Lachish PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Historical outline to 701 BC
The Siege
The long aftermath
Tour of the Tell
Logistical note

Lachish until the Assyrian Conquest (701 BC)

Lachish had its start in the 3d millennium BC, but most of what we see on site dates from the time of Judah (10th or 9th century BC until 701 BC, with a little from the early 6th). 

The first large-scale settlement occurred in the latter half of the 3d millennium BC (Early Bronze III); the pottery indicates that even then there was trade with Anatolia (Turkey today). This city lasted a few centuries. We do not know why it vanished. There are no signs of fire.


In the time of the Hyksos

Around 1700 BC, in the Hyksos period, a new Lachish arose on the hill, surrounded by a steep artificial slope. This glacis was made by layering soil and small stones and coating the slope with lime plaster. A moat was dug on the west side (and maybe all around the hill - we don't know). At this time fortified cities were cropping up throughout the land, their ramparts giving them the upside-down-cupcake shape that has lasted till today. When the Egyptians expelled their Hyksos overlords in 1550 BC, they invaded Canaan and destroyed many of these towns, including Lachish.


Late Bronze Lachish (1550 - 1130 BC)

The Egyptian occupation of Canaan became entrenched after Pharaoh Thutmosis III defeated a league of 119 Canaanite city-states at Megiddo around 1468 BC. It appears that, wary of rebellions, Egypt did not allow its Canaanite subjects to build city walls. No trace of one has been found at Lachish. Oddly, a temple was erected in the western moat. Twice rebuilt, this "fosse temple" yielded many finds, now at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The ruins of the building were deliberately covered by the archaeologists, so they are not to be seen.

Initially, the fosse temple stood alone. A city developed on the tell above in the first half of the 14th century, the time of the Amarna letters, in which Lachish appears.  

Under Egypt's protection and control, Lachish prospered in the late 13th and 12th centuries. Buildings covered the summit and spread down the slopes. In its wider orbit were 25 sites, so we can talk about as many as 6000 people in the city and its territory. "It appears that Lachish was one of the largest Canaanite cities in the land during the period" (Ussishkin,) . It traded - via the port at Ashkelon - with the whole eastern Mediterranean world. Ussishkin found items that originated in Egypt, Anatolia, Mycenae, Crete, Syria, and Lebanon. It suffered a bad fire in 1200 BC but was then rebuilt in an even grander style. The renewed city - distinguished by Ussishkin as Level VI - had an Egyptian-style temple in its center, apparently part of a royal acropolis.   

While Late Bronze Lachish was prospering, however, the perpetrators of the Great Upheaval were wiping out urban centers in a line of devastation spreading from Greece to Anatolia and southward through the Levant, reaching Hazor (destr. ca. 1230 BC) and Megiddo. A statue base turned up at Megiddo containing the name of Pharaoh Rameses VI, which indicates that the Egyptians managed to hold on there until his time, ca. 1130 BC. They probably also held on at Lachish, which stands between Megiddo and Egypt (although the last Egyptian find at Lachish is a scarab from 1150 or so). Impoverished and pressured by the Sea Peoples, especially the Philistines, Egypt at last retreated from Canaan, abandoning its protegé cities to their fates. Megiddo succumbed, followed by the Canaanite coast and Lachish.


Lachish and the chronology debate

Now, suppose we date the Philistine entry into the land at around 1200 BC, as is customary. In that case, the presence of the Philistines on the coast would overlap the existence of Lachish for about 70 years, so we would expect to find Philistine pottery in its ruins: at least the distinctive Monochrome pottery, if not the subsequent Bichrome. But not one Philistine sherd has turned up. 

"Bichrome pottery has been found at sites even further inland than Tel Lachish.... Considering the geographical position, size, trade connections and prosperity of Lachish Level VI [the last Late Bronze city - SL], it is difficult to imagine that the nearby prosperous Philistine cities could have coexisted with Lachish at a time when Philistine pottery was being diffused inland from the coastal region without an appreciable quantity of it reaching Lachish. Can it be imagined that supplies of fresh marine fish were regularly brought from the coast of Ashkelon to Lachish but not a single Philistine [pottery] vessel found its way there....[T]he negative evidence from Lachish is so absolutely negative that it constitutes a sound argument for dating the appearance of Philistine Monochrome and Bichrome pottery anywhere in the country to after the destruction of Level VI in ca. 1130 BCE" (Ussishkin) (my italics - SL). 

Ussishkin is saying, in other words, that no Philistine pottery has turned up at Lachish because Lachish no longer existed when the Philistines arrived. On the grounds mentioned earlier, we can date the destruction of Lachish to 1130 BC. The significance is that "anywhere in the country," archaeological strata containing Philistine pottery must be dated after 1130 - and not after 1200 as previously thought. This conclusion is one of two considerations that led archaeologist Israel Finkelstein to propose the so-called Low Chronology:

The first consideration is the cascading effect that you get when you lower the dates of Philistine pottery. The second is what you get by re-examining the stratigraphy of key sites from the period: Megiddo, Jezreel, Beth Shean, Lachish, Arad and Beersheba.

The Ussishkin-Finkelstein proposal has touched off a debate that lasts to the present day (2018). It affects the question of the United Monarchy under David and Solomon, for if we lower the date for the appearance of Philistine Monochrome pottery to 1130 BC, the effect is to lower the dates for all the strata that came afterward. This "snowball effect" leaves the 10th century, the century of David and Solomon, without monumental architecture at all - that is, without indications of a kingdom. The first monumental building occurs in the 9th century, at the time of a different father-and-son pair, Omri and Ahab of Samaria. The Low Chronology nourishes the suspicion that the biblical United Monarchy was a propoganda myth concocted at the time of Josiah (late 7th century) as part of an attempt to forge a unified nation out of Judah and refugees from the defeated Northern Kingdom. Tour groups find themselves caught in the crossfire between feuding scholars hurling Carbon 14. I shall not discuss the Chronology Question here; for examples of the opposing views see pieces by Finkelstein with Eli Piasetzky and, in support of a Modified Conventional Chronology, Amihai Mazar. Let me mention one point, though, in response to the observation about the absence of Philistine pottery at Late Bronze Lachish: "Tel Miqne VII (Ekron) has produced vast quantities of Philistine monochrome pottery, while contemporary Stratum XIII at Gezer - 7 miles away as the crow flies - has not produced a single [Philistine] sherd in twenty seasons of excavations" (Dever) . Yet all agree that Ekron and Gezer both existed during the period in question, namely, the very late 12th century (enlarge the map above on the right).

We move to another question: Who destroyed Late Bronze Lachish? During the Great Upheaval there were peoples on the move, among them Israelites and Sea Peoples, including Philistines. In Joshua 10: 31-32, we read:

"Joshua passed from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish, and encamped against it, and fought against it. Yahweh delivered Lachish into the hand of Israel. He took it on the second day, and struck it with the edge of the sword, with all the souls who were in it, according to all that he had done to Libnah."

Joshua is also said to have destroyed Hazor (Joshua 11: 10-11), which was burned and leveled, most agree, around 1230 BC. The idea that Joshua's campaigns lasted a century doesn't fit the biblical impression of a sudden Israelite conquest. Admitting the lack of direct evidence, Ussishkin espouses the notion that it was the "Sea Peoples" - a term which includes the Philistines themselves - who destroyed Lachish and left it empty for 200 years (Ussishkin) .   


City of Judah 

We have no direct evidence about when Lachish became Judahite. According to 2 Chronicles (11: 5-11), King Rehoboam, son of Solomon, built up fortress-cities for Judah's defense. The list includes Lachish. By the standard reckoning, that would put it in the late 10th century BC. Archaeologically speaking, though, some cities in the same list reveal no trace of fortification until much later and at least one (Beth Zur) was uninhabited. True, the first settlement to appear at Lachish after the end of the Late Bronze city was indeed Judahite, for it shows the distinctive pottery typical to Judah's mountain (red slip, irregular burnish). But the settlement was not fortified. On its periphery, Ussishkin found a house where a wall should have been. Of course, there may have been a belt of joined houses protecting the city, as at Arad in its pre-fortress Judahite period. The fact is, though, very little can be said about this first Judahite stratum, Level V. Its pottery can hardly be distinguished from that of the fortress-city which succeeded it (Level IV), and it shows no architecture, except perhaps the podium of a palace that became bigger in Level IV, and perhaps a room with cultic objects.

We have then no direct evidence. However, a mere 7 kilometers north-northwest of Lachish, roughly halfway to the Philistine city of Gath, was Tell Zayit (enlarge the map on the right), excavated by Ron Tappy from 1999 through 2005. Its biblical identification is uncertain, but it may have been Libnah (the other candidate for Libnah is Tell Bornat to its east). Tappy found well-sealed strata, including the typical Judahite pottery and surviving parts of rock walls. "Comparative stratigraphic and ceramic analyses, radiocarbon dating, and reasonable historical reckoning" (Tappy) enabled him to associate a particular destruction layer with Sennacherib's invasion (701 BC) and a deeper one with the conquests of Hazael around 835 BC. Beneath this stratum Tappy found more well-defined strata, including a destruction level attributable perhaps to Pharaoh Shishak (Shoshenq I) around 925 BC . (His date depends on both Egyptian and biblical records; we know of no one else who conquered cities in the land in the late 10th century.) Tappy points to evidence that the destroyed city had been defended by a belt of houses whose outer wall included large standing stones, regularly spaced. Beneath the destruction layer, hence older, was a layer still containing the typical Judahite pottery. (It sat directly on the last of the Late Bronze cities; as at Lachish, no one seems to have lived here in the the 11th century BC and part of the 10th.) Tappy feels confident in dating the first Judahite layer to the 10th century prior to Shishak, and to it he attributes a 22-letter, proto-Hebraic abecedary inscribed in a boulder that had been recycled in a wall (which he dates to the late 10th). Since the pottery at this clearly 10th century level is very like that in Lachish Level V, Tell Zayit provides indirect evidence that the latter was likewise from the 10th century.   

[Update, October 2019: In quest of direct evidence, Yosef Garfinkel and his colleagues dug at Lachish for five seasons (2013-2017). The north edge of the mound had never been excavated, and here they discovered a succession of walls. The oldest is three meters thick - enough to be called a fortification. On a floor abutting it,  four olive pits were found. Radiocarbon dating of the pits indicates that the floor and hence the wall go back to 920 BC or so. Pillared houses adjoining the wall, writes Garfinkel, resemble those at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which he also dug, and which he identifies as built by Judah. His conclusion: Judah built a fortified city at Lachish in the late 10th century, a date that would fit the claim in 2 Chronicles 11:9 that Solomon's son Rehoboam erected a series of fortress cities, Lachish among them. In criticism, Nadav Na'aman of Tel Aviv University notes that, judging from archaeology, other cities credited to Rehoboam in the list did not exist at the time. Na'aman also questions Garfinkel's identification of Qeiyafa as Judahite, saying it could be Canaanite or Philistine. That could also hold for the newly discovered wall at Lachish.

According to Garfinkel, his excavations at the short-lived Judahite sites of Khirbet Qeiyafa and Khirbet al-Ra'i (which is very close to Lachish) indicate earlier, failed attempts by Judah to expand from its mountain down into the Shephelah. The nearby Philistine city of Gath, huge and powerful, would have stopped such ventures. If he is right about Lachish, then its fortification in 920 and subsequent survival would signify a remarkable achievement for Judah, because Gath remained a great power until it was destroyed by Hazael around 835 BC. Na'aman suggests that the 10th-century wall at Lachish may have been built by Gath, not Judah. But that idea presents another problem: Surely Gath would have had the means to include the mound's entire plateau within its wall, as well as the soldier-power to defend it. In fact, however, the wall embraced only half the plateau, the part where earlier excavators did not dig. End of update.]    

Sometime in the 9th century BC, Judah fortified Lachish with two concentric walls that did indeed surround all 18 acres, as well as a huge gate system on the western edge. Some reckon that this could not have occurred until after Gath's demise. If they are right, then it must have happened very soon after (perhaps with Hazael's agreement), because the pottery found in the first stratum of the double-walled city resembles the pottery used at Gath before Hazael destroyed it.

The 9th-century Lachish "was planned and built as a central fortress-city in the Kingdom of Judah. The scale of monumental construction and the massiveness of the fortifications are unprecedented in this period. Both the Palace-Fort and the city-gate are among the largest and most massive structures of this kind uncovered so far in the Land of Israel during the biblical period." (Ussishkin, ) Lachish "was the main military center of the kings of Judah" (ibid.). By contrast, as said before, Jerusalem did not even have a wall at the time.

To the Lachish of Level IV fled the Judahite king Amaziah (797-779), who sought refuge when his subjects rose against him:

"They made a conspiracy against him in Jerusalem; and he fled to Lachish: but they sent after him to Lachish, and killed him there" (2 Kings 14:19).

It was probably some time after this that the Level IV city was destroyed. We do not know when or why, but there are no signs of a city-wide fire. The earthquake in the days of Uzziah (Amos 1:1), around 760 BC, is mentioned as a possible cause. (Signs of earthquake from around this time have appeared in the dig at Tel Zayit and elsewhere.) Lachish was soon rebuilt according to the same pattern as in Level IV. Thus we arrive at Level III, which is identified by Ussishkin as the city that faced Sennacherib. The identification is not written in stone , but only through it can we connect the historically known conquerors of Judahite Lachish with its archaeologically known destruction layers: Sennacherib must have destroyed Level III,  because there is only one destruction layer after that (Level II), and we may deduce who did it from the following: 

"Then Jeremiah the prophet told all this to Zedekiah king of Judah, in Jerusalem, while the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah that were still holding out—Lachish and Azekah. These were the only fortified cities left in Judah." (Jeremiah 34: 6-7)

We shall look at the main features of Levels III and II in the section called "Tour of the Tell."

To continue with the history: In 735 BC, the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom ("Israel"). A few years later, the north refused to pay tribute, and sometime between 723 and 721, Assyria invaded again. This time it exiled the north's upper classes and resettled foreigners in their place. It was Assyrian policy to divide and scatter conquered peoples in order to break group identities, lessening the chances of revolt. That is what happened to the northerners, the "ten lost tribes." Yet many of them escaped the Assyrian net, fleeing south to the Shephelah and Jerusalem, both of which underwent huge surges in population. The Assyrians did not press south at this stage. Hezekiah was then in his sixth regnal year (2 Kings 18:10).

Twenty years later came the cue to revolt: In 705 BC. Sargon II of Assyria died. His son and successor was Sennacherib. Testing the new king, rebel groups arose in Babylon. Basing herself on Assyrian texts as well as the Bible (2 Kings 18-19), archaeologist Norma Franklin reconstructs the rest of the story as follows. Taking advantage of Sennacherib's problems, Egypt decided to reestablish itself in the Levant. Its army marched north, allying with Ashkelon and Hezekiah king of Judah. Egypt was ruled by a Cushite dynasty, the 25th - that is, by black Africans whose base was in the Upper Nile. (Unfortunately, their historical records have not come down to us.) The Cushites engaged Sennacherib in battle at Eltekeh (perhaps near today's Israeli town of Rehovot). The Cushite general was a prince named Taharqo (Tirhakah in 2 Kings 19:9), but he and his forces were thrown back. Sennacherib and his Assyrian army then proceeded to conquer and devastate the Shephelah, including its strongest fortress city, Lachish. Franklin suggests that there were Cushites defending Lachish as well as Judahites, and - on the basis of the way captives are differentiated in the Lachish reliefs - that the Cushites were horribly punished, whereas the Judahites were exiled to Assyria. Sennacheriib then sent three of his commanders and their forces to besiege Jerusalem and compel Hezekiah's surrender. In the midst of this attempt, however, Taharqo/Tirhaka again set off from Egypt toward the Assyrian army: "Now Sennacherib received a report that Tirhakah, the king of Cush, was marching out to fight against him" (2 Kings 19: 9; in fact, Tirhakah did not become king until 10 years later.) According to 2 Kings 19:35, the angel of the Lord then slayed 185,000 of the Assyrian army, and Sennacherib returned to Assyria. Franklin raises another possibility: On hearing of the renewed Cushite attack, the three Assyrian commanders that were besieging Jerusalem hurried back to the Shephelah to reinforce their king. On Franklin's interpretation, then, the Cushites in effect saved Jerusalem! 

There is a curious finale in the form of an account from the Greek historian, Herodotus. It takes place at Pelusium on the road to the Nile delta. Herodotus (Hist. 2.141) reports that mice, the Greek symbol for plague, “gnawed quivers and bows and the handles of shields,” forcing the Assyrians to go home. It may be that, while pursuing the Cushites, the Assyrians were smitten by plague in Egypt (a common hazard there, as Napoleon would discover). 

The biblical account begins at what seems to be the end of the story, on a brief and brutal note (2 Kings 18:13-16):

"Now in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah, and took them. Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, “I have offended; return from me. That which you put on me, I will bear.” The king of Assyria appointed to Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of Yahweh, and in the treasures of the king’s house. At that time, Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of Yahweh’s temple, and from the pillars which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria."

(Note the date: the "fourteenth year of King Hezekiah." That would have been around 715 BC, when Sennacherib was still crown prince, not king. Moreover, Assyrian records show only one campaign by him into Judah - in 701. Assyrian dates for this period are reliable.)

The very next verses (2 Kings 18: 17 – 19:37) give an entirely different impression. As we have just seen, Sennacherib's commanders came up from Lachish to Jerusalem and threatened it. But in the Biblical account, Hezekiah prayed to Yahweh, and Jerusalem was miraculously delivered. This sequence includes no mention of tribute. It would hardly be a victory for Yahweh to strip the doors of His temple!

Stepping back in time: Hezekiah's preparations
Stamped jar handles from Lachish
Hezekiah made extensive preparations for the revolt. The most famous archaeological evidence of these is the tunnel by which he secured the water supply in Jerusalem. He also expanded the capital to accommodate 20,000 people, surrounding the new addition with a wall.

Knowing that his towns would be under siege, Hezekiah gathered grain, wine and oil in large jars made of Shephelah clay, which bore the stamp "For the King," (la-melekh). At Lachish, in the destruction layer of Level III, pieces of these jars turned up in practically every room. More "For the king" handles were found here than in all other sites combined: 489 la-melekh stamps plus 90 bearing names of individuals. Most have the name "Hebron" (Ussishkin, p. 909), which was probably the distribution center for the contents of the jars.

Let us now take a close look at the battle.