Israelite Kings in Assyrian Inscriptions

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This article was re-published in an updated, full-color format in the Spring 2011 issue of Bible and Spade.

Excerpt In previous issues of Bible and Spade, we had discussed five Assyrian kings named in the Bible. Now we wish to examine the other side of that coin—the kings of Israel named in the Assyrian records. All told, there are nine kings of Israel and Judah mentioned in Assyrian inscriptions. References to five of these kings (Menaham, Pekah, Hosea, Ahaz and Hezekiah) are paralleled by biblical passages. The remaining four have to do with events not mentioned in the Bible, and thereby add to our knowledge of these particular Israelite kings... Continue reading

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Ahab the Israelite

 

Ahab is one of the best known of the rulers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Some seven chapters of the Old Testament are devoted to his activities (1 Kgs 16:29–22:40 and 2 Chr 18). Ahab was the son of Omri and seventh king of Israel after the monarchy split. He ruled for 22 years, ca 874–853 BC, and married the infamous Phoenician princess Jezebel who introduced the worship of the heathen gods Melkart, Baal and Ashtoreth into Israelite religious life. Ahab did not try to stop this alien cult and, in fact, seems to have condoned it:

 

He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah (1 Kgs 16:32– 33, RSV).

 

Because of his association with these pagan deities, Ahab is castigated in the biblical record as one who had done “more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (1 Kgs 16:33). Elijah condemned Ahab as one who had troubled Israel, having forsaken the commandments of the Lord to follow Baal (1 Kgs 18:18). It was during Ahab’s reign that the famous confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal took place on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:19–40).

 

Ahab was evidently a great builder. We have already seen that he built a temple to Baal in his capital of Samaria (1 Kgs 16:32). The concluding statement on Ahab in 1 Kings 22 reads:

 

Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house which he made, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? (verse 39).

 

The mention of a house of ivory is interesting in view of an archaeological discovery at Samaria. In the 1930’s the remains of buildings constructed by Ahab and his father Omri were excavated at their capital city. Among the finds were fragments of carved ivories which had once adorned the walls and furniture of the palace at Samaria.

Monolith Inscription of Shalmaneser III. Found in 1861 at Kurkh on the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, the inscription records the principal events of the king’s first six military campaigns against the Arameans in Syria. The campaign of year six, 853 BC, mentions Ahab, king of Israel, as being part of an anti-Assyrian coalition that confronted the Assyrians at Qarqar on the Orontes River in western Syria. According to the numbers of foot soldiers and chariots listed in the inscription, Ahab was one of the major partners in the coalition. Although Shalmaneser boasted of a great victory, that is questionable since he returned immediately to Assyria following the battle and was obliged to later return to the area to face the same coalition in his 10th, 11th and 14th years. The writing is inscribed on both sides of the stele. On the front, it covers most of the area, including over the body of Shalmaneser, from his shoulders to below his feet. Mike Luddeni

 

Much of Ahab’s attention, however, was taken up with a war against Syria to the north (1 Kgs 20). When Israel had gained the upper hand, a peace treaty between the two nations was struck which lasted three years (1 Kgs 20:31–34, 22:1). This period of peace was born out of necessity, for both Syria and Israel now faced a common enemy—Assyria.

 

Shalmaneser III (859–825 BC) was on the throne of Assyria and he was steadily pushing westward. In order to counteract this powerful foe, the kingdoms of the west joined to form a unified coalition. In the year 853 BC this coalition, including Ahab of Israel, came face to face with Shalmaneser III and his forces at Qarqar, in north Syria. This confrontation undoubtedly took place during the three years of peace between Israel and Syria mentioned in 1 Kings 22:1. Shalmaneser tells of the battle, from his own point of view of course, in his Monolith Inscription:

 

I departed from Argana and approached Qarqar.  I destroyed, tore down, and burned down Qarqar, his royal residence. He brought twelve kings to his support; they came against me to offer battle and fight: 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, and 20,000 soldiers belonging to Hadad-ezer of Damascus; 700 chariots, 700 cavalry, and 10,000 soldiers belonging to Irhuleni of Hama; 2,000 chariots, and 10,000 soldiers belonging to Ahab, the Israelite...10,000 soldiers from Irqanata; 200 soldiers of Matinu-ba’lu from Arvad; 200 soldiers from Usanata; 30 chariots, 1(0?),000 soldiers of Aduna-ba’lu from Shian; 1,000 camel-(rider)s of Gindibu from Arabia {....},000 soldiers of Ba’sa, son of Ruhubi, from Ammon— (all together) these were 12 kings. They rose against me {for a} decisive battle. I fought with them with (the support of) the mighty forces of Ashur, which Ashur, my Lord, has given to me, (and) I did inflict a defeat upon them between the towns of Qarqar and Gilzau (ANET 278–79).

 

A significant fact that emerges from this inscription is that Ahab had one of the largest forces in the coalition. The four largest contingents may be compared as follows:

 

Ahab was second only to Ben-Hadad in the number of foot soldiers, but had the largest number of chariots. From the time of Solomon on, the Israelites maintained a chariot corps. In 2 Chronicles 4:25 we read that “Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen,” and in 1 Kings 10:26, “And Solomon gathered chariots and horsemen: and he had 1,400 chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he bestowed in the cities for chariots, and with the king at Jerusalem.” Unique long pillared buildings from the period of the divided kingdom, found in sites throughout Israel, are thought by some to be stables. A large complex of these buildings was found at Megiddo in the 1930’s. The excavators immediately identified them as Solomon’s stables. Later analysis, however, has shown that they date to the time of Ahab. It has been estimated that about 500 horses could have been quartered in the Megiddo buildings.

 

After the Assyrian threat had passed, Ahab continued his war with Ben-Hadad (1 Kgs 22). This time, however, Ahab was mortally wounded in a battle at Ramoth-Gilead in Transjordan. His body was brought back to Samaria, where he was buried and “slept with his fathers.”

 

Jehu Son of Omri

 

Following the death of Ahab, his son Ahaziah took the throne. He ruled for two years and died from injuries received in a fall in the palace at Samaria (2 Kgs 1). Since Ahaziah had no son, another of Ahab’s sons, Jehoram (or Joram), ruled Israel for the next 12 years. Both of Ahab’s sons “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kgs 22:52, 53 and 2 Kgs 3:2, 3). Because of the sin of the house of Ahab, God put an end to the dynasty by means of Jehu, a chariot-riding general from Jehoram’s army. In a bloody coup, Jehu massacred all of Ahab’s family, including his wife Jezebel (2 Kgs 9–10), and went on to rule Israel for the next 28 years, ca 841–814 BC.

 

Jehu eliminated Baal worship (2 Kgs 10:18–27), but otherwise his reign marked a decline in the fortunes of Israel. This is most apparent from an Assyrian monument. In the year 841 BC, after Jehu had scarcely taken the throne, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, the same king who fought against Ahab at Qarqar in 853 BC, mounted another western offensive. This time he defeated Damascus and then turned his attention southward to Israel as recorded on the “Black Obelisk” or “Obelisk of Shalmaneser.” This memorial stele was discovered by the pioneer English archaeologist A.H. Layard at Nimrud (biblical Calah) in Iraq in 1846. It records the tribute Shalmaneser received from five different kings.

 

I marched as far as the mountains of Hauran [i.e. northern Transjordan], destroying, tearing down and burning innumerable towns, carrying booty away from them which was beyond counting. I (also) marched as far as the mountains of Ba’li-ra’si which is a promontory [lit.: at the side of the sea] and erected there a stela with my image as king. At that time I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri (ANET 281).

 

It is quite possible that it was this campaign that Hosea referred to in his warning to Israel 100 years later:

 

Therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O house of Israel, because of your great wickedness (Hosea 10:14–15, RSV).

 

Shalman is a shortened form of Shalmaneser and Beth-arbel is a large mound near the modern city of Irbid in northern Jordan. The Ba’li-ra’si where Shalmaneser received his tribute from Jehu is thought to be Mount Carmel, or possibly Rasen-Naqura at the mouth of the Dog River in central Lebanon. We are fortunate in that we have a pictorial representation of this event on the Black Obelisk. The second set of panels (from the top) depicts Jehu (or his representative) bowing before Shalmaneser, followed by 13 Israelite porters bearing tribute. The inscription above the prostrate figure reads:

 

The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden saplu-bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king, (and) wooden puruhtu (ANET 281).

 

Jehu king of Israel bowing down before the Assyrian king Shalmaneser lll on the obelisk of Shalmaneser. Mike Luddeni

 

The Black Obelisk represents the only possible likeness of a king of Israel or Judah. All 14 of the Israelites are bearded, have long hair and wear a pointed cap. They also wear a belted tunic that has a fringe at the bottom. In addition, the Israelite porters wear a mantle or cloak over the tunic that extends over the shoulders and is fringed or tasseled down the front on both sides. The kneeling figure, however, does not wear the outer cloak. His position before Shalmaneser may explain its absence. He is bowing in obeisance on his hands and knees before the Assyrian king with his chin and beard towards the ground. As a part of this humiliation, it seems that he had to remove his outer garment, thus forcing him to bow before the emperor of the world in what amounts to his underwear! All of the Israelite porters wear pointed shoes.

 

 The inscription refers to Jehu as the “son of Omri.” Of course, Jehu was not an actual descendant of Omri, but rather was the one who exterminated Omri’s line in order to become king himself. The word “son” usually means a descendant, but in this case it simply refers to an unrelated successor in office. After Jehu, his son Jehoahaz ruled for 17 years (2 Kgs 13:1–9) and then Jehoash, or Joash, son of Jehoahaz, ruled for 16 years, ca 798–782 BC.

 

Jehoash the Samarian

 

The Bible speaks of Jehoash’s military successes against Syria (2 Kgs 13:24) and against Judah (2 Kgs 14:8–14), but nothing is said about a contact with Assyria. That there was such a contact is now known because of a stele found at Tell al-Rimah in Iraq in 1967. The Assyrian king Adad-Nirari III (ca 811–782 BC) led a number of campaigns to the west during the course of his reign. On one of those campaigns he defeated Damascus and then collected tribute from Israel, Tyre and Sidon. On the way home, he erected a monument at Tell al-Rimah commemorating the event. The section of the stele which refers to Jehoash reads:

 

“I received the tribute of Jehoash the Samarian, of the Tyrian [ruler] and of the Sidonian [ruler].”

Stela of Adad-Nirari III found at Tell al-Rimah, Iraq, in 1967. It mentions tribute from Jehoash the Samarian in ca. 800 BC. ABR File Photo.

 

Manasseh King of Judah

 

We now leave the kings of the Northern Kingdom to consider two references in the Assyrian records to Manasseh king of Judah. Manasseh came to the throne when he was only 12 years old and ruled for 55 years, ten of which were probably a coregency with his father Hezekiah. This represents the longest reign of any of the kings of Judah or Israel. The dates for his rule are ca. 697–643 BC. Manasseh has the dubious reputation of being the wickedest king of either Judah or Israel (2 Kgs 21:9–11). He undid the work of his father’s religious reform by reestablishing idolatry in Judah. He even instituted pagan worship in the Temple (2 Kgs 21:4–5). The Bible concentrates on Manasseh’s religious practices at home, but we know from the Assyrian records that he also was active in the international political sphere. Because of his unusually long reign, he was on the throne during the entire reign of Esarhaddon and about half the reign of Ashurbanipal, two of the strongest kings of Assyria. Manasseh is mentioned by each of these two kings. Manasseh was among 22 kings who were obliged to provide building materials for Esarhaddon’s royal palace at Nineveh:

 

I called up the kings of the country Hatti and (of the region) of the other side of the river (Euphrates)...Manasseh, king of Judah...[along with 21 other kings], together 22 kings of Hatti, the seashore and the islands; all these I sent out and made them transport under terrible difficulties, to Nineveh, the town (where I exercise) my rulership, as building material for my palace; big logs, long beams (and) thin boards from cedar and pine trees… (ANET 291).

 

Ashurbanipal was intent on subjugating Egypt. In order to accomplish his goal, he conscripted troops from his western provinces, including Judah:

 

(Then) I called up my mighty armed forces which Ashur and Ishtar have entrusted to me and took the shortest road to Egypt and Nubia. During my march (to Egypt) 22 kings from the seashore, the islands, and the mainland [including] Manesseh, king of Judah…servants who belong to me, brought heavy gifts to me and kissed my feet. I made these kings accompany my army over the land—as well as (over) the sea-route with their armed forces and their ships (ANET 294).

Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king who conscripted troops from Manasseh, king of Judah, on a lion hunt. Mike Luddeni

 

The Bible writers were concerned with religious matters more than political matters, and as a result much of the political history of Israel and Judah went unrecorded. The mention of nine of the kings of Israel and Judah in the Assyrian tablets is important not only because it verifies the historical reliability of our biblical documents for this period (which would surely be under greater attack by the critics were it not for the Assyrian records), but also because it places Israel and Judah on the larger stage of international politics.

 

Sources:

 

ANET—Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

 

S. Page, “A Stela of Adad-Nirari III and Nergal-Eres from Tell al Rimah,” Iraq 30(1968): pp. 139–53.

 

See also:

 

Omri: King of Israel

 

Ahab the Israelite 

 

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