Language of Lachish
Sandra Metzger writes to ask:
“Would you possibly know of an ancient battle that sounds like ‘Lekesh’ but is spelled differently? I read about it 20 years ago in a book on archaeology and the Bible, which was later stolen in Liverpool, England, when in transport back to America. A hole in my memory prevents me from remembering the spelling to look it up.”
Liverpool must have had some very intellectual thieves. In any case, I am glad to be able to restore to Ms. Metzger the name of her lost battle, which was the battle of Lachish, pronounced “Lah-KHEESH.’”
What does this battle have to do with a language column? Quite a lot, actually, because in archaeological excavations conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at Lachish, a hilltop 10 miles west of Hebron near where the mountains of Judea meet the coastal plain, a number of fascinating and dramatic Hebrew ostraca — inscriptions written on shards of broken pottery — from the exact period in which the battle was fought were discovered. Many of these consisted of letters or fragments of them written by a Judean army officer named Hosha’yahu to his commander Ya’ush, who was stationed with his troops in Lachish while awaiting an attack from the forces of the Babylonian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE. They teach us some new Hebrew expressions from biblical times, cause us to rethink some old ones and occasion some reflections about what is and isn’t known regarding the language of the Bible.
For example: Hosha’yahu often begins his letters with a salutation that we don’t know at all from the Bible, “yashmi’a YHWH [the four-consonant name of God whose ancient pronunciation we aren’t sure of] et adoni shemu’at shalom u’shemu’at tov,” that is, “May God cause my master to hear good and peaceful tidings.” There are also individual words in the Lachish letters that do not appear in the Bible, such as tesibah, from the verb savov, “to go round.” Hosha’yahu uses it in the combination tesibat-boker, “the morning tesibah,” by which he seems to be referring to the morning patrol.
On the other hand, take verse 13 of Chapter 8 of Kings II. In it, the future king of Aram, Hazael, told by the prophet Elisha that he will “do evil unto the children of Israel,” replies, in the language of the King James Bible: “But what, is thy servant a dog [ma avdekha ha-kelev] that he should do such a thing?” Hazael is apparently saying that it would be a vile act, worthy only of a dog, to act in this manner — but in Hosha’yahu’s letters to Yu’ash, Hosha’yahu routinely begins any request or response with the same phrase, mi avdekha kelev, “For thy servant is but a dog.” Obviously, this was in biblical times a standard form of polite address toward one’s superiors rather than a phrase of self-castigation, and Hazael’s words would be better translated as, “But why would thy humble servant do such a thing?”
All this makes one reflect that, as large and varied a book as the Bible is, its Hebrew represents only a part of the Hebrew spoken in biblical times, about which we need to avoid overly hard-and-fast assumptions. Readers of this column may remember, for instance, how, several months ago, in a discussion of an alleged eighth-century BCE inscription supposedly found on the Temple Mount, I argued that a Hebrew expression occurring in it, and used differently from the way it is used in biblical texts, might be authentic nonetheless. This contention was scoffed at by a number of biblical scholars and the inscription, indeed, has meanwhile been declared counterfeit by the Israel Anitiquities Department; but the example of the Lachish letters shows clearly, I think, that in principle I was right. There are several linguistic usages in these letters that, had suspicion been cast on the ostraca they were written on, could have been taken by the same scholars as proof that these ostraca were fake too.
I have said that the Lachish letters are “dramatic,” and none is more so than Lachish Letter 4, the one with the word tesibah in it. On the back of its shard we find a sentence written by Hosha’yahu to Ya’ush that, although different interpretations of it have been suggested, seems to mean, “And know, sir, that we keep attending to the fires from Lachish according to the code that you have given us, but we no longer see Azekah.”
Azekah was another fortified town seven or eight miles north of Lachish that was attacked and conquered in the same campaign of Nebuchadnezzar’s; the two were apparently the last Israelite holdouts besides Jerusalem, for we read in the 34th chapter of Jeremiah, “The king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and against Azekah.” Both towns, under siege, used signal fires to communicate — but when Hosha’yahu wrote this letter, Azekah, it seems, had just been overrun by the enemy, because its fires had ceased to be seen.
Soon afterward, Lachish fell too. Hosha’yahu’s letters to Ya’ush were found in a layer of ashes caused by the Babylonian destruction.
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