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

The long aftermath of the battle at Lachish 

Hezekiah's rebellion, the Assyrian response, and the survival of Jerusalem have helped make our world what it is.

 

1. The effect of Jerusalem's survival

The Assyrian policy was to disperse conquered exiles throughout the Assyrian realm, breaking up national identities. If this had happened to the Jerusalemites, there would have been no one to preserve the texts that became the First Testament. (Not the Samaritans: they first appear in the 4th century BC.) In 597 and 586 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they followed a different policy, allowing exiles to remain in their national groups. These groups preserved the texts that became the Bible.   

Returning to 701 BC: After Sennacherib devastated the Shephelah, Jerusalem was left "like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege" (Isaiah 1:8). The kingdom shrank to an impoverished city and its mountain hinterland, where refugees had gathered. Hezekiah died in 686 and was succeeded by his son Manasseh (who had shared power with his father for the ten preceding years).

Manasseh kowtowed to Assyria, introducing its cults. The kowtowing led to economic revival. Although the Shephelah was lost, Manasseh took advantage of the pax assyriaca to develop industry and commerce in the Negev along the trade route from Arabia to the coast, as well as on the shore of the Dead Sea. His reign lasted an extraordinry 54 years. 2 Chronicles, a late 4th century work, explains his longevity and success as consequences of heartfelt repentance (2 Chron. 33: 10-17). But 2 Kings, written closer to his time, mentions no repentance; quite to the contrary, it attributes the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the earlier "sins of Manasseh" (2 Kings 24:3).   

Jerusalem's economic revival lulled Judahites into forgetting the years of misery that had followed Hezekiah's revolt. What stood out in memory, rather, was the fact that Jerusalem had survived the Assyrian onslaught. This fact engendered a belief that God would protect Jerusalem and the Temple, as expressed in Psalm 48: "Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain….God is in her citadels; he has shown himself to be her fortress….God makes her secure forever …."

In the wider world meanwhile, in 664 BC, Ashurbanipal of Assyria conquered the northern part of Egypt. He'd overextended himself, and ten years later the Egyptians dislodged him. He was then forced to put down revolts on all fronts. By 638, when Manasseh's 8-year-old grandson, Josiah, became king of Judah, the Assyrians were tied up fighting against the newly rising Babylonians. They had ceased to be a vital force in Jerusalem.

 

During repairs to the Temple around 621 BC, a book of laws turned up. It was part of what we today know as Deuteronomy. On hearing its contents, Josiah undertook a religious reform (for which we have archaeological evidence). Now, in Deuteronomy it is written that if the people of Israel obeyed God's commandments they would prosper (for example, Deut. 11: 13-17). In line with this faith, Josiah undertook to enlarge and strengthen the kingdom. He built military bases to guard the ways to Jerusalem. In the devastated Judahite Shephelah, these included Azekah, Maresha, and Lachish.

But Josiah misread the political map. He seems to have thought that Assyria's withdrawal had left a vacuum. Yet Egypt was ambitious, and Babylon was rising. Egypt's policy was to use the vestige of the Assyrian army as a buffer against Babylon. When Pharaoh Neco II marched with his army through the mountain pass to Assyrian-held Megiddo in 609, Josiah "went toward him"—and was killed (II Kings 23: 29). 

The event contradicted Deuteronomy: Here at last was a good king, and this had happened to him!  The trauma of that death at Megiddo would lead to the prophecy of Armageddon ("the mountain of Megiddo" in Revelation 16:12-16) as the place where the injustice would at last be set right. 

Enter Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In 604 he became master of the land bridge. Judah's King Jehoiakim acceded to his demand for tribute. But when Nebuchadnezzar failed to take Egypt, he looked weak, and the Judahite urge to sovereignty simmered again.

Despite the memory of Josiah's death, the century-old belief in God's defense of Jerusalem became a pillar in the platform promoting rebellion. Against this nationalistic monotheism of the pro-rebellion party stood universal monotheists, exemplified in Ezekiel and Jeremiah. They viewed Nebuchadnezzar as God's tool and came out against revolt. Ezekiel's actions in Ezekiel 4 and 5, convey the message that because of its sins, Jerusalem had lost divine protection until further notice (Ezekiel 21: 21-24 ). As for Jeremiah, his message went: "Do not trust in deceptive words like these: "The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh! The temple of Yahweh!" Instead do justice to the alien, the widow, and the orphan (Jeremiah 7:4-7). Prior to the revolt of 597, Jeremiah dictates his prophecies to Baruch, his scribe, who reads the scroll to the people gathered at the Temple. It is then brought to King Jehoiakim, who has it read aloud while he warms himself by the stove (it is December). After each three or four columns, the king has the scroll brought over, cuts the columns out and tosses them into the fire.

In response, the Lord bids Jeremiah: "Tell Jehoiakim king of Judah, 'This is what the Lord says: You burned that scroll and said, "Why did you write on it that the king of Babylon would certainly come and destroy this land and wipe from it both man and beast?" Therefore this is what the Lord says about Jehoiakim king of Judah: He will have no one to sit on the throne of David; .... I will bring on ... those living in Jerusalem and the people of Judah every disaster I pronounced against them, because they have not listened'" (Jeremiah 36:29-30).

After the death of Jehoiakim and the dethroning of his successor, Nebuchadnezzar installs the latter's uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Relying on the ideology of the pro-rebellion party, as well as Egypt, Zedekiah too withholds tribute, and once more the Babylonians besiege Jerusalem. Zedekiah sends officials to Jeremiah requesting an oracle. Recalling how Sennacherib had failed to take Jerusalem, they say to him (Jeremiah 21: 1-7):

"'…Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is attacking us. Perhaps the Lord will perform wonders for us as in times past so that he will withdraw from us.' But Jeremiah answered them, 'Tell Zedekiah, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands….."'" And a few verses later, to the people as a whole: "See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives."

The pro-rebellion party condemned Jeremiah as a traitor (as he would no doubt be condemned today). They did not manage to have him killed, but they won the debate. Zedekiah revolted, and events unfolded as foretold. Toward the end, "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 strongholds left in Judah" (Jeremiah 34:7). This biblical verse is echoed in the fourth of 21 letters discovered at Lachish in the form of ostraca . It reads in part: "And he has been told that we are waiting for the fire signals from Lachish, according to all the instructions given by my lord. For we cannot see Azeqah." (Yadin's contrary theory.) At least five ostraca turned out to be sherds from the same jar. Most seem to have been addressed to one Ya-ush, perhaps the commander, and to have been sent by one Hoshaiah, an officer in a nearby base—maybe Maresha. From Maresha one can see Lachish, and as the letter says, one cannot see Azeqah (it is blocked by a hill 40 meters higher). On the other hand, from Lachish one could conceivably make out the beacons of Azeqah at night. Another ostracon speaks of sending to Egypt for aid. Still another quotes an unnamed prophet saying, "Be on guard!"

As Jeremiah had foretold, Jerusalem was conquered, the temple destroyed, and the upper-class survivors exiled. Yet despite the defeat, the faith that God would protect Jerusalem was destined to revival. Centuries after the Babylonian catastrophe, it persisted in the futile revolts against Rome, which were undertaken in the belief that God would intervene. Nor have we heard the last of this faith. It has a deep background, to be sure, in the Yahweh wars from the time before the monarchy, when circumstances were such that faith did indeed produce victory.


2. The emergence of the individual as the primary unit of existence in Judah

The spur to this subsection is Baruch Halpern in Halpern and Hobson, Law and Ideology in Monarchic Israel, JSOT Press, 1991. 

Hezekiah's revolt and its catastrophic outcome had major effects. In the time before Hezekiah's revolt, kinship ties were strong – both "horizontally" through extended family, clan and village, and "vertically" through ancestry and posterity; a person did not experience his own being as that of an essentially distinct individual, but rather as a member of  broader units. When confronted therefore with the question of divine justice – if God is just, why do the innocent suffer? – people could answer: "His ancestors must have sinned," or "Someone in his family or clan must have sinned."Such "corporate personality" was expressed in the proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge."  

However, when Hezekiah tore down local shrines and centralized worship in Jerusalem, rural kinship ties began to weaken. They weakened further when he brought the rural populations into the cities of Lachish and Jerusalem, thus depriving the Assyrian besieger of people to work the fields. The Assyrian conquest was the final straw. A Judahite survivor could no longer experience him- or herself primarily as a member of broader units. The main unit now was the individual in a nuclear family—though we should also add another unit: the state, as exemplified in Assyria. The old answer to the question of God's justice could no longer make sense in the new context. We hear this in Jeremiah 31: 29-30:

"In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge."

The entire 18th chapter of Ezekiel is devoted to this transformation. Now the question of innocent suffering becomes much harder to answer. It is of course Job's question – scholars date the Book of Job to a period after Hezekiah. The question will lead to new kinds of solutions: first, apocalyptic eschatology and later, a belief in divine justice after death.

In the world that has been influenced by the Bible, the larger sense of self - larger vertically through the generations, larger horizontally through the community - would never again have priority over the sense of the self as an individual, except in splinter movements.