Sinai 361 (also photo below), with etchings highlighted in black and the proposed Hebrew equivalents added in green, which contain the name “Moses” in the lower right corner. (credit: Douglas Petrovich)

Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the LORD your God… ” – Exodus 10:7-8

In this third of a three-part series, we will look at perhaps the most profound and controversial interpretation proposed by Dr. Douglas Petrovich, and the debate that followed his announcements. As seen in Parts 1 and 2, Petrovich has proposed that there is now sufficient evidence to establish Hebrew as the world’s oldest alphabet. If verified, this would push the first instance of Hebrew script nearly a thousand years earlier than previously thought, allowing the possibility that Moses actually was the author of the earliest writings in the Bible in the eyes of academia. This series of Egyptian inscriptions may also validate much of the history recorded in the Bible for the period of the Exodus.

Of the controversial texts that originated from Serâbît el-Khâdim, the turquoise mines controlled by the Egyptians just west of the traditional Mount Sinai, one in particular raises the temperature of this debate. Sinai 361 (hand drawing above and photo below) may contain the name “Moses” and actually refer to the year in which the plagues and devastation were visited on Egypt. The inscription is laid out in vertical columns from right to left with Moses (actually, the Hebrew “Moshe”) being mentioned at the bottom of the first column on the right. Petrovich reads this inscription as follows:

“Our bound servitude had lingered, Moses then provoked astonishment, it is the year of astonishment, because of the lady.”

The “astonishment” could pertain to the Judgment step seen in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus when Egypt was devastated. The present tense used in the inscription could mean that the message was even written as the plagues were in the process of playing out.

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. – Exodus 7:3-4 (ESV)

The references to bondage, a year of astonishment, and that this was provoked by “Moses,” all remarkably fit the Exodus account of the plagues and exodus out of slavery in Egypt as described in the Bible. Petrovich believes “the Lady” spoken of refers to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who was often depicted as a horned cow. The Bible records the Israelites’ tendency to revere the gods of Egypt as seen in the golden calf incident at Mount Sinai. A reference to this rebellion and what may be the year of astonishment occurs in Psalm 78.

How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!

They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel.

They did not remember his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,

when he performed his signs in Egypt and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.

He turned their rivers to blood, so that they could not drink of their streams.

He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them, and frogs, which destroyed them.

He gave their crops to the destroying locust and the fruit of their labor to the locust.

He destroyed their vines with hail and their sycamores with frost.

He gave over their cattle to the hail and their flocks to thunderbolts.

He let loose on them his burning anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels.

He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague.

He struck down every firstborn in Egypt, the first fruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.

Then he led out his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. – Psalm 78:40-52 (ESV)

Photo of Sinai 361, part of a stone slab from Egypt, which Dr. Douglas Petrovich proposes contains the name Moses.

This inscription (along with the Sinai 375a inscription naming Ahisamach) includes no date, but Professor Petrovich assigns a date in the 18th Dynasty around 1446 BC, based on pottery remains from that period found in the caves. David Rohl, who favors the Exodus occurring at the end of the 13th Dynasty, counters that pottery can only be used to date items found in the same layer as the pottery when dealing with stratified remains in the ground. So a separate inscription on a rock wall or Stela found above ground cannot be linked to any pottery finds, especially at sites in an area known to have a long history like this one.

Petrovich replied that the principle to which Rohl was referring does not apply to a carved mine, but only to sites where architecture experienced various phases of construction/reconstruction with new floor levels that cleared out old material regularly. In contrast, Petrovich noted that that these mining shafts were only used by a band of males who visited this remote site no more than once per year for seasonal/annual mining activity. There would not have been maids, cleaning services, or renovating within the mine shafts. If the mines that yielded New Kingdom inscriptions had been used in earlier periods, there would be visible evidence of it preserved in these shafts. Yet none exists.

While Professor Petrovich admits that the datable pottery evidence is no guarantee of the first use of the mines, he believes there is enough evidence along various lines to ensure that these particular mines were not used during the Middle Kingdom. And so the debate goes on. Petrovich believes his reconstruction of the development of the earliest Hebrew script also strongly supports his view that these later inscriptions are from the New Kingdom. Once again, whether late 13th Dynasty or early 18th Dynasty, these inscriptions appear to pre-date a Ramesses Exodus by centuries.

In an article in Breaking Israel News Petrovich points to other “Bible-esque” statements that he has deciphered. A statement reading, “Wine is more abundant than the daylight, than the baker, than a freeman,” was found in an inscription from late in the 12th Dynasty.

Another inscription (this one from Sinai 375a, and nearer the time of the Exodus) reads, “The one having been elevated is weary to forget.” This is from the inscription bearing the name Ahisamach and is in a form normally used for autobiographical messages. While Professor Petrovich has not asserted this link, I find the wording uncannily similar to the account of Joseph being raised to second in command after being cast out by his brothers. This action caused him to be enslaved in Egypt and then thrown into prison for several years before being elevated. So the question is, could this message be alluding to or identifying with the Joseph account – or merely a coincidental use of similar words? Either way, it appears to be more support that the inscription is Hebrew.

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 41:39-41 (ESV)

Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” – Genesis 41:51 (ESV) [Manasseh sounds like the Hebrew phrase for making to forget]

Petrovich explains that other Semitic languages do not result in sensible renderings for these inscriptions, which is why they have never been interpreted before. And few have thought the Israelites were this early, so Hebrew was not considered an option. This earliest version of Hebrew could be thought of as “Hebrew 1.0,” and according to Petrovich it alone works at translating the Egyptian inscriptions. “There were many ‘A-ha!’ moments along the way,” he stated, “because I was stumbling across Biblical figures never attested before in the epigraphical record, or seeing connections that I had not understood before.”

Professor Douglas N. Petrovich teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada.

Petrovich continued, “My discoveries are so controversial because if correct, they will rewrite the history books and undermine much of the assumptions and misconceptions about the ancient Hebrew people and the Bible that have become commonly accepted in the scholarly world and taught as factual in the world’s leading universities.”

As expected, criticism swiftly followed Petrovich’s presentation at ASOR. The primary critique thus far has come from Dr. Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, one of the leading American scholars in the field of epigraphy and ancient inscriptions from the area of the Levant. On December 10, 2016, he wrote an article on his website titled: The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions 2.0: Canaanite Language and Canaanite Script, Not Hebrew. In it he stated the following:

“As for the script of these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol, the best terms are “Early Alphabetic,” or “Canaanite.” Some prefer the term “Proto-Sinaitic Script.” Any of these terms is acceptable. But it is absolutely and empirically wrong to suggest that the script of the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol is the Hebrew script, or the Phoenician script, or the Aramaic script, or the Moabite script, or the Ammonite script, or the Edomite script. The script of these inscriptions … is not one of the distinctive national scripts (such as Phoenician or Hebrew or Aramaic, etc.), but rather it is the early ancestor of all of these scripts and we term that early ancestor: Early Alphabetic.”

Professor Rollston is arguing that these inscriptions can’t be called Hebrew because they are clearly “Early Alphabetic” or “Canaanite” (what many call Proto-Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic), and Canaanite can’t be said to be in any particular language, therefore it can’t be Hebrew. But Petrovich is arguing against the very premise and the conventional thinking that the Early Alphabetic script can’t be thought of as being in one particular national language. Obviously, some group of Semites who spoke some particular language developed it – and why not the Hebrews? The developers of the Early Alphabetic script had to be either the Hebrews or the Phoenicians or the Arameans or the Moabites or the Ammonites or the Edomites or the Midianites etc. One of them had to have been the first. And it just so happens that the Hebrews were in Egypt at just the time that this Semitic script developed from hieroglyphs into alphabetic symbols, and these earliest inscriptions just happen to feature the unique names of characters from the biblical story of the Israelites in Egypt and later during the Exodus.

It is true that there is a script called “Hebrew” (or Paleo-Hebrew) that can be seen in inscriptions from around 1000 or 900 BC, and this “Hebrew” script is different than the earliest alphabetic script. But no one is disputing that point. The question is whether there is a precursor to that script – an earlier form of Hebrew (what Petrovich likes to call “Proto-consonantal Hebrew”) – which was the world’s first alphabet and has been called Early Alphabetic (or Proto-Canaanite) up until now. This script would then have developed into various branches used by the different groups in the region, including a gradual development into later forms of Hebrew like the one called Paleo-Hebrew today. The new book by Petrovich discusses this process extensively. He points to evidence showing that the Hebrew letters continuously evolved, becoming less pictographic over time, until eventually being converted into block letters.

The development of Proto-consonantal Hebrew as proposed by Douglas Petrovich

Rollston focuses the majority of his critique on Petrovich’s interpretation of some words as “Hebrew” when they, in fact, appear in other Semitic languages and can have several possible meanings. But a large part of Petrovich’s argument relies on the context of these inscriptions using uniquely biblical names in the correct time periods when those figures were active. Additionally his case rests on the claim that some of these inscriptions can only make sense when the Hebrew terms are supplied rather than the other options. To assess the strength of that argument, scholars will need to read the full proposal set out in Petrovich’s new book, something no one has been able to do yet. Petrovich will lay out his findings in full in the first of his forthcoming volumes; The World’s Oldest Alphabet available now through Carta out of Jerusalem.

In an exchange on Facebook, David Rohl said it was valid for Rallston to classify these early writings as Semitic. But Rohl pointed out that Rollston’s reasons for not considering “Hebrew” as the type of Semitic involved, were dependant on his view that Israelites only existed in the centuries immediately preceding Ramesses II, and not as early as these inscriptions. If Rohl’s (or Petrovich’s) view was correct, the Israelites were around in the 12th Dynasty and Hebrew should be considered as a legitimate candidate for these earliest alphabetic inscriptions. Rollston responded, “Oh, David, you are so utterly mistaken about so much. It will serve no purpose for me to try to point such things out to you again…it would serve no useful purpose. So sorry. My analysis is based on actual inscriptions, diagnostic elements of language and script. Bless your heart. Be well and prosper. Sincerely, Chris”

The lack of willingness to engage in this important aspect of the debate caused Rohl to throw up his hands and say there is no way to force scholars to question their long-held traditions – academic inertia is hard to overcome. We look forward to continuing the debate in our upcoming Patterns of Evidence film series, hopefully with Douglas Petrovich and Christopher Rollston participating.

Professor Petrovich summed up, “Truth is un–killable, so if I am correct, my findings will outlast scholarly scrutiny. I have no doubt whatsoever that Hebrew is the world’s oldest alphabet.”