{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
The Lachish Letters

The prophecies of Jeremiah give us a vivid picture of life in Jerusalem during the difficult years before the city fell to Nebuchadnezzar. Thanks to the work of J. L. Starkey, the British archaeologist who excavated Tell ed-Duweir, Biblical Lachish, we now have a description of life outside Jerusalem during the time of the Babylonian invasion.

In 1935 Starkey, while directing the Wellcome-Marston Research Expedition, came upon a small guardroom adjoining the outer gate of Lachish. There, buried in a layer of charcoal and ashes, he found sixteen broken pieces of pottery which contained writing in the Old Hebrew or Phoenician script. Two other pieces were found nearby and three additional pieces were discovered in 1938, one on the roadway and two in a room near the palace.

These inscribed potsherds, technically known as ostraca, were for the most part letters written by the scribes of Hoshaiah, evidently an Israelite soldier stationed at the military outpost. The messages were addressed to Taosh, the commanding officer at Lachish. They are written in a terse, telegraphic style, and the modern reader had difficulty reconstructing the exact circumstances during which they were written. Mr. Starkey noted that the ostraca which were arbitrarily numbered II, VI, VII, VIII, and XVIII are all pieces of the same pot, indicating that they were written at about the same time. Professor Harry Torcyner, who edited the texts for publication, noted similarities in handwriting between these letters and other potsherds from a different source. The numbers assigned to the ostraca provide a convenient means of reference, but they have no significance. Some of the oostraca are merely lists of names which were meaningful to the original writer and recipient, but serve only to illustrate Israelite names of the time for the modern student. Although they are not to be identified with the Biblical characters who bare the same names, it is of interest that the first Lachish letter mentions a Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah, and a Mattanyahu (Mattaniah), the name of Zedekiah before Nebuchadnezzar appointed him king.

The letters make use of conventional expressions. A flowery salutation may open the letter, and the writer often speaks of himself in abject humility as a dog (cf. II Samuel 9:8). Similar expressions are used in the Amarna Letters (14th century B.C.) in which a vassal deprecates himself in addressing his overlord.

The second of the Lachish Ostraca illustrates these conventions. It reads:

To my Lord, Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to hear tidings of peace this very day, this very day! Who is thy servant (but) a dog that my lord hath remembered his servant? May Yahweh afflict those who report an (evil) rumor about which thou are not informed!

Evidently things were not going well for the Judaeans. The writer of the letter feared that an evil report had reached Yaosh. He expressed a desire that the commander will hear tidings of peace, but we know that this did not take place.

The longest of the ostraca is the third. It is a letter from Hoshaiah to Yaosh:

Thy servant Hoshaiah hath sent to inform my lord Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to hear tidings of peace! And now thou hast sent a letter, but my lord did not enlighten thy servant concerning the letter which thou didst send to thy servant yasturday evening, though the heart of thy servant hath been sick since thou didst write to thy servant. And as for what my lord said, "Dost thou not understand? - call a scribe!" as Yahweh liveth no one hath ever undertaken to call a scribe for me; and as for any scribe who might have come to me, truly I did not call him nor would I give anything at all to him!

And it hath been reported to thy servant, saying, "The commander of the host, Coniah son of Elnathan, hath come down in order to go into Egypt; and unto Hodaviah son of Abijah and his men that he sent to obtain... from him."

And so for the letter of Tobiah, servant of the king, which came to Shallum son of Jaddua through the prophet, saying "Beware!" thy servant hath sent it to my lord.

Evidently Hoshaiah had been scolded for disregarding orders contained in an earlier letter. Some think that he disclosed the contents of a secret communication. He insisted that he had not wilfully disobeyed. The letter speaks of a trip to Egypt made by a man named Coniah, son of Elnathan. The Judaean kings looked to Egypt for help during the time of their war with Babylon. Egypt, fearful of the growing power of Babylon, and anxious to build an empire for herself, gladly supported any movement in Judah that sought to resist Nebuchadnezzar. Pharaoh Psammetichus II sent a force to relieve besieged Jerusalem (Jeremiah 37:15), but the Babylonians soon dispersed them and resumed their siege.

Mention is also made of a prophet who had delivered a letter of warning to a man named Shallum. We cannot identify this prophet, but we know that there were many men who bore the title "prophet" during the years before the fall of Jerusalem. Letter 16 also speaks of a prophet and his name is known to have ended with the familiar -iah suffix. Some have suggested that he was the Uriah of Jeremiah 26:20-23, or even Jeremiah himself, but we have no real basis for such identifications. False prophets plagued Jeremiah and soothed the people with words of peace when Jeremiah assured them, "There is no peace."

Ostracon Four appears to have been written shortly before the fall of Lachish itself. It reads:

May Yahweh cause my lord to hear this very day tidings of good! And now according to everything that my lord hath written, so hath they servant done; I have written on the door according to all that my lord hath written to me. And with respect to what my lord hath written about the matter of Beth-haraphid, there is no one there.

And as for Semachiah, Shemachiah hath taken him and brought him to the city. And as for thy servant, I am not sending anyone thither. (today(?), but I will send) tomorrow morning.

And let (my lord) know that we are watching for the signals of Lachish, according to all the indications which my lord hath given, for we cannot see Azekah.

Writing "on the door" was tantamount to posting on the bulletin board for all to see. It will be remembered that Luther's famous theses were posted on the door of the Castle church at Wittenburg over two thousand years after the Lachish Letters!

The last paragraph of the letter contained the sad news that the fire signals from Azekah could no longer be seen. This could mean but one thing. Azekah had fallen to the enemy. By 558 B.C. only three cities remained to the Judaeans - Azekah, Lachish, and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 34:6-7). Our letter must have been written that year. Azekah had fallen, but Lachish was still in Judaean hands. This situation did not last long, for soon Lachish fell, then Jerusalem, and Judah as an independent political state lost its identity.

The Lachish correspondence tells us something of the military organization of the day. A system of signals had been devised and reports could normally be made from a distance. We read of these signals in Jeremiah 6:1 where the prophet cries out: "Blow the trumpet in Tekoa, and raise a signal on Beth-haccherem; for evil looms out of the north, and great destruction." Written reports were regularly sent to headquarters, and orders from headquarters were sent to the field commanders at military outposts.

Morale was a problem during Judah's last days. Jeremiah was threatened with death for discouraging the people with his prophecies of doom (Jeremiah 38:4). The sixth ostracon reflects a lowering of morale:

To my lord Yaosh: may Yahweh cause my lord to see this season in good health! Who is thy servant (but) a dog that my lord hath sent the letter of the king and the letters of the princes saying, "Pray, read them!" And behold the words of the princes are not good, (but) to weaken out hands (and to sla)cken the hands of the m(en who are informed about them (...And now) my lord, wilt thou not write to them saying, "Why do ye thus (even) in Jerusalem? Behold unto the king and unto (his house) are ye doing this thing!" (And,) as Yahweh thy God liveth, truly since thy servant read the letters there hath been no (peace) for (thy ser)vant...

Only one of the texts, Ostracon Number Twenty, is dated. It begins "In the ninth year." That was the year during which Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah to put down Zedekiah's revolt (II Kings 25:1). Two years later (July, 587 B.C.), during the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the city fell. The inscribed potsherds from Lachish give us a picture of life during tose difficult years. Jeremiah was prophesying within Jerusalem. His prophecies, and the cryptic notes of Judaean field commanders found by Starkey at Lachish, give us a firsthand account of life both within and outside Jerusalem during the months before the last stronghold of Judah fell to Babylon.

Dr. W. F. Albright, writing about the Lachish ostraca, observes,

In these letters we find ourselves in exactly the age of Jeremiah, with social and political connotations agreeing perfectly with the picture drawn in the book that bears his name.1

Jeremiah of Jerusalem < | The Lachish Letters | > Judah During the Exilic Period

{Old Testament History}

1    "The Oldest Hebrew Letters," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Number 7 (April 1938), p. 17.