Alphabet Soup in Dead Sea Scrolls Opens a Window to an Ancient Hebrew World

With a little help from his wife, researcher Alexey Yuditsky substituted one letter for another and got a lesson on the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Dead Sea Scrolls are famous for containing biblical texts and writings of the Essene Jewish community at ancient Qumran near the Dead Sea. But the scrolls also contain tens of thousands of fragments, sometimes offering only a few words or letters that have stymied researchers for decades.

The scroll known as 4Q124 (meaning scroll 124 from cave four at Qumran) is one such enigma. It’s written in the ancient Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, long considered a variant of the Phoenician alphabet. Scholars managed to decipher only a few words and letters and came away with nothing meaningful.

>> What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? <<

** FILE ** In this March 28, 2006 file photo, three fragments from the Temple Scroll, one of eight the Dead Sea Scrolls, is displayed at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, Ohio. ItaliaCredit: AP

Then Alexey (Eliyahu) Yuditsky, a researcher working on the Historical Dictionary Project at Hebrew University’s Academy of the Hebrew Language, decided to take another look.

The Historical Dictionary Project is an enormous attempt to catalog and analyze every Hebrew word written in the tens of thousands of sources from ancient times to the present day. Yuditsky catalogs the words from the Dead Sea Scrolls; he examines every scroll and fragment of more than one word; this is how he came upon 4Q124.

“We reached this scroll and tried to decipher it; anyone who studied the scroll in the past managed to decipher three words: the word adama [earth], some form of the verb shin lamed het [the root for ‘to send’] and the word garshu [expelled],” Yuditsky says.

“I searched the Bible database for where these three words are together .... It turns out it’s in the story of sending Adam out of the Garden of Eden, Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. The problem was that the words still weren’t logical” – the combinations didn’t make sense.

A multispectral photograph of a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment deciphered by Alexey Yuditsky, August 2017.Credit: Shai Halevi / Courtesy Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library at the Israel Antiquities Authority

Yuditsky says his wife proposed that if this was the story of the Garden of Eden, then one of the words he didn’t understand, dalal (thin out) should be kalal (curse). The problem was that the letter involved looked like a dalet (ד) or a resh (ר), not a qoph (ק) as kalal would seem to require.

Sure enough, things made more sense when he substituted a qoph for a dalet or a resh in a few cases. The qoph he found was part of a little-known Hebrew alphabet. Later, the researchers viewed the Israel Antiquity Authority’s new photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls – a product of multispectral photography that can reveal letters invisible to the human eye.

Understanding the use of the qoph and examining the new photographs allowed Yuditsky to decipher 25 words from the scroll.

This analysis sheds much more light on the Qumran community. According to Yuditsky, one part of the scroll is dedicated to the story of the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden, while the second is a sermon on morality or an interpretation by a teacher or leader of the sect.

“In my opinion, it explains that man in the Garden of Eden received only one commandment – not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge,” Yuditksy says. “And for violating this commandment, he received a great punishment. You, He tells the believers, have many more commandments, so think about what punishment you will receive if you violate them.”

Similar to the rest of the scrolls written in the Paleo-Hebrew script, 4Q124 is dated to the end of the period of the Qumran community, around the first century C.E. Until now, the scroll was considered one whose source wasn’t clear. Some scholars have said that because these scroll fragments are just biblical sections written in an uncommon alphabet at Qumran, they come from a different source; for example, from the library of the Sadducees in Jerusalem.

Yuditsky’s reading contradicts such a theory, because it’s clear the text includes non-biblical sections that are very similar to those of other texts indisputably from the Qumran community.

Yet a change in Hebrew script in the scroll in question shows that the Qumran community wasn’t isolated from the outside world, as some claim, Yuditsky says.

“We see the script changes," he adds. "It says this isn’t a truly isolated sect – they’re educated people, an elite that’s involved in what’s going on.”

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