Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

Uncovering Ancient Trade Networks: A Sabaean in Jerusalem?

The 10th-century BCE inscribed pithos from the Ophel (photo: Daniel Vainstub; all rights reserved © Dr. Eilat Mazar; after Mazar 2015).

A recent study has shed light on an ancient inscription found on a pithos shoulder during Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the Ophel region of Jerusalem. The inscription, which dates back to the 10th century BCE, has been the subject of many interpretations that have concluded that it was written in Canaanite script. Yet, this study argues that the inscription was actually engraved in the Ancient South Arabian script, and that the language used is Sabaean.

The inscription reads ]šy ladanum 5. The word “ladanum” refers to the aromatic resin of the Cistus ladaniferus plant, which was an important component of incense in ancient times. In fact, the word “ladanum” is believed by some to appear in the Bible as šǝḥēlet, the second component of the Tabernacle incense according to Exodus 30:34. This word has been translated as onycha and believed to be a product derived from sea snails. Such an origin, however, would be at odds with the well-known laws that designate such creatures as being forbidden. Thus, the alternative translation of “ladanum” not only makes a great deal of sense given the language of the inscription, but also is in keeping with the established laws. Conjecturally, it might also suggest that functions such as incense burning were still being carried out in the Temple after the Ark itself had probably fallen into disuse, as is indicated by the continuation of sacrifices under Solomon and later kings.

What is particularly interesting about this discovery is that the inscription was engraved on the pithos before it was fired, speculatively suggesting that a Sabaean functionary responsible for the aromatic components of incense was active in Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon. This sheds new light on the international trade networks that existed in the ancient world and highlights the importance of incense.

While there are still some who dispute the interpretation of the inscription, this study represents an important contribution to our understanding of the ancient world and the role of international trade in shaping cultural practices. It is a reminder that even small discoveries can have a significant impact on our understanding of history.

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The above was coauthored with Adam R. Hemmings, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he specialized in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological and heritage law. He is currently engaged in research for his PhD regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.
About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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