וְחֵיל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל נִלְחָמִים עַל יְרוּשָׁלַם וְעַל כָּל עָרֵי יְהוּדָה הַנּוֹתָרוֹת אֶל לָכִישׁ וְאֶל עֲזֵקָה כִּי הֵנָּה נִשְׁאֲרוּ בְּעָרֵי יְהוּדָה עָרֵי מִבְצָר
ירמיה לד, ז
“When the army of the king of Babylon was waging war against Jerusalem and against the remaining towns of Judah—against Lachish and Azekah, for they were the only fortified towns of Judah that were left.” (Jeremiah 34:7)
The last stand. The final moments before the destruction. It’s all over, it seems, and it is just a matter of time before Jerusalem will be destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. Lachish has fallen, and Azekah is no more.
Over one hundred years earlier, those fortified cities fell to the hands of the Assyrian Empire, under the rule of Sennacherib, who went on to lay siege on Jerusalem. In that was unsuccessful, but in his wake he left the kingdom of Judah devastated.
Let us not ignore Azekah: I did participate in The Lautenschläger Azekah Archaeological Expedition a few years ago, and that is another story for a different time. This article is about Lachish, the most famous city in Judah in Assyriology, and for good reason. It is the most well-documented city: It appears several times in Tanach, we have the reliefs describing its destruction in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh – testimony to how important it was. We have the Annals of Sennacherib, where he boasts about his conquest in Judah, the Lachish letters, describing the last days of Lachish before being destroyed by the Babylonians, which presumably allude to the destruction of Azekah (according to some experts). And of course – Lachish itself.
But why Lachish?
Exactly. After my first article about Tel es-Safi, I was asked, “Where does Lachish appear in Tanach?” As an educator, I feel that it is a failure that Lachish is not emphasized enough during studies to make a lasting impact. As early as the book of Joshua (10:3-33), we find Lachish to be an important city which took Joshua two days to conquer. While archaeologists may debate when and if this can be traced in the strata, its Biblical description is unique, for the conquering of all other cities are listed rather matter-of-factly.
Lachish shows up over and over again. A few more prominent examples are: II Kings (14:19, 18:17, 19:8), Jeremiah (34:7), Isaiah (36:2, 37:8), II Chronicles (11:9, 18:14, 25:27).
There is no doubt that when teaching Tanach, one cannot begin to give over the extent of the devastation that Sennacherib (710 BCE), and later Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE), inflicted upon the Kingdom of Judah, without understanding the power of Lachish. It is somehow a little known fact among many Tanach teachers that Lachish was the second most important city after Jerusalem, a discovery which I myself just recently made. I would like to return the favor and share with educators who may read this some insights into how significant this city is.
Visit to Tel Lachish, July 17-19
My goal on this visit was to learn what an educator can do with the existing information about Lachish in the classroom. After being in Tel es-Safi a week before, I was all pumped up and ready to interview anyone I could, and absorb as much information as possible.
To be honest, I took a long time to begin writing this article, simply because I am so humbled by how much there it to say about this site. I was overwhelmed by how much work it would take to narrow it down to the essentials: geography, previous expeditions, main discoveries, current expedition. But I am really here as a passionate educator, not as a historian or an archaeologist, so I will leave the talking to such people, through the interview.
On my first day on the site I had the pleasure and privilege to meet Professor David Ussishkin (TAU), who came with his wife, Lily Singer-Avitz, for a private tour of the site. This was a very special tour because Professor Garfinkel was hosting Professor Ussishkin on his very own site. Ussishkin was the director of the previous Lachish expedition (1973-1994), which raised the bar for Israeli archaeology in technique, publication, and other aspects under his direction, and he is a “grand master” archaeologist. I was honored and humbled by the opportunity to join that very personal tour, even though the level of the conversation overwhelmed me. I received special permission to film the tour, and I met Robert, who volunteered to film it with his equipment. However, the content of this tour cannot be made public at this point, as it contains advance insights that have not yet been published. I appreciate the trust of the excavation team in letting me record it, and when authorized, will release the transcription and the video.
After three interviews at Tel es-Safi, it seems as though just one interview from Lachish is no big deal, yet its significance is not to be underestimated. An interview which, by the way, was only conducted a couple weeks later, in the YMCA in Jerusalem (image).
I met Professor Yossi Garfinkel (Hebrew University) in March 30th, at the Center for Jewish History, during the symposium called “In the Valley of David and Goliath: Digging up the Evidence of the United Monarchy”. There he invited me to join the dig, and agreed to be interviewed. He had fascinating things to say, and without further ado, I’m going to turn the mic to him to answer the question, so why Lachish, indeed?
Why did you choose to excavate Lachish?
In the last ten years or so, I’m focusing on the early history of Kingdom of Judah. According to the Biblical tradition, the kingdom existed for about four hundred years: The 10th century, the 9th century, the 8th century and the 7th century (BCE). And the last centuries are well known, but the first two centuries – the 10th and the 9th, are not very clear, and there are heavy debates about what happened in this time period. So I excavated Khirbet Qeiyafa, and now I’m excavating at Lachish to find Level IV and V, and I think that together, both sites will give us a better picture of this unknown period.
Now that you’ve dug in Lachish several times, what do you know different that you didn’t know before you started digging?
The core of the question is Level V – the first Iron Age settlement at Lachish.
There are three basic debates:
- If this level ever existed, or it is just a mistake of the archaeologists?
- If it existed, was it a village or a fortified city?
- What is the dating of this level?
Now, after four seasons at Lachish, I know that there is Level V, and I know that it is a fortified city, because we discovered a new city wall. And we also uncovered olive pits from this level, which we can send to radiocarbon dating. And once we have the results, we will know what is the exact dating of the fortified city at Lachish.
If it was fortified at about 1,000 BC, or 900 BC, or 800 BC, or maybe 700 BC. All of these ideas have been suggested in the past.
[Author:] When I arrived at the site, I was given a brief tour of the wall in question, though I was already digging in Lachish VI – the Canaanite level, in what is seemingly a temple of some sort. I recall the excitement and buzz around the finding of several things, including a scarab seal – a hallmark of Egyptian trade, and control of the area. I also found a few items, one of which was apparently very rare – a votive vessel which was probably used for worship.
In terms of this site, in general, both in terms of your expedition and previous expeditions, what has been found on the site that would be valuable to a teacher in the classroom? What ideas can be understood better, because of the expeditions?
I think that the best correlation between the site and the excavation on one side, and the biblical tradition on the other, are what we call Level II and Level III.
Level II has been destroyed by the Babylonians. And at Lachish we discovered the famous Lachish letters, about eighteen letters that describe the city and the people and also the fire signal of Lachish and Azekah.
And in Jeremiah (34:7) we also heard about Lachish and Azekah.
So we have a very interesting correlation between Lachish, the letters of Lachish and the Biblical tradition about the last days of the kingdom of Judah.
When Level III is taken into consideration, we know about the Sennacherib campaign (705-681 BCE). It’s mentioned in the Bible in three different books: In the book of II Kings (18:17), in the book of Isaiah (36:2), and in II Chronicles (18:14).
And then in Lachish we have level three, with the Assyrian siege ramp; the city has been destroyed. We can see how life looked like at the time of Hezekiah.
How do the finds in Lachish shed light on the nature of that city, as opposed to what we know from the text itself?
Well, according to the Biblical tradition, Lachish was the second most important city in Judah.
King Amatzia, for example, there was a coup in Jerusalem, and he ran away to Lachish, and he was murdered in Lachish.
And when you excavate and you see the huge fortification of Lachish, the huge gates, the huge palace, you understand why he ran away to Lachish – because it was almost as important as Jerusalem.
[Author:] Here I will share a brief “aha” moment: Before I came to the dig, I looked up every mention of Lachish in Tanach. I was particularly intrigued by the story of King Amatzia (II Kings 14:19, II Chronicles 25:27), who escaped from Jerusalem and fled to Lachish – hoping that there he would not be captured. How incredible it was to see, on the way to Lachish, a settlement named Amatzia, in the regional council of Lachish. Only in Israel!
How would a teacher bring this to life in the classroom?
The teacher can read with the student the biblical text, then he can look at Assyrian documents: The Sennacherib Royal Inscriptions, and the famous reliefs, now in the British Museum, that describe Lachish, and then he can look at the actual archaeological finds which have been excavated by Professor David Ussishkin and published in numerous books, and also two popular books.
So altogether the student can see the city on the relief, read the text, see the archaeological data, and together you can understand how the Assyrians attacked the city, how the Judeans defended themselves, and so on and so forth.
Megalim Institute video on the Lachish Reliefs:
Since I came to Lachish after digging in ancient Gath, the conversation came up about the connection between the two. And indeed, there is a very important connection between them:
What is the relationship between Ancient Gath – Tell es-Safi, and Tel Lachish?
The major question today is when the Kingdom of Judah spread from the hill country, from Jerusalem region into the lowland, and later into the Beersheba region. Some people believe it took place in the time of David and Solomon. Some people take into consideration the tradition of the Rechav’am fortifications (II Chronicles 11:5-10), which fortified Lachish.
And today, many people would like to say that Judah was able to spread into the lowland only after the site of Gath has been destroyed. And why?
Gath was a huge city. Almost 6-7 times bigger than Lachish. Very dominant center. So people are saying: Judah is a small kingdom. Lachish was a huge kingdom, so Judah could not move into the lowlands until Gath was destroyed. Which means that Gath was destroyed first, and then Judah came into the lowlands. This is one possibility to understand the sequence.
But if Lachish was built…one hundred years earlier…then we have a different scenario: Judah came into the lowlands, took over land and villages and population. Gath became smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, and then it was possible to destroy it.
But the question is, what is the cause and what is the effect?
Some people would like to say that the destruction of Gath enabled Judah to come in, but it is possible that while Judah came in, it was possible to destroy Gath. So we have two huge sites one next to the other, and we need to clear the chronological question, when was Lachish built. If Lachish was build before Gath was destroyed, or Lachish was fortified after Gath. This is today the chicken and egg question.
What is your message to teachers and students about coming to an archaeological dig?
I figure that anybody who has interest in the ancient world, or the biblical tradition, if he comes to an archaeological dig, even for a week, or two weeks or three weeks, he is inside the houses, with the pottery, the animal bones and all the artifacts that were left by our forefathers, and he will have a better understanding of how people lived in antiquity. And then he will also understand the biblical texts in the original setting. ₕ
Lachish Relief, British Museum. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons