The site of Tell ed-Duweir or Tel Lachish has provided one of the most important corpora of Hebrew inscriptions: thirty-six are presently known and the ongoing excavations may well discover others. In addition, important Proto-Canaanite inscriptions, lmlk sealings and other seals and sealings (Diringer, 1953, pp. 340–348; Aharoni, 1968: 165–167), inscribed weights (Diringer 1953, pp. 348–356; Aharoni, 1968, p. 165), several Egyptian inscriptions (Goldwasser, 1991), and a three-line Aramaic inscription on a Persian-period altar (Diringer, 1953, pp. 358–359) have been recovered at the site.
The first group of Hebrew texts, numbering twenty-one, was discovered in 1935 and 1938 and published almost immediately by Harry Torczyner (Torczyner, 1938, texts 1–18; Torczyner, 1940, texts 19–21). During a trial excavation carried out at the Solar Shrine at Lachish in 1966, a single ostracon was found (Aharoni, 1968, text 22). In the excavations that have been ongoing since 1973 under David Ussishkin, another ten inscriptions have come to light (Lemaire, 1976, text 23; Ussishkin, 1978, texts 24–30, pp. 81–88; and Ussishkin, 1983, texts 31–32, pp. 157–160). For reasons that are unclear, this sequential numbering of the Hebrew inscriptions omitted four brief texts, not written on ostraca, that Diringer reedited (1953, pp. 356–358).
It is the first group of texts, the so-called Lachish letters, that have made the collection famous, for several of these documents are relatively long and well preserved. There can be no doubt that this group is at least partially homogeneous, for five of the ostraca are sherds from the same vessel (G. Lankester Harding in Torczyner, 1938, p. 184). Whether this means that the documents are drafts of letters written on the site and sent elsewhere (Yadin, 1984) is open to debate (Rainey, 1987). The most important documents in this group are letters from an inferior to his superior in an administrative and/or military context (e.g., text 3, ll. 1–2: “Your servant Hoshayahu hereby reports to my lord Yaush”). The letters are generally dated to the period before the fall of Judah, in 586 BCE, perhaps in 589. The concerns of that time appear to be reflected in the mention in text 3 of a high-level embassy to Egypt (the envoy is Konyahu, general of the army [śr hṣb']) and of an unnamed prophet (hnb'). Although attempts to identify this prophet as Jeremiah are pure speculation, the extrabiblical attestation of the term nb' itself is important; the circumstances of these letters also are not unlike the situation in the time of Jeremiah, as described in the Hebrew Bible (Dussaud, 1938: 256–271; Lemaire, 1977, p. 109).
Several of this first group of texts are of less historical interest than the letters; they are either simple lists of names (texts 1, 11, and 19) or are too poorly preserved to allow meaningful analysis (texts 10, 12, and 17). Text 20, a brief jar inscription, is important because it may include an element of dating: if btš῾yt means “in the ninth (year),” it may refer to the ninth year of Zedekiah, king of Judah, which would correspond to 589–588 BCE, the date indicated in the Hebrew Bible for the beginning of the siege of Lachish (Jer. 39:1; cf. Lemaire, 1977, pp. 134–135).
The documents found since 1966 are more heterogeneous and include an ostracon with a list of names (text 22), other fragmentary inscriptions on ostraca (texts 23 and 31), and several inscriptions originally written with ink or incised on whole jars (texts 24–30 and 32). The four inscriptions from the earlier excavations not included in the sequential numbering fall into the heterogeneous category, but two are important: a royal bat jar inscription, useful in attempting to ascertain the quantity designated by the term bat, and a partial alphabet (Diringer, 1953, pp. 356–358).
These inscriptions provided the first reasonably extensive body of texts in Judean Hebrew written in cursive script. They provided, therefore, an important contribution to early descriptions of extrabiblical cursive paleography (Dussaud, 1938, pp. 270–271), orthographic practice (Cross and Freedman, 1952, pp. 51–56), and grammar. Some of the texts discovered since, at Tel Arad, have shown that orthographic conventions could vary (e.g., they reveal a more extensive use of matres lectionis), but that the basic language of these two primary corpora was identical and for all intents and purposes was also identical with standard biblical Hebrew. One of the primary contributions of the Lachish letters to the study of Hebrew syntax has been to show how frequently nonverbal elements were fronted in the spoken language (e.g., text 4, ll. 6–7: wsmkyhw lqḥh šm῾yhw wy῾lhw h῾yrh, “Now as for Semakyahu, Shemayahu has seized him and taken him up to the city”).
The Lachish letters also provided the first body of extra-biblical data regarding epistolary usages in preexilic Hebrew (Pardee et al., 1982, pp. 67–114, 145–164). These data have more recently been expanded by the letters from Tel Arad (ibid., pp. 24–67). Because the total number of letters known from the period is still small, however, many details of epistolary usage remain unknown.
- Aharoni, Yohanan. “Trial Excavation in the ‘Solar Shrine’ at Lachish: Preliminary Report.” Israel Exploration Journal 18 (1968): 157–169. Editio princeps of text 21, with a hand copy.
- Cross, Frank Moore, and David Noel Freedman. Early Hebrew Orthography. New Haven, 1952.
- Diringer, David. “Early Hebrew Inscriptions.” In Lachish, vol. 3, The Iron Age, by Olga Tufnell et al., pp. 331–359. London, 1953.
- Dussaud, René. “Le prophète Jérémie et les lettres de Lakish.” Syria 19 (1938): 256–271.
- Goldwasser, Orly. “An Egyptian Scribe from Lachish and the Hieratic Tradition of the Hebrew Kingdoms.” Tel Aviv 18.1 (1991): 248–253.
- Lemaire, André. “A Schoolboy's Exercise on an Ostracon at Lachish.” Tel Aviv 3 (1976): 109–110. Editio princeps of text 23, with a photograph (pl. 5/2).
- Lemaire, André. Inscriptions hébraïques, vol. 1, Les ostraca. Littératures Anciennes du Proche-Orient, 9. Paris, 1977. .
- Pardee, Dennis, S. David Sperling, J. David Whitehead, and Paul E. Dion. Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters. Society of Biblical Literature, Sources for Biblical Study, vol. 15. Chico, Calif., 1982. Comprehensive bibliography on epistolary documents (up to 1978).
- Rainey, Anson F. “Watching Out for the Signal Fires of Lachish.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 119 (1987): 149–151.
- Torczyner, Harry. Lachish, vol. 1, The Lachish Letters. London, 1938. Editio princeps of texts 1–18, with a photograph, hand copy, and commentary.
- Torczyner, Harry. T῾wdwt 1 kyš: Mktbym mymy yrmyhw hnby'. Jerusalem, 1940. .
- Ussishkin, David. “Excavations at Tel Lachish—1973–1977: Preliminary Report.” Tel Aviv 5 (1978): 1–97. .
- Ussishkin, David. “Excavations at Tel Lachish, 1978–1983: Second Preliminary Report.” Tel Aviv 10 (1983): 97–175.
- Yadin, Yigael. “The Lachish Letters—Originals or Copies and Drafts?” In Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel, edited by Hershel Shanks, pp. 179–186. Washington, D.C., 1984.