Professor Larry Geraty of Andrews University gave his class in Biblical Archaeology the instructive assignment of writing a BAR Jr. column. In this issue, we print one of the papers submitted in response.
Talk about bringing the Bible to life!
Imagine you’re digging at a Judean outpost southeast of Jerusalem, and you unearth correspondence written shortly before the Babylonians destroyed the city in 586 B.C. That’s what happened to British archaeologist John L. Starkey digging at Biblical Lachish in the 1930s.
The first letters were found during the third season of digging at Tell ed-Duweir, which most scholars identify as the site of Biblical Lachish. They were written with reed pen and iron carbon ink on broken pieces of pottery, called ostraca (singular, ostracon), the notepads of their day. These letters describe the general social and political situation shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, a time also described in chapter 34 of the book of Jeremiah. The ostraca were found in and near a guardroom located in the outer gate of the city. In all, 21 letters, or fragments of letters, were found.
The letters are correspondence between Jaush, who was apparently governor of Lachish, and his subordinate, Hoshaiah, who was stationed at an unidentified military outpost north of Lachish.
The military situation shortly before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem is described in Jeremiah 52:34. King Zedekiah of Judah had rebelled against the king of Babylon so the king of Babylon sent an army against Zedekiah’s capital at Jerusalem. The Bible tells us that, either at this point or perhaps at the time of a Babylonian attack on Jerusalem about 10 years earlier, except for Jerusalem, only Lachish and Azekah remained of all the fortified cities of Judah (Jeremiah 34:7).
Apparently, when Jaush and Hoshaiah wrote to one another, Azekah too had fallen and Lachish was next in line. Letter IV, illustrated here, written from another Judean military outpost, reports that the signal beacons of Azekah could no longer be seen.
Shortly afterward, Lachish also fell, as did Jerusalem.
The letters describe unstable social and political conditions. From their words we feel the tension that people must have experienced in the years just before the final Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judah.
The letters mention a number of people by name. These same names are in the Book of Jeremiah—Gemariah, Jaazaniah, and Neriah. In Hebrew, all these names end in ya which is a shortened form of Yahweh, the name of the Hebrew God. These three names are mentioned nowhere else in the Bible except in the book of Jeremiah.
Another name mentioned in the Lachish letters is Mattaniah, which was Zedekiah’s name before he became king. Zedekiah was the last king of Judah before Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. So this letter may be speaking of Zedekiah, king of Judah.
The Lachish letters seem to be part of an ancient “file” that could have been labeled “Hoshaiah.” Some scholars have suggested that the letters may have been collected as evidence for court marshal proceedings against Hoshaiah. Perhaps the gate room where the letters were found served as a courtroom. Many of the letters charge Hoshaiah with deeds that he denies. In Letter V he insists that he did not curse the king 073in Yahweh’s name. In Letters I, III, and XII he denies having read correspondence not addressed to him. Unfortunately, we don’t understand Hoshaiah’s predicament, so interpreting these letters is a problem.
Some scholars suggest that Hoshaiah was accused of sedition for supporting a group of “pacifists” in Judah with which Jeremiah may also have been associated. This pacifist faction believed that Judah should submit rather than stand up to the Babylonian aggressors.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the letters are the allusions to a prophet or seer (Letters III and VI). In Letter VI the king is said to have accused the “prophet” of demoralizing the country. These same charges were leveled against Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38:14. Of course we wonder—are the letters speaking about this same Jeremiah?
If the reference in the letters is not to Jeremiah, it may be to the prophet Uriah (Jeremiah 26:20–21). Like Jeremiah, Uriah prophesied against Judah, and King Jeohiakim wanted Uriah put to death. Uriah fled for his life to Egypt, and may have been pursued there by “Achbor” and “Hodaviah” whose names and campaign are mentioned in Letter III.
Aside from their historical significance, the Lachish letters shed important light on the complex defense system that crisscrossed Judah in the late Iron Age.
They are also important to scholars for the script in which they are written—a beautiful cursive hand in Old Phoenician-Hebrew script. These letters were the first personal documents found in Palestine written in the Hebrew script used before the Judean exile began in 586 B.C. following the Babylonian conquest. They provide much more extensive examples of this script than other inscriptions now known from the same period. The syntax and vocabulary of the letters teach us much about the language of the Judeans at that time.
Finally, these ostraca may provide a clue to how the book of Jeremiah was composed. Scholars have long lamented the fragmentary character of Jeremiah and the absence of any consistent central organization. Perhaps when the prophet spoke, his words were originally preserved on ostraca like these letters, and were only later collected and arranged by an editor. Does that explain why the book of Jeremiah seems to be put together from disconnected pieces of text?
The Lachish letters have been studied for nearly 50 years, but there is still much to learn from these documents that speak to us so personally in the words of people who lived more than 2500 years ago.
Professor Larry Geraty of Andrews University gave his class in Biblical Archaeology the instructive assignment of writing a BAR Jr. column. In this issue, we print one of the papers submitted in response. Talk about bringing the Bible to life! Imagine you’re digging at a Judean outpost southeast of Jerusalem, and you unearth correspondence written shortly before the Babylonians destroyed the city in 586 B.C. That’s what happened to British archaeologist John L. Starkey digging at Biblical Lachish in the 1930s. The first letters were found during the third season of digging at Tell ed-Duweir, which most scholars identify […]