The Arad and Lachish Letters, and the last moments of the Kingdom of Judah

The Arad and Lachish letters are military communications that date to the final years of the Kingdom of Judah. Carefully read, they provide a valuable insight into the daily lives of the military personnel and their attitudes to events as Judah faced the Babylonians or their proxies. They afford some independent testing of the historical narratives contained in the Biblical accounts of the time. Since the 2 Kings account is not comprehensive (it largely skims over, for example, the reign of Zedekiah), the letters can assist in piecing together what occurred in the final decades of Judah.
The Arad Ostraca are predominantly military requisition orders written on potsherds. The exact dating of the Arad letters appears unclear, although they are believed to date to the last years of Judah and are likely to pre-date the first Babylonian invasion of 597 BCE, as Judah is confronting Edomite pressure immediately preceding the Babylonian invasion”.

The Babylonians are not mentioned in the Arad letters. Generally, evidence regarding Edom is scant; however Biblical sources suggest ire at Edom’s failure to support Judah in its last days2. The Arad Ostraca thus provide first-hand support for the Biblical emnity. Letter 40 states,

“The king of Judah should know [that we are un]able to send the [troops? until] the evil that Ed[om devises? dis]appears”3.

Despite this, Edom was one of the local states that attended the ‘rebel’ conference held in Jerusalem in 5944. They apparently did not concur with the rebellion and the Psalmist records their subsequent strong support for Babylon:

“Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”5

The Arad Ostraca also provide first-hand evidence of the presence of Greek mercenaries (Kittim) serving in Judah in its last days. Arad 1 states,

“To Elyashib. And now, give to the Kitim three bat-measures of wine and write down the date. From what is left of the first meal have one homer-measure of meal loaded to make bread for them. Give (them) the wine from the craters.”6

The reference to Kittim7 in the Arad Ostraca provides information as to when the Negev settlements of southern Judah collapsed. Lipschits point to archaelogical evidence of settlement patterns and suggests a gradual process of collapse between 597 and 582 BCE8. However, Na’aman argues that in all Biblical references to mercenaries, they were stationed with the king. This implies that the Kittim must have joined in defending Jerusalem and other major centres. Thus, “Arad and the other Negev settlements were destroyed before the downfall of Jerusalem and other major centres, in a situation whereby the king could still send his elite troops to defend the kingdom’s southern front.”9 History would suggest that they could both be right – a defeated army retreats to the major centres, whilst the remaining civillian population, with nowhere else to go, live on in the ruins under the conquerors.

Taken as a whole, the Arad letters reveal that, far from being a society of primitive goat herders, Judah was a well ordered nation with a hierarchy of command. It had inteligence of the threats on its doorstep and was taking steps to counter them – hiring mercenaries (Arad 1), displacing troops and patrols where the enemy was expected (Arad 24) and logistically supplying them to keep them in the field (Arad 8). Orders were being issued by the king and effectively transmitted down the line of command (Arad 24). They also show that a literate officer class existed.

The Lachish Ostraca are a somewhat richer vein to mine. They comprise similar military communications, this time centring on Lachish, a major regional city of Judah. The ostraca date to immediately prior to the final destruction of Judah by Babylon in 587. In addition to providing further evidence of organised military activity and logistics, the Lachish Ostraca provide information about religious movements in the last days of Judah, and shed light on attitudes within the military to religious activists of the time.

The Yahwistic content of the Lachish letters are notable. Phrases such as “May YHWH cause my lord to hear…”10 and “By the life of YHWH,….”11 occur throughout the texts. Added to this is the dominance of Yahwistic names in the Lachish texts, such as Hoshiniah, Koniah and Semachiah. Of the twenty or so names, only Shallum and Yaddua are non-Yahwistic12. This is perhaps an indication that Josiah’s pro-Yahwist reforms a generation earlier had been successful.

The Lachish letters may further indicate the religious environment in the last days of Judah. Lachish 3 and 6 are concerned mainly with an un-named prophet who was causing a stir at the time. Letter 3 includes:

“As for the letter of Tobiyahu, the servant of the king, which came from Shallum the son of Jaddua from the prophet, saying, “Beware!” – your serv<ant> has (already) sent it to my lord.” 13

Letter 6 does not mention prophets directly, however, it concerns letters from princes (or officers, depending on the translation) that the writer vehemently disagrees with. He writes, (addressing his superior officer),

“…my lord, will you not write to them s[aying]: “Why do you act like this, even in Je-ru]salem? N[o]w, against the king [and] his [house y]ou are doing thi[s] th[ing.” 14

Taken together, these letters illustrate the considerable dissention that was occuring in Judah at the time. Admittedly, this conclusion is drawn in the context of the Book of Jeremiah, which lays out in much greater detail both the dissent within Judah and the political manouevrings of various religious activists (not the least, Jeremiah himself) at the time. Without Jeremiah’s text, the tone of the Lachish letters would be somewhat confusing.

Lachish 3 suggests that the writer, Hoshiyahu (presumably the commander or intelligence officer at the Lachish fortress), has intercepted a letter from a prophet and forwarded it to his superior, preventing it from becoming available for general distribution and further undermining the cause that Hoshiyahu and Ya’uash advocate, presumably a nationalist one.

The Lachish letters suggest that the dissent in Jerusalem extended into the ranks of the military, with elements in favour of throwing off the Babylonian yoke and others advocating submission. “Hoshiyahu’s insubordinate criticism of royal officials in Jerusalem, possibly all the way up to the king himself is reminiscent of the complaints of many a line officer in later times, convinced that the politicians are ruining the conduct of the war. Hoshiyahu and Ya’ush appear as “hardliners” who want to avoid any statement by national leaders that would undermine troop morale”15. Actually, an alternate reading of Letter 6 could present Ya’ush as pro-submission, ordering Hoshiyahu to “Read!” letters from like-minded royal officials, to Hoshiyahu’s personal disgust.

Although there may have been substantial political turmoil just prior to the final crushing of Judah, the Lachish letters also show a high degree of military preparedness. Communications up the line are demonstably operative. It is still possible to travel to Jerusalem, to Egypt and to the coutryside for harvest16. Signal fires between Lachish and Azekah are being prepared and tested. Jeremiah records that Lachish and Azekah were soon to be the only fortified cities left holding out against the Babylonian army17.
The insubordinate tone Hoshiyahu uses towards his superior may suggest a breakdown in authority in the final days. In Lachish 3, he quibbles with Ya’ush because the latter has questioned his ability to read a previous letter. In Lachish 6, he declares,

“Who is your servant, a mere dog, that my lord has sent the [lette]r of the king and the letters of the princ[es sayin]g: “Read!”?”18

As an alternative to the insubordination/breakdown in authority theory suggested above, it could be that direct speech and even criticism of superiors was permissable in late monarchic Judah. Hoshiyahu’s emotional outbursts are introduced by phrases of polite greeting and reinforcement of their ‘master-servant’ relationship. For example,
Lachish 3 –

“Your servant, Hoshiyahu, sends (this document) to info[rm] my [lo]rd, [Ya’ush.] May YHWH cause my lord to hear a report of peace and a [re]po[rt] of good news.”

Lachish 4 –

“May YHWH cause my lord to hear good news this very day. And now according to all that my lord sent, thus your servant has done.”

Lachish 6 –

“To my lord, Ya’ush. May YHWH cause my lord to see this season (in) peace.”19

To some extent, these letters confirm the language of politeness and deference to a superior found in the Bible, although “a cursory comparison shows that the Lachish letters are more polite in terms of master-slave deference than most narrated speech in the Bible”20. For instance, when Jeremiah is brought before King Zedekiah, he wants to be released from prison, but in his initial utterance there is no politeness or deferential greeting, simply – “You will be handed over to the king of Babylon”. It is only in his final plea that he tones down his language, with, “But now, my lord the king, please listen,…”21

The story of Joseph and his brothers contain both language of high deference and emotion. Contrast Judah’s initial words to Joseph (unaware they are brothers),

“Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself.”22

with his emotional final plea:

“How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father”. 23

There are other examples in Biblical conversations that contain a mix of deference and emotion. In 2 Samuel 14, a woman uses deferential language to request the king’s attention:

“Let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.”24

She then follows this with an emotional outburst towards him:

“Why have you devised a thing like this against the people of God? When the king says this, does he not convict himself..?”25

It can thus be seen that the mix of deferential and emotional language found in the Lachish letters has Biblical parallels. The two sources taken together might suggest that the Judean culture allowed, within the deference due to superiors, “the freedom to express opinion and critique them, with the direct address this commonly entails”26.
Regarding Hoshiyahu’s “Who is your servant, a mere dog,” exclaimation in Lachish 6, Thomas identifies it as “an expression of thanksgiving”, equating it with 2 Samuel 9:8 – “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?”27. However, it seems more likely that in this instance, Hoshiyahu is expressing indignation, not thanksgiving.

The Arad and Lachish letters are thus valuable epigraphic evidence of the last days of Judah. In isolation, they may be enigmatic, however they present an image of the times that is not inconsistent with that presented by the Biblical evidence, including an allusion to political turmoil, a breakdown in social norms, prophetic agitation and the like. They provide historical detail like the hiring of mercenaries, and historical ‘colour’, like what soldiers were fed. Finally, they suggest parallels of polite norms with Biblical conversations between master and servant, including the permissibility of critiquing within the bounds of those norms.



2 Obidiah 1
3 Na’aman (2011), p. 89 [reconstruction].
4 Jeremiah 27:2.
5 Psalm 137:7
6 Translation from Pardee (1982), p. 31
7 Or, ‘Kittiyim’
Lipschits (2005), p. 230.
Na’aman (2011), p. 89
10 Lachish 3, Dobbs-Allsopp et al, p. 309
11 Ibid
12 Davies (1992), p. 98
13 Ibid
14 Ibid, p. 323
15 Lindenberger (2003) p. 117, 118
16 Ibid, p. 117
17 Jeremiah 34:7
18 Dobbs-Allsopp et al, Op. Cit.
19 Dobbs-Allsopp et al, Op. Cit.
20 Bridge, p. 534, emphasis added
21 Jeremiah 37: 17-20
22 Genesis 44:18
23 Genesis 44:34
24 1 Samuel 14:12
25 1 Samuel 14:13
26 Bridge (2010), p. 534.
27 Thomas, p. 31.

Bridge, Edward J. (2010), ‘Polite Language in the Lachish Letters’, Vetus Testamentum 60 518-534.

Davies, P.R. (1992), ‘In Search of Ancient Israel’, T&T Clark, London

Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W., Roberts, J.J.M., Seow, C.L., Whitaker, R.E. (2005), ‘Hebrew Inscriptions: Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance’, New Haven and London: Yale University Press,

Lindenburger, James M. (2003), ‘Ancient Aramaic & Hebrew Letters’, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta

Lipschits, O. (2005), ‘The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem: Judah Under Babylonian Rule’, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake

Na’aman, Nadav (2011), ‘Textual and Historical Notes on the Eliashib Archive from Arad’, Tel Aviv 38 83-93.

Miller, J.M. and Hayes, J.H. (2006), ‘A History of Ancient Israel and Judah’, SCM, London.

Pardee, D. (1982), ‘Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters’ (SBLSBS 15; Chico: Scholars)

The Bible (New International Version) (2006), Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois.

Thomas, Benjamin (2009), ‘The Language of Politeness in Ancient Hebrew Letters’, Hebrew Studies 50 17-39.

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