January 20, 2007

Hanan at Beth Shemesh

In Stephen Cook's review of Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman's The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, he mentions the discovery of an inscribed game board at Beth Shemesh. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman, the most recent excavators of Beth Shemesh, writing in Biblical Archaeological Review, said of the find,

Among our finds was a piece of a double-sided game board. On its narrow side the name of its owner is incised: Hanan. Harvard paleographer Frank Cross dates the inscription to the latter part of the tenth century B.C.E. The same name also appears on a 12th-century B.C.E. proto-Canaanite ostracon found at Beth-Shemesh by Grant’s expedition, and “[Be]n Hanan” was found incised on a tenth-century B.C.E. bowl fragment from the neighboring site of Tel Batash/Timnah. Since the Bible lists the place name “Elon Beth-Hanan” immediately after Beth-Shemesh in Solomon’s second district, the excavators of nearby Tel Batash suggested that the family of Hanan must have been of considerable importance in the Sorek valley. Their suggestion is now confirmed by our discovery of the Hanan inscription.

I worry about language like "is now confirmed" in the last sentence of paragraph above and would rather see "is supported." "Confirmed" implies a certainty that is all but impossible when working with this kind of evidence. The name Hanan is quite common on its own or as part of a compound name combined with something else such as a theophoric element. The name is known from Mari, Ugarit, Amarna (maybe) and elsewhere, and it is the name of at least six different people in the Hebrew Bible. All we can say with reasonable certainty is that someone incised the name Hanan on the edge of the game board. While it is likely that that someone was called Hanan and was the owner of the board, it is at least possible that Hanan had some other relationship to the board or the game. It is even possible, however unlikely in this case, that someone other than a Hanan was just practicing his or her writing skills using Hanan as an exercise name. The lack of the preposition l does not speak one way or the other to the issue of ownership. Of course, if the preposition were part of the inscription it would greatly increase the likelihood that Hanan was the owner of the game board.

Without further study, Elon Beth-Hanan, "the terebinth (some kind of tree) of the house of favor (Hanan)," sounds to me like the name of an ancient cult site and may have had no relationship with anyone named Hanan. See Genesis 12:6 where the "terebinth of Moreh" likely is a cult spot and I Samuel 10:3 where the "terebinth of Tabor" also likely marks an ancient cultic site. Also, note that Beth, when used in the context of a cult site, often means temple. To be sure, a casual search did not turn up any god by the name of Hanan but notice the placed name בית אָוֶן, "the house of trouble(?)" in Joshua 7:2, etc. Whatever און may mean in this phrase, it is unlikely that it is a personal name or a divine name. (Note: Numbers 16:1 lists a certain או֗ן but the vocalization differs.)

Beth Shemesh game board inscriptionTo the left is my tracing of the inscription from the photograph published in the Biblical Archaeological Review article. Sure enough, it says חון, "Hanan." And while two letters isn't much to go on, I see no reason to suggest that Cross is incorrect in dating it. I am a little surprised at how cursive the two nuns are. I have rotated the tracing so that it reads from right to left. Based on the het and to a lesser extent the two nuns, I think this is the best way to read it but it might have been written vertically top to bottom.

Beth Shemesh ostracon inscriptionAssuming that both letter strings are proper names, the other name on the Beth-Shemesh ostrcon, mentioned in the paragraph quoted above, is gm‛n. To the right is my tracing of the obverse where these names can be read. The writing appears to be vertical (top to bottom). The reverse contains a number (two?) of other letters and words, possibly names, but the direction and orientation of the writing is disputed as is the exact date of the ostracon. See Sass, 64 and Cross 18*.

Not that there is anything particularly controversial about it but I'll may take up the Timnah bowl fragment at some other time.

The probability of either of the Hanans known from these two inscriptions being the same person as anyone else we may read about elsewhere is nearly zero.

I have no real point in all this. It just seemed abnormally interesting to look at the inscriptions in a little more detail.


Bunimovitz, Shlomo and Zvi Lederman, "Beth Shemesh," Biblical Archaeological Review, 23:01, Jan/Feb 1997, available online with paid subscription.

Cross, Frank Moore, "The Origin and Early Evolution of the Alphabet," Eretz-Isreal, 8, 1967, 8*-24*

Sass, Benjamin, The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium B.C., Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1988

Posted by Duane Smith at January 20, 2007 6:09 PM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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