:1; Ezekiel 37:16; Habbakuk 2:2, Isaiah 10:19
excerpted From: The Hebrew Book, ed. by Raphael Posner and Israel Ta-shema, Keter Publishing House., Jerusalem, 1975. Based on articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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