Biblical Archeology

The Bible and the Black Obelisk. This unusual artifact shows the only known portrayal specifically identified as a Hebrew king.

William H. Shea is an associate professor of Old Testament, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
The first article in this series described the 853 B.C. campaign of Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, which resulted in a draw or a defeat for him at Qarqar where he faced a coalition of four kings, including Ahab of Israel. Over the next few years, Shalmaneser returned periodically to wage battle in this area with Damascus as the focus of his attacks. Not until 841 B.C., however, did the Assyrian monarch reach the high point of his success in these western campaigns.

According to his annals, it was in his eighteenth regnal year (841 B.C.) that he gained the greatest victory over Damascus. Shalmaneser did not actually reduce the city and occupy it. He defeated Hazael's army in the field, besieged Damascus itself, and then—apparently satisfied with his success up to that point—moved on farther south.

The reference in his annals to this particular encounter with Damascus claims: "Hazael of Damascus put his trust upon his numerous army and called up his troops in great number. ... I fought with him and inflicted a defeat upon him, killing with the sword 16,000 of his experienced soldiers. I took away from him 1,121 chariots, 470 riding horses as well as his camp. He disappeared to save his life (but) I followed him and besieged him in Damascus, his royal residence. (There) I cut down his gardens (outside of the city and departed)." (For the inscriptions of Shalmaneser III see, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard [Princeton: Princeton University, 1955].)

This failure of Damascus to hold back the Assyrians proved the undoing of Israel and Jehu its king. Shalmaneser's annals go on to tell about the continuation of his successful campaign beyond Damascus.

"I marched as far as the mountains of Hauran, destroying, tearing down and burning innumerable towns, carrying booty away from them which was beyond counting. I (also) marched as far as the mountains of Ba 'li-ra'si which is a promontory (lit.: at the side of the sea) and erected there a stela with my image as king. At that time I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri."

Before tracing the course of this ex tended campaign and its impact on Heal history, we should notice a minor chronological problem.

According to Shalmaneser's annals, the earlier campaign during which he came in contact with Ahab at Qarqar (see MINISTRY, May, 1979) occurred in his sixth regnal year. The campaign during which he dealt with Jehu, he dates to his eighteenth year—thus twelve calendar years elapsed between Shalmaneser's contacts with these two Israelite kings. The Bible, however, specifies a total of fourteen years for the two kings who reigned in Samaria between Ahab and Jehu. Ahaziah followed Ahab and reigned two years (1 Kings 22:51), while Joram reigned twelve years after Ahaziah (2 Kings 3:1). Thus in reckoning the interval between Ahab and Jehu there appears to be a discrepancy of two years according to the Israelite and Assyrian records.

The most likely solution to this minor chronological puzzle has been proposed by the eminent modern chronographer E. R. Thiele. Thiele suggests that at this time in Israel the regnal years of the kings were reckoned according to what is known as the nonaccession-year system. According to this method, the first year of the new king started immediately upon his accession to the throne. The accession-year system used in Babylon did not officially start the first year of the new king until the next calendar year began. Obviously, in nonaccession reckoning, two regnal years—the last year of a particular king and the first year of his successor—both fell within the same calendar year. Thus adding the number of years for each king who computed his reign according to this system results in a higher total than the actual number of elapsed calendar years. Since two kings, Ahaziah and Jehoram, reigned in the interval between Ahab and Jehu, we should deduct one year each from their regnal years to get the actual number of years that elapsed during this interval. Following this procedure fits these two Israelite kings into the twelve-year interval given in Shalmaneser's annals with precision. (For the chronology of this period of Israelite history see E. R. Thiele, Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965].)

Turning now to examine Shalmaneser's 841 B.C. campaign as given in his annals, we find that after successfully dealing with Damascus he turned south to the Hauran, an area in southern Syria and northern Transjordan. Continuing in this direction would have brought the Assyrians into contact with some Israelite settlements in Gilead, which is exactly what happened according to a reference to this campaign in the Bible.

In our previous study of Shalmaneser's battle at Qarqar in which he fought Ahab's forces (among others), we suggested that even though an Israelite king was involved, the episode was not mentioned in the Bible because the battle was fought in an area peripheral to Israel's interest. By way of contrast, if Shalmaneser's troops crossed into Israelite territory at this time, we should expect a Biblical reference. Such a reference does occur, not in the annalslike record of 2 Kings, but in a message from the prophet Hosea.

In his message the prophet indicts the inhabitants of Israel for their injustice and for trusting in the strength of their arms (see Hosea 10:13). Warning against false self-confidence, the prophet predicted punishment to come and re minded his hearers of an earlier occasion when Israel's arms were not adequate to save her from the onslaught of a foreign enemy. "Therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O house of Israel, be cause of your great wickedness" (Hosea 10:14, 15, R.S.V.).

Who was Shalman and when did he destroy Beth-arbel? The name Shalman obviously corresponds to a shortened form of Shalmaneser. Shalmaneser V conquered Samaria in 722 B.C., after Hosea gave this prophecy (see 2 Kings 18:9). Shalmaneser IV reigned for a decade during a period of Assyrian weak "Shalman" referred to by Hosea should be identified with Shalmaneser III and the only time he could have come in contact with an Israelite settlement such as Beth-arbel in Gilead was during the campaign of 841 B.C. when he marched into the Hauran and then turned to the sea. (For a detailed discussion of Shalmaneser Ill's 841 B.C. campaign, see M. C. Astour, "841 B.C.: The First Assyrian Invasion of Israel," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 91 (1971): 383-389.) Thus Shalmaneser III was the first Assyrian king to move his army into Israelite territory and fight against one or more Israelite sites, thus setting in motion the tragic pattern of Assyrian invasions that continued through much of the next two centuries.

Following his foray into the Hauran, the Assyrian commander turned west, according to his annals, penetrating the mountains of Ba'li-ra'si beside the sea. The second word of the two which make up this name is related to the Hebrew word ro'sh, meaning "head." Thus the name of the place referred to here means "Head of Baal." Earlier interpreters identified this site with Ras en-Naqura at the mouth of the Dog River in central Lebanon where so many ancient conquerors carved their victory stelae. More recent interpreters have identified Ba'lira'si, correctly I believe, with Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast just south of the border between Israel and the territory of Tyre and Sidon. Several reasons point to this identification.

In the first place, the fact that at this time Shalmaneser took tribute from both Jehu of Israel and the kings of Tyre and Sidon implies that such tribute was re ceived at a site, such as the Mount Car mel area, located approximately equi distant between their respective royal residences. Second, if one draws the geographical coordinates for Shalmaneser's 841 B.C. campaign, the logical highway for him to have taken from the Hauran and Beth-arbel to the Mediterranean Sea would have been through the Jezreel Valley, which would have brought him to the coast at Mount Carmel, rather than at a point north of Beirut on the coast of Lebanon. Third, in light of the struggle which took place upon Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal during the reign of Ahab, only a little more than a decade before this incident, it is not at all unlikely that Mount Carmel could have been called "Head of Baal" or Mount Baal at this time. The evidence seems to indicate, therefore, that Shalmaneser set up his stele and received tribute from these western kings on Mount Carmel.

We are fortunate to have a pictorial representation of Jehu's payment of tribute to Shalmaneser. This representation comes to us from the Black Obelisk, which was excavated by A. H. Layard at Nimrud, or ancient Calah, in 1846. This four-sided monument stands two meters high and is slightly over half a meter wide at its base. There are five panels of pictorial relief on each of its four sides, crowned by three progressively smaller steps at the top. On the topmost steps, at the base, and above each of the panels are inscriptions. The upper set of panels show Sua of Gilzanu bowing before Shalmaneser, who is attended by two of his officers. Four more Assyrian officers stand behind Sua and in front of his porters, who bring his tribute. The second set of panels depicts Jehu the "son of Omri" bowing before Shalmaneser and attended by a similar group of Assyrian officers, who are followed in turn by thirteen Israelite porters, who bring Jehu's tribute. (For photographs of the Black Obelisk see, The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard [Princeton: Princeton University, 1954].)

The inscription lists Jehu's tribute as including, "silver, gold, a golden saplubowl, a golden vase with pointed bot tom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king (and) wooden puruhtu." The succeeding three sets of panels from the middle to the bottom of the obelisk list and depict the tribute brought from Musri, Suhi, and Hattina, but without picturing the rulers of these kingdoms.

This monument gives us an extraordinary opportunity to see how ancient Israelites looked and dressed. All four teen of the Israelites, including Jehu, are bearded, have long hair, and wear a pointed cap. All of the Israelites wear a belted tunic that has a fringe at the bot tom. In addition, the Israelite porters wear over the tunic a mantle that extends over the shoulders and is fringed or tasseled down the front on both sides. Jehu, however, does not wear the outer mantle. His position perhaps suggests the reason for it's absence. He is bowing before the Assyrian king on hands and knees with his chin and beard towards the ground—the picture of abject humiliation. As a part of this humiliation, it looks as if he had to remove his outer mantle and was thus forced to bow be fore the emperor of the world virtually in his underwear! All of the Israelite porters wear pointed shoes, but we cannot see whether Jehu has his shoes on or not, because his feet are hidden behind those of the Assyrian officers.

Until recently it was said that the Black Obelisk provided the only con temporary depiction of a Hebrew king and one of the few representations of Israelites from the period of the monarchy. (The Lachish reliefs from Sen nacherib's palace show Israelite soldiers fighting and Israelite refugees fleeing the city and being captured.) The Black Obelisk may no longer be the sole known depiction of a Hebrew king, however, since the discovery in the excavations at Ramat Rahel of a sherd on which appears an ink drawing of one who may be an Israelite king. The identification is not certain, however, and the picture of Jehu on the Black Obelisk still is the only representation specifically identified as a Hebrew king. (For the newsherd from Ramat Rahel which may depict a Judahite ruler, see Y. Aharoni, "Beth- Haccherem," Archaeology and Old Testament Study, edited by D. W. Thomas [Oxford: Oxford University, 1967], Plate VI, following page 180.)

Although Shalmaneser certainly subjugated a number of kings in his campaigns, the Black Obelisk pictures only two—Sua and Jehu. Why did he pick out these two? The answer appears to be given by the monument itself. Above both Sua and Jehu appear symbols of the winged sun-disk and an eight-pointed star but in a reversed order. The sun is to the left over Jehu and to the right over Sua. The reason, I would suggest, is that the sun rises in the east, where Sua ruled, and sets in the west, where Jehu ruled. Sua's kingdom of Gilzanu has not been located precisely but it was some where to the north and east of Assyria. It may not have been Shalmaneser's easternmost conquest but it certainly was representative of his conquests in that area. This location of Gilzanu is also borne 6ut by the camels that Sua is shown bringing to Shalmaneser along with his tribute. These camels have two humps and are, therefore, Bactrian or eastern camels.

Jehu was selected to appear on the Black Obelisk not because he was the most powerful or one of the more important kings that Shalmaneser defeated, but because he represented the western most conquest, just as Sua of Gilzanu was representative of Assyrian con quests in the east. Putting this depiction of Jehu together with the reference in the Assyrian king's annals to receiving tribute from him in the vicinity of Mount Carmel, I would suggest that the Black Obelisk depicts an event that actually happened as a result of Shalmaneser's campaign of 841 B.C. and further, that it happened within the borders of Israelite territory.

Shalmaneser's inscription refers to Jehu as the "son of Omri." Actually Jehu was not a descendant of Omri, but was the one who exterminated Omri's line to become king himself. The word "son" has a broader meaning in ancient Semitic languages than it does in modern English, however, and can mean a descendant of any subsequent generation. In this case it even refers to an unrelated successor in office. Omri's name, commonly associated with the royal house of Samaria in Assyrian inscriptions, shows the esteem in which he was held as the founder of Samaria and of the dynasty that built up that city and its kingdom.


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William H. Shea is an associate professor of Old Testament, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1979

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