We were going over some Indiana Jones trivia during dinner recently and one of the questions that came up had to do with the length of an item that appeared in the Raiders of the Lost Ark called the “Head of the Staff of Ra”. The discussion must have triggered some long lost memory because I suddenly remembered that in the movie, that object—which is a sort of a medallion—had an inscription on it.
Hoping that there was a quick way to figure out the math, I searched online for the phrase “head of the staff of Ra” and got an image of the original prop used in the movie. Sure enough, both sides had a clear and legible engraving in none other than ancient Hebrew script (also known as Paleo-Hebrew).
Transliterations and translations of the inscriptions are as follows:
vamh aht mel kds kbd yhvh vhmskn
tt amh qmtw
ואמה אחת מעל קדש כבוד ה’ והמישכן
תת אמה קומתו
And one amah above holy to honor G-d and the Tabernacle
TT amah is its height
And he hastened, and took the headband away FROM his eyes; and the king of Israel discerned him that he was of the prophets.
Problem 2 – The staff height measurement units used are inconsistent
Problem 3 – The seared imprint on Major Toht’s right hand is the obverse side of the inscription
When Imam translates the text for Indy (see script below), he says: “This is a warning not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant”, yet that warning doesn’t exist in the inscription. It’s also a puzzle why Indy can’t translate it himself considering that he is a professor of archeology who graduated from the University of Chicago with a major in linguistics. Also, contrary to Imam’s claim that Indy should “…take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew G-d whose Ark this is”, the obverse inscription clearly calls for exactly the opposite: to ADD one amah to the base value.
Imam further states that the base height of the staff is six kadam and according the Salah’s calculation, this is about 72” (it’s actually 69”). The problem with this calculation is that we don’t know where Imam is getting the 6 kadam figure from. The inscription uses the term amah on both sides of the medallion. Interestingly, Egypt abandoned the use of the kadam in favor of the metric system in 1891, 45 years before the timeframe of the scene in the movie. Technically, then, Imam should not even be using the term.
Assuming that the reverse side of the medallion is the form found in Kings 1:6:2 and it is following the formula ‘amount x cubit’:
וְהַבַּיִת, אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה לַ’ה–שִׁשִּׁים-אַמָּה אָרְכּוֹ, וְעֶשְׂרִים רָחְבּוֹ; וּשְׁלֹשִׁים אַמָּה, קוֹמָתוֹ
”And the house which king Solomon built for G-d, the length thereof was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof twenty cubits, and the height thereof thirty cubits.”
than the height for the staff should be indicated in the first two letters of the word (Hebrew is read from right to left). In Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet has an associated numeric value and the value of X (or ת value in post sixth century BCE Hebrew typography) is 400. So XX could be read as 400+400=800 amah or 472 feet. Even if we read the first two letters XX as the spelling of the letter Teth which equals 9, it would make the staff about 13 feet. This doesn’t make any sense as we can see clearly from the movie that the staff is about 7 foot tall.
The seared imprint on Major Toht’s right hand is actually the obverse side of the inscription. This means that contrary to Indy’s statement, Belloq had no way of getting the base staff height because the reference is located on the reverse side. On the other hand, if Belloq managed to get the base height somehow, he than had all of the missing information to construct the right height staff and in fact his staff was not too long.
So how long is the staff or Ra? It’s impossible to tell using the inscription. One thing is for sure, just like in anything else in life, G-d is in the details. Creating a plausible fiction that relies on an actual ancient language, epigraphy, biblical scholarship, historical facts, and math, and then wrapping the whole thing up in a dramatic screenplay seems to be just too complex of an undertaking. To paraphrase Mark Twain “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense”.
Imam: Come, come, look. Look here… look. Sit down. Come, sit down.
Indy: What is it?
Imam: This is a warning not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant.
Indy: What about the height of the staff, though? Did Belloq get it off of here?
Imam: Yes. It is here. This was the old way, this mean six kadam high.
Sallah: About 72 inches.
Imam: Wait! And take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is.
Indy: You said their headpiece only had markings on one side. Are you absolutely sure?
Indy: Belloq’s staff is too long. They’re digging in the wrong place.
Indy and Sallah: They’re digging in the wrong place!!
Sources and References
Avodah Zarah 43a
כדתניא לא יעשה אדם בית תבנית היכל אכסדרה תבנית אולם חצר תבנית עזרה שולחן תבנית שולחן מנורה תבנית מנורה אבל הוא עושה של ה’ ושל ו’ ושל ח’ ושל ז’ לא יעשה אפילו של שאר מיני מתכות
As it is taught in a baraita: A person may not construct a house in the exact image of the Sanctuary, nor a portico in the exact image of the Entrance Hall of the Sanctuary, nor a courtyard corresponding to the Temple courtyard, nor a table corresponding to the Table in the Temple, nor a candelabrum corresponding to the Candelabrum in the Temple. But one may fashion a candelabrum of five or of six or of eight lamps. And one may not fashion a candelabrum of seven lamps even if he constructs it from other kinds of metal rather than gold, as in extenuating circumstances the Candelabrum in the Temple may be fashioned from other metals.
רבי יוסי בר יהודה אומר אף של עץ לא יעשה כדרך שעשו בית חשמונאי
The baraita continues: Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda says: One may not fashion a candelabrum of wood either, in the manner that the kings of the Hasmonean monarchy fashioned it. When they first purified the Temple they had to fashion the Candelabrum out of wood as no other material was available. Since a wooden candelabrum is fit for the Temple, it is prohibited to fashion one of this kind for oneself.
*** [Update March 7, 2018] ***
I got a question from a reader about the possibility that part of the language of the inscription describing the height was in Ugaritic and that the tt amh qmtw should be read as a cardinal 6. This is a problematic explanation because:
- There would be no apparent reason to mix Ugaritic with Hebrew. By the sixth century when this inscription was supposedly written the Ugaritic alphabet (which resembles proto Canaanite) was out of circulation for almost 700 years. Ugaritic also had a designation for numerals and fractions and tt was not one of them.
- Even if we somehow manage to read tt amh qmtw as 6 and add one Amah (18 in.) or one Kadam (11.5 in.) to it, we are still left with a staff height of less than the apparent 7’-3 to 7’-6”.
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