Two introductions to the significance of the inscription are must reading/hearing. That of Seth Sanders, author of The Invention of Hebrew, here. That of Chris Rollston, here. Here is a pdf with background information, photos, properly accredited I believe, and a starter bibliography (courtesy of Raymond van Leeuwen). Everything is up-to-date. Below the jump, some reflections on the reflections of Sanders and Rollston.
Seth Sanders and Chris Rollston emphasize the need to keep one’s options open. For example, the date of the inscription: a (late) 11th cent. bce date works better from the point of view of script and script presentation, and may work better in terms of historical reconstruction as well. However, a(n early) 10 cent. bce date is not to be excluded (though Rollston tends in that direction). A few sequences are reasonably clear, אל תעש , עבד, שפט, andמלך , but many others are not.
It is fair to say that neither Sanders nor Rollston work with miminalist or maximalist assumptions. Based on all kinds of considerations they do not and could not detail or even touch on in brief comments, both think of Israel, Saul, and David as historical entities about which we can say a variety of things with some plausibility, but little certainty.
Unless one thinks the poems in Judges 5 and 2 Samuel 1:19-27 are fabrications – not many scholars do – one is going to try to contextualize anepigraphic and epigraphic finds from the land of Israel of the relevant time periods in the light they provide based on a critically informed reading thereof.
I think Rollston goes too far when he states that "an equally good case can be made that [the Qeiyafa inscription] is Phoenician." That doesn’t make sense unless he is suggesting that the reading אל תעש is controvertible. Any student of NWS languages, I submit, upon being told that a text includes the following sequences: אל תעש, עבד, שפט, andמלך , will tell you that the text in question is most likely Hebrew or Moabite. After being told that the text was found on a site in the Judean Shephelah, the answer becomes: most probably, Hebrew.
Rollston however makes many excellent points. For example:
Obviously, Israel was some sort of a “state” at this point. . . . Moreover, I have no doubt that literacy was present during the 10th century as part of the fledgling Southern Levantine states (Israel, Moab, Ammon). However, I am very confident that this literacy was confined to a particular group of elites (i.e., scribes). This is actually a fairly common tenet among scholars of Northwest Semitic (and the Hebrew Bible)
To which I would add: too often nevertheless the Tel Zayit and Izbet Sarteh abecedaries are thought of as products of unlearned individuals. Rather, like the author of this inscription, it is more likely that they were trained individuals who wrote in a period in which normalization of many things had not yet occurred. It's not that normalization existed that they failed to learn. There was as yet no normalization. These inscriptions come from a period in which a lot of things in terms of writing habits were not yet normalized.
Normalization requires a political context of a kind that did not yet exist in this period. I was trained under Frank Crüsemann in Bielefeld to think of pre-monarchic Israel as an example of what ethnographer Christian Sigrist called "regulierte Anarchie." That’s a fair reading of Judges 5 (Lawrence Stager is on more or less the same page). The setup ended up getting co-opted and transformed beginning with Saul and David, but it was a long drawn-out process.
I would think this coheres with Seth Sanders' thesis (see his Invention of Hebrew) which places the onset of the development of a national script and a national literature in the 9th cent BCE, with the flowering thereof in 8th to the 6th centuries BCE. In a sense Seth ha scoperto l’aqua calda "discovered hot water" as we say in Italian, but he develops the thesis carefully and with considerable élan. Note: this thesis, however plausible to a great many scholars, does not rise above the level of a working hypothesis. It does not solve all the problems of the history of the literature found in the Tanakh / Old Testament. Nonetheless, it points in the direction of a plausible resolution of many of them.
To pick up on Seth Sanders’ reflections, the key question is: “What occasioned this meeting between a proto-Hebrew speaker and a proto-Canaanite writer?” Such a meeting appears to be what the Qeiyafa inscription attests to. In this sense, I think Rollston is overly cautious.
With respect to understanding the ramifications of the fact that the vast bulk of Iron Age inscriptions in epigraphic Hebrew date to the 8th to 6th cent bce, the article I think Hebraists need to read is a famous one by Ramsey MacMullen, "The Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire," AJP 103 (1982) 233-46; plus E. A. Meyer, "Explaining the Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire: The Evidence of Epitaphs," JRS 80 (1990) 74-96.
UPDATE: Seth Sanders promises to return to the subject here.