References to Ancient Israel in Assyrian Texts
This is the first part of an exclusive Bible History Daily series on historical texts that are important for understanding the history and world of the Bible.
When discussing historical references to ancient Israel outside of the Bible, many note the famous Tel Dan Inscription or the Mesha Stele, but there are two important Assyrian texts that are often forgotten: the Kurkh Monolith and the Black Obelisk.1 These inscriptions contain not only two of the oldest mentions of ancient Israel, but also describe events not mentioned in the Bible.
The Kurkh Monolith, uncovered at Tell Kurkh in Syria in the 19th century, is one of the earliest mentions of ancient Israel, predating both the Tel Dan Inscription and the Mesha Stele by several decades. The monolith (technically a stela) was erected by Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria, to commemorate his military campaign to the west in 853 BCE. Although important for reconstructing Shalmaneser’s reign, the stela is also interesting for its mention of Ahab, king of Israel (r. 871–852 BCE).
The stela describes the events of Shalmaneser’s campaign against several southwest Syrian kingdoms. During the campaign, the Assyrian king was met by a coalition of kings, including Ahab of Israel. This was the first instance of any real resistance against the encroaching Assyrian threat that would eventually conquer all of Syria and the Levant, save for the Kingdom of Judah.
As with other Assyrian stelae, the Kurkh Monolith provides significant details about the conflict, listing Ahab along with ten other kings that took part in the alliance, and the number of troops each brought to the battle.
Ahab is mentioned third among the list of allied kings, showing Israel was one of the more powerful members of the alliance. The stela says that Ahab was able to bring 2,000 chariots to the battle. This would be an astonishingly large number, as many as Assyria itself, and particularly surprising for a hilly kingdom like Israel that could not have easily used chariots in its own territory. Thus many scholars have suggested that the number of chariots, as well as the total number of troops involved, were heavily inflated.2 This was a common propagandistic practice within the ancient Near East, as it would have presented the victor as much stronger than they actually were.
Interestingly, this military conflict between Shalmaneser and Ahab goes completely unmentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and it is not until the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (biblical Pul), a century after the reign of Ahab, that the Assyrian army, by then on the doorstop of Israel’s kingdom, is mentioned as a serious threat (2 Kings 15:17).
Other intriguing aspects of this inscription include the specific reference to Ahab as the king of Israel (called Sir’al in Akkadian). While many other texts designate kingdoms by the name of their founders—such as “House of David” in the Tel Dan Inscription (and possibly the Mesha Stele) or “House of Omri” in numerous other Assyrian inscriptions—this text provides the formal name of the kingdom, Israel. Another interesting aspect of the inscription is the kings mentioned alongside Ahab. These include Adad-idri of Damascus (likely biblical Hadadezer) as well as Gindibu the Arab, the earliest historical reference to the ancient Arabs.
Like the Kurkh Monolith, the Black Obelisk is a victory record of Shalmaneser III. However, what makes this obelisk stand out is its possible artistic depiction of Jehu, the king of Israel (r. 841–814 BCE). Dated to 826 BCE, a few decades after the Kurkh Monolith, the stela includes details of several of Shalmaneser’s earlier campaigns, including a campaign in 838 BCE in which he fought against yet another alliance of Syrian and Levantine kingdoms.
Whereas the alliance had been able to repel Shalmaneser in his earlier campaigns, by this point the Assyrian king had pushed farther into Syria and succeeded in taking several cities of Hazael of Damascus, the same king that wrote the Tel Dan Inscription. Following this blow, the Phoenician city-states of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos paid off the Assyrian king with tribute. So too did Jehu, who sent Shalmaneser silver, gold, tin, and even a royal scepter to symbolize Assyria’s dominance over the Kingdom of Israel.
Like the earlier conflict between Ahab and Shalmaneser, the submission of Jehu to Assyria is also not mentioned in the Bible, which instead focuses on matters closer to home, such as the ongoing conflict between Israel and its erstwhile ally, Damascus (2 Kings 8:25–29).
Perhaps the most discussed feature of the Black Obelisk is the proposed picture of Jehu himself. Carved on each side of the Black Obelisk are images of the conquered kings who paid tribute to Shalmaneser. Next to each ruler is found a small inscription with the name of the king giving tribute; one’s name is Jehu of Israel. Despite this attribution, however, it is unlikely that the figure is an actual depiction of Jehu; rather, it is more likely a stock image of a king bowing in submission to Shalmaneser.
Unlike the Kurkh Monolith, the Black Obelisk refers to Jehu as the “Son of Omri.” This is perplexing at first, as the Bible tells us that Jehu was indeed not a “son of Omri” but rather came to the throne through a coup, thus indicating that he was not even part of the same dynasty (2 Kings 9–10). For the Assyrians, however, how Jehu came to the throne was likely less important than the fact that he was the ruler of the kingdom founded by Omri. It is also possible that Jehu actually was a descendant of Omri, but from a separate branch of the family.
Several other Akkadian texts recording the victories of Assyrian kings mention the Kingdom of Israel between the time of Shalmaneser and the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III. Indeed, several other texts of Shalmaneser III mention Israel, its kings, and topics related to them. One text from Assur even mentions Hazael, “son of none,” coming to the throne after Hadadezer, a possible reference to his usurpation as mentioned in 2 Kings 8:7–15.
Texts from the reign of Adad-Nerari III continue to mention the alliance between Damascus and Israel and its attempts to defend the region against Assyria. In this regard, the Tell al-Rimah Stele is notable for mentioning King Joash of Samaria. This is the first time the term Samaria is used in Akkadian to refer to the Kingdom of Israel. Additionally, it is possible that Adad-Nerari is the “deliverer” mentioned in 2 Kings 13:5, who saved Israel from Aram, shortly before the reign of Joash.
While these texts might not receive the same headlines as the Tel Dan Inscription or the Mesha Stele, the information they provide is exceptionally important for understanding the interactions of Israel, Judah, and Damascus as well as their eventual conquest or submission to Assyria.
1: For more on these inscriptions and others see: Mordechai Cogen, The Raging Torrent, 2 ed, (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015)
2: Nadav Na’aman, “Two Notes on the Monolith Inscription of Shalmaneser III from Kurkh,” Tel Aviv 3.3 (1976), pp. 89–106.
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