This article was first published in the Fall 1996 issue of Bible and Spade.
The Sins of Ahab
Ahab, who ruled the northern kingdom for 22 years, ca. 874–853 BC, was perhaps the wickedest king of Israel. The Biblical record is anything but complimentary:
Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.... Ahab ... did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him (1 Kgs 16:30, 33).
The Old Testament devotes approximately four chapters to Ahab’s exploits (1 Kgs 18, 20–22), more than any other king of the northern kingdom of Israel. These chapters, however, are nothing more than a litany of his sins. Ahab married Jezebel, daughter of Ithbaal, king of Sidon, and began to worship Baal (1 Kgs 16:31–32). He was so taken up with this pagan deity that he built a temple in his honor in Samaria, which included an altar and Asherah pole (1 Kgs 16:32–33). Ahab’s sins were so great that God brought a drought upon the land for three years (1 Kgs 17:1; 18:1, 16–18).
It was during the reign of Ahab that Elijah had the encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18:16–40). Jezebel then sought his life, causing Elijah to flee to Mt. Horeb where the Lord appeared to him (1 Kgs 19:1–18). Israel was in conflict with the nation of Aram to the north in Ahab’s day. Ahab successfully defeated Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, twice in battle, but sinned by not taking his life (1 Kgs 20).
In addition to his capital in Samaria, Ahab maintained a palace at Jezreel, some 21 mi to the north. Adjacent to his palace in Jezreel was a fine vineyard owned by Naboth, which Ahab desired. Through Jezebel’s sche-ming, Naboth was killed and Ahab acquired the vineyard (1 Kgs 21:1–16). Ahab’s entire family was condemned to death by Elijah for this act (1 Kgs 21:17–29). Ahab met his end in a battle against the Arameans at Ramoth Gilead (1 Kgs 22:1–36). His body was taken to Samaria where it was buried, and his bloody chariot was washed in a pool there (1 Kgs 22:37–38). The rest of his family was killed when Jehu overthrew Joram, Ahab’s son, some 12 years later (2 Kgs 9–10).
Ahab and Shalmaneser
Ahab is one of a number of Israelite kings mentioned in Assyrian records. In his case, the record has to do with an event not mentioned in the Bible. A stela of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III was found in 1861 at Kurkh on the Tigris river in southeastern Turkey. It bears a relief carving of Shalmaneser and an inscription recording the principal events of his first six military campaigns. In the account of his sixth year, 853 BC, he describes a campaign to the west where he encountered a coalition of 12 states, including Israel. Shalmaneser engaged the coalition in battle at Qarqar on the river Orontes, in modern Syria, where he claims to have defeated them. Ahab is named in the stela as “Ahab the Israelite.” He had one of the strongest forces in the coalition (2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantry) attesting to the wealth and power of the Israelite kingdom at this time.
Ahab the Builder
According to the Bible, Ahab’s rule was prosperous and he was a great builder. The findings of archaeology bear this out. We are told that he built a palace at Samaria and decorated it with ivory (1 Kgs 22:39). Excavations at Samaria have laid bare Ahab’s palace. An earlier palace was built on the acropolis by Ahab’s father Omri (1 Kgs 16:24). It was surrounded by a wall 5 ft thick. The royal quarter was later expanded by building a casemate (hollow) wall 32 ft wide outside the earlier wall. This is believed to be the work of Ahab. Within the compound was a building dubbed “the ivory house” where many fragments of carved ivory plaques were found (see cover). This represents the most important collection of miniature art from the kingdom period found in Israel. The ivories appear to be remains of inlay originally placed on furniture in the palace of Ahab and later Israelite kings. Another interesting feature found in the royal compound was a pool in the northwest corner which could possibly be the pool referred to in Scripture where Ahab’s chariot was washed.
Ahab is credited with fortifying a number of cities in his kingdom (1 Kgs 22:39). At Megiddo, Stratum IVA has been attributed to this king. There were a number of prominent structures associated with Stratum IVA, including an offset-inset fortification wall 12 ft wide, large pillared buildings, a palace, and a water system which included a 260 ft long tunnel. At Hazor, Stratum VIII is dated to the time of Ahab. As at Megiddo, the city was totally rebuilt at this time. A solid fortification wall 10 ft wide was constructed, along with a citadel, a large pillared building, and an underground water system. At Tel Dan, a well-preserved city gate was constructed in the days of Ahab in Stratum III. The high place, originally constructed by Jeroboam I (1 Kgs 12:28–30) and destroyed by Ben-Hadad king of Aram (1 Kgs 15:20), was reconstructed at this time.
All in all, archaeology has provided a great deal of evidence illuminating the reign of Ahab. It encompasses written, artifactual and architectural evidence, and fully substantiates the Biblical portrayal of this wicked, yet powerful, king.
Recommended Resources for Further Study