Israelite Kings Depicted in Ancient Art?

Examining the Black Obelisk and Kuntillet ‘Ajrud depictions

While many scholars assume the prostrate figure on Shalmaneser III’s Black Obelisk (left) shows the Israelite king Jehu, this is likely a generic representation. Irit Ziffer turns to the site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (right) for an Israelite king’s representation in ancient art.

Has archaeology uncovered portraits of two Israelite kings? One contender is on the famous Black Obelisk from Nimrud/Calah, but scholars differ about the identification. Another more recent candidate for an Israelite king’s portrait is an image from a wall at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a remote site in the Sinai desert. As author Irit Ziffer explains in the September/October 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the answer may depend on an understanding of conventions in ancient art.

The British Museum’s famous Black Obelisk is often thought to include a portrait of the Israelite King Jehu bowing before the Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser III. However, Irit Ziffer writes that “there are severe problems with the suggestion that we have here a portrait of Jehu. As noted, Jehu’s tribute is described in the second panel from the top. The top panel relates to the ‘tribute of Sua of Gilzanu.’ Gilzanu is in the vicinity of Lake Urmia in the far eastern part of the Assyrian empire. Israel is in the far west, on the Mediterranean Sea.” After exploring ancient art styles and propaganda, she suggests that the Black Obelisk does not include a specific Israelite king’s image, but instead, the prostrate figures are generic tribute-bearers.

Learn more about Kuntillet ‘Ajrud art in the post “Puzzling Finds from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud: A Drawing of God Labeled “Yahweh and His Asherah” or the Egyptian God Bes?”


Pirhiya Beck was able to recreate the bright paint on these fragments from Kuntillet 'Ajrud. Courtesy Ze'ev Meshel/Israel Exploration Society.

The ancient art at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is very different from the Mesopotamian imperial style seen on the Black Obelisk. A fragmentary painting at the site’s Building A, a fort-like structure where archaeologists uncovered dedications to Yahweh and Ashera, may be an Israelite king’s portrait. After re-creating the colors on this ancient art, the late scholar Pirhiya Beck suggested that the seated figure portrayed is the king of Judah or Israel. The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud painting falls within an established tradition of seated regal figures holding a lotus blossom that continued for centuries. Ziffer explores similar examples at Late Bronze Age (14–12th century B.C.E.) Tell el-Farah, Iron Age (eighth-century B.C.E.) Calah/Nimrud and even Persian (fifth century B.C.E.) Persepolis.

Both the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Black Obelisk depictions reflect established themes in ancient art. Despite popular opinion, Ziffer argues that the Assyrian style is generic whereas the international regal themes from the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud Israelite king’s portrait are, in fact, “the only extant evidence of royal Israelite monumental art in the period of the First Temple.”


BAS Library Members: Read Irit Ziffer, “Portraits of Ancient Israelite Kings?” as it appears in the September/October issue of BAR.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today

Ze’ev Meshel’s lauded site publication, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud: An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border, is available for purchase in the BAS store. Click here for more information.


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  1. Paul says

    There’s some nice graphics in the Sept./Oct. 2013 issue of BAR, and to cite a couple of examples mentioned in the above article, we might get a better understanding of “the scepter will not turn aside from Judah, neither the commander’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10, taken from the New World Translation). The lotus, a Canaanite symbol of kingship, is consistantly held in the left hand while the staff (looks like a broomstick) is held in the right hand.
    In the relief from Calah (p.50), the Assyrian king is seated on a throne, and in a gesture of protection, points both the lotus and the staff toward a man who is prostrate before the king.
    The Persian ruler depicted in Persepolis (p.51) is seated on a throne, with lotus in left hand and the right hand positioning the staff in front of him in accordance with the above quoted verse, “between his legs.” Behind the throne stands the crown prince, also holding a lotus in his left hand and gesturing toward the throne with his right hand. This representation of the right of succession from the king to the crown prince accords with the alternate translations of Genesis 49:10, such as the New English Bible; “nor the staff from his descendants.”

  2. Paul says

    Ziffere’s article (pp.42,43) explains the symbolism of Shalmaneser III’s Black Obelisk on which Israelite king Jehu is portrayed in a panel directly below a panel depicting Sua of Gilzanu who also is prostrate before the king. In the center of each scene’s upper portion is the sun-disk with two wings and tail of a bird, probably the Akkadian sun god Shamash (or Sumerian Utu). For this reason the Assyrian Empire is refered to in Isaiah 14:2 as “Day Star, son of the dawn.” Dawn in Hebrew is shahar, and it is also the name of a Phoenician god mentioned in the Ugaritic texts. Shahar means dawn and its twin was Shalim which meant twilight. On the Obelisk, the positioning of a star alongside the sun-disk represents the morning star above the eastern ruler Sua and the evening star above the western king Jehu.
    Though Jehu isn’t mentioned paying tribute to the Assyrian king, the Judaen king Ahaz is gutting the temple and palace to use as tribute to placate Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 16:8).
    From the annals of Tiglath-pileser at Calah:
    “[In] the (subsequent) course of my campaign [I recieved] the tribute of the kings . . . A]zriau from Iuda (Ia-u-da-a-a), like a [ . . . Azr]iau from Iuda in . . . countless, (reaching) sky high . . . eyes, like from heaven . . . by means of an attack with foot soldiers . . . He heard [about the approach of the] massed [armies of ] Ashur and was afraid . . . ” (ANET p.282)
    Ahaz also made modifications to the temple area and modeled a new alter (apparently after the Assyrian pattern resembling a Ziggarat tower with steps) to appease his new ally (2 Kings 16:10-13). There were perhaps, social modifications administered to the public to ensure that correct political attitudes were maintained (according to a rigid social tier-structure like the Tower of Babel) by the positioning of spies that were replicated on the Assyrian model of “countless, reaching sky high eyes.”
    ‘You must not call a conspiracy all that the people calls conspiracy, nor revere what it reveres, nor hold it in awe. None but the Lord of Hosts shall you account holy” (Isaiah 8:12,13). Invoking the Lord of Hosts also conjures up the image of heavenly hosts (like the moon and the stars and the sun) that Isaiah and his children represent as “signs and portents” (Isaiah 8:18).
    “God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heaven to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs…” (Genesis 1:14).

  3. Paul says

    Correction; Isaiah 14:12.

  4. Paul says

    “The Lord of Hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:16), reminds us that the ancient Israelites lived under a theocracy, with the capitol of Judah, Jerusalem, being considered the dwelling of the Lord. The culture shock experianced with changes in the traditional order by the temple’s remodeling probably prompted Isaiah to say, “Give reverence to Him alone, hold Him alone in awe, He shall be for a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:13). The word for holy (kodish) in verse 13 parallels the word for sanctuary (mikodesh) in verse 14.
    The word for conspiracy in Isaiah 8:12 is “kosher”, and this root word is also means right order or what is proper, such as “kosherizing” cooking untensils by exposing them to heat, thereby disinfecting them. “And there are many other points on which they have a traditional rule to maintain, for example, washing of cups and jugs and copper bowls” (Mark 7:4).
    Isaiah is responding to the king’s effort to “kosherize” society, and this sort of reminds me of that funny video on the news of Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at passing motorists because of their view of what is right, that the motorists broke the Sabbath, thereby themselves breaking the Sabbath by throwing rocks.
    From a Gentile perspective, an example of “kosherizing” comes from Elvis Presley, who visited F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover and reported his suspician of the Beatles being a bad influence for using drugs. Elvis (who would secretly become addicted to prescription drugs) was then given a badge by the Director, which he promptly showed off to people.
    On the top of this page is a depiction of what may be an Israelite king at the desert caravan station of Kuntillet Ajrud, and the magazine article (p.44) states, “In a posthumously published article, Beck suggested that the figure in the chair is the king of Judah or Israel. The excavator suggests that Joash’s reign most closely corresponds to the date of the site.”
    I get the sense that this king, far from the constraints of the royal court, breaks with tradition and instead of holding the lotus like a scepter, inhales it. This image of the king depicted on the entrance of the building is described in the article (p.51); “The Assyrian kings had a term for it. They dubbed their royal image as salem sarrutiya, an ‘image of my (office of) kingship'”
    Joash lived in the early eighth centurry B.C.E., and he was perhaps a contemporary of Zakir king of Hammath, from whose inscription we have an example of the inner workings of the temple cult of the god Baal Shamayn (Lord of Heaven):
    “A more helpful reference to Syrian intermediaries occurs in an Aramaic inscription of Zakir, the king of Hammath and Luash. The inscription, which is traditionally dated the end of the ninth century or the beginning of the eighth century B.C., relates that when Zakir was confronted by a powerful coalition of enemy kings that had besieged one of his cities, he ‘lifted his hand’ (prayed) to his god, Baal-Shamayn. The god then answered him by means of seers and intermediaries. Baal-Shamayn promised the king divine aid and foretold the destruction of the enemy coalition. The seers (hzyn) mentioned in the text are presumably related to similar figures mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, where the title “seer” (hozeh) is applied to a particular type of Israelite intermediary” (Prophecy and Society in Israel, by Robert R. Wilson, p.130).
    Isaiah 1:1 begins with “Seer (hozeh) Isaiah son of Amoz.”

  5. Paul says

    Correction; “Lord of Hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:18).

  6. Paul says

    Another correction; The Hebrew words for “conspiracy” and “right” are not the same root word. Rather, they sound similar except the word for “right” begins with the letter kaf (k) and the word for “conspiracy” begins with the letter qof (q). Doesn’t this sound like a good plot for a thriller? “The Kosher Conspiracy,” the new best-seller of international corporate intrigue and espionage….


    It is clear that Israel came to the land prior to any other ”current” descendants to the land.

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