Open main menu
Ostracon Replica

Meṣad Hashavyahu is an ancient fortress on the border of ancient Judea facing the Philistine city of Ashdod near the Mediterranean Sea. It lies 1.7 km south of Yavne-Yam (the seaport) and 7 km northwest of Yavne (the main city). The original name of the fort is unknown, but was given the name found on several inscribed pottery shards (ostraca) recovered at the site. The site covers an area of approximately 1.5 acres (6,100 m2).


Script Tracing

It dates from approximately 630 BCE to 609 BCE, within the reigning years of Josiah, king of Judah. William Foxwell Albright wrote, "The life of the fortress could be dated within narrow limits by the typical late pre-exilic and early Ionian pottery found on the site, as well as by historical considerations, which suggest a date about 630 BCE. This would be just after the death of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and before the occupation of the Philistine Plain by Psammetichus of Egypt."[1]

Both Greek pottery and Judahite ostraca were found (see below). Some scholars believe the site had been used by Greek mercenaries. They might have been serving under Judean command in Josiah's battles against the Egyptian army, as Yohanan Aharoni supposed. But both Greek and Judahite mercenaries served in the Egyptian army at the time of the late monarchic period. According to Israel Finkelstein, "it is therefore quite reasonable that the unit stationed in the Egyptian fort of Messad Hashavyahu included Judahite mercenaries", and Egyptian control was more likely than Judean: "there can be little doubt that Egypt, which expanded in the late 7th century [BCE] along the coast of the Levant, was strong enough to prevent Josiah from building an isolated fort in the middle of an area in which Egypt had strong strategic interests".[2] One of the significant issues dependent on this debate is whether or not the Kingdom of Judah under Josiah had access to a sea port. The fact that the fort was south-facing may imply that it was built for the protection of Yavne and the surrounding agricultural lands including the seaport area of Yavne-Yam, against aggressors from the south, either Philistine or Egyptian.

The fortress was abandoned in 609 BCE or shortly thereafter,[3] likely associated with the loss of territory due to occupation by the Egyptian army following Josiah's death.

It was excavated by Joseph Naveh in 1960.[3][4][5]

The Mesad Hashavyahu ostraconEdit

One of the most important finds at Mesad Hashavyahu is an ostracon containing a written appeal by a field worker to the fortress's governor regarding the confiscation of his cloak, which the writer considers to have been unjust.[3] The worker makes his appeal to the governor on the basis of both the garment's undeserved confiscation and by implication, the biblical law regarding holding past sundown a person's cloak as collateral for a debt (Exodus 22; cf. Deut 24). Although the petition does not specifically cite the law, it would have been commonly known by rulers and peasants alike. Some scholars argue that the ostracon bears the first known extra-Biblical reference to the Hebrew Sabbath day of rest, but the issue is debated.[6][7]

Concerning who was in control of this area of the Philistine Plain, Shmuel Ahituv states,[8] "The letter is written in good biblical Hebrew, plus a possible scribal omission here or there, and the script is that of a trained scribe. The work supervisor mentioned in the text bears a clearly Judaean name, Hoshavyahu. All these factors point to a time of Judaean control over the area." Naveh agrees, "The four Hebrew inscriptions together testify to this fortress having been under Judaean control at the time. ... It seems likely that Josiah placed a military governor in charge of the fortress, and that the force garrisoned there was supplied with provisions by the peasants living in the unwalled settlements in the vicinity."[9]

The ostracon was found under the floor of a room adjacent to the guardhouse/gate complex, is approximately 20 cm high by 16.5 cm wide, and contains 14 visible lines of text. In all, seven key artifacts were recovered, six of them inscribed ostraca in the Hebrew language. Pottery shards in the layer above represented Greek (early Ionian/Southwest Anatolian) or Persian-period pottery. The ostraca from this site are currently located in the Israel Museum at Jerusalem.[5]

Hebrew TextEdit

ישמע אדני השר את דבר עבדה. עבדך קצר. היה. עבדך. בח צר אסם. ויקצר עבדך ויכל ואסם כימם. לפני שב ת כאשר כל {ע}בדך את קצר וא סם כימם ויבא הושעיהו בן שב י. ויקח. את בגד עבדך כאשר כלת את קצרי זה ימם לקח את בגד עבדך וכל אחי. יענו. לי. הקצרם אתי בחם. {ה}ש {מש} אחי. יענו. לי אמן נקתי מא {שם}.........בגדי ואמלא. לשר להש {יב} ..........עב{דך}.....אלו. רח {מם. והש}בת את {בגד. ע}בדך ולא תדהמ נ


The following is an edited translation[10] of the ostracon, which is composed of fourteen lines in Hebrew:

"Let my lord, the governor, hear the word of his servant! Your servant is a reaper. Your servant was in Hazar Asam, and your servant reaped, and he finished, and he was storing up (the grain) during these days before the Sabbath. When your servant had finished the harvest, and was storing (the grain) during these days, Hoshavyahu came, the son of Shobi, and he seized the garment of your servant, when I had finished my harvest. It (is already now some) days (since) he took the garment of your servant. And all my companions can bear witness for me - they who reaped with me in the heat of the harvest - yes, my companions can bear witness for me. Amen! I am innocent from guilt. And he stole my garment! It is for the governor to give back the garment of his servant. So grant him mercy in that you return the garment of your servant and do not be displeased."

Due to breaks in the ostracon and a missing lower right section, Naveh states that there are too few letters available in line 13 to make an educated guess what it said. The same might likely be said of lines 11 through 14, which have been reconstructed, and a line 15 which is missing.[11]


  1. ^ Albright, W.F., "Palestinian Inscriptions: A Letter from the Time of Josiah", in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 568.
  2. ^ Israel Finkelstein; Neil Asher Silberman (2002). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-2338-6.: p.350–351
  3. ^ a b c The Philistines from Hezekiah to Josiah
  4. ^ Naveh, J. "A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.," in Israel Exploration Journal, Vol 10, Nr 3, 1960, 129-139
  5. ^ a b K.C. Hanson, The Yavneh-Yam Ostracon
  6. ^ The First Extra-Biblical Reference to the Sabbath, c.630BCE
  7. ^ Smelik, K. D. E. (1992). [Exploration Society Previous Item "The Literary Structure of the Yavneh-Yam Ostracon"] Check |url= value (help). Israel Exploration Journal. 42 (2): 58. Retrieved 6 November 2019. Text " Next Item " ignored (help)
  8. ^ Ahituv, Shmuel, Echoes from the Past, (Jerusalem: CARTA, 2008), 158.
  9. ^ Naveh, J. op.cit., 139.
  10. ^ The translation is taken from Klaas Smelik, Writings from Ancient Israel, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, page 96.
  11. ^ J. Naveh, op.cit., 134.

External linksEdit