Israel and its Neighbours

Jan 17, 2019 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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Israeli archaeologist Baruch Halpern has written an article for the September 2003 edition of “Biblical Archaeology Review” in which he lists the synchronisms between the historical records of the Bible and the inscriptional records of Israel’s neighbours. They provide an effective response to an increasinly vocal group of scholars who loudly proclaim that the Biblical records were written in the fifth to third centuries BC and are largely myths and legends that have little historical value.

Starting with the later Assyrian records, Halpern enumerates the many Assyrian kings whose names are mentioned in the Bible, the last of whom was Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC) called in the Bible “Asnapper” (Ezra 4:10). Before him was Esarhaddon, who was one of the kings who sent the Israelites into exile (Ezra 4:2).

The father of Esarhaddon was Sennacherib who invaded Judah in 701 BC and conquered 46 cities, including Lachish. Reliefs now in the British Museum graphically portray the dramatic events of the siege of Lachish, its ultimate capture and the Jewish prisoners of war being led away into exile. Sennacherib also left three clay cylinders that mention his siege of Jerusalem.

The Bible records that “in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. . . . and the king of Assyria assessed Hezekiah king of Judah 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold.” (2 Kings 18:13, 14)

The Sennacherib Prism states: “As to Hezekiah the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke. I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, to walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity. . . . Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem his royal residence like a bird in a cage . . . Hezekiah himself, who the terror-inspiring splendour of my lordship had overwhelmed and whose regular and elite troops which he had brought into Jerusalem, his royal residence, in order to strengthen it, had deserted him, did send me later to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 300 talents of silver, precious stones.”

Samaria was the capital city of the ten northern tribes of Israel. It fell to the Assyrian armies of Sargon, though it was initially besieged by Shalmaneser V. “The king of ASsyria went throughout all the land and went up to Samaria and besieged it for three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria.” (2 Kings 17:5, 6) Sargon’s records say, “At the beginning [of my rule . . . the city of the Sa]arians I [besieged and conquered] . . . carried of prisoner [27,290 or the people who dwelt in it . . . the city of Samaria] I restored and made it more habitable than before.” (Documents from Old Testament Times p. 59)

Shalmaneser III reigned from 850 to 824 BC and he left a 6 foot high pillar that is now in the British Museum. It was discovered in the palace of Shalmaneser III at Nimrud (Biblical Calah) in northern Iraq. Each of the four sides contains five panels of bas reliefs with cuneiform text above and below each panel.

The obleisk records Shalmaneser’s wars against neighbouring states during the first 31 years of his reign, including his battle against King Jehu of Israel. Jehu is depicted prostrating himself before the Assyrian king and presenting his tribute to him. The Bible has a lot to say about Jehu, though it does not specifically mention this incident. “the period that Jehu reigned over Israel in Samaria was 28 years.” (2 Kings 10:36)

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser records “In the eighteenth year of my rule I crossed the Euphrates for the sixteenth time . . . destroying, tearing down and burning innumerable towns. . . . At that time I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon and of Jehu, son of Omri.” (The Ancient Near East, vol. 1, p. 191)

Even earlier than these Assyrian kings was Mesha king of Moab, who left a record of his relations with Israel on what is known as the Moabite Stone. It was found in Dibon in 1868 and finished up in the Louvre in Paris, though there is a very good copy of it in the British Museum. Mesha says, “I am Mesha, son of Chemosh, king of Moab. . . . As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years . . . Omri had occupied the land of Medeba and [Israel] had dwelt there in his time and half the time of his son, forty years. . . . The king of Israel had built Ataroth for them, but I fought against the town and took it and slew all the people of the town.” (The Ancient Near East, vol. 1, p. 209)

This is consistent with the Biblical record which says, “Now Mesha, king of Moab, was a sheep breeder and he regularly paid the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams, but it happened, when Ahab died, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.” (2 Kings 3:4, 5)

Assyrian dates for this period are reliable, but the same cannot be said of the Egyptian dates. Halpern confidently refers to the inscription left by Pharaoh Sheshonk of the 22nd Dynasty, who left an inscription on the southern wall of the temple of Karnak, in Luxor.

Along with most scholars, Halpern claims, on the basis of similarity of names, that Sheshonk can be identified with Pharaoh Shishak mentioned in 1 Kings 14:25, but this dynasty fals within the era of the Third Intermediate Period which is hotly debated by scholars. Some claim that these dynasties (21-24) did not exist as indeendent entities and that consequently some three centures need to be deleted from Egyptian chronology at this time. This then would place Sheshonk at a later date, with no relevance to the record in 1 Kings 14:25.

When Halpern goes back further to the time of the Exodus he is in real trouble. He adheres to the traditional chronology for Egypt which, by Biblical comparison, would place the Exodus in the 18th Dynasty. As this was the most powerful dynasty Egypt ever boasted and the best documented, thereis obviously no place there for an Exodus of the magnitude detailed in the Bible.

The usual alternative is to adopt an arbitrary date based on rather flimsy circumstantial evidence – the concidence of the name “Rameses” for a city built by the Israelites with the famous king of that name – and assign a date of about 1200 BC for the Exodus. Actually, Halpern tries to convince his readers that 1200 is a Biblical date. He writes: “Most scholars have followed the lead of the Bible in placing the Exodus itself in the late 13th century BCE.” (BAR p. 50)

The Bible gives no such lead; instead it tells us in 1 Kings 6:1 that the Exodus was 480 years before the building of Solomon’s temple, which would place it in 1445 BC.

As an Israeli, however, Halpern would like to think that there was some sort of an Exodus and he even suggests that “when the Exodus texts were composed some people were probably still alive who participated in the event or remembered it – whatever it might have been.” (BAR p. 50) Curious, then, that this memory should have been so inaccurate!

The Bible’s record is not at all ambiguous. The Exodus is one of the great events of Biblical history and is referred to again and again in both Testaments. Actually, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for the Exodus, but because most archaeologists are looking for it at the wrong time, they can’t find it – hence Halpern’s confusion about “whatever it might have been”. That, however, is subject for another time.

April 2004

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