The Babylonian Invasion In Archeology – Part 2: The Lachish Letters

(Photo: James Leslie Starkey points to where he found the “Lachish Letters” in 1935.)

In speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, it’s easy to forget that other cities in the kingdom suffered defeat and exile as well. Such was the case with Lachish, the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah.

On January 29, 1935, British archaeologist James Leslie Starkey made what is widely regarded as one of the most important discoveries in the history of Biblical archeology. James Starkey led the first major archaeological survey of the site of the ancient Judean city of Lachish. While excavating a chamber in what had been a gate tower at the city’s entrance, his team discovered under two feet of ash and debris, 18 broken pieces of pottery (potsherds). Broken pottery is not particularly significant or rare in a archaeological dig. What made them so valuable is that they were covered in writing in pre-exilic Hebrew. These are the famous “Lachish Letters”. They are primarily letters from one person written over a short period of time and they provide a very rare glimpse at the last days of the kingdom of Judah.

Any writing from this time period is extremely rare. In fact the Lachish letters have been called, “… the first cohesive body of original texts from the pre-exilic period in Hebrew” (Context of Scripture, Lachish Letters, Dennis Pardee, COS 3.42, p78, 2002 AD) but what really makes these letters so important to Bible students is the way they illuminate events described by the prophet Jeremiah and other Bible writers.

These letters were written at a time when the kingdom of Judah was being invaded by a Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar. A number of Judean cities had already fallen. In the years leading up to this the Biblical prophet Jeremiah had fearlessly exposed the wrongdoing of corrupt princes, priests and prophets and warned them that their refusal to repent would mean the destruction of the nation. When Babylon invaded, Jeremiah told the Judean King (Zedekiah) that God’s will was for him to surrender and that by doing so he would save his life and the city:

“Obey, please, the voice of Jehovah in what I am telling you, and it will go well with you, and you will continue to live. But if you refuse to surrender, this is what Jehovah has revealed to me:… all your wives and your sons they are bringing out to the Chaldeans, and you will not escape out of their hand, but you will be seized by the king of Babylon, and because of you this city will be burned with fire.”
(Jeremiah 38:20-23)

There were many princes in the land who wanted Jeremiah dead for spreading what they considered to be defeatist talk. In fact, not many years before the invasion a contemporary prophet of Jeremiah’s named Urijah had prophesied against Jerusalem and against Judah “with words like those of Jeremiah.” (Jeremiah 26: 20) King Zedekiah’s predecessor King Jehoiakim sought to have him killed so Urijah fled to Egypt. Jehoiakim’s thugs tracked him down and dragged him back to Jerusalem where the king killed him. So Jeremiah had reason to fear, yet he boldly persisted.

This background will help us to better understand the letters. They primarily consist of letters from a subordinate official in charge of a military outpost named Hoshayahu (Hoshiah), to the captain of the guard at Lachish, named Joash (Yaush). It is clearly a confidential correspondence. It seems that the author Hoshayahu is trying to exonerate himself from accusations that had been made against him. One theory is that there may have been a trial in Lachish. In Bible times, the gateway to a city is where judicial matters were conducted and it was in the gate where the Lachish letters were found in 1935. We will look at a few of those letters.

Letter II  “To my lord Joash: May YHWH give you good news at this very time. Who is your servant [but] a dog that my lord should remember his servant? May YHWH give my lord first knowledge of anything you do not already know.

Lachish Letter II

Lachish Letter II. The Divine Name, YHWH is circled.

The first thing of note is the regular use of the Divine Name. The four letters YHWH are often translated Yahweh, in English more commonly rendered Jehovah. The Hebrew language at this time was written without vowels, so the exact pronunciation can only be guessed at. However, the regular usage of YHWH throughout the letters demonstrates that, at this time, the tradition that the name was too holy to be used had not yet taken hold.

The expression, “Who is your servant but a dog” is used in a similar expression in the Bible: “How could your servant, who is a mere dog, do such a deed?” (2 Kings 8:13)

Letter IIIYour servant, Hoshayahu, sent to inform my lord, 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 son of Elnathan, has gone down to go to Egypt and he sent to commandeer Hodawyahu son of Ahiyahu and his men from here. And as for the letter of Tobiyahu, the servant of the king, which came to Sallum, the son of Yaddua, from the prophet, saying, “Be on guard!” your servant is sending it to my lord

Lachish Letter III

A replica of Lachish letter III.

There are two things here that we will focus our attention on. The first is the mention of the commander of the army Konyahu (Coniah) son of Elnathan (Elnatan) who has gone down to Egypt. Although his mission here is unclear, it may be related to the prophet Jeremiah’s warning to King Zedekiah. King Zedekiah had ignored Jeremiah’s warning to surrender to the Babylonians and instead had turned to Egypt for military support:

 “But the king finally rebelled against him by sending his messengers to Egypt to obtain horses and a large army from them. Will he succeed? Will the one doing these things escape punishment? Can he break the covenant and still escape? As surely as I am alive,” declares the Sovereign Lord Jehovah, “he will die in Babylon, in the place where the king who made him king lives, the one whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke.” (Ezekiel 17: 15,16)

A second item of note in Lachish letter III is the reference to the prophet. This is the first occurrence outside of the Bible of the common Hebrew word for prophet. Is the prophet being referred to Jeremiah? It is impossible to be sure but the timing is interesting.

Letter IV gives us a clear picture of a moment in time during the Babylonian invasion. The reader gets a sense of the helplessness in the face of the impending disaster which was to fall on every city in Judah.

Letter IV “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 to 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 Azekah.”

The regular fire or smoke signals from Azekah could no longer be seen. This letter captures the moment when the city of Azekah had fallen to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar would then turn his forces to Lachish. Those two cities are 20 kilometers apart. There is amazing correspondence between this letter and the report Jeremiah gave to King Zedekiah:

Jeremiah the prophet then spoke all these words to King Zedekiah of Judah in Jerusalem, when the armies of the king of Babylon were fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and against Azekah; for they were the only fortified cities that remained of the cities of Judah.
(Jeremiah 34: 6,7)

The use of fire signals is also described in the book of Jeremiah:

Light a fire signal over Bethhaccherem! For a calamity looms from the north, a great disaster.” (Jeremiah 6:1)

The Lachish letters mention a number of names that are found in the book of Jeremiah. They are Elnathan, Jaazaniah, Neriah, Gemariah, Elnathan, and Hoshaiah. (Jeremiah 36:12, 35:3; 32:12; 36:10, 12; 42:1) Whether the individuals in the letters represent the same persons in the book of Jeremiah cannot be said with certainty, but the coincidence is striking and it is likely that at least some of them are the same individuals Jeremiah mentions.

The gates to the city of Lachish

Ruins of the city gates, Lachish.

Lachish would fall and, in the end, so would the capital Jerusalem. The survivors would be led off into exile in Babylon. James Leslie Starkey discovered grim evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege and Lachish’s end. A century before Lachish fell to Babylon, it had also fallen to the Assyrians. Visitors to Lachish today can see the siege ramp employed by the Assyrians in taking the city. The Babylonians employed a different technique in conquering the city.  Says Werner Keller in the book The Bible as History:

Investigation of the stratum that marked the Babylonian work of destruction produced, to Starkey’s astonishment, ashes. Ashes in incredible quantities. . . . Nebuchadnezzar’s engineers were specialists in the art of incendiarism, past masters at starting conflagrations. Whatever wood they could lay hands on they dragged to the spot, . . . piled the firewood as high as a house outside the walls and set it alight. . . . Day and night sheets of flame leapt sky high: a ring of fire licked the walls from top to bottom. The besieging force piled on more and more until the white-hot stones burst and the walls caved in.

James Leslie Starkey’s excavation of Lachish which began in 1932, came to a violent end in 1938. While traveling to Jerusalem to attend the grand opening of what is today called the Rockerfeller Museum, he was ambushed by bandits near Hebron and shot twice in the chest. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion, Jerusalem. 

Photo Credits:

James Leslie Starkey at the Lachish letters find site, photograph taken by Rev. Charles Bernard Mortlock in 1935 (PEF-P-Portrait-Starkey). Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Lachish Letter II with YHWH circled – {PD} Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lachish Letter III – {PD} Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lachish city gates – Photo by author.

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