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Starkey and the Lachish letters

82 years ago on 10 January 1938, the archaeologist James Starkey was killed in an ambush by Arab rebels while he was on his way to Jerusalem for the opening ceremony of the new Museum of Archaeology known today as Museum Rockefeller. At the start of his career, he had assisted the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in several digs in Egypt and later moved to Palestine in 1926 for the PEF (Palestine Exploration Fund).


In 1932, he obtained his first dig as a director, at Tell ed-Duweir, identified with the Biblical Lachish. He led the excavations there until his death in 1936.

Starkey (2nd from the right) and the PEF

Lachish was the second city of importance in the Kingdom of Judah, after Jerusalem its capital. The city also marked the main border between the kingdom and the "south", with the territory of Edom and the desert tribes. The city was captured and destroyed by the campaign of Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE. But the kingdom of Judah still remained for over one century. However, after the Assyrian campaign, Lachish never really recovered from its ruins as a city but hosted a military post to control the roads to the South. This was until another campaign, this time led by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, in 596 BCE, who conquered the kingdom of Judah and finally destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon in 586 BCE.


The excavations in Lachish revealed the evidence of the Assyrian harsh siege (vividly depicted in the Lachish bas-relief exhibited today at the British Museum in London), and also findings from the Babylonian conquest. Concerning this last campaign, Starkey made an important discovery known today as the Lachish letters. These "letters" were in fact messages written by ink of broken pieces of pottery (such pieces are called ostracons) between commanders of the Judean forts in the South before and during the Babylonian conquest.

Starkey showing where the Lachish letters were found

The Lachish letters were found need the gate of the fortress, where they were written or received, in one room that was part of the gate complex of the city destroyed by the Assyrians.


LACHISH LETTER IV

The most famous letter is the letter IV: it relates to the last communication between the Israelite commanders of two fortresses:


I have written on the door [gate] according to all [instructions] you have sent to me. [...] And Semach-yahu took Shema-yahu and they went up to the city. [...] because we keep watch of the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signals that my lord gave to me, as we don't see Azekah ['s signals].

Lachish Letter IV (one of the two sides)

This letter has two important points.

First, it connects different locations in one letter, Lachish, Azekah and a third unnamed fortress but assumed to be Maresha which was intermediary between the two former ones: the commander of that fortress, who could normally see the signal fires from both Lachish and Azekah, informs his commander in Lachish that he can longer see the fire from Azekah. In other words, Azekah already fell to the hands of the Babylonian army.


Second important point: the name of Semach-yahu. We could have assumed that this commander had been killed or captured. And another document from Babylonian rulers show that he was captured and exiled, like the rest of the religious and royal and aristocracy important figures. Indeed Nebuchadnezzar would invade a nation, take away all its VIP's from it to exile, and leave the poor people in their land. In such way, the nation won't easily rise again against him. The document found to prove that Semach-yahu was exiled is part of what is called the "food rations" from Al-Yahudu archive. These food rations is an administrative report of how much food was given to such or such exiled family. The Jewish exiles community was called "Al-Yahudu" in the Babylonian records. This name is derived from the name Judea. In these documents, dated 561 BCE, there is the food ration of "Rapa-yama son of Semach-yama": the name is close enough to Semach-yahu, assumed a slight deformation of the name as written by the Babylonians.

Food rations document from el-Yahudu, Babylonian exile

The Lachish letter IV is important enough to be featured in one of the stamps of Israel.


LACHISH LETTER II

This letter says the following:


To my lord, Ye-ush, may God send to my lord tidings of peace, on this day, on this day.

Who is your servant, a god, for my lord to remember his servant?

Lachish Letter II

The important point here is the unusual expression who is your servant, a dog? because it is also found in the Bible, as to show that the Biblical narrative and the Lachish letter were contemporary to one another when this expression was fashionable in the use of language:


And Hazael said: 'But what is your servant, who is but a dog [...]?' (2 Kings 8:13)



LACHISH LETTER 3

Although not often referred to, I consider this letter to be the most important to show-case the link between Bible and History. The letter says the following:


Your servant Hosha-yahu sends [you this message] to inform Yaush [the then commander of Lachish]: may God send to my lord tidings of peace, tidings of goodness. And now, open the ear of your servant concerning what you sent to your servant last night, because the heart of your servant is saddened since you sent to your servant. And my lord says as follows: 'You didn't know how to read a letter?' As God lives, if anyone has ever tried to read me a letter! Because every letter that comes to me, I read it. And, further, I will grant it as nothing. And to your servant, it was told: the minister of the army, Keni-yahu son of Elnathan, has gone down to Egypt, and he sent commander Hodav-yahu son of Achi-yahu and his men to take [a posse] from here [Lachish]. And as for the letter of Tobi-yahu, the servant of the king, who came to Shallum, the son of Yaddua, from the prophet saying: 'Be on guard!', your servant is sending it to my lord.

Lachish Letter III

So what was this letter about? It refers to a posse sent by the minister of the army, reporting to the King of Judea, who passed through Lachish on their way to Egypt and asked for extra men to take with them on a mission there. This mission seemed to be related to a prophet who received a warning and, presumably, fled to Egypt from the court of the King. The story seems wuite complexed and detailed with names of people involved. The extraordinary fact is that the Bible also talks about the same story in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 26, who prophetized before the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.


1- In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim [608 BCE] the son of Josiah, king of Judah [killed by Pharaoh Necoh in Meggido], came this word from the LORD, saying:

[...]

20- And there was also a man that prophesied in the name of the LORD, Uriah the son of Shema-yahu of Kiriath-jearim; and he prophesied against this city [Jerusalem] and against this land according to all the words of Jeremiah;

21- and when Jehoiakim the king, with all his mighty men, and all the princes, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death; but when Uriah heard it, he was afraid, and fled, and went into Egypt;

22- and Jehoiakim the king sent men into Egypt, Elnathan the son of Achbor, and certain men with him, into Egypt;

23- and they fetched forth Uriah out of Egypt, and brought him unto Jehoiakim the king; who slew him with the sword, and cast his dead body into the graves of the children of the people.


So here is the details of the story mentioned in the Lachish letter III: the prophet who was tipped that he was under threat and fled to Egypt was called Uriah; the posse sent to Egypt by the King was led by Elnathan; and the Bible even mentions that 'certain men with him', were added to Elnathan's posse, so presumable referred to the men added by the garnison of Lachish, which was the subject of the letter III.


These Lachish letters are very important documents because they prove the Bible right, with all the details matching one another, and because they prove that the Bible's related verses are contemporary to the Lachish letters they referred to. How would otherwise an author be aware of usual expressions fashionable in these times, or be aware of details that were never written elsewhere than in the Bible or lost in time, and confirmed by letters (writings on pottery shard) from witnesses of these events? The possibility of the Bible having been compiled after these events leading to the destruction of 586 BCE, when some royal orders (like the execution of a prophet) were never formally written or archives had been destroyed by the Babylonian attackers, is very very slim because some details (names of regional commanders, story of posse's, etc) are too specific to be invented centuries after the facts.


For me, these Lachish letters are a good illustration of how Bible meets History.


Coming back to poor old Starkey, he now rests in the Protestant cemetary on Mount Sion, in Jerusalem.

The tomb of Starkey, killed at 43 years old

Albert Benhamou

Tour Guide in Israel

January 2020