Usually Joe is the first to send me new archaeology finds, but this time my daughter Heidi beat him by a few minutes. They both sent me a report that yesterday archaeologists in Israel reported finding the oldest Hebrew inscription to date, in the valley of Elah where David met Goliath. (Click on the tab for “JOE’S FINDS” for the link.)
Before yesterday, the oldest Hebrew inscription was believed to be the Gezer Calendar (Uriah Yaniv’s Gallery has a photo).
The inscription in Elah is on a piece of ostraca. Ostraca (the plural of ostracon) are broken pieces of pottery used for writing. Ancient people practiced recycling! Ostraca was a common material for writing letters. I can imagine a Hebrew family at the dinner table and mom saying,
We need to write a letter to grandma, but we are out of ostraca. Would one of you kids mind knocking a pitcher off the table?
One of the most interesting collections of ostraca from Israel is the Lachish Letters (See Bible History online).
In one of the letters a commander complains about a troublesome prophet:
The words of the prophet are not good. He weakens the hands of the people in the city (more here).
The prophet sounds a whole lot like Jeremiah. In the 6th century BC, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Babylonian army. Jeremiah had been preaching to the people of Jerusalem that their only hope was to turn from their sins of injustice and idolatry and trust in the Lord to save them. Many people thought that since the Lord had chosen Jerusalem as the site of his temple–the place where he made his presence known–the city and the temple could never be harmed. God would bless and protect his city.
Jeremiah preached a famous sermon in the temple. He said you can’t rob, cheat, steal, commit adultery, and then come to the sacred place and say “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” and expect to be blessed and saved.
Jeremiah’s message was unpopular. He was considered unpatriotic. He “weakened the hands” of the people, an idiom meaning he lowered their morale, undermined there resolve to fight. The people and leaders wanted him to say, “God will bless his holy temple, God will bless this city.” Jeremiah said, “No, God will curse this city–unless you repent.”
The Romans had a use for broken pottery. When they wanted to vote someone “off the island” or out of a club or association, they would have the members write on a piece of ostraca the name of the one they wanted to banish. Such a person was said to be ostracized.
Jeremiah of Jerusalem was ostracized more than once. They threw him down into a mud pit once and left him to die, but friends eventually rescued him. Jeremiah may very well be the prophet mentioned on the piece of ostraca from Lachish.