The fourth presentation at BYU’s Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies conference on 31 August 2012 was on “Writing in 7th Century BC Levant,” by Stefan Wimmer of the University of Munich. It was entitled “Palestinian Hieratic.” He examined an interesting phenomena in Hebrew inscriptions, the use of Egyptian hieratic (cursive hieroglyphic) signs.
Basically Hebrew scribes used Egyptian signs for various numerals, weights and measures. The changes in the form of these signs parallel similar chronological changes in the form of Egyptian hieratic characters, which indicates continued contact of some sort between Egyptian and Hebrew scribes, probably over several centuries. (If there had been a single scribal transmission with no ongoing contact, the changes in the Hebrew forms of hieratic signs would not parallel contemporary changes in Egyptian hieratic forms.) No other Semitic language used Egyptian hieratic signs except Hebrew (with one possible Moabite example.)
There are a couple of hundred examples of such texts, the majority dating from the late seventh century, and geographically mainly from Jerusalem southward. The phenomena ends after the Babylonian captivity. (In other words, Palestinian hieratic is most common in precisely the time and location of Lehi and Nephi, and only exists in Hebrew.)
Stefan Wimmer, Palastinisches Hieratisch. Die Zahl und Sonderzeichen in der althebraishen Schrift (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).
During the Q&A following his lecture, Wimmer was asked how and where the Israelites had learned Egyptian hieratic, and he replied that Hebrew scribes might have gone to Egypt, or Egyptian scribes came to Palestine. Whatever the case, it had seemed clear for quite a while to the late Anson Rainey as well as to Mormon Egyptologist John Thompson that professional, Egyptian-speaking Classical Hebrew scribes wrote the hieratic Egyptian found at Tel Arad VII, at Kadesh-Barnea, at Lachish (all contemporary with Lehi),1 and in the earlier Samaria Ostraca.2 This may help us understand at least part of the context in which the Egyptian Brass Plates of Laban came to exist. The Bible gives no hint of this sort of thing.
However, of even greater significance is the Egypticity of the terms and proportions used in the brief weights & measures schema provided in Alma 11 of the Book of Mormon,3 since we know that just such a system with those same proportions was being used in Judah at the time of Lehi & Nephi.4
1 Rainey, “The Saga of Eliashib,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 13/2 (Mar-Apr 1987):37, 39; John Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” in Welch, Seely, and Seely, eds., Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (Provo: FARMS, 2004), 267, citing Wimmer’s teacher Orly Goldwasser, Tel Aviv, 18:248.
2 Ivan Kaufman, “Samaria Ostraca,” in D. Freedman ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (Doubleday, 1992), V:923.
3 See my chart and the full discussion by John Welch in JBMS, 8/2 (1999), 36-45; my chart on page 46; cf. Brian Hauglid, “Nephite Weights and Measures,” in D. Largey, ed., Book of Mormon Reference Companion (SLC: Deseret Book, 2003), 609-610.
4 Raz Kletter, Economic Keystones: The Weight System of the Kingdom of Judah, JSOTSS 276 (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998); William Dever in P. Achtemeier, ed., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Society for Biblical Literature (N.Y.: HarperCollins/ HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 1128-1129, and Tables B & C; Jac J. Janssen, Commodity Prices from the Ramessid Period: An Economic Study of the Village of Necropolis Workmen at Thebes (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 102-109, the 19th and 20th dynasty Egyptian sniw was the basic silver unit of value in the Egyptian tripartite system of pricing for a commodity, the copper diban being the basis for another system, and finally the h3r “sack” grain-measure system. Interestingly, the Nephite system is also tripartite. Thanks to John Gee for calling this excellent source to my attention.