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The Ascendance and Decline of Israel and Judah

Introduction to Biblical Archaeology 4:
The Ascendance and Decline of Israel and Judah

by Joel Ng (2004)

As we enter the Iron Age II, we find ourselves in more of the same quandaries as we encountered in the last piece. As we saw in the last piece, the ethnic division between "Israelites" and "Canaanites" was impossible in the Iron I, and we continue to be plagued with similar problems. Whatever their origins, the inhabitants were beginning to form their own identity, one that would last to this day. According to the Bible, this is the period of David and Solomon, whose empire was the heyday of Israel. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence is less than overwhelming. Nothing of any confidence has been connected with David (though we shall look at the Mesha stele later), and the so-called Solomonic gates' builders are the subject of raging conspiracy. Starting from 1000 B.C.E., we can divide this period into Iron IIa, b, and c, according to three important dates: 923—Shishak's campaign, 722—the fall of Israel, and 586—the final fall of Judah. The Iron IIa is sometimes known as the "Solomonic" period, although it should not be mistaken as proof of his existence, merely an accepted convention.

By now, Egypt's decline was complete, and the vassals in Palestine were free. Likewise, the Philistines and other Sea Peoples were rapidly assimilating into the local population, and by the end of the Iron II, all that would be left of them would be the name they bequeathed to the region. A number of states were also rising both in the period before and now: Samal, Cicilia, Gurgum, Carchemish, and Hamath were neo-Hittite cities in northern Syria (though the ethnic relation to Hittites is unknown, they used a Hittite script). Further south, the Aramaeans were developing cities along the Orontes River, Coele-Syria, Hamath, Geshur, and Damascus. While present in the Bronze Age, their rise at this time was unhindered by other powers in that region. Their West Semitic tongue, though distinct from Phoenician, and Canaano-Hebrew dialects, would eventually become the lingua franca of Jesus' day.

Material Evidence in the 9th century

During the Iron IIa, the expansion of the population that began earlier continued apace. Sites that had been abandoned in the last millennium were reinhabited and in some cases, large fortresses were built. An urban culture was once again developing as cities grew once again after the turmoil of the previous period. At the same time, relatively few inscriptions and figurines have been recovered from this period, suggesting perhaps that the land of Israel was really an aniconic culture as described in the Bible. Unfortunately, this also makes it difficult for archaeologists to make definitive statements about the time.

The "Solomonic" Gates

A number of "six-chambered gates" of remarkably similar designs have been discovered at Megiddo, Gezer, Ashdod, Hazor, Beth-Shemesh, and Lachish. Yigal Yadin believed that these were direct evidence of a centralised building project at the time of Solomon (1 Kings 9:15-17). Each had four gates, and 6 chambers (for guards?), with the ones at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer including projecting towers and a passage 4.2 metres wide (almost exactly 8 Egyptian cubits). The building of these varied, with Megiddo having high quality ashlar stone (as were the palaces there), Hazor's built from fieldstones, and Gezer using ashlars for its facade. However, these gates have been the subject of intense debate since. One problem is that they may not be associated with the right stratum. Yadin dated the Megiddo Stratum IVA to the Omrides, while VA-IVB were Solomonic, based on correlation with the other gates elsewhere. Meanwhile, David Ussishkin argued that the gates should be placed in Stratum IVA, and therefore after Solomonic times.

Israel Finkelstein (co-director of the Megiddo dig with Ussishkin, alongside Baruch Halpern) also argues along these lines (1 Kings 16:21-28), placing the layers in the 8th century B.C.E. He notes the similarity of the palace at Megiddo with that of the one at Samaria, and concludes that they were built at the same time (see below on Megiddo).

A wider problem Finkelstein identified was the over-reliance on the biblical record (Yadin had written that 1 Kings 9:15-17 had "clinched" the date for him) in establishing an absolute chronology. Revising all this would provide a problem for other chronologies (particularly Shishak's campaign, where destruction layers attributed to him comes after the construction of the stratum), so we shall see what Finkelstein has to say about that later on. At the same time, one wonders about Finkelstein's use of 1 Kings 16:23-24, 21:1 that establishes the Omrides as the builders of Samaria.


Jerusalem which, according to the Bible, was David's capital that he conquered from the Jebusites, has proven to be frustratingly silent in shedding any light on the period. It is important to note that while Jerusalem has a long history (well into the early second millennium BCE), it was sacked, plundered, or destroyed several times. Such famed structures as Solomon's temple remain undiscovered, though the potential site includes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, strictly off-limits to excavation for cultural reasons. At the same time, Jerusalem during this period appears to have been a small provincial town of little interest, unlike the Biblical portrait as a grand capital of an empire.

Fortifications uncovered there have proven to be either far too early (by about a millennium), or at least two centuries too late to be part of David's conquest (or building) of the city. One encouraging discovery has been a stepped-stone foundation structure dated to the Late Bronze/Iron I or possibly later (Yigal Shiloh dated it to the tenth century). Kathleen Kenyon thought it might be the millo ("fill") which David built his capital around (2 Samuel 5:9). If correct, then this could be the remnant of his palace. However, no clear link with the biblical account exists, and the conclusions remain tentative.

The Negev

An area largely unpopulated in the second millennium was the Negev highlands, south of Beersheba. During the Iron II however, towns here grew in their dozens. The Bible describes many of the patriarchal stories to have occured in this area, and perhaps this early settlement was of our mysterious Israelites. Their settlement appears to have been one of even distribution—there is no sign that they built up around strategic routes. Many of the towns here were fortified with casemate walls (25-70 meters in diameter), following the contours of the hills on which they were built. Most were destroyed at the end of this period, however, usually accredited to Shishak's (Sheshonq/Shoshenq) campaign, to which we now turn.

Shishak's Campaign

As stated previously, the ubiquitous layer of carbon and ash is often the archaeologist's best tool. It does help to explain why archaeologists of the past seemed so obsessed with the capture or destruction of cities. Here we are doubly aided by attestation from a variety of sources. Shishak was a well connected general in Egypt, who began the 22nd dynasty upon the death of Psusennes II. The records of his campaign are preserved in the temple of Amun in Karnak, and on the "Shoshenq stele" at Megiddo. The Bible records an account of Shishak taking away "all the treasures of the house of the Lord" in Jerusalem in 1 Kings 14:25-26 (though Jerusalem itself is absent from the list in Karnak—perhaps Rehoboam bribed Shishak to leave him alone, or perhaps Jerusalem was too small a town to take notice of during this time!).

The temple at Karnak bears inscriptions with a prefix hgr, which may be a transcription of the Hebrew hagar ("belt"/"enclosure"), which would then be referring to the casemate walls in the Negev. Certainly most of the towns listed in his victory stele are related to the Negev region. It appears that he moved from Gibeon and Bethel through the Jordan up to the valley of Jezreel. Then he returned via Megiddo to Gaza ("the Way of the Sea"). So many towns were destroyed in this period that archaeologists use it to fix a date for the strata around the region. Donald Redford, meanwhile, speculates that the raid may actually have taken place during the time of the united monarchy, disrespecting as it was of any putative national boundaries. Whatever the case, this last-gasp attempt to reassert Egyptian hegemony over the region appears to have been short-lived. We find, at the close of the Iron IIa, considerable evidence that the region was soon standing on its own feet again.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel

A number of important sites have been excavated in the northern half, which shed some important light on our developing kingdom. Among them, Tel Dan, Megiddo, Hazor, and Samaria have been excavated considerably. Immediately, Samaria comes into consideration—biblically, it became the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which split when Jeroboam rebelled after the death of Solomon (as an Egyptian exile though, Donald Redford has speculated that Jeroboam could just as easily have been installed as an Egyptian puppet). The Bible records Samaria's construction by Omri in 1 Kings 16:23-24, and it is the Omride dynasty which provides us the first solid references to "Israelite" ethnicity, even though the biblical portrait of them is one of heathens.

The Assyrian king Shalmeneser III's Monolith Inscription attests to tribute given by "Ahab of Israel" (Akha'abbu mata Sirla'a) as 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers (a likely exaggeration). Elsewhere in the Assyrian records, Israel was referred to as "the House of Omri". As early as 1850, Edward Hincks had argued correctly that an inscription refering to "Yua bit Humri" was in fact a reference to Jehu, son of Omri (though the Bible views him as a rebel, here the Assyrians simply equated anything that we would later call Israel as 'of the house of Omri'). This puts the Shalmaneser of the obelisk (III) a century before the Shalmaneser (V) who sacked Samaria.

Likewise, in the Mesha stele (Moabite stone), Omri is called the king of Israel, and appears to have had a relation to Yahweh (Mesha records taking Yahweh's vessels while fighting Omri). However, when we compare the biblical records with Mesha's stele, we find discomforting incongruity with both accounts. 2 Kings 3 describes Mesha as a vassal of Israel who rebelled after the death of Ahab (as well as Mesha's miraculous sacrifice of his son that caused Israel to fall back). On the other hand, Mesha (or the scribe recording the events) sees himself as being oppressed by Omri and his son (who is never named), and breaking free from the yoke of this oppression. Both versions are equally propagandistic, but we might conclude that Mesha was a vassal of Israel, that he broke free of Israel, and that thereafter, Israel no longer controlled Moab. As Niels Peter Lemche has pointed out, the eponymous "Omri" in the Mesha stele is really the symbol of Bet Omri, "the House of Omri", and his "son" would be any successor of Omri's (whether Ahab or Jehoram), just as in Shalmaneser's inscriptions. Thus both versions of the account are fictional, even if we can attempt to gleam some potential snippets of information out of them.


Samaria itself was one of the largest cities in Palestine of the time, attesting to the strength and prosperity of Israel. Elaborate stone capitals (the supports at the top of a column) of a proto-Aeolic style were also discovered here (thus called because of their resemblance to the later Greek Aeolic style), as well as at Ramat Rahel, Megiddo, and Jerusalem. The acropolis alone, at 89 by 178 metres, was the size of many of the towns in the rural areas. The artificial nature of its construction (rather than a city evolving over hundreds of years) is shown by the large retaining walls that had to be built into the hilly slopes of the hill on which the city stood, in order to support the rather flat architectural plans of the city's buildings. Perhaps the reasons for this were that they were Phoenician in origin (as the Bible describes), and thus unused to building on such terrain.

Pottery with writings on them (called "ostraca") have also been recovered in Samaria though the date ranges are not agreed upon. Most of them seem related to trade or taxes (or both) as records of who was giving what to whom. Because biblical names are theophoric—that is, they attest to the god of their fathers—we have an interesting hint of the religious beliefs of these northerners. In contrast to the suffix -yahu in Judah (as in "Yahweh"—Yahu was the name used for Yahweh in some inscriptions, if a little unfortunate), we see many names with -yw (similar to -yahu, Yaw was sometimes the name of the Yahweh) and -bl (think of Jerubaal a.k.a. Gideon). These perhaps attest to a more pluralistic religious practice, but it is important to note that theophoric names of themselves cannot tell us about the religious beliefs of the people. Also discovered in these inscriptions were towns such as "Yasith", "Yashub", and "Qosoh", none of which receive mention in the Bible.

Tel Dan

One of the largest fortifications of the area lies at Tel Dan, with a large structure (about 96 by 58 feet) comprising its four-chambered city gate (distinct from the six-chambered gates mentioned above). On the right side of the outer gate, 5 standing stones known as massebot have been discovered alongside oil lamps, incense bowls, and other pottery remains. While we cannot discover the nature of the deity involved, it is almost certain that this structure had some cultic significance. The biblical record sometimes speaks of these positively (Genesis 28:18, 22; 31:13, 45; 35:14) and at others negatively (Deutoronomistic authors make associations with Baal worship (2 Kings 10:26; 17:10, Deuteronomy 16:22; Hosea 10:11). The city itself was well-planned and thoroughly urban Although some similarities have been pointed out with the palace at Megiddo, Mazar disagrees that it is an example of the bit hilani palace model. For him, the "courtyard palace" resembled the four room buildings of the lesser residences.

More recently, Avraham Biran discovered a controversial inscription at Tel Dan. The translation is tricky, although it mentions King Hadad of Syria, but without any context (Hadad was also the head of the Aramaic pantheon). Also found are rm br and yhw br which possibly attest to "Jehoram son of..." and "Azariah son of..." (note that yhw was a common suffix for Judahite names, as mentioned above). Another section of the inscription refers to k.bytdwd, taken to mean "[kin]g(?) of the House of David". If correct, it is our first correlation of the term "House of David" found outside of the Bible. However, as George Athas has pointed out, this is old Aramaic, and not Biblical Hebrew. Because of the lack of word dividers that are found elsewhere in the inscription, he believes it must be understood as a single word, such that the meaning is lost. Like the Assyrian examples of Yua bit Humri, we may be dealing with an initially unclear meaning of these terms and of course the context of the usage is absent. Subject to much controversy, it is certain that the final word on this has not been said.

Megiddo and Chronological Problems

Megiddo, as mentioned earlier, is the site of a fabulous palace that display the riches of the Omride dynasty. Termed as "bit hilani" palaces, they are an Akkadian name for palaces which featured colonnaded entrance porches to the throne room. Thus the design had a "hall of pillars" and similar structural features to Solomon's palace described in 1 Kings 7:1-11. Starting around the 9th century B.C.E. (at least outside Palestine), their form exemplifies the standards of that region, using many similar features like ashlar stone for their facades. The bit hilani designs are attested in Syria as Neo-Hittite palaces, though slightly later than the ones in Palestine, if Mazar's dating scheme is followed (contemporaneous if following Finkelstein's).

In pushing the bit hilani palaces into the 8th century, this causes some potential problems at places like Hazor, where the strata may span a mere quarter century each. While Finkelstein's downward chronology does compress the strata into a small number of years at some places, it is unclear why he should be criticised when there are similar problems elsewhere. The number of strata identified is related to the quality of the dig and care in classification of finds. At the same time, a decompressed strata can become too big, for example, Megiddo IVA lasting for a century and a half. The debate on this is far from settled, but no consensus seems forthcoming.

The Fall of Israel

In 745 B.C.E., an Assyrian civil war resulted in the ascension of Pul, a general who we know as Tiglath-Pileser III. His strategic and organisational skills enabled the rise of Assyria as an empire, and began a march on the Levant. He immediately defeated the kingdom of Urartu (biblical Ararat) and several cities in northern Syria. Turning south, he drove a wedge between Israel and Syria (who according to the Bible, had formed an alliance against him), reaching the Phoenician coast and capturing its cities. He then proceeded through the Philistine territories where he erected a victory monument at Gaza. Egypt was of little assistance as they faced their own troubles from the south—a Kushite expansion around this time preoccupied them, and by 711 B.C.E., had taken control of Egypt. The archaeological evidence is unequivocal: Hazor, Dan, Megiddo, Dor, Chinnereth, Qiri, Shiqmona, Jokneam, Accho, Keisan, Beth-Shean, 'En Gev, Tel Hadar, Kedesh, and Bethsaida were all sacked, the last five to be abandoned for several years after. Although Tiglath-Pileser died around 727 B.C.E., Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal would continue the Assyrian expansion.

Any of the cities that were rebuilt after that showed significant Assyrian influence in both architecture and material remains. On the other hand, the Assyrian presence is not overwhelming, and instead we find Phoenician and Greek ostraca beginning to appear alongside (for example, at Megiddo Stratum III, which was a provincial capital). This attests to the mass deportation practices recorded in the Bible and elsewhere. If we were beginning to recognise Israel in the Iron IIb, it was lost once again to us. Perhaps large swathes of Israelites moved into Judah, fleeing the Assyrian deportations, but such is conjecture. Then, as quickly as it started, the Assyrian hegemony was thwarted by internal turmoil and a failed campaign in Egypt (the Kushites were certainly a tougher adversary than the small Palestinian states), and their 80-year empire was over. The time was ripe for the rise of Babylon.


Judah began to flourish from the 8th to 6th century B.C.E., benefiting from the collapse of its more illustrious neighbour in the north. If the Biblical accounts are correct—that it emerged around the time of Shishak's campaign, and continued till its fall in 586 B.C.E., then it is one of the longest running monarchies of all of the Ancient Near East. Pretty good for a small provincial state. Although a number of sites were sacked by the Assyrians in 701 B.C.E., they recovered quickly. During this time, cities such as Jerusalem, Lachish, Tell en-Nasbeh (Mizpah), Tell el-Ful (Gibeah), Beersheba, and Khirbet Rabud (Debir) grew and flourished, and we have now excavated these to some extent. Here we find a large number of inscriptions, including lamelech jar handles, named because of the stamp on them bearing lmlk ("belonging to the king") with unique beetle and solar symbols marked on them. It is argued that perhaps the four-winged beetles were a symbol of Israel, and the two-winged ones that of Judah, but more likely, both were symbols of the Judahite monarchy.

Jerusalem Again

When we return to Jerusalem 2 to 3 centuries later, we find that much has changed—in Mazar's words, it was at "the peak of urban development" in the 8th and 7th centuries. By now, a great wall had been built on the eastern slope. Yigal Shiloh estimates that between the tenth and eighth centuries, Jerusalem grew from 25,000 to about 40,000 people. Spanning about 150 acres, it would have been a bustling and crowded city, perhaps a reason for the construction of a separate palace at Ramat Rahel. At the "Bullae house", so named because of the large number of bullae, or seal inscriptions, discovered there, 82 names have been found, including the biblically significant Gemaryahu (Gemariah) son of Shaphan (Jeremiah 36:10, 25), and Azaryahu (Azariah) son of Hilqiyahu (Hilkiah—I Chronicles 9:10-11). However, again the illusive temple has not yet been discovered, possibly because of rebuilding works and lack of access (as is the Ophel, a region between the "City of David" and the Temple Mount).

Another remarkable achievement of ancient engineers was the construction of the Siloam tunnel, also known as "Hezekiah's Tunnel" because of the account in 2 Kings 20:20. It was discovered in 1880, winding under Jerusalem to the Gihon spring, where it is said Hezekiah prepared for its construction to counter the Assyrian threat. A famous inscription inside records the meeting of the two groups of diggers such that they could hear the voices of their colleagues before they broke through "pick against pick".

Lachish and Sennacherib

Judah's growth was always delimited by the greater powers on either side, and we see the effects of this in great detail at Lachish (Tell el-Duweir). Prior to the 8th century, it was partially built and unfortified, but like Jerusalem, was now fully fortified with inner and outer walls. Although 2 Chronicles 11:9 attributes the building of the walls to Rehoboam, Ussishkin believes the fortifications reflect a much later period, possibly assigned to Asa or Jehosaphat. However, these defenses eventually failed in 701 B.C.E. to the Assyrian assault of Sennacherib. In his palace at Kuyunjik (Nineveh) lies a great relief depicting the siege in fine detail, from the positioning of archers and sling-men to the execution of captives and deportation of exiles. At Lachish itself, an Assyrian siege ramp was discovered—a straightforward earthen ramp to breach the city walls. Even more fortuitously, a counter-ramp on the inside of the walls was discovered. At the base of the ramp and wall, hundreds of arrowheads, sling stones, and heavy stones (presumably thrown from the city wall) have been discovered alongside charred wood, giving us a vivid picture of the struggle to take the city. While the city was eventually taken, it would soon recover (though not as resplendent) until the arrival of the Babylonians.

Some Conclusions

As we have seen there are multiple points of disagreement on several issues. Such is the nature of archaeology. Whatever the case, some provisional conclusions can be taken. For one, the Israel of Omri is all we have from the archaeological record, and it is not clear if it correlates with the Biblical record. External sources, while unquestionably important, lead us to wonder what actually may be confidently reconstructed when they both contradict each other and affirm each other at various points. The rise of Judah seems to be related to the decline of Israel, and the vacuum that arose as Israel and then Assyria were to come into decline. Jerusalem continues to refuse to yield its mysteries. As Assyrian power waned, a neo-Babylonian empire was emerging, one that would leave an indelible mark on the course of Judaism's history. As we move on, we will take a short break to observe the rise of Israelite monotheism in the next piece, and the polytheistic context in which it emerged.


[1] Finkelstein's case for a low chronological revision derives from the absence of Philistine monochrome ware at Lachish Stratum VI and Tel Sera Stratum IX. Normally dated to around 1175-1150 B.C.E., Finkelstein believes the Philistine arrival only begins with the withdrawal of the Egyptian presence, and not in the twilight years of their presence, as the traditional picture presents. Thus this monochrome ware should be revised to around 1135-1100 B.C.E., and the later bichrome ware pushed from the late 12th/early 11th to the late 11th/early 10th and so on. This cascades into our Iron Age and pushes everything later, in some cases filling in the gaps (possibly at Ashdod, Tell Beit Mirsim, Tel Haror, and Tel Mor), but in others leading to conflicts. His case is still the subject of debate, and his is by no means a majority view. Amihai Mazar criticised his rejection of the possibility that Egyptian and Philistine settlements could co-exist, and also pointed out the expected lack of Philistine pottery outside of the Philistine pentapolis (the initial 5 cities the Philistines built). Finkelstein's views can be found in "The Date of the Settlement of the Philistines in Canaan", in Tel Aviv, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 213-239, 1995, and Mazar's critique in "Iron Age Chronology: A Reply to I. Finkelstein", in Levant Vol. 29, pp. 157-167, 1997.

[2] Interestingly, the designs recorded of Solomon's temple (1 Kings 5:16-6:38 and 2 Chronicles 4) are startlingly similar to Middle Bronze Age temples at Ebla, Megiddo, and Shechem, as well as an 8th century B.C.E. temple at Tell Tainat (Northern Syria).

[3] As general, he commanded all the army, but his family connections were possibly more important. His uncle through marriage was the high priest of Memphis, his oldest son Osorkon was married to the Pharoah's daughter, another son married into the family of the family of the fourth prophet of Amun, and another the commander at Herakleopolis. Certainly he was skilled at both military and political maneuvering!

[4] The towns in which destruction layers in the Iron II have been associated with Shishak include Timnah (Tel Batash), Gezer, Tell el-Mazar, Tell el-Hama, Tell el-Sa'idiyeh (these three in the Jordan Valley), Megiddo, Tell Abu Hawam, Tel Mevorakh, Tel Beth Shean, Tel Dor, Tel Michal, Tell Qasile, Tel Amal, as well as most of the minor fortifications in the Negev. Megiddo probably escaped complete destruction as the chambered gate remained in use into the Iron IIb.

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