Image Source. Sinai 361, part of a stone slab from Egypt, which Dr. Douglas Petrovich proposes contains the name Moses.
And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. – Exodus 24:4 (ESV)
In second of a three-part series, we will be looking at the controversial claims and startling new evidence from Dr. Douglas Petrovich that suggest the world’s oldest alphabet was actually an early form of Hebrew.
I remember well the buzz around the halls and meeting places at the Evangelical Theological Society’s meeting held in the fall of 2015 in Atlanta. Patterns of Evidence was there to promote their new film and book. The annual meeting featured hundreds of breakout sessions where leading Christian scholars from around the world presented their latest findings and proposals in their areas of specialization to several thousand attendees. With dozens of speakers to choose from during any given hour, deciding which session to attend was difficult. But the title of one presentation was the source of particular interest and excitement: “The World’s Oldest Alphabet – Hebrew Texts of the 19th Century BC.”
Groups I engaged with had already been talking about this presentation and as I negotiated the crowded hallways between presentations I overheard “I can’t miss that one,” from several hurried conversations. I knew I would need to get there early to secure a seat. It was the date in the title of the presentation that had captured the imaginations of so many. Hebrew texts that early in history were just so far beyond the normal scope of thinking (by about 1000 years) that they just had to see what was behind these fantastic claims.
Image Source. Professor Douglas N. Petrovich.
The presentation given to that overflowing room did not disappoint. Numerous examples of inscriptions were shown that not only pointed to Hebrew as the first alphabet, but also validated the biblical account of the Israelites in Egypt. Professor Petrovich had been studying the inscriptions on a series of 9-foot-tall stone slab markers called stele, which recorded the annual expeditions of a high official from Egypt down to the southwestern Sinai turquoise mines called Serâbît el-Khâdim. This is just west of the traditional Mount Sinai location. The official had recorded images of himself at the bottom of the stele where he was depicted on a donkey in the middle, with an Egyptian attendant walking behind him and a boy walking in front. Each year’s inscription would show this boy growing taller. What caught his attention was that one stela did not use Egyptian hieroglyphics, but rather a rudimentary form of the alphabet in a Semitic language. If Petrovich’s interpretation is correct it speaks of Joseph’s son Manasseh and his son Shechem (Joshua 17:2).
Image Source. The Manasseh inscription. (Credit: Douglas Petrovich)
The inscription included the date of Year 18 of Amenemhat III, the 12th Dynasty ruler around the time of Joseph in both the view of a Middle Bronze Age/Middle Kingdom Exodus around 1450 BC (represented in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus by David Rohl and John Bimson) and in the view of a Late Bronze Age/New Kingdom Exodus at 1446 BC while retaining the conventional dating for Egypt (represented in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus by Bryant Wood, Charles Aling and Clyde Billington and also held by Douglas Petrovich). This is because there are two main views for the length of the time the Israelites spent in Egypt – perhaps more on that debate in a future Thinker Update. Regardless, this date is more evidence that the Ramesses Exodus Theory held by the majority of scholars, may be causing them to miss evidence for the Exodus that actually exists centuries earlier than where they are looking.
If his interpretation is correct, it would also establish Hebrew as the world’s first alphabet. According to Petrovich, the inscription says that this expedition included a group with significant connections to the early Israelites. He reads the inscription as, “Six Levantines, Hebrews of Bethel the beloved.” The Levant is the area of Canaan and its surroundings. In the biblical account, Bethel was one of the headquarters of Jacob and his family before they moved to Egypt – it was their home town.
God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau… And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him,” – Genesis 35:1,6 (ESV)
Professor Petrovich said that the second of his forthcoming books will show clear proofs that the featured character can be none other than Manasseh the son of Joseph. This along with his other findings were again presented last November at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), this time drawing the attention (and criticism) of a wider audience.
In Part 1 of the series it was shown that most academic outlets have long portrayed Phoenician as the world’s first alphabet, which developed after the time of the Exodus and became the basis of all modern alphabets. This thinking has been propagated despite the fact that there has been clear evidence that the oldest examples of the alphabet don’t come from Phoenicia and predate the existence of Phoenician culture. Leaders in the field would be careful not to ascribe the name of “Phoenician” to the first alphabet, but that message has not been getting out to the myriad of classroom and media outlets that continue to teach that.
This issue is critical for understanding the roots of the Bible, since the sophistication of the biblical narrative required an alphabet to be in place for it to be written. If the alphabet was first developed by Phoenicians in 1050 BC (or even around 1200 BC) that would mean Moses could not have been the author of writings that ended up becoming the first books of the Bible as tradition and the Bible itself claim. However, if the alphabet developed centuries earlier, in the very area where the Israelites are said to have been active in the years before and during the Exodus, then this would fit nicely with the claims of the Bible.
Many experts in the area of ancient languages have recognized that the earliest alphabetic scripts developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs and were in a Semitic language (the broad cultural group that the Israelites were a part of), but few have entertained the idea that this language may have been the more specific category of “Hebrew,” the language of the Israelites.
As seen in an hour-long interview on Israel News Live, it started several years ago when Petrovich (an archaeologist and epigrapher at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada) was studying Egyptian inscriptions and “accidentally” ran into the inscription mentioning Manasseh. According to Petrovich this led to finding “one gold mine after another” in additional inscriptions. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would bump into three significant biblical figures on three different inscriptions that all date to the middle of the 15th century or so BC,” said Petrovich.
It was only after defining every one of the 22 disputed letters of this early alphabetic script and which Hebrew letter each early sign corresponded to that Petrovich was able to interpret the Semitic inscriptions. This led him to eventually propose that the Israelites were the ones who transformed Egyptian hieroglyphics into the world’s first alphabet. These texts mainly originated in the locations of Serâbît el-Khâdim and Wadi el-Hôl in Egypt.
Another inscription, this one catalogued as Sinai 376 from the 13th Dynasty, Petrovich interprets as saying, “The house of the vineyard of Asenath and its innermost room were engraved, they have come to life.” This sentence has three words (house, innermost room, engraved) in common with 1 Kings chapter 8 where it talks about King Solomon’s construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Asenath was the wife of Joseph and certainly one of the most famous women in Egypt at the time.
…And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On… – Genesis 41:45 (ESV)
And to Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera the priest of On, bore to him. – Genesis 46:20 (ESV)
Two inscriptions from the time of the Exodus add fuel to the argument. In Sinai 375a (the photo of which can be seen at the top of last week’s Part 1 of this blog) Petrovich reads the name “Ahisamach” and his title, “overseer of minerals.” Petrovich knows of no other instance of this name in any other Semitic language than Hebrew. In the Bible, Ahisamach was the father of Oholiab, who along with Bezalel was one of the chief craftsmen appointed for constructing the Tabernacle and its furnishings.
Image Source. Sinai 375a with the etchings highlighted in black and the proposed Hebrew equivalents added in green containing the name “Ahisamach, overseer of minerals.” (credit: Douglas Petrovich)
and with him was Oholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, an engraver and designer and embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. – Exodus 38:23 (ESV)
The second of the Exodus-era inscriptions is the most specific reference to the Exodus event. Naturally, it is also the most controversial of all. But that inscription, along with the debate that ensued, will have to wait for the final installment of our 3-part series on the world’s oldest alphabet.