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The Invention of Hebrew, by Seth L. Sanders. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 258 pp.  $50.00.


The very title of Seth L. Sanders’s audacious book is already a bit startling, inasmuch as natural languages—as opposed to, say, Esperanto and Fortran—cannot be said to be “inventions.” What Sanders actually has in mind is the invention of vernacular literature, specifically, ancient Israel’s creation of a standard written Hebrew that could serve as its language of culture and administration. In the Late Bronze Age, writing in one or another imperial dialect (using cuneiform, naturally) was de rigueur among scribal circles of the Ancient Near East. Why, then, did Israelite writers suddenly adopt the alphabet and turn to their native Hebrew in the ninth century B.C.E.? What in particular is the social significance of this linguistic displacement? To answer such questions, this prodigiously researched and wide-ranging study focuses not so much on the Bible as on the epigraphical data. The result is a thought-provoking social history of writing, combining philology, anthropology, and political theory. Sanders’s overarching claim is that the rise of written vernacular forms in the Iron Age Levant—ultimately, the Bible itself—signals a new mode of political communication, one that introduced a new actor into history, namely, the people.

              The book consists of four central chapters framed by a brief introduction and conclusion. In Chapter One, Sanders traces in broad strokes the development of modern biblical studies in relation to general intellectual history, in an attempt to explain why the field has “lost sight of . . . the socially creative dimension of how a text speaks, not just what it says” (p. 14). He places particular emphasis on two pairs of intellectual figures: Hobbes and Spinoza, Lowth and Herder. Invoking the first pair establishes a first major premise: that the Bible is a specimen of “political communication.” Invoking the second establishes a second major premise: that this political communication must be related to a people and a place. Chapter Two begins by surveying the early history of the alphabet and its first tentative uses, but the main goal here is to explore the significance of the first two known instances of vernacular literature, that of Ugarit and, later, Israel. It culminates in a fascinating comparison of the Ugaritic “ritual for national atonement and unity” (p. 59) and the biblical Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). In both, one witnesses the appearance of a new political entity, namely, the people as a collective participant in history; in both, this entity is addressed as “you.” The kin-based political model of West Semitic cultures—versus the monarchic model of Mesopotamia and Egypt—he finally argues, provides the proper context for understanding this social-linguistic development.

              Chapters Three and Four trace the historical transition itself. Chapter Three describes how, under Egyptian rule of the Late Bronze Age Levant, cosmopolitan cuneiform dominated the realm of writing, leaving little to no room for local dialects. The Amarna Letters are noteworthy for recording the linguistic interference of West Semitic grammar. Otherwise, local languages enjoyed a furtive textual existence as mere snatches of alphabetic writing in the interstices of imperial power: abecedaries, objects scribbled with indications of private ownership, etc. (It was against this backdrop that Ugarit managed to express some level of local cultural autonomy.) Chapter Four finally focuses on the burgeoning of alphabetic vernacular writing in the Iron Age Levant, of which Israel was merely one, albeit major, instance. Sanders shrewdly interprets it as a West Semitic response to the rise of Assyria in the wake of Egyptian rule. Ironically, it was the voice of the Assyrian king, “speaking” to his vassal states through imperial cuneiform monuments, that constituted these as subjects, as they “recognized” themselves as objects of foreign power. By “imitating,” in turn, these cosmopolitan literary forms, local peoples began to write in their own languages (pp. 120–22), as evidenced in the roughly contemporary monumental inscriptions in Moabite, Ammonite, and Aramaic, not to mention later Hebrew inscriptions.

              Sanders’s central thesis is compelling and important, but aspects of his argument need clarifying. What, e.g., is a vernacular? And how is it related to writing? All cuneiform languages presumably originated in someone’s mother tongue. At what point, then, did each stop being a vernacular? When it ceased being spoken? When it evolved into an artificial amalgam of dialects? And yet, the “illustrious vernacular” Dante forged was by design no one’s mother tongue; it was rather a cosmopolitan language combining elements of several Italian dialects. The vernacular literatures of Ugarit and Israel may have been purely alphabetic, but so was Latin throughout its career as a dead language of learning. The vernacular literatures of modern Japan and China, conversely, are not. I do not mean to suggest that the adoption of the alphabet and of West Semitic vernaculars in the Iron Age Levant were not significant literary developments. The description (and therefore analysis) of these developments, however, could be more precise.

              I also wonder how to understand Sanders’s seamless intertwining of the “history of scripts or languages” with the history “of genres and participants” (p. 104; see also p. 77). Is there a non-trivial relation between the former and the latter? The Ugaritic “Epic of Baal,” alphabetic and vernacular, does not seem to differ significantly from the Babylonian “Enuma Elish” in terms of genre—3rd-person narrative poetry, etc.—however much they may differ in other details. If Sanders is right to attach significance, within the history of genres and participants, to the appearance of “you” in reference to “the people,” I do not think he succeeds thereby in offering a fully satisfying “explanation of how [biblical] literature became possible” (p. 7). For this deictic pronoun does not characterize biblical prose narrative—which apparently requires another explanation. Thus, if it is “the people” in 1 Samuel 8 who demand a king, what distinguishes this view of kingship from Hammurabi’s “imperial ideology” is more profound than what Sanders’s approach allows (pp. 152–53). Behind the apparent hubris of Hammurabi’s fantastic claim to have assumed the throne at the time of creation lies the mythic idea that human institutions are nontemporal, i.e., aspects of the unchanging cosmos. Behind texts such as 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17 lies the revolutionary idea that such institutions are temporal, originating in the flux of human existence. Biblical literature not only introduced the people into history; it invented the concept of history itself.

              Such reservations, however, cannot tarnish the significance of Sanders’s book. The many questions it raises are evidence of its freshness of conception and approach. It deserves to be read closely, its claims considered carefully.

Robert S. Kawashima

University of Florida