Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Kingdom of Israel and the Omride Dynasty

Posted by foryourfaith on August 23, 2010


Following the death of King Solomon, the United Monarchy dissolved and split into the Divided Kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Omride dynasty was the most infamous family to rule Israel, especially in the view of the biblical writers, but then the expansionist ambitions of the Neo-Assyrians from Mesopotamia in the eighth century BCE spelled an end to the Kingdom of Israel and gave rise to the tradition of the Ten Lost Tribes.

The Kingdom Splits

When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam came to the throne. In his rule, the first question he faced was whether he could hold the kingdom together – a question that was quickly answered when the North broke away.

The Israelites in the North declared emphatically that Solomon had made their lot too hard. They asked Rehoboam to lighten the load, but rather than decreasing the burden on the North, Rehoboam increased it. The Northern tribes of Israel broke away, so there was the Kingdom of Israel in the North and the Kingdom of Judah in the South.

The resulting kingdoms existed alongside each other for approximately two hundred years. The northern kingdom reverted to the name Israel, centered in the Hill Country north of Jerusalem. The southern kingdom took the name Judah and was centered in the southern Hill Country, encompassing Jerusalem and extending south to the Negev.

Pharaoh Shishak

Rehoboam went back to Jerusalem, and the Israelites made Jeroboam king of Israel. The Bible tells of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak, who besieged Jerusalem. The Egyptian accounts talk about a Pharaoh named Shoshenq (note the similarity between the names) who campaigned against the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Pharaoh Shoshenq was a Libyan mercenary who founded the twenty-second dynasty of Egypt and ruled from about 945 to 923 BCE. He came to the throne toward the end of Solomon’s rule.

Shoshenq left behind (on the wall of a temple in Karnak in Egypt) an impressive list of cities that he claimed to have captured. The cities are all located in the region now called Israel and Judah. According to the inscription, he captured Megiddo, Taanach, Shunem, and other cities and towns in Israel and the Negev. Shoshenq’s campaign, on the heels of the death of Solomon, indicates that he had been waiting for Solomon to die and that the splitting of the kingdoms was to his benefit. His campaign in the lands of Israel and Judah was probably an attempt to recapture some of the glory days of Egyptian dominance, when Canaan was regarded as belonging to the Egyptian empire. However, because one cannot always believe the evidence put forward by Egyptian Pharaohs, it has to be asked whether this campaign actually happened.

In Egypt, Shoshenq claimed that he captured Megiddo, while at Megiddo, there was an inscription indicating that Shoshenq captured the city, so the campaign probably did take place. The next question to be asked is whether this Egyptian Pharaoh is the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak who is mentioned in the Bible and who fought in Judah some five years after the death of Solomon.

In 1 Kings an 2 Chronicles, King Shishak of Egypt came to Jerusalem and took away the treasures of the House of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house. He also took the shields of gold that Solomon had made. This might be when the Ark of the Convenant disappeared.

Are these Pharaohs the same person? The cities that are named in the Egyptian account are almost all from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The cities named in the biblical account are almost all from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Were there in fact two different Egyptian Pharaohs, one who attacked Israel and one who attacked Judah? The biblical accounts are concerned with the events in Judah, which didn’t put up much of a fight. The Egyptian account emphasizes the major military events that took place in the North. It’s highly unlikely that these are records of different campaigns, so these are probably two versions of the same military conquests, and there are not two Pharaohs, just one, for Shishak an Shoshenq are probably one and the same.

The Omrides

In the Northern Kingdom of Israel, a man named Omri ascended to the throne of Israel in 885 BCE, introducing a new era for both kingdoms that would last for about forty years. Even though they remained separate entities, Israel and Judah entered into a close alliance an together entered a time of prosperity, which may have even surpassed the earlier days of David and Solomon.

Omri was the chief architect of the policies that characterize the era, but it was under his son Ahab, who came to power in 875 BCE, that the new policies came to fruition and under whom the two kingdoms enjoyed their best relations in years. After the death of Ahab, the situation declined rapidly, and this era came to an abrupt end about 842 BCE with the massacre of both the royal family in Israel and in Judah at the hands of Jehu the Usurper.

Omri and Ahab are the first kings in Israelite or Judean history to be mentioned in non-biblical documents from the ancient Near East and other places outside of Israel and Judah, so it is at least possible to begin to corroborate the episodes and peoples mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, the Omrides were the first Northern kings to accomplish a dynastic succession, which they did for three succeeding generations. Long after they had passed from the scene, Israel was still referred to by the Assyrian monarchs as the Land of Omri.

Information about the Kingdom of Israel and about the Omride era in particular is derived from several different sources, including the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings and Chronicles) and extrabiblical evidence from King Mesha of Moab, King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, and others. The Mesha inscription is particularly interesting – it is a commemorative inscription written in Moabite that was discovered in 1868 on the east side of the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, the inscription was broken into pieces soon after its discovery, but later was reconstructed almost completely. The inscription was commissioned by King of Mesha of Moab, apparently late in his reign, in connection with the dedication of a sanctuary to the Moabite god Chemosh. The inscription recounts the deeds of King Mesha, who ruled Moab during the ninth century and who is mentioned in 2 Kings. The text reports the main accomplishments of Mesha’s reign. In particular, it mentions Omri, king of Israel, for Mesha brought Israelite dominance over Moab to an end and recovered all of the Moabite territory north of the ancient city of Madiba.

Shalmaneser III

There are other inscriptions, such as the so-called Monolith inscription of Shalmaneser III, which dates to the ninth century BCE. These inscriptions report Assyrian activities in what is now Iraq, where Shalmaneser III ruled from 858 to 824 BCE. In the sixth year of his rule, he campaigned in Israel, and did so again in the tenth, eleventh, fourteenth, eighteenth and twenty-sixth years of his reign.

The first campaign is described in some detail in the so-called Monolith inscription, discovered in the mid 1800s in present-day Iraq. This inscription tells of a coalition of kings from Israel and surrounding areas who fought against Shalmaneser. They apparently halted his march in the vicinity of a place called Qarqar.

The following are the words of Shalmaneser III: “I decisively defeated them from the city of Qarqar to the City of Gilzau. I felled with the sword fourteen thousand troops, their fighting men. Like Adad, I rained down upon them a devastating flood. I spread out their corpses and filled the plain.

The Black Obelisk, which dates to 838 BCE, reveals that Shalmaneser marched all the way to Damascus and Syria with no serious opposition and that he besieged the city, but didn’t actually take it. Then he marched into Israel, where he collected tribute from Jehu, the general who is usurped the throne of Israel from the Omrides in about 841 BCE. Jehu is not actually the son of Omri. Jehu is the Usurper, who does away with the House of Omri, and yet the Omrides are so famous that the Land of Israel was referred to as the Land of Omri.

The Tel Dan inscription dates to about 841 BCE and was probably put up by King Hasrael of Aram when he destroyed this area. There are the fragments that were found in 1993 and 1994 at the site of Tel Dan in northern Israel – the ones that mention the House of David. The Black Obelisk and contemporary inscriptions mention individuals: Omri, Ahab, Jehu, the House of David; so for the first time there is a series of external references from sources outside the Bible. In the early years of the first millennium BCE, the biblical account, extra-biblical account, and archaeology all come together to help corroborate some of these events, so there are at least three independent sources to work with – a most desirable situation from the point of view of an ancient historian or archaeologist.

Solomon or the Omrides?

The Omrides far surpassed any other kings in either Israel or Judah as both builders and administrators. In a sense, theirs was the first golden age of the Israelite kings. Yet in the Bible the description of the Omride kingdom is quite sketchy. There’s mention of elaborate palaces at Samaria and Jezreel, but there’s almost no reference to the size, scale, or opulence of their kingdom. Indeed, these northern kings are despised by the authors of the Bible and referred to in derogatory terms. The writers of the Hebrew Bible consistently tried to uphold the kings of Judah in the South rather than the evil kings of Israel in the North. Yet the kings in the North, the Omrides, were rather impressive.

The city of Samaria was built by Omri and became the capital city of the North. When the site of Samaria was first excavated in 1908 by Harvard University, the splendor of Omri’s buildings was revealed. The site was further explored in the 1930s, at which time additional evidence for the spectacular nature of the ancient city was found. Even today, the site of Samaria is in a rich agricultural region, and there are numerous buildings and other architectural remains at which the modern tourist can marvel. It was conceived as the capital city of the Omride dynasty, and, as such, reveals fittingly grandiose architecture from the time of Omri and Ahab.

The chambered gates at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo were for a long time identified as part of Solomon’s grand building plan, but they have now been redated by some archaeologists to the time of Omri and Ahab. The chambered gates at these cities, as well as some of the palaces at Megiddo, and perhaps even the so-called stables at Megiddo, might have to be redated from the time of Solomon in the tenth century to the time of Ahab and Omri in the ninth century and perhaps even into the eighth centuries BCE.

Perhaps the most impressive engineering achievements possibly linked to the Omrides are the enormous underground water tunnels cut through the bedrock beneath the cities of Megiddo and Hazor. These tunnels provided the cities’ inhabitants with secure access to drinking water even in times of siege. In the ancient Near East, this was a critical challenge, because while important cities were surrounded by elaborate fortifications that allowed them to withstand a siege, they seldom had a source of fresh water within a city’s walls.

Many of the building activities that were previously attributed to King Solomon may have to be reassigned to the Omrides. Both archaeologically and historically, the re-dating of architecture at sites like Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer from Solomon’s time to the period of the Omrides has enormous implications. It removes the only archaeological evidence that there really was a United Monarchy and suggests that David and Solomon may have been little more than Hill Country chieftains, or so some archaeologists would argue.

Neo-Assyrians and the Lost Tribes

One thing is clear: the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah were at the mercy of a new set of empires that were emerging elsewhere in the ancient Near East. The first of these large empires was the Neo-Assyrians, who came back more fierce and determined than ever, particularly in the form of Tiglath-Pileser III, whom the Bible calls Pul, and who ruled from 744 to 727 BCE. For a little over a century, the Assyrians dominated life in the Middle East, and Israel as an independent kingdom ceased to exist quite early in the period of Assyrian domination. The capital city of Israel, at Samaria, was captured in the year 722 BCE, an Isrealite territory was subsequently incorporated into the Assyrian provincial system.

Not content with going up against the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Neo-Assyrians of Tiglath-Pileser III actually campaigned against the Southern Kingdom of Judah as well.

In the Hebrew account, in the days of Pikah, king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser captured a number of cities and carried the people to Assyria, the beginnings of the deportations. When they captured a new country, the Assyrians often deported its people and placed them elsewhere in their empire, the idea being that people are less likely to rebel if they are far from their native land.

The beginnings of the Neo-Assyrian deportations can be traced to the days of Tiglath-Pileser III, in about 734 BCE. These continue through the reign of Shalmaneser V, from 727 to 722 BCE, and even down into the reign of his successor, Sargon II. In the years 722 and 721 BCE, the Northern Kingdom of Israel essentially ceased to exist. By the year 720 BCE, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

What happened to the people living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel? More than twenty-seven thousand people were carried off into exile, the famous Ten Lost Tribes, never to be seen again. Where are they today? Like the Ark of the Convenant and Noah’s Ark, it is going to be difficult to ever find the Ten Lost Tribes. And yet the quest to locate them continues today, and numerous books are published every decade claiming that the authors have found th Lost Tribes or know where to look for them.


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