The Lachish Letters (6th c. BCE)

The Lachish Letters (6th c. BCE)

BiblicalHebrew.com, 2022

The Lachish letters, or the Lachish ostraca, are a collection of letters written on potsherds from the ancient city of Lachish. They were originally found in 1935 and probably to be dated to the time just before the fall of the Judean monarchy (early sixth century BCE). Most of the Lachish ostraca are comprised of letters written from Hoshaʿyahu and to Yaʾush, the commanding officer at Lachish. It is not entirely clear where Hoshaʿyahu wrote the letters from, but it is possible that he was stationed at Mareshah, within sight from Lachish. From the content of the letters, we may conclude that they were all written at a very short interval, perhaps just a matter of days. They were likely written during a time of great urgency, perhaps the impending threat of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. (Aḥituv 2008, 56, 58). An example of one of these letters is presented below:

Lachish No. 2 – Original Text

𐤀𐤋 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤉𐤀𐤅𐤔 𐤉𐤔𐤌𐤏.

𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤀𐤕 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤔𐤌𐤏𐤕 𐤔𐤋

𐤌. 𐤏𐤕. 𐤊𐤉𐤌 𐤏𐤕 𐤊𐤉𐤌 𐤌𐤉. 𐤏𐤁𐤃

𐤊 𐤊𐤋𐤁 𐤊𐤉. 𐤆𐤊𐤓. 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤀𐤕.

𐤏]𐤁𐤃𐤄. 𐤉𐤁𐤊𐤓. 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤀𐤕 𐤀

𐤃𐤍]𐤉 𐤃𐤁𐤓. 𐤀𐤔𐤓 𐤋𐤀. 𐤉𐤃𐤏𐤕𐤄

Transcription with Audio (Ancient Script)

Ancient ScriptHistorical PronunciationTranslation

𐤀𐤋 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤉𐤀𐤅𐤔

ˈʔil ʔadoːˈnajj jaˈʔuːʃ

‘To my lord, Yaʾush’

𐤉𐤔𐤌𐤏. 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤀𐤕 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉

jaʃˈmiʕ jahˈweː ʔit ʔadoːˈnajj

‘May YHWH make
my lord hear’

𐤔𐤌𐤏𐤕 𐤔𐤋𐤌

ʃamuːʕˈat ʃaˈloːm

‘tidings of peace’

𐤏𐤕. 𐤊𐤉𐤌 𐤏𐤕 𐤊𐤉𐤌

ˈʕatt kaj-ˈjoːm ˈʕatt kaj-ˈjoːm

‘this very day,
this very day’

𐤌𐤉. 𐤏𐤁𐤃𐤊 𐤊𐤋𐤁

ˈmiː ʕabˈdak ˈkalb

‘who is your
servant, a dog’

𐤊𐤉. 𐤆𐤊𐤓. 𐤀𐤃𐤍𐤉. 𐤀𐤕. [𐤏]𐤁𐤃𐤄

ˈkiː zaˈkar ʔadoːˈnajj ˈʔit ʕabˈduh

‘that my lord remem
-bered his servant’

𐤉𐤁𐤊𐤓. 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤀𐤕 𐤀[𐤃𐤍]𐤉

jibakˈkir jahˈweː ˈʔit ʔadoːˈnajj

‘may YHWH make
known to my lord’

𐤃𐤁𐤓. 𐤀𐤔𐤓 𐤋𐤀. 𐤉𐤃𐤏𐤕𐤄

daˈbar ˈʔiʃr ˈloː(ʔ) jadaʕˈtuh

‘a matter which
you do not know’

Transcription with Audio (Modern Script)

Modern Script Modern PointedTranslation

אל אדני. יאוש

אֶל אֲדֹנִי יָאוּשׁ

‘To my lord, Yaʾush’

ישמע. יהוה את אדני

יַשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת אֲדֹנִי

‘May YHWH make
my lord hear’

שמעת שלם

שְׁמֻעַת שָׁלֹם

‘tidings of peace’

עת. כים עת כים

עַתָּה כַּיֹּם עַתָּה כַּיֹּם

‘this very day,
this very day’

מי. עבדך כלב

מִי עַבְדְּךָ כֶּלֶב

‘who is your
servant, a dog’

כי. זכר. אדני. את. [ע]בדה

כִּי זָכַר אֲדֹנִי אֶת [עַ]בְדֹּה

‘that my lord remem
-bered his servant’

יבכר. יהוה את א[דנ]י

יְבַכֵּר יְהוָה אֶת אֲ[דֹנִ]י

‘may YHWH make
known to my lord’

דבר. אשר לא. ידעתה

דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתֹּה

‘a matter which
you do not know’

Commentary

אל אדני

Note that in the Tiberian vocalisation tradition of Biblical Hebrew, the consonantal text אדני is construed as plural אֲדֹנָי when it refers to God but as singular אֲדֹנִי when it means ‘my lord; my master’ and refers to a human. Such a distinction, however, likely did not apply in the First Temple period—this may still have been the case at the time of this inscription. All masters, human and divine, could be referred to in the plural as /ʔadoːniːm/ ‘master’ or /ʔadoːnajj/ ‘my master’ with the 1CS suffix added.

In the Second Temple period, however, after the Jews began to pronounce the tetragrammaton (יהוה) as אֲדֹנָי (instead of something like [jahˈweː]), this began to change. At that point, referring to a human master as אֲדֹנַי ‘my master’ might have sounded too much like you were calling the human master by the name of God. As a result, what would have been a plural form with a 1CS suffix in an earlier period came to be pronounced as a singular form with a 1CS suffix: i.e., אֲדֹנַי ← אֲדֹנִי. This maintained a clear distinction between human masters and the divine name.

This is a consistent trend that can be found in the Tiberian vocalisation of the Hebrew Bible. Note, for example, that when Abraham is talking to God in Genesis 18, he refers to God as אֲדֹנָי ‘my lord.PL’: e.g., ‏הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃ ‘look now, I have undertaken to speak to my lord while I am but dust and ashes’ (Gen. 18.27). In the same chapter, however, when Sarah refers to Abraham her husband as ‘my lord’, she refers to him as אֲדֹנִי ‘my lord.SG’: e.g., ‏אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ ‘after I am worn out, should I have pleasure, when my lord is old?’ (Gen. 18.12).

However, when possessive suffixes other than the 1CS suffix are added (‘your master’, ‘his master’, etc.), the noun is still construed as a plural, even for human masters: e.g., כִּי־בָא֙ אַחַ֣ד הָעָ֔ם לְהַשְׁחִ֖ית אֶת־הַמֶּ֥לֶךְ אֲדֹנֶֽיךָ׃ ‘for one of the people came to destroy the king, your master’ (1 Sam. 26.15); ‏אֲשֶׁר֩ שְׁלָח֨וֹ מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁ֤וּר ׀ אֲדֹנָיו֙ ‘whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent’ (2 Kgs. 19.4). There are two potential—but not mutually exclusive—reasons for the maintenance of the plural in such forms. For one, it is only the form with the 1CS suffix that sounds like the standard pronunciation of the tetragrammaton in the Second Temple period and after. The other reason is that in all of these other cases the yod of the plural is preserved in the consonantal text, so it could not be vocalised as anything but a plural.

All of this is simply to say, though, that readers of this 6th c. BCE inscription might still have maintained the more archaic pronunciation of the plural /ʔadoːnajj/ for a human master.

ישמע

In Tiberian Hebrew, the jussive of III-ʿ hifʿil verbs is יַשְׁמַע, but the final pataḥ is due to vowel backing/lowering in the environment of the guttural. At an earlier period, it was probably pronounced as /jaʃmiʕ/.

שמעת שלם

The phrase שמעת שלם can be construed as either singular or plural: i.e., /ʃamuːʕat ʃaloːm/ ‘a report of peace’ or /ʃamuːʕoːt ʃaloːm/ ‘tidings of peace’.

עת כים עת כים

Note that כַּיּוֹם ‘as the day; as today’ can be a synonym for ‘now’ in the Hebrew Bible: e.g., ‏מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃ ‘sell me your birthright now!’ (Gen. 25.31); הִשָּׁ֤בְעָה לִּי֙ כַּיּ֔וֹם ‘swear to me now!’ (Gen. 25.33). In the phrase עת כים, then, we have a strengthened way of saying ‘now’ or ‘today’ by means of stacking synonyms: i.e., ‘now, on this very day’.

מי עבדך כלב כי

The phrase ‘who is your servant, a dog that … ?’ taps into a common theme in ancient Near Eastern literature. This sort of self-abasement language is common when an inferior is approaching a superior. It has been compared to the following phrase common in the Amarna letters: miyami kalbu u lā jišmû ana awātē šarri bēlišu ‘who is the dog that he would not listen to the words of his lord the king?’ (EA 322.17–19; 323.17–20) (Aḥituv 2008, 62). It has also been compared to the phrase uttered by Abner to Ish-Bosheth in 2 Samuel: הֲרֹ֨אשׁ כֶּ֥לֶב אָנֹ֘כִי֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לִֽיהוּדָה֒ ‘am I the head of a dog belonging to Judah?’ (2 Sam. 3.8) (see Hutton 2002/2003).

יבכר

It is not entirely clear how the form יבכר should be pronounced or interpreted. The root בכ״ר is associatd with ‘first fruits’ in the Bible, whether ‘firstborn’ son, ‘first fruits’ of the harvest, or a ‘birthright’. In Arabic, the verb بَكَرَ bakara (Form I like Hebrew qal) means ‘to rise early’ and the verb بَكَّرَ bakkara (Form II like Hebrew piʿʿel/piʿʿal) means ‘to do something early’. Therefore, it has been suggested that this verb might be a synonym for ‘making something known’.

דבר אשר לא ידעתה

The final heh on the word ידעתה is probably not a mater lectionis for the final [aː] vowel of the 2MS qaṭal form. Rather, it is probably a consonantal heh of the 3MS object suffix referring back to דבר ‘matter’. In Biblical Hebrew grammar, this is known as a resumptive pronoun. As such, the phrase reads: ‘a matter which you do not know it’. Therefore, the historical pronunciation is [jadaʕˈtu(h)] and the Tiberian/Masoretic equivalent would be יְדַעְתֹּה.

Bibliography:

Aḥituv, Shmuel. 2008. Echoes From the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions From the Biblical Period. Jerusalem: Carta. Pages 56–91.

Bridge, E. J. 2010. “Polite Language in the Lachish Letters.” Vetus Testamentum 60, no. 4: 518–534.

Emerton, J. A. 2001. “Were the Lachish Letters Sent to or from Lachish?” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 133, no. 1: 2–15.

Huehnergard, John. 2015. “Biblical Hebrew Nominal Patterns.” In Epigraphy, Philology, and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, edited by Jeremy M. Hutton, and Aaron D. Rubin, 25–64. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Hutton, Jeremy M. 2002/2003. “‘Abdi-Aširta, the Slave, the Dog’: Self-Abasement and Invective in the Amarna Letters, the Lachish Letters, and 2 Sam 3:8.” Zeitschrift für Althebraistik 15/16: 2–18.

Lambdin, Thomas O., and John Huehnergard. 2000. The Historical Grammar of Classical Hebrew. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University.

Naʾaman, Nadav. 2003. “The Distribution of Messages in the Kingdom of Judah in Light of the Lachish Ostraca.” Vetus Testamentum 53, no. 2: 169–180.

Suchard, Benjamin D. 2020. The Development of the Biblical Hebrew vowels: Including a Concise Historical Morphology. Leiden: Brill.

Tur-Sinai, Naphtali H. 1987. The Lachish Ostraca. Letters of the Time of Jeremiah. Edited by Shmuel Aḥituv. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute and Israel Exploration Society.

Zammit, Abigail. 2016. “The Lachish Letters: A Reappraisal of the Ostraca Discovered in 1935 and 1938 at Tell ed-Duweir.” Ph.D. diss. Oxford University.

I must also thank Jo Ann Hackett, who trained me in Northwest Semitic Epigraphy. Of course, any errors in the above are my own.

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