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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The first four chapters of the book of Eikhah are alphabetical acrostics. Surprisingly, in the acrostics in chapters 2, 3 and 4, the verses that begin with pe precede the verses that begin with ayin. The Soncino commentary to Eikhah remarks: “This unusual order has never been satisfactorily explained.” In light of the archaeological discoveries of recent decades, it is time to provide this explanation.

We are really dealing with two separate problems: (1) why does pe precede ayin in chapters 2, 3 and 4? and (2) why is there a difference in the order between chapter 1 and chapters 2, 3 and 4? (We would expect there to be consistency in a small Biblical book.) We can perhaps answer the second question based on the Dead Sea Scrolls text of the first chapter: the pe verse precedes the ayin verse here. Perhaps this Dead Sea text reflects the original text of the first chapter.

Returning to our first question, the relevant archaeological discoveries of recent decades from the land of Israel are as follows:

In 1976, a potsherd was discovered at Izbet Sartah, in Western Samaria, dating to about 1200 BCE. The potsherd had five lines of Hebrew writing on it, one of which was an abecedary (an inscription of the letters of the alphabet in order). In this abecedary, the pe preceded the ayin. There is a scholarly consensus that Izbet Sartah was an Israelite settlement in this period.

During excavations in 1975–76 in the northeast Sinai, a jar fragment was discovered that included three Hebrew abecedaries in which the pe preceded the ayin. The site dates to approximately 800 BCE.

In 2005, a Hebrew abecedary inscribed on a stone was discovered at Tel Zayit, a site north of Lachish. The stone had been used in the construction of a wall belonging to a 10th century BCE structure. This abecedary also followed the order of pe preceding ayin. Most probably, Tel Zayit was part of the area of the tribe of Judah in the 10th century BCE.

In recent years, another ostracon with three Hebrew abecedaries with pe preceding ayin has come to light. Its provenance is unknown, but the writing can be dated to the late seventh or early sixth century BCE. (Supposedly, it was found in the debris of the Temple Mount.)

The abecedaries mentioned above are the only ones that have been discovered in ancient Israel that date from the period of the Judges and the First Temple and that span the letters ayin and pe. Pe precedes ayin in every one! As we have seen, these abecedaries come from different regions in ancient Israel, not merely from one limited area. All of this suggests that pe preceding ayin was the original order in ancient Israel!

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Now it is time to apply our findings to the book of Tehillim, which includes many acrostics, such as in chapter 34.

In chapter 34 (le-David be-shanoto), verses 17 and 18 have troubled Biblical commentators throughout the ages. In verse 17, we are told:

The face (pnei) of the Lord is against those who do evil,

to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

Yet immediately following this, at verse 18, we are told without explanation:

They cried (tzaaku) and the Lord heard, and delivered them

from all their troubles.

Why should God listen to and save the evildoers, when we have just been told that He wants to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth?

However, if we make the assumption that pe preceded ayin here, the ones whom God listens to and saves are not the evildoers, but the righteous:

34:17 The face (pnei) of the Lord is against those who do evil,

to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

34:16 The eyes (einei) of the Lord are toward the righteous,

and his ears to their cry.

34: 18 They cried (tzaaku) and the Lord heard, and delivered them

from all their troubles.

In the pe ayin order, the problem disappears and the sequence of verses makes perfect sense!

As Orthodox Jews, we do not want to get into the habit of suggesting textual changes and re-ordering verses. Nevertheless, in this case, the Daat Mikra commentary on Tehillim, published by Mossad Harav Kook is willing to consider the possibility of the above re-ordering. See vol. 1, pp. 189–90, n. 9.

If we accept this proposed re-ordering of the ayin and pe verses in chapter 34, the next step is to analyze the alphabetical acrostics in the rest of Tehillim. In addition to chapter 34, alphabetical acrostics are found in Tehillim at chapters 9–10 (one long acrostic, many letters missing), 25, 37, 111, 112, 119 (every letter 8 times) and 145. Were all of these originally pe ayin? Or perhaps only the ones in the first book (chapters 1–41), as perhaps the first book is the oldest section? When and why did the original pe ayin order of the alphabet later change to ayin pe? Is there any evidence that Mishlei 31:10-31 (Eshet Hayil) was originally composed in the pe ayin order?

Space limitation does not permit me to continue the analysis and go into these topics here. But I have addressed them in all in my recently published book: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015), pp. 207–230. (For a shorter article, with fascinating photos, see my article in the July-Aug. 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review: “Can Archaeology Help Date the Psalms?”).

Finally, I will note that the Talmud includes a comment on the unusual order of pe preceding ayin in Eikhah. The suggestion is made, at Sanhedrin 104b, that it alludes to the sin of the meraglim: she-amru be-fihem mah she-lo rau be-eineihem., i.e., they spoke falsehood about the land of Israel. But as we have seen, the archaeological discoveries of recent decades show that pe preceding ayin was a global phenomenon in ancient Israel. It was not just an Eikhah-related detail.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His new book: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy is available at amazon.com and at the Judaica House in Teaneck. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Mitchell First