The earliest alphabet—from which all other alphabets in the world are derived—was invented in Canaan in the late 18th or early 17th century B.C. This alphabet consisting of pictographs is referred to by scholars as the proto-Canaanite alphabet. Only a few short inscriptions in this alphabet have been found in Canaan, however. Most of the inscriptions in this alphabet were discovered in or near the turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadem in Sinai and date to a few hundred years after the initial invention. The Sinai version of this alphabet is called proto-Sinaitic and is identical to proto-Canaanite.

Shown here in a drawing and photographs is the longest of the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, found or the wall of Mine L at Serabit. The photographs have been aligned with the corresponding letters drawn by William Foxwell Albright based on an earlier tracing from the rock wall. Each letter-pictograph stands for the first sound of the Semitic word for the object represented. It is easy to see several recognizable objects, such as the ox head (1, 11, 20, 23), the snake (2), the fish (7), the water sign (9, 14, 18, 21) and the two heads (22, 24). The sound equivalent for each pictograph is shown in the chart. For example, the ancient Semitic word for fish was dag. Therefore the fish symbol stands for the sound “d” as in the Hebrew letter dalet. Similarly, a snake is nahash, standing for the “n” sound as in the Hebrew letter nun.

The meaning of the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions is uncertain, although most scholars agree on the identity of the letters. William Foxwell Albright deciphered the inscription illustrated here: “Thou, O Shaphan, collect from ’Ababa eight (?) mines (of turquoise). Shimea, groom of the chief of the car[avaneers(?)].”

Recently, in the same mine, another inscription was discovered incised on a stone plaque. This inscription bears two clear symbols: on top, the ox head, symbol for the ’alef; on the bottom the crooked staff, symbol for the lamed. Read as El, the word is the name of the principal north Semitic deity of those times and one of the names of God that appear in the Hebrew Bible.