In 1961 an ancient burial cave was uncovered during road construction not far from Lachish. It was east of the site of Khirbet Bei Lei (Horvat Loya). The cave has been opened up and is now visible just beside the gravel road. It contains a rectangular antechamber and two burial chambers, each with three benches. Truly remarkable are the inscriptions found carved in the soft limestone walls. Several drawings were also etched into the limestone. Relatively undisputed are the drawings of ships. Then there are figures of humans, but comentators are divided about what they represent. For one figure, for example, some have suggested a man playing a lyre, others an archer. Another figure has been said to lift arms in prayer. Then the man with headgear. Some have called it an Assyrian helmet. Another drawing has been interpreted as two circles, while others saw in it a schematic sketch of a military camp with a tent beside it. Clearly, there’s room for interpretation in these imprecise sketches.
The inscription near the ships was initially thought to read: “Cursed be he who will rob the chamber”. There is little doubt that the first word is ‘arur – “cursed”. Others have read the phrase as “cursed be the one who erases”. It is a warning to anyone not to disturb the grave.
Another inscription apparently reads “cursed be the one who insults you”. It is near the drawing of the two circles or the military camp. Another inscriptions reads: “Yahweh, save!” It suggests a plea for help.
There has been some debate on the reading of the main inscriptions. I’ll simply give a few suggested translations. The following has been suggested for the first long reading:
1. Yahweh is the God of the whole earth;
the mountains of Judah belong to him, to the God of Jerusalem (Naveh)
2. Yahweh is god of all the land;
the mountains of Judah belong to the God of Jerusalem (Parker)
3. I am Yahweh your God. I will
accept the cities of Judah and will redeem Jerusalem (Cross)
The second long inscription is also somewhat difficult to decipher. The following readings have been suggested:
1. The (Mount of) Moriah thou hast favoured, the dwelling of Yah, Yahweh (Naveh)
2. Take careful note, Yah, gracious God;
Acquit, Yah, Yahweh (Parker)
3. Absolve (us), O merciful God!
Absolve (us) O Yahweh!
The last of the main inscription is shorter and easier to decipher. The following readings have been suggested.
1. Yahweh, deliver us! (Naveh)
2. Save, Yahweh. (Parker)
3. Deliver (us), O Yahweh! (Cross)
Whatever the best reading of the inscriptions may be, it becomes clear that in this cave someone etched prayers for deliverance into the soft limestone walls. Someone prayed that Yahweh would save them and the land of Judah. Joseph Naveh suggested that they indicate a time of crisis, maybe when Sennacherib invaded Judah in the late eighth century BCE. Frank Moore Cross dates the inscription to the sixth century BCE.
I used the setting of this cave for a fictional account in my book Daughter of Lachish. It portrays the prayers of a people hiding from the great Assyrian army, the prayers of those who nevertheless had hope in a devastated land. We do not know the exact circumstances in which the inscriptions were drawn, but we can imagine something of the lives of those who wrote them in the limestone soil of Judah.