The Lachish Ostraca

By C.R. Scroggins

The mound of the ancient city of Lachish (ed-Duweir), a large tell approximately thirty acres at the base and eighteen acres at the top, is located twenty-five to thirty miles southwest of Jerusalem. This city was commonly referred to as the “Royal City of the Kingdom of Judah.” For a number of years it was thought by some archeologists that another tell not far distanced (el-Hesy) was the site of Lachish. However, in 1929, W.F. Albright, a most noted author, who had done extensive archaeological survey in Palestine, suggested that the location (ed-Duweir) was a more favorable site. Later excavations of the site begun by the British archaeologist, J.L. Starkey, in 1932, confirmed Albright’s suggestion. Unfortunately Starkey’s work came to an abrupt halt with his murder by a gang of Arab looters in 1938.

Historical Lachish 

Starkey’s finds, along with more extensive and systematic excavations and analysis of the various stratums, conducted between 1973 and 1987 revealed that a large Canaanite city was first established near the beginning of the second millennium B.C. It was well fortified, being naturally located in a position that dominated the surrounding territory. Its builders constructed a large wall twenty feet in width with buttresses and towers. In front of the wall, a ramp-like structure (called a glacis) was made of well-compacted earth with a hard plaster surface. At the base of this structure was a moat. However, in spite of this tremendous fortification, the city was captured and violently destroyed by Joshua ca., 1450 B.C. (cf. Joshua 10:31-33). It was during this time, while Joshua was doing battle with the coalition of five Amorite kings, that the Lord caused the “sun to stand still” (Josh. 10:2-13). 

The ruins of the city seem to have been deserted until the tenth century B.C. when Rehoboam, last king of the united monarchy and first king of the southern kingdom, rebuilt the fortifications. Another twenty-foot mud brick wall was constructed on a stone foundation (cf. 2 Chron. 11:5-12). During the city’s era of Israelite domination, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded Palestine (c. 701 B.C.) and besieged many of the fortified cities, one of which was Lachish. It was an extremely fierce battle at Lachish, as the remains of many scales of armor, sling-stones, and various other weapons indicate. In the end, however, the city was conquered and its destruction was total. Corroboration of this came when excavations at Nineveh produced the discovery of reliefs on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace, attesting to the fierceness of this great battle. 

With his victory at Lachish and other fortified cities, Sennacherib caused Hezekiah, king of Judah, being one that was weak and vacillating, to negotiate a “buy out” with him (2 Kings 18:13-16). The king of Assyria accepted the silver and gold from the treasury and temple but subsequently launched his army, from Lachish, against Jerusalem anyway (2 Kings 17). However, like many in history, Sennacherib failed to take into consideration the God of heaven who sent his angel and “smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand” (2 Kings 19:35). Approximately 64 years later, during the reign of King Josiah (639-609 B.C.), the city of Lachish was rebuilt and again fortified, but not nearly as strong and formidable as it had been previously. 

The Ostraca 

The various stratums of the Lachish mound plus the Ostraca (potsherds, broken pieces of pottery, with letters, notes, etc., inscribed) which Starkey found there have been most revealing of several events during Jeremiah’s time. There were about twenty-one of these Ostracon found and some have been completely translated. What we have been able to glean from these letters confirms much of the Bible’s account of Jeremiah’s prophecies. For example, one of the letters reads: “Let (the garrison commander) also know that we are watching for the beacon (fires) of Lachish, (interpreting them) in accordance with all the code-signals which my lord has given — but we can no longer see Azekah.” Now, compare this with Jeremiah’s account (Jer. 34:6-7), “Then Jeremiah the prophet spake all these words unto Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, When the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish, and against Azekah: for these defenced cities remained of the cities of Judah.”

These letters discovered in 1935 during Starkey’s work have generally been dated late 589 B.C. to 587 B.C., shortly before the Chaldeans besieged and conquered first Lachish and then Jerusalem, ca., 587 B.C. The collection of Ostraca from Lachish were primarily military letters written during the haste and confusion as Babylonian armies were invading. In three of the letters it appears that Hoshaiah, probably a commander of an outpost, was reporting to Yaosh, the commander of Lachish and surrounding region. Please notice that the phrase “the prophet” (most likely Jeremiah) is mentioned in Ostracon number three as follows: 

Your servant, Hoshaiah, sent to inform my lord, Yaosh. May YHWH cause my lord to hear a report of peace and a [re]port of [g]ood news. And now open, please, the ear of your servant concerning the letter which you sent to your servant last night, because the heart of your servant has been ill since you sent (the letter) to your servant. And as for what my lord said: “You did not understand it. Call a scribe!” By the life of YHWH no one has attempted to read a letter to me at any time. And, moreover, any scribe who may come to me, (I swear) I did not summon him,     [. . .] (I swear) I will not pay him! Not anything! And to your servant it has been reported, saying, “The commander of the army, Coniah the son of Elnathan, has gone down to go into Egypt, so he has sent (messengers) to take Hodaiah, the son of Ahijah, and his men from here. And as for the letter of Tobijah, the servant of the king, which came to Shallum, the son of Jaddua, from the prophet (emp. mine, crs), saying ‘Beware!’, your servant has sent it to my lord.”  

Comparing this with Jeremiah 26:20-22, this great find gives us solid, tangible evidence of Biblical “truth.” With the Lachish Ostraca we have a glimpse into history, written after Jeremiah 34:6-7 but before Jeremiah 39:2. These small fragments of pottery with their messages, hidden for centuries, prove the Bible record. So, once again, the skeptics with their molesting of Scripture and mockery of biblical truths have been soundly defeated.  

Reference Material
ISBE, Vol. III. 
A Dictionary of the Bible, Hastings, Vol. III. 
Pictorial Bible Dictionary, M.C. Tenney, gen. ed. 
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. 
Archaeology and the O.T., M.F. Unger.  
The Bible and Archaeology, J.A. Thompson. 
The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, Avraham Negev, ed. 
Archaeology of Palestine, W.F. Albright. 
The Concise Encyclopedia of Archaeology, Leonard Cottrell, ed. 
Atlas of Ancient Archaeology, Jacquetta Hawkes. 
The City of Lachish, S.B. Oostendorp.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p12  January 4, 2001