Biblical Archeology

Ahab and the Battle at Qarqar. History and archeology team up to bring to light an incident not discussed in the Bible.

William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


This article is the first of six dealing with the relationship between Israel and Assyria as revealed by archeology. Dr. Shea's subsequent articles will continue every other month.—The Editors.

Outside of the Bible, the first direct, contemporary reference to a king of either Israel or Judah is the 853 B.C. entry referring to Ahab of Israel in the annals of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria. (Omri, Ahab's father, is mentioned in several later inscriptions, but these were not contemporary records.) The reference to King Ahab occurs in an account of Shalmaneser's battle against a coalition of western kings near the Syrian city of Qarqar in the sixth year of his rule, or 853 B.C. Among the rulers who joined forces to oppose the Assyrians was King Ahab of Israel.

The mid-ninth century B.C. was a time of great change in the international politics of the Ancient Near East. The Assyrian colossus, which had been slumbering for several centuries, had awakened and was taking the first steps along the road to conquest. Shalmaneser's father, Ashurnasirpal, had begun the process. But Ashurnasirpal's campaigns were little more than raids to collect booty and tribute; he did not intend to extend the borders of Assyria thereby. It was Shalmaneser III who actually started Assyria on the road to empire, which lasted for more than two centuries, until the third quarter of the seventh century B.C.

In contrast to Assyria, Egypt at this time was in a decline under the rulership of the Twenty-second Dynasty. The Twenty-second Dynasty was not composed of native Egyptians; it was Libyan or foreign in origin. During the preceding two hundred years, Libyans had mi grated into the western delta of Egypt, and princes arose among these immigrants to become strong figures in Egyptian politics. Eventually one such nonnative Egyptian, Shoshenq I (or Shishak of the Bible, 1 Kings 14:25), became king of Egypt and founded the royal house of the Twenty-second Dynasty. Shishak, a strong ruler, made a campaign through Israel and Judah that is mentioned both by the Bible and by an inscription listing his military exploits on a wall of the great Karnak temple in Upper Egypt. The kings who followed Shishak upon the throne, however, were weaker than he. Thus by the time of the battle of Qarqar, Egypt was no longer formidable enough to present a serious threat to the political stability of Western Asia.

The mid-ninth century B.C. was also a time of continuing movements for independence in Palestine as far as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were concerned. Moab rebelled against the northern kingdom of Israel when Ahab died (2 Kings 1:1; 3:4, 5). Although Israel had some success initially in attempting to suppress this revolt (chap. 3), Moab finally broke free of Israel, as Mesha the king of Moab boasts in his inscription known as the Moabite Stone. Nor was the southern kingdom of Judah immune to such revolts. It was at this time that Edom won her independence from Judah (chap. 8:20-22). As the balances of power shifted in Syria and Palestine, Damascus emerged as the dominant force in the area for most of the last half of the ninth century B.C. (chap. 13:3, 22).

With this political picture of the times thus drawn in our minds, we may turn our attention to the Battle of Qarqar itself. Coalition warfare was a type of military tactic commonly practiced by the kings of Syria and Palestine. It involved the confederation of several nations or cities that could jointly gather a large number of troops in the field to meet the threat of a common enemy. If the members of the coalition were successful in defeating their mutual foe, they could disband to go their own way again. However, they not infrequently fell to fighting among themselves after the common danger had passed as both the Bible and extra-Biblical inscriptions document.

If the coalition was not successful in withstanding their joint foe in the field, the troops retreated behind the walls of one or more of their cities and attempted to outlast the siege of those cities by the enemy. Biblical examples of coalition warfare fought in Palestine include Joshua's southern and northern campaigns, as well as many of the battles fought by the kings of Israel and Judah. Egyptian inscriptions from the second millennium B.C. and Assyrian inscriptions from the first millennium B.C. also attest to the popularity of this military strategy. The Battle of Qarqar involved this method as well.

After leaving Nineveh with his army in early May, 853 B.C., Shalmaneser stopped in the Upper Euphrates River Valley long enough to subjugate one town. As he crossed the Euphrates into northern Syria six kings of that area came to pay tribute to him without resisting. The Assyrians then turned south to Aleppo, which also surrendered with out a battle. From this point they moved into the territory of Hamath, in central Syria, where they began to encounter opposition. The opposition was not sufficiently strong, however, to prevent the Assyrians from conquering, looting, and burning four towns that belonged to Ha math, the last of which was Qarqar. While Shalmaneser went about his work of destruction, the king of Hamath summoned help, but his allies appeared on the scene of action shortly after the Assyrians had already reduced Qarqar to ashes. Thus the battle between the Assyrians and the western coalition came to be fought in the vicinity of the already vanquished town and was known by its name.

Fortunately, Shalmaneser's scribe (or scribes) left us a detailed account of this campaign, complete with a list of all the Assyrian king's enemies in the west and the size of the contingents they brought to the battle. From this list it is evident that the coalition consisted of "the big four," who sent large contingents, and "the little seven," none of whom, as far as we can tell from the surviving portions of this inscription, sent more than one thousand troops.

The big four were the kings of Ha math, Damascus, Irqanata, and Israel. The little seven included the kings of Cilicia, Egypt, Arvad, Usanta, Shian, Ammon, and Arabia.

According to the Assyrian document, the big four made the following contributions: Ben-hadad of Damascus brought 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, and 20,000 soldiers; Irhuleni of Hamath provided 700 chariots, an equal number of cavalry, and 10,000 soldiers; Ahab of Israel brought 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers; and the king of Irqanata con tributed 10,000 soldiers.

These figures may very well be approximations only, and perhaps are exaggerated as well, yet they give us a picture of the relative strengths of the respective parties. In keeping with his determined resistance to the Assyrians and the dominant position that Damascus came to occupy in the area under Hazael during the last half of the ninth century B.C., Ben-hadad II of Damascus, who is well known from the Bible record (1 Kings 20; 22; 2 Kings 6; 8), appears to be the most potent participant in the coalition. Hamath probably suffered the most at this time, however, since it bore the brunt of the frontal attack.

Ahab is notable not only for the large number of foot soldiers he contributed to the coalition but especially as the major supplier of chariots. Archeological evidence for the prominent position Ahab occupied in this regard has been found from the excavations conducted at Megiddo by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago from 1925 to 1939. When the excavators uncovered the Iron Age stables there, they naturally attributed them to the Solomonic period, since Solomon's connections with horses and chariots are quite prominent in the Bible (1 Kings 4:26; 10:26; 2 Chron. 9:25). But Megiddo is not named in these passages as one of Solomon's chariot cities. More recent studies of the excavation reports and further soundings on the site have determined that the original excavators failed to distinguish between two different strata of occupation. Stratum IV B belongs with Stratum V A and should be dated to the Solomonic period because of its particular type of city wall and gate. Stratum IV A, on the other hand, has a more direct connection through pottery and type of building to the early phases of construction at Samaria in the time of Omri and Ahab. (See MINISTRY, September, 1978, p. 26, "King Solomon's Royal Cities.")

The net result in this revision in the archeology of Megiddo is to transfer the stables, which were found in Stratum IV A, from the time of Solomon to the time of Ahab. Thus they were in use when Ahab took some two thousand of his chariots north to fight with the western coalition against the Assyrians at Qarqar.

A minor controversy has flared up recently among archeologists over the nature of the buildings at Megiddo. Originally they were interpreted as stables, then it was argued they were only store houses, and now the consensus appears to have returned—correctly in my opinion—to interpreting them as stables again. The stone pillars serving as roof supports in these rectangular buildings had tie-holes for tethering horses. Be tween them were mangers hollowed out of limestone blocks, and a central passageway was located between two side aisles that were cobbled for the horses. The space occupied by these buildings at Megiddo covers almost one fifth of the area inside the city walls. Thus it has been estimated that almost five hundred horses could have been quartered there.

Returning to the battle at Qarqar to which Ahab took his chariots, the question naturally arises, "What was its out come?" Shalmaneser III claimed to have won a great victory there: "I spread their corpses [everywhere], filling the entire plain with their widely scattered [fleeing] soldiers. . . . The plain was too small to let [all] their souls descend [into the nether world], the vast field gave out [when it came] to bury them. With their corpses I spanned the Orontes before there was a bridge."

But did Shalmaneser really win so great a victory at Qarqar as he claimed? There are some indications that he did not. In the first place he did not follow up this "victory" by driving on to besiege Damascus or even nearby Hamath. Second, as we follow the course of Shalmaneser's campaigns over the next decade it is obvious that he was still struggling to gain control of Syria. His annals indicate that he came back to campaign in this area in 849, 848, 845, and 841, and that Damascus was the main target for these campaigns. Not until 841 B.C. did Shalmaneser finally defeat Damascus decisively. These factors suggest that the Battle of Qarqar resulted either in a draw or a defeat for the Assyrians.

Since Ahab appears to have been a major participant in this battle and since it also appears to have been quite important in the history of this area, why wasn't it mentioned in the Bible? One answer to this question has been that Ahab's exploit at Qarqar was not mentioned in the Bible because Ahab was a wicked king. While Ahab does appear to have been a wicked king, the Bible re cords other battles fought by wicked kings against foreign enemies.

I would suggest that the reason why the Battle of Qarqar and Ahab's participation in it are not mentioned in the Bible is because the battleground upon which this battle was fought was territorially peripheral to Israel's interests. Battles fought by foreign kings do not generally appear in the Bible until they come to touch upon Israelite territory and bring harm and suffering to God's people. Thus when Ahab and Ben-hadad fought over Gilead, where Israelites lived, it was mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 22) because the presence of Israelites made it significant from the point of view of God's people.

Ahab's military adventures in central Syria, however, were not particularly significant for the woe or weal of God's people and therefore are ignored by Scripture. Ahab's participation in this episode undoubtedly would have been classified as being unequally yoked with other political powers of the day, against which God's people were warned in prophetic injunctions. But religious crises far greater than this occurred in Israel during Ahab's reign (cf. 1 Kings 18). II

(To be continued.)


For Shalmaneser Ill's inscriptions see Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University, 1955).

For a general history of Assyria including good coverage of this period see H. W. F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Hawthorn, 1962).

For a specific study of the relations between Israel and Assyria at this time see the article by W. W. Hallo, "From Qarqar to Carchemish: Assyria and Israel in the Light of New Discoveries," The Biblical Archeologist
23 (1960): 33-61.

For the archeology of Megiddo in this period see two works: K. Kenyon, Royal Cities of the Old Testament, Schocken paper back edition (New York, 1971), and J. N. Schofield, "Megiddo," in Archeology and Old Testament Study, edited by D. W. Thomas (Oxford: Oxford University, 1967).

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William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1979

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