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Scholars’ Corner: Yadin Presents New Interpretation of the Famous Lachish Letters, Oded Borowski, BAR 10:02, Mar-Apr 1984.

Lachish Letter 6On January 29, 1935, during the third season of excavations at Tell ed-Duweir, a site thought to be Biblical Lachish, archaeologists discovered a collection of 18 ostraca, or inscribed potsherds. The ostraca had been covered by a thick layer of destruction debris on the floor of a guardroom in the upper gate. The archaeologists credited the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, with this destruction layer. In about 588 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar attacked Lachish just before he assaulted Jerusalem in 586 B.C., totally destroying that city and the First Temple. Later, three more ostraca were found at Lachish, making a total of 21.

The Lachish ostraca, or “The Lachish Letters” as they were called by Professor N. H. (Harry) Torczyner (Tur-Sinai), who was the first to decipher and interpret them, made an immediate splash in the scholarly world. Less than one month after their discovery, Sir Charles Marston, writing from Jerusalem to the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, proclaimed- “it is premature to suggest the precise effect that this find will have on old [sic!] Testament scholarship … But it already seems quite evident that further important evidence has been found that will tend to confirm the Old Testament…”

The letters clearly constituted some kind of correspondence and name lists. According to another scholar, J. W. Jack, who studied them, they were written in “iron-carbon ink with a reed or wood pen, the nib part of which must have been broad but not split.”1 Since the ostraca were inscribed in different handwritings, it is safe to assume that several scribes were involved. Some of the ostraca are inscribed on both sides, starting on the outer side of the jar. According to Jack, the handwriting is “fluent cursive, resembling in some signs the Samaria Ostraca.”2 The ink is still so clear on most of the Lachish ostraca that they can be read without difficulty. It is almost as if they had been written the day before their discovery. However, only seven of the 21 are long enough to produce a coherent translation.

A reading of the ostraca suggests that they belong to an exchange of letters between two military commanders. Unfortunately, only one side of this exchange has survived. The sender of the letters, Hosha‘yahu, is mentioned in Ostracon III but not in the others—a strange fact. The addressee, Ya’ush, is mentioned in three of the ostraca (II, III, VI), but not in the others. Together, the ostraca seem to describe certain events the sender wishes to bring to the attention of the addressee.

Over the years most scholars have accepted the interpretation that Hosha‘yahu, the sender, was commander of an outpost and reported to Ya’ush, the commander of Lachish and its region. We can conclude that the addressee, Ya’ush, is Hosha‘yahu’s superior by the way Hosha‘yahu addresses Ya’ush- “Who is thy servant (but) a dog”3 (Ostraca II, V, VI). This expression was also used by vassals addressing their overlord, Pharaoh, in the Amarna Letters.a

Some of the reports sent by Hosha‘yahu to Ya’ush describe events taking place just before the letters were written. In Ostracon II, Hosha‘yahu the sender seems to be trying to quell a rumor about himself. As he tells the story, the rumor is untrue. Hosha‘yahu invokes Yahweh to “afflict those who re[port] an (evil) rumor about which thou art not informed!” In Ostracon V a humble Hosha‘yahu asks Ya’ush- “How can thy servant benefit or injure the king.” In Letter VII- “Truly I lie not—let my lord send thither!” Has Hosha‘yahu been charged with plotting rebellion or treason against Jerusalem?

In Ostracon III Hosha‘yahu refers to a letter from Ya’ush received by him on the previous day in which he, Hosha‘yahu, had been accused of some misdeed. In the same letter, Hosha‘yahu makes a reference to a delegation going to Egypt- “The commander of the host, Coniah son of Elnathan, hath come down in order to go into Egypt.” Hosha‘yahu ends the letter by mentioning another letter he has received; this passage contains an intriguing reference to “the prophet”- “And as for the letter of Tobiah, servant of the king, which came to Shallum son of Jaddu‘a through the prophet, saying ‘Beware!’, thy servant hath sent it to my lord.” Apparently, Hosha‘yahu has been accused of reading a letter sent to someone else. Some scholars also saw here a reference to an event described in Jeremiah 26-20–23, in which the prophet Uriah flees to Egypt. In this Biblical text, Elnathan son of Achbor is sent to Egypt to capture Uriah. In the Lachish ostracon, Coniah son of Elnathan goes down to Egypt.

Although it’s not easy to project the full contents of the Lachish Letters, most scholars concluded that they were describing the final days of Judah, when she was defending herself against the Babylonian onslaught in the early sixth century B.C.b The mention of a prophet and a delegation to Egypt perhaps referred to the prophet and delegation mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.

The case for a connection with the Biblical text became even stronger in Ostracon IV. Hosha‘yahu reports- “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.” To many scholars this sentence seemed to refer to the war situation in Judah just before the fall of Jerusalem. At the time Ostracon IV was written, Azekah had fallen to the Babylonians, and Lachish alone (except for Jerusalem) remained unconquered. A report in the Bible written, as it were, almost the day before this Lachish letter, refers to the fact that at one point in the battle only Lachish and Azekah were left (again, except for Jerusalem). By the time Ostracon IV was written, Azekah too had fallen. As we read in the book of Jeremiah- “The prophet Jeremiah spoke all these words to King Zedekiah of Judah in Jerusalem, when the army of the king of Babylon was waging war against Jerusalem and against the remaining towns of Judah, against Lachish and Azekah, for they were the only fortified towns of Judah that were left” (Jeremiah 34-6, 7).

Several of the Lachish Letters make references to similar events and occurrences. They also contain a number of repetitions. Some scholars explain these similarities and repetitions by suggesting that these messages were urgent. The military commander who sent them was unsure that any particular letter would reach its destination, so he sent several letters with the same information. The urgency of the situation was emphasized by the fact that the style of the letters was that of dictation. In addition, five of the letters were written on sherds from the same jar.4 The sender apparently needed to repeat the message because delivery was so uncertain.

Since some letters seem to allude to accusations against Hosha‘yahu, some scholars suggested that the letters were collected at the gatehouse as part of a court martial dossier against Hosha‘yahu. Perhaps Hosha‘yahu was accused of conspiracy or at least of not following the policy of the administration. In Ostracon V, he tries to defend himself, “How can thy servant benefit or injure the king?”

As the only collection of Hebrew letters from the time of the First Temple, the Lachish Letters are an extraordinarily important find. They are in a very real way a direct voice from the past. Although there have been arguments concerning their interpretation, most scholars have accepted, with only occasional hesitations, Tur-Sinai’s view that the Lachish Letters were original documents sent to Ya’ush, the commander of Lachish, by Hosha‘yahu, a commander of an outpost, most likely Qiryat-Yeiarim. Nevertheless, many questions remained-

1. Why are these documents written on potsherds and not on papyrus? Official correspondence at the time was written on papyrus.

2. Are the ostraca original letters or copies?

3. Since most of the ostraca do not bear the names of both the sender and the addressee, do they all belong to the same correspondence?

4. How can we explain the fact that for some of the letters, the text is fragmentary although the ostracon itself seems to be complete?

5. Why was this correspondence placed in the guardroom of the gateway?

These are only some of the questions raised by the Lachish Letters.

A recent paper by Yigael Yadin of The Hebrew University in Jerusalemc suggests a dramatically new hypothesis that may answer these questions and suggests a new interpretation of the letters themselves.

According to Yadin, the ostraca are drafts (or “trial versions”), not actual letters. That is why they are written on potsherds rather than papyrus. (The actual letters were later written for dispatch on papyrus and sealed with the signet of the sender.) That is also why five of the ostraca come from the same storage jar. That is also why the ostraca were written in such a short space of time. The ostraca are various drafts intended to be incorporated into no more than two or three letters, says Yadin. That is the reason for the frequent repetitions. That is also why the sender or addressee is so frequently omitted. This also explains the fragmentary nature of some of the ostraca.

The most startling aspect of Yadin’s hypothesis is that if the Lachish ostraca are drafts, then they must have originated at Lachish and were not sent to Lachish. That is why five sherds from the same vessel were found in the guardroom of the gateway at Lachish; the drafts were written there by the scribes who were on duty at the gate bastion.

If Yadin is correct, the sender Hosha‘yahu is the commander of the garrison at Lachish. He writes to his superior Ya’ush who is located elsewhere. But where? Yadin suggests that Ya’ush may well have been stationed at headquarters in Jerusalem. Ya’ush may even have been one of the king’s sons.

One key to Yadin’s hypothesis involves a new interpretation of a phrase in Ostracon IV relating to “the beacon of Lachish.” Ostracon IV contains the following sentence- “And let (my lord) know that we are watching for (shomerim ’el) the beacon of Lachish, according to the signals which my lord hath given, for Azekah (or- the signal of Azekah) is not to be seen” (lines 10–13).

The question Yadin asks is, Does shomerim ’el really mean “watching for”? If it does, the Lachish ostraca could not have been written at Lachish. The sender Hosha‘yahu could not be in Lachish if he is watching for the beacon of Lachish.

But, says Yadin, shomerim ’el does not mean “watching for.” The sender Hosha‘yahu is reporting that he is “watching over” the beacon of Lachish to make sure that it still burns brightly as a signal that the city is still undefeated. If this is the meaning of shomerim ’el, then the letter was sent from Lachish, not to Lachish, and Hosha‘yahu was loyally tending the beacon of Lachish.

Yadin’s interpretation of shomerim ’el as “watching over” rather than “watching for” is based on several references in the Bible (1 Samuel 26-15–16; 2 Samuel 11-16) where a similar phrase clearly means “watch over.”

With this reorientation in our thinking about the Lachish letters, Yadin is able to offer a new interpretation of the situation reflected in the letters.

According to Yadin, the sender Hosha‘yahu is defending himself against a libelous charge. This theme, says Yadin, “runs like a scarlet thread through most of the ostraca.”

The false charge against Hosha‘yahu seems to be that he read a classified letter. In Ostracon VI, he states- “As the Lord thy God liveth, that … thy servant hath no[t] read the [le]tter … ” And again in Ostracon III- “As the Lord liveth, no one hath ever dared to read a letter for me; moreover, nor any letter that hath come to me, I did not read it … ” As Yadin observes- “These are essentially two different, albeit similar versions of one and the same matter.” These are simply different trial drafts of replies to the libelous charge.

The classified letter that Hosha‘yahu is charged with having read apparently advised that the commander-in-chief was going to Egypt on a secret journey.

Hosha‘yahu defends himself vigorously. “May the Lord afflict the utterers of a thing of which I was not aware” (Ostracon II). “As the Lord thy God liveth, … thy servant hath not read the letter” (Ostracon VI). Hosha‘yahu says he learned of the commander-in-chief’s journey to Egypt by other means (“And thy servant was told- ‘The commander-in-chief, Coniah son of Elnathan, hath gone to Egypt’”) (Ostracon III).

Hosha‘yahu proclaims his loyalty, and as evidence cites all that he has done- “Thy servant hath done according to all that my lord hath instructed” (Ostracon IV). This letter then lists all that he has done.

Apparently Hosha‘yahu is also warning Ya’ush about a statement made by “the prophet.”
Finally Hosha‘yahu reports that he is tending (shomerim ’el “watching over”) the beacon of Lachish, as he was ordered.

Yadin’s new interpretation also clinches the identification of Tell ed-Duweir as Biblical Lachish. Several scholars who interpreted the expression shomerim ’el as “watching for” Lachish suggested that Tell ed-Duweir, where the ostraca were found, could not be Lachish. Other doubts were also raised about the identification of Tell ed-Duweir as Lachish.5 If Yadin’s interpretation is correct, however, and shomerim ’el should be read as “watching over,” the identification of the site with Lachish cannot be doubted anymore, for these are drafts of correspondence by the commander at Lachish, saying he is watching over the beacon of Lachish.

Yadin’s striking new theory about the nature of the Lachish ostraca and their place of origin is both imaginative and attractive. It stands on solid ground. Yadin has indeed made a very strong case for his hypothesis. The Lachish Letters will now return to the forefront of scholarly debate.

a. The Amarna letters are 14th-century B.C. missives written in Akkadian cuneiform by feudal princes of Canaan to their Egyptian overlords. The clay tablets were discovered in the diplomatic archive of two 18th-dynasty Pharaohs at Tell el-Amarna near Cairo.

b. This should be distinguished from the attack of the Assyrian king Sennacherib a little more than 100 years earlier, in 701 B.C., described in “Destruction of Judean Fortress Portrayed in Dramatic Eighth-Century B.C. Pictures” and “News from the Field- Defensive Judean Counter-Ramp Found at Lachish in 1983 Season.”

c. “The Lachish Letters—Originals or Copies and Drafts?” Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel (Biblical Archaeology Society- Washington, D.C., 1984), pp. 179–186.

1. J. W. Jack, “The Lachish Letters; Their Date and Import; An Examination of Professor Torczyner’s View,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 70 (1938), p. 167.

2. Ibid.

3. Translated by William R Albright, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Third Edition with Supplement, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton University Press- Princeton, N.J., 1969).

4. J. W. Jack, op. cit.

5. G. W. Ahlstrom, “Tell ed-Duweir- Lachish or Libnah?” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 115 (1983), pp. 103–104; idem, “Is Tell ed-Duweir Ancient Lachish?” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 112 (1980), pp. 79; G. R. Davies, “Tell ed-Duweir=Ancient Lachish- A Response to G. W. Ahlstrom,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 114 (1982), pp. 25–28.

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