Understanding an Ancient Israelite Military Title

“Governor of the city” or “commander of the fortress”?

A handful of ancient Israelite inscriptions feature an enigmatic title that has been variously translated as “governor of the city” and “commander of the fortress.” Who was this figure? In the article “Commander of the Fortress? Understanding an Ancient Israelite Military Title” by William M. Schniedewind, featured in the January/February 2019 issue of BAR, discover this figure’s importance and place in ancient Israelite and Judahite society.


This late eighth-century B.C.E. bulla discovered near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount displays the inscription le-śar ‘ir. BAR author William M. Schniedewind contends that the translation “the governor of the city” is incorrect, and that the inscription should refer to the ancient Israelite military title “commander of the fortress.” Photo: Clara Amit, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

In 2017, archaeologists announced the discovery of a late eighth-century B.C.E. seal impression (bulla) during the wet-sifting of dirt excavated from the Western Wall plaza next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The bulla features two figures holding what may be a sun disk—a Judahite royal symbol—and an inscription that reads le-śar ‘ir. The archaeologists translated the inscription as “the governor of the city,” and the rare seal was celebrated in the media. Schniedewind contends, however, that the seal should instead be translated as “commander of fortress,” and in his BAR article, he explains why the distinction is important—both to understanding the development of the Hebrew language and script and to understanding Judahite bureaucracy.

Schniedewind points to a number of other eighth-century inscriptions that include the phrase le-śar ‘ir. For example, inside the fortress of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the barren land of northeastern Sinai, three storage jars dated to c. 800 B.C.E. were discovered with the inscription le-śar ‘ir. The fortress of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud served as a military outpost and waystation. Schniedewind discusses the translation of this inscription in BAR:

The spelling of this title in Hebrew without the definite article—thus “commander of fortress” instead of “commander of the fortress”—reflects an early stage of the Hebrew language before the use of the definite article (“the”) had been standardized. Although this title is usually translated as “belonging to the governor of the city,” this translation does not at all fit at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which was no city. In this instance, the title can refer only to the person in charge of a small fortress during its heyday around 800 B.C.E. The (mis)translation reflects the development of the Hebrew word ‘ir, which later came to mean “city.” However, these inscriptions prove that the original meaning of ‘ir could be applied to a much smaller walled settlement, like a small remote fortress.

An eighth-century B.C.E. jar from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud with the inscription le-śar ‘ir. Photo: Zev Radovan/

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Going back to the inscription found near the Temple Mount, Schniedewind explains why he believes translating le-śar ‘ir as “the governor of the city” is incorrect:

The word śar is a loanword from Akkadian, and it refers to a military commander or an officer. We find the term in a number of Hebrew inscriptions, including Lachish Letter 3, line 14, which refers to “the commander of the army” (śar ha-ṣaba’). A complaint from an agricultural worker at the small fortress of Metzad Hashavyahu is also addressed to the śar. It seems likely, then, that the title in the seal impression from Jerusalem should be translated as “commander of (the) fortress.” Indeed, it makes little sense to think of it as a civilian title since the king also resided in Jerusalem. Rather, the parallels for this title indicate that this was the military commander in charge of the fortified town of Jerusalem—or perhaps, more narrowly, a fortress within Jerusalem.

Continue surveying ancient Israelite seals and inscriptions that display the puzzling title le-śar ‘ir by reading William M. Schniedewind’s full article “Commander of the Fortress? Understanding an Ancient Israelite Military Title” in the January/February 2019 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Commander of the Fortress? Understanding an Ancient Israelite Military Title” by William M. Schniedewind in the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

Join BAS and renowned Biblical scholar William Schniedewind on our ever-popular “Seminar at Sea” program this August! Over the course of one unforgettable week, Professor Schniedewind will be your guide through eight stimulating lectures—plus a Q&A session—on who the scribes were in the Bible and their role in inventing Biblical history. Click here to learn more >>

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Puzzling Finds from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud

King Hezekiah in the Bible: Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light

Isaiah’s Signature Uncovered in Jerusalem

Sifting Antiquity on the Temple Mount Sifting Project


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