The Empire splits — frontier posts between Israel and Judah — Napoleon reads Shishak's report on Palestine — Samaria, the northern capital — traces of Ahab's “ivory palace” — a mysterious “third man” — Arabs blow up victory monument in Moab — Mesha the mutton-king's song of triumph — Assyria steps in — the black obelisk from Nimrud — King Jehu's portrait in Assyria — consignments of wine for Jeroboam II — Uzziah's palace — the prophet Amos warns in vain — the walls of Samaria are strengthened to 30 feet. “So Israel rebelled against the house of David unto this day... there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only” (1 Kings 12:19-20).
Solomon the Great died in 926 B.C. The dream of Israel as a great power was buried with him for ever. Under the leadership of two unusually gifted men — David and Solomon — this ambitious dream had been built up stone by stone for two generations. But at the very moment of Solomon's passing, the old tribal dissensions broke out again and the empire of Syria and Palestine was shattered as the inevitable end of the quarrel. Two kingdoms took its place — the kingdom of Israel in the north, the kingdom of Judah in the south. A new chapter in the history of the people of the Bible had begun.
It was the Israelite people themselves that gnawed away their own foundations and destroyed their empire. It became only too plain what road they proposed to follow slowly until the bitter end when the inhabitants of Israel fell a prey to the Assyrians, and the inhabitants of Judah a prey to the Babylonians. Divided among themselves, what happened to them was worse than simply sinking back into obscurity. They were caught between the millstones of the great powers which were in the following centuries to dominate the world stage. Israel and Judah collapsed amid a welter of dispute and barely 340 years after Solomon's death both kingdoms were no more.
Solomon's last wish was certainly carried out: his son Rehoboam sat on the throne at Jerusalem for a short spell as ruler of all the tribes. The endless quarrelling of the tribes among themselves hastened the end of the empire, since this resulted in civil war. Ten tribes in the north seceded. Jeroboam, who had lost no time in returning from exile in Egypt, assumed the crown in 926 B.C. and became king of Israel in the north. The remainder stayed faithful to Rehoboam, and formed Judah in the south with its capital Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:19-20).
There was no harmony between Judah and Israel. They shed each other's blood in feud after feud. Time and again fighting broke out on the question of frontiers. “And there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all their days” (1 Kings 14:30). It was no different under their successors. “And there was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel all their days” (1 Kings 15:16). Judah built the fortress of Mizpah on the main strategic route from Jerusalem to the north, farther to the east they strengthened Geba “... and king Asa built with them Geba of Benjamin and Mizpah” (1 Kings 15:22). That was the final frontier.
From 1927-35 an American expedition from the Pacific School of Religion, under the direction of William Frederick Bade, excavated abnormally massive stonework at Tell en-Nasbe, 7 miles north of Jerusalem. It was the remains of the old frontier fortress of Mizpah. The enclosing wall was 26 feet thick. This tremendous defensive wall shows how hard and bitter was the civil war that raged between north and south.
Israel was hemmed in on both sides: by Judah on the south, who even summoned the hated Philistines to help to keep Israel in check, and in the north by the kingdom of the Aramaeans, whose powerful aid had been secured by Judah through an alliance (1 Kings 15:18ff).
Centuries passed, centuries of endless conflict with this vastly superior power which was the deadly enemy. The continuous sequence of wars did not end until the new world power Assyria had crushed the Aramaeans. But with the emergence of Assyria Israel's days, indeed the days of both kingdoms, were numbered.
Over and above all this, just after the civil war had started the country suffered unexpectedly the first foreign invasion for generations. Shishak26 of Egypt attacked with his armies and marched through the country, plundering as he went. His greatest haul was from the old capital Jerusalem, “…and he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house; he even took away all: and he took away all the shields of gold which Solomon had made” (1 Kings 14:25-26). The Temple and the House of Lebanon, as the Bible calls the royal palace, had hardly been standing twenty years, and already these proud tokens of Solomon's greatness were robbed of their glory. Instead of the golden shields which had been plundered “king Rehoboam made in their stead brazen shields” (1 Kings 14:27). It was an ill-omened act.
The first European of note to stand in front of a large document of the Pharaoh whom the Bible calls Shishak was Napoleon Bonaparte. He was not aware of it however since at that time no one had as yet deciphered hieroglyphics. It was in 1799 that he wandered, deeply impressed, with a company of French scholars, through a vast Egyptian temple area at Karaak on the east side of Thebes. In the middle of this, the greatest temple area ever constructed by human hands, 134 columns up to 75 feet high support the roof of a colossal court. On the outer wall, on the south side, an imposing relief which perpetuates the marauding expedition of this Pharaoh stands out boldly in the bright sunshine of the Nile.
The god Amun, holding in his right hand a sickle-shaped sword, brings to Pharaoh Sheshonk I 156 manacled Palestinian prisoners who are attached by cords to his left hand. Every prisoner represents a city or a village. Some of them have Biblical names such as “the Father of Arad” (Josh. 12:14; Jud. 1:16 ) and “the Field of Abraham.” The fortified city of Megiddo is among those represented, and in the ruins of Megiddo the name of Sheshonk I has been found.
Sheshonk's campaign was for a long time the last. Not for more than 300 years was Egypt again in a position to enforce its ancient claim to the suzerainty of the Syrian-Palestine territories.
The deadly danger that faced Israel came from the north — Assyria. During the reign of King Omri (882-871 B.C.) Assyria prepared to pounce. As if in a practice manoeuvre for the real thing it tried a thrust westwards from Mesopotamia.
“From Aleppo I launched the attack and crossed the Orontes.” This sentence from a cuneiform inscription of Ashurnasirpal II rings out like an opening fanfare of trumpets. It had taken Assyria over 200 years to dispose of its enemies inside and outside Mesopotamia. From the ancient city of Ashur on the Tigris, which bore the name of their chief god, the Semitic race of Assyrians, eager for conquest and skilled in administration, had extended their dominion over all the peoples of Mesopotamia. Now their eyes were fixed on the conquest of the world. The prelude to that had to be the possession of the narrow coastal strip of Syria and Palestine which barred the way to the Mediterranean, as well as the occupation of the important seaports, the control of the chief caravan routes and of the only military road into Egypt.
When Assyria set itself this target the fate of Syria and Palestine was sealed.
The report of Ashurnasirpal indicates briefly what was also in store for Israel and Judah. “I marched from the Orontes... I conquered the cities... I caused great slaughter, I destroyed, I demolished, I burned. I took their warriors prisoner and impaled them on stakes before their cities. I settled Assyrians in their place.... I washed my weapons in the Great Sea.”
As unexpectedly as the Assyrians had appeared, so with equal abruptness they departed, laden with “silver, gold, lead, copper,” the tribute of the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos.
King Omri of Israel heard of all this with dark foreboding. This former army officer however still showed his outstanding flair for soldiering now that he had become king. In the heart of the Samarian highlands he bought a hill on which he built a new capital for Israel, the stronghold of Samaria (1 Kings 16:24). He was certain that Israel would need it, and need it badly.
The choice of a site revealed the expert who was guided by strategic considerations. Samaria lies on a solitary hill, about 300 feet high, which rises gently out of a broad and fertile valley and 18 surrounded by a semi-circle of higher mountains. A local spring makes the place ideal for defence. The view westwards from the summit extends as far as the Mediterranean.
King Omri made an impression on the Assyrians. A century after his dynasty had crashed, Israel was still officially called 'The House of Omri” in cuneiform texts.
Eighteen years after Omri's death what they had dreaded actually happened. Shalmaneser III fell upon Carchemish on the Euphrates and was on his way to Palestine (853 B.C.)
Ahab, Omri's son who succeeded him on the throne, guessed what a violent clash with the rising world-power of Assyria would mean and did the only proper thing in the circumstances. He had recently beaten his old enemy Benhadad of Damascus, king of the Aramaeans. Instead of letting him taste to the full the victor's power, he handled him with unwonted magnanimity, he “caused him to come up into the chariot,” called him “my brother,” made “a covenant with him and sent him away” (1 Kings 20:32-34) So he made an ally out of an enemy. His people misunderstood his policy and one of the prophets took him to task. Only the future would show how well he had known what he was doing. War on two fronts had been avoided.
“In sheepskin boats I crossed the Euphrates in flood,” runs the cuneiform report of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria. His sappers knew how to make a pontoon bridge out of inflated animal skins.
In Syria he was met by an opposing coalition from Syria and Palestine, and he took careful note of how the army was made up. Apart from the troops of the Biblical Benhadad of Damascus and another Syrian prince, there were “2,000 chariots and 10,000 horses belonging to Ahabbu the Sirilaean.” Ahabbu the Sirilaean, who provided the third strongest army, was king of Israel.
The alliance between Israel and Damascus did not last long. Hardly had the Assyrians left the country when the old enmities broke out again and Ahab lost his life fighting the Aramaeans (1 Kings 22:34-38).
The Bible devotes six chapters to the life of this king. Much of it has been dismissed as legend, such as “the ivory house which he made” (1 Kings 22:39), or his marriage to a Phoenician princess, who brought with her a strange religion, “... he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, 1853 B.C. and went and served Baal and worshipped him... and made the Asherah...” (1 Kings 16:31-33 — R.V.) or the great drought in the land, “And Elijah... said unto Ahab: As the Lord, the God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1).
None the less they are historical facts.
Two great assaults have been made on the old ruined mound of Samaria. The first campaign was led by George A. Reisner, Clarence S. Fisher, and D. G. Lyon of the University of Harvard from 1908-10, the second excavation by an Anglo-American team under the British archaeologist J. W. Crowfoot from 1931-1935.
The foundations of Israel's capital rest on virgin soil. Omri had in fact acquired new land.
During the six years when he reigned there this otherwise peaceful and lonely hill must have been one great bustling building site. The huge blocks of the strong fortifications make the strategic intention of the builder plain. The walls are 15 feet thick. On the acropolis on the west side of the hill foundations and walls of a building were exposed. This enclosed a wide courtyard and was the royal palace of the northern kingdom of Israel.
After Omri, Ahab his son, the new king, lived here. He continued building in accordance with his father's plans. The construction was carried out with remarkable skill, nothing but these huge carefully dressed limestone blocks being-used.
As the rubble was being carted off the diggers very quickly noticed the innumerable splinters of ivory that it contained. Finds of ivory itself are nothing unusual in Palestinian excavation. On almost every site this expensive material is encountered, but always in isolated pieces, yet in Samaria the ground is literally covered with them. At every step, every square yard, they came across these yellowish brown chips and flakes, as well as fragments which still showed the marvellous craftsmanship of these elegant reliefs carved by Phoenician masters.
There was only one explanation of these finds: this palace was the famous “ivory house” of King Ahab (1 Kings 22:39).
Obviously this monarch did not build his entire palace of ivory. Since this has however generally been assumed, the veracity of the Biblical passage has been questioned. It is now quite clear what happened: Ahab had the rooms of the palace decorated with this wonderful material and filled them with ivory furniture.
The proofs of the historical basis for the drought and for Ahab's father-in-law Ethbaal of Sidon were provided by Menancfc of Ephesus, a Phoenician historian. The Ethbaal of the Bible was called Ittobaal by the Phoenicians and in Ahab's day he was kin of the port of Tyre.27 Menander records the catastrophic drought which set in throughout Palestine and Syria during the reign Ittobaal and lasted a whole year.
Under King Jehoram, Ahab's son, Israel suffered an invasion which had terrible consequences and resulted in a considerable loss of territory.
The Aramaeans attacked them and besieged Samaria. A frightful famine racked the inhabitants. Jehoram, who held the prophet Elisha responsible for it, wanted to have him put to death. Elisha however prophesied that the famine would end on the following day. As the Bible records, “a lord, on whose hand the king leaned” (2 Kings 7:2), doubted this prophecy.
This “lord” has given rise to great discussions. His function appeared to be extremely mysterious. Nothing was known of any office of this sort. Biblical commentators sought in vain for some explanation. Eventually philologists found a slight clue. The Hebrew word “shalish,” which has been translated as “lord,” comes from the word for “three.” But there was never a third-class officer. When Assyrian reliefs were examined more closely the true explanation was found.
Every chariot was manned by three men: the driver, the fighter, and a man who stood behind them. With outstretched arms he held on to two short straps which were fastened to the right and left sides of the chariot. In this way he protected the warrior and the driver in the rear and prevented them from being thrown out during those furious sallies in battle when the open car passed over dead and wounded men. This then was the “third man.” The inexplicable “lord, on whose hand the king leaned” was the strap-hanger in King Jehoram's chariot.
Under Jehoram Israel lost a large slice of territory east of the Jordan. Moab in Transjordan was a tributary of Israel. There is a detailed account of a campaign against Mesha, the rebellious “Mutton-King”: “And Mesha, king of Moab, was a sheepmaster, and rendered unto the king of Israel a hundred thousand lambs, and a hundred thousand rams, with the wool. But it came to pass, when Ahab was dead, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel” (2 Kings 3:4-5). Israel summoned to her aid the southern kingdom, Judah, and the land of Edom.
They decided to make a joint attack on Moab from the south. This meant going round the Dead Sea. Relying on the prophecy: “Ye shall not see wind, neither shall ye see rain: yet that valley shall be filled with water, that ye may drink, both ye, and your cattle and your beasts” (2 Kings 3:17), the allies venture to march through that desolate country. “And they fetched a compass of seven days' journey: and there was no water for the host, and for the cattle that followed them.” On the advice of the prophet Elisha they made the valley “full of ditches.” “And it came to Pass in the morning... behold there came water by the way of Edom, and the country was filled with water.” This was seen by spies from Moab, who “saw the water on the other side as red as blood” (2 Kings 3:9-22) and thought that the enemy were fighting among themselves.
The allied forces were successful in Moab, they laid waste the land, “they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it: and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kir-Haraseth left they the stones thereof” (2 Kings 3:25).
Oddly enough the end of this successful campaign was “that they departed from him and returned to their own land” (2 Kings 3:27).
It seemed impossible to check up on the accuracy of this Biblical story.
In 1868 F. A. Klein, a missionary from Alsace, was visiting Biblical sites in Palestine. The route he followed took him through Transjordan, through Edom and eventually to Moab. As he was riding in the neighbourhood of Diban, the ancient Dibon on the middle reaches of the Arnon, his attention was particularly aroused by a large smooth stone. The yellow sand had almost completely drifted over it. Klein jumped from his horse and bent over the stone curiously. It bore unmistakably ancient Hebrew writing. He could hardly believe his eyes. It was as much as he could do in the heat of the mid-day sun to stand the heavy basalt stone upright. It was three feet high and rounded on top. Klein cleaned it carefully with a knife and a handkerchief. Thirty-four lines of writing appeared.
He would have preferred to take the stone document away with him there and then, but it was far too heavy. Besides, in no time a mob of armed Arabs was on the spot. With wild gesticulations they surrounded the missionary, maintaining that the stone was their property and demanding from him a fantastic price for it.
Klein guessed that his discovery was an important one and was in despair. Missionaries never have much money. He tried in vain to make the natives change their minds. There was nothing for it but to mark the site carefully on his map. He then gave up the idea of continuing his journey, hurried back to Jerusalem and from there straight home to Germany to try to collect the necessary money for the Arabs.
But in the meantime other people got busy, which was a good thing. Otherwise an extremely valuable piece of evidence for Biblical history might well have been lost for ever.
A French scholar, Clermont-Ganneau, who was working in Jerusalem, had heard of the German missionary's discovery and had at once set out for Diban. It needed all his powers of Persuasion to get the suspicious Arabs even to allow him to examine the writing on the basalt stone. Surrounded by the hostile eyes of the natives, Clermont-Ganneau took a squeeze of the surface. Months later, when Parisian scholars had translated the text, the French government sanctioned the purchase without hesitation. But judge the Frenchman's disappointment when he reached Diban, equipped with a caravan and the necessary sum of money, and found that the stone had disappeared. Only a patch of soot indicated the spot where it had been. The Arabs had blown it to pieces with gunpowder — from avarice. They hoped to do a more profitable trade with Europeans whose obsession with antiquity would make them willing to buy individual pieces.
What could Clermont-Ganneau do but set out on the trail of the individual pieces of the valuable document. After a great deal of trouble and searching, and after endless haggling, he was successful in retrieving some of the broken fragments. Two larger blocks and eighteen smaller pieces were reassembled and completed in accordance with the squeeze, and before Klein had even collected the necessary money, the impressive stone from Diban was standing among the valuable recent acquisitions in the Louvre in Paris.
This is what it says: “I am Mesha, son of Chamosh, king of Moab.... My father was king of Moab for thirty years and I became king after my father: and I built this sanctuary to Chamosh28 in Qerihoh29, a sanctuary of refuge: for he saved me from all my oppressors and gave me dominion over all my enemies. Omri was king of Israel and oppressed Moab many days, for Chamosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him and he also said, I will oppress Moab. In my days he said this: but I got the upper-hand of him and his house: and Israel perished for ever.... I have had the ditches of Qerihoh dug by Israelite prisoners....”
This Moabite victory message aroused considerable interest in learned circles. Many scholars did not conceal their suspicion that it was a forgery. International experts scrutinised the stone and its inscription. All the tests made it plain beyond doubt that this was in fact a historical document, a contemporary record of the King Mesha of Moab who is mentioned in the Bible.
It is also Palestine's oldest written document, dating from about 840 B.C. in Moabite dialect, which is closely related to Biblical Hebrew. That caused a real sensation.
Audiatur et altera pars — There are always two sides to a story!
If we want an objective picture it is always advisable to study the war-diaries of both opponents. There is more likelihood of getting a clearer picture of the real situation. In this particular case, as it happens, the Biblical description and the Moabite text supplement each other admirably. The Mesha-stele30 adds the necessary colour to the Biblical narrative and illumines its obscurity. The stele and the Bible agree on the decisive point, namely that the campaign ended with the defeat of the Israelite king. The Bible describes at length the initial success of Israel, which King Mesha passes over in silence. The unfortunate outcome of the campaign is only briefly hinted at in the Bible, whereas the Moabite king revels in his victory. Both are telling the truth.
As far as the “bloody water” is concerned, which saved the allies from dying of thirst on their march through this barren country, a geologist found a natural explanation. If trenches are dug in the tufa beside the Dead Sea, they fill up with water at once, which seeps through from the high plateau and owes its reddish colour to the character of the soil. To this day shepherds in Transjordan often manufacture water holes in exactly the same manner.
“And Israel perished for ever,” says the Mesha stele triumphantly. By this is meant the bloody extirpation of the dynasty of Omri from the throne of Israel. Jehoram was killed. Not one member was spared of the ruling house which had propagated the hated worship of Baal in Israel through King Ahab's marriage to the Phoenician princess Jezebel (2 Kings 9:24ff; 10:11ff).
Information about King Jehu's reign is scanty: “In those days the Lord began to cut Israel short: and Hazael smote them in all the coasts of Israel” (2 Kings 10:32). The total extent of the losses in men and material first becomes plain in a passage about the reign of Jehoahaz, son of Jehu:31 “Neither did he leave of the people to Jehoahaz but fifty horsemen, and ten chariots, and ten thousand footmen: for the king of Syria had destroyed them and had made them like the dust by threshing” (2 Kings 13:7). Ahab's proud chariot-corps was reduced from 2,000 to ten. How could that have happened?
A young Englishman, Henry Layard, a lawyer by profession and attache-elect at Constantinople, had an incredible stroke of luck as a novice in archaeology in 1845. With literally only £50 in his pocket he had set out to excavate an old mound on the Tigris, Tell Nimrud. On the third day he came upon remains of palace. He dug a trench, but nothing but masses and masses of sand came out of it. When the trench was 20 feet deep Layai had to stop work, to his great disappointment, as his money had run out.
He was feeling depressed as he loaded his few tools on to the packmules, when excited cries from the natives made him pause. One of them ran up to him and got him to go and look at the end of the trench where something dark was showing up against tl golden yellow sand. Digging was hastily resumed and produced a huge pure black stone in the shape of an obelisk. Layard tenderly cleaned the ancient dust and dirt off his find. And no he could see reliefs, pictures and inscriptions in cuneifon writing on all four sides.
Well wrapped up and guarded like the apple of his eye the black stone sailed up the Tigris in one of the fragile river-boa to be presented to the more than somewhat astonished officials the British Embassy in Constantinople. A meagre £50 had produced unexpected dividends indeed. Never again in the history of archaeology would such a valuable find result from such small investment.
Proudly the technicians cleared a fitting site for the stone the British Museum. Thousands of Londoners and European: scholars marvelled at this ancient piece of evidence from the distant east. The tip of the 6 foot obelisk of black basalt is in the shape of a three-tiered temple tower. Visitors gazed in astonishment at the wonderful reliefs displayed in five rows round the column.
Magnificently attired royal personages are chiselled out as in real life: some of them prostrate themselves with their faces to the ground in front of a commanding figure. Long columns bearers are laden with costly treasures, such as ivory tusks, bales of fringed fabrics borne on poles, pitchers and baskets full to the brim. Among the animals included can be observed an elephant with remarkably small ears: there are camels with two humps, apes, antelopes, even a wild bull and a mysterious unicorn.
Anyone trying to interpret the meaning of the reliefs was thrown back on pure conjecture. For at that time no one in the world could read cuneiform script. The stone remained dumb. Even the scholars learned no more about the Assyrians than the Bible told them. At the beginning of the 19th century even the names Sumerian and Akkadian meant nothing. “One box, not more than three feet square,” wrote Layard, “fitted with little inscribed cylinders, seals and textual fragments, which could not even be systematically arranged, were at that time all that London knew of the early period of Mesopotamian history.”
It was only later, when the text had been translated, that it transpired that the black obelisk was a victory monument by the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, (858-824 B.C.) contemporary and adversary of King Ahab of Israel. It celebrates an endless succession of bloody campaigns.
The enumeration of them contains an extremely interesting cross-reference to the Biblical tradition dealing with the period.
Three times, in the sixth, eleventh, and fourteenth year of his reign, the Assyrian came up against a coalition of kings of Syria and Palestine during his victorious incursions into the West. In the campaign in the eighteenth year of his reign however only the king opposed him in this territory. The Assyrian texts name as the adversary only King Hazael of Damascus, whom the Bible also mentions.
But the victory monument gives ample information about the former ally of the king of Damascus, Jehu of Israel.
The second row of the relief shows a long queue of heavily laden envoys in richly ornamented tunics and peaked caps. The relevant text reads: “Tribute of Jaua of Bit-Humri: Silver, gold a golden bowl, golden goblets, a golden beaker, pitchers of gold, lead, sceptres for the king and balsam-wood I received from him.”
“Jaua of Bit-Humri” is none other than King Jehu of Israel. The Assyrians called Israel “Bit-Humri,” which means “House of Omri.”
This hint from the royal palace on the Tigris provides the key to our understanding of the losses which the northern kingdom of Israel sustained during the reign of Jehu.
Tribute is only paid by those who voluntarily surrender: a vanquished enemy supplies loot. Jehu had been disloyal to Damascus and had brought gifts to the Assyrians. For his faithlessness towards his old ally, for deserting Damascus, Jehu and his son Jehoahaz and most of all the people of Israel had to pay a bitter price. Hardly had the Assyrians turned their backs on Syria than Hazael of Damascus began to make a destructive onslaught on Israel in revenge. The result of it is described in the Bible: “In those days the Lord began to cut Israel short: and Hazael smote them in all the coasts of Israel... and made them like the dust by threshing” (2 Kings 10:32).
“That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calve out of the midst of the stall: that chant to the sound of the viol and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the chief ointments....” (Amos 6:4-6).
The fact that Assyria had, after Shalmaneser III, a succession of weak kings, allowed both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, another respite, which, however, meant only a postponement. Since Assyria was occupied with unrest in its own territory, Israel an Judah were able to enjoy a spell of peace from 825 to 745 b.C
For forty years Uzziah, the leper, reigned as king of Judah. Israel was governed by Jeroboam II (787-747 B.C.). Under his long rule Israel flourished again, became rich, wallowed in luxury, and the aristocracy lived for themselves and for the moment, effete corrupt and vicious. The prophet Amos raised his voice in warning. He lashed out at their unbridled love of pleasure.
Archaeological reports and dry accounts of expeditions shed a powerful light upon these prophetic warnings. In Israel, in and around the old mound of ruins that represented ancient Samaria, evidence was lying dormant which would indicate this materialism and luxury in the soil strata from the decades following 800 B.C. in the reign of Jeroboam II. The royal palace of Samaria contained a considerable number of elegant clay tablets inscribed with ink and paint. On sixty-three of these invoices for wine and oil which had been delivered at the Court the senders are the managers of the crown lands of Jeroboam II, farmers and their employees, whose handwriting is extremely good.
From the same period comes a number of beautifully carved ivories, some of which are expensively embellished with gold and semi-precious stones and ornamented with colourful powdered glass. They show mythological motifs borrowed from Egypt, like Harpocrates on the lotus flower or figures of gods like Isis and Horus or cherubs. At that time all over Israel granaries and storehouses were being built to hold goods of all descriptions whose supply exceeded demand.
What was the reason for this sudden change? To what did they owe their new found riches?
A few decades previously things had looked black for Israel. A sentence from the record of the forty-one-year reign of Jeroboam II contains the clue to the problem: “He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain” (2 Kings 14:25). The “sea of the plain” is the Dead Sea. Once again the kingdom stretched into Transjordan and — as in David's and Solomon's time — up to Syria.
About 800 B.C. the conquest of Damascus by the Assyrians had broken the power of the Aramaeans and thereby — it sounds as if fate were being ironical — cleared Israel's arch-enemy out of the way. Israel seized the opportunity to reconquer long-lost territory, exploited the situation to its own advantage and the tribute exacted from Transjordan proved a source of new wealth for Israel.
Evidence of a similar period of peace and prosperity in the southern kingdom of Judah has since come to hand. Professor Michael Evenari, vice-president of the Hebrew University, discovered in 1958 traces of several Judaean farms equipped with cisterns, irrigation systems, and fortifications, far south in the arid Negev near Mizpeh Ramon. The finds date from the reign of Uzziah, king of Judah. We are specifically told in 2 Chron. 26:10 that this king “built towers in the desert and digged many wells; for he had much cattle....”
In 1959 Professor Aharoni of the Hebrew University was the first to discover a Judaean palace two miles south of Jerusalem, On Rachel's hill on the road to Bethlehem, at the spot where, according to tradition, Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem “to be taxed” refreshed themselves at the spring, the site of a large castle was excavated, 250 feet by 150 feet square, and dating from the 8th century B.C. It had been surrounded by a casemated wall like that of King Ahab in Samaria and had a triple gate in the style of Solomon's day. Three sides of the courtyard were surrounded by buildings, two sides residential and the third for stores. When the excavators asked themselves the question as to who could have been the builder and first tenant of this lordly rural demesne they were given only one hint: “And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord” (2 Chron. 26:21).
Individual items removed from the palace rubble indicate how right the prophets were in their condemnation. Several symbols of Astarte witness to the “idolatry” that went on in this princely home (2 Kings 15:4).
Harsh and full of foreboding in these days of pseudo-prosperity ring out the prophetic words of Amos: “Woe... to them, that trust in the mountain of Samaria... ye that put far away the evil day and cause the seat of violence to come near.... Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be removed” (Amos 6:1,3,7). But in vain — they fall upon deaf ears. Only King Jeroboam cannot have had much faith in the peace, perhaps because the words of the prophet found an echo in his heart. At all events he feverishly set about strengthening the defences of the royal city of Samaria, which were in any case sufficiently forbidding.
J.W. Crowfoot, the English archaeologist, found what Jeroboam in his wisdom and foresight had achieved. Samaria had been surrounded with a double wall and the existing walls which were already massive had been further strengthened. In the northern section of the acropolis, where Samaria must have been most vulnerable, Crowfoot exposed a titanesque bastion. He measured it and was certain he must have made a mistake. He measured it carefully once more. No doubt about it, the wall — solid stone through and through — was 30 feet thick.