The Yavneh-Yam Ostracon

Language: Hebrew
Medium: ostracon (pottery)
Size: 20 centimeters high
16.5 centimeters wide
Length: 14 lines of writing
Genre: Letter of
Official Petition
Approximate Date: 639–609 BCE
Place of Discovery: Mesad Hashavyahu
(near Yavneh-Yam, on the
Mediterranean coast)
Date of Discovery: 1960
Excavator: Joseph Naveh
Israel Dept. of Antiquities
(later Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Current Location: Israel Museum


(Adapted from Gibson 1973:28)
by K. C. Hanson
(Adapted from Albright 1969:320)
יׂשמע אדני השׁר
Let my lord, the governor, listen
את דבר עבדה עבדך
to the word of his servant. Your servant
קצר היה עבדך בח
is a reaper. Your servant was in
צר אסם ויקצר עבדך
Hasar-'Asam, and your servant reaped,
ויכל ואסם בימם לפני ׂשב
and finished, and stored (the grain) during the days prior to the sabbath.
ת כאׂשר כל עבדך את קצר וא
When your servant had completed the reaping, and
סם כימם ויבא חׂשביהו בן ׂשב
stored (the grain) during these days, Hoshabyahu ben-Shobi arrived,
י ויקחאת בגד עבדך כאׂשר כלת
and he confiscated the garment of your servant when I had completed
את קצרי זה ימם לקח את בגד עבדך
the reaping. It is already days since he took the garment of your servant.
And all my brothers—who are reaping with me—can testify on my behalf,
[broken off]
11-14 If I am innocent of any wrong, [give back] my garment; and if not, it is the governor's right to [consider my case] and send word to him so that he restores the garment of your servant. And do not let [the plea of your servant] be displeasing to him . . .


My lord (אדני) is a verbal indicator of the social superiority of the one being addressed. Anyone of superior status is a person's “lord.” See, for example, 2 Samuel 9:1-13 in the Bible for a whole sequence of lord/servant relationships.
The governor (השׁר) is a rather general term. The Hebrew word can be used of princes or other elites. See, for example, 2 Chronicles 18:25, Nehemiah 7:2, and Esther 1:3 in the Bible for passages where it is often translated “governor.” For passages indicating elites, see 2 Samuel 10:3; Jeremiah 24:1; 2 Chronicles 31:8.
Your servant (עבדך) is a verbal indicator of the social inferiority of the speaker. (See note on “my lord” above.) But when David is called “my servant” by God (2 Samuel 3:18) or the apostle Paul calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ” (e.g., Romans 1:1) it is an indication that they have a direct Lord/servant relationship with no intermediaries.
A reaper (קצר) in the ancient Near East was often a day-laborer. In the Bible, see Isaiah 17:5; 2 Kings 4:18; Ruth 2:3-14.
Hasar-'Asam (חצר אסם) is the name of an unknown village. Hasar means “fort” or “outpost” and was frequently used in place names; compare, for example, Hazar-addar (Numbers 34:4), Hazar-enon (Ezekiel 47:17-18), Hazar-susim (2 Chronicles 4:31), and Hazar-maveth (Genesis 10:26). 'Asam means “storehouse” or “barn” (see Proverbs 3:10).
Hoshabyahu (חׂשביהו) is a theophoric name (a personal name that includes the name of a deity). In this case, the “offender's” name includes yahu, a form of the name of Israel's deity, Yahweh. One can see this form, for example, in the usual Hebrew spellings of Elijah (אליהו) and Jeremiah (ירמיהו). This man's name would mean something like “Yahweh has taken account” or “esteemed by Yahweh.” A certain Hashshub was among those who repaired the walls of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile (Neh 3:11, 23).
Shobai (שבי) appears in the Bible as the name of a Jerusalem gatekeeper in Ezra 2:42 and Nehemiah 7:45.

1. Summarize the characters involved in this document and the transaction.
2. Discuss how this reaper's petition relates to the situations in each of the following passages: Exodus 22:25-26; Leviticus 6:1-7; Deuteronomy 24:12-17; 2 Kings 4:1-7; Amos 2:8; Proverbs 20:16; 22:7, 26-27; Job 24:3, 9.
3. Why might this have been a persistent problem in the ancient world? Compare the Laws of Hammurabi §§113, 241.
4. What risks might the reaper be taking by appealing to the governor?
5. Read Ahiqar saying #77 (col. xi:171). How does the theology of the Ahiqar saying compare to the theology of Exodus 22:25-26 on pledges?
6. How does this reaper's situation resonate with the complaint of Job in 24:1-12? What sort of society do these documents presuppose?
7. Read the Aramaic loan contracts from Elephantine (Cowley 10 and 11) from about two hundred years later. How did the borrowers and lenders in those documents protect themselves?
8. Compare the sayings of Jesus on confiscation of clothing: Matthew 5:40; Luke 6:29-31. What is Jesus' point? Do you think he is being literal, or is he using hyperbole (exaggeration) to make his point? Compare these with James 5:4.

Albright, W. F. “Palestinian Inscriptions.” In Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by James B. Pritchard, 568-69. 3d ed. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969.
Borowski, Oded. Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1987.
Cross, Frank M., Jr. “Epigraphic Notes on Hebrew Documents of the Eighth—Sixth Centuries B.C.: II. The Murabba'at Papyrus and the Letter Found Near Yabneh-Yam.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 165 (1962) 34-36.
Gibson, John C. L. Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions. Volume 1: Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.
Hopkins, David C. The Highlands of Canaan: Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age. Social World of Biblical Antiquity 3. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.
Naveh, Joseph. “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.” Israel Exploration Journal 10 (1960) 129-39.
Naveh, Joseph. “More Hebrew Inscriptions from Mesad Hashavyahu.” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962) 27-32.
Naveh, Joseph. “Some Notes on the Reading of the Mesad Hashavyahu Letter.” Israel Exploration Journal 14 (1964) 158-59.
Pardee, Dennis. “The Juridical Plea from Mesad Hashavyahu (Yavneh-Yam): A New Philological Study.” Maarav 1 (1978) 33-66.
Suzuki, Yoshihide. “A Hebrew Ostracon from Mesad Hashavyahu: A Form-Critical Reinvestigation.” Annual of the Japanese Biblical Institute, Tokyo 3 (1982) 3-49.
Talmon, Shemaryahu. “The New Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C. in Historical Perspective.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 176 (1964) 29-38.

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Last Modified: 17 April 2007