THE SITE OF ancient Lachish, or Tell ed-Duweir, is located on the modern road map of Israel, roughly halfway between Askelon and Hebron and 30 miles south west of Jerusalem. As you round a bend of the approach road the impressive mound hits the eye, rising some 63 feet above the surrounding fields. The levelled crown covers an area of 20 acres. The part of ancient Israel that the fortress had dominated, is now named after the city – the Lachish region. Lachish was one of the most powerful and important cities in ancient times, particularly in the period of Israel’s kingdom (1020-500 BC).
Site of Lachish
Archaeological excavations at Lachish have found at least nine layers of settlement dating from 3000 BC to the third century BC. Two of the earlier Canaanite rulers of Lachish are named in letters found at Tell el Amarna in Egypt, and in them they write defending themselves against accusations of disloyalty to the Egyptian ruler of the time, Pharaoh Akhenaton. The dominating influence of Egypt over the Canaanites of this period is confirmed by the finding, during excavations at Lachish, of a pottery bowl with Egyptian script inscribed on it detailing the amount of wheat produced in the fourth year of an unnamed Pharaoh.
Lachish is first mentioned in the Bible at the time of the Divinely ordained invasion of the land of Canaan by the Israelites, led by Joshua 1220-1200 BC). The Israelites had already taken the cities of Jericho and Ai and had also reached an agreement with the inhabitants of Gibeon. Some of the Amorite rulers, when they heard about the advancing armies of Israel and the pact they had already made with the Gibeonites, were rightfully scared. We read that ‘Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish, and Debir king of Eglon, saying, “Come up to me and help me, that we may attack Gibeon, for it has made peace with Joshua and with the children of Israel”’ (Joshua 10.3,4).
The combined armies of these five Amorite kings then besieged the Gibeonites, who promptly called on Joshua to save them. The record tells us that Joshua acted on God’s command, ‘And the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have delivered them into your hand”... So the LORD routed them before Israel’ (Joshua 10.8,10).
Having defeated these armies in the field and following the death of the five kings, the Israelites then attacked their cities one by one, including Lachish with the result that ‘the LORD delivered Lachish into the hand of Israel, who took it on the second day’ (Joshua 10.32). The Biblical record in Joshua then goes on to record for us the eventual conquest and settling of the land by the Israelites.
The inheritance allotted to the tribe of Judah includes a list of the cities they possessed, and in that list we find named those cities of the five kings, including Lachish. Jerusalem is also in the list, but the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem were not driven out (Joshua 15.35,39,54,63). It was left to King David to complete the conquest of the land, taking Jerusalem and making that city God’s chosen capital.
But it was David’s grandson, King Rehoboam, (930-913 BC) who later, when the kingdom had split in two, carried out a large construction programme in the southern half of the land. We read that ‘Rehoboam dwelt in Jerusalem, and built cities for defence in Judah’ (2 Chronicles 11.5). We then have a list of fifteen cities that includes Lachish. ‘And he fortified the strongholds, and put captains in them, and stores of food, oil, and wine. Also in every city he put shields and spears, and made them very strong.’ (2 Chronicles 11.11,12).
The archaeological excavations at Lachish have revealed that Rehoboam’s fortified city was surrounded by two walls. The inner wall was built on the top perimeter of the tell and was 20 feet in thickness. The outer wall was erected some 52 feet down the slope of the tell. The entrance to the city was by a steeply sloping road at the southwest corner that you can still walk up to get to the top of the tell. These fortifications by Rehoboam made Lachish the second most important city after Jerusalem.
Reconstruction of the ancient city of Lachish
The story of Lachish really comes to life in the time of King Hezekiah (715-686 BC), when the armies of Assyria under king Sennacherib invaded Judah from the North, sweeping down past Jerusalem to take the strategic fortified cities in the south, and so we read: ‘After this Sennacherib king of Assyria sent his servants to Jerusalem (but he himself, and all the forces with him, laid siege against Lachish), to Hezekiah king of Judah’ (2 Chronicles 32.9).
The amazing thing about this attack on Lachish in 701 BC, is that it is actually pictured for us. The Assyrian king had no photographers as we have today, to document and show the world his conquests, so he did the next best thing, he had the record of the battle for Lachish drawn out and carved on stone to display on the walls of his palace in Nineveh.
These carved bas-reliefs were found by another archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard, when he led an expedition in the late 1840’s to excavate the ruins of Nineveh at Kuyunjik in today’s northern Iraq. Layard found attached to the buried walls a series of panels 80 feet long which portray vividly the story of the fall of Lachish to Sennacherib’s armies. They show in detail the mighty walls of Lachish being attacked with wheeled, armoured battering rams and the defeated inhabitants being led out by Assyrian soldiers, while in another scene we can see Sennacherib sitting on a throne receiving the city’s surrender from an official.
The siege of Lachish
These stone panels were carefully removed by Layard’s team and transported by barge down the Tigris and then by sea to England where they are preserved in the British Museum and can now be examined by anyone with an interest in the Bible. They are a remarkable testimony to the historical accuracy of the record we have in God’s Word.
But this isn’t the end of the Lachish story, because Sennacherib then sent another army to besiege Jerusalem. Here a miracle occurred, after King Hezekiah, one of Judah’s good kings, had offered earnest prayer to the Almighty. He was told by the prophet Isaiah that Sennacherib would not take Jerusalem, and so we read that ‘the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses – all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh (2 Kings 19.35,36).
After this divine intervention that cut short Sennacherib’s campaign, the power of the Assyrian Empire began to wane and the Babylonian Empire began to rise, with Nineveh being captured in 612 BC. In the intervening years Lachish must have been rebuilt and re-armed, because the next we hear of Lachish is in the time of King Zedekiah (598-587 BC), the last king of Judah. By this time the southern kingdom of Judah was a vassal state paying tribute to the Babylonian Empire.
Around 589 BC, emboldened by promises of support from the Egyptians, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. The Babylonians reacted by taking swift and ruthless action. They attacked and wiped out one by one the fortified cities of southern Judah cutting off any possible help from the Egyptians. The city of Lachish was among the last to fall and in the book of Jeremiah we read: ‘Then Jeremiah the prophet spoke all these words to Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, when the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem and all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and Azekah; for only these fortified cities remained of the cities of Judah’ (Jeremiah34.6,7).
Again, a unique find by the archaeologists at the site of Lachish confirms the biblical record of this Babylonian assault on Judah. Buried in the ruins of a room next to the remains of the city gate, twenty one ostraca (inscribed pottery fragments) were found, dating from the time of King Zedekiah. These short letters are reports written by a Judean soldier called Hoshayahu, from an unnamed outpost to the commanding officer of Lachish, named in the letters as Yuash.
Some of the ‘Lachish Letters’ as they are now known, describe exactly the situation faced by these defending soldiers manning isolated outposts in the last days of the kingdom of Judah. The letters are short and to the point - in one the soldier says he is not as simple as his commander thinks, he is able to read! Another mentions the passing through of a general on his way to Egypt, a reminder of the intrigues between Zedekiah and the Egyptians.
But the one that confirms Jeremiah’s words reports that ‘we are watching for the beacon from Lachish, following the signals you, sir, gave, but we do not see Azekah.’ It would appear from this letter that Azekah which lies about nine miles north of Lachish had probably fallen to the Babylonian army and they must have realised that it was their turn next at Lachish and the surviving outposts to face the might of Babylon. The ruins at Lachish still show the ferocity of the Babylonian assault. The results of intense fires against the walls can still be seen, great gaping holes were punched through those massive walls, the city fell and Jerusalem was next.
Jerusalem was taken and the temple destroyed in 587 BC and most of the population were then taken into captivity in Babylon. The biblical story of Lachish doesn’t end there though. The Bible also foretold the eventual fall of Babylon to the Medo-Persian Empire and that the Jews who wanted to go back to their land would be allowed to return. (see Isaiah chapters 44 and 45). This happened in 538 BC when Cyrus issued the ‘Edict of Restoration’.
The record of the return of the captives from Babylon is found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and it is there we find lists of people from the villages and cities of Judah who were allowed to return, among them Lachish. (Nehemiah 11.30). The resettlement of the land revived the occupation of cities like Lachish in God’s land, but it wasn’t for long. Archaeological finds show that habitation of the site ceased around the second century BC.
Our study of the ancient Jewish city of Lachish reveals to us the hand of God at work in the destiny of His chosen people. At the same time we can see from archaeological finds uncovered on the site, the accuracy of the Bible’s historical record given to us by the people chosen to record God’s Word for us.