Field Worker’s Coat Seized by Boss. He Wants it Back.

Yavneh Yam Ostracon with Plea from Reaper over Confiscated Garmet, Joseph Naveh, 1960

Field Worker’s Coat Seized by Boss.  He Wants it Back.
Deuteronomy 24:10-13

When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, don’t enter his house to claim his pledge. Wait outside. Let the man to whom you made the pledge bring the pledge to you outside. And if he is destitute, don’t use his cloak as a bedroll; return it to him at nightfall so that he can sleep in his cloak and bless you. In the sight of God, your God, that will be viewed as a righteous act. (Message)

God directs us to not keep another man’s means of livelihood, or even his coat, when his life and comfort at night depend on that item.

Deuteronomy 24:10-13 specifies that when you make a loan to a poor man, and he offers you his cloak (or coat or blanket) as collateral for that loan, you must not hold onto that life-supporting garment overnight. The verse seems to also declare you must refuse such an important item altogether:

Deut 24:10-13    10 When you make any kind of loan to your neighbor, you may not go into his house to claim what he is offering as security. 11 You must stand outside and the person to whom you are making the loan will bring out to you what he is offering as security. 12 If the person is poor you may not use what he gives you as security for a covering. 13 You must by all means return to him at sunset the item he gave you as security so that he may sleep in his outer garment and bless you for it; it will be considered a just deed by the Lord your God. (NET)

The Hebrew translated here in the New English Translation as “security,” and used four times in this passage, is עֲבוֹט (`abowt). Most English translators choose the word “pledge” at some point in the passage for this Hebrew word, while the English “item,” “guarantee,” “collateral,” “money,” and “security deposit” are also used by various translators. There seems to be an understanding that the generalized item of collateral is actually an outer garment of some sort, and so other translators specify the more particular “cloak,” “coat,” “raiment,” “upper garment,” “outer garment,” and most often just “garment.”

Note these similarly themed demands of the Torah:

Deut 23:19-20     19 “Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelite, whether you loan money, or food, or anything else. 20 You may charge interest to foreigners, but you may not charge interest to Israelites, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you do in the land you are about to enter and occupy. (NLT)

Deut 24:6     6 “It is wrong to take a set of millstones, or even just the upper millstone, as security for a loan, for the owner uses it to make a living. (NLT)

Deut 24:17     17 “True justice must be given to foreigners living among you and to orphans, and you must never accept a widow’s garment as security for her debt.

Exodus 22:25-26     25 “If you lend money to any of my people who are in need, do not charge interest as a money lender would. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak as security for a loan, you must return it before sunset. (NLT)

Leviticus 25:35-37     35 “If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident and allow him to live with you. 36 Do not charge interest or make a profit at his expense. Instead, show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative. 37 Remember, do not charge interest on money you lend him or make a profit on food you sell him. (NLT)

Our Bible Bit concerns these passages and a 2600 year old small piece of ceramic clay dug from the earth in 1960.  The item, now held in the Israel Museum, is about the size of your open hand, and was unearthed at an archaeological dig at an ancient fortress near Yavneh Yam.  Yavneh Yam is on the Mediterranean coast of southern Israel.  The ostracon takes its name (depending on who is writing about it) from either the nearby town of Yavneh Yam, or the name later given to the ancient fortress site, Mesad Hashavyah.

See Mesad Hashavyahu on this image from Bing Maps.  Yavneh Yam is in the same location:

Map of southern Israel showing the location of Mesad Hashavyahu and Yavneh Yam on the Mediterranean coast in southern Israel, about half-way between Tel Aviv and Ashdod.
Mesad Hashavyahu, near Yavneh Yam, location in southern Israel on the Mediterranean coast. Bing maps.

In 1960 the young archeologist Joseph Naveh discovered three pottery sherds carrying writing in ink at the ancient fortress site which later was named Mezad Hashavyahu. The dig was about one mile south of Yavneh-Yam. Two of the sherds were too small with not enough writing to glean much of significance. The third — our Yavneh Yam ostracon — held fourteen lines, with Hebrew writing, and enough of that script remaining to reveal a letter of appeal from a field worker to a governor or owner or foreman. Naveh describes the sherd in his original 1960 reporting as a pink and green clay fragment from a now lost jar. The piece is of more or less trapezoid shape, 7.5 inches in tallest height and about 6.5 inches wide at its widest. The final four lines are about half-missing, but enough text remains for a reasonable conjecture regarding missing content.

Ostracon Yavneh Yam original photo from Israel Journal article
Yavneh Yah Ostracon. Letter of Petition Regarding the Return of a Confiscated Coat. Photo from J. Naveh original 1960 article in Israel Exploration Journal.

The Hebrew text is a plea from a field worker — a reaper — to his master, regarding the return of his coat. His outer mantle was apparently confiscated by a foreman or field manager while the worker was resting, having, he claims, finished gathering his quota of grain and corn.

He wants his coat back. He wants the master of operations to get it for him.

Here is the Hebrew text, first in a clean facsimile of the sherd, and then in modern form:

Ostraca Yavneh Yam Hashavyahu Deut 24 cloak mantle pledge security
Hebrew text reconstruction drawing on the Yavneh Yam ostracon. From the 1960 J. Naveh article in Israel Exploration Journal
Ostrac Yavney Yam Hashavya text Hebrew J
J. Naveh’s reconstruction of the Hebrew text in modern form. Yavneh Yam ostracon. From Navey’s 1960 journal article.


Archaeologist Joseph Naveh summarizes the situation of the reaper and his letter as follows, in his 1960 report in Israel Exploration Journal:

Although there are still certain linguistic difficulties in the letter, its gist is quite clear. A man who was employed in the harvesting is complaining of the confiscation of his coat and is apparently requesting the governor to either to return the garment himself, or to bring about its return by his intervention, since he is innocent of the charge brought against him. The claimant is one of many reapers who were apparently working the governor’s service. It seems that the charge in question was one of idling: perhaps he was caught resting in the field. He maintains that he had finished the quota of reaping assigned to him and that his fellow-reapers are prepared to testify under oath to his innocence. In requesting the return of his garment, the reaper promises nevertheless to pay in full whatever the governor may demand. (from “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.”, J. Naveh, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1960), pp. 129-139.

Elsewhere in his article, Naveh suggests that the worker has harvested some sort of grain, and then gone on to collect an additional quantity of corn. He speculates that a foreman of some sort confiscated the reaper’s coat as the worker appeared to have stopped too early or was otherwise shirking his duties.

Based on writing style, Naveh also see’s the hand of a professional letter writer hired by our worker, who employs formal language at the top of the letter, and then transcribes the imperfect composition of the letter’s short body as it comes from the verbal description of the likely illiterate worker.  These professional writers perhaps set up shop near the gate of the fortress, along with other business men and governing officials.

The ostracon was found near the gate of the ancient fortress.

The 1960 English translation by J. Naveh:

1. Let my lord the governor hear
2. the word of his servant. Thy servant,
3. (behold) thy servant was reaping in Ha-
4. sar-asam, and thy servant reaped
5. and finished; and I gathered in about a ynm before my
6. rest. When thy [se]rvant had fin[ished] his reaping, he gath-
7. ered in about a ynm, and there came Hashabiahu the son of Shoba-
8. i, and he took thy servant’s garment. After I had finished
9. my reaping, that is a ynm, did he take thy servant’s garment.
10. And all my brethren will witness on my behalf, they who reap with me in the heat
11. [of the sun], my brethren will witness on my behalf Verily, I am free of gu-
12. [ilt. Restore] my garment. And I will pay the governor in full to rest-
13. [ore my garment] —————- (?)
14. ———– thy [se]rvant, and be not helpless to save.
15. ———–

Nevah, who goes on to become one of the preeminent paleographers in the field, dates the ostracon and its writing to the time of King Josiah in the last third of seventh century BC, based on the style of the script in comparison to other writings styles of time and place.

You will recall that it was King Josiah who rediscovered forgotten Mosaic, Hebrew law, and instituted what has become known as Deuteronomic reforms and a second wave of law compilation, study, and practice.

Bible Bits stretches our speculative waving arms and hands, and wonders whether our reaper’s willingness to confront the thief via appealing to a governor stems from his strengthened nerve based on Josiah’s widespread reforms — reforms championing God’s merciful commands to not over-exploit takings from the poor or indebted.

We have used here the original 1960 Israel Exploration Journal article by Joseph Naveh. Other scholars have done further analysis of the sherd and text and refined the translation and interpretation.  These pieces offer further nuggets of interest we shall not explore here, including bits in the text which remind scholars of other Biblical passages and Bible-related issues of life under the law and customs of Israel and Judah in Old Testament times 2600 years ago.

As we reconsider our Bible Bits featured text from Deuteronomy 24:10-13, let us note that the reaper’s letter does not mention nightfall or exploit Deuteronomy’s command to not seize garments from the poor, or keep them overnight.

We also observe that this is not the matter of a reaper’s willing loan with collateral, but the defacto theft of a coat, albeit perhaps under a system of practice allowing a master to seize a servant’s property when that servant commits some infraction against the master.

Our young archaeologist, Joseph Naveh, went on to become one of Israel’s preeminent paleographers and publish many other scholarly works from his professor’s position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He died at age 83 in 2011.

Ostracon Yavneh Yam Israel Journal article 1960 first page J
First page of Joseph Naveh’s 1960 article in Israel Exploration Journal regarding his find near Yavneh Yam.

May God bless you as you read the actual Bible for yourself!

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