Reconsidering the Function of Tomb Inscriptions in Iron Age Judah: Khirbet Beit Lei as a Test Case

in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions
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The following article challenges the widely held view that refugees wrote the inscriptions preserved on the tomb walls of Khirbet Beit Lei. We argue that the so-called “refugee-hypothesis” should be based upon a stronger methodological foundation and that the interpretation of the inscriptions at the site should give more serious consideration to their context in the space of a tomb. Toward this end, the article argues that the inscriptions should be connected to the funerary context in which they appear and that their content should be understood as relating to the larger function and materiality of the mortuary complex at Beit Lei. Rather than reconstructing a hypothetical scenario in which refugees stopped and inscribed “hymns” or “prayers” on the walls of the tomb, the article argues that the function of the inscriptions was largely semiotic and served to mark the boundary between the antechamber and bench rooms of the tomb complex.

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References

17

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 89–92.

24

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 81.

27

Whisenant, Writing, Literacy, and Textual Transmission, 324.

28

R. Mairs, “Egyptian ‘Inscriptions’ and Greek ‘Graffiti’ at El Kanais in the Egyptian Eastern Desert,” in Ancient Graffiti in Context (rsah 2; eds. J.A. Baird and C. Taylor; New York: Routledge, 2013), 153–164; J.A. Baird and C. Taylor, “Ancient Graffiti in Context: Introduction,” in Ancient Graffiti in Context(eds. J.A. Baird and C. Taylor; New York: Routledge, 2011), 9–10; E. Olton and T. Lovata, “Introduction,” in Understanding Graffiti: Multidisciplinary Studies from Prehistory to the Present (eds. T. Lovata and E. Olton; Walnut Creek, ca: Left Coast, 2015), 13–14. For further discussion of the problem of connecting graffiti to notions of increased literacy, see I. Young, “Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence: Part I,” vt 48 (1998), 239–253; idem, “Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence: Part II,” vt 48 (1998), 408–422. For further on Israelite literacy and the corpus of Iron Age Hebrew inscriptions, see especially W.M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); idem, A Social History of Hebrew: From Its Origins through the Rabbinic Period (New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 2013); C. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age (Atlanta: sbl, 2010); idem, “The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy,” in Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (eds. R. Tappy and K. McCarter; Winona Lake, in: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 61–96.

29

Baird and Taylor, “Ancient Graffiti in Context: Introduction,” 8.

30

Ibid., 9.

31

See E. Chmielewska, “Graffiti and Place,” Space and Culture 10 (2007), 145–169; A.M. Brighenti, “At the Wall: Graffiti Writers, Urban Territoriality, and the Public Domain,” Space and Culture 13 (2010), 315–332.

32

T. Bowen, “Graffiti as Spatializing Practice and Performance,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 25 (2013), 1; see also M. Halsey and A. Young, “Our Desires Are Ungovernable: Writing Graffiti in Urban Space,” Theoretical Criminology 10 (2006), 275–306. For further on the use of graffiti to mark religious space, see also K.B. Stern, “Inscription as Religious Competition in Third-Century Syria,” in Religious Competition in the Third Century CE: Jews, Christians, and the Greco-Roman World (eds. J.D. Rosenblum et al.; jajs 15; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 141–153; idem, “Tagging Sacred Space in the Dura Europos Synagogue,” jra 25 (2012), 171–194; J.A. Baird, “The Graffiti of Dura-Europos: A Contextual Approach,” in Ancient Graffiti in Context (eds. J.A. Baird and C. Taylor; New York: Abingdon, 2010), 49–68.

38

D. Pollock, “Performing Writing,” in The Ends of Performance (eds. P. Phelan and J. Lane; New York: New York University Press, 1998), 73–103; see also idem, “Performative Writing,” Performance Studies: The Key Concepts (ed. G. Cody; New York: Routledge, 2012); idem, “Essays in Textual Power,” Text and Performance Quarterly 12 (1992), 54–60.

45

Avigad, “The Second Tomb-Inscription of the Royal Steward,” 165–166.

51

Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 405; see also D. Ussishkin, The Village of Silwan: The Necropolis from the Period of the Judean Kings (Jerusalem: ies, 1986), 264. For a general discussion of the layout of these tombs, see A. Fantalkin, “The Appearance of Rock Cut Bench Tombs in Iron Age Judah as a Reflection of State Formation,” in Bene Israel: Studies in the Archaeology of Israel and the Levant During the Bronze and Iron Ages in Honour of Israel Finkelstein (eds. A. Fantalkin and A. Yasur-Landau; Leiden: Brill, 2008), 17–44; A. Kloner and Y. Zelinger, “The Evolution of Tombs from the Iron Age through the Second Temple Period,” in “Up to the Gates of Ekron”: Essays on the Archaeology and History of the Eastern Mediterranean in Honor of Seymour Gitin (eds. S. White Crawford et al.; Jerusalem: ies, 2007), 209–220; E. Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (Sheffield: jsot Press, 1992), 149; idem, “Life in Judah from the Perspective of the Dead,” nea 65 (2002), 120–130. For further on the design of the tombs at these sites, see G. Barkay, “Burial Caves and Burial Practices in Judah during the Iron Age II: Sociological Aspects,” in Material Culture, Society and Ideology: New Directions in the Archaeology of the Land of Israel (eds. A. Faust and A.M. Maeir; Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1999), 96–102 (Hebrew); idem, “Burial Caves and Burial Practices in Judah in the Iron Age,” in Graves and Burial Practices in Israel in the Ancient Period (ed. I. Singer; Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi/ies, 1994), 96–164 (Hebrew); idem, “The Iron Age II–III,” in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel (New Haven, ct; Yale University Press 1992), 302–373; A. Mazar, The Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 BCE (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 520–526; idem, “Iron Age Burial Caves North of the Damascus Gate, Jerusalem,” iej 26 (1976), 1–8.

52

Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 405.

53

Bloch-Smith, Burial Practices, 230.

63

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 80; Cross, “The Cave Inscriptions from Khirbet Beit Lei,” 304; for a similar line of interpretation, see G. Davies, “Hebrew Inscriptions,” in The Biblical World (vol. 1; ed. J. Barton; New York: Routledge, 2002), 281.

64

Cross, “The Cave Inscriptions from Khirbet Beit Lei,” 302–303.

66

Lemaire, “Prières en temps de crise,” 558–568.

67

Miller, Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology, 220–222; idem, “Psalms and Inscriptions,” 311–332.

69

Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices, 105.

72

Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 435–436.

77

See Lemaire, “Prières en temps de crise,” 562; Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 409.

79

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 77, cf. 6; E. Testa, “The Graffiti of Tomb 21 at Bethphage,” Liber Annuus 11 (1961), 251–287.

82

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 77; contra P. Bar Adon, “An Early Hebrew Graffito in a Judean Desert Cave,” iej 25 (1975), 226–232; for discussion see p. 231 cf. 9; Lemaire, “Prières en temps de crise,” 567. Zevit counters that the stance of the figure as well as the arrangement of the held object are at odds with the “bow” theory (the bow would have been backwards for example) (Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 410).

87

Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 415.

98

Ibid., 421–424.

99

Ibid., 423–427.

100

See Aḥituv, Echoes of the Past, 233.

102

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 86; idem, “Hebrew Inscriptions from the First Temple Period,” 198; Cross, “The Cave Inscriptions from Khirbet Beit Lei,” 302; Lemaire, “Prières en temps de crise,” 561. For a critique see Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 429–430.

103

Miller, “Psalms and Inscriptions,” 222.

108

P. Bar-Adon, “An Early Hebrew Inscription in a Judean Desert Cave,” 231.

111

Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 434–435.

114

Lemaire, “Prières en temps de crise,” 567.

116

See Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 78. For original publications of the tomb, see S.L.Y. Rahmani, “Jason’s Tomb,” iej 17 (1967), 61–100; also Y. Aharoni and B. Rothenberg, “In the Steps of Kings and Rebels in the Judean Desert,” ta (1960), 18–20, fig. 2 (Heb.); B. Mazar-Maisler, Beth Sheʿarim 1 (Jerusalem: ies, 1957), 1–2, 155–156, fig 12, pls 20:2, 23:1–2 (Hebrew); see also, E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (vol. 8; New York: Pantheon, 1958), 157–165; A.L. Ben-Eli, J. Ringel, and Y. Meshorer, Ships and Parts of Ships on Ancient Coins (Haifa: National Maritime Museum Foundation, 1975); D. Sperber, Nautica Talmudica (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1986), 48, 76; P.W. van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs: An Introductory Survey of a Millennium of Jewish Funerary Epigraphy (300 Bce–700 Ce) (Kampen, the Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1991), 151; L. Casson, The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times (New York: Macmillan, 1959), and the ships depicted in Rahmani (1967).

118

Karen B. Stern, “Mortuary and Devotional Graffiti in the Late Ancient Levant,” in The Gift in Antiquity (ed. M.L. Satlow; Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 147–148, qt. 148; see also idem, Inscribing Devotion and Death (rgrw 161; Leiden: Brill, 2008), 145–192.

119

J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 38.

120

D.C. Kraemer, The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 2002), 17–18.

121

R. Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices, and Rites in the Second Temple Period, 148–150.

123

Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions,” 86.

129

See M.L. Finch, “Rehabilitating Materiality: Bodies, Gods, and Religion,” Religion 42 (2012), 625–631; Y.M. Rowan, “Beyond Belief: The Archaeology of Religion and Ritual,” Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 21 (2012), 4; D. Morgan, “Materiality, Social Analysis, and the Study of Religion,” in Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (ed. D. Morgan; London: Routledge, 2010), 55–74; W. Keane, “The Evidence of the Senses and the Materiality of Religion,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2008), 124; M. Vásquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); F. Stavrakopoulou, “Religion at Home: The Materiality of Practice,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel (Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, ma: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 345–363.

130

Francesca Stavrakopoulou, “Materialist Reading: Materialism, Materiality, and Biblical Cults of Writing,” 226.

Figures

  • Map showing the location of the cave housing the tombs at Khirbet Beit Lei (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 91; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Plan and sections of the tomb complex at Khirbet Beit Lei (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 75; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Photo of the entrance to the tomb complex (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], plate 9; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Photo of the antechamber, looking west from the entrance (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], plate 9; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Diagram of the Beit Lei inscribed texts and images organized into “stops” or clusters of texts and images (as arranged in Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 407; fig. 5.10).
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  • Drawing of inscription and reliefs on the northern wall (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 82; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Human figure with lyre, northern wall, Group 2 (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 77; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Cluster of images and letters on the uncut door on the northern wall (Group 3) (courtesy of Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 415; fig. 5.18).
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  • Human figure appearing on the western wall of the tomb, Group 4 (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 79; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Hand drawing of BLei 5 (Group 5) (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], Plate 13; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Human figure with raised hands, southern wall, Group 6 (J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 78; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society).
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  • Inscriptions in Group 7; J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” iej 13 [1963], 82; courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society.
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  • Drawing of ships on southern wall. (courtesy of Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, 434).112
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