New Light on the Age of Jeremiah
Good News Magazine
May 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 5
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New Light on the Age of Jeremiah
Lester L Grabbe  

   The army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and against all the remaining cities of Judah, Lachish and Azeqah. For only these remained unconquered of the fortified cities of Judah."
   This record in Jeremiah 34:7 is likely to be passed over by the casual reader. Yet that verse suddenly took on new significance when the ancient city of Lachish was excavated. Among the rubble of centuries appeared letters from the time of Jeremiah the prophet.
   One of these letters, when translated, contained the following statement: "Let it be known that we are watching the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord gave. But we do not see those of Azeqah" (all translations are the author's).
   A number of scholars related this statement to the last stand of Judah, speculating that Azeqah had already fallen to the Babylonians. This would explain why the fire signals were no longer visible. Too little information is preserved to know for certain. Yet scholars realize that the Lachish letters are one of the most valuable finds of Hebrew documents from the time of the Old Testament.
Important Documents for Hebrew History. Hebrew written records from the time of the Old Testament are rare. This means that every scrap of writing is important. Even single words and names — such as are found on coins — are treasured finds. It is hardly any wonder, therefore, that the Lachish letters with about 90 lines of writing are among the most important original sources in Hebrew from Palestine — perhaps second only to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
   The letters were discovered during the excavation of Tell ed-Du-weir, believed to be the site of the ancient city of Lachish mentioned in the Old Testament and other sources. Eighteen were found in 1935 and another three in 1938. Details of the archaeology of the site as well as of the letters were published by Oxford University Press in a four-volume series entitled Lachish.
   At the time the letters were originally written, good quality writing material such as papyrus or vellum was somewhat expensive. Brief messages not requiring the privacy of a sealed communication were often simply written out on potsherds. Potsherds, often called ostraca (singular ostracon, from Greek), were abundant, since earthenware pots were widely used. Broken pottery fragments made a quite usable surface for writing with pen and ink. The Lachish letters are

ARTIST'S RECONSTRUCTION of the ancient city of Lachish as it appeared in Old Testament times. The reconstruction is based on excavations carried out by archaeologists in Palestine during the 1930s.
Institute of Archaeology
all ostraca. This may be quite fortunate since, if they had been papyrus, they might not have survived.
The Time of the Letters. The letters are almost universally dated to the last few years before the conquest of Judah by Nebuchadrezzar (sometimes called Nebuchadnezzar). This puts them in the very few years before the fall of Jerusalem in about 587 B.C., perhaps in the very last year of Judah itself. There are several reasons for the dating.
   The first is the archaeological

TRANSLATION OF LACHISH LETTER NO.6 "To my lord Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to see this season in good health! Who is thy servant but a dog that my lord hath sent the letter of the king and the letters of the princes, saying 'Pray, read them!' 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... And now my lord, wilt thou not write to them saying, 'Why do ye thus even in Jerusalem? Behold unto the king and unto this house are ye doing this thing!' And, as Yahweh thy God liveth, truly since thy servant read the letters there hath been no peace for thy servant..." (translation by W. F. Albright In Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd edition, p. 322).
Photo by Palestine Archaeological Museum
stratum in which the letters were found. These were in what is labeled Level II at that site. The city of that level or stratum had been destroyed by fire. The fire was presumably caused by conquest since the various remains of fortifications show the evidence of damage, hasty repair, and further damage — the likely result of a siege.
   The stratum just below (Level III) also shows evidence of destruction by fire. Only a few years seem to have intervened between the two destructions. Also, while the fortifications destroyed in Level III were rebuilt to form a part of Level II, a palace of Level III was not. This indicates an urgency to repair the fortifications but nothing else.
   The date 587 B.C. for the destruction of Level II by Nebuchadrezzar is "accepted by all scholars" (Archaeological Encyclopaedia of the Holy Land, p. 184). There is not full agreement about the destruction in Level III. (Many put it to another invasion of Nebuchadrezzar in 597. But some feel it is even earlier. See also G. E. Wright, "Judean Lachish," Biblical Archaeologist Reader 2; K. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land, p. 291 ff.; II Kings 24:10-17; 25:1-12; Jer. 39, 52.)
   Another reason for the dating is the style of the writing. The letters are written in the "Phoenician" or "paleo-Hebrew" script. (This differs from the so-called "square" script adopted by the Jews after their return from Babylon and still used for modern Hebrew.) Enough examples of the old script have survived for paleographers to trace the history of the writing style. The particular style used in a document can usually be dated within a century or two.
   The Lachish letters were originally dated from the writing alone by a scholar who was unaware of the particular archaeological — context in which they had been found. Thus, his calculation confirmed the archaeological dating within the normal limits of each method.
   A third aid to dating is the names mentioned within the letters. There are approximately twenty personal names identifiable in the letters. Six of these are found in the one chapter of Jeremiah 36 alone: Jeremiah, Neriah, Gemariah, Elnathan, Shelemiah, Shemaiah. Other names common to both the letters and Jeremiah are Coniah, Hoshaiah, Shallum and Jaazaniah. Although these names are not necessarily confined to the book of Jeremiah in the Bible, they are concentrated in the late monarchy or early exilic period. The personal names certainly cluster around Jeremiah.
   Finally, the language of the letters corresponds to classical Old Testament Hebrew of the monarchy but seems to have closest affinity with that of the book of Jeremiah (D. W. Thomas, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 1950, 4). Interestingly, the word for "fire signal" (mas'et) is used absolutely in the Bible only once — in Jeremiah 6:1. The use of internal vowel letters is also very important. In the earliest Hebrew inscriptions, none occur. For example, there are not any in the Siloam inscription of a century before. A few occur in the Lachish letters. They are used more and more in the succeeding centuries until they reach wide usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those in the Lachish letters fit precisely with what would be expected from their normal dating.
   When all these things are considered, it becomes clear that, in the words of Dr. Kenyon: "The names used, the language, and many small details reflect the conditions prevailing at the time at which Jeremiah wrote" (op. cit., p. 296).
The Prophet Within the Letters. Since the letters seem to fit the time of Jeremiah just before the fall of Jerusalem, it is not surprising that one might find some clues to events of his time within the messages of the letters. In fact, the word "prophet" clearly occurs in one of the letters (no. III, line 20). However, this reference seems somewhat insignificant since the prophet seems only a messenger and is not otherwise identified: "And the message of Tobiah, the servant of the king, which the prophet brought to Shallum...."
   Another letter contains language strongly reminiscent of Jeremiah 38:4. The Jeremiah passage states, "The princes said to the

THE SEAL OF GEDALIAH In ancient times inscribed seals, usually made of stone, were often used to mark objects with the owner's name. Usually a small lump of clay was affixed to the object and then stamped with the seal, thus making an impression of the owner's name on the clay. In Palestine, many seals or sealings bear the inscription " (belonging) to the king" and were evidently used to mark items collected as taxes.
   Along with the letters inscribed on potsherds, several inscribed stone seals from the same period as the letters were found at Lachish. Among them was one inscribed in archaic Hebrew characters reading "(belonging) to Gedaliah who is over the house." Scholars have concluded that this seal may well be that of the Gedaliah who was the governor of Judea under Nebuchadnezzar after the Babylonians had conquered Palestine. Gedaliah and his retainers were killed by a party of rebellious Jews led by Ishmael, a member of the exiled royal house, while they were guests at the governor's official residence in Mizpah (see II Kings 25:22-26; Jer. 40:6; 41:18).
Photo by Sir Henry S. Wellcome (Lachish) Expedition
king, Let this man die because he weakens the hands of the remaining fighting men in this city, and the hands of all the people." Letter VI reads: "Now note that the words of the... are not good, weakening your hands and loosening the hands of the men..." (lines 5-7).
   This letter is severely damaged and has several tantalizing gaps, especially at the subject of the statement just quoted. Who was "weakening the hands"? The word is obliterated. Many scholars have restored the word "princes" (Hebrew sarrim). Some, though, have concluded the word was most likely "prophet" (Hebrew navi). The latest handbook of northwest Semitic inscriptions (J. C. L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, vol. I), for example, restores the word "prophet."
   A name ending in -hu occurs in another letter (no. XVI ). The first part of the name is illegible, but some have tried to see Uriah (Hebrew Uriyyahu — Jer. 26:20-23) or even Jeremiah (Hebrew Yirmeyahu) in it. Either of these would be quite interesting if correct. However, the identification with Uriah seems definitely excluded for a number of reasons. Also many names of the time ended in -hu, so it is unlikely to be either.
   Considering the possibilities in a number of passages, one can only regret that the writing of many of the letters is damaged and often totally unreadable. In such situations a scholar can only work with what he has and hope for new discoveries to clarify the many dilemmas.
A Mission to Egypt. A passage in letter no. III reads, "It was related to your servant that the captain of the army, Coniah son of Elnathan, came by on his way to Egypt" (lines 13-16).
   The purpose of the mission is not explained since the recipient of the letter would probably have already been aware of it. But several possible explanations present themselves when we look at the book of Jeremiah. The name Coniah is a shortened form of Jeconiah. The king Jehoiachin also had this name (Jer. 22:24), though he evidently was not the one mentioned here.
   On the other hand, a rather prominent person by the name EInathan is mentioned several times in Jeremiah. He was the man in charge of the mission to Egypt to extradite the prophet Uriah who had fled there (Jer. 26:20-23). Later Elnathan advised king Jehoiakim not to burn the scroll which Baruch had written at Jeremiah's dictation (Jer. 36). The king, of course, did not heed, but burned it anyway.
   We cannot be certain that the Coniah of the Lachish letter was the son of the Elnathan of the book of Jeremiah. But we do know that this Coniah was commander-in-chief of the army at the time and thus a very important personage. One strong possibility for his trip to Egypt would have been the attempt to gain military assistance from that quarter.
   Jeremiah 37:5 tells us that the Pharaoh brought an army against the Babylonians while they were besieging Jerusalem. As a result, the Babylonian army temporarily withdrew. We are not told that the Egyptian army came at the request of Judah, but that seems likely. Coniah's mission in the Lachish letters indicates arrangements were likely to have been made in advance by some sort of treaty before the Babylonian invasion.
   Later history informs us that the attempt of the kingdom of Judah to obtain military help from the Egyptians was useless. Although the Egyptians realized the danger from the rising Babylonian empire, they were unable to keep it out of the West. Pharaoh Neco had been
The record In Jeremiah 34:7 Is likely to be passed over by the casual reader. Yet that verse suddenly took on new significance when the ancient city of Lachish was excavated. Among the rubble of centuries appeared letters from the time of Jeremiah the prophet.
marching northward to join with the Assyrians in fighting the Babylonians several years before (about 609 B.C.). Josiah foolishly tried to oppose the Egyptian army and lost his life (II Kings 23:28-30). But the Babylonians were not so easily overcome.
   Another document from about the time of the Lachish letters (but in Aramaic) contains the pitiful plea for help from a petty king about to be swamped by the Babylonian army. The letter, generally thought to be from the ruler of the Philistine city of Ashkelon, tells Pharaoh that the Babylonian army is nearly upon his territory. The writer proclaims his loyalty to Egypt and asks for. help to save him from the Babylonians. (See Donner-Rollig, Kananaisch und Aramaische. Inschriften; also John Bright, Bib. Arch. Reader I, pp. 98ff.)
   Like the Jews, he found Egypt a "broken reed" to lean on.
The Last Days of Judah. The final siege and conquest of Judah is vividly described in the books of Jeremiah and II Kings. This picture can now be supplemented by ancient records from Babylon, Egypt, and now even Judah itself. Except possibly for the Lachish letter (no. IV) quoted at the beginning of this article, most of the letters do not seem to show an actual state of war.
   A number, though, indicate preparations for war are in progress (nos. IX and XIII). One hints darkly at some sort of conspiracy (no. V). As Dr. Gibson writes: "The impression one gets is that the enemy onslaught is any moment imminent" (op. cit., p. 35). This certainly fits the turbulent time during the last days of Zedekiah.
   Yet the black day on which Jerusalem fell was not the end. At that time King Jehoiachin was a captive in Babylon where he had been taken years before (about 597 — II Kings 24:8-17). He is mentioned in a series of Babylonian tablets which listed the provisions given to foreign captives (see W. F. Albright, Bib. Arch. Reader 1, p. 106ff). Years later, the son of Nebuchadrezzar, who was now the king of Babylon, removed Jehoiachin from his prison and allowed him to eat at his own table for the rest of his life (II Kings 25:27-30).
   While in captivity Jehoiachin had a number of sons, the eldest of whom was Shealtiei. This Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabei. Zerubbabel headed the return from captivity and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1-6).
   Judah was to continue for quite a few centuries. So was the line of Jehoiachin. It was through him that Jesus' descent was reckoned (Matt. 1). This Jesus was not only to give hope to the Jews of his own time — but to all men of all time.

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Good News MagazineMay 1976Vol XXV, No. 5