When soldiers at a remote desert fortress in Judah penned their shopping lists (or, more accurately, their provisions lists) over 2,600 years ago, they probably did not think that archaeologists would be poring over their handwriting years later! Using a computer algorithm program, researchers from Tel Aviv University have been studying these ancient lists of military provisions written on pieces of pottery (called ostraca). By analyzing the handwriting, they were able to deduce that at least six individuals were involved in writing these inscriptions. The inscriptions themselves are rather mundane, merely featuring instructions on what supplies to send to a remote desert fortress; but the writing is accurate and well done. Much of the writing was penned by rather low-ranking officials, suggesting that even humble soldiers serving in a remote corner of the country could both read and write.
Literate or Illiterate?
Scholars have long disputed the level of literacy among ancient Israelites. Many believe only the educated — scribes, priests, royalty, and the bureaucracy — were literate and that the general populace was unable to read and write. But Scripture implies that literacy would be a necessity, even among the general populace.
Genesis 5:1 mentions the "book of the generations of Adam" (using the normal Hebrew word for book or scroll), suggesting that Adam was created with the ability not only to speak but also to write. It also seems reasonable that the genealogical information in Genesis 5 and 11 was also written down. And given that Noah and his family built the Ark, is it likely that they could not write? The Israelites were commanded to write the commands of the Lord on their doorposts and bind them on their hands and foreheads (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:18–20). If they could not read or write, what would be the point of these commands? When Joshua prepared to allot the inheritance to seven of the Israelite tribes, he asked each tribe to send out three men to survey the land. These men "wrote the survey in a book" (Joshua 18:9); they could read and write. And in Joshua’s farewell address, he commanded the people to obey everything written in the Book of the Law of Moses, implying they could read (Joshua 23:6). When King Hezekiah made the decision that Israel and Judah would again keep the Passover, he sent letters across the land to inform the people. This would have been useless if they could not read his letter (2 Chronicles 30:1). Other passages also suggest literacy among the ancient Israelites (Judges 8:14; 2 Kings 17:37; Psalm 102:18; Habakkuk 2:2).