The Arad Ostraca (ca. 600 BCE)

The Arad Ostraca (ca. 600 BCE)

BiblicalHebrew.com, 2022

The site of Arad in the south of modern Israel in between Beʾer Sheba and the Dead Sea. The collection of the Arad letters, or the Arad ostraca, were found in multiple layers in an archaeological excavation. They number ninety-one in total. Note an example of one below:

Image by פעמי-עליון under

While it is possible that some of the ostraca may be dated as early as the eighth century BCE, most of them belong to the ʾElyashib collection. ʾElyashib resided at Arad at the end of the seventh century BCE and the beginning of the sixth century BCE (Aḥituv 2008, 92). An example of one of these letters is presented below:

Arad No. 18 – Original Text

𐤀𐤋 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤀𐤋𐤉

𐤔𐤁. 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤉𐤔

𐤀𐤋 𐤋𐤔𐤋𐤌𐤊 𐤅𐤏𐤕

𐤕𐤍. 𐤋𐤔𐤌𐤓𐤉𐤄𐤅

⌁ 𐤅𐤋𐤒𐤓𐤎𐤉

𐤕𐤕𐤍. ┣ 𐤅𐤋𐤃

𐤁𐤓. 𐤀𐤆𐤓. 𐤑

𐤅𐤕𐤍𐤉. 𐤔𐤋𐤌.

      𐤁𐤉𐤕 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄


𐤄𐤀. 𐤉𐤔𐤁

Transcription with Audio (Ancient Script)

Ancient ScriptHistorical PronunciationTranslation

𐤀𐤋 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤀𐤋𐤉𐤔𐤁

ˈʔil ʔadoːˈnajj ʔiljaˈʃiːb

‘To my lord,
ʾElyashib’

𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤉𐤔𐤀𐤋 𐤋𐤔𐤋𐤌𐤊

jahˈweː jiʃˈʔal la-ʃaloːˈmak

‘May YHWH seek
your well-being!’

⌁ 𐤅𐤏𐤕 𐤕𐤍. 𐤋𐤔𐤌𐤓𐤉𐤄𐤅

wa-ˈʕatt ˈtin la-ʃamarˈjaːhuː ⌁

‘And now, give to
Shamaryahu ⌁ (meas.)’

┣ .𐤅𐤋𐤒𐤓𐤎𐤉 𐤕𐤕𐤍

wa-laq-qeːroːˈsiː titˈtin ┣

‘and to the Qerosite,
give ┣ (meas.)’

𐤅𐤋𐤃𐤁𐤓. 𐤀𐤔𐤓. 𐤑𐤅𐤕𐤍𐤉.

wa-la-daˈbar ˈʔiʃr ṣiwwiːˈtaːniː

‘and regarding the matter
which you commanded me’

𐤔𐤋𐤌. 𐤁𐤉𐤕 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤄𐤀. 𐤉𐤔𐤁

ʃaˈloːm ˈbajt jahˈweː huː(ʔ) joːˈʃib

‘it is well; it is dwelling
in the house of YHWH’

Transcription with Audio (Modern Script)

Modern ScriptModern PointedTranslation

אל אדני. אלישב

אֶל אֲדֹנִי אֶלְיָשִׁב

‘To my lord,
ʾElyashib’

יהוה ישאל לשלמך

יְהוָה יִשְׁאַל לִשְׁלֹמְךָ

‘May YHWH seek
your well-being!’

⌁ ועת תן. לשמריהו

⌁ וְעַתָּה תֵּן לִשְׁמַרְיָהוּ

‘And now, give to
Shamaryahu ⌁ (meas.)’

┣ .ולקרסי תתן

┣ וְלַקֵּרֹסִי תִּתֵּן

‘and to the Qērōsī,
give ┣ (meas.)’

ולדבר. אשר. צותני

וְלַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוִּתַנִי

‘and regarding the matter
which you commanded me’

שלם. בית יהוה הא. ישב

שָׁלֹם בֵּית יְהוָה הֻא יֹשֵׁב

‘it is well; it is dwelling
in the house of YHWH’

Commentary

אל אדני

Note that in the Tiberian vocalisation tradition of Biblical Hebrew, the consonantal text אדני is construed as plural אֲדֹנָי when it refers to God but as singular אֲדֹנִי when it means ‘my lord; my master’ and refers to a human. Such a distinction, however, likely did not apply in the First Temple period—this may still have been the case at the time of this inscription. All masters, human and divine, could be referred to in the plural as /ʔadoːniːm/ ‘master’ or /ʔadoːnajj/ ‘my master’ with the 1CS suffix added.

In the Second Temple period, however, after the Jews began to pronounce the tetragrammaton (יהוה) as אֲדֹנָי (instead of something like [jahˈweː]), this began to change. At that point, referring to a human master as אֲדֹנַי ‘my master’ might have sounded too much like you were calling the human master by the name of God. As a result, what would have been a plural form with a 1CS suffix in an earlier period came to be pronounced as a singular form with a 1CS suffix: i.e., אֲדֹנַי ← אֲדֹנִי. This maintained a clear distinction between human masters and the divine name.

This is a consistent trend that can be found in the Tiberian vocalisation of the Hebrew Bible. Note, for example, that when Abraham is talking to God in Genesis 18, he refers to God as אֲדֹנָי ‘my lord.PL’: e.g., ‏הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃ ‘look now, I have undertaken to speak to my lord while I am but dust and ashes’ (Gen. 18.27). In the same chapter, however, when Sarah refers to Abraham her husband as ‘my lord’, she refers to him as אֲדֹנִי ‘my lord.SG’: e.g., ‏אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ ‘after I am worn out, should I have pleasure, when my lord is old?’ (Gen. 18.12).

However, when possessive suffixes other than the 1CS suffix are added (‘your master’, ‘his master’, etc.), the noun is still construed as a plural, even for human masters: e.g., כִּי־בָא֙ אַחַ֣ד הָעָ֔ם לְהַשְׁחִ֖ית אֶת־הַמֶּ֥לֶךְ אֲדֹנֶֽיךָ׃ ‘for one of the people came to destroy the king, your master’ (1 Sam. 26.15); ‏אֲשֶׁר֩ שְׁלָח֨וֹ מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁ֤וּר ׀ אֲדֹנָיו֙ ‘whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent’ (2 Kgs. 19.4). There are two potential—but not mutually exclusive—reasons for the maintenance of the plural in such forms. For one, it is only the form with the 1CS suffix that sounds like the standard pronunciation of the tetragrammaton in the Second Temple period and after. The other reason is that in all of these other cases the yod of the plural is preserved in the consonantal text, so it could not be vocalised as anything but a plural.

All of this is simply to say, though, that readers of this ca. 600 BCE inscription might still have maintained the more archaic pronunciation of the plural /ʔadoːnajj/ for a human master.

ישאל לשלמך

In the Hebrew Bible, the verb שָׁאַל-יִשְׁאַל means ‘to ask’ or ‘to inquire’. The preposition lamed often marks the thing asked for: e.g., ‏לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י ‘why is it that you ask for my name?’ (Gen. 32.30). However, it can also mark the one of whom something is asked or inquired: e.g., ‏הַשְּׁאֵלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁאַ֖ל לַֽיהוָ֑ה ‘the request, which she asked of YHWH’ (I Sam. 2.20). The phrase שָׁאַל לְךָ לְשָׁלוֹם—literally ‘he asked to you to peace’, but better rendered ‘he inquired of you regarding (your) welfare’—is an ancient Hebrew idiom used to express the idea of asking how someone is doing. It is the indirect equivalent of the question הֲשָׁלוֹם לְךָ ‘is there peace to you?’, which is another ancient Hebrew idiom, essentially the equivalent of English ‘how are you?’. More generally, then, the phrase שָׁאַל לוֹ לְשָׁלוֹם ‘inquired of him regarding welfare’ can simply mean to greet someone.

There are many biblical examples of this: e.g., ‏וַיִּשְׁאַ֤ל לָהֶם֙ לְשָׁל֔וֹם וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲשָׁל֛וֹם אֲבִיכֶ֥ם הַזָּקֵ֖ן ‘and he inquired regarding their welfare saying, “how is your old father doing?”’ (Gen. 43.27); ‏וַיָּ֖רָץ הַמַּעֲרָכָ֑ה וַיָּבֹ֕א וַיִּשְׁאַ֥ל לְאֶחָ֖יו לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃ ‘and he ran to the ranks and came and greeted his brothers’ (1 Sam. 17.22); ‏עֲל֤וּ כַרְמֶ֙לָה֙ וּבָאתֶ֣ם אֶל־נָבָ֔ל וּשְׁאֶלְתֶּם־ל֥וֹ בִשְׁמִ֖י לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃ ‘go up to Carmel and go to Nabal and greet him in my name’ (1 Sam. 25.5). Note that although the question is grammatically neutral—i.e., ‘is it well with…?’—the idiomatic greeting should be regarded as generally having a positive connotation. That is, those greeting someone or seeking about their welfare typically are expecting/hoping for a positive response.

The fact that it is used in a blessing here underscores the idea that it is positively connotated. The phrase יהוה ישאל לשלמך, then, could be rendered as ‘may YHWH greet you!’ or ‘may YHWH inquire about your welfare’, which would imply that YHWH desires the welfare of the recipient of this blessing.

ועת

Note that the biblical form is עַתָּה with a final vowel. In light of the absence of a final heh mater, it might be preferable to read such a form as */ʕatt/ with a geminate ending but no final vowel.

ולקרסי

The recipient of the (food) item here is referred to by his tribe name (Qeros) rather than his personal name (Aḥituv 2008, 121). In the Hebrew Bible, this tribe name is mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah: e.g., בְּנֵי־קֵרֹ֥ס ‘the sons of Qeros’ (Ezra 2.44); בְּנֵי־קֵירֹ֥ס ‘the sons of Qeros’ (Neh. 7.47). The presence of a yod in the second example may suggest an earlier form */qajros/, the initial diphthong of which underwent contraction */aj/ → */eː/. For this reason, it is likely that the initial vowel was a long /eː/ already at an earlier period.

אשר

The original pronunciation of the word אֲשֶׁר is debatable. On one hand, it likely comes from an earlier Semitic nominal form */ʔaθaru/ (for the etymology of שֶׁ and אֲשֶׁר, see Huehnergard 2006). However, the Greek transcriptions of Hebrew in the Secunda write this word as εσερ, the Latin transcriptions of Hebrew in Jerome write it as eser, and the Samaritan Hebrew reading tradition has an initial [eː] vowel in [ˈʔeːʃɑr]. This suggests that it may have been a segholate (i.e., *qiṭl pattern) noun at an early stage of Hebrew, something like */ʔiʃr/. Although this is not commonly cited as a likely reconstruction of this word, Secunda scholars like myself and Yuditsky (2017, 217) support it. Its lack of mention in wider scholarship may be due to lack of familiarity with the Greek and Latin transcriptions of Hebrew and the Samaritan tradition.

שלם בית יהוה הא ישב

Note the use of שלם */ʃaloːm/ to indicate that ‘it (or he?) is okay’. The phrase בית יהוה is probably referring to the location of the item and is thus fronted to indicate the more salient piece of information in response to whatever was asked in the previous letter: i.e., ‘in the house of YHWH is where it is dwelling/found’. The orthography הא may indicate a final consonantal ʾalef or could simply be a historical more conservative spelling, since it would be unusual to write a pronoun as just a single heh: i.e., הא = */huː(ʔ)/.

Bibliography:

Aharoni, Yohanan. 1966. “Hebrew Ostraca from Tel Arad.” Israel Exploration Journal 16, no. 1: 1–7.

Aḥituv, Shmuel. 2008. Echoes From the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions From the Biblical Period. Jerusalem: Carta. Pages 92–153 (especially 119–122).

of Jo Ann Hackett, edited by Jeremy M. Hutton, and Aaron D. Rubin, 25–64. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Huehnergard, John. 2006. “On the Etymology of the Hebrew Relative šɛ-.” In Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives, edited by Steven E. Fassberg, and Avi Hurvitz, 103–25. Jerusalem/Winona Lake, IN: The Hebrew University Magnes Press/Eisenbrauns.

——. 2015. “Biblical Hebrew Nominal Patterns.” In Epigraphy, Philology, and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor

Lambdin, Thomas O., and John Huehnergard. 2000. The Historical Grammar of Classical Hebrew. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University.

Mendel-Geberovich, Anat, Arie Shaus, Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Barak Sober, Michael Cordonsky, Eli Piasetzky, and Israel Finkelstein. 2017. “A Brand New Old Inscription: Arad Ostracon 16 Rediscovered via Multispectral Imaging.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 378: 113–125.

Naʾaman, Nadav. 2013. “Textual and Historical Notes on the Eliashib Archive from Arad.” Tel Aviv 38, no. 1: 83–93.

Suchard, Benjamin D. 2020. The Development of the Biblical Hebrew vowels: Including a Concise Historical Morphology. Leiden: Brill.

Ussishkin, David. 1988. “The Date of the Judaean Shrine at Arad.” Israel Exploration Journal 38: 142–157.

Yuditsky, Alexey. 2017. A Grammar of the Hebrew of Origen’s Transcriptions. Jerusalem: The Academy of the Hebrew Language.

I must also thank Jo Ann Hackett, who trained me in Northwest Semitic Epigraphy. Of course, any errors in the above are my own.

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