The Early Kings of Israel - A Kingdom Divided

This series in The Good News will continue covering archaeological discoveries relating to theater kings of the house of Israel. It is astonishing how much evidence supporting the biblical record has been uncovered by the spade of diligent archaeologists.

Recent issues of The Good News have covered some of the archaeological evidence that confirms and clarifies the biblical record from Genesis through Solomon's kingdom. We continue the story with the breakup of Israel, looking first at the archaeological evidence for the northern 10 tribes of Israel and their rulers. Later we will direct our attention to the nation of Judah, which outlived the kingdom of Israel by more than a century.

After Solomon's tragic apostasy as a ruler, God removed the blessings of national unity from the tribes of Israel. He had told Jeroboam, the future king of the northern 10 tribes of Israel: "Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and will give ten tribes to you (but he shall have one tribe for the sake of My servant David, and for the sake of Jerusalem ...), because they have forsaken Me, and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians ... and have not walked in My ways to do what is right in My eyes and keep My statutes and My judgments, as did his father David' " (1 Kings 11:31-33).

Around 930 B.C. the united kingdom was divided, with Jeroboam governing the northern 10 tribes and Rehoboam, Solomon's son, governing the two southern ones, Judah and Benjamin. (As priests, a good portion of the tribe of Levi eventually either resettled in or remained with the southern kingdom.) As both of their wicked reigns came to an end—and according to God's prophecies of punishment for disobedience—ominous clouds began to appear over Israel's northern horizon. Assyria began to awaken as a powerful enemy in that region.

Eugene Merrill suggests: "Perceptive observers of the world scene could already discern by 900 [B.C.] the stirrings of the Assyrian giant. Though it would be almost fifty years before they fell beneath its heel, the little kingdoms of the west could hear it coming" ( Kingdom of Priests, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 336).

An Abundance of Assyrian Evidence

Once Israel came under Assyria's expanding imperial reach, archaeological evidence attesting to Israel's historical evidence increases. Not only were the Assyrians meticulous recorders of their political, economic and religious life; they also developed an exquisite stone-carving technique, called bas-relief, which records their lives and accomplishments on numerous palace walls.

In the 19th century British archaeologists excavated many of Assyria's principal cities. Nineveh, one of several Assyrian capitals during the history of the empire, has been extensively explored. Archaeologists have even found in one of those capitals a vast library of cuneiform tablets that belonged to one of Assyria's final kings, Ashurbanipal (ca. 669-627 B.C.).

With this wealth of information about Assyrian history, it would be natural to expect some mention of the long relationship between Israel and Assyria, as well as the final Assyrian victory over the northern tribes. This is precisely what has been found.

Omri, King of the House of Israel

After Jeroboam's short-lived dynasty came to an end around 905 B.C., the next dynasty of importance was founded by Omri (881-870 B.C.). He is mentioned in Assyrian monuments for his military exploits and his establishment of Samaria, a vast fortress city that became the capital for the northern tribes. Because of his impressive military and political achievements and Omri's line of powerful successors, the Assyrians would refer to Israel as "the land of Omri" even long after the Omride dynasty had ceased to exist.

"The reputation of Omri won by his achievements," says The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, "is evidenced by the fact that for over a century after his death, Samaria was called in the Assyrian records 'House of Omri' and the land of Israel the 'land of Omri' " (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1962, p. 601).

Not only is King Omri mentioned in Assyrian records, but he is named on a monument made by one of Israel's eastern neighbors, the Moabites.

The Moabite Stone

More than a century ago an Arab chieftain showed an Anglican missionary a beautiful black monument that had been discovered at Dibon, east of the Jordan River, the region of ancient Moab. This discovery triggered fierce competition among the Western nations, which sought to acquire this Moabite Stone (also called the Mesha Stela), dated to the ninth century B.C. What has survived of the monument is found today in a Paris museum, the Louvre. The monument itself is a record of how King Mesha of Moab rebelled against and finally rolled back Israelite domination of Moab established by King Omri and perpetuated by his son Ahab.

At the beginning of the reign of Omri's grandson, Jehoram, the Moabites sensed opportunity and rebelled. They were successful in gaining independence.

The first few lines of the text records the king's boast: "I am Mesha, son of Kemosh[it], king of Mesha, the Dibonite. My father ruled over Moab for 30 years, and I ruled after my father ... Omri (was) king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab many days ... And his son succeeded him, and he too said: 'I will oppress Moab.'... And Omri had taken possession of the land ... and he dwelt in it in his days and the sum of the days of his sons: 40 years; but [the god] Kamosh restored it in my days" (translated by Andre Lemaire, Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June 1994, p. 33).

Here we find confirmation by Israel's enemies of what is recorded in the biblical narrative. The Bible documents the Moabite rebellion and subsequent independence, but adds what king Mesha failed to explain: that he won their independence only after he had sacrificed his son to their pagan god.

The Bible even relates the pivotal story of that battle in the rebellion. "Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheepbreeder, and he regularly paid the king of Israel [referring first to Omri, then to Ahab and now to his grandson Jehoram] one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams. But it happened that when Ahab died, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel ...

"And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too fierce for him, he took with him seven hundred men who drew swords, to break through to the king of Edom [his ally], but they could not. Then he took his eldest son who would have reigned in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering upon the wall; and there was great indignation against Israel. So they departed from him and returned to their own land" (2 Kings 3:26-27, emphasis added throughout).

King Mesha did triumph, but (perhaps understandably) in the Moabite stone he refrains from any mention of the costly price he paid for independence.

Some critics have doubted the biblical account of King Mesha's human sacrifice, since it seemed far-fetched that a king would offer up his own son and successor to the throne. Yet in 1978 a cuneiform tablet from the Syrian city of Ugarit mentions just this type of sacrifice in times of war. The text said: "O Baal, drive away the force from our gates, the aggressor from our walls ... A firstborn, Baal, we shall sacrifice, a child we shall fulfill. "

Baruch Margalit, associate professor of Bible at Haifa University in Israel, explains what was meant in the biblical text by Israel having been "indignant" with Mesha's sacrifice of his son. "The word denotes the psychological breakdown or trauma that affected the Israelite forces when they beheld the sign of human sacrifice atop the walls of Kir-Hareseth. The author of the Ugaritic text apparently anticipated this reaction of mass hysteria when he confidently predicted the withdrawal of the attacking force ... It follows that Mesha's sacrifice of his son, rather than unprecedented, was in fact an integral, if seldom implemented, part of an age-old Canaanite tradition of sacral warfare" ( Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1986, p. 63).

Ahab's Clash with the Assyrians

Not only did the Assyrians have great respect for King Omri. They also had high regard his son Ahab, who was a skilled and powerful military leader. The Bible, however, is not so much concerned with Ahab's military exploits as with his establishment of Baal worship in Israel after he married the Phoenician king's daughter Jezebel.

States The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: "Ahab followed a wise policy in defense, entering into alliance with Phoenicia, Judah, and even his erstwhile enemies the Arameans. On the other hand, he fell under the influence of his fanatical pagan queen Jezebel, who led him to worship Baal as Yahweh's peer, and consequently to introduce such horrors as tyranny (1 K[ings] 21), religious persecution (18:4), and human sacrifice (16:34)" (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids), 1979, Vol. 1, p. 75, "Ahab").

Although the Bible is quite critical of Ahab's morality, it does acknowledge his military prowess and that he defeated the Arameans and Syrians several times (1 Kings 20:1-30). The Assyrians also record a major battle with Ahab and a coalition of other neighboring states. Although they dealt Ahab's confederation heavy losses, the battle did temporarily halt the Assyrian advance to the west.

"Ahab is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.), which tells the story of the great battle Shalmaneser fought at Qarqar against an Aramean-Israelite coalition ... Ahab alone is said to have contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers. Ten lesser kings who took part made important contributions in infantry and cavalry" (ibid., p. 76).
King Ahab's House of Ivory

Archaeologists haven't found only Assyrian evidence for the existence of King Ahab. While excavating Samaria they have found indications of another biblical description connected to Ahab's reign—his house of ivory. The Bible says of Ahab, "Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, the ivory house which he built and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?" (2 Kings 22:39).

Herschel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, writes: "An important ivory find from the Iron Age comes from Ahab's capital in Samaria where over 500 ivory fragments were found ... The Bible speaks of Ahab's 'house of ivory' (1 Kings 22:39). Does this refer to the paneling of the walls or to the furnishings? To put the matter differently, did the ivory fragments found at Samaria decorate the walls of the building or the furniture? There is some evidence from Nimrud that a room in an Assyrian palace was, in fact, paneled with ivory veneer. Was this the case at Samaria? On the basis of the evidence at hand, it is difficult to tell.

"Whether paneling for the wall or decoration for furniture, the houses of ivory—based on a highly sophisticated Phoenician ivory industry—were for the Hebrew prophets symbols of social oppression and injustice; the 'ivory houses' [mentioned in Amos 3.15] were also evidence of participation in the barbarous pagan practices and heathen worship of Phoenicia. Based on the archaeological evidence, the prophets knew what they were talking about" ( Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1985, p. 46).

Jehu Kneels Before an Assyrian King

Because of the wicked rule of the "house of Omri," God sentenced Ahab, Jezebel and their descendants to death. He would use a general of the Israelite army, Jehu, to accomplish most of these sentences. God told the prophet Elijah: "Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha ... you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill" (1 Kings 19:15-17). God would not allow the enormously wicked acts of the House of Omri to go unpunished.

Jehu eventually killed not only Jezebel, but all of Ahab's children, in effect exterminating the dynasty] of Omri. Although Jehu became God's rod of retribution, he failed to purge Israel of all vestiges of false religion.

"Thus Jehu destroyed Baal from Israel. However Jehu did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin, that is, from the golden calves that were at Bethel and Dan. And the Lord said to Jehu, 'Because you have done well in doing what is right in My sight, and have done to the house of Ahab all that was in My heart, your sons shall sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.' But Jehu took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart; for he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, who had made Israel sin. In those days the Lord began to cut off parts of Israel; and Hazael conquered them in all the territory of Israel ..." (2 Kings 10:28-32).

It was during the spiritual decline of Jehu that Assyria again began directly to threaten Israel. Soon Israel was paying Assyria tribute—protection money—to spare itself warfare and invasion. The Assyrians carved an impressive monument, called the Black Obelisk, to the achievements of King Shalmaneser III. The monument includes detailed panels portraying King Jehu (or his emissary) bringing tribute to the Assyrian king. This elaborate illustration is the earliest known depiction of an Israelite (king or commoner).

This famous monument of the ninth century B.C., now prominently displayed in the British Museum in London, was discovered in 1846 in the Assyrian city of Nimrud. It includes scenes depicting the tribute given to the king and the bearers of that tribute. In the second scene from the top the inscription reads, "Tribute of Iaua [Jehu], son of Omri. Silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden beaker, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, tin, staves for the hand of the king, [and] javelins, I [Shalmaneser] received from him" ( Biblical Archaeology Review, January-February 1995, p. 26).

The scene is startling. There before the Assyrian king is either Jehu himself or one of his chief representatives kneeling in submission. The monument, including not only his name but his picture, is remarkable evidence of this biblical king.

This series in The Good News will continue covering archaeological discoveries relating to the later kings of the house of Israel. It is astonishing how much evidence supporting the biblical record has been uncovered by the spade of diligent archaeologists.

The Later Kings of Israel—A Kingdom's Downfall >< King Solomon's Reign - Israel's Golden Years
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