Saturday, March 13, 2010

Inscription of the Day: The Gezer Calendar

The Gezer Calendar is a Hebrew inscription on limestone found at excavations at Gezer in 1908 by R.A.S. Macalister. (Technically, a visitor to his excavation found it sitting atop his trash heap. Macalister was not that great of an archaeologist.) It is one of the earliest Hebrew inscriptions, dating to the late 10th century BCE (ca. 925 BCE). I made the line drawing below in 2007 for a class on Hebrew/Canaanite inscriptions.

  ירחו אסף
ירחו זרע
ירחו לקש
ירחו עצד פשת
ירחו קצר שערם
ירח קצר וכל
ירחו זמר
ירח קץ

Its (two) months of harvest.
Its (two) months of sowing.
Its (two) months of late growth.
Its month of cutting flax
Its month of barley harvest.
Its month of harvest and measuring.
Its (two) months of pruning.
Its month of summer (fruit).

What kind of a text is this? An agricultural calendar? A school text? Is it poetry? I like to think of it as poetry because of the assonance and terse lines, but it's one odd poem if that's the case. There are two main issues with this inscription besides figuring out what it actually means.

First, the waw on ירחו is unusual. It likely reflects a 3ms suffix on a dual noun (Albright 1943). It can't be singular because the waw has to be consonantal at this stage of Hebrew. Other explanations have been offered such as waw as a case ending (Tropper 1993). Vocalization is uncertain. In Tiberian, I would vocalize it as יַרְחָיו.

The other primary uncertainty with this inscription is the phrase עצד פשת. Most likely it says “cutting flax” but עצד is a rare root in Hebrew. The main problem is that if the activities are in sequence, then the flax harvest would be out of place. Attempts to find another meaning for פשת, however, have been less than convincing (Dobbs-Allsopp 2005, 161).

This is an important inscription for the development of Hebrew as a written language. Oh, and one more thing, the last line is usually read as a personal name, perhaps the scribe or poet or whatever (in case you were wondering).

References & Resources
Albright, W. F. 1943. “The Gezer Calendar.” BASOR 92: 16-26.
Ahituv, Shmuel. 2008. Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period. Carta.
Cross, Frank Moore, Jr. and David Noel Freedman. 1952. Early Hebrew Orthography: A Study of the Epigraphic Evidence. New Haven: American Oriental Society.
Cross, Frank Moore. 1980. “Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts.” BASOR 238: 1-20.
Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W., et. al. 2005. Hebrew Inscriptions: Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance. Yale University Press.
Gibson, John C. L. 1971. Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions. Vol. 1: Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions. Oxford: Clarendon.
Lidzbarski, Mark, et. al. 1909. “An Old Hebrew Calendar-Inscription from Gezer.” PEFQ.
Tropper, Josef. 1993. “Nominativ Dual *yarihau im Gezer-Kalendar.” ZAH 6/2: 228-231.
Yardeni, Ada. 1997. The Book of Hebrew Script. Jerusalem: Carta.


  1. Hi Doug,

    Just wondering, since this is an interesting question for me--do you see anything in the script that is distinctively Hebrew, as opposed to Phoenician? As you probably know, neither Naveh nor Rollston see the scripts as having diverged yet, and even Cross is very tentative about it. Similarly with the grammar, anything here that looks like it has diverged from general Canaanite (for this question see Garr among others)?

  2. Seth, short answer - No. I think they're using the Phoenician script to write Hebrew and there's no evidence this early of a local variation of the script. Longer answer - if you look closely enough there are a few letter forms that appear transitional toward later early Hebrew script. At the moment I don't have my script chart to ID exactly what I'm thinking of, so I'll revisit it after I get home this evening. It's an important issue, though, so thanks for the question.

  3. Seth, my comments turned into such a long answer that I made it into its own post.

  4. Any idea who that "visitor" was who found the calendar on the trash pile?

    1. No idea, Steve. Sorry. I haven't read anything that names the person who found it.