A king, a farmer and a grave robber enter a library... It sounds like a joke, but it was probably the truth at the time of the First Temple
If you are reading this article, you are probably literate – you can read and write. And not just you; according to the data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, this is true for 95.5% of the citizens of the State of Israel. Was the literacy rate high among the Jews at the time of the First Temple as well? On the occasion of Book Week, we try to find out whether we deserved the title of being “with the book” even then.
At first glance, it seems that the answer is positive, because a number of inscriptions from this period have been discovered in the area of the City of David, the most famous of which is the Siloam Inscription left by King Hezekiah’s carvers, and in addition, on the mountain opposite, an inscription was discovered warning grave robbers that “There is no silver or gold here. Cursed is the person who opens this.”
That is, even miners and robbers could read and write. But, in truth, these inscriptions do not constitute evidence. For comparison, if we take Burkina Faso, which is one of the countries with the lowest literacy rate in the world, where only about 23% of the population can read and write, then the presence of street signs does not indicate the literacy level of the population. Here too, the inscriptions made by stone-cutting artists are not evidence that the people actually knew how to read them.
We will say this in advance: we will not be able to get a definitive answer to the question because there was no central bureau for statistics at the time, and the data we have are both partial and indirect. However, we can still get an idea from what may be elucidated from letters written by the common people for personal use. In this short review, we will provide examples from hundreds of testimonies from the time of the First Temple, in which words and letters were used in everyday life, rather than the symbols that were customary in the nations around us.
So far, around 1200 sealing stamps have been discovered throughout the land of Israel. These were made of clay, and bore the names of the owners and sometimes also a drawing or a symbol. The purpose of these seals was to protect documents from unauthorized opening. Weights: there were different weighing methods in use during this period: Mesopotamian, Phoenician and Egyptian. This created great confusion among the population, and required diverse solutions. One creative solution was the use of animal character weights such as a that turtle character weight found in Samaria and a weight bearing the image of a lion, found in Arad. But in addition, some people possessed a personal “Stone of Justice” with their first name on it. Further, weights have been discovered throughout the country bearing the measure of the weight on them, such as “Nezef” “Pim” and “Bekah” where the names of the last two are known to us from the Torah (Bible).
Handles “for the King”
So far, about 1700 jug handles have been discovered, the contents of which were probably a kind of tribute to the king. A scarab print features on them, as well as the words “for the king” on the first line. Written on the second line is the name of one of the cities – Sokho, Zif, Mamshit and Hebron, as well as the names 17 different officials.
Many pots have been discovered that bear inscriptions of the contents of the vessel that were written by merchants. These include inscriptions such as “Oil” or “Ash Gold”. There were also craftsmen who engraved the name of the owner of the vessel on the pottery. Pieces of ivory were discovered in Samaria that were part of a luxury piece of furniture, on the back of which individual letters that were used by the artists in the placement of the ivories were found. Further, fragments of wine jugs have also been found, on which the farmers wrote the type of wine, such as “smoked wine”, “blue” and “raisin”. as well as the names of the cities from which they were sent “Gibeon” and “Metzah”.
In conclusion: if even our ancestors the farmers and grave robbers knew how to read and write thousands of years ago, we, as their descendants, definitely deserve the title of being “with the book”.
(The article is partly based on the book “Literacy in Ancient Israel” by Prof. A. Damsky.)
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