Two 3,800-year-old Cuneiform Tablets Found in Iraq Give First Glimpse of Hebrew Precursor

The ancient tablets, uncovered 30 years ago during the Gulf War and forgotten until now, offer a first glimpse of the Amorite language that Hebrew developed from

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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One of the tablets found in Iraq.
One of the tablets found in Iraq.Credit: David Owen/ דויד אוואן
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

It’s not every day that Assyriologists have thrilling news to celebrate.

These scholars of the history, archeology and language of ancient Mesopotamia spend most of their time poring over languages like Akkadian, Sumerian, Elamite, Aramaic and Ugaritic, and arduously trying to decipher cuneiform tablets. But this past week was different. “This is something sensational. I’m excited,” says Professor Nathan Wasserman of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaelogy and Department of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations. His colleague from the Tel Aviv University Archeology Department, Professor Yoram (Yori) Cohen, calls it a “paradigm change” of “very fundamental significance,” and doesn’t hesitate to use the word “amazing.”

The big news from the ancient world centers on two cuneiform tablets that have been dated to 1800 B.C.E., 3,800 years ago. This was the era of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king known for the Code of Hammurabi – the most comprehensive codex of laws in the ancient East, which scholars liken to the laws of the Torah.

The two tablets were found in Iraq during the Gulf War and were transferred (some would say stolen) from there to a safe place overseas. However, they subsequently got swallowed up among thousands of other documents and archeological findings from the field. Only recently, more than 30 years after their discovery, did they catch the eye of two researchers. “Andrew George of the University of London and Manfred Krebernik of Germany’s University of Jena are the Ronaldo and Messi of the archeology world,” says Wasserman, as a way of making his field of scholarship more relatable for the wider public.

In the latest issue of Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale, which is published in France, the pair published photographs of these tablets along with a meticulous analysis of the information on them.

The text on the tablets resembles a language manual that is divided into two parts. On the first are words and phrases in the Amorite/Canaanite language – an extinct ancient language of which scholars hitherto had very little knowledge, and the second contains their translation into Akkadian, a known language that can be read and translated.

“In this text, which is very, very ancient, words appear that anyone who knows Hebrew will immediately recognize. You don’t have to be a linguist to understand the connection to Hebrew,” Cohen says. “Basically, we’re looking at our forefathers here,” he adds. “This is a very significant discovery for anyone who speaks Hebrew,” Wasserman comments.

Cohen adds that the text proves “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that arleady in the second millennium B.C.E there was a spoken language that was very close to Hebrew, which has been heretofore only known from the first millennium B.C.E.

Cohen transcribed the Amorite/Canaanite text from cuneiform into Hebrew letters and presented a modern Hebrew translation. The result speaks for itself. The line ti -nam me -e la - a - i -de -ni translates to ten mayim al yadenu (“Give water on our hands”); ia - a - a -nam si -qí-ni - a -ti becomes yeinam shiqiniti (“Pour us wine”); si - ḫa šu -ul - ḫ a -nam is have et hashulhan (“Fetch the table”); la - a ḫ -ma -am bi -lam na - a -NAM is have lehem eleinu (“Bring us bread”); and bi -ik -ra -ti -ia za -ba - a - ḫa a -na DI ĜIR -ia la -am - [ti] -in equals et zevah bikurai lo eten le’eli (“I will make a sacrifice to my god”).

This language manual, which also includes sentences related to meetings between people, to addressing a king, to food preparation and to situations from everyday life, is practically the only documentation of the Amorite/Canaanite language and the fullest example of it to date. “Up to now, we’ve had a very fragmented acquaintance with Amorite/Canaanite, mainly from proper nouns and from a number of nouns from Babylonia and Canaan. And now suddenly the language is revealed to us with full documentation, with grammar, vocabulary, phrases and even poetry,” Cohen says.

Wasserman can hardly conceal his excitement over this text and from other parts of it that contain names of gods as well as expressions of love. “It’s pretty incredible. They were actually speaking a kind of Hebrew. It’s not really Hebrew, but it’s close to Hebrew,” he says. Cohen describes their language as “the mother of Hebrew” and says that “most scholars agree that Hebrew developed from it and is related to it.”

Who were the Amorites whose language has just been discovered?

“That’s the biggest riddle,” says Cohen.

“It was a people that arose all of a sudden – or to be more precise – reached political maturity – around 1800 B.C.E.,” Wasserman says. In the Bible, the Amorites are mentioned as one of the nations that dwelled in Canaan at the time that it was conquered by the Israelite tribes. The Israelites were commanded to “cut off” their descendants, and in the Book of Amos, they are described as being “as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks.”

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