The Oldest Archaeological Reference to the Sabbath:
Pottery from Josiah’s Time
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In ancient times, people wrote notes to each other on pieces of pottery which are often called ostracon. In today’s archaeological article, we will look at the oldest find which references the Sabbath! It is called the Mesad Hashavyahu Ostracon (pictured below). It dates to the time of King Josiah.
Mesad Hashavyahu Ostracon (public domain)
An English translation of the text is found below:
“…Let my lord commander hear the case of his servant! As for thy servant, thy servant was harvesting at Hazar-susim. And thy servant was (still) harvesting as they finished the storage of grain, as usual before the Sabbath. While thy servant was finishing the storage of grain with his harvesters, Hoshiah son of Shobai came and took thy servant’s mantle. (It was) while I was finishing with my harvesters (that) this one for no reason took thy servant’s mantle. And all my companions will testify on my behalf-those who were harvesting with me in the heat (?) […] all my companions will testify on my behalf! If I am innocent of all gui[lt, let him return] my mantle, and if not, it is (still) the commander’s right to take [my case under advisement and to send word] to him [(asking) that he return the] mantle of thy servant. And let not [the please of his servant] be displeasing to him…” (Pritchard, 568).
The overall theme of this ostracon is a person (the author) who was pleading with someone of authority for justice. As part of this discussion, the author mentioned that he finished his work before the Sabbath began. He described this activity as his usual behavior.
The author of the pottery message also pleaded with a person of authority for the return of his mantle. The Torah allowed someone to lend their cloak as a pledge, but it was supposed to be returned to them by evening (Ex. 22:26-27, Deut. 24:10-15). This part of the Torah is called “the judgments” or mishpatim. The author also referenced witnesses that could defend him and help his case, which is a provision allowed in the judgments (Deut. 19:15-21).
In 2 Kings chapter 22, we learn that the book of the Law was read aloud to King Josiah. He then realized the idolatry and sin that the nation had fallen into and repented. In the next chapter, we learn that he had this book read to the people and renewed their covenant with God. He then removed idols, pagan priests, and other abominations from the land. He turned the nation back unto the Lord God of Israel and obedience to His law.
Since the Biblical record noted that Josiah enacted reforms to restore obedience to the commandments of God, we would expect to find evidence detailing both Sabbath observance and an appeal to the judgments in the Law of God. The Mesad Hashavyahu Ostracon is also a reminder that the Jewish people practiced the Sabbath before the Babylonian captivity.
Look for more blog posts from this category in the future!
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President, www.biblesabbath.org
Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Third edition with supplement. Translator W.F. Albright. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1969. p 568.
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