The Word in the Stone

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.

Many of you have read by now of the “Jehoash inscription,” the black stone tablet with an ancient Hebrew text allegedly found by Palestinian workers while digging on the Temple Mount and purportedly dating to the reign of the Judean king Jehoash in the ninth century BCE. If this inscription is authentic, it would be a sensational find, for it would not only be one of the earliest Hebrew texts in our possession, it would provide unprecedented confirmation of the accuracy of a passage in the book of Kings — one of the many historical books of the Bible whose reliability has long been under challenge.

But is it authentic? Although the geologists who examined it are sure it is, some biblical scholars suspect a hoax. Linguistically, they say, the inscription raises serious doubts. One of these has to do with the Hebrew expression bedek bayit. In 2 Kings 12:12-13, following a description of how Jehoash collected money for a renovation of the Temple, we read:

Then they gave the money that was weighted out into the hands of the workmen who had the oversight of the house of the Lord; and they paid it out to the carpenters and the builders who worked upon the house of the Lord, and to the masons and stonecutters, as well as to buy timber and quarried stone for the bedek beyt adonai.

And in the “Jehoash inscription,” which tells of the same renovation in the form of a royal declaration by Jehoash himself, the text proclaims:

And I made the bedek ha-bayit, and the walls around, and the yatsi’a, and the s’vakhim, and the stairs, and the gra’ot, and the doors. And this day is a testimony that the work went well. May God command blessing on His people.

Yatsi’a, s’vakhim and gra’ot are all words referring to uncertain architectural elements of the Temple; the first two of them can be found in 1 Kings, while the third does not occur in known sources. The original biblical meaning of bedek bayit, on the other hand, is clear. Bayit means “house,” or in this context, “Temple,” and a bedek, as its cognate forms in other Semitic languages make clear, is a fault or crack in a wall that needs to be repaired. When 2 Kings, therefore, speaks of “timber and quarried stone for the bedek beyt adonai,” the bedek of the Temple of God, it is referring to the building materials needed to repair such a problem.

This much is undisputed. In later Hebrew, however, the term bedek bayit changes its meaning to “renovation” or “housecleaning.” Moreover, the sense of bedek as “crack” or “fault” was forgotten and the word was taken to signify “inspection” or “review,” from which developed the Hebrew verb badak, to check or to examine.

And now we come to the point. When the “Jehoash inscription” has the Judean king say, “And I made the bedek ha-bayit,” it is, skeptical biblical scholars claim, anachronistically using the word in its later sense of “renovation” rather than in its biblical sense of “fault” or “crack.” (After all, would Jehoash boast of making a crack in the Temple wall?) This demonstrates that we are dealing not with a genuine biblical text but with a forgery, though one so expert that it has fooled even the geologists.

Let us leave aside the question of whether the geological evidence can be so easily dismissed, and also of whether it is credible that the same forgers who were so skilful at fabricating it would have been so careless as to ignore the anachronism of a Hebrew term used by them. Let us rather take the bull by the horns and ask: Is the term bedek ha-bayit, as it appears in the “Jehoash inscription,” an impossible usage for the ninth century BCE?

My own judgment is that it isn’t. In the first place, even in its meaning of “a crack in a Temple wall,” the phrase bedek ha-bayit is clearly used by the Bible metaphorically; it does not, that is, refer to a specific crack but rather to faults needing repair in general, so that a modern translation of it might be “structural defects.” Isn’t it possible, therefore, that when Jehoash says, “I made [or “I did”; the Hebrew verb va’a’as can mean either] the structural defects,” this was a ninth century BCE way of saying, “I took care of [or “repaired”] the structural defects”?

Second, there is evidence that the shift in meaning of bedek bayit from “structural defects” to “renovation” was already taking place in biblical times. This would certainly be a legitimate interpretation of the verse in 2 Chronicles, 34:10, which says of another Temple renovator, the sixth-century King Josaiah, that his workmen “worked in the Temple of God livdok u’le’h.azek [to strengthen] ha-bayit [the Temple]” — a verse in which livdok, the infinitive of the verb badak, seems already to have the sense of “to inspect.” (It certainly can’t mean “to crack” here.)

True, Chronicles was written 500 years after the reign of Jehoash. Yet this doesn’t mean that, by the time it was written, such a meaning wasn’t already an old one. My own guess is that the “Jehoash inscription” is genuine. The supposed anachronism of bedek ha-bayit, in any case, does not prove otherwise.



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