Pondering the Spade: Excavations at Ancient Samaria and Sennacherib’s Annals

by Dr. David Schreiner

At the end of my last posting, I mentioned that the Tel Dan Stele shifted a conversation from whether King David was mythical to the nature of his kingdom. I also mentioned that this was a positive thing, because it forced scholarship to wrestle anew with the dynamics of ancient history writing and consider how those dynamics play into one’s assessment of Scriptural veracity. I want to explore this in more detail here, and I want to use two very important archaeological realities as a launching pad.

Sennecharib 1
Figure 1

First, let’s consider the excavations at ancient Samaria. This site is located in the central mountains inside the modern day West Bank of Israel. Founded by Omri, a general of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who came to power through a coup, Samaria became Israel’s capital. Systematic excavations took place at three different points, each of which never surpassed a handful of years. First, Harvard University led a group at the end of the first decade of the 1900s. In the 1930s, a joint coalition excavated the site, and finally the country of Jordan sponsored a group in the 1960s. Overall, excavators unearthed a trove of material that still impacts the way one understands ancient Israelite culture. For example, there was a cache of ostraca dating to the period of Jeroboam II, and they detail the socio-economic realities of daily life. Excavators also excavated intricate and beautiful ivory inlays, figurines, and decorations, which may be the reference behind the “ivory house” in 1 Kings 22:39. Architecturally speaking, Samaria exhibited opulent buildings, monumental architecture, and sophisticated city planning. The picture created by these and other finds is that of an extravagant capital functioning as the hub of a capable and influential nation.

Sennecharib 2
Figure 2

This impression is reinforced when we consider other finds through the ancient Near East. The Black Obelisk commemorates the exploits of Shalmaneser III, and in one scene, we see the Israelite king Jehu bowing prostrate before him. Of course, there are the normal bombastic proclamations, “Boy I am so awesome that I made Jehu do X, Y, Z,” but there is an interesting characterization of Jehu as being from the “house of Omri.” In light of the Old Testament, we know this to be wrong. Jehu was sanctioned to assassinate the house of Omri. So, what does it mean that Shalmaneser refers to Jehu as a dynastic heir of the Omrides? It testifies to the prominence of the Omrides in the larger geo-political arena. In other words, Israel was perceived to be essentially an Omride creation.

Sennecharib 3
Figure 3

In addition to the Black Obelisk, there is another one of Shalmaneser’s monuments—the Kurkh Stele of Shalmaneser. Important for us is the description given about the Battle of Qarqar. In the middle of the 9th century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire advanced on Syria-Palestine with the intentions of conquest. To fend them off, a coalition of nations met the Assyrians at Qarqar, which is near the Orontes River in modern day Syria. The result? Well, without knowing all the details, we know that the Assyrians stopped advances into Syria-Palestine for about another century. So, I guess you can say it was a victory for the coalition. And speaking of that coalition, King Ahab featured prominently. We are told that he marshaled a couple thousand chariots and 10,000 infantrymen, testifying him to be one of the most influential military powers in the region.

I could go on and on about the influence of Israel in the region, but what is particularly striking is the testimony of Israel relative to Judah outside of the Old Testament during the 9th and early portion of the 8th centuries BCE. Israel gets the recognition, and from what we can tell archaeologically, reaps the socio-economic benefits. We hear essentially nothing about Judah. Moreover, the impression of Israel relative to Judah gleaned from archaeology is strikingly different than what one gets from the Old Testament. Therefore, this begs a question. Do we have a contradiction? Should the Bible’s testimony be pitted against archaeology? Is 1 and 2 Kings with its historical record trustworthy?

Sennecharib 4
Figure 4

Sennacherib’s Annals exist in three separate forms: the Taylor Prism, the Oriental Institute Prism, and the Jerusalem Prism. Displaying a remarkable continuity even though they were composed over a span of year or so, these inscribed monuments detail the exploits of King Sennacherib. Of particular importance are his words regarding his maneuvers against Judah while on his Third Military Campaign. As if to thump his chest, he brags about the destruction of 46 cities, including the strategically important Lachish. When it came to Jerusalem, he describes how he erected a siege, prevented entrance or exit to the city, exacted tribute, and shut up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” The result is the impression that all of Judah fell to the Assyrian war-machine, which of course is remarkably different than what is constructed by 2 Kings 18-19. So, again, do we have a contradiction that pits archaeology against the Bible?

But wait! There’s more! According to 2 Kings 18:13-16, Hezekiah capitulated to Sennacherib’s siege and stripped the royal treasuries of truckloads of gold and silver as tribute. Of course, this account is right before the famous account that details how the Angel of the Lord visited the army in the middle of the night and killed 185,000 troops. So, we have what appears to be three accounts of the same event.

In summary, the Old Testament depicts the Omride dynasty as the manifestation of evil and an infection that continually stymied Israel. This is markedly different from the archaeological picture, which paints a very influential and important family for the development of Israel and the region. Regarding Sennacherib’s Third Campaign, the Assyrian annals revel in the destruction of Judah and the humiliation of Hezekiah while the Bible appears initially to reflect this, only to immediately shift gears and recount a miraculous salvific event.

Yes…these are the types of historical issues that keep people awake at night. These are the types of issues that affect people’s faith and have apologetic implications. And these are the types of issues that force us to wrestle intensely with the nature of Scripture as ancient literature.

At this point, it is necessary to take a step back and think about the fundamental dynamics of history writing. What is history writing? It is the robotic regurgitation of facts? Is the writer to be unbiased and dispassionately separated from the process? Without going into an incredibly complex debate that will undoubtedly put to sleep any remaining reader, a robotic regurgitation of facts is not history writing, and the idea of a pure or unbiased historical account is a red herring.

Historiography, or history writing, can be defined as a systematic and accurate articulation of the past for a particular point. Note that this definition largely hinges upon the presence of two realities: accuracy and intention. Therefore, a historian wants to know what happened in the past because he or she wants to make sense of it and communicate its importance. A historian wants to “get it right,” but there will always be a subjective element to it because the historian will choose the dynamics of presentation to fit a communicative intention. If a concern for accuracy is jettisoned, or if a particular point of communication is not Sennecharib 5a part of the end-game, then we should no longer speak of historiography. These two poles exist as a balanced seesaw.

So, now we come to the payoff. Is Scripture’s testimony about the Omrides disingenuous or wrong? No! It is correct and it communicates the desired message. It’s true. As one reads closely the account of Kings, he or she realizes that the biblical writer recognizes the socio-political influence of that family. The difference arises in what the writer is trying to communicate. Because the criteria for evaluation employed by the writer is thoroughly theological, the assessment is profoundly negative.

When it comes the siege of Jerusalem, let’s first unpack the words of Sennacherib. His account says that he shut Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage” and that tribute was brought to him “in Nineveh,” which means later. Translation: “I scared him really badly, and he later brought some stuff.” Nowhere does Sennacherib claim that his siege against Jerusalem was successful. So, we have the Assyrian account that does not claim a victorious siege over Jerusalem but the systematic destruction of the Judean countryside, along with the eventual tribute of Judah. The biblical account recognizes that Judah was decimated, tribute was brought to Assyria, but that Jerusalem was saved. How different are the accounts, really?

“But the devil is in the details!”

You’re right. The details matter, but when we consider the details we can begin to understand the communicative differences. For Assyria, Sennacherib wanted to give the impression that he succeeded. He wanted to say as much as he could while being as semantically ambiguous as possible. For Kings, the point that needed to be emphasized was that, against all odds…against all logic…Jerusalem did not fall. The Assyrian war-machine, which was functioning at the height of its efficiency at the end of the 8th century BCE, terrorized Judah, and it was a miracle of miraculous proportions that Jerusalem did not succumb. An event like that can only be explained by the intervention by Yahweh! Moreover, the salvation of Jerusalem, with its Davidic dynasty, juxtaposed to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17) proved that Judah enjoyed Yahweh’s sanction.

Scripture does not err. It communicates what it wants. The tricky part is making sure that we understand what is being communicated. When it comes to Israel’s historical literature, it begins with considering the seesaw of ancient historiography.

Figure 1: “Samaria, Shomron” in The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (ed. Negev, Avraham; New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990)

Figure 2: courtesy of Osama S. M.  Amin / Ancient History Encyclopedia (www.ancient.eu)

Figure 3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurkh_Monoliths

Figure 4: Myers, Richard. Logos Bible Photos. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

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