Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

June 30, 2006

Those cultured Philistines

Discovered a mere ten years ago, the so-called "Eqron Inscription" constitutes the sole extant Philistine-language text. While the Philistine names given in the Bible all appear to be Aegean, the language of this text is undeniably Semitic. Aside from the fact that the script is closely related to the Phoenician script (also dubbed the paleo-Hebrew script due to it being likewise used by the authors of Hebrew inscriptions prior to their adoption of the Aramaic script), the syntax is also Semitic. The inscription is (unfortunately) very short but it is complete and, due to it having been stratified, has been dated with a reasonable degree of certainty to the early seventh century BCE. The following is a word-by-word analysis of this important inscription.


בת - Equivalent to the Hebrew בית, this means either 'house', 'dwelling', 'palace' or 'temple'. As the inscription was found in Eqron (one of the five major Philistine cities) at the site of a temple, the latter English term would be the most applicable. The plene spelling (lacking the central vowel, yodh) indicates that this word features a contracted diphthong (ie: beit as opposed to bayit). It should not be read as a construct noun ('temple of...') but in the absolute and, it should be noted, emphatic. It is interesting to note that, from this word alone, it may appear that definate articles were absent in Philistine.

בנ - Equivalent to the Hebrew בנה, 'he built', although probably pronounced bani, due to the fact that this verb was historically √בני. We should have expected a relative particle here (Hebrew אשר; in Phoenician a preformative ז), so its absence is strange. In meaning, "The temple that he built".

אכיש - This is the subject of the verb, a proper name. The pronounciation of this name is disputed, although it is certainly an Aegean name. Some have drawn parallels to the name Anchises (from Homer's The Iliad), although this may be too forceful a reading. The Bible makes reference to a king from Gath (another of the five Philistine cities) with the name Akish, and many have speculated that this is the king referred to by the Biblical text (cf: 1 Sam 21:11). If that is the case, Akish is merely the Hebraic pronounciation of an Aegean name which was probably pronounced Akhayus - lit. 'Aegean'.

בנ - A good Semitic word! With a final consonant, this would be written בן and it makes up four of the twenty-one words in the inscription.

פדי - Another proper name. Probably Padi.

יסד - This would appear to be a good Aegean name: Hesiod.

אדא - Probably Iddo.

יער - Ya'ir. A Semitic name.

So far: "The temple that Akhayus son of Padi son of Hesiod son of Iddo son of Ya'ir built..."

It is a shame that so much of this already tiny inscription is made up of personal names. Fortunately the rest is a little more revealing, both culturally and grammatically. The following two words are in construct, and that may be the reason for them lacking a word divider.

שר - In Hebrew, this word means 'governor', but the context (should we assume Akhayus to be the same Akish as mentioned in the Biblical text) demands that it be read as 'king'. For that reason, it was probably vocalised with a שׁ (shar) and is cognate to the Akkadian word for king, šarru.

עקרנ - Another proper name, this time the name of the city-state, Eqron.

לפתגי.ה - Interesting! The lamed at the beginning is a particle denoting 'to, for'. The following appears to be the name of a goddess, although much ink has been spilled in ascertaining exactly which goddess it is. The pre-emptive word divider would seem to indicate a simple scribal error, and the medial gimmel looks as though it had originally been started as a nun. The name has been rendered by some scholars as Pytho-Gaia, or Pythian Gaia.

אדתה - This is a feminine noun with a masculine suffix. The noun itself is the feminine form of אדון, 'lord, master'. The final nun has elided with the taw, the taw being a feminine marker for singular nouns. This marker persisted in Hebrew for plural forms (בנות, for example) but dropped away for singular nouns in favour of a final heh. Phoenician also utilised the final taw, showing another point of similarity between the two languages. Finally, the heh at the end looks like an Aramaic suffix (אדתֵה) but is actually of the same stock as the Hebrew/Phoenician waw, and would have been pronounced אדתֹה. It means, "his lady".

To recap: "The Temple that Akhayus son of..., king of Eqron, built for Pytho-Gaia, his Lady."
In other words, this stone seems to have stood as a foundation stone for the temple that stood on this particular Philistine site, marking the name of the king who commisioned its construction. The final section marks a blessing for the king in the name of this illustrious goddess.

תברכה - This is a verb, the second so far. The root of this verb is √ברכ, meaning 'bless'. In form, it is a feminine jussive with a masculine suffix - 'may she bless him'. Again, the final heh was probably vocalised in the same manner as a final waw in Hebrew/Phoenician and not as a final heh in Aramaic.

ותש(מר)ה - Another verb, this time slightly difficult to make out. It would appear to be from the root √שמר, meaning 'guard, keep', but the form is the same as the previous verb save the usage of a waw conjunctivus ('and') affixed to the beginning. It has been noted that this verbal root is very rare in Phoenician, indicating a similarity this time to Hebrew. It has also, however, been noted that the Phoenician corpus is very small and the Hebrew corpus so very large, so one must be wary of drawing too hasty a conclusion.

ותארכ - Another verb, also with a waw conjunctivus at the beginning. With the root √ארכ ('lengthen'), this verb takes as its object the following word:

ימה - A noun, presumably plural. The noun itself is equivalent to the Hebrew יום, meaning 'day', and this formula is a common formula - as evinced by its usage in various Phoenician inscriptions. The Hebrew plural would take an extra yodh (ימיו) so one is left here with one of three possibilities. Either the noun is singular ('his day'), the yodh is pronounced although not written, or the plural form is the same as the singular form - without a yodh.

ותברכ - Another verb of root √ברכ, this time without the suffix. The object lies on the final line:

ארצה - A noun, with the masculine suffix: 'his land'.

The entire inscription reads as follows:
The Temple that Akhayus son of Padi son of Hesiod son of Iddo son of Ya'ir, king of Eqron, built for Pytho-Gaia, his Lady. May she bless him and may she guard him, and may she lengthen his day(s) and may she bless his land.

The formula of blessing and guarding, while also utilised in various Phoenician inscriptions, is strikingly reminiscent (to my mind) of the formula in Leviticus:

יברכך ה' וישמרך
May the Lord bless you and guard you


At 8:17 PM , Anonymous Joel Nothman said...

Yes, this is the first Philistian text I have read at all, but you seem to jump to a number of unsubstantiated conclusions here. For instancce:
* why should one assume that -ה suffix is pronounced either "o" or "eh", let alone to pick one?
* if there are אמהות קריאה elsewhere here (in that suffix, the name Iddo, the name Padi), why should one assume that בנ is to be pronounced "bani"?! There is no reason the final vowel should not have been apocopated- it is in some Hebrew forms, like the jussive. Further, just because we understand it as having an underlying 'y', it doesn't mean that it should ever have been pronounced that way, let alone at some particular point of the writing of this inscription
* you also make an assumption about a definite article here and about the relative pronoun. Although other inscriptions could easily argue against me, I don't see why the sentence could not be read as a declarative sentence with בנ as its verb: "Achish built a house for Pytho-Gaia, his lady- may she bless him."

At 11:07 PM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Thanks for your comments - you raise some very good points. My approach to the text is based mainly upon the work of Gitin, Dothan and Naveh (they were the original publishers of the inscription, in Israel Exploration Journal 47), but I also looked at the work of Sasson (Ugarit Forschungen 29) and Rainey (Israel Exploration Journal 48).

I'll take your last point first, but only because it is the only one to which I feel able to offer a response. The primary reason for assuming an unwritten relative particle is through comparing the text to certain major Phoenician inscriptions (Ahiram I, Yehimilk, Elibaal and Shipit-baal). Each one of these inscriptions commences with the same declaration (although the object is not always the same) and, as they also conclude with the same invocation (not to mention certain other items of grammatical similarity), it has been assumed that the meaning is the same here.

Your suggestion that the sentence is declarative is quite reasonable to my mind, although (interesting), none of the scholars mentioned above suggest it. They each suggest either a missing relative particle (for the reasons mentioned) or an absent demonstrative particle (ie: "The Temple which Akhayus... built").

Rainey offers a third solution, and one which does not require an absent particle. He puts the clause on par with that which is utilised in Isa 29:1, ie: "a noun in construct with a clause acting as the nomen rectum" (his words, p242). This would give the clause a demonstrative meaning (not to mention making the noun definate without the necessity of the definate article).

As for your other suggestions: I cannot respond to you for I agree that this is one of the problems with ascertaining pronounciation in any inscriptional study. In relation to both of those points, I based my suggestions simply on personal correspondance with Ian Young.


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