This week we are focusing on some remarkable discoveries by archaeology in Mesopotamia which give reference to biblical history, more specifically, the divided monarchies of Israel and Judah and their interaction(s) with the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 - 609 BCE).
The Kurkh Monoliths
The Kurkh Monoliths are among the extrabiblical discoveries which actually mention an Israelite king and provides information concerning the strength of the empire. These monoliths were found in Turkey by a British archaeologist by the name of John George Taylor in Turkey. They are monuments with Akkadian writing describing a famous battle known as the Battle of Qarqar which was between the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III and West Semitic kings in 854 - 846 BCE.
Among these West Semitic kings was listed one “ "A-ha-ab-bu Sir-ila-a-a" which among scholars is accepted as “Ahab of Israel,” assumed to be the very King Ahab of the house of Omri mentioned in the 2 Kings chapters 18 through 22. The inscription mentions each West Semitic king by their name and by the military might which they attributed to this battle. Ahab was said to have brought “2,000 chariots, 10,000 soldiers,” a military force listed among the other West Semitic king’s armies, second in strength only the Hadad-ezer of the Arameans. The numbers of 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 chariots was extraordinarily large for ancient times however, it indicates that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was a major military power.
What is also of interest is Ahab’s title “of Israel.” Assyrian inscriptions usually address kings by their capital city or dynasty. The Stele does not mention “Ahab of Omri” similar to the Black Obelisk of Shallmanesser III as this seems to be the usual terminology of the Assyrians. It remains one of the earliest mentions of the name Israel and shows that neighboring empires knew the Omirdes by this name as well as their dynastic name.
The picture being painted here is one that shows the background of the impending exile of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. Ahab showed his military might against the Assyrians, which the Bible says the prophets have been warning since the beginning. This extrabiblical artifact displays the conflict between Shalmanesser III and Assyria’s Levantine enemies. Ahab is unsuccessful and his war with the Assyrians ends with his successor Jehu forming an alliance with them as can be inferred with the Black Obelisk discovered in Nimrud.
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III
The next discovery follows chronologically taking place after the Kurkh Monoliths. In fact, the object in question concerns the very same king who battled Ahab at Qarqar. Found in the ancient city of Nimrud, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is another monument describing the Assyrian king’s reign and extended empire in the Ancient Near East. It contains four registers, which each scene continues around the object, 360 degrees. The registers display scenes of hunts and wild, exotic animals. However, the focal point of the monument are the two foreign kings bringing tribute to the Shalmaneser III in his throne room depicted pictorially and named in the inscription.
This object is important for biblical studies because it is the only pictorial representation of an Israelite king, in this case Jehu. On the obelisk, Jehu is in the second register in which he is shown, surrounded by Assyrian officials and bowing down to Shalmaneser III. Below this scene is written in Akkadian, “Jehu of the House of Omri.” It is interesting that in the identification of King Jehu of Israel, he is not in fact from the Omride Dynasty. This is most likely an example of foreign empires addressing the nation according to its most powerful or famous dynasty. Other scholars suggest that the reference to “Omri” was intentional in order to show Assyria’s capture of the troublesome Semitic nation.
Further along the second register, going counter-clockwise, also shows what appear to be other Israelites forming a procession and carrying tributes to the king. This was a common practice in the ANE where a smaller kingdom would pay tribute or taxes to a major empire in hopes of reaping the benefits of said empire. In this case the Israelites were allowed their independence but were under the protection and authority of the Assyrian Empire from the looming threat of the growing Arameans to the north.
Combined with these archaeological discoveries and the biblical text, one can deduce a series of events which fills in gaps of these Northern King’s histories. The Kurhk Monoliths showed the conflict between the West Semitic kings and Shalmaneser III in Assyria. The biblical narrative then provides context for the event as 2 Kings 9 through 10 records that Jehu, formed a coup d-etat against the house of Ahab and his queen Jezebel. After he successfully takes the throne from the Omrides, little else is not known about Jehu politically. However, the next event is not mentioned in the Bible, but it assumed to have happened, in that Jehu pledges allegiance to Shalmaneser III, the very king in which Ahab was at war during his reign.
Obviously, this treaty formed between the two kingdoms only went well for Assyria since Israel was later exiled in 722 BCE. This alliance eventually put the southern Kingdom of Judah in danger as the Assyrians then set their eyes upon Judah as is seen in the books of 2 Kings and Isaiah along with another extrabiblical source of another Assyrian king, the Annals of Sennacherib.
The Annuls of Sennacherib
Another discovery that illustrates intersections with biblical history and Mesopotamia are the Annuls of Sennacherib, found on a series of objects known as prisms. These clay prisms were inscribed in cuneiform and contain one full text, the annuls of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. It was discovered in 1830 by Colonel Robert Taylor in the ancient city of Nineveh and the account dates to the early 7th Century BCE. It discusses Sennacherib’s exploits and campaigns across his vast empire and attempts to expand his reach through the Levant. It is also important for biblical studies because it mentions the siege of a certain Judahite king named Hezekiah and his royal city, Jerusalem.
This event is also recorded three times in the Bible: the books of Isaiah (chapters 36 and 37), 2 Kings (chapter 18), and 2 Chronicles (chapter 32). In the biblical account, Sennacherib takes siege of the city only to be decimated by the army by an angel of the Lord, forcing the Assyrian king to retreat. The account on the prism record the same siege however it differs in some important ways. It indeed mentions “Hezekiah of Judah” by name, but it states only that Sennacherib had him “caged like a bird in his own royal city.” His annals do not mention his defeat at the hands of an angel or heavenly host, nor does it say that he conquered the city. However, it does say that Hezekiah paid tribute to him in the end implying that the siege was successful.
Perhaps an interesting point to take away from this artifact and its connection with the biblical text, is that, as far as we know, Sennacherib did not conquer the city of Jerusalem. It is implied in his annuls that he took the city for himself as Hezekiah is forced to pay tribute. But this victory is only mentioned in these annuls. The Bible and these ancient records differ on the same story. Which one is the correct one? Perhaps the next archaeological discovery can provide some evidence, albeit circumstantial, as to the historical event in 701/702 BCE.
The Lachish Reliefs
Another great archaeological discovery that helps provide context to the Bible and Mesopotamia, are the Lachish reliefs found in the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. It was carved sometime between 700 and 681 BCE and located in the Palace of Sennacherib. The reliefs were discovered in 1853 and first assumed to allude to a different city other than Lachish conquered by the Assyrians, originally proposed by Henry Rawlinson. Yigael Yadin, a famous Israeli archeologist, however pointed to the excavations at Tel Lachish and showed that the excavations match precisely the events shown on the relief. This was also in agreement with David Usshishkin’s excavations in 1973 (Usshishkin 1980, 174-195).
The Bible also mentions the siege of Lachish in 2 Chronicles 32:9: “Later, when Sennacherib king of Assyria and all his forces were laying siege to Lachish, he sent his officers to Jerusalem with this message for Hezekiah king of Judah and for all the people of Judah who were there.” The reliefs depict a major battle showing archers firing, a siege machine used on a ramp to breach the walled city, soldiers being impaled on stakes, and prisoners being marched away bound. The excavations at Lachish discovered a major destruction layer in the Iron Age II 7th century BCE level, along with many Assyrian arrow heads and a massive siege ramp which is still surviving today. There is little doubt among scholars that this Lachish is the same one mentioned in the reliefs in Nineveh that Sennacherib claimed as his prize.
The Assyrians were masters of psychological terrorism and intimidation as depicted in much of their royal and military iconography. It was used to show the might and control of the empire. The Lachish Reliefs are a symbol of that power and a trophy for his throne room. The question then becomes whether or not Sennacherib was successful at taking the city of Jerusalem as he took the city of Lachish. Where is the Jerusalem relief? The Lachish relief took a major place within Sennacherib’s palace however the only mention of Jerusalem is in his annuls as a brief mention. A relief or boasting of an event such as the sacking of Jerusalem would be expected to be plastered in many palaces throughout the Assyrian Empire. Sennacherib, however, only mentions the destruction and battles of smaller cities and towns (46 in all), but it can only be assumed that Jerusalem remained standing.
The Annals of Sennacherib and the Lachish Reliefs both are ignored when those who favor a low chronology of ancient Israel allude to the status and significance of the Kingdom of Judah. The kingdom of Judah seemed to have some status among the major world powers in order to be given such a grand representation in Sargon’s throne room and among his annals.
That's it for the Assyrian Empire for now. Next time we will focus on the Babylonian Empire, Exile and Persian Period. If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them in them below!