Gen 38: 18 re W-r-i-t-t-e-n Contracts in Patriarchal Age

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Jim Stinehart
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Gen 38: 18 re W-r-i-t-t-e-n Contracts in Patriarchal Age

Postby Jim Stinehart » Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:59 am

Did Judah Routinely Sign W-r-i-t-t-e-n Contracts, Per Genesis 38: 18?

The Patriarchal narratives portray Jacob’s son Judah as being a tent-dweller who was familiar with writing -- cuneiform writing. Although Judah was not a scribe and could not write cuneiform himself, he was well aware of the importance of written contracts on clay cuneiform tablets; that is why Judah carried a cylinder seal [on a cord around his neck] that could be used to affix his identity to [and hence function as his signature of] a document written in cuneiform on a clay tablet regarding a contract for the shearing of his sheep in chapter 38 of Genesis. The one time during the year when Judah might well need to enter into a written contract was in connection with having his sheep sheared [which could also include making contractual arrangements to sell the wool, on consignment]. As such, Judah would be sure to have his cylinder seal with him for that occasion, to be pressed into the soft clay of a tablet on which the shearing contract had been “cut” using cuneiform wedges. [That cuneiform factor is why, in Biblical Hebrew, one is said to “cut”/KRT a covenant.] With a written contract in cuneiform now having been fully executed, Judah would not be needing his cylinder seal anytime soon again, so he was willing to pledge his seal to Tamar, whom he mistakenly thought was a prostitute, but who in fact was Judah’s own daughter-in-law who needed Judah’s seal [which Judah used to sign documents written in cuneiform on clay tablets] as proof of the paternity of the twin sons she desperately wanted and would soon bear:

“ '[Genesis 38:] 18. Your seal and its cord.' The small, ornamented cylinder seal, made of stone or metal and worn on a cord around the neck, was the insignia of a prominent man. When it was rolled across soft clay, such as the legitimating clay seal on a document [written in cuneiform], the resulting impression identified the owner and/or sender of the object.” Bruce K. Waltke, "Genesis A Commentary" (2001), p. 513

“Authentication of documents. The most common use of the seal was to authenticate written documents, letters, bills of sale, or receipts for goods or money. After incising the cuneiform message in the soft clay, the scribe had the sender and witnesses remove from their necks their own cylinder seals and roll them over the still wet clay to make their signatures. Judah had to give his seal to Tamar as a pledge (Gen. 38: 18); he apparently wore it attached with a cord around his neck.” Merrill C. Tenney, "The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 5" (2010)

“ '[Genesis 38:] 18. seal-and-cord.' …The cylinder seal…. [I]ts impression on a document signalized the wearer’s readiness to accept all consequences in the event of non-compliance…. The use of the cylinder seal spread from Mesopotamia throughout the Near East, even to Crete; and many specimens have turned up in Palestine. While the stamp seal [which, unlike a cylinder seal, usually did not involve cuneiform writing on clay tablets] fulfilled a similar function, its use was limited in time and space; moreover, the term for the latter would be tabba‘at (xli 42), not hotam as here.” E.A. Speiser, "The Anchor Bible Genesis" (1962), p. 298

“The seal [of Judah at Genesis 38: 18] was a so-called cylinder seal, like those found in excavations, a small cylinder that one rolled over the soft clay documents [containing cuneiform writing] and wore on a cord around one’s neck.” Gerhard von Rad, "Genesis" (1972), p. 360

“Cylinder seals were used for over three thousand years. They ceased to be used when cuneiform writing on clay tablets was replaced by alphabetic scripts on other materials.” Dominique Collon, "Near Eastern Seals" (1990), p. 17.

“ '[Genesis 38:] 18. Your seal-and-cord, and the staff in your hand.' The seal was a cylinder seal attached to a cord and usually worn around the neck. Rolled over documents incised in clay [i.e., cuneiform clay tablets], it would be the means of affixing a kind of self-notarized signature.” Robert Alter, "Genesis" (1996), p. 221

A story about a tent-dweller, Judah, who both (i) gives his name to the new religion of Judaism, and (ii) signs written contracts in cuneiform, by using a cylinder seal, regarding the shearing of his sheep, is precisely the type of story that one would logically expect to be recorded in w-r-i-t-i-n-g [cuneiform writing] in the Bronze Age. The author of chapter 38 of Genesis was well aware of cuneiform writing, or else he could not have come up with that story of Tamar demanding as a pledge the cylinder seal of her father-in-law Judah; such cylinder seals were primarily used only regarding documents written in cuneiform on clay tablets. An author who is well aware of cuneiform writing is an author who could, in the Bronze Age, retain a scribe to record the Patriarchal narratives in cuneiform writing.

Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

Jim Stinehart
Posts: 325
Joined: Sat Sep 28, 2013 11:33 am

Re: Gen 38: 18 re W-r-i-t-t-e-n Contracts in Patriarchal A

Postby Jim Stinehart » Tue Jan 14, 2014 10:57 am

Per Genesis 38: 18, after Judah left his father Jacob’s family, every year thereafter Judah would sign a written contract for the shearing of his sheep. The contract was written in cuneiform by a scribe on a clay tablet, and Judah used the cylinder seal referenced at Genesis 38: 18 as Judah’s signature on the contract written in cuneiform.

The very language of Hebrew developed in a society -- Bronze Age Canaan -- where cuneiform writing was well-known. We can see this in the language of Hebrew itself. Both the Hebrew word for “to write”, and for “covenant”, have the ultra-literal meaning of “to cut” or “make a cut in”, originally referring to “cutting” wedges into clay tablets for cuneiform writing. And as is well known, in Hebrew one “cuts” a covenant, originally referring to the process of “cutting” cuneiform wedges into clay tablets to make a written contract.

1. כתב : KTB

KTB means “to write, inscribe, engrave”, originally signifying “cutting” wedges into a clay tablet to write cuneiform. At Exodus 31: 18, tablets of stone are KTB with the finger of God, meaning that God inscribed or engraved the stone tablets, by ‘cutting’ into the stone tablet. Deuteronomy 9: 10 has the same expression. [Perhaps the meaning is merely figurative here. But we know from the Amarna Letters that cuneiform could be used to write west Semitic words that, in many cases, are virtually identical to Hebrew words. So using cuneiform is neutral as to what the underlying language is.]

Exodus 32: 15 tells us that, as per the ordinary custom regarding cuneiform clay tablets, the stone tablets were KTB/inscribed/engraved/cut on both sides of the tablets. Likewise, Ezekiel 2: 10 refers to tablets inscribed on both sides.

A closely related word is: כתבת : KTBT, which refers to marks made from cutting. At Leviticus 19: 28 we read: “You shall not make any marks [KTBT] from cutting [$R+] in your flesh for the dead….” Dennis E. Dwyer writes at p. 93 of “God, Country and Tattoos” (2011): “The Hebrew word kathobeth means impression or inscription, and comes from the root kathab meaning ‘to mark’….”

Thus although the acquired meaning of KTB is “to write”, including using a pen to write alphabetical Hebrew on papyrus, the original meaning was to “make cuts in” clay tablets, using wedges to write cuneiform.

2. ברית : BRYT

The Hebrew word for “covenant”, BRYT, comes from the root BRH, in the sense of “cutting”, like BR’. BRYT literally means “a promise that is sealed by ‘cutting’, that is, by a written contract that is ‘cut’ in clay tablets using wedges for cuneiform writing”.

As to the roots BRH and BR’, BRH literally means “to cut”, though it usually has the acquired meaning of “to eat”, as one cuts bread or meat in order to eat it. BR’ literally means “to cut, to carve out, to form by cutting”, though it usually has the acquired meaning of “to create”.

3. כרת ברית : KRT BRYT

In Hebrew, one literally “cuts”/KRT a “covenant”/BRYT. That refers to “cutting”/KRT wedges in a clay tablet to produce a written contract/covenant/BRYT.

As one of the many examples of the frequent Hebrew usage of “cutting”/KRT a “covenant”/BRYT, at Genesis 26: 28 Abimelek and his chief domestic advisor Ahuzzath say to Isaac that they should swear an oath of friendliness, a-n-d that Abimelek and Isaac should “cut”/KRT a “covenant”/BRYT. Perhaps that usage is merely figurative there, and it was a purely oral agreement. But then why did Abimelek bring along his top non-military officer, Ahuzzath, the “friend of the king” [in addition to Phicol as Abimelek’s foreign mercenary military commander]? Ahuzzath had not been present when Abimelek entered into a covenant with Abraham at Genesis 21: 32. Ahuzzath was not a mere scribe, but as Abimelek’s chief domestic advisor, Ahuzzath may have been the one who insisted that this time around, Abimelek should enter into a w-r-i-t-t-e-n contract with Isaac. Ahuzzath may well have supervised a scribe, who prepared a written contract/covenant made by “cutting” cuneiform wedges into a clay tablet. If so, then Abimelek and Isaac indeed literally “cut” a covenant. Whereas Abimelek’s covenant with Abraham likely had been merely an oral contract, the presence of top officer Ahuzzath in Isaac’s case suggests that this time around the situation was slightly different, with Ahuzzath insisting that Abimelek and Isaac should literally “cut” a covenant and enter into a written contract. Accordingly, each party [Isaac and Abimelek] to the written contract/covenant/BRYT that had been ‘cut’, using cuneiform wedges, would have affixed his “signature” by means of his cylinder seal, which was pressed into the soft clay. [That’s the cylinder seal that Tamar shrewdly demands from her father-in-law Judah at Genesis 38: 18.]

The reason why in Hebrew a covenant is “cut”/KRT is not because on rare occasion covenants in ancient times were made by cutting up animals, or by cutting up victims. Rather, Bronze Age covenants were routinely made by contracts that were put into writing by means of wedges ‘cut’ into clay tablets as cuneiform writing.

The Patriarchs and Judah well knew that correspondence, contracts, literature, etc. could be recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets in the Canaan of the Patriarchal Age. That’s why Judah has his own cylinder seal at Genesis 38: 18.

The oft-heard claim that tent-dwelling Patriarchs would allegedly have known nothing about writing is not true. Genesis 38: 18 shows that Judah, a tent-dweller, entered into a written cuneiform contract every year regarding the shearing of his sheep. Regardless of how late alphabetical Hebrew writing on papyrus may have developed, it’s a certainty that the Patriarchs lived in a world in which written documents were routinely prepared by scribes “cutting” cuneiform wedges into clay tablets. The very Hebrew words themselves, KTB and KTBT and BRYT and KRT, are testament to that.

Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

Jim Stinehart
Posts: 325
Joined: Sat Sep 28, 2013 11:33 am

Re: Gen 38: 18 re W-r-i-t-t-e-n Contracts in Patriarchal A

Postby Jim Stinehart » Wed Jan 15, 2014 6:31 pm

In my first post on this thread, I noted that most scholars agree that Judah’s seal at Genesis 38: 18, which his daughter-in-law Tamar takes as a pledge, is a cylinder seal. That means that the Patriarchs and Judah were living in a cuneiform world, where it was commonplace for documents to be written in cuneiform on soft clay tablets, to be signed by means of a cylinder seal. As such, the early Hebrews well knew that they could have the Patriarchal narratives recorded in writing in Bronze Age Canaan, by the simple expedient of hiring a scribe to write down this important composition on about 50 clay tablets in cuneiform.

Please note how the presence of a cylinder seal at Genesis 38: 18 means that Judah and the Patriarchs are living in a world in which cuneiform documents on clay tablets are well-known to the members of such society:

“Cylinder seals…. [T]heir use spread with the use of cuneiform and those countries which adopted the Mesopotamian cuneiform script also took over and adapted the cylinder seal…. Cylinder seals were used for over three thousand years. They ceased to be used when cuneiform writing on clay tablets was replaced by alphabetic scripts on other materials.” Dominique Collon, “Near Eastern Seals” (1990), p. 17.

“It is interesting to note that the use of cylinder seals corresponds closely with the lifespan of the distinctive Mesopotamian writing system, the cuneiform script. When cuneiform was replaced by alphabets in the first millennium BC, cylinder seals faded….” Charles Gates, “Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East” (2013), p. 38.

“Seal inscriptions of the third and second millennia were usually carved with their cuneiform signs inscribed in mirror image on the cylinder seal. When rolled onto the tablet, the inscription was reversed and thus appeared in its correct, readable form.” Ira Spar, “Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (1988), p. xviii.

“The cylinder seal was an important and highly intimate accessory in cuneiform culture. …Worn on the body, cylinder seals served a range of functions: personal adornment, symbol of status and authority, talisman, and instrument for marking ownership or acknowledging responsibility when impressed on clay.” Frans van Koppen, “The Scribe of the Flood Story and His Circle”, in “The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture” (2011), p. 156.

“[C]ylinder seals…have a hole drilled lengthwise through the center of the cylinder so that they could be strung and worn around the neck or suspended from the wrist. …[One] primary function of cylinder seals [was]…to identify…documents. …Later cylinder seals often bear long cuneiform inscriptions….” Fred Kleiner, “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume 1” (2009), p. 25.

The point is that it would have been very easy for the first Hebrews to have the Patriarchal narratives recorded on about 50 cuneiform clay tablets in Late Bronze Age Canaan, by hiring a scribe to use cuneiform to write down pre-Hebrew words. By contrast, alphabetical Hebrew was not advanced enough in the Bronze Age to be able to be used to record a sophisticated composition like the Patriarchal narratives. But just as cuneiform had been used a thousand years earlier to record early versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh [as well as countless records of sheep-shearing], cuneiform writing is well-attested in Late Bronze Age Canaan [including per the Amarna Letters]. Thus the Patriarchal narratives could easily be a written text from Late Bronze Age Canaan -- in cuneiform.

Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois


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