Everything posted about the text so far has pointed to the uncertain aspects of the text: genre, contents, exact dating, exact nature of the sign-forms, restoration of the few visible signs. This is absolutely right. Delbert Hillers, the man who taught me Semitic philology, warned us to start from what was most certain to avoid the trap of obscurum per obscurius, “explaining the obscure with the even more obscure.”
If so, this new discovery can't tell us anything much about the language and culture of its writer. But one crucial, and telling, grammatical point has not yet been made clear.
In his thorough study of the script and language of the Jerusalem letters, William Moran, the old master of Amarna studies, pointed out a pattern in the grammar of the letters which formed a remarkable contrast with the other letters from the region of Syria-Palestine:
“Certainly the most striking feature of the Jerusalem scribe's language, though so far it has not been recognized, is its large Assyrian component.” (2003:265) He goes on to note sporadic Assyrianisms that appear in other Amarna letters in the formation of nouns and pronouns--but not verbs, concluding that “those of the Jerusalem letters are unique.” Of these striking Assyrianisms, those in the verbal system are especially widespread and “Verbs primae aleph3-5 are consistently (13x) treated as in Assyrian.”* (267) In the case of the infinitive, in both cases where we would expect the Standard Babylonian form with e-vowels in both syllables, we instead find: erāba (EA 286:43, for Bab. erēba) and ezābi (EA 287:62, for Bab. ezēbi). Because the pattern occurs with no exceptions in all 13 cases, with every I-e verbal root being treated this way, it is far stronger than if we had only these two infinitives.
Now, it so happens that there is only one completely preserved verbal form in the Jerusalem fragment. The editors, reading a set of three very clear signs, read:
4' i-pé-ša x [ … to do . [ …
Here the editors lay out the situation well:
.“In obverse line 4', there may be a clear indication of Amarna type phraseology, which one would expect in a royal letter of the Late Bronze Age. Here one finds i-pé-ša, which appears to be a writing for the infinitive of epēšu, ‘to do’, also attested in Hazor 10:19, perhaps from the Lebanon, and in EA 79:24 and 129:27 in letters from Rib-Hadda of Gubla (Byblos). Thus, this phrase, and consequently the tablet’s scribe, just might be from what is now northern Israel or Lebanon. However, three scattered examples do not a rule make.” (Mazar, Horowitz, Oshima and Goren 2010:12)
But if this were from the writer of any of the known Jerusalem letters, the form would have been epāša, not ipēša! Instead of the expected Assyrian second vowel a, we see the standard Babylonian e. And in the first syllable what we find instead is an example of a phenomenon analyzed in detail by Shlomo Izre'el (1987), the most sophisticated student of the linguistic aspects of the letters, in which the initial e- of verbs switches to i-. Since the phenomenon is most widespread in the variety known as Amurru Akkadian, which does not always show Canaanite influence, we cannot say this is a local phenomenon—although it does also appear sporadically in the letters written in Canaan (to the editors' examples of this form, add the example Taanach 2:11, from a century earlier: “if the bow is finished being made (ipēšam)” (Horowitz, Oshima and Sanders 2006:133), as noted by Rainey 1996 I 37).
If this one verb is actually representative of the writer's language, what does it tell us? What it says is that the fragment could have been written a century before the Amarna letters, or even at the same time, but it was not by the writer of the letters we know. And so it broadens, incrementally but significantly, our picture of written culture at Jerusalem: we now know there was more than one Babylonian dialect being written here during the Late Bronze Age.
*See below for a fuller grammatical investigation.
Cochavi-Rainey, Zipora, and Anson Rainey. 2007. "Finite Verbal Usage in the Jerusalem Amarna Letters," Ugarit-Forschungen 39: 37-56.
Horowitz, Wayne, Takayoshi Oshima, and Seth Sanders. 2006. Cuneiform in Canaan: Cuneiform Sources from The Land of Israel in Ancient Times. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Izre'el, Shlomo. 1987. "The Complementary Distribution of the Vowels e and i in the Peripheral Akkadian Dialect of Amurru – A Further Step towards Our Understanding of the Development of the Amarna Jargon." In Proceedings of the Fourth International Hamito-Semitic Congress (Marburg, 20-22 September 1983), ed. Herrmann Jungraithmayr and Walter W. Müller. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science. Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, no. 44. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 525-541.
Knudtzon, J.A. 1915. Die el-Amarna-Tafeln. Anmerkungen und Register bearbeitet von C. Weber und E. Ebeling. (Vorderasiatische Bibliothek, 2.) 2 volumes. Leipzig.
Mazar, Eilat, Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshi Oshima, and Yuval Goren. 2010. "A Cuneiform Tablet from the Ophel in Jerusalem" IEJ 60:4-21.
Moran, William. 1975. The Syrian Scribe of the Jerusalem Amarna Letters. In Unity and Diversity. Essays in History, Literature and Religion of the Ancient Near East, ed. H. Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. 146-166. [=Moran 2003:249-274]
———. 2003. Amarna Studies: Collected Writings. Harvard Semitic Studies, no. 54. Edited by John Huehnergard and Shlomo Izre’el. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
There is an essential bibliography and bare-bones but up-to-date online edition of the letters.
I am grateful to Wilfred van Soldt, an eminent scholar of cuneiform culture, for reminding me to be sure of the full range of grammatical possibilities for the form here. In particular, in the wider cuneiform world a Middle Babylonian/late Old Babylonian first- or third-person singular durative plus ventive ippeša is at least possible.
But it seems that this was not the form people used for the I-e durative in the Late Bronze Age Levant; at least in the Amarna corpus the pattern is striking. Knudtzon (1915:II 1402) registers about 45 examples of the G durative of epēšu. Of these, 37 have a theme-vowel -u-, 8 show a (presumably) Assyrian-influenced -a- vowel, and none have -e-. This means that, while such a form would be well in place in a normal OB text, it's unlikely in this place and time. The infinitive remains the only likely reading.
Cochavey-Rainey and Rainey's important article (2007) does argue for one exception to Moran's pattern of Assyrian vocalization for epēšu: the form e-pu-uš in EA 286:14, where the writing is ambiguously preterite (as Moran interprets it, fitting his pattern) or durative (as Cochavey-Rainey and Rainey argue). I am not certain about the syntax, but for forms with past/punctual reference after interrogatives in the Jerusalem corpus see the suffix form in 289:10 am-mi-nim LUGAL-ri la-a ša-al-šu “why has the king not questioned him” (as Cochavi-Rainey and Rainey 2007:51 render it) and more proximately the parallel to our verb at the beginning of 286:5 ma-an-na ep-ša-ti a-na LUGAL EN-ia “what have I done to my lord the king”? So Abdi-Heba begins his discourse on this topic with a parallel construction referring to a single past criminal act, and it is then at least possible to render 286:14 as "why would I have committed a crime against my lord the king?" While we can't rule out this one exception as possible, it would leave us with no certain counterexamples to the pattern of Assyrian vocalization of I-e verbs.