A close-up of a stone Description automatically generated with low confidence

The Lachish Letters – Archaeology upholds the Bible Record

The Lachish Letters

Background

The Lachish Letters – These are ostracons or bits of pottery, on which ancient Hebrew writing has been found. They date to 587BC based on the context of the find and the contents of the writing. These are thought to drafts of communications between Lachish and another outpost.

The individual ostraca probably come from the same broken clay pot and were most likely written in a short period of time. They were written to Joash, possibly the commanding officer at Lachish, from Hoshaiah, a military officer stationed in a city close to Lachish (possibly Mareshah). In the letters, Hoshaiah defends himself to Joash regarding a letter he either was or was not supposed to have read. The letters also contain informational reports and requests from Hoshaiah to his superior. The letters were probably written shortly before Lachish fell to the Babylonian army in 587 BC during the reign Zedekiah, king of Judah (Jeremiah 34:6-7). The ostraca were discovered by J.L. Starkey in January – February 1935 during the third campaign of the Wellcome excavations. They were published in 1938 by Harry Torczyner (name later changed to Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai) and have been much studied since then. They are currently located in the British Museum in London, apart from Letter 6, which is on permanent display at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.[1]

The inference in one of the letters is that probably Azekah had already just fallen, placing the letters just before the fall of Lachish and then finally Jerusalem in 587BC to Nebuchadnezzar.

The book of Jeremiah indicates that Azekah and Lachish were the last two main cities to remain at the time of writing the account, before being captured by the Babylonians on their way to Jerusalem. This is recorded in Jeremiah 34:6-7.

“ 6 And Jeremiah the prophet proceeded to speak to Zed·e·ki′ah the king of Judah all these words in Jerusalem, 7 when the military forces of the king of Babylon were fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left remaining, against La′chish and against A·ze′kah; for they, the fortified cities, were the ones that remained over among the cities of Judah.”

Translation of the Letters

Letter Number 1

For an online picture please see https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1959-0711-1

This piece just contains names.

“Gemaryahu, son of Hissilyahu [Gemariah, son of Hissiliah]

Yaazanyahu, son of TobshillemHageb, [Jaazaniah, son of TobshillemHageb,]

son of Yaazanyahu Mibtahyahu, [son of Jaazaniah Mibtahiah,]

son of Yirmeyahu Mattanyahu, [son of Jeremiah Mattaniah,]

son of Neryahu” [son of Neriah]

A picture containing brick, bread, building material, stone

Description automatically generated

Picture from British Museum Website used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.[1]

Letter Number 2

In this second letter it is interesting to note the use of the tetragrammaton twice. It also gives evidence of the theophoric[2] names, ending in “yahu”, “iah in English, as in letter 1, or starting with “Ya” as here in letter 2 “Yaush”, [Joash].

“To my lord, Yaush, [Joash] may YHWH cause my lord to hear tiding(s) of peace today, this very day! Who is your servant, a dog, that my lord remembered his [se]rvant? May YHWH make known(?) to my [lor]d a matter of which you do not know.”[2]

A close-up of a stone

Description automatically generated with low confidence

British Museum Picture used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.[3]

Letter Number 3

“Your servant, Hosayahu [Hoshaiah], sent to inform my lord, Yaush [Joash]: May YHWH cause my lord to hear tidings of peace and tidings of good. And now, open the ear of your servant concerning the letter which you sent to your servant last evening because the heart of your servant is ill since your sending it to your servant. And inasmuch as my lord said “Don’t you know how to read a letter?” As YHWH lives if anyone has ever tried to read me a letter! And as for every letter that comes to me, if I read it. And furthermore, I will grant it as nothing. And to your servant it has been reported saying: The commander of the army Konyahu [Coniah] son of Elnatan,[Elnathan] has gone down to go to Egypt and he sent to commandeer Hodawyahu [Hodawiah] son of Ahiyahu [Ahiah] and his men from here. And as for the letter of Tobiyahu, [Tobiah] the servant of the king, which came to Sallum, the son of Yaddua, from the prophet, saying, “Be on guard!”, your ser[va]nt is sending it to my lord.”[3]

Notes: This ostracon is approximately fifteen centimeters tall by eleven centimeters wide and contains twenty-one lines of writing. The front side has lines one through sixteen; the back side has lines seventeen through twenty-one. This ostracon is particularly interesting because of its mentions of Konyahu, [Coniah] who has gone down to Egypt, and a warning from the prophet.

Notice what Jeremiah 26:20-23 says about Elnathan some years earlier in the reign of Jehoiakim. “And there was another man prophesying in the name of Jehovah, U·riʹjah son of She·maiʹah from Kirʹi·ath-jeʹa·rim, who prophesied against this city and against this land with words like those of Jeremiah. 21 King Je·hoiʹa·kim and all his mighty men and all the princes heard his words, and the king sought to put him to death. When U·riʹjah heard of it, he at once became afraid and fled to Egypt. 22 Then King Je·hoiʹa·kim sent El·naʹthan the son of Achʹbor and other men with him to Egypt. 23 They brought U·riʹjah from Egypt and took him to King Je·hoiʹa·kim, who then struck him down with the sword and cast his dead body into the graveyard of the common people”.

It appears that Coniah the son of Elnathan has succeeded his father as commander of the Judean army. It is possible they went to get help from Jews who had settled in Egypt. See also Jeremiah 42:1 and Jeremiah 43:1 which mention Jezaniah and Azariah as sons of Hoshaiah (Hosayahu).[4] There are also a few individuals named Shallum in Jeremiah, but none of them can be positively identified as the one being referred to in this Letter no. 3.

The mention of a warning from the prophet is also notable. Jeremiah was constantly warning the Kings of Judah not to resist Nebuchadnezzar, such as in Jeremiah 45:5, (605BC), Jeremiah 27:12-13, Jeremiah 27:16-17, (595BC), Jeremiah 38:2, Jeremiah 38:17-18, (589BC) and Jeremiah 21:9 (587BC) amongst others. Jeremiah 21:9 is clear when it says “And to this people you should say, ‘This is what Jehovah says: “Here I am putting before you the way of life and the way of death. 9 Those who remain in this city will die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Chal·deʹans who are besieging you will keep living, and he will have his life as a spoil.”

Letter Number 4

“May YHW[H] cause my [lord] to hear, this very day, tidings of good. And now, according to everything which my lord has sent, this has your servant done. I wrote on the sheet according to everything which [you] sent [t]o me. And inasmuch as my lord sent to me concerning the matter of Bet Harapid, there is no one there. And as for Semakyahu, Semayahu took him and brought him up to the city. And your servant is not sending him there any[more —], but when morning comes round [—]. And may (my lord) be apprised that we are watching for the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord has given, because we cannot see Azeqah.”[4]

See Jeremiah 34:6-7 quoted at the beginning regarding Lachish and Azekah. Also see Jeremiah 6:1 regarding the raising of fire signals at small, fortified towns.

For an online picture of Letter 4 use this link to The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Website https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/394413

Letter Number 5

“May YHWH cause my [lo]rd to hear tidings of pea[ce] and of good, [now today, now this very da]y! Who is your servant, a dog, that you [s]ent your servant the [letters? Like]wise has your servant returned the letters to my lord. May YHWH cause you to see the harvest successfully, this very day! Will Tobiyahu of the royal family c[o]me to your servant?”[5]

For a picture, please see https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1959-0711-3

Letter Number 6

“To my lord, Yaush, may YHWH cause my lord to see peace at this time! Who is your servant, a dog, that my lord sent him the king’s [lette]r [and] the letters of the officer[s, sayin]g, “Please read!” And behold, the words of the [officers] are not good; to weaken your hands [and to in]hibit the hands of the m[en]. [I(?)] know [them(?)]. My lord, will you not write to [them] sa[ying, “Wh]y are you behaving this way? [ . . . ] well-being [ . . . ]. Does the king [ . . . ] And [ . . . ] As YHWH lives, since your servant read the letters, your servant has not had [peace(?)].”[6]

Jeremiah 38:1-6 records the same attitude that is recorded in this Lachish ostracon at this time, “Now Sheph·a·tiʹah the son of Matʹtan, Ged·a·liʹah the son of Pashʹhur, Juʹcal the son of Shel·e·miʹah, and Pashʹhur the son of Mal·chiʹjah heard the words that Jeremiah was speaking to all the people, saying: 2 “This is what Jehovah says, ‘The one who remains in this city will die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. But the one who surrenders to the Chal·deʹans will keep living and will have his life as a spoil and live. 3This is what Jehovah says, ‘This city will surely be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it.’” 4 The princes said to the king: “Please have this man put to death, for this is how he is weakening the morale of the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as that of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man seeks, not the peace of this people, but their calamity.” 5 King Zed·e·kiʹah replied: “Look! He is in your hands, for the king cannot do anything to stop you.” 6 So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Mal·chiʹjah the son of the king, which was in the Courtyard of the Guard. They let Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah began to sink down into the mud.”

Letter Number 9

“May YHWH cause my lord to hear ti[dings] of peace and of [good. And n]ow, give 10 (loaves) of bread and 2 (jars) [of wi]ne. Send back word [to] your servant by means of Shelemiyahu as to what we must do tomorrow.” [7]

Jeremiah 38:1 refers to a certain Jucal being the son of Shelemiah [Shelemiyahu], along with Gedeliah just months later after the fall of Jerusalem. Bulla, which are clay seals have been found bearing the name of Jucal son of Shelemiah son of Shovi [Yehuchal ben Shelemiyahu ben Shovi], and also Gedalyahu ben Pashur [Gedaliah son of Pashur].

For good pictures of these bullae please click on this link: https://watchjerusalem.co.il/enlarge_image?data=eyJpZCI6IjM4MyIsImNhcHRpb24iOiJUaGUgR2VkYWxpYWggYW5kIEplaHVj%0AYWwgYnVsbGFlIiwiY3JlZGl0IjoiQ291cnRlc3kgb2YgRWlsYXQgTWF6YXIi%0AfQ%3D%3D%0A

Letter 7 to 15

Letters VII and VIII are not well preserved. The handwriting on VIII resembles Letter I. Letter IX is somewhat similar to Letter V. Letters X to XV are very fragmentary.

For a picture of Letter 15 please see https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1959-0711-10

No pictures are available for 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14


Letter 16

Letter XVI is also only a broken fragment. However, line 5 supplies us with just a portion of the prophet’s name.

“ [. . . . i]ah the prophet.”

Many names at that time concluded with “iah.” There was Urijah the prophet (Jeremiah 26:20-23); Hananiah the prophet (Jeremiah 28), and of course, Jeremiah himself, so no positive identification of which prophet it is referring to is possible. By this time, though, just before the fall of Jerusalem, both Urijah and Hananiah were dead, so the likelihood is that it may well be Jeremiah.
No picture is available of this ostracon.

Letter 17
Letter XVII, another tiny fragment, contains a few letters out of three lines of the letter. Line 3 gives just the name:
“[. . . . Je]remiah [. . . .]”
Unfortunately, it is impossible to know for certain whether this was Jeremiah the prophet, or some other Jeremiah due to only part of the name being readable and no other text before and after the name surviving.
No picture is available of this ostracon.

Letter 18
Letter XVIII gives a few words, which may have been a postscript to Letter VI. It states:
“This evening, [when cometh Tob]shillem, (I) shall send thy letter up to the city [i.e., Jerusalem].”
No picture is available of this ostracon.

Conclusion

These Lachish letters, fragmentary though they are, give a vivid account of the conditions prevailing at that time and show the accuracy of Jeremiah’s account, both as to what happened as the Babylonians invaded and the attitude of the people at that time. Through these letters (and two bullae) we are also to verify a number of individuals either directly or via their sons being mentioned in Jeremiah.

Once again the truthfulness and accuracy of the Bible have been upheld.


References:

  1. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/32321001

  2. Theophoric means names including the name or a shortened version of the name of a god, in this case the god of the Judeans\Jews, Yahuwah, also known in English as Jehovah.

  3. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/32541001

  4. Jeremiah 26:20-23 :20 “And there also happened to be a man prophesying in the name of Jehovah, U·riʹjah the son of She·maiʹah from Kirʹi·ath-jeʹa·rim. And he kept prophesying against this city and against this land in accord with all the words of Jeremiah. 21 And King Je·hoiʹa·kim and all his mighty men and all the princes got to hear his words, and the king began seeking to put him to death. When U·riʹjah got to hear [of it] he at once became afraid and ran away and came into Egypt. 22 But King Je·hoiʹa·kim sent men to Egypt, El·naʹthan the son of Achʹbor and other men with him to Egypt. 23 And they proceeded to bring U·riʹjah out from Egypt and to bring him to King Je·hoiʹa·kim, who then struck him down with the sword and cast his dead body into the graveyard of the sons of the people.”

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