Lachish and Signal Fires

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

June 20, PM

Our group’s last stop on our first full day in Israel (after Azekah, Beth Shemesh, and Mareshah, where we had lunch in an olive grove—not to be confused with an Olive Garden) was Lachish.

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On top of the tel at Lachish

Like the previous places, Lachish (pronounced la-KEESH) was a town in the Shephelah, between the coastal plain to the west and the Judean mountains to the east. It is first mentioned in the Old Testament as a Canaanite city that the Israelites conquered under Joshua (Josh 10:31–33). Like Azekah, it was one of the cities Rehoboam of Judah fortified after the kingdom was divided (2 Chr 11:9). Later, in the eighth century BC, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria, but rebelled under Hezekiah. The Assyrian king Sennacherib then laid siege to Lachish and conquered it in 701 BC, establishing his field headquarters there and sending threatening messages to Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18:13–37; 2 Chr 32:9–19; Isa 36). A siege ramp is still visible at the site from this time. Sennacherib commemorated his victory over Lachish with a relief in his palace at Nineveh; that relief is now in the British Museum. Sennacherib also declared on the Sennacherib Prism that, after besieging 46 fortified cities, he locked up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.” Notably, in light of the biblical account in which things did not go well for Sennacherib from that point (2 Kgs 19:35), the prism does not record that he took the city.

Judah later reoccupied Lachish, but the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered it around 588 BC. Nineteen ostraca (inscribed potsherds) were found in a guardhouse from this time. One of them talks about not being able to see the signal fires from Azekah, which was toward the end of the Babylonian conquest the only other remaining fortified city in Judah besides Jerusalem (Jer 34:7).

Lachish OstracaAt Lachish, we sat at the base of the tel and talked about Hezekiah’s response to Sennacherib, taking the threatening letter he received from the Assyrian king and praying over it (2 Kgs 19:14–19; Isa 37:14–20). At several places during the trip our group leader, Tim, presented Hezekiah as one of the overlooked heroes of the Old Testament. We often talk about Abraham, Joseph, David, and several others as great examples, but Hezekiah should get more credit. Of him it was said that “he trusted in Yahweh the God of Israel; there was no one like him, before or after, among all the kings of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:5). He rebelled against a major world power and believed that God would take care of his people in spite of the retaliation that would inevitably follow; that takes a lot of trust.

Tim also talked about the signal fires mentioned in the ostraca. It’s an evocative image: looking for a signal fire from a nearby city, relying on it to give you a sense that you are not alone, that you’re in this together—then one day you don’t see it. And you know why you don’t see it. How hopeless and lonely they must have felt!

Is252Tim asked us whether, in our lives, we are there for others with our signal fires. Are we a reliable source of encouragement? Can people look to us and gain a sense that they’re not alone? I often don’t think of myself as someone that other people could look up to; I’m just muddling through like everyone else. The real role models, I tell myself, are people who are older than me. But over time, especially as I’ve found myself in more leadership roles, I’ve started to grow in my awareness that people are watching. I sometimes want to respond, “Don’t do it! I’m going to fail!” Or maybe go full Charles Barkley: “I am not a role model.”

The reason I’m ambivalent about providing a signal fire for others is because I know how discouraging it is when others’ fires have gone out: the couples where one has cheated on the other; the ones where they have both decided to call it quits; the church leader who decides to give up on following Jesus. Seeing others persevere through difficult times gives me hope that it can be done, but seeing them give up is gut-wrenching.

Even though I’m sometimes ambivalent about providing a signal fire, I have to conclude that I am providing one whether I like it or not. I can put my head in the sand and act like no one’s watching. Or, I can try to give encouragement where I can, because I know my actions don’t just affect me; they have a ripple effect that I don’t always anticipate. It’s still true that I will fail in some ways. But it’s not crazy to think that I can use my life to encourage others, even if the only encouragement I can provide sometimes is to just keep going, keep burning.

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