The Lakhish Letters

Lakhish Ostraca

Lakhish_Ostraca 1

Lakhish Ostraca. Photo courtesy of Bible History Online.

In 701 BCE, the Assyrian king Sennacherib led his armies to Phoenicia (the coast of Lebanon) and the Land of Israel with the aim of crushing a rebellion against him that had erupted under the leadership of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and Zedaka, king of Ashkelon. (The story of this rebellion is alluded to in I Kings 18-13-14). After defeating an Egyptian auxiliary force that had come to the aid of the rebels in Philistia, Sennacherib advanced to the Judean Foothills (Shephelah) and pitched camp at the foot of Lachish, the second most important city in Judah after Jerusalem. The people of Lachish, aware that the Assyrian army would have the upper hand in any direct confrontation, barricaded themselves in the city in the hope of outlasting the enemy. The Assyrians, however, managed to break through the city’s fortifications by raising a stone siege ramp against its walls. Upon Sennacherib’s orders, they destroyed the walls, looted the city’s treasures, and sent its survivors into exile.

Lachish stood desolate for decades, and the region was ultimately severed from Judah and delivered into Philistine hands. However, during the period in which Babylonia and Media waged war against Assyria, finally conquering it in 612 BCE, Lachish was reinhabited, and the city was once again annexed to Judah. Its walls were rebuilt, but the palace was not. The settlement probably served as a military fortress.

Between 605 and 601 BCE, during the reign of Jehoiakim, the kingdom of Judah was subjugated by Babylonia, though there were periodic attempts by the Judean kings to shake off the yoke of foreign rule (as in II Kings 24-1). When the vassal king Zedekiah rebelled against Babylonia in 589 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies descended upon Judah, laid waste to its cities and fortresses (including Lachish), and in 586 BCE, conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. In the shadow of these events, the Lachish Letters were written.

The Letters

The twenty-one letters discovered at Lachish were written in ink on potsherds (ostraca) in ancient Hebrew script. They were composed by Hosha’yahu, who sent them to his master, Ya’ush. Most scholars believe that Hosha’yahu was the commander of a small garrison along the road from Lachish to Jerusalem (perhaps Maresha), and that Ya’ush was his superior officer, stationed at Lachish. Archaeologist Yigal Yadin, however, posited a different theory- He believed that Hosha’yahu was the commander of Lachish and that his letters, written on papyrus, were addressed to Ya’ush, a person of high rank who lived in Jerusalem. According to this hypothesis, the Lachish Letters were copies of the papyri sent to Jerusalem.

The letters reflect an atmosphere of tension and imminent danger and a general sense of intrigue and suspicion. We learn from them that the commander of the Judean army traveled to Egypt, Babylonia’s enemy,
presumably to solicit military aid; that among the members of the royal court and within the prophetic circles, there was much talk of the Babylonian threat being close at hand, and that this seemed to be having a dispiriting effect on the people; that Hosha’yahu was insulted because Ya’ush accused him of not having read carefully enough a letter he sent him, or of having misunderstood its content (some scholars interpret this as meaning that Hosha’yahu read a letter that had not been intended for him).



Lachish Letter no. 6

Apparently, the Lachish Letters were written prior to the outbreak of the war with the Babylonians in 589/8 BCE, for they contain no reference to actual fighting, to the enemy’s presence, or to the blocking of the route to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, some interpret a certain line in Letter 4 as a sign that Azekah, situated sixteen kilometers north of Lachish, had already fallen to the Babylonians, for its fires were no longer visible- “Let him also know that we are watching for the beacons of Lachish, in accordance with all the fire-signals that my lord has given, but we do not see Azekah.” If this interpretation is correct (many scholars have rejected this view), then at the time the letter was written, the Babylonian armies had already conquered large portions of Judah and must have already been quite close to Lachish.

Letter 6, the only one on permanent exhibition at the Rockefeller Museum (no. 42), deals with letters from Jerusalem that had reached Ya’ush, which contained quotes from a prophet (or prophets) or officials expressing defeatist attitudes about the approaching war. Ya’ush forwarded the letters to Hosha’yahu for his perusal. Hosha’yahu responded quickly, stating that in his opinion, such statements were damaging to the morale of the people and its king and to their ability to withstand attack. He pleaded with his commander to encourage the officials to cease writing letters containing such demoralizing messages- “I tell you that since your servant read the letters, there has not been for your servant [peace] . . .”

English Translation of Letter no. 6, written in ancient Hebrew script in black ink on a potsherd (from Torczyner 1938) L 16 W 10, No. 38.129-

1. To my lord Ya’ush. Yahweh give my

2. lord to see the present season in good health. What

3. is your servant but a dog that my lord has sent the letter of the

4. king and the letters of the officials saying,

5. Read this and see how the words of the [prophet] are not

6. good, liable to loosen your hands [and to make]

7. limp the hands of the [men] . . .

8. . . . ? [And now, my] lord, will you not

9. write to them [and say, Why] do you behave

10. like this – [in] Jerusalem too? Look, it is to

11. the king [and to his house] that you are doing this

12. thing. By the life of Yahweh,

13. I tell you that since your servant read

14. the letters, there has not been

15. for your servant [peace] . . .

Ornit Ilan. Image and Artifact- Treasures of the Rockefeller Museum with Aerial Photographs by Duby Tal and Moni Haramati. The Jerusalem Museum, 2000. pp. 62-63.

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