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Lachish letter III Replica (front side) Below
|Writing||Phoenician script / Paleo-Hebrew script|
|Created||c. 590 BC|
|Present location||British Museum and Israel Museum|
|Identification||ME 125701 to ME 125707, ME 125715a, IAA 1938.127 and 1938.128|
The Lachish Letters or Lachish Ostraca, sometimes called Hoshaiah Letters, are a series of letters written in carbon ink containing Canaanite inscriptions in Ancient Hebrew on clay ostraca. The letters were discovered at the excavations at Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir).
The ostraca were discovered by James Leslie 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. Seventeen of them are currently located in the British Museum in London, a smaller number (including Letter 6) are on permanent display at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The primary inscriptions are known as KAI 192–199.
Again, this is a collection of letters, sometimes described as “a supplement to Jeremiah,” which was J. L. Starkey’s most important discovery at Lachish. In 1935, he found 18 ostraca in a guardroom between the outer and inner gates of the city, in a layer of ash deposited by the fire that Nebuchadnezzar kindled when he destroyed the city. Probably the Chaldeans breached the walls late in 589 BC after the olive harvest, since numerous burned olive pits appear in the nearby ruins. Having taken this and other outlying towns, Nebuchadnezzar then laid siege to Jerusalem in January 588. In 1938 three other letters were found at Lachish. Of uncertain date, these were short and fragmentary. All 21 of these texts were written in black carbon ink with a wood or reed stylus on pieces of broken pottery. The scribes used the Phoenician script, in which classical Hebrew was written.
Nearly all of the 21 documents were letters, and most of them were written by some subordinate officer at an outpost to the commander at Lachish. Unfortunately, only seven of the texts are sufficiently legible to make connected sense; on the others, only isolated sentences and words can be read. Some of the signs are blotted out and unfamiliar abbreviations and symbols are used. Scholars differ in their interpretations.
One of the most interesting of the letters is no. 4, which says, “We are watching for the fire signals of Lachish, according to all the signs which my lord has given, for we cannot see [the signals of] Azekah.” Jeremiah 34:7 mentions Lachish and Azekah (12 miles, or 19.3 kilometers, northeast of Lachish) as two of the last surviving cities of Judah. Now it would appear that Azekah too has fallen and the Chaldean noose is tightening on the Judean kingdom. However, the signals of Azekah temporarily may not have been visible for climatic or other reasons. It is important to note the external evidence here for the use of fire signals in ancient Israel. The Hebrew word for fire signal is the same as that used in Jeremiah 6:1.
Letter no. 6 alludes to the fact that the princes are weakening the hands of the people. Evidently, this refers to some insubordination or defeatism. The text reads: “And behold the words of the princes are not good, but to weaken our hands and to slacken the hands of the men who are informed about them.” This is almost identical to the charge that some of the princes lodged against Jeremiah: “For he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them” (Jer 38:4, RSV).
Letter no. 3 refers to a journey of the Judean army commander to Egypt. Whether he went with an appeal for troops or supplies is not known. This allusion points to the intrigues of the pro-Egyptian party during the reign of Zedekiah. The reason for the present expedition must have been much different from that referred to in Jeremiah 26:20–23. Letter no. 3 also refers to a letter with a warning from a prophet. Efforts to identify this prophet as Uriah or Jeremiah have not been convincing.
Letters 2–6 refer to a defense that a certain Hoshaiah (a name that appears in Jer 42:1; 43:2), the writer of several of the Lachish texts, makes to his superior, Ya’osh. Though the charges are not always clear, they have something to do with reading confidential documents and presumably divulging some of the information contained therein. One scholar has suggested that this collection of letters in the Lachish guardhouse constituted a “file” used in the court-martial of Hoshaiah. The guardhouse was not only a military post but was also located by the gate where Palestinian trials were held in biblical times.
The Lachish letters have epigraphic, linguistic, and historical value for the Bible scholar. They indicate the kind of language and script the Hebrews were using in the age of Jeremiah, and they give information for textual criticism. They are firsthand documents of the disturbed political and military situation during the months before Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem, when Jeremiah was the leading prophet in Judah. They help to make possible a study of Hebrew proper names in the last days of the monarchy and provide numerous historical references (e.g., no. 20 refers to the ninth year of King Zedekiah).
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 Yaush (or Ya’osh), possibly the commanding officer at Lachish, from Hoshaiah (Hoshayahu), a military officer stationed in a city close to Lachish (possibly Mareshah). In the letters, Hoshaiah defends himself to Yaush 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 of King Nebuchadnezzar II in 588/6 BC during the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah (ref. Jeremiah 34:7).
Text of the Letters
Letter Number 1
Gemariah son of Hissilyahu, Jaazaniah son of Tobshillem, Hageb son of Jaazaniah, Mibtahyahu son of Jeremiah, Mattaniah son of Neriah.
Letter Number 2
To my lord, Ya’ush, may JHVH 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 JHVH make known(?) to my [lor]d a matter of which you do not know.
Letter Number 3
Your servant, Hoshaiah, sent to inform my lord, Ya’ush: May JHVH 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 Coniah son of Elnatan, has gone down to go to Egypt and he sent to commandeer Hodaviah son of Ahijah and his men from here. And as for the letter of Tobiah, the servant of the king, which came to Shallum, the son of Jaddua, from the prophet, saying, “Be on guard!” your ser[va]nt is sending it to my lord.
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, who has gone down to Egypt, and the prophet. For possible biblical connections, according to Torczyner, reference Jeremiah 26:20–23.
Letter Number 4
May YHWH 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 Semachiah, Shemaiah 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.
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 Tobiah of the royal family c[o]me to your servant?
Letter Number 6
To my lord, Ya’ush, 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 JHVH lives, since your servant read the letters, your servant has not had [peace(?)].
Letter Number 7
This letter contains 10 lines on one side and 4 on the other, but the letters are unreadable due to degradation.
Letter Number 9
May JHVH 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 Shelemiah as to what we must do tomorrow.
Attribution: This article incorporates some text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Edward D. Andrews, Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort
 Sharona Schwartz. “Ancient Pottery Shards Analyzed by Israeli Scientists Seem to Support Biblical Narrative,” The Blaze, Apr. 22, 2015
Ariel David. “A high-tech quest to unlock the secrets of ancient Israelite letters. How upstart mathematicians and archaeologists are revealing the secrets of letters penned more than 2,500 years ago – and finding clues about when the Bible was written.” Haaretz Apr. 22, 2015
Heather Clark. “Scholars Believe Writing on Pottery Shards Corroborates With Biblical Narrative in Jeremiah”. Christian News Network. April 26, 2015
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