The Samaria ostraca and family relationships

The Samaria ostraca were found during the Harvard excavations at Samaria from 1908-1910. These potsherds with ink-writing were found in the courtyard of the palace. Sixty-seven had a readable inscription. It seems that they recorded some sort of tax or transaction under which jars of wine or oil were sent from villages or regions to Samaria. Here is a short selection of some of the ostraca as they could be translated in English (but that translation already requires quite some interpretation). Please note that the lines do not conform to the originals, where names, for example, were written across lines. Rather, I used them to show the regularity of the elements expressed in the ostraca.

Ostracon 3
In the tenth year
to Ahima
from Shemida
a jar of aged wine
by Ba’ala son of B…

Ostracon 13
In the tenth year
from Abi’ezer
to Shemaryau
a jar of aged wine
by Isha… of Ha-Tel

Ostracon 18
In the tenth year
from Hazerot
to Gaddiyau
a jar of extra-virgin oil

Ostracon 21
In the tenth year
to Shemaryau
from Ha-Tel
a jar of extra-virgin oil

Ostracon 22
In the15th year
from Helek
to Isha son of Ahimelek
by Helez from Hazerot

Ostracon 30
In the 15th year
from Shemida
to Helez son of Gaddiyau
by Gera son of Hanni’ab

Ostracon 42
In the 15th year
from Sherek
to Yeda’yau
by Marnayau son of Gaddiyau from Asherot

Ostracon 44
In the 15th year
from Shechem
to …….

Ostracon 45
In the 15th year
from Hoglah
to Hanan son of Ba’ara
by Marnayu son of Natan from Yazot

Ostracon 50
In the 15th year
to Gomer
from Noa
by Abedyau for Abiyau

The ostraca give a year, probably a regnal year of a king. They then list a recipient, probably a servant of the king in Samaria. Before or after comes the sender of the goods; these names all appear to be the names of a village or a clan. They often list the commodity – a jar of aged wine, for example. And finally, there often is a personal name very clearly defined through the name of the father and the place they came from. It seems these latter people were not well known. It is assumed that they were the “couriers”, the ones carrying the produce to Samaria.
What is remarkable is that quite a few of the names of the clans mentioned in these ostraca also appear in the genealogies for the descendants of Manasseh.

Here is the list of Numbers 26:29-33

The descendants of Manasseh:
through Makir, the Makirite clan (Makir was the father of Gilead);
through Gilead, the Gileadite clan.
These were the descendants of Gilead:
through Iezer the Iezerite clan;
through Helek, the Helekite clan;
through Asriel, the Asrielite clan;
through Shechem, the Shechemite clan;
through Shemida, the Shemidaite clan;
through Hepher, the Hepherite clan.
Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons;
he had only daughters, whose names were Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.

The correspondence of names is easily apparent. In Joshua 17:1-3 instead of Iezer we read Abiezer. It seems that this was the original name, as it also occurs in the Samaria ostraca.
Whatever we may want to say about these ostraca, they shine a new light on the genealogies in the Bible. These were not just family trees written by an old nostalgic uncle. No, they were part of everyday life. The clan was an important economic unit through which the people also had connections to the court in Samaria and other clans in the kingdom. The family was their community and the community their family. This is what defined their identity, their place in the world. Descent was important, and I would think beyond a list of names. For there were stories attached to those names. None of the people in the clan of Hoglah would ever forget that their clan was named after a woman, while most other clans in Israel had a male ancestor. And the story of Zelphehad and his daughters would be told. Not many clan stories are recorded in the Bible, but some are.

The Samaria ostraca can certainly be seen as further evidence for the nested household structure, as described by David Schloen: the nuclear family was part of the wider family – the house of the father. This again was part of the clan, the storied community that worked together. These clans were connected to the households of important people in Samaria, who in turn formed part of the wider household of the king. The role of the tribes is somewhat unclear from the Samaria ostraca. But I think that the ostraca certainly show that transactions were not occurring within something similar to a modern bureaucracy, but rather in social structures that were ordered along family lines.

Large parts of the Bible consist of genealogies, evidence that this rootedness in family tradition was important to the people who shaped these books.

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