A taste of biblical history

The remains at Tel Lachish reveal the battles for the city and some secrets about life there.

Tel Lachish (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Tel Lachish
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
When Jeremiah, Daniel and other biblical figures mentioned a siege ramp, what did they mean? Where was King David sitting while waiting for news of his rebellious son Absalom? And why, in a letter to his commander, did a field officer bemoan the fact that there was no sign from the fortified city of Azeka? We found the answers to all these questions and more during a field trip conducted by Dr. Daniel Vainstub, within the framework of an Israel Museum course on ancient Hebrew texts.
In Vainstub’s opinion, and ours as well, the hands-down best way to get a feel for biblical history is to visit the sites where the events actually took place.
And that’s exactly what we did on a trip to Tel Lachish.
Before you head out, you need to know there isn’t a lot to see on the tel, for most of the site remains to be explored by archeologists – but what has been excavated, and sometimes restored, is both exciting and even emotional. For not only does a trip to Tel Lachish clarify hundreds of biblical passages, but it also lets you visit the very same room in which archeologists discovered over a dozen letters written in the last years of Lachish’s existence.
While Tel Lachish is a national park, and though it is slated to become a more official site, at the moment there are no set hours, entrance fees or restrooms.
Also, the tel is overrun with unruly foliage and beautiful wildflowers – and the first person to arrive in the morning opens the wire gate.
To reach Tel Lachish for a one- to two-hour jaunt, follow Highway 38 (or Highway 6) to Highway 35, turn south onto route 3415 and drive about 2 km.
to Moshav Lachish. You can’t miss the tel, on your right, since it is one of the largest biblical-era hills in the country.
Turn left before the gate of the moshav and ascend the dirt road to a parking lot.
Joshua conquered Lachish after its Canaanite king joined four other monarchs and attacked an Israelite ally. Deserted for several hundred years, the city was rebuilt after the death of King Solomon, and the division of his empire into two parts – Israel and Judah.
Its location was superbly strategic, for it commanded the roads leading from the coast and plains to the interior of the country.
Judean kings, therefore, fortified Lachish heavily with sturdy ramparts and formidable walls, erected a palace for the king-appointed governor of the district, and added quarters for a large company of soldiers. Indeed, the city was so well fortified that when a rebellion broke out in Jerusalem, King Amaziah fled to Lachish (II Kings 14:19).
Half a century or so later, King Hezekiah refused to pay his annual tribute to Assyrian monarch Sennacherib, ruler of the entire ancient east. Assyria had already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population several decades earlier. Now, in 701 BCE, the formidable Assyrian army captured the Judean town of Lachish. (Sennacherib would happily have taken Jerusalem as well, but King Hezekiah’s excellent fortifications – and the hand of God – made this an impossible task.)
The people of Lachish were then marched out of the rubble and led into captivity, a tragic departure from their homes that Sennacherib’s artists depicted in detail on alabaster panel reliefs.
From the shady trees at the bottom of the tel you can get an excellent sense of what occurred at this historic site. First, look back at the parking lot and the moshav itself: In both 701 and 586 BCE, it was here that the most powerful armies in the world set up camp. And it was from here that they laid siege to the city (“Later, when Sennacherib king of Assyria and all his forces were laying siege to Lachish...” II Chronicles 32:9). Sennacherib had divided his massive army between Jerusalem and Lachish; he apparently remained with the forces that sat right here, behind you, and took part in the battle for the city.
LACHISH WAS eventually rebuilt, not to its former grandeur but achieving the same degree of importance as before. Then, in 586 BCE, Judah was attacked again – this time by Nebuchadnezzar II’s mighty Babylonian army. One town after another fell to the Babylonians and, in the end, they were joined by Lachish and Jerusalem.
Lachish was surrounded on three sides by rivers and deep ravines that made attacking the city a difficult task. Unfortunately, there were no natural impediments on its fourth side – the southeast corner directly across from where you are standing. Thus it was from this side that the Assyrians, and the Babylonians to follow, assaulted Lachish.
Covering much of the hill from top to bottom is the only (undisputed) Assyrian siege ramp as yet uncovered in Israel. It is composed of over 15,000 tons of stones gathered from the terrain around the city, “glued” onto the hill with mortar. It is precisely this type of siege ramp that Jeremiah meant when, in 6:6, he quoted the Lord as saying, “Cut down the trees and build siege ramps against Jerusalem.”
See the chunk of stones missing from the ramp? The first archeologist to dig here, James Starkey, had no idea what he had found and simply removed some of the stones. Starkey wasn’t able to publish his findings; on his way to the inauguration of the Rockefeller Museum on January 10, 1938, he was murdered by Arab assailants.
Do you see that the entrance to the city was built on an angle? You walk up with the entrance on your right; if you were an enemy planning to attack, this made it difficult for a right-handed soldier to reach for his weapon.
The word “gate” is mentioned over 300 times in the Bible. Back then, a gate was not just an entrance, as it is today. “Gate” and “gates of the city” in the Bible actually refer to a complex with two fortified entrances and a courtyard between them. Note as you approach that while the outer entrance was outside the city walls, it was flanked by massive towers; access into the city itself was through a passage bound by tall towers and thick, high walls.
Once you go through the outer entrance, you will find yourself in a very large courtyard. This is where biblical-era magistrates, prophets and the “elders of the city” stationed themselves in order to judge, prophesy or just gossip. “They that sit in the gate talk of me,” we read in Psalms (69:13). And in Ruth (4:1), we learn that Boaz “went up to the gate, and sat him down there.”
Before you cross the threshold, enter a small room – probably inside a tower – to your right. Known as the “Letters Room,” it is here that Starkey discovered vital biblical-era written documents in the form of 22 inscribed pottery shards. (Today, 18 are on display in the British Museum, five are at the Rockefeller Museum and one is in the “Rivers of Babylon” exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum.) Called the Lachish Letters, all of the shards were composed just before, and possibly even during, the final Babylonian assault on Judah. Most of the cities in Judah had already fallen to the Babylonian army and, according to Jeremiah (34:6), outside of Jerusalem, Lachish and Azeka are the only fortified cities that remain standing. And then one special dispatch arrives.
Picture, if you will, Yaush, commander of the army at Lachish, standing here next to the gate. A soldier hands him a missive from Hoshaiah, an officer at a nearby base. It reads: “... And let (my lord) know that we are watching for the fire signals (masuot) of Lachish... because we cannot see [or there is no signal from] Azeka.”
Imagine Yaush’s reaction. What did this mean? Why was there no signal? Had Azeka finally fallen to the enemy? Would Lachish be next? Finally, enter the city and look to the left. Each ancient culture had its own floor plan for the city gate; the Israelites built their gates with rooms for the guards on each side. Sometimes there were four cells, but most often there were six, as Ezekiel describes in 40:21: “And the alcoves of the gate were three on this side and three on that side.”
AFTER EXAMINING the three cells that remain standing, follow the path to a slightly rocky ascent on your right. Climb up to the top.
Now, gaze at the rocks around you. While the terrifying Assyrian army toiled on their siege ramp below, preparing a “road” so that battering rams could make it to the top, the city’s besieged, panicky residents started building a ramp of their own.
From grandparents to toddlers, men, women and children had moved into the city from the outskirts, joining the soldiers and families who resided inside the walls. Together, they dug into the soil and brought out rocks that would create a ramp higher than that of the enemy.
And indeed, theirs was high, and almost double the width of the Assyrian’s ramp. Nevertheless, their contra-ramp, a defensive weapon unknown anywhere else in the world, was unsuccessful in preventing the city’s conquest.
Enjoy your panoramic view, then descend and continue on the path. Ahead of you stands a huge platform that archeologists call the city’s acropolis, a term borrowed from the later Greeks. Lachish’s acropolis is the largest discovered to date in Judea, and contained a fortified palace for the king-appointed governor, barracks for soldiers, an archive, stables, chariots and storage areas.
Examine the symmetrical beauty of its construction, then climb the steps to the top. Look down to see the fertile fields below. Most of the people in Lachish were farmers who lived outside the city, tilling the land and raising the cattle. So who lived inside the walls? Probably only the elite: army officers, workshop owners, clerks, judges, writers and priests.
Walk across the top of the acropolis, from which you have an unusual view of the city gates, and descend. Follow the path and after a few moments you will see a rock structure jutting out from the side of the tel on your left. This is one of several “teeth,” reinforcements from long ago, meant to keep the city wall from collapsing. Below the stones, a hump is new: When Starkey excavated the tel, he dumped the debris below.
When the path splits, take the left fork (the “long trail”) to continue around the tel and back to the parking lot, with a few extra added attractions on the way (or the right fork to return).
If you continue, you pass new excavations next to the city wall, whose findings have not yet been finalized. Then, across from the tel’s lone jujube tree, steps lead down to a stone-lined well. It is thousands of years old, 44 meters deep, and so far the only source of water discovered on the tel.
Ascend, and continue on the path. When it ends in a T, turn left to return to your vehicle.
Note: Not wheelchair-accessible.