Note on the origin of the Sinaitic script, the nature of the language and its connection with Nabataean.

The Sinaitic Exodus Inscriptions     Online Index     Required Fonts

Note on the origin of the Sinaitic script, the nature of the language and its connection with Nabataean.

The Sinaitic is an ancient form of Hebrew, or what we would call Aramaic. (“Hebrew” was the term used in the Second Temple period and thereafter to denote the popular Aramaic spoken by Judaeans.) According to Genesis 31. 47, an “Aramaic” dialect was spoken amongst the relatives of Abraham in Northern Mesopotamia in patriarchal times, whilst the patriarchs themselves spoke what we would call a dialect of “Classical Hebrew”. Thus Laban from Northern Mesopotamia called the place in Gilead where he parted from Jacob Yegar Sahadutha, in his (“Aramaic”) dialect, and Jacob called it Gal-ed in his (“Classical Hebrew”) dialect. However Jacob and Laban had communicated together without difficulty for many years prior to this. That implies both dialects were used interchangeably amongst the early Israelites, even before they went down to Egypt. As evidence of the use of Aramaic by the Hebrews at the time of the Exodus, consider the cry “Man hu” (“What is it?”), Exodus 16. 15, which the ordinary people uttered when they first saw the manna (hence its name). This is pure Aramaic. In Egypt too, presumably amongst the dominant Hyksos, who were foreign overlords from Canaan, Aramaic was in use in the time of Joseph, as they cried “Abrekh” (“Bow the knee”), Genesis 41. 43, when Joseph passed through the land on his chariot, and this again is Aramaic. The Medieval Rabbinic tradition was as follows (Judah Ha-Levi, Kitab al-Khuzari, ii. 68): “The Rabbi: ‘It [the Hebrew language] shared the fate of its bearers, degenerating and dwindling with them. Considered historically and logically, its original form is the noblest. According to tradition it is the language in which God spoke to Adam and Eve, and in which the latter conversed. It is proved by the derivation of Adam from adāmāh [Heb.: earth], ishshāh [Heb.: woman] from ish [Heb.: man]; ayyāh [Heb.: creature] from ayy [Heb.: living]; Cain from qānīthī [Heb.: I acquired]; Shēth [Seth] from shāth [Heb.: he appointed], and Noah from yenaemēnū [Heb.: he shall comfort us]. This is supported by the evidence of the Torah. The whole is traced back to Eber, Noah and Adam. It is the language of Eber after whom it was called Hebrew, because after the confusion of tongues it was he who retained it. Abraham was an Aramaean of Ur of the Chaldaeans, because the language of the Chaldaeans was Aramaic. He employed Hebrew as a specially holy language and Aramaic for everyday use. For this reason Ishmael brought it to the Arabic speaking nations, and the consequence was that Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew are similar to each other in their vocabulary, grammatical rules, and formations. The superiority of Hebrew is manifest from the logical point of view if we consider the people who employed it for discourses, particularly at the time when prophecy was rife among them, also for preaching, songs and psalmody. It is conceivable that their rulers such as for instance, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon lacked the words to express what they wished, as it is the case with us to-day, because it is lost to us? Dost thou not see how the Torah, when describing the Tabernacle, Ephod and breastplate and other objects, always finds the most suitable word for all these strange matters? How beautifully is this description composed? It is just the same with the names of people, species of birds and stones, the diction of David’s Psalms, the lamentations of Job, and his dispute with his friends, the addresses of Isaiah, etc.’”

The vocabulary in the Sinaitic inscriptions at the time of the Exodus is similar to Aramaic as found in the Hebrew Scriptures, with archaic features. My personal belief is that the inscriptions are written in the dialect spoken by the common people at the time of the Exodus, 1446 BC. Moses employed a different dialect (“Classical Hebrew”) for the inspired writings. As the “writing of God” (Exodus 32. 16, Deuteronomy 10. 4), the script was employed by the Israelites only for “sacred” purposes, that is, for inscriptions or writings executed at the command of God Himself. Hence its attestation only in the desert of Sinai, for the “written marks” which were divinely ordained as a tool to number the hosts, and not, for example, in the land of Canaan after the invasion, where no such divine command authorized its use. (One exception would have been the copy of the Law Joshua was instructed to inscribe in public view in Canaan, though that has been lost. The Law written by Moses was executed in the original Sinaitic Ashurit, and Ezra revived the style in a modified form in post-Exilic times.)

The Greek of the translations and transcriptions is probably Alexandrian Hellenistic, Greco-Roman, and Jewish, rather than Christian, and is a good representation of the Sinaitic. The ancient translator(s) could read the Sinaitic script easily, as Cosmas Indicopleustes says his Jewish companions were able to a few hundred years later. No doubt this was because the script was similar to the square Hebrew (Ashurit) and Nabataean used in those regions, especially in the middle centuries between around 500 BC and AD 600. The original Ashurit, or square Hebrew, script of Moses, according to later Rabbinic tradition, was changed into “Raatz”, or pointed, Phoenician-like, script in the time of Israel’s pre-Exilic apostasy. This was used, accordingly, like the Canaanite (Phoenician) script, for secular purposes, for labels, royal inscriptions etc. Raatz was then changed back into a form of Ashurit by Ezra at the end of the Exile, presumably in an attempt to restore the Mosaic original. “Ashurit” properly means “upright” script, and the form of the Sinaitic is, indeed, perpendicular. When Ezra returned from Mesopotamia (which was “Assyrian” territory in later terminology), the term “Ashurit” was re-interpreted to mean “Assyrian” script, viz. the type brought back by Ezra from Mesopotamia. It appears that a form of Ashurit preserving some of the archaic features survived in the deserts around Sinai, and cropped up later in the kingdom of the Nabataeans.

The Sinaitic, however, is not as standardized and regular as the later Nabataean. Individual Sinaitic signs have multiple variations not found in the later script. (The font used in this work employs the more common letter forms.) In an alphabetic table at the back of his book (Taf. 38-39) Euting lists no less than 35 different forms of the Sinaitic aleph, 16 of beth, 11 of gimel, 12 of daleth, 39 of he, 19 of waw, 2 of zayin, 10 of heth, 22 of teth, 25 of yod, 13 of kaph, 12 of lamed, 40 of mem, 6 of nun, 4 of samekh, 14 of ayin, 9 of peh, 4 of sade, 13 of qoph, 9 of resh, 13 of shin, and 7 of taw. These examples are representative, not exhaustive. The variations in the later Nabataean are listed by Euting in the same table between 2 and 8 at the most. Irrationally the modern explanation of this is that the supposed Nabataean pastoralists who inscribed the “graffiti” were not well-trained in writing and therefore made their own wild variations on the normal script! The sensible explanation is that the Sinaitic script is earlier and therefore more irregular than the standard Nabataean script which emerged on the other side of Sinai after 500 BC.

The Nabataeans were an Arabian tribe who ousted the Idumaeans (Edomites) from the vicinity of Petra c. 500 BC and set up a kingdom there which flourished for a few centuries at the turn of the Christian era. King Aretas, whose kingdom included Damascus in the time of Saint Paul, was a Nabataean. The Rabbis believed the term “Nabataean” included the Biblical Kenites, and the Kenites were the tribe to which Moses’ relative by marriage, Hobab, belonged. Hobab, Jethro and Reuel were all sheikhs of the same family which pastured flocks in the Sinai desert, and allied with Moses and the Israelites at the time of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings. It would be natural for them to have adopted the new Ashurit script revealed to Moses by God, and to have used it and transmitted it to their posterity in their own homeland of Midian on the shore of the Gulf of Akaba. When they formed the Nabataean kingdom from c. 500 BC onwards, they used this ancient script, in very much its primitive Sinaitic form, to inscribe monuments of various kinds throughout the kingdom.

The preservation of the Sinaitic script amongst the Nabataeans disposes of one old argument against the Israelite authorship of the Sinaitic inscriptions. This is based on the fact observed first by Lepsius and then by Palmer in the nineteenth century that Sinaitic characters are occasionally found written over Greek letters. These clearly are later in date than the inscriptions studied here, which internal evidence assigns to the era of the Exodus, and are presumably, like the inscriptions at Ovdat in the Negev, the work of Nabataeans. They occur in the same kind of places frequented by Greeks, viz. the main caravan and trading routes, and in these places, too, other nationalities left graffiti. According to the Itinerary of the Pilgrim of Placentia (c. AD 550-570), Midianties (“Nabataeans”) claiming descent from Jethro, and worshiping the God of Moses, still inhabited the site of the battle of Rephidim called “Fara”, viz. Pharan in Wadi Feiran, in Byzantine times (Itinerarium, ed. Geyer, 40). Nabataean pottery of the Roman Imperial era, accordingly, has been found on the tel in Wadi Feiran. See the note following this section for further information on the presence of “Midianites” in Sinai in medieval times and to the present day amongst the Bedouin of the Towara tribe.

A more remarkable discovery at the same tel in Wadi Feiran has been Israelite pottery of the period of the Monarchy in the earliest layers. It is the only location in Sinai where archaeological remains certainly identifiable as Israelite have come to light. This demonstrates a continuing interest in Rephidim amongst the descendants of the victors at the battle there, or at least of trade between the two regions, perhaps via the Kenites who had settled in Israel, but whose relatives still pastured their flocks in the Sinai. This was the very period in which Elijah made his weary way from Israel to Horeb, and hid in a cave on the mountain, retracing the footsteps of the prophet Moses. As regards the style of Israelite pottery found in Wadi Feiran, this is not dateable to the time of the Exodus, but to the early first millennium BC, Iron Age II. The Israelite ex-slaves at the time of the Exodus, who traveled light out of Egypt, can be expected to have used the simplest style of pottery such as was employed by their bedouin contemporaries, to the extent they used any at all, and is not now uniquely identifiable. It was perhaps something like the hand-made “Negev” pottery designated “Midianite”, which dates back to the early New Kingdom period, and has also been found in and around Goshen in the Eastern Delta. The largest quantities occur in the Negev and the vicinity, hence its name, and the Israelites camped in different localities there for 38 years after leaving Sinai. When they entered Canaan they seem to have used the local pottery styles similarly until they developed their own distinctive ware in the more settled times of the early Monarchy in the first quarter of the first millennium BC.

It was perhaps to forestall an argument along the lines that the older Sinaitic inscriptions belonged to the generation of the Exodus, and the later to the Nabataeans and kindred tribes, that Beer claimed all the Sinaitic inscriptions belonged to a “single era”. According to his theory they were all and only Nabataean of the Roman Imperial period. However, once Euting’s “era of Bozrah” is dispensed with in relation to the majority of the dated Sinaitic inscriptions, which are not provably Nabataean of that time frame, Beer’s argument can only be supported by the near identity of the Sinaitic script and the later Nabataean. A script might or might not change significantly over the course of centuries. The Dead Sea scrolls are written in a form of square Hebrew script which is easily read by Israelis today, two thousand years later. To avoid the objection that some inscriptions might be the work of Nabataeans, but others the work of ancient Israelites, using a near identical script, Beer would have had to overstate his case, and this is precisely what he did in the event, by relegating them all to a “single era” without explicit evidence. The difference in the numeric signs is one clear indicator that a large portion of the Sinaitic inscriptions are not dateable to the same era, or, at least, were not composed by the same people as, the Nabataean ones of the Roman Imperial period.

The Israelites were one component national group in what the Egyptians called the Hyksos (“the sheikhs from foreign countries”) during their sojourn in Egypt, and the Hyksos had been in power in Egypt themselves before the rise of the native Egyptian XVIIIth Dynasty. According to Christian chroniclers Joseph was received into Egypt when the Hyksos were in power. These Hyksos were classed as “Arabs”. According to Muslim historians the rulers of Egypt at the time of Joseph were Amalekites, and that would make them of Edomite descent, Amalek being a grandson of Esau-Edom (Genesis 36. 12). A “mixed multitude” of Hyksos accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt, and the final expulsion of the Hyksos during the reign of Thutmosis III of Dynasty XVIII (“Misphragmuthosis”), according to Josephus, was, in fact, the Exodus of the Israelites. It was a portion of the “mixed multitude” that was destroyed at Kibroth-hattaavah. It might be expected that name-forms in the inscriptions should bear some resemblance to those found at a later date in the Amalekite homeland of Edom and neighboring territories, which were later incorporated in the kingdom of the Nabataeans.

The Israelites used the God-given Ashurit script to record their memorials in Sinai, in their own Hebrew/Aramaic dialects, and this developed into the archaic pointed Hebrew script in the succeeding centuries, after the Israelites settled in Canaan. A new impetus and direction will have been imparted to its development in the Levant by the expansion of the neighboring Canaanite (Phoenician) colonizers, who adopted and adapted the same script and exported it throughout the Mediterranean on their trading expeditions. Meanwhile in the conservative Kenite homeland, the Sinaitic script continued in use, and was standardized by the kings of Nabataea.

The expansion of various Arab tribes under the banner of Islam spread a modified version of the Nabataean script (Kufic) throughout the Muslim dominions. Classical Arabic script is the product of this modification. A good example of the early Kufic type is found on the inner rim of the Dome of the Rock, dating its construction to year 72 of the Hegira. Its similarity to Sinaitic and Nabataean is obvious. It was this similarity which led Forster into thinking that the Sinaitic inscriptions were written in an early dialect of Arabic. Islam in its formative phase drew heavily on the traditions of the Subba or Mandaeans of Southern Iraq, who, like the Jews and Christians, were treated specially by Muslims as “People with a Book”. The Mandaeans had migrated from Nabataean territory in the early years of the Christian era and settled in Iraq, being themselves termed Nabataeans by the Arabs, and their language, a dialect of Aramaic, likewise Nabataean. Once settled in Iraq they absorbed elements of the ancient Babylonian astral religion from the culture around them and incorporated them within their distinctive form of Gnosis. Other Babylonian pagan communities, like the “pagans of Harran” in Northern Iraq, found it expedient to class themselves as Subba or Nabataeans when demanded to account for themselves by zealous Muslim conquerors, because the Subba were a protected “People with a Book”. Some classed Muhammad himself as a Subba prophet. The interaction between Nabataeans and Muslims on the religious level, therefore, may have encouraged the adoption by the latter of the script of the former.

Previous     Next