What legal rights did a farm labourer have in ancient Israel? A rare glimpse is offered by an ostracon (inscribed pot-sherd), which was discovered in 1960 in the guardroom of a small Iron Age fortress, approximately 17 km south of Tel Aviv.
The ostracon contains a judicial petition from a harvester to the commander of the fortress. In it, the worker, who does not identify himself by name, asks the commander to intervene and ensure the return of his garment, which had apparently been confiscated for his alleged failure to meet a work quota. The petition reads:
“May my lord the governor hear the appeal of his servant: Your servant was harvesting in Hazar-asam. Your servant harvested and measured as always before stopping. And when your servant had measured the harvest and stored it as always, Hoshavyahu ben Shobay came and took your servant’s garment. When I had measured my harvest as always he took the garment of your servant! All my brothers will testify for me; those harvesting with me in the heat of the sun, they will confirm that it is so. I am innocent of guilt. Now, please return my garment. Again, I petition the commander to return the garment of your servant. Grant him mercy and return the garment of your servant and do not confound me!”
The custom of taking a garment as surety is attested in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Exodus 22:26–27; Deuteronomy 24:17; Amos 2:8), where there is a special concern for the plight of the poor and vulnerable (cf. Deuteronomy 24:12–15).
Although the phrasing of the petition reflects the usual politeness of someone writing to a social superior, the wording is repetitive and gives some sense of the worker’s anguish – notice the ad hoc manner in which the appeal switches between the first, second, and third persons. Even so, the ostracon seems to have been written by a trained scribe, since it is unlikely that a poor farm labourer in Iron Age Israel would have been able to read and write. Was it commissioned as a formal letter of appeal? Or is it a transcription (or summary) of a spoken plea?
Sadly the governor’s decision is not recorded, so we don’t know the outcome of the petition – after all, we only have the harvester’s word that he filled his work quota. Whatever the case, it is remarkable that even a poor labourer could have recourse to a formal appeal such as this.
Provenance: Meṣad Ḥashavyahu (near Yavneh Yam), Israel
Date: 7th century BCE
Collection: Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Designation: KAI 200
Bibliography: J. Naveh (1960) “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.,” in Israel Exploration Journal 10/3: 129–39; J. M. Lindenberger (2003) Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. 2nd edition. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature [see pp. 107–110].