Does Rapha’ appear on a 9th-Century BCE Jar at Tell es-Safi/(“Gath”)?

In two articles, one co-authored with Esther Eschel, Aren Maeir suggests that he may have found a further example of the term or proper name רפא (rapha’) on a ninth-century BCE jar found  at  Tell es-Safi/(“Gath”). That means that the jar was inscribed during Philistine rule, before the later Judean rule of the city.

The term רפא (rapha’) is sometimes apparently just a proper name (“Raphah”; e.g. 1 Chronicles 8:2). Yet it is also used to describe various giants, including the Goliath of Gath who opposed David’s elite soldiers  (2 Samuel 21:18-22). The plural of the term is the more familiar רפאים (Rephaim), which the Bible uses to describe various ancient heroes and kings, as well as (in Deuteronomy) entire races of giants.

Here is a picture of the jar, along with a larger view of the fragments on which the inscription was found:


There is a big problem with reading these Phoenician letters,  however, as Aren Maeir and Esther Eschel discuss in the articles. The first letter (reading  right-to-left) is only partial, and does not clearly look like any particular ninth-century r. It could be a d or an ayin. But it is very hard to tell. The second letter is probably a p, but a g is not ruled out by the authors. The final letter (on the left) is also unclear, and while plausibly an aleph, it could be a l.

With this level of uncertainty, Maeir and Eschel conclude,

we tentatively prefer the first suggested reading of  רפא … but one should not rule out the other possible readings

Maeir also suggests that the Tell es-Safi inscription might be compared with stamped-handle inscriptions from no earlier than eight century BCE, which had previously been uncovered at Tell es-Safi, and which also probably evidence the name רפא. If so, “the רפא family might be seen as an important family/clan on a local scale over several generations”. Possibly. But as there is a fundamental uncertainty in reading the letters of the inscription, further conclusions are likewise uncertain. Still, it is an interesting possibility.

The studies also consider the meaning of the רפא root as “healer”, but dismiss it due to the lack of a definite article (and the lack of sufficient space for one in the gap in the jar to the right of the inscription).

I suggest another possibility. The term may be related instead to Akk. rabā’um (‘to be large, great’), and its derivative rabium (< rabūm; ‘leader, chief, prince’). Notably, the well-known personal name Hammurabi is alternatively spelled Hammurapi at Ugarit (ca. 1200 BCE). By the ninth century BCE, the term in West Semitic may arguably have settled with the spelling r-p-ʾ. The derivation is suggested or supported by Joseph Aistleitner, Georg Sauer, George E. Mendenhall, Samuel E. Loewenstamm, and (with more extensive reasoning) Michael L. Brown. The term is sometimes paired with “king” (mlk) in IA Palestine, as on Samaria Ostracon 24 – which may support the parallelism with r-p-ʾ=’prince’. If so, and if the letters should be read this way, the jar may have belonged to a prince or nobleman, rather than to a family with the name רפא.


Maeir, Aren M. ‘The Rephaim in Iron Age Philistia: Evidence of a Multi-Generational Family?’ Pages 289–97 in ‘Vom Leben umfangen’: Ägypten, das Alte Testament und das Gespräch der Religionen. Gedenkschrift für Manfred Görg, eds. S. J. Wimmer and G. Gafus (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014).

Maeir, Aren M., and Esther Eshel. ‘Four Short Alphabetic Inscriptions from Iron Age IIA Tell es-Safi/Gath and Their Contribution for Understanding the Process of the Development of Literacy in Iron Age Philistia.’ In ‘See, I Will Bring a Scroll Recounting What Befell Me’ (Ps 40:8): Epigraphy and Daily Life—From the Bible to the Talmud Dedicated to the Memory of Professor Hanan Eshel, edited by Esther Eshel and Yigal Levin. JAJSup. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, forthcoming.

Maeir, Aren M. ‘The New Seal from Jerusalem: The Gath Connection.’ The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) weblog. 2 March 2008.


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