This article was first published in the Winter 1998 Issue of Bible and Spade.
Omri was commander-in-chief of the army of the Northern Kingdom of Israel under Elah, who ruled for two years, 886-885 BC. Zimri, an official in charge of half the chariot force, assassinated Elah in his palace in Tirzah, the capital. At the time, Omri was with his army at Gibbethon in Philistine territory. When news of the coup reached the camp, the Israelite soldiers immediately proclaimed Omri king. They marched to Tirzah and lay siege to the city. Just seven days after the coup, Zimri saw that the end was imminent and committed suicide by setting fire to the royal palace. Omri then took possession of the capital. His rule was not uncontested, however, for half the people supported Tibni for king. Omri prevailed, no doubt due to his military support, and ruled Israel for 12 years, 885-874 BC (1 Kgs 16:15-23).
Nothing is said in Scripture about the lineage of Omri. His name is either Amorite or Arabic (Thiel 1992: 17), suggesting he was a foreign mercenary. The name of his daughter, Athaliah (2 Kgs 8:26), contains the theophoric element for Yahweh, so he may have at least paid lip service to being a follower of the God of Israel. He established the second longest dynasty of the Northern Kingdom, 45 years. Following Omri, his son Ahab ruled 22 years, 874-853 (Wood 1996a), his grandson Ahaziah two years, 853-852, and a second grandson Joram 12 years, 852-841.
Because of Ahab's sin in the matter of Naboth's vineyard, God brought the dynasty to a bloody end by means of Jehu (1 Kgs 21:20-29). Jehu then began the longest dynasty for the Northern Kingdom, spanning five generations and 90 years. Other than these two dynasties, kingship in the Northern Kingdom was marred by a succession of bloody coups and much instability. In contrast, the Davidic line of Judah to the south continued nearly unbroken until the Babylonian exile, in keeping with God's promise to David (2 Sam 7:11-16).
The only break in the Davidic line came when Athaliah, Omri's granddaughter, usurped the throne and ruled for six years, 841-835 BC. She was married to Jehoram, crown prince of Judah, in a political marriage (2 Kgs 8:18, 25-26 ; 2 Chr 18:1). After Jehoram's rule, 848-841, Athaliah's son Ahaziah became king. His reign lasted but a year, however, since he fell victim to Jehu's coup in the north (2 Kgs 8:25-9:29). Athaliah then seized power and ruled until deposed six years later. The Davidic line was reestablished when Joash, the lone-survivor of Athaliah's purge, was placed on the throne (2 Kgs 11). Athaliah has the distinction of being the only queen to rule Israel or Judah.
Little is said of Omri's reign in the Bible. A total of 12 verses is devoted to him (1 Kgs 16:16-18, 21-28; 20:34), five of which relate how he came to power. The remaining seven tell of the length of his reign (16:23), how he established a new capital at Samaria (16:24), did evil in the eyes of the Lord (16:25-26), and that the king of Aram captured cities from him and set up markets in Samaria (20:34). Archaeology, however, has rounded out the picture, portraying Omri as one of the most powerful rulers of Israel.
Findings at Tirzah
Omri's first capital, Tirzah, has been identified as Tell el-Far'ah (North). This site was excavated by the École Biblique et Archéologique Française for nine seasons between 1946 and 1960 under the direction of Roland de Vaux. Stratum VIIb, was the city besieged by Omri. It had been destroyed by fire, with the thickness of the destruction layer reaching 1 m in some places (Chambon 1984: 38). After a period of abandonment, reconstruction began, apparently on the order of Omri. The main building consisted of a central courtyard surrounded by three large rooms. The walls were faced with stone on both sides and were reinforced on the front and at the corners by pilasters. A pilaster is a rectangular support projecting partially from the wall, with a base, shaft and capital. The structure was well built, using fine-dressed masonry, some of which was finished with a boss, or smoothed area, on the edges. The stones' oblique dressing resembles that of the masonry in the palace at Samaria, also constructed by Omri. Strangely enough, the building was never finished. Construction was abruptly halted as evidenced by abandoned building materials, partly dressed stones, and the absence of ruins (Chambon 1984: 39; 1993: 439). It appears that construction was discontinued halfway through Omri's reign when work began on the new capital, Samaria.
Findings at Samaria
The hill of Samaria was purchased by Omri and a new capital built there. There have been two major expeditions at Samaria. The first, from 1908 to 1910, was sponsored by Harvard University and directed by Clarence Fisher and George Reisner. The second was conducted from 1931 to 1935 by the British Academy, British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, Harvard University, Hebrew University and Palestine Exploration Fund, under the direction of John Crowfoot. A royal citadel was found on the summit of the hill. It was enclosed by two fortification walls, an inner, earlier, wall built by Omri, and an outer, later, wall built by Ahab. Omri's wall was 1.6 m wide and 89 x 178 m in size, covering an area of 4 acres. It was constructed of fine ashlar masonry laid in header-stretcher fashion and represents one of the finest examples of this type of construction in Palestine. The stones were fitted with the greatest of care. On the southwest side of the enclosure was a palace, built at the same time as the inner fortification wall and thus attributable to Omri. Constructed around a central courtyard, the preserved portion measured 24 x 27 m.
Samaria remained the capital of the Northern Kingdom until the Assyrian captivity in 721 BC.
Findings at Jezreel
The Bible states that during Ahab's reign, there was another royal palace at Jezreel, some 21 mi north of Samaria, overlooking the beautiful Jezreel Valley (1 Kgs 21:1; Wood 1992). Excavations sponsored by Tel Aviv University and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem have been going on there since 1990, led by David Ussishkin and John Woodhouse. A royal citadel has been uncovered which is much larger than that at Samaria. The original builder of this impressive fortress was likely Omri. In style and scale, the fortifications are unparalleled in the Iron Age in Palestine. It is rectangular and surrounded by a casemate (double) wall with projecting towers at the corners, enclosing an area of 11 acres. Around three sides was a rock-cut moat measuring ca. 150 m long on the east side, 320 m on the south side and a minimum of 200 m on the west side. The moat was 8-12 m wide and nearly 6 m in depth in some places. Unfortunately, little has been found inside the enclosure due to destruction by later occupation. The site was abandoned at the end of the Omride dynasty.
What was the purpose of such a grand fortress and why wasn't it utilized by Jehu and his successors? The answer, Hugh Williamson believes, lies in politics and propaganda. Williamson argues that the fortress not only served a military function, but also a political one.
The amount of labour involved, particularly to quarry the moat and to pile up the ramparts, reminds us of the use of such grandiose public works as a means of social control and as a way of pressing claims of legitimacy.... The high visibility of the defensive strength of the fortifications seems indeed intended as much to overawe, if not to intimidate, the local population as it does to deter external aggression.... The location of Jezreel, right beside one of the main west-east routes through the kingdom and on the edge of the Jezreel Valley at the point where it gives way to the northern extreme of the central hill country, appears to owe more to considerations of who within the kingdom would pass by and see it than to defensive military considerations. (1996:49).
Then, when the Omride dynasty was overthrown, Jezreel was not utilized by Jehu because of its association with the previous administration.
As a symbol of the Omri dynasty par excellence, there could be no more effective way for Jehu and his dynasty to register their triumph than to abandon it. It is likely that it would have been at least partly demolished, but if this was by 'peaceful' means, then we should not be surprised that little trace of this remains in the archaeological record." (Williamson 1996:50).
References in records outside the Bible reinforce the conclusion reached from the architectural remains, that Omri was indeed a powerful ruler.
846 BC, Mesha Inscription
Lines 7 and 8 of the Mesha Inscription read:
Omri had occupied the land of Medeba (northern Moab), and had dwelt there in his time (Albright 1969: 320; for a discussion of the Mesha Inscription, see Wood 1996b).
Other than how he came to power, and the fact that he established a new capital at Samaria, the Bible says nothing about Omri's accomplishments. For this, the reader is referred to the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel (1 Kgs 16:27), which, of course, we do not have. The Mesha Inscription, on the other hand, informs us that Omri expanded his holdings to include northern Moab east of the Jordan River, the tribal territories of Reuben and Gad. Mesha, king of Moab, won the land back in the days of Omri's grandson Joram (Wood 1996b: 57-58).
841 BC, Records of Shalmaneser III
The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III campaigned in Syria and along the Mediterranean coast in 841 BC. He required the defeated kings of the region to pay him tribute, including Jehu, king of Israel. Despite the fact that Jehu had put an end to the Omride dynasty, the accomplishments of Omri made such an impression on the Assyrians that Jehu was referred to as the "son of Omri" in their records. An annalistic record states:
In the 18th year of my rule I crossed the Euphrates for the 16th time.... At that time I received the tribute of... Jehu, son of Omri (Oppenheim 1969:280).
Another record of the same event, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, records, "The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri..." (Oppenheim 1969:281).
732 BC, Annalistic Record of Tiglath-Pileser III
In 732 BC, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III campaigned in Israel, taking many captives. In their record of that event, the Assyrian scribes referred to Israel as "Omri-Land," over 100 years after the end of the Omride dynasty: "Omri-Land... and its inhabitants and their possessions I led to Assyria" (Oppenheim 1969:284).
721 BC, Annalistic Record of Sargon II
Finally, because of their failure to follow God's ways, Samaria was captured and its citizens taken into captivity by the Assyrian king Sargon II. As with Tiglath-Pileser before him, his record of the event refers to the land of Israel as "Omri-Land":
I conquered and sacked the towns of Shinuhtu and Samaria, and all Omri-Land (Oppenheim 1969:285).
Although Omri was a great military leader, administrator, and builder, and accumulated vast wealth, the Bible gives him low marks. Why? Because he failed in his spiritual responsibilities. He "walked in all the ways of Jeroboam" (1 Kgs 16:26). In other words, he continued to foster the pagan worship Jeroboam, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, instituted at Dan and Bethel (1 Kgs 12:28-33). Omri, in fact, outdid Jeroboam, because he "sinned more than all those before him" (1 Kgs 6:25).
In the final analysis, our lives are not judged by our wealth, or earthly accomplishments. We are judged, rather, by our walk with the Lord and our adherence to His ways. Jesus said, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Mt 16:26).
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Albright, W.F. 1969 Palestinian Inscriptions. Pp. 320-22 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chambon, A. 1984 Tell el-Far'ah I: L'Âge du Fer. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations.
1993 Far'ah, Tell el- (North): Late Bronze Age to the Roman Period. Pp. 439-40 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2, ed. E. Stern. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society and Carta.
Oppenheim, A.L. 1969 Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts. Pp. 265-317 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Thiel, W. 1992 Omri. Pp. 17-20 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
Williamson, H.G.M. 1996 Tel Jezreel and the Dynasty of Omri. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 128: 41-51.
Wood, B.G. 1990-1991 Excavations at Jezreel, "City of Blood." Archaeology and Biblical Research 5: 123-24.
1996a Bible Personages in Archaeology: Ahab the Israelite. Bible and Spade 9: 111-13.
1996b Bible Personages in Archaeology: Mesha, King of Moab. Bible and Spade 9: 55-64.