Directed to a higher official, perhaps the governor of the fort where it was found, a harvest worker pleads for the return of his garment that he claims was unfairly confiscated by his overseer. “Your servant did his reaping,” the appeal asserts in fine Biblical Hebrew.
The harvest worker probably dictated the substance of his plea to an experienced scribe,a who composed it in proper literary and legal style and added the formulaic introduction, which echoes letter-writing throughout the ancient Near East.
The seventh-century B.C.E. inscription was found at the Iron Age fortress of Meṣad Ḥashavyahu, situated on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Ashkelon. (See map.)
The inscribed potsherd, or ostracon, was found in six pieces and measures approximately 8 inches high and 6 inches wide. It consists of 15 lines written in ink. The ostracon was first published by Israeli epigrapher Joseph Naveh.
Six other smaller Hebrew inscriptions were also found in the fortress, leading the excavators to determine that it was a Judahite outpost.
The garment (בגד—beged) mentioned in the text was more than just a piece of clothing; it also would have functioned as the worker’s blanket at night. For the poor, this covering was their only possession of value.1 Deuteronomy 24:12–13 gives special instructions about how one is to take pledges from the poor: “If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God.” Biblical law stipulates that a poor man’s garment shall be returned to him at night (see also Exodus 22:25–26 and Amos 2:8). By keeping the worker’s garment, the overseer in the Meṣad Ḥashavyahu inscription violated this law, and the laborer petitioned the official to execute justice in his case.
The dispute arose over whether or not the worker had met his quota of reaped grain. Lawrence Stager and Philip King suggest that the disagreement between the worker and his overseer, Hoshayahu, resulted from their using different standards of weights and measures, thereby causing the dispute as to whether or not the worker had met his quota.2 This ostracon would then also illustrate the need for standardization of weights and measures in ancient Judah.
This text might also include the first extrabiblical reference to the Sabbath. Dennis Pardee of the University of Chicago interprets the end of line 5 and first letter of line 6 (לפגי שב־ת) as “before stopping (work),” but others read it as meaning “before Sabbath.”3
The ostracon is currently on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Meṣad Ḥashavyahu Inscription
1 May the official, my lord, hear
2 the plea of his servant.
3 Your servant is working in the harvest; your servant was at Ha-
4 ṣaar-Asam (when the following incident occurred). Your servant did his reaping,
5 finished and stored (the grain) a few days ago before stop-
6 ping (work). When your servant had finished (his) reaping and had stor-
7 ed it a few days ago, Hoshayahu ben Shab-
8 ay came and took your servant’s garment. When I had finished
9 my reaping, at that time, a few days ago, he took your servant’s garment.
10 All of my companions will vouch for me, all who were reaping with me in the heat of
11 the sun: my companions will vouch for me (that) truly I am guiltless of any in[fraction].
12 [(So) please return] my garment. If the official does not consider it an obligation to return
13 [your servant’s garment, then have] pity upon him [and return]
14 your servant’s [garment] from that motivation. You must not remain silent [when your servant is without his garment].4