Student Reader

Literacy in Ancient Israel

Early Israelites lived in the desert of the ancient Near East as semi-nomadic shepherds and farmers who eventually settled into a pastoral lifestyle that grew increasingly agricultural (Schniedewin 2004, p. 48-49). As an oral culture without even a word for to read, early Israelites verbally transmitted songs, tales and proverbs to new generations (Schniedewin 2004, p. 48). Despite being passed on by countless individuals, these works (especially the songs) were resistant to change due to their strict meter (Schniedewin 2004, p. 55). Ancient Israel eventually developed a social infrastructure that brought literacy to its occupants and nurtured the germinating oral predecessors of the Bible into a tangible and written fruition (Schniedewin 2004, p. 48-50).

The very earliest Israelites were wanderers who settled in Canaan amidst economic, military and social turmoil (Schniedewin 2004, p. 50). The first mention of Israelite people in Canaan is in 1207 BCE, in a pharaoh’s mention of plundering the Israelites while conquering the Canaan region (Schniedewin 2004, p. 49). As early as the second millennium BCE, Canaanite royalty secured royal scribes; thus, writing was known of (but not necessary understood by or even ever seen) by even the earliest Israelites (Schniedewin 2004, p. 49).

Although writing has historically flourished only in urban centers, the easy Hebrew alphabet allowed the communities of 50 to 250 people in which the early Israelites lived to hold some degree of literacy (Schniedewin 2004, p. 50). Fragments of the Hebrew alphabet have been discovered in ancient Israelite settlements; however, further documents have been scarce (Schniedewin 2004, p. 52). Without heavy bureaucracy pushing forward textual advancements, the ancient Israelites of the Late Bronze Age were undeveloped compared to their fellow Canaanites who lived in opulent city-states equipped with scribal schools (Schniedewin 2004, p. 52).

Sacred and traditional texts were propulsive to early Israelite literacy. While originally there was no word for to read in ancient Hebrew, the meaning of the verb qara morphed from to proclaim out loud into to read as scribes began to publicly read sacred texts to the masses (Schniedewin 2004, p. 49). Songs such as those within Book of the Upright -- which had once crawled through time via mouths and ears -- were solidified onto tablets and scrolls (Schniedewin 2004, p. 53). Even the title of Book (sefer) of the Upright (Jashar, a personal name) is revealing: the Greeks translated it as Book of Songs, highlighting that jashar and yashar (meaning to sing) are remarkably alike words (Schniedewin 2004, p. 53-54). This parallel illuminates that early Israelites were conscious that they were making tangible the tales that had for centuries been intangible.

The urban spark that ignited Israelite literacy (forming an environment conducive to forming the Bible) may have come from urban Canaanite city-states. However, it is under debate just what and hwo much ancient Israelites benefitted from the disappearing Canaanite palace-temple city-states when settling into Canaan. Some researchers have argued that ancient Israelites rejected Canaan’s scribal developments due to Canaan’s looming bureaucracy (Schniedewin 2004, p. 56). However, continuity of other social features implies that the institutionalization of literacy may have also spread (Schniedewin 2004, p. 57). Furthermore, archaeological evidence has shown that as Israelite Kings rose, they drew heavily on Canaanite administrative infrastructure and in no way forced a complete cultural break with Canaan (Schniedewin 2004, p. 58). Accordingly, it is likely that ancient Israelites carried on a modified Canaanite scribal institution for at least several centuries to meet growing textual needs.

It is still critical to remember that while literacy can only explode in urban centers, it can simmer even in the smallest of villages. A growing Israelite government brought a huge boom in writing, albeit mostly for administrative purposes. Records from the court of King David contained multiple scribes and many other officials; this reveals that not only were there scribes, but that they actively wrote useful texts(Schniedewin 2004, p. 60-62). The reign of King Solomon expanded the royal officialdom, signaling not only a further expansion of scribery but also a growing government that would allow an even deeper permeation of literacy (Schniedewin 2004, p. 59-60).

Even with the overwhelming preponderance of texts regarding accounting, recording and simple history, it is a topic of hot scholarly debate whether kings of early Israel commissioned literary works. While the eighth century undoubtedly was the period where oral legacies were defined not by the tongue but by the written word, it is unclear whether other documents describing events under King David and King Solomon where written in their relevant time-frame or written retroactively (Schniedewin 2004, p. 63).

It is clear that Israelite literacy eventually grew complex enough such that the Bible could rise. However, the exact mode through which early Israelites formed early seeds of literacy is unclear. Furthermore, it is not known exactly how the written word fit outside of bureaucracy during the reigns of early Israelite kings.

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