Category Archives: Writing

Kindle edition now released

Yes, the Kindle edition is now out!

In a Milk and Honeyed Land eBook: Richard Abbott: Kindle Store

— or — Kindle Store

I will update the main page later today

Book review – “Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel”

This is a book review I placed on Amazon (uk) for Christopher Rollston’s fine book. The complete title is in fact Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age but that seemed a little too long for the post title!

The link to this book is:

I was very happy to give this a 5* review, and here follows my comments…
I thoroughly enjoyed this book by Christopher Rollston, and would happily recommend it to anyone interested in the subject of ancient near eastern writing. Anyone who has been following Rollston’s academic publications or blog articles will find few surprises, but a wide range of his ideas on iron age writing are gathered together in a convenient way. It has also provided the opportunity to give up to date (as at c.2010) descriptions of the relevant archaeological finds, many of which include line drawings of the items.

The book has two main sections, followed by a short discussion of the difficult issue of how to (and when not to) make use of pieces acquired from unknown or unidentified locations – an issue Rollston has campaigned on for some time now.

The first main part describes the collection of relevant source materials, from the eleventh century through to the sixth BCE. The geographic range is from Phoenicia through Israel to trans-Jordan. This section includes brief forays into topics which Rollston has investigated in more depth elsewhere. For example, there is a short passage outlining his disagreement with Sass concerning the date of the Phoenician royal inscriptions. Now, this highlights one of the minor weaknesses of the book. If you were interested in this matter (and it affects the reconstruction of the chronology of the ancient near east) you would not find enough in this book to satisfy you. There are plentiful references to help you find out more, but the summary in the book itself is so short that if you had not known about the issue previously, you could easily pass it by without realising its import.

Also in this first main section, there is a great deal of description, with diagrams, of the evolutionary development of particular letter shapes. This is in support of Rollston’s main contention, that Hebrew did not emerge as a distinctive written script until the ninth century. He is careful to separate this from the question of when Hebrew might have emerged as a distinct spoken language, and gives several examples of how one written script may represent several spoken languages (for example, all of the many contemporary languages which use the Latin alphabet). But about written Hebrew, his ideas are very clear. For example, he says that before the middle of the ninth century BC “there is nothing distinctive of Old Hebrew… the Old Hebrew script had not yet been developed“, and again, “Old Hebrew became a distinct national script during the ninth century… [it’s creation was]… a nationalist statement, not merely an evolutionary development.” He argues that the early written items which predate this and have been found within the borders of Israel use the Phoenician script, not Old Hebrew, but without that fact having a necessary connection to the ethnicity of the writer.

This will again come as no surprise to those who have followed his work, and Rollston is careful to point out those scholars who disagree with him, and give the main reasons for both positions. He comes over throughout the book as a fair and generous debater, though methodical and determined as regards his own views.

The second main section looks at the social position and training of the scribe, and the general level of literacy skills in the population at large. Once again his arguments will surprise no-one who has read his previous work. Writing, he holds, was the province of a skilled elite, trained in a variety of necessary talents. He is prepared to accept the existence of a wider group of people with very low levels of skill, perhaps able to read a few key words related to their job, or to roughly scrawl their name. However, he does not accept the older view that literacy was commonplace in an iron age society using an alphabetic script. Drawing on modern insights into the process of how literacy develops in childhood, as well as the ancient record itself, he argues his case persuasively. To be literate in the ancient world, whether using the newer alphabetic or the older syllabic scripts, required mastery of a range of skills, and demanded accuracy and consistency of production. This took time, and training.

This naturally flows into his high view of the office of scribe itself, which is best expressed in his own words: “the Old Hebrew epigraphic record reflects depth, sophistication, and consistency… most consistent with the presence of a mechanism for the formal, standardized education of scribal elites in ancient Israel.

To sum up, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel is clearly written, and engaging in its range of topics and presentation. It seems to me to be highly accessible to a general audience, and readers who are not interested in the specific details of letter shapes can still readily follow the basic arguments that these support. Some readers may be disappointed that there is not more new material contained in its 171 pages, or more speculative advance into some issues relating to the production of complex and extensive literature in the first half of the first millennium BC. However, it is a very convenient and well-resourced summary of his stance on matters that interest him – and indeed me. I am very happy to have purchased it and have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

On a personal note, readers of my (fictional) work In a Milk and Honeyed Land will recognise that many of the assumptions there about the role of the scribe, and the general level of literacy, owe a great debt to Rollston’s work. I am very happy to see that he has reaffirmed and indeed strengthened his position on these matters in this book!

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (2)

The last blog entry looked at a simple example of a parallel couplet:

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

They are called parallel because matching words are placed at the same place along each line – Joe and Mary, cooked and made, and main course and sweet. This time we’ll look at some variations of this simple pattern that poets in the ancient world used to give flexibility and interest to their work.

One way was to drop the verb from the second line, and use the “extra space” gained by doing that to add some description for one or other of the remaining words. The technical term for this is “verb deletion”.

So we could have

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary the special sweet


Joe cooked the main course
    Skilful Mary the sweet

In both cases the logic of parallel lines means that you do not really need the verb made on the second line – the pattern of the first line makes it obvious what is going on. The use of an adjective here means that something more of a background story can be hinted at. So the second of those examples suggests that the two of them divided up the jobs because Mary was particularly adept at desserts. But if instead we said:

Joe cooked the main course
    Time-pressed Mary the sweet

then the background issue is not that of skill, but of opportunity.

Perhaps the most important ancient world variation on the parallel couplet is called chiasmus, from a Greek word with the broad meaning of crossing over. To do this, we reverse the order of the second line:

Joe cooked the main course
    The sweet was made by Mary

Now, instead of corresponding parts being in the same place on their lines, they swap over. Joe is at the start of the first line, Mary at the end of the second. Main course ends the first line, sweet starts the second. If you were to join the matching pieces of each half of the couplet with straight lines, then a simple parallel couplet would have these lines going vertically down the screen or page. With chiasmus, the lines form an X on the page or screen, the Greek letter chi (as in chi-asmus).

As well as giving some variation for the sake of interest, and avoiding an endless series of parallel couplets, chiasmus also gives the poet a chance to give some overall shape to the poem. It is quite common to have a couplet using chiasmus at the centre of a poem, or at some other logical place where there is a turning point of mood or action. Perhaps if we were to write the rest of the Joe and Mary poem, the first half might be all about Joe, and the second half all about Mary, with the chiasmus helping to make the changeover. In this way, the poet can also indicate more serious changes, such as from defeat to victory, sin to repentance, despair to hope, and so on. It can be a very compact and versatile way to indicate a change of situation. Sadly, many modern translations of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient poems do not keep the particular pattern of chiasmus, but change the word order back into direct parallel lines.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land includes some fragments of poetry using these variations. Both kinds can be found in the oath that Damariel swears to Nepheret shortly after they set out towards Kephrath. He starts with chiasmus:

Listen, all you gods of the nations,
    in the divine assembly take note.

He then moves on to verb deletion, omitting the verb in the second half of the following couplet and lengthening the description of himself to a short phrase:

Record the words of Damariel,
    the oath of the son of Yeresheth.

He completes the verse part of his promise with another chiasmus:

Nepheret’s freedom was bought for her pleasure,
    and for her own delight has she been released.

Of course, these words were not supposed to be carefully crafted and designed poetry, but part of a promise he made up on the spur of the moment outside Gedjet (modern Gaza). I have assumed that the habits of speech and rhythm that he knew in his “professional” life would spill over into parts of conversation that he might consider to be formal, such as this promise.

There are actually a great many examples of chiasmus scattered through the book, as it is a literary device that I am very fond of. Some, like the examples above, are embedded in a poem or portion of direct speech, but many others can be found in the descriptive text. Still others can be found on a larger scale again. See how many examples you can find where chiasmus is used to steer and shape the plot.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (1)

Today’s post looks at the most basic ingredient of ancient near eastern poetry. Literally thousands of example lines of this kind can be found from all cultures in the region, ranging in date over the whole of antiquity. This ingredient has been called “parallelism” or “the parallel couplet” since at least the mid-1700’s here in England, when Robert Lowth gave his lecture series entitled “On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews”.

A parallel couplet, at its simplest, is a pair of lines in which words at corresponding places in each line servethe same function and have similar meanings. A basic English example might be

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

This could hardly be considered a great piece of poetry, but it shows the key features. Joe and Mary are both personal names, cooked and made are both action-words, and main course and sweet are the results of the action. From simple examples of this kind, much more interesting and creative poems can be built. Later articles will return to Joe and Mary to see how this can be done.

From the point of view of translation, parallel couplets are enormously helpful. This is for several different reasons. First, they show us where poetic lines start and end. Although modern poems are displayed in a page or screen so that the lines are obvious, just as I did with Joe and Mary’s meal preparation, thus was not usually the case in antiquity. Space on a monument, some papyrus, or a clay tablet was at a premium, and we typically find that lines of poetry or even individual words are wrapped around the physical edges of the material with no indication like a hyphen.

Secondly, the nature of parallel lines helps us to guess the general meaning of words that are otherwise obscure. Back with Joe and Mary, if someone had never come across sweet as a shorthand for dessert they would still guess it was part of a meal.

Finally, translating such lines of poetry can be based on understanding the meaning of a word, rather than its sound quality or secondary puns that might be made. So it is comparatively easy to translate into other languages. In contrast, poems that rely heavily on rhyme patterns are notoriously hard, since the chance that two words matching in meaning will also match in rhyme is very small. Of course some features will be lost in translation. Someone fluent in English will spot the play on words between Mary and merry, or made and maid, and might suspect that the poem is hinting that Mary might be, or might become, sweet. These extra details would almost certainly be lost if those lives were translated into another language, but the main sense of the couplet would be preserved.

An example from In a Milk and Honeyed Land is the following, used at the start of the third chapter:

Refreshing like rain are my words,
    distilling like dew is my speech,
like cloudbursts upon the grassland,
    or rainfall upon the young crops.

It is based loosely on some verses near the start of the “Song of Moses”, found in the biblical book of Deuteronomy 32. The principles of the Joe and Mary couplet can be seen here, along with some other techniques that enrich the simple couplets. Later blogs will explore some of these strategies for developing basic examples into more elaborate and interesting structures.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8