Why Chicken Scratch on Stone, Clay, and Pots Matters: A Case Study in Amos and Archeology

BY: AJ Berkovitz.

Although Tanakh is a work in which one finds ever-reverberating messages, it is important to acknowledge that its authors composed their various books while actively interacting with a certain time and culture. By seriously understanding this environment and its effect on the authors of Tanakh, we can gain a greater appreciation for, and more precise interpretation of, our Holy Scriptures. One aspect of that culture still visible today that we can easily incorporate into our studies of Tanakh is the inscriptions and archival evidence from the ancient Near East.  While there are many extra-biblical texts that have drastically altered the landscape of biblical scholarship, this paper will focus specifically on those related to the Book of Amos.

Inscriptional and archival evidence has drastically increased our understanding of the linguistic components of Tanakh. We can only understand the complexity of meaning in any given language if we are able to differentiate between similar words. Hence, by understanding diction, we can understand the subtleties of a text.  This pursuit is productive, however, only if we understand the context of that language both internally and in relation to the languages of the neighboring areas. One misunderstanding that results from not properly understanding Biblical Hebrew in this way can be seen in Amos. While prophesying about the destruction of the house of Jeroboam and the temples associated with it, Amos encounters fierce opposition from the priest Amaziah. The priest says to Amos, “Seer (hozeh), leave and flee to the land of Judah. Get your sustenance there and there prophesy. Stop prophesying in Bet El because it is a sanctuary and palace.”[i] Amaziah, seething at Amos, disparages the prophet and encourages him to leave. During his diatribe, he calls Amos a hozeh, seer.  In common biblical parlance, the word for a prophet is generally navi. Because of Amaziah’s peculiar use of hozeh, one might be tempted to conclude that this word is part of the general polemic leveled against Amos. Such a conclusion, however, fails to take the broader context of Amos and his residence in the Northern Kingdom into consideration.

As seen from the Elijah and Elisha stories in I-II Kings, the Northern Kingdom had extensive dealings with the Arameans. These encounters led to an exchange of goods and services, as well as, for our purposes, an Aramaic influence on the Northern Kingdom’s dialect of Hebrew. The notion of a slightly different dialect between Judah and Samaria should not be surprising. This difference may be likened to the differences in dialect found between English speakers living in various regions in the U.S.A. Take, for example, the word used to describe a flavored carbonated drink: while people in the East refer to it as “soda,” those in the Midwest call it “pop.” They are identifying the same substance, albeit with different words. The phenomenon of varied dialects, perhaps even by tribe, clearly appears in Tanakh. For instance, in the bloody war between Jephthah and the tribe of Ephraim, we are told of the ingenious stratagem used by the people of Gilead to ensnare the fugitives of Ephraim. Whenever someone would attempt to cross the Jordan, the men of Gilead would say to him, “‘Say now ‘shibboleth,’ and he would say, ‘sibboleth,’ for he was not able to correctly pronounce it.”[ii] Apparently, Ephraim, the chief tribe of the Northern kingdom, spoke with some dialectic variance that pronounced the letter “shin” as if it were a “samekh.”

In order to convincingly argue that hozeh is disparaging, we need to see what the common word for prophet in the Northern Kingdom or in Aram was.  This can only be done using inscriptional evidence. Lucky for us, we have the Zakkur Inscription.

The Zakkur Inscription, found near Aleppo, describes King Zakkur of Hamath in his beleaguered city. In order to protect himself, he builds a higher wall, digs a deeper ditch, and prays to his god Baal Shamen for assistance. The answer to his prayers, according to the inscription, comes “byd hzyn wbyd `ddn,” “through the seers and `ddn.”[iii] Baal Shamen says to him, “Fear not, for I have made you a king and I will stand by you and I will deliver you from all these kings who have laid siege on you.”[iv] In this inscription, the agent through whom the news is delivered is called a hozeh. In addition to being the conduit between King Zakkur and Baal Shamen, the seer is delivering good news. Using this information, it is very likely that when Amaziah calls Amos a “seer,” it is not disparaging but is rather an example of simple Northern parlance. By understanding how the word hozeh is used in this inscription, we can confidently say that Amaziah’s intentional diatribe against Amos did not include a unique usage of the word hozeh.

Another section of Amos elucidated by inscriptional evidence is his “Basket of Summer Fruit” prophecy.  In the midst of a slew of prophecies against the North, Amos says, “Thus God showed me: a basket of summer fruit (keluv kayits). And He said, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ and I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ God said to me, ‘The end (kets) has come to my nation Israel.’”[v] While the wordplay between kayits and keits seems obvious, it may have resonated more sharply in the ears of a Northern Israelite. Northern Israelites made no distinction between the “ay” diphthong and “e,” so the “ay” diphthong was always pronounced as an ē. For all those who do not understand academic gibberish, let me explain.  A diphthong is a complex vowel sound that begins with the sound of one vowel and ends with the sound of another vowel, in the same syllable. Thus, the vowel sound a + y = the “ay” diphthong. This is frequently found in Hebrew words like bayit (notice the “ay” sound) and also appears in the word kayits. In Biblical Hebrew, when a word with this diphthong is placed in the construct state, meaning “x of y” (e.g. House of Jacob), the “ay” diphthong changes to an ē (a tseireh). Thus, “House of Jacob” is rendered as Bē̄it Ya’akov. In the case of Amos, the Northern Israelites presumably did not distinguish between kayits and kets, pronouncing both as kets.

Both the Gezer Calendar and the Samaria Ostraca indicate that people in Northern Israel may have always been pronouncing their “ay” diphthongs in the construct state. The Gezer Calendar is our oldest known example of Hebrew writing. Like most early inscriptions, it is written in Paleo-Hebrew, what the Talmud calls Ketav Ivri. Discovered in Gezer in Northern Israel, this four-inch tall rock bears an inscription that dates to the 10th century B.C.E. Because of its content, many scholars believe it was either a scribal exercise or a ledger of sorts. It is called a calendar because it divides the year into eight distinct time periods.  The last time period is called “yrh kz (yereh kez), month of summer fruit, using the word kez, which is a diphthong but is presented here in construct form. From this calendar, we see that at least in the Gezer region the people constructed their “ay” diphthong as an ē.

Another group of artifacts that supports the conclusion above is the Samaria Ostraca (plural for ostracon, which is a piece of shattered pottery containing written words). People in ancient societies constantly sought suitable writing media. Therefore, rocks, papyrus, clay, and anything receptive to the written word were all fair game. Pottery shards were particularly favored. Surfaces otherwise unused and disposed of, pottery shards were frequently turned into “I-owe-you”’s and various sales documents. The Samaria Ostraca represent one collection of such documents, specifically tax records, that date to somewhere between the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E. Ostracon #9 says: “In the ninth year, from Qosah, to Gediyahu: a jar of aged wine.”[vi] Although we normally expect wine to be spelled yyn (yayin), in this ostracon it is spelled yn (yē̄in). This document is close enough to the time of Amos to allow us to further establish that the people in the North did not distinguish the “ay” diphthong.

In light of this evidence, we can better understand either Amos’ intentional wordplay or some unconscious textual pun. Amos, originally from the south of Israel, does distinguish between kayits and kets. Thus, when he answers God that he sees “a basket of summer fruit,” he thinks it is an innocent object. Now imagine, for a moment, Amos’ audience. To them, there is no distinction between kets (summer fruit) and kets (end). While Amos may not foresee the outcome of his description, once his audience hears “summer fruit,” they will presumably begin cringing, understanding his words as a prediction of the destruction. Using inscriptional evidence further colors the biblical account. Starting with a single wordplay, the evidence above allows us to explore both what lies behind the wordplay, as well as the direct result of it.

Since Tanakh was written in a definite context, recourse to the world around it is of utmost importance. As seen above, inscriptional evidence elucidates and elaborates the biblical text. With it, we have understood some of the inner workings of the Northern dialect of Biblical Hebrew. Once we have done that, we see that hozeh is a non-disparaging term for prophet and that Amos’ audience may have seen the future before Amos himself. Allowing oneself to be open to this method of analysis will ultimately deepen one’s understanding of the world which produced the Tanakh, thereby strengthening his or her connection to its timeless messages.

AJ Berkovitz is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] Amos 7:12-13.

[ii] Judges 12:6.

[iii] For a discussion of what exactly this word means, see Hans M. Barstad, “The Prophet Oded and the Zakkur Inscription: A Case of Obscuriore Obscurum?,” in J. Cheryl Exum and H. G. M. Williamson (eds.), Reading from Right to Left: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honour of David J. A. Clines (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement #373) (London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2003), pp. 25-37.

[iv] Translation according to Simon B. Parker in Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions: Comparative Studies on Narratives in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 107.

[v] Amos 8:1-2.

[vi] Translation by Mark W. Chavalas, The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 396.