Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Archaeology Series 15: Lachish letters

*Lachish (Hebrew: לכיש‎) was a town located in the Shephelah, thirty miles South West of Jerusalem, 15 Miles West of Hebron (Joshua 10:3, 5; 12:11).
*The Israelites captured and destroyed Lachish for joining the league against the Gibeonites (Josh. 10:31-33), but the territory was later assigned to the tribe of Judah (15:39).
*Under Rehoboam, it became the second most important city of the kingdom of Judah. In 701 BC, during the revolt of king Hezekiah against Assyria, it was captured by Sennacherib despite determined resistance. The town later reverted to Judaean control, only to fall to Nebuchadnezzar in his campaign against Judah (586 BC).
*During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Lachish was identified with Tell el-Hesi from a cuneiform tablet found there (EA 333).

The Lachish Letters

*First excavated by James Starkey in 1932-1938

*18 ostraca found in 1935

*3 found in 1938

*Approximate Date:589/588 BCE

Letter 1

From the British Museum:
Lachish Letter I
A letter written on a piece of pottery
Israelite, 586 BCFrom Lachish (modern Tell ed-Duweir), Israel

This is one of a group of letters written on ostraka (pot sherds) found near the main gate of ancient Lachish (modern Tell ed-Duweir) in a burnt layer associated with the destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BC. It is written in ink in alphabetic Hebrew, and reads:

Gemaryahu, son of Hissilyahu
Yaazanyahu, son of TobshillemHageb,
son of Yaazanyahu Mibtahyahu,
son of Yirmeyahu Mattanyahu,
son of Neryahu

Presumably this list had some administrative function. Though several of the names occur in the Old Testament, it cannot be proved that the same individuals are intended.

The letters were received by Ya’osh, the military governor of Lachish, from Hosha’yahu, a subordinate officer in charge of a military outpost during the invasion by the Babylonian forces under Nebuchadnezzar which ended in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC.

Subsequently only Azekah, about 18 miles south west of Jerusalem, and Lachish itself, about 12 miles further on, remained in Judean hands, until they too fell. There followed a large-scale deportation of a part of Judah's population. Thus began the exile, a period of great significance for the Jews spiritually, and one which would profoundly influence later religious ideology and teaching.

Letter 2

This letter came from an officer named Hosha'yahu who was in charge of a military outpost. He was writing to Ya'osh, military commander at Lachish, as the situation worsened.

'To my lord Ya'osh. May Yahweh cause my lord to hear the news of peace, even now, even now. Who is your servant but a dog that my lord should remember his servant?'
Abother translation:
To my lord Jaush: May the Lord (Yhwh i.e., Jehovah) soon let my lord hear pleasant tidings! Who am I, thy slave, a dog, that thou hast remembered me? May the Lord investigate (and punish me) if I have spoken a thing, of which I did not even know.

*Letter 3


Your servant Hoshiyahu was sent to inform my lord Yo'ash. May Yahweh cause my lord to hear news of peace. But now you have sent a letter; and my lord did not instruct your servant regarding the letter that you sent to your servant yesterday evening, though your servant's heart has been sick since you wrote your servant. And my lord said, "Don't you understand? Call a scribe." As Yahweh lives, no one has ever had to call a scribe for me. And furthermore, for any scribe who might have come to me, I did not call him, nor would I give anything at all for him. It has been reported to your servant, saying, "The commander of the army, Koniyahu son of Elnathan, has arrived in order to go down to Egypt. And


regarding Hodoyahu son of Ahiyahu and his men, he has sent to obtain . . . from him." And as for the letter of Tobiyahu, the king's servant, which came to Shallum son of Yaddua through the prophet saying, "Beware!"—your servant has sent this to my lord.

Pardee, Dennis. Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters. SBL Sources for Biblical Studies 15. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1982. P-84-85

Letter 4

May the Lord soon let my lord hear good tidings!
I have carried out all the instructions you have sent me, and have recorded on the page all that you ordered me. You instructed me also about the rest house, but there is nobody there. And Shemaiah has taken Semachiah and brought him up to the city (Jerusalem), and I will write and find out where he is. Because if on his rounds (turnings) he had inspected, he would have known that we are watching for the signal-stations of Lachish, according to all the signals you are giving, because we cannot see the signals of Azekah.
Trans: Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew

Letter 5

May the Lord soon let my [lord] hear good and pleasant tidings!
Who am I, thy slave, a dog, that thou [hast s]ent me ....iah's le[tters ?] [And now] I have returned the letters to thee.
May the Lord tell thee what has [happenned]! Who am I, that I should curse the king's seed in (the name of) the Lord?
Trans: Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew
Letter 6
To my lord Jaush. May the Lord let (us) see thee in prosperity! Who am I, thy slave, a dog, that thou hast sent me the [lett]er of the King and the letters of the offic[ers, (The same word here is translated 'princes' in Jeremiah 38:4, Dr. J. W. Jack) say]ing: "Read, I pray thee, and (thou wilt) see (that) the words of the [prophet] are not good, (liable) to loosen ("weaken" suggested by Dr. J. W. Jack) the hands, [to make] sink the hands of the coun[try and] the city." (Dr. J. W. Jack translates: "the hands of the m[en in the] city.") My lord, wilt thou not write to [them saying]: "Why should ye do thus: . . . ?"
. . . The Lord thy God liveth, and my l[or]d liveth (to punish) if thy slave has read the letter or got [anyone] to rea[d the letter or s]een [anything of it.]
Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew

Letter 7 to 15

Letters VII and VIII are not well preserved. The handwriting on VIII resembles Letter I. Letter IX is somewhat similar to Letter V. Letters X to XV are very fragmentary.
Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew

Letter 16

Letter XVI is also only a broken fragment. However, line 5 supplies us with just a portion of the prophet's name, thus:
[. . . . i]ah the prophet.
This is not, however, any great help in identifying the prophet. So many names at that time concluded with "iah." There was Urijah the prophet (Jeremiah 26:20-23); Hananiah the prophet (Jeremiah 28), and Jeremiah himself.
Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew

Letter 17
Letter XVII, another tiny fragment, contains a few letters out of three lines of the letter. Line 3 gives us just the name:
[. . . . Je]remiah [. . . .]
It is impossible now to know whether this was Jeremiah the prophet, or some other Jeremiah.
Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew

Letter 18
Letter XVIII gives a few words, which may have been a postscript to Letter VI. It states:
This evening, [when cometh Tob]shillem, (I) shall send thy letter up to the city (i.e., Jerusalem).
Dr. H. Torczyner, Bialik Professor of Hebrew

*Biblical Archaeology Review Article

2005 titled, “Why Lachish Matters.”

The ostracon (inscribed potsherd) provides poignant testimony to the last days of Lachish. In perhaps his most famous discovery, James Starkey uncovered 21 inscribed sherds, known now as the Lachish Letters, 18 of them in a guardroom of the city gate. Excavator Ussishkin, following Olga Tufnell, believes the sherds are copies of letters sent from Lachish to Jerusalem. The letters date to the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, and record Judah’s increasingly desperate situation in the face of the Babylonian army led by Nebuchadnezzar. In Lachish Letter IV, a soldier writes to his commander, “We are watching for the beacons of Lachish ... we cannot see [the beacons from] Azekah.” Jeremiah 34:7 records that Lachish and Azekah were the last Judahite strongholds to fall to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar razed Lachish and Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Judah’s second most important city never regained its former importance.

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