The Lachish Letters
About twenty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem in Lehi’s day lay the powerfully fortified city of Lachish, the strongest place in Judah outside of Jerusalem itself. Founded more than three thousand years before Christ, it was under Egyptian rule in the fourteenth century B.C. when the Khabiri (Hebrews) had just arrived. At that time, its king was charged with conspiring with the newcomers against his Egyptian master. A later king of Lachish fought against Joshua when the Israelites took the city about 1220 B.C. In a third phase, either David or Solomon fortified it strongly.
The city’s strategic importance down through the years is reflected in the Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, and biblical records. These describe a succession of intrigues, betrayals, sieges, and disasters that make the city’s story a woefully typical Palestinian “idyll.” Its fall in the days of Jeremiah is dramatically recounted in a number of letters found there in 1935 and 1938. These original letters, actually written at Jeremiah’s time, turned up in the ruins of a guardhouse that stood at the main gate of the city—two letters a foot beneath the street paving in front of the guardhouse, and the other sixteen piled together below a stone bench set against the east wall. The wall had collapsed when a great bonfire was set against it from the outside.
The bonfire was probably set by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar because they wanted to bring down the wall, which enclosed the gate to the city. Nebuchadnezzar had to take the city because it was the strongest fortress in Israel and lay astride the road to Egypt, controlling all of western Judah. Jeremiah tells us that it and another fortified place, Azekah, were the last to fall to the invaders (see Jeremiah 34:7). An ominous passage from Lachish Letter 4:12–13 reports that the writer could no longer see the signalfires of Azekah—that means that Lachish itself was the last to go, beginning with the guardhouse in flames.
The letters survived the heat because they were written on potsherds.
They were written on potsherds because the usual papyrus was unobtainable.
It was unobtainable because the supply from Egypt was cut off.
The supply was cut off because of the war.
The letters were in the guardhouse because they were being kept as evidence in the pending trial of a military commander whose name was Hoshacyahu.
He was being court-martialled because he was suspected of treason.
He was suspected of treason because someone had been reading top-secret dispatches sent from the court at Jerusalem to the commander at Lachish, whose name was Ya’ush.
Hoshacyahu was a likely suspect because all the mail had to pass through his hands.
It had to pass through his hands because he was in command of a fortified town on the road between Jerusalem and Lachish, probably Qiryat Ye’arim. His duty, among other things, was to forward the king’s mail—not to read it.
That the confidential letters had been read was apparent because somebody had tipped off a certain prophet that he was in danger.
He was in danger because the king’s soldiers had been put on his trail.
They were on his trail because he was fleeing to Egypt.
He was fleeing because he was wanted by the police in Jerusalem.
He was wanted by the police because he and other prophets were considered by the king’s supporters to be subversives.
They were considered subversives because they were opposing the official policy and undermining morale by their preaching. As Jeremiah puts it: “The princes [the important people] said unto the king: We beseech thee, let this man be put to death: for thus he weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them” (Jeremiah 38:4). As Lachish Letter 6:5–6 puts it: “The words of the [prophet] are not good [and are liable] to loosen the hands.” The Book of Mormon adds another reinforcement: “In that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people they they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed” (1 Nephi 1:4)—distressing news indeed. The prophet who was tipped off to escape “was surely Uriah of Qiryat Ye’arim.”1
The Lachish Letters are the best evidence so far discovered for the authenticity of Bible history. In Lachish Letter 3:13–21, for example, Hoshacyahu says that it was reported to him that “the commander of the army [Yi]khbaryahu the son of Elnathan [went down] to Egypt” to fetch (leqaḥat) something, and that other men were also sent, and that there was a letter of warning to the prophet. The same story is told in Jeremiah 26:22 (cf. 3), where “the king sent . . . Elnathan the son of Achbor, and certain men with him into Egypt.” One or the other scribes has transposed the names, not an uncommon occurrence. For what is the likelihood of two such pairs with identical names being involved in the idential mission to Egypt? Torczyner concludes that the scribe indeed “wrote one for the other.” The Bible story and the Lachish Letters are full of such striking coincidences; for example, when Letter 4:6–7 tells of a man having the same peculiar name as Uriah’s father, Shemacyahu, going up from Uriah’s village to Jerusalem on urgent business, accompanied by the chief inspector of military outposts. On what business? Perhaps, Torczyner suggests, “to use his influence with the king” in behalf of his son.2 “In these letters,” wrote Harry Torczyner, whose edition and commentary is a standard work on the subject, “we have the most valuable discovery yet made in the biblical archaeology of Palestine and the most intimate corroboration of the Bible to this day.”3 They are also star witnesses for the correctness of the Book of Mormon, whose opening scenes take place in exactly the same setting and time as the Letters. Both records paint pictures which are far removed from those supplied in any other known sources, and yet the two pictures are as alike as postcards of the Eiffel Tower.
The first contribution of the Lachish Letters to ancient studies was the revelation that such documents existed. Until their discovery in 1935, it was thought that the Hebrew alphabet of that time (shortly after 600 B.C.) was used only for the writing of inscriptions; indeed, all known inscriptions of comparable antiquity to the Letters are so scarce and scanty that it has been impossible even to put together a complete exemplar of the Hebrew alphabet from their contents. But with the finding of the Lachish Letters, it suddenly became clear the “the ancient Jews could write quickly and boldly, in an artistic flowing hand.”4 The same arresting discovery was repeated at Qumran, where again the revelation of writing in common use among the Jews of another Jerusalem six hundred years later came as a distinct surprise. While the Lachish Letters were written on potsherds, the scrolls were kept in the pots, both practices reminding us that since prehistoric times symbolic marks on pottery had been used to convey messages.
Potsherds, however, do not lend themselves to convenient filing, and the contents of important Lachish Letters were duly abridged for transfer to the official archives,5 in the form of delathoth, as would appear from Letter 4:2–4, in which the writer reports that he is writing ‘al ha-DLT. What is a deleth? Torczyner puzzled that such a word should be used to indicate “a sheet or page of papyrus,” since the word originally meant “doorboard, then board in general,” being applied according to the dictionary to a “board, plaque, plate, or tablet.”6 Torczyner finds the root meaning of the Akkadian word edeln, from wdl, ydl, “to lock or shut,” the collective noun indicating things locked, hinged, or joined together—a reminder that the very ancient codex form of the book was joined pages of wood, ivory, or metal. The scanty evidence, confined to the time of Jeremiah, is enough to justify speculation of the possibility of the delathoth being such “plates” or metal tablets as turn up in the Book of Mormon study.7
More specific resemblances in the records are evident, beginning with the same obsessive concern with writing and recording and the same association with the name of Jeremiah. Nephi informs us that Jeremiah’s words had been put into writing from time to time (rather than appearing as a single completed book), and that the process was still going on at the time his family left Jerusalem (1 Nephi 5:13). From the Lachish Letters we learn that Jeremiah himself made use of other writings circulating at that time, including the Lachish Letters themselves, which may be “some of the actual documents” upon which the prophet based his account of his fellow prophet Uriah; Jeremiah 38:4, in fact, is a direct quotation from Letter 6.8 (Jeremiah could hardly have visited the enemy stronghold of Lachish to consult the original potsherd text.)
Nephi’s father, Lehi, kept a written account of things as they happened, including even his dreams and visions (1 Nephi 1:16), which things Nephi faithfully transfers to his record, but only after he has abridged and added his own account. This process of transmitting, abridging, compiling, and commenting as we find it at Lachish goes on throughout the Book of Mormon. Preservation on delathoth was no invention of Lehi’s, since the story begins with the fetching of records written on bronze plates from the archives of Laban, the military governor of Jerusalem. Is metal plates carrying delathoth too far? The Copper Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls assures us that it is not. That scroll was made of separate plates riveted together, admittedly an unusual and inconvenient arrangement but nonetheless one necessary to insure the survival of particularly precious records. Joseph Smith’s insistence on books made of metal plates was a favorite target of his detractors; metal plates were strange enough to seem ludicrous, and impractical enough to cause difficulties. This was not the normal way of writing; John Allegro comments that “the scribe [of the Copper Scroll], not without reason, appears to have tired toward the end, and the last lines of writing are badly formed and rather small. One can almost hear his sigh of relief as he punched out the last two words in the middle of the final line.”9 Compare this with the sighs of Nephi’s younger brother: “I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates. . . . But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, . . . and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them” (Jacob 4:1–3).
Equally significant for the Book of Mormon study is Torczyner’s emphasis on the Egyptian manner of keeping records in the days of Zedekiah. The Lachish Letters were written on potsherds, he notes, only because of a severe shortage of papyrus, the normal writing material. With the use of Egyptian paper went the Egyptian scribal practices in general: “The new writing material first appears under Tiglath Pileser III,” that is, its general use throughout the Near East begins a century before Lehi’s day, “and thereafter [writes A. T. Olmstead] every expedition has its two scribes, the chief with stylus and tablet, his assistant with papyrus roll or parchment and Egyptian pen.”10 More than sixty years before Lehi left Jerusalem, the kings of Assyria were also pharaohs of Egypt, their Egyptian scribes glorifying them in Egyptian records. At the same time the Assyrian court “found it necessary to possess an Aramaic scribe” as well, to record in that language.11 Thus the idea of Lehi’s bilingual record keeping, which caused considerable trouble to the recorders, is not entirely out of place. The reason given for it is economy of space. In Lehi’s day a new type of Egyptian writing, demotic, was coming to its own, as much quicker and briefer than hieratic, as hieratic was than hieroglyphic. This is perhaps what Lehi would have used. Only a thousand years later do we learn of “characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian,” something not recognizable to any Egyptologist today, altered beyond recognition even as “Hebrew hath been altered by us also” (Mormon 9:32–33). It should be noted however, that the only known example of supposed Nephite writing, the so-called Anthon Transcript, compares with Meroitic writing—another type of “reformed Egyptian” developed at the same time as the Nephite script by people also fleeing from destroyers of Jerusalem, who in a short time transformed demotic or hieratic into their own new and mysterious writing.
The dates post and ante quem of the Lachish Letters are not disputed. The majority date to 589–88 B.C., shortly before the city’s destruction in 587 B.C.,12 weeks before the fall of Lachish, “while others possibly cover a period of a few years.”13 There is definitely a conflict in the record as to who was the king at the time. The scribe of Jeremiah 27:1–3 says that Zedekiah was not yet king, but scholars now insist that he was wrong and that Zedekiah was ruling earlier than the Masoretic text says he was, so 1 Nephi 1:4 may not be an anachronism. While Lehi’s story begins in the first year of Zedekiah, the background of the ostraca actually happened in the last year of the reign of Zedekiah.14 After his vision in the desert Lehi spent some time at Jerusalem entering into the activity of the other prophets and getting himself into the same trouble: “In that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed” (1 Nephi 1:4). This was the very message (“not good!”) that caused “the hands to sink,” even the hands of those in “the country and the city,” according to the Lachish Letters.15
The proper names in the Lachish Letters and the Book of Mormon belong to one particular period in Jewish history—the same period. Seven of the nine proper names in Letter 1 end in –yahu, which later became –iah, and during the Babylonian period lost the “h” entirely. In all the letters there are no Baal names and no El names—whose lack was once thought to be a serious defect in the Book of Mormon. Torczyner finds “the spelling of the names compounded with -iah” to be most important. The –yahu ending is also found as –yah about a century later among the Jews in Elephantine, who were “perhaps the descendants of those Jews who, after the fall of the Judaean kingdom, went down to Egypt, taking with them the prophet Jeremiah.”16 Here we have another control over the Lehi story. The discovery of the Elephantine documents in 1925 showed that colonies of Jews actually did flee into the desert in the manner of Lehi, during his lifetime, and for the same reasons; arriving in their new home far up the Nile, they proceeded to build a replica of Solomon’s Temple, exactly as Lehi did upon landing in the New World. Both of these oddities, especially the latter, were once considered damning refutations of the Book of Mormon. The –yahu ending of personal names abounds at Elephantine, but in a more abbreviated form (-iah) than at Lachish (-yahu) a hundred years earlier. The same variety of endings is found in the Book of Mormon, for example, the Lachish name Mattanyahu appears at Elephantine as Mtn, and in the Book of Mormon both as Mathonihah and Mathoni. The Book of Mormon has both long and short forms in the names Amalickiah, Amaleki and Amlici (cf. Elephantine MLKih).17 The Assyrian inscriptions show that the final “h” was dropped in the Hebrew spelling after Lehi left, when the Jews “lost their pronunciation of the consonant ‘ll’ under the influence of the Babylonian language.”18 Of the two names in Letter 1 not ending in –yahu, the one, Tb-Shlm (which Torczyner renders Tobshillem), suggests Book of Mormon Shilom and Shelem, while the other, Hgb, resembles Book of Mormon Hagoth.
More significant are the indications that the –yahu names are “certainly a token of a changed inner Judaean relationship to Yhwh. . . . This practice,” Torczyner suggests, “is in some way parallel to . . . the first reformation by Moses”; what we have in the predominance of –yahu names reflects “the act of general reformation inaugurated by King Josiah (Yoshiyahu) [the father of Zedekiah]” (2 Kings 22–23).19 Another interesting coincidence is: A Book of Mormon king 450 years after Lehi undertook a general reformation of the national constitution and revival of the religious life of the people. He and his brothers had been rigorously trained by their father, King Benjamin, “in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding,” familiar with the writings of the ancient prophets and also “concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass,” without which records, he tells them, “even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief. . . . And now my sons, I would that ye should remember to search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby” (Mosiah 1:2–3, 5, 7). Fittingly, this king named his eldest son, the great reforming king, Mosiah, suggesting both the early reform of Moses and its later imitation by Josiah. This would be altogether too much of a coincidence were it not that the book of Mosiah supplies the information that fully accounts for the resemblances when it explains just how Nephite names and customs were preserved intact in the transplanting of cultures from the Old World to the New. Lehi’s ties to the Yahwist tradition are reflected in the only female name given in his history, that of his wife, Sariah; such feminine names turn up at Elephantine—Mibtahyah, though in female names the –yahu element usually comes first.20
The action of the Lachish Letters centers around the activities of the prophets in the land, who are causing grave concern to the government. The Book of Mormon opens on a similar note: “And in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed” (1 Nephi 1:4). The identity of all but two of these prophets has now been lost, but it is clear from both the Lachish Letters and the Book of Mormon that there were more of them. “It must certainly be admitted,” writes Torczyner, “that there was more than one prophet at this time.”21 The central figure is of course Jeremiah, but it is only by chance that we even know about him, for he is not mentioned in the book of Kings—it is the prophetess Huldah, “an otherwise quite unknown figure,” whom Josiah consults.22 Jeremiah in turn mentions the prophet Uriah, “in only a few passages,” and his name turns up nowhere else, though Uriah’s “religious” influence must have been of great extent and long standing!23 Uriah “prophesied against this city and against this land according to all the words of Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 26:20). The words of such prophets were dangerously undermining morale both of the military and the people. “Behold the words of the [prophet] are not good, [liable] to weaken the hands of the country and the city.”24
As the Book of Mormon opens, we see Lehi as one of those citizens distressed and discouraged by the preaching of the “many prophets. . . . As he went forth,” apparently on a business journey, for he was a rich merchant, he “prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people” (1 Nephi 1:4–5). In reply to his prayer he received a vision which sent him out to join the prophets: “My father . . . went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare unto them” (1 Nephi 1:18). He indeed was teaching “in the spirit of Jeremiah,” for Nephi explicitly links him to the prophet’s vicissitudes: “For behold, they have rejected the prophets, and Jeremiah have they cast into prison. And they have sought to take away the life of my father, insomuch that they have driven him out of the land” (1 Nephi 7:14). Torczyner suggests that Uriah “may have hidden in the hills of Western Judah . . . for a long time,”25 and we find Lehi doing the same thing. Indeed, as Torczyner points out, what we are dealing with here is a type of thing, Uriah’s story being told only “as a parallel to Jeremiah’s not less dangerous position.”26 To their number we may add Lehi, whose story has every mark of authenticity.
As the Book of Mormon leads us into a world of Rekhabites and sectaries of the desert, so the Lachish Letters give us “for the first time . . . authentic and intimate contemporary reports from Jews, faithfully following their God, about their inner political and religious struggles.”27 Torczyner sees in the –yahu names a sure indication of a loyal reformist faction which included even the highest military officers. Ya’ush and his men are the prophet’s followers,28 even though they are necessarily the king’s defenders. We see Uriah hiding out in the wilderness “where he had friends and followers, for a long time.”29 The Dead Sea Scrolls have put flesh on these sectarian bones, showing how from the earliest times communities of the faithful would withdraw from Jerusalem to bide their time in the wilderness. Lehi’s activities were not confined to the city, he was in the desert when he received the manifestation that sent him hurrying back to his house in Jerusalem, from which later he “went forth among the people” as a prophet (1 Nephi 1:18). Badly received, he was warned in a dream that his life was in danger (1 Nephi 2:1), and was ordered to go into the wilderness and leave all his worldly things behind (1 Nephi 2:2). It was the idea behind the Rekhabites (Jeremiah 35) and the people of Qumran; Nephi, inviting a new recruit, Zoram, to come and “have place with us,” points out to him that only so could he “be a free man like unto us,” and that to “go down into the wilderness” was the only way to “be diligent in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 4:33–34).30 This is the firm conviction of the sectaries of the desert, later expressed in the writings of St. Anthony. So Zoram duly takes an oath and joins the pious company (1 Nephi 4:35).
One important aspect of Lehi’s account has surfaced very recently in the light of what Klaus Koch calls the rediscovery of apocalyptic.31 It seems that almost every ancient patriarch, prophet, and apostle is credited with having left behind a testament or apocalypse bearing his name. A key figure is Jeremiah, whose two assistants, Ezra and Baruch, are responsible for two of the six basic Jewish apocalypses. Some of these stories are very old, and a consistent pattern emerges from the telling of them, though they are widely scattered in space and time. Briefly summed up, the general plot is this: A righteous man, sorely distressed by the depravity of the world or of Israel, prays fervidly for light and knowledge, and in due time receives a divine manifestation, when a heavenly messenger comes to teach him and takes him on a celestial journey, climaxing in a theophany, after which he returns to earth and reports his experience to family and friends; often this is just before he dies, and he bestows a patriarchal blessing—his testament—upon his sons. Often he also goes forth to preach to the people, who reject his message with scorn, whereupon he departs into the wilderness with his faithful followers to establish a more righteous if tentative order of things in the desert, a sort of “church of anticipation.” All of which things Lehi also does in due and proper order; the first part of Nephi’s writing, he says, is but an abridgment of his father’s record, which may properly be called the Testament or Apocalypse of Lehi. It also relates to the Lachish Letters, for Jeremiah was the champion of the Rekhabites (Jeremiah 35) and his assistants (cf. 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch) both headed such communities of refugees. Lehi is definitely doing the accepted thing for men of God in his time.
That the Rekhabite ideal of the desert sectaries was in full flower in Lehi’s day, as many other sources now indicate, is clear from the accusation that Nephi’s elder brothers brought against him, that he was planning to set up such a society with himself as “our ruler and our teacher,” leading them by his false claims of prophetic inspiration to believe “that the Lord has talked with him, . . . thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness [some unoccupied tract]; and after he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us” (1 Nephi 16:37–38). Plainly they know about that sort of thing. When after eight years of wandering, the party was commanded to build a ship and sail on the waters, they were all at their wit’s end, because they had never dreamed of such a thing as a promised land beyond the sea; theirs was strictly the tradition of the desert sectaries, “a lonesome and a solemn people,” as Nephi’s younger brother put it (Jacob 7:26).
Against the larger background of national calamity, which is never lost from view, both the Lachish Letters and the Lehi story are concerned with relatively narrow circles of friends and relations.32 Clandestine flights from the city in both stories involve friends and families; Nephi and his brethren go back to town to persuade Ishmael and his family to join them in flight (1 Nephi 7:2–5). But soon the group begins to split up as Laman, Lemuel, and the two daughters of Ishmael whom they later married, as well as two of Ishmael’s sons, vote to return to Jerusalem (1 Nephi 7:6–7). They find the whole idea of giving up their opulent life-style and renouncing their fashionable friends quite unacceptable: “Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and . . . been happy. And we know that the people . . . of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord; . . . they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them” (1 Nephi 17:21–22).
They are especially disgruntled at having to defer to a quality in their father for which the Lachish Letters have a particular expression characterizing the man of prophetic calling as ha-piqqeah, which Torczyner finds to mean “the open-eyed”33 or visionary man, “the seer,” the man whose eyes God had “opened to see,”34 that is, to see things that other people do not see. So in the Book of Mormon the brothers use it in a critical sense against their father, arguing that he is being unrealistic and impractical: “They did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart” (1 Nephi 2:11).
They make fun of their father for being piqqeah, a “visionary man.” Torczyner explains the word by referring to the instance in 2 Kings 6:17, where Elisha asks the Lord to open the eyes of his servant so he could see realities, horses and chariots, which otherwise only Elisha could see. In the same way the uncooperative brothers of Nephi hiding out with him in a cave in the Judaean wilderness had their eyes opened so they could see “an angel of the Lord” while he was reprimanding them (1 Nephi 3:29; 7:10).
When feelings run high the Lachish Letters resort to an unpleasant expression which Torczyner notes because of its peculiarity: “Another interesting phrase may be ‘to curse the seed of somebody,’ used apparently in the form ya-or zera ha-melek, ‘he curses [the] seed to the King,’35 reminding us of . . . the Arabic curse: ‘May Allah destroy thy house.’ “36 The exact Lachish practice, however, is not found in the Bible,37 but the closest thing to it is found in Alma 3:9, “And it came to pass that whosoever did mingle his seed with that of the Lamanites did bring the same curse upon his seed.”
If the Lachish Letters reflect “the mind, the struggles, sorrows and feelings of ancient Judah in the last days of the kingdom,”38 so to an even greater extent does the book of Nephi, where families split along political lines in a tragic conflict of loyalties. And if the situation of Uriah parallels that of Jeremiah, as Torczyner points out, even more closely does it parallel that of Lehi when we learn from the Letters of “a warning from the prophet to one of his friends [Slm], who is apparently in the same danger as he himself [cf. Ishmael]. It is, therefore, a prophet fleeing from his home and his friends, a prophet wanted by the military authorities.”39
The leading character of the Lachish Letters is a high military officer, Hoshacyahu at Qiryat Ye’arim, suspected by one party, as reported to his superior Ya’ush, of treachery to the king in aiding the prophet, and by the other of betraying the prophet by revealing the contents of his warning letter to the king: this letter revealed to the king that the prophet was fleeing to Egypt. Likewise his superior officer, Ya’ush, who had been ordered to investigate him, “appears to be on the best of terms with the king. But still both men respect the prophet and believe in him, in spite of the king’s attitude to him, and their hearts ache that they should be responsible for his destruction.”40 The same tragic confusion exists in the Lehi story. This is borne out in the relationship of the actors to the Egyptians in both dramas. Though Lehi supports the anti-Egyptian party, his sons have Egyptian names and Egyptian educations and they keep their records after the Egyptian manner. Moreover, the party flees toward Egyptian territory. The same anomaly confronts us in the Lachish Letters, which tell of a certain general sent down to Egypt to fetch a prophet back to Jerusalem for execution.41 But why on earth, asks Torczyner, would the good man flee to Egypt, of all places, when his crime was supporting Jeremiah in calling “for peace with Babylonia”? Our informant finds “this astonishing fact,” that he fled towards Egypt instead of Babylonia, quite inexplicable.42
As the main actors in the Lachish drama are high military officers, so also in the Book of Mormon the key figure in the Jerusalem episode is another high military officer. This was Laban, whose official position resembles that of Ya’ush in Lachish very closely. “Thus Ya’ush must be the military governor of Lachish, . . . this greatest fortress of Judah”,43 along with that, ” ‘lord Ya’ush’ may have been Governor of the city, whose archives would probably have been housed in the region of the palace-fort or keep, or perhaps he was only the senior military officer.”44 All of which applies with equal force to Laban, the military governor of Jerusalem, “a mighty man” who can command fifty in his garrison (1 Nephi 3:31) and “his tens of thousands” in the field (1 Nephi 4:1). Among the nonbiblical names in the Book of Mormon which excited amusement and derision among its critics, we remember one Josh, identified in Reynolds’s Concordance as “a Nephite general, who commanded a corps of ten thousand men” at Cumorah—an interesting comment on the conservatism of Nephite tradition (Mormon 6:14).45 Where is the king in all this? In both stories he appears as a rather shadowy character in the background. As for Ya’ush, “the king appeals to him in everything concerning this part of the country,”46 that is, the whole western part of the kingdom47—he left things pretty much up to his general, as according to the Book of Mormon he also did in Jerusalem. Laban was of noble descent, of the same ancestry as Lehi himself and of a more direct line to the patriarch Joseph, for the genealogy was kept in Laban’s family (1 Nephi 5:16), and the archives were housed at his official residence, as the archives of Lachish “would probably be housed” at the headquarters and residence of Ya’ush. When Lehi’s sons went to get the records from Laban, they talked with him intimately as he sat in his house, and proposed buying the plates. He refused to give up the brass plates and so they decided to bribe him with what was left of their own family treasures. They knew their man, but not quite well enough, for he kept the treasure but chased them out of the house and sent his servants after them to get rid of them (1 Nephi 3:24–25). The young men escaped and hid out in a cave, but the cat was out of the bag—Lehi’s flight was now known to Laban as Uriah’s was to Ya’ush, and Laban’s troops would soon be on the trail of the refugees as Ya’ush’s were already in pursuit of Uriah. Lehi was spared, however, because Laban never got into action on the case. That very night Nephi found him dead drunk in a street near his house and dispatched him with his own sword (1 Nephi 4:5–18). Going toward the house, Nephi met Laban’s servant and got the keys to the treasury and archives from him by a ruse. In the dark the man thought that Nephi was Laban, for he was expecting his boss to be returning very late (and drunk) from an emergency council of “the elders of the Jews; . . . Laban had been out by night among them” (1 Nephi 4:22). There is a world of inference in this—secret emergency sessions, tension, danger, and intrigue—as there is in Lachish Letter 18, which must be forwarded from Ya’ush to the king through the village of Qiryat Ye’arim by night.48 Lehi’s boys took Laban’s servant along with them “that the Jews might not know concerning our flight . . . lest they should pursue us and destroy us” (1 Nephi 4:36). Even so we see in the Lachish Letters “a prophet fleeing from his home and friends, and a prophet wanted by the military authorities.”49 Zoram was carried along by force but was persuaded that it was in his own interest to join a pious escape-group in the desert, and he duly exchanged oaths with his captors, his conscience not overly bothered by the change of sides; he displays the same hesitant and divided loyalties as everyone else in the Book of Mormon and the Lachish Letters. The military correspondence of the Lachish Letters, with its grim suspicions of disloyalty and double-dealing, fervid denials, charges, investigations, and reports, reminds one of the much later Bar Kochba letters (discovered in 1966) which in turn present truly astonishing parallels to some of the military correspondence in the Book of Mormon.50
One peculiar situation in the Lachish Letters casts a good deal of light on an equally peculiar and highly significant episode in the Book of Mormon. Hoshacyahu protests to his boss in Lachish, “and the letter [which] Nedabyahu, the NKD of the King, had brought . . . has thy slave sent to my lord.”51 The title NKD suggests that “the prophet’s warning letter . . . could have been sent while the prophet was still near his hometown, through a little boy, most suited as an unsuspected messenger,” in view of the fact that little boys performed such offices in the time of David (2 Samuel 15:36; 17:17–21), and that “such small boys are used also today in Palestine, often for quite responsible missions.”52 What suggests the idea to Torczyner is the mention of “Nedabyahu, the NKD of the king,” as the one who delivered a letter from the prophet to SHLM warning him of the danger he was in.53 The word NKD suggests first of all grandson. There is a Nedabiah, grandson of King Jehoiakim, in 1 Chronicles 3:18, and Torczyner finds it “possible and even probable” that he is the very one named here. What, the king’s own grandson bearing letters for his opponent the prophet? The exact meaning of NKD is “unfortunately . . . not definitely established” so that the king referred to may be “either Jehoiakim . . . or less likely, Jeconiah, . . . or Zedekiah.”54 It is not a direct line of descent, Jeconiah being not the father but the nephew of Zedekiah; but since most scholars maintain, along with the Septuagint, that NKD simply means offspring or descendant, “it would be quite possible . . . to call somebody the ‘grandson’ [NKD] of his grandfather’s brother,” in this case of Zedekiah. “The Hebrew nekedh may certainly have been used at least for grandson-nephew as well as for grandson.”55 This Nedabiah, whose title “may equally well mean the grandson of Jehoiakim as the grand-nephew of Zedekiah,” was quite young; “one would prefer the age of 10–13 to that of 5 years,”56 carrying dangerous letters between the towns and camps for the prophet’s people. Since he was running errands for the opposition party, the boy was, of course, away from home most of the time; and since he was specifically carrying letters of warning telling people to decamp and save their lives, he could surely count on escaping with them. When news reached them that the royal family was wiped out, only one course of action was open to the child [as survivor] and his friends. Where would they go? Torczyner suggests the date of 590–588 for this episode, that is, the year 589, just eleven years after 600 B.C. According to the Book of Mormon, eleven years after Lehi left Jerusalem—589—a company escaped from the land of Jerusalem bearing with them a son of Zedekiah, the only member of the family not put to death when Jerusalem was taken. From the descendants of these people in the New World, the Nephites learned that Jerusalem actually did fall as prophesied: “Will you dispute that Jerusalem was destroyed? Will ye say that the sons of Zedekiah were not slain, all except it were Mulek? Yea, and do ye not behold that the seed of Zedekiah are with us, and they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem?” (Helaman 8:21). By an interesting coincidence, the Septuagint translates the word NKD, by which Nedabyahu is designated in Hebrew, simply as “seed,”57 as apparently does the Book of Mormon—”the seed of Zedekiah.” The land north where they settled in the New World “was called Mulek, which was after the son of Zedekiah; for the Lord did bring Mulek into the land north” (Helaman 6:10). Nowhere are we told that Mulek was the leader of the company, and indeed at his age that would be unthinkable—his father Zedekiah was only about thirty-one when he was taken prisoner and blinded. But as the sole survivor of the royal family and heir presumptive to the throne, he was certainly the most important person in the company, a source of legitimate pride to the group. The name tells everything—”Mulek” is not found anywhere in the Bible, but any student of Semitic languages will instantly recognize it as the best-known form of diminutive or caritative, a term of affection and endearment meaning “little king.” What could they call the uncrowned child, last of his line, but their little king? And what could they call themselves but Mulekiyah or Mulekites?
And so the coincidences go on accumulating. It is time to turn to the computer, as we do today whenever questions and problems arise. What are the chances of the many parallels between the Lachish Letters and the opening chapter of the Book of Mormon being the product of mere coincidence?
1. First consider the fact that only one piece of evidence could possibly bring us into the Lehi picture, and that one piece of evidence happens to be the only first-hand writing surviving from the entire scope of Old Testament history. Lehi’s story covers less than ten years in the thousand-year history of the Book of Mormon, and the Lachish Letters cover the same tiny band of a vast spectrum—and they both happen to be the same years!
2. Not only in time but in place do they fit neatly into the same narrow slot, and the people with which they deal also belong to the same classes of society and are confronted by the same peculiar problems.
3. With the Book of Mormon account being as detailed and specific as it is, it is quite a piece of luck that there is nothing in the Lachish Letters that in any way contradicts its story—that in itself should be given serious consideration. Is it just luck?
4. Both documents account for their existence by indicating specifically the techniques and usages of writing and recording in their day, telling of the same means of transmitting, editing, and storing records.
5. The proximity of Egypt and its influence on writing has a paramount place in both stories.
6. Both stories confront us with dynastic confusion during a transition of kingship.
7. Both abound in proper names in which the –yahu ending is prominent in a number of forms.
8. In both, the religious significance of those names gives indication of a pious reformist movement among the people.
9. The peculiar name of Jaush (Josh), since it is not found in the Bible, is remarkable as the name borne by a high-ranking field officer in both the Lachish Letters and the Book of Mormon.
10. In both reports, prophets of gloom operating in and around Jerusalem are sought by the government as criminals for spreading defeatism.
11. The Rekhabite background is strongly suggested in both accounts, with inspired leaders and their followers fleeing to the hills and caves.
12. Political partisanship and international connections cause division, recriminations, and heartbreak in the best of families.
13. The conflicting ideologies—practical vs. religious, materialist vs. spiritual—emerge in two views of the religious leader or prophet as a piqqeah, “a visionary man,” a term either of praise or of contempt—an impractical dreamer.
14. For some unexplained reason, the anti-king parties both flee not towards Babylon but towards Egypt, “the broken reed.”
15. The offices and doings of Laban and Jaush present a complex parallel, indicative of a special military type and calling not found in the Bible.
16. Almost casual references to certain doings by night create the same atmosphere of tension and danger in both stories.
17. Little Nedabyahu fits almost too well into the slot occupied by the Book of Mormon Mulek, “the little king,” who never came to rule but escaped with a party of refugees to the New World.
18. The whole business of keeping, transmitting, and storing records follows the same procedures in both books.
Other parallels may be added to taste, but this should be enough to show that Joseph Smith was either extravagantly lucky in the opening episodes of his Book of Mormon—that should be demonstrated by computer—or else he had help from someone who knew a great deal.
* This chapter combines two substantially similar publications, “The Lachish Letters: Documents from Lehi’s Day,” Ensign 10 (December 1981): 48–54, and “Dark Days in Jerusalem: The Lachish Letters and the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi),” in Book of Mormon Authorship, Noel B. Reynolds, ed. (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1982), 103–21. Transcripts of two talks by Dr. Nibley covering the same topics have also circulated under the titles “The Jerusalem Scene” and “Souvenirs from Lehi’s Jerusalem.”
1. These introductory paragraphs appeared in Hugh W. Nibley, “The Lachish Letters: Documents from Lehi’s Day,” Ensign (December 1981): 48–50.
2. Harry Torczyner, Lachish I (Tell ed-Duweir): The Lachish Letters (London: Oxford, 1938), 86. On the transposition of the names, see ibid., 67. If Achbor’s name was written backwards by the scribe of Jeremiah, it would not be his only or even most serious slip in the matter; the scribe assigns the Uriah episode to the time of Jehoiakim (608–597), but scholars are now agreed on the evidence of Jeremiah 27:1–3 that the scribe has mistakenly put things in the reign of Jehoiakim which rightfully belong to the reign of Zedekiah; ibid., 69.
3. Ibid., 18. Fifteen years after Torczyner’s work, another translation of the Lachish Letters appeared in David Diringer, “Early Hebrew Inscriptions,” in Olga Tufnell, Lachish III (Tell ed-Duweir): The Iron Age Text (London: Oxford, 1953), 331–359, esp. 331–339. The Letters were discovered in Stratum II at Tell ed-Duweir; Tufnell, Lachish III, 48, which was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C., and the majority of the letters date to 589–88 B.C. See John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 330, n. 58, 60. In recent years, much discussion about the dating of Stratum III’s destruction has occurred. The consensus now is that Stratum III was destroyed in 701 B.C. by Sennacherib. See David Ussishkin, “Answers at Lachish,” Biblical Archaeology Review 5 (1979): 16–39. Earlier scholars believed that Stratum III reflected an attack by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C., but that claim no longer seems tenable. See David Ussishkin, “The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish,” Buried History 13 (1977): 2–16; Yohanan Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel, ed. Miriam Aharoni, tr. Anson F. Rainey (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 272–73. The earlier date for Stratum III does not change the dating for the Letters. Regardless of other uncertainties, all seem to agree that the Letters come from Stratum II and the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 587–86 B.C. See Torczyner, Lachish I, 18; Tufnell, Lachish III, 57; John Bright, “A New Letter in Aramaic, Written to a Pharaoh in Egypt,” ed. G. Earnest Wright and David Noel Freeman, The Biblical Archaeology Reader, 3 vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961), 1:98; Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, ed. and tr. Anson F. Rainey (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 340–46; Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel, 272, 279. In the Ensign 10 (December, 1981): 50, Nibley added, “Even without the archaeological sites, the setting and situation in which the letters were written could be determined by their style as well as their content. They contain ’90 . . . lines of clear writing, beautiful language, and highly important contents.’ Torczyner, Lachish I, 15. The language is pure Hebrew, most closely resembling that of the books of Jeremiah and of Kings. Ibid., 17. They show, to everyone’s surprise that in 600 B.C. ‘writing was almost common knowledge, and not a secret art known only to a very few.’ Ibid., 19.”
4. Torczyner, Lachish I, 15.
5. Ibid., 80.
6. The one passage in the Old Testament that would justify calling a deleth a roll of papyrus is Jeremiah 36:23: “When Jehudi had read three or four leaves [delathoth = pagellas], he cut it with a knife and cast it into the fire, until all the roll [megillah, volumen] was consumed with fire.” Papyrus tears easily, yet instead of ripping the roll to shreds in his wrath, the king had to go after it with a knife—surely it was more solid than paper. David Diringer, “Early Hebrew Inscriptions,” 333, renders deleth as “door,” but he places a question mark after the word to indicate that he is not certain about the translation. The question is open.
7. In the Ensign 10 (December, 1981): 50, Nibley similarly wrote: “In Letter No. 4:2–4, Hoshacyahu assures his superior in Lachish that he has carried out his written orders to the letter: ‘According to whatever my lord has sent, so has thy servant done.’ Furthermore, ‘I have written down in the deleth whatever my lord has sent [written] me.’ Plainly he copied it down for the official record. Though ‘the Bible throughout speaks of rolls of writing,’ meaning papyrus or, more rarely, parchment rolls, Letter 4 specifically uses the rare word deleth for the form in which Hoshacyahu copied down or registered his official correspondence. Torczyner assumed that deleth must refer to a ‘papyrus sheet,’ or ‘page,’ since a deleth is not a roll and is certainly not a potsherd. Torczyner, Lachish I, 80. An alternative is a tablet or plate of solid material.”
8. Torczyner, Lachish I, 18.
9. John M. Allegro, The Treasure of the Copper Scroll (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 27.
10. A. T. Olmstead, History of Assyria (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), 583. In the Ensign 10 (December, 1981): 51, Nibley explained further that “the assistant was needed not so much for his skill with Egyptian writing materials, which had been introduced quite recently in the time of Tiglath-Pileser III and which anyone could learn to handle, but for the same reason ‘the court found it necessary to possess an Aramaic scribe’—namely to deal with the language, ibid., 581–82, so widespread was the Egyptian tradition of record keeping at that time. Would the Egyptian scribes of a Babylonian or Assyrian king employ their skill to write in cuneiform or any other language but Egyptian? There were plenty of native scribes for that. Though a wealth of cuneiform writings on clay have been found in Egypt, cuneiform writings on papyrus are not known in the East.”
11. Ibid., 581–82.
12. Bright, A History of Israel, 106, n. 58, 60. An earlier version of this paper asserted that the two layers of ashes represented destructions of Jerusalem in 597 and 588 B.C. between which the Letters were found. “Two Shots in the Dark,” 107. Present scholarship favors the date of 701 B.C. for the earlier layer of ashes, but this does not change the dating of the Lachish Letters. See above, note 3–ed.
13. Torczyner, Lachish I, 18.
14. Ibid., 69.
15. Ibid., Letter 6:6–7.
16. Ibid., 27.
17. Ibid., 24.
18. Ibid., 25.
19. Ibid., 29.
20. Ibid., 27–28.
21. Ibid., 65.
22. Ibid., 70.
24. Ibid., Letter 6:5–6; cf. Jeremiah 38:4.
25. Ibid., 70 (emphasis added).
26. Ibid., 69 (emphasis added).
27. Ibid., 18.
28. Ibid., 66.
29. Ibid., 70.
30. Compare similar expressions of piety in 1QS 1.
31. Klaus Koch, Ratlos vor der Apokalyptik (Gütersloh: Mohr, 1970).
32. “The Lachish Letters are the first personal documents found, reflecting the mind, the struggles, sorrows and feelings of ancient Judah in the last days of the kingdom, within the typical form of ancient letter writing. . . . Here for the first time we have authentic and intimate contemporary reports from Jews, faithfully following their God, about their inner political and religious struggles, as told in the book of Jeremiah.” Torczyner, Lachish I, 18. The Lehi history, as shown in Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), in CWHN 5, is nothing if not intimate.
33. Torczyner, Lachish I, 53. Diringer, “Early Hebrew Inscriptions,” 332, also translates this term as “open-eyed,” but places a question mark after the translation to indicate uncertainty. Diringer finds the characters preceding and following “open-eyed” to be illegible.
34. Torczyner, Lachish I, 65.
35. Ibid., Letter 5:10. This type of cursing is widely attested in the ancient world, although its presence in Lachish Letter 5 is debatable. See Diringer, “Early Hebrew Inscriptions,” 333.
36. Torczyner, Lachish I, 17.
37. Ibid., 17, points out that the closest biblical example of cursing seed is in Malachi 2:2–3, “I will corrupt your seed.”
38. Torczyner, Lachish I, 18.
39. Ibid., 64 (emphasis added).
40. Ibid., 113.
41. Ibid., 63.
42. Ibid., 67.
43. Ibid., 87.
44. Ibid., 12 (emphasis added).
45. George Reynolds, A Complete Concordance of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1900).
46. Torczyner, Lachish I, 118.
47. Ibid., 87.
48. Ibid., 183.
49. Ibid., 64.
50. Discussed in Hugh W. Nibley, “Review Essay on Yigael Yadin’s Bar-Kochba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome,” BYU Studies 14 (Autumn 1973): 120–24; above, pages 279–86.
51. Torczyner, Lachish I, 64, n. 1; Letter 3:19–21. Diringer, “Early Hebrew Inscriptions,” 333, does not see NKD, but rather YBD, a common name for “servant.” Therefore, Diringer’s translation describes the servant of the king rather than the NKD (grandson or grand-nephew) of the king. Both readings are possible.
52. Torczyner, Lachish I, 68.
53. Ibid., Letter 3:19–21. Diringer, “Early Hebrew Inscriptions,” 333, alternatively reads “Tobyahu” rather than “Nedabyahu.”
54. Torczyner, Lachish I, 61.
55. Ibid., 61.
56. Ibid., 69.
57. Ibid., 61.