Khirbet el-Qom

RIP: Reading Obituaries in Ancient Judah – By Alice Mandell and Jeremy Smoak: The Ancient Near East Today – November 2018

Recent archaeological studies are beginning to shed greater light on the role that the senses play in human experience and religion. They argue that we need to move away from the tendency to treat sight and sound as the “higher senses” and touch, smell, and taste as the “lower senses.” This is why it is helpful to step back and imagine encountering inscriptions in their original settings. James Watts reminds us that ancient Israelite audiences were drawn to texts for their iconic, performative, and visual characteristics. Some inscriptions were installed as decorations or media within ritual spaces both inside and outside lived communities.

The story of the two stone tablets that YHWH gives Moses demonstrates how texts could become monuments around which communities constructed lives and politics. These tablets are hidden away in the ark and yet they play a pivotal role in Israel’s social and religious evolution. Ancient Hebrew texts “spoke” much more than their mere words—they signaled boundaries, access points, power dynamics, and social relations. And, they often communicated nuanced shades of meaning based upon different seasons, different times of day, and different audiences.

One set of inscriptions that illustrates the multi-sensory value of texts is from the tombs at Khirbet el-Qom, located several miles west of Hebron in the southern part of the territory of Judah. During the excavations of the tombs almost forty years ago, William G. Dever discovered several inscriptions written in Old Hebrew script on the walls of each tomb.

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