Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? Divided Monarchy, Part 1, Israelite and Judean Kings Mentioned Outside the Bible

In our last article, we looked at archaeological finds that shed light on the kingdom of David.1 Until fairly recently, critical scholars had assumed the historicity of the united monarchy and doubted only the earlier periods (the time of the judges, the settlement of the land, the exodus, the patriarchs, etc.). But as we noted, the united monarchy of David and Solomon has come under fire in recent decades. There is, however, some irony in this. Criticism has been leveled against the united monarchy because it was claimed that the only solid historical and archaeological footing that could be found was in the ninth century B.C. and beyond: the period of the divided monarchy. Since David and Solomon did not find the same degree of corroboration as did later Israelite and Judean kings, their reign was thereby suspect. But in spite of this incorrect assessment of the period of the united monarchy, it does demonstrate that most scholars see the period of the divided monarchy as very well attested. Even a critic like Lester Grabbe is willing to state:

For the first time since the Merneptah Inscription, it is in the reign of Omri that we finally begin to find extra-biblical data (apart from archaeology) with which to compare the picture given by the biblical text. Some are arguing that this is where the story of Israel begins—that Omri founded the first state in Palestine. In any case, the ninth and eighth centuries are dominated by the kingdom of Israel or northern kingdom.2

This does not mean that critics are suddenly allies with regard to the historicity of the divided monarchy; Grabbe’s “comparing” of the biblical text frequently leads to his disputing it. It does, however, mean that maximalists and minimalists alike agree in broader areas than before.

In these next two articles, we will look at archaeological finds related to the period of the divided monarchy (930–586 B.C.). Since there is so much relevant data, we are forced to be somewhat selective with what we cover. In order to do justice to what we do look at, however, we will divide this material into two different articles. In this article, we will consider examples of Israelite and Judean kings who are named in extrabiblical sources. In our next article, we will look at some important archaeological finds from this period.

Extrabiblical Mention of Biblical Characters

The Bible mentions a host of people who are also attested in extrabiblical texts.3 Kings of foreign nations (Egypt, Moab, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia) are most easily identified, though there are some examples of other figures who may also be found in ancient texts. For example, Numbers 22–24 tells the story of Balaam son of Beor who was sought by Balak of Moab to curse Israel. Three different times Balak was foiled; Balaam not only refused to curse Israel but also pronounced a blessing upon it. In 1967, at the Jordanian site of Deir ʿAlla (ca. 36 miles northeast of Jerusalem, just across the Jordan River), an ink-on-plaster inscription was discovered telling a story of Balaam son of Beor.

Though Numbers 22–24 shows Balaam as ultimately obeying the Lord and refusing to say anything he had not commanded, other passages show him to be a diviner (Josh. 13:22) and opposed to the living God (Deut. 23:5; Josh. 24:10; 2 Pet. 2:15–16; Rev. 2:14). This is exactly what we find in the Deir Alla version of Balaam: “The misfortunes of the book of Balaam, the son of Beor, a divine seer is he. Then the gods came to him at night and he beheld a vision in accordance with El’s utterance.” After receiving a message from this council of gods, he conveyed it to a group of leaders who were opposing these deities’ message: “Be seated, and I will tell you what the Shadday-gods have planned. . . . The gods have banded together, and the Shadday-gods have established a council.”4

Thus, while this story comes from some five hundred to seven hundred years after the events of Numbers 22–24, and though it tells a story of Balaam not found in the Old Testament itself, it nevertheless attests to the existence of Balaam son of Beor, mentioning him by name and describing him much as the Bible does: as one who practiced divination.


The Moabite Stone and Tel Dan Inscription Redux

Our interest in this article, however, is on the mention of Israelite and Judean kings mentioned outside the Bible in more or less contemporary records. In our last article, we made mention of two inscriptions that name the House of David: the Tel Dan inscription and the Mesha Stele. Each of these is also famous in that they mention Israelite and Judean kings. The Mesha Stele reads:

As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years, for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, “I will humble Moab.” In my time he spoke thus, but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel hath perished forever! Now Omri had occupied the land of Madeba, and he (Israel) had dwelt there in his time and half the time of his son, forty years. . . . 5

Though this comes from a time after Omri, who reigned from 885–874 B.C., it is unlikely that it comes from much later than 830 B.C. Thus the stele’s claim that “Israel has perished forever” is hyperbole, as Israel did not experience destruction and exile until 722 B.C., long after Mesha’s reign (mid-ninth century B.C.). But more relevant to our topic here is the mention of King Omri of Israel by name. We will say more about him in a moment.

The Tel Dan inscription is unfortunately broken in several key places, although it makes mention of both an Israelite and a Judean king:

Hadad went before me [and] I went from [ . . . ] of my kings.

I killed kings who harnessed . . . chariots and thousands of horsemen,

[Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel,

And [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram king] of the house of David.

I imposed [tribute] . . . their land . . . 6

Though the names Jehoram and Ahaziahu (= Ahaziah) are reconstructed (brackets indicate breaks in the text), and though the names Ahab and Jehoram are missing, this reading is on strong footing as it makes best sense of the time period (late ninth century B.C.) and the letters that have not been damaged on the inscription. After all, there is only one time period when an Israelite king whose name ended in “-ram” reigned at the same time as a Judean king whose name ended in “-iahu.” Thus here too we have attestation of Israelite and Judean kings by an Aramaean king, likely Hazael of Damascus.

King Omri of Israel

Omri of Israel is an especially interesting king. The books of Kings give him only thirteen verses of airtime (1 Kings 16:16–28). He was, however, quite prominent, founding not only a new dynasty but also building a glamorous royal palace and acropolis in Samaria. In the eyes of the surrounding nations, Omri was perhaps the most famous of the Israelite kings. Though the Omeride dynasty lasted only four generations, it was prominent enough for the Assyrian kings Shalmaneser III (858– 824 B.C.) and Adad-Nirari III (810–783 B.C.) to name the entire region after him. Assyrian texts referring to the land of Israel called it by names such as “mār Ḫu-um-ri-i” (= land of Omri) and “KUR <Bit>-Ḫu-um-ri-i” (= land of the House of Omri).7 Even when the Omeride dynasty ended, later kings were still associated with it by these terms.

King Ahab of Israel

Omri’s son Ahab (874–853 B.C.) receives a great deal more attention in the books of Kings. The stories are infamous: the wiles of his wicked wife Jezebel, his coveting and exploitation of Naboth, his encounter with Elijah on Mount Carmel. His battles with Damascus are also described, but in the Assyrian sources, he is best known as an ally of the king of Damascus at the famous Battle of Qarqar (located ca. 55 miles southwest of modern-day Aleppo, Syria) in 853 B.C. Shalmaneser III’s Kurkh Monolith inscription reads:

I departed from the city of Argana. I approached the city of Qarqar. I razed, destroyed and burned the city of Qarqar, his royal city. 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, (and) 20,000 troops of Hadad-ezer of Damascus; 700 chariots, 700 cavalry, (and) 10,000 troops of Irḫulēni, the Hamathite; 2,000 chariots, (and) 10,000 troops of Ahab, the Israelite. . . . 8

Most scholars recognize the excessive and propagandistic nature of the Kurkh Monolith, and most doubt that Ahab would have sent two thousand chariots (more than all his allies put together), but this does not change the fact that Shalmaneser viewed Ahab as a powerful military leader.

King Jehu of Israel

When Jehu son of Jehoshaphat son of Nimshi became king in Israel (2 Kings 9), the mighty Omeride dynasty came to a close. Though Jehu (841– 814 B.C.) continued to walk in the sins of Jeroboam (2 Kings 10:29, 31), as did all the northern kings, he nevertheless played an important reforming role: “Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel” (1 Kings 10:28). In fact, it has been noted that “the portrayal of Jehu is unusually favorable: divinely elected, prophetically anointed and righteously evaluated.”9 In terms of archaeological discoveries, one of the most famous Assyrian monumental inscriptions, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, not only mentions Jehu but depicts him as well. The Black Obelisk is a two-meter-tall pillar with four sides, sculpted out of black alabaster. Each side contains five horizontal panels, all of which depict scenes of Shalmaneser receiving tribute from kings throughout the known world. While there were certainly more than twenty kings who would have been vassals to Shalmaneser, Jehu was selected since he was the king of the most prominent kingdom in the southwest corner of his empire.

The image on the Black Obelisk shows Jehu prostrated before the Assyrian king, followed by a retinue bearing gifts and tribute. The cuneiform above the panel (not pictured) reads: “I received the tribute of Jehu of Bīt-Ḫumrî: silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden goblet, golden cups, golden buckets, tin, a staff of the king’s hand, and javelins.”10

Not only is this yet another reference to an Israelite king in an extrabiblical text, but also it is a visual representation of that king. And while it might be pushing things too far to suggest that this is a detailed portrait of Jehu, it is nevertheless the closest thing to a picture of an Israelite or Judean king as we have. (Note: Though Jehu was not technically from the Bīt-Ḫumrî, “house of Omri”—after all, he brought the Omeride dynasty to an end—this label attached to Jehu in the Black Obelisk is further proof of Omri’s prominence in the ancient world; even a future king of a different dynasty is still known by the former “realm” of the Omerides.)

References to Judean Kings

Several other Israelite kings are described in ancient Near Eastern sources: Ahaziah (853–852 B.C.), Jehoash (798–782 B.C.), Menahem (752–742 B.C.), Pekah (752–732 B.C.), and Hoshea (732–722 B.C.). In Judah, the references are fewer. There are a few reasons for this. In terms of location, Jerusalem was considered off the beaten path, tucked away in the Judean hill country some distance from the major highways running through the region. Control of Judah was not as strategic for ancient Near Eastern kings, as no major trade routes were dramatically affected by their presence. In terms of fame, Judah was less cosmopolitan than Israel; thus it was not viewed by ancient Near Eastern kings with the same prestige as was Israel. This helps to explain why Judean kings are not as internationally attested.

For those of us familiar with the Bible’s history of the monarchy, this may seem surprising. After all, Judah and Jerusalem stand at the center of God’s redemptive interventions throughout most of the Old Testament. But as ancient Near Eastern kings did not share the biblical view of the world or of God’s redemptive work, their views of greatness and centrality differed from that of the Bible itself.

Having said this, there are references to several Judean kings in ancient extrabiblical texts. The Tel Dan Stele mentioned Ahaziah (841 B.C.), as we noted above, and several seal impressions have been found with the names of other Judean kings: Azariah/Uzziah (792–740 B.C.), Jotham (750–731 B.C.), Ahaz (735–715 B.C.), Hezekiah (729–686 B.C.), and Manasseh (696–642 B.C.). But two kings receive special reference in international sources: Hezekiah and Jehoiachin.

Hezekiah of Judah

The story of the great reformer king, Hezekiah, is described not only in the books of Kings and Chronicles but also in Isaiah 36–39. He is regarded by nearly all scholars as being a major figure in Judah’s history. Archaeologists have found numerous artifacts from his reign (we will consider some in the next article), and biblical scholars believe that his reign was an especially fruitful time for the writing and collecting of Old Testament books.11 The book of Proverbs alludes to this very thing: “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied” (Prov. 25:1). As Jerusalem experienced significant growth during Hezekiah’s reign, he attracted the attention of king Sennacherib of Assyria (705–681 B.C.), who invaded Judah and besieged several cities including Jerusalem.

Sennacherib commemorated this invasion by commissioning a series of reliefs—a type of mural—that hung in his palace at Nineveh and depicted the siege and destruction of the Judean city of Lachish (2 Kings 18:13–14; 2 Chron. 32:9). But he also commissioned royal annals of the invasion, written on three prisms (one of which is housed at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago). After describing the freeing of Padi, the Philistine king of Ekron, who had been imprisoned by Hezekiah in Jerusalem, Sennacherib continues:

As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. . . . He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate. . . . I imposed dues and gifts for my lordship upon him, in addition to the former tribute, their yearly payment.

Sennacherib does not share how the siege ended since, after all, he was driven from Judah by a miraculous deliverance by the Angel of the Lord. But he does record that Hezekiah eventually did send tribute to Assyria, a detail not recorded in the biblical text.12 While the Assyrian account is marked by overstatement, it nevertheless demonstrates that the invasion of Judah, and especially locking up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” was an event of which Sennacherib was especially proud.

Jehoiachin of Judah

The Judean monarchy ended with chaos. After reigning for only three months, Jehoiachin (598–597 B.C.) was sent into exile at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (605–562 B.C.). He was replaced by his uncle, Mattaniah, whose name was changed to Zedekiah (597–586 B.C.). As a puppet king, all seemed to be going well for Zedekiah until he decided to rebel against Babylon nine years into his reign. Nebuchadnezzar responded by sacking Jerusalem and exiling Zedekiah after first killing his sons and then blinding him. But 2 Kings ends with a story of Jehoiachin being taken out of prison and given a seat of prominence in the Babylonian king’s presence: “So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived” (2 Kings 25:29– 30, English Standard Version).

Many critical scholars doubted the authenticity of this story until excavations of Babylon uncovered four administrative tablets translated by Ernst Weidner in the 1930s. These texts were among a number of ration receipts. One of the more prominent ones reads: “10 (sila) to Ia-ku-ú-ki-nu (= Jehoiachin), the son of the king of Judah; 2 ••• sila for the 5 sons of the king of Judah. . . .”13

Here, among the ruins of Babylon’s famous Ishtar Gate, was found an ancient receipt for the very rations described in 2 Kings 25:30! Though this mention of Jehoiachin and his sons is not overly glamorous, it does corroborate the events of 2 Kings 25, showing that Jehoiachin, like many other captured kings, served in an official capacity in the Babylonian royal court, likely as an advisor to the king concerning administrative policies for the region of Judah.14

In our next article, we will look at a few exciting archaeological discoveries from the period of the divided monarchy that illustrate and contextualize some key events in the history of Israel and Judah.

1. See The Outlook 67, no. 4 (July-August 2017): 23–26.

2. Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 123.

3. Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People from the Bible,” Biblical Archaeology Review 40, no. 2 (March-April 2014): 42–50, 68.

4. Translation taken from Baruch A. Levine, “Deir Alla, Texts,” New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 2:84.

5. Adapted from William Albright’s translation in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relation to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 320.

6. Translation adapted from William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture, Vol. 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 161–62.

7. Brad E. Kelle, “What’s in a Name? Neo-Assyrian Designations for the Northern Kingdom and Their Implications for Israelite History and Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 121, no. 4 (2002): 640.

8. Context of Scripture, 2.263.

9. D. T. Lamb, “Jehu Dynasty,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 534.

10. Context of Scripture, 2.270.

11. See William Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 64–90. Schniedewind must be read discerningly, but this is a rare and interesting synthesis of biblical interpretation and archaeology.

12. Alan Millard provides a helpful recounting of this historical event, “Sennacherib’s Attack on Hezekiah,” Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985): 61–77.

13. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 308.

14. For Jehoiachin’s biblical-theological importance, see Matthew H. Patton, Hope for a Tender Sprig: Jehoiachin in Biblical Theology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017).

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is assistant professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.