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The Gezer Calendar

September 6, 2018

Introduction

 

During his large-scale excavations at Gezer in September 1908, archaeologist R.A.S. Macalister discovered a small, inscribed plaque in the fill debris.  The rather crudely incised writing outlines the agricultural activities over a twelve-month period and thus constitutes a calendar.  Recovered without a proper stratigraphic context, Macalister dated the Gezer Calendar to the sixth century BC.  Scholars rightly contested this late date and most now date the inscription to the late tenth century BC, roughly the time of Solomon. For years, biblical scholars heralded this text as the oldest Hebrew inscription.  However, other early Israelite texts now predate the Gezer calendar. 

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

Located about 23 miles west of Jerusalem, Gezer was a formidable Canaanite and Israelite city.

In 1 Kings 5:15-17, Solomon rebuilt and fortified Gezer, which, along with Hazor and Megiddo, served as a secondary capital of his kingdom. Strategically located with unobstructed sweeping views from the west, Gezer controlled a great crossroads and dominated the coastal road as well as the main approach to Jerusalem via the Ayalon Valley.  The biblical accounts depict the reign of Solomon as an era of cultural awakening in Israel, with scribal schools and monumental art.  The Gezer calendar, which may represent a student’s writing exercise, seems to demonstrate the existence of such schools in Israel and at least argues for partial literacy during the early years of the monarchy. The Old Testament describes the agricultural seasons in various accounts, but never presents a complete agricultural calendar.  Some noteworthy biblical events occurred in a specific season (e.g., Numbers 13:20; Joshua 2:6: Judges 15).

 

Physical Description and Text

 

The inscribed plaque, comprised of soft limestone, measures 4 1/4 inches long (originally 5 ½ inches in length), 2 ¾ inches wide and 5/8 inch thick.  The inscription is clear and readable, but scholars discern faint marks from earlier incised texts.  This indicates that the Gezer Calendar plaque served as a palimpsest used as a scribal school exercies.  That is, a student would inscribe a text, and then scrape the soft limestone to erase it, allowing a clear surface to practice writing a new text.  The opposite side also shows traces of writing, but too faint and fragmentary to decipher.  The translation of the text is as follows:

 

His double-month is ingathering.  His double-month is sowing.  His double-month is late planting.  His month is chopping flax.  His month is barley harvest.  His month is harvest and measuring(?)  His double-month is pruning.  His month is summer fruit.  (signed on margin) Abiya(translation by McCarter 2003: 222).

 

A name on the bottom left margin, Abiya, is probably the scribe and his Yahwist name is good biblical Hebrew (Albright 1943: 22).  According to Borowski (1987: 31-44), ingathering refers to olives, sowing refers to cereals (Genesis 8:22; Leviticus 26:5), two months of late sowing refers to legumes and vegetables.  The month of harvest and measuring is for wheat and grain respectively (Genesis 30:14; Judges 15:1; Ruth 2:23), and the two months of pruning refers to the grape harvest (Leviticus 26:5; Numbers 13:20; 2 Samuel 16:1; Isaiah 24:13; Jeremiah 40:10-12; Amos 8:1-2).  Moreover, the text betrays a poetic composition and was probably a spoken rhyme commonly repeated at that time.

 

Historical Significance

 

The Gezer Calendar remains one of the most important early west Semitic inscriptions and arguably demonstrates schooling and limited literacy in late tenth century BC Israel. While earlier generations of scholars assumed the text was Hebrew, some scholars now maintain, based upon several Phoenician characteristics, that it may not be Israelite.  However, some of these features are also known in northern Hebrew (Pardee 1997: 401).  The paucity of early Hebrew epigraphic material for comparison, coupled with its clearly Israelite provenance (the Israelite name and the fact that Gezer was located in Ephraimite territory), strongly suggests that the Gezer Calendar is a Hebrew document despite the presence of some northern features and faithfully documents an ancient Israelite agricultural calendar for an entire year (Sivan 1998).

 

Parallels

 

Most of not all ancient Near Eastern cultures followed agricultural calendars and recognized seasons. Several cultures apart from Israel, such as the Babylonians, Hittites and Canaanites (at Ugarit) also celebrated agriculture and harvest time with festivals.

 

Bibliography

 

Albright, W. F.

1943    The Gezer Calendar.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research92: 16-26.

 

Borowski, O.

1987    Agriculture in Iron Age Israel.  Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

 

McCarter, P. K.

2003    The Gezer Calendar.  P. 222 in Volume 2 of The Context of Scripture:  Monumental                    Inscriptions from the Biblical World,eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger. Leiden:  Brill.

 

Pardee, D.

1997    Gezer Calendar.  Pp. 400-401 in Volume 2 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology              in the Near East, ed. E. M. Meyers.  New York:  Oxford University.

 

Rollston, C. A.

2010    Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel:  Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron              Age.  Archaeology and Biblical Studies 11.  Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature.

 

Sivan, D.

1998    The Gezer Calendar and Northwest Semitic Linguistics. Israel Exploration Journal 48:              101-105.

 

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