Previous | Next | Directory

Judah and Israel in Biblical Archeology

or Download

King Solomon died around 930 BC. Because of his sins, God took most of the kingdom from his son, Rehoboam, and gave it to a former official who had years earlier lost favor with Solomon—Jeroboam, the son of Nebat. I Kings 12:1-24 relates how Rehoboam incited the northern tribes into rebelling against him by threatening to sanction an even heavier yoke of oppression than his father had. Jeroboam, the leader of that rebellion, quickly became king of the newly formed Northern Kingdom—which, consisting of ten tribes, from that time was called Israel. This left Rehoboam with only Judah, a portion of Benjamin, and most of Levi—called the Southern Kingdom or Judah.

For the next 230 years, the two distinct kingdoms often found themselves at war with one another. Skirmishes often resulted in various border cities changing hands.

Concerning the period of the two separate kingdoms, a number of archaeological finds lend credibility to the biblical accounts. One such find is called the Mesha Stela, also known as the Moabite Stone. It contains the account of Mesha, king of Moab, and his rebellion against Israel. Mesha’s rebellion is recorded in I Kings 3. In verse 27, we are told that Mesha offered his son as a sacrifice to the Moabites’ god in order to obtain deliverance from certain defeat by the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom. The stela substantiates the biblical account of Mesha’s sacrifice of his son. Until this stela was found, most scholars had questioned the accuracy of the biblical account, but now they have no excuse.

Another find corroborating the Bible is known as the Black Obelisk, a monument to the achievements of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria. The stone, now on display at the British Museum in London, was discovered by Austen Henry Layard in 1846 at the site of the Assyrian city of Kalhu (Calah), which was near Nineveh on the Tigris. Among the scenes depicted on the obelisk is one picturing a subjugated king named Jehu kneeling before Shalmaneser with his tribute (the inscription reads “Jehu of the House of Omri”). “House of Omri” was an Assyrian catchphrase for “House of Israel”—Omri being a notorious Israelite king (887-876 BC) who had managed to earn the respect of Assyrian rulers. Jehu was also one of Israel’s kings, ruling from about 841 to 814 BC, when the nation was under tribute to Assyria. Both Omri and Jehu are mentioned several times in Scripture, and the obelisk clearly validates their biblical historicity.

Another archaeological find—at the site of Megiddo, in the Northern Kingdom—came during a dig by the German Oriental Society in the early 1900s. The find was an agate seal, which included a Hebrew inscription indicating that it belonged to an official of Jeroboam II’s administration. As the eighth king of Israel, Jeroboam II was a prominent ruler of the Northern Kingdom. He is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament (II Kings 14; etc.).

II Kings 15:17-20 tells us that King Tiglath-pileser (Pul) of Assyria set out to conquer Israel but was persuaded by Menahem, king of Israel, to instead accept extensive tribute. According to Eugene Merrill, the “annals of Tiglath-pileser” validate the Old Testament record and readily “attest to Menahem’s eagerness to pay tribute to Tiglath-pileser in order to maintain his position in Samaria.”24

The city of Samaria, Israel’s capital, eventually fell to the Assyrians. A three-year siege was initiated under Shalmaneser V (II Kings 17:3-6), but the actual fall of Samaria was overseen by Sargon (mentioned incidentally in Isaiah 20:1). While early archaeological work had yielded little information on Assyria’s conquest of Samaria, a discovery in 1843 has helped to validate the biblical account. Among the ruins of what later proved to be Sargon’s palace at Dur-Sharukin (now Khorsabad, Iraq), the French archaeologist Paul Emile Botta discovered inscriptions recording Sargon’s many conquests. One of the inscriptions states, “In my first year [as king of Assyria] I besieged and conquered Samaria…. I led away 27,290 prisoners.”25 Sargon’s account of his overthrow of Samaria closely matches that of the Bible, once again substantiating its authenticity.

After conquering and deporting Israel from its homeland, Assyria eventually turned its attention to Judah. By this time, a new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had come to power. The year was about 700 BC, and Hezekiah was king of Judah. Beginning with II Kings 18:17 and continuing through all of chapter 19, we read how Sennacherib’s generals came to the walls of Jerusalem, blasphemed God, and then threatened to do to Jerusalem what they had just done to Lachish (II Chronicles 32:9-10) and several other Jewish cities if Hezekiah didn’t surrender. Hezekiah prayed to God for deliverance, and God responded by sending an angel who killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers while they slept.

The Prism of Sennacherib, also called the Taylor Prism, contains Sennacherib’s boastful account of his siege of Jerusalem. It reads, “Hezekiah himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, [at] his royal residence, like a bird in a cage….”26 Importantly, what is left out by Sennacherib is that he never conquered Jerusalem at all. But this is not at all unexpected, since no Assyrian king would easily admit failure or the unexplained loss of an entire army. Interestingly, Sennacherib does detail his triumph over Lachish—as if it was Assyria’s only significant victory of the day. Moshe Pearlman comments on the writings on this prism: “What made this find especially important was that for the first time a detailed text was accompanied by even more detailed bas-relief illustrations which evoke the very atmosphere of the biblical battlefield…. Sennacherib and his gleaming cohorts did indeed come down on Judah like the ‘wolf on the fold’ in the year 701 BC, and destroyed many ‘strong cities,’ though not perhaps forty-six, as he claimed. The one city he sought to subdue, but failed, was Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, where king Hezekiah’s spirit of resistance was much strengthened by the tough advice of the prophet Isaiah. Doubtless he [Sennacherib] would have wished the centerpiece of his wall decorations to have depicted the fall of Jerusalem. Instead, judging by the prominence given to [the battle for] Lachish, this must have been the scene of the fiercest fighting, and he evidently regarded its capture against stubborn defense as his most outstanding victory in this land.”27

The point here is that Sennacherib hid the fact that he failed to take Jerusalem, yet he went to great lengths to emphasize his capture of Lachish—which precisely corroborates the biblical account!

Following his failure at Jerusalem, Sennacherib returned to Assyria and was eventually killed by two of his sons. His youngest son, Esarhaddon, ascended to the throne. The biblical account of Sennacherib’s assassination (II Kings 19:35-37) is verified by Esarhaddon’s own records.

Another century or so passed. Then, three different times Judah was conquered by Babylon and her inhabitants exiled—the last time being in 586 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The years 608-538 BC comprised the 70-year Babylonian exile of the Jews. In 539 BC, Cyrus of Persia conquered the city of Babylon, as prophesied in Isaiah 45:1-2, incorporating Babylon into the Persian Empire. A year later, in fulfillment of Isaiah 44:28, he gave by decree permission to the exiled Jews to return to Palestine.

In 1879, archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam was excavating the foundations of the temple of Marduk in the ruins of Babylon when he uncovered a cylinder (subsequently named the Cylinder of Cyrus) which proved to contain the text of this particular decree of Cyrus—thus validating the biblical account.28 Because of its profound implications, a copy of this decree is on public display at the United Nations headquarters in New York.