The Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription is once again in the news. According to a recent report by the University of Haifa, Gershon Galil has deciphered the text, written in ink on a small piece of pottery shard, and concluded that it is written in an archaic form of Hebrew. The inscription is dated to the tenth century BC, the era traditionally assigned to Israel’s United Monarchy. This makes the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription—discovered barely a year ago—the oldest surviving example of written Hebrew.
For the original text (in modern Hebrew characters) and analysis, see John Hobbins’s supremely helpful introduction. Here is Galil’s decipherment:
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.
The text’s call for social justice is reminiscent of later biblical texts such as Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others.
Several bibliobloggers take Galil to task for reaching the unsupported conclusions that this find “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.” (James McGrath’s blog is a good place to start.) This is certainly true of the second point: at best the inscription indicates that writing was not unknown in tenth-century Israel. It says nothing about any biblical texts. Tony Cartledge sums up the matter rather succinctly:
The inscription reflects thoughts similar to sentiments expressed in a variety of biblical texts, and that certainly suggests something about the antiquity of important notions about social justice in Israel, but it doesn’t begin to prove that Deuteronomy or any other biblical books that mention widows and orphans had been completed by that time.
But what about the first point, that the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription indicates that there was already a kingdom of Israel in the tenth century? Its provenance in a fortress along an ancient Judean highway at least suggests “some sort of organized Hebrew presence” (Cartledge). The exhortation in line 4 to “rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king” seems rather explicit, however. Either this is Israel’s king, David or one of his earliest descendants, or it is a completely different kingdom—existing at the same time and in the same place, and for which we have no documentary evidence whatsoever.
In the end, I concur with Claude Mariottini who concludes,
Those who accept a minimalist view of the Bible will say that the inscription proves nothing or that one is reading too much into Galil’s translation of the inscription. However, the evidence seems to indicate, at least to me, that in the tenth century there was a king in Israel and writing was occurring outside Jerusalem.
Update: Check out John Hobbins’s The Lowdown on the Qeiyafa inscription, as well as the resources to which he links.