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The Book of Genesis

Two questions based on the book of Genesis—Abraham and the Creation.

Letter to the pharaoh from the governor of Megiddo
Letter to the pharaoh from the governor of Megiddo

Q. Was there a written language in Abraham’s time and what did the alphabet look like in those times?

A. This question assumes that Abraham is a datable historical figure, a claim that many, if not most, biblical scholars would contest.  But let me take your question instead to mean: Was there a written language at the time when Abraham was supposed to have lived, and was it alphabetic?

Written languages first developed in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium, with Sumerian, which was later replaced by Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew.  Neither of these used an alphabet; instead they were written syllabically, so that the inventory of signs used in any one period was several hundred, to express all possible syllable combinations.  Alphabets developed late in the second millennium B.C.E., likely under the influence of the Egyptian practice of writing foreign names using an alphabetic system within their otherwise complex system of hieroglyphics.  Thus Hebrew and related languages have a 22-letter alphabet that by and large expresses consonants only—the reader had to “guess” the vowels from context.  But the development of alphabets in the ancient Near East was long after the period in which Abraham would have lived according to the biblical chronology; the biblical Abraham would have written syllabically in Akkadian in cuneiform (wedged-shaped writing impressed on clay tablets), rather than writing in any alphabet. —MZB

Q. In all creation accounts God says ‘Let us create this and this. . .’ To whom is God referring to? I thought that God created alone; why then does he speak in the plural?

A. Good question! In the past, Christian interpreters saw a reference to the Christian trinity in these plurals in Gen 1, and Jewish interpreters have had a multitude of explanations. Now, however, most scholars agree that these references to plurals in Gen 1:26 (“Let us create humanity,” author’s translation) and also Gen 3:22 and Gen 11:7, are either a special expression in Hebrew for decision making, a “plural of deliberation,” or a reflection of the idea that the God of Israel had a “council” of semi-divine beings that did God’s bidding and were available for God’s consultation. This “divine council” is found in the texts of surrounding nations, and also seems to be reflected in some other scriptural texts. You can find a good overview of this idea in Chapter 2, “The Divine Council,” in Mark Smith’s, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (Oxford, 2001).

  • David Carr

    David M. Carr is the author, most recently, of Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press, 2014), which retells the story of the emergence of the Bible and of Judaism and Christianity as a story of survival of trauma. He is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York and is the author of numerous other books, including The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible (Blackwell, 2010).

  • Marc Zvi Brettler

    Marc Zvi Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is the author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007) and coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.