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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States

 

Israelites & Israel

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Before that though lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, the long Mediterranean coast between ancient Syria and Egypt which today is known as the Levant. Various independent or united Semitic-speaking city states formed in this region from around 3000 BC onwards, reaching a peak of independent development in the second millennium BC. It was during the climate-induced social collapse of the late thirteenth century BC that both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge.

The term 'Israelite' is often used interchangeably with the terms 'Hebrew' and 'Jew', but these terms are not strictly interchangeable. The specific term 'Israelites', or 'people of Israel', is best used only for periods after the followers of Yahweh undertook their exodus from Egypt. It can also be used conveniently for the earlier period in which these people were subject to patriarchs (approximately between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BC).

The term loses its accuracy after the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon divided into the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah around 927 BC. The Old Testament tends usually to use the term 'Hebrew' for the entire period before 1000 BC, but it is best to avoid it here due to controversy surrounding its origins (regarding whether it descends from 'Eber', the ancestor of Abraham, or habiru, a general term for brigands and the dispossessed).

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Sean Bambrough & Wayne McCleese, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

Israel (Canaan)
c.1035 - 925 BC

Around 1035 BC the comparatively weak Semitic-speaking Israelites reputedly founded a small kingdom under Saul which also included the captured city of Hazor. The Old Testament offers two explanations for the move towards creating a kingdom out of an existing tribal structure. It was partially in response to attacks from Ammon and by the Philistines, which Saul realised could only be responded to with any effectiveness if the Israelite tribes were united, while also partially being a reflection of the failure of the last of the Israelite Judges, Joel and Abiah.

Once the small walled city of Jerusalem had been regained from the Philistines, Saul made it the capital of his new state of Israel. Much of the kingdom's territory may have included the inland mountains rather than the coastal strip which forms a key part of modern Israel, although Israelite tribal areas are claimed to have reached the coast. According to Professor Mario Liverani, '...there are no extra-biblical sources [specifically] mentioning the united kingdom of Judah and Israel, but maybe this is due to the fact that such sources never existed. In the tenth century BC Jerusalem was so small that only a palace and a temple possibly existed... If we read the biblical text critically but positively we may suggest a kingdom of limited dimensions, whose limits were Shechem and Beersheba'.

In fact, archaeological evidence to an extent supports this view, suggesting that while Jerusalem later became a great ancient city (by the ninth century BC), in King David's time it was far less glorious than is described in the Old Testament. David ruled over something more like a poor chiefdom, a town of cattle herders and shepherds. The evidence is open to dispute however, with carbon dating providing enough doubt for some experts to claim that David really did at least start building a great city, with Solomon continuing that work.

With such a scarcity of data and only the Old Testament for support, it is not surprising that the reignal dates for each king of Israel have to be estimated. While the dates shown here are generally acceptable, they are still open to some revision and will probably not fully agree with every timeline. Solomon's death, for instance, could be set at 930 BC rather than 928 BC, as the Old Testament claims that Egyptian Pharaoh Shesonk mounted a raid on the kingdom five years after Solomon's death, and that raid can be pinned with some certainty to 925 BC.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Sean Bambrough and Wayne McCleese, from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), from Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations, A H Sayce, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from The Cambridge Ancient History, John Boardman, N G L Hammond, D M Lewis, & M Ostwald (Eds), from The History and Archaeology of Phoenicia, Hélène Sader (SBL Press, 2019), from Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from History of Tyre, H J Katzenstein (Jerusalem, 1973), from The History of Ancient Israel, Michael Grant (Macmillan, 1984), from the BBC documentary series, Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 15 March 2011, and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

c.1035 - 1005 BC

Saul

Elected as kingdom founder. Benjaminite. Died in battle.

Saul defeats Nahash, king of Ammon, after the citizens of the frontier city of Jabesh-Gilead call for assistance against the Ammonite army. He also hands Edom a defeat and possibly makes it a vassal of Israel. The ruler of the Amalekites is spared by him but Samuel, the former Israelite Judge, executes him anyway.

Marble statue of King Saul of Israel
Saul 'under the influence of the evil spirit', completed in marble in 1865 by William Wetmore Story, and now housed at North Carolina Museum of Art after being rescued from a boarding school in England

c.1005 BC

The Battle of Mount Gilboa sees Saul and his Israelite army fighting against their ever-present Philistine opponents, having already beaten them back in three previous battles. The Philistines are often stronger than the small Israelite forces, and this occasion seems to be no exception. This is not helped by the fact that Saul's son-in-law, David of Bethlehem, is in rebellion against him and has taken some of Israel's forces with him into mercenary service with the Philistines.

Saul's sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Melchishua, are all killed in the battle (Jonathan being his chosen successor). Routed and wounded, Saul himself falls on his sword in shock at the loss and - universally - as a sign of imminent and often humiliating defeat.

The Philistines cut off his head and display it in the temple of Dagon. They nail his body to the city wall of Beth-shan. They display his armour in the shrine of Ashtoreth. They reoccupy much of Saul's kingdom.

Eshbaal jar discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa
The name of Eshbaal, Saul's successor, was found on a jar at Khirbet Qeiyafa and dated approximately to 1000 BC, with the name being written in Canaanite script, although the individual in question was actually Eshbaal ben Bada

c.1005 - 1003 BC

Ishbaal / Ish-bo'-sheth / Eshbaal

Son. Opposed by David. Murdered.

c.1005 - 1003 BC

Ishbaal - with a name which suggests the polytheism of the Phoenicians - reigns over a much-reduced free Israel for just two years and is opposed throughout by David, his brother-in-law. The fact that Ishbaal had in effect been captured and raised to the kingship by Saul's leading general probably does nothing to lend legitimacy to his position.

The latter king is proclaimed by Judah (suggesting that the later division of Israel into Samaria and Judah is nothing of the kind - in fact the kingdom may never be united in the first place or is little more than a confederation of tribes at this stage). Civil war sees David victorious and Ishbaal is murdered by his own captains. They are later punished by David.

Ruins of Tyre
The visible remains of ancient Tyre are largely Greek and Roman, built on the base of the first millennium BC Phoenician city

c.1005 - 965 BC

David

Son of Jesse of Bethlehem. Initially a Philistine vassal.

990s BC

The Israelites under David take the city state of Dor and incorporate it into the kingdom. David also commits his parents to protecting the king of Moab, Mizpeh, a possible relation of his through his Moabite mother, Ruth (according to tradition). However, this is the last time the two kingdoms appear to share friendly relations.

c.980 BC

Ammon is apparently conquered by Israel, despite assistance being supplied by the northern state of Aram Damascus. However, some archaeological findings suggest that the vast empire which is claimed for David by the Old Testament is impossible. With only small villages within the 'kingdom's' borders and a potential army of a few hundred men, David simply does not have the manpower to create an empire, let alone maintain it.

More recent findings, especially of the fortress city of Kirbet Qeiyafa to the west of Jerusalem, suggest a measure of the opposite, that there may indeed be a dedicated military force to aid David in building a small regional kingdom.

Kirbet Qeiyafa
Kirbet Qeiyafa has lain virtually undisturbed for three millennia and provides evidence of a fortress city in Davidian Israel

c.975 BC

David leads the Israelites to subdue the Philistines, regaining Jerusalem from a Jebusite king and making the city his capital. One of Israel's allies in David's reign is the Syrian city of Hamath, which remains a close friend for centuries afterwards. David also permanently subdues Edom, making it a dependency of Israel, and gains the friendship and support of Hiram I of Tyre for removing rival Philistines from his southern border.

To achieve any of this, David has first to subdue Goliath, the giant champion of the Philistines. Goliath is claimed as a resident or son of the Philistine city of Gath, one of the five royal cities, and perhaps the greatest of them at this time. Philistine vassalage is terminated with David's success.

c.970? BC

David conquers the city of Zobah, although one of its military officers escapes and secures an important kingdom which is based at Aram Damascus. This replaces the eclipsed Zobah as the main centre of Aramaean power in the Levant.

Possible location of Zobah, northern Beqaa
One possible location for the city of Zobah - although not the only one - is the northern Beqaa Valley based on the city's dealings with its neighbours

c.966 BC

Work starts on the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Old Testament in the Book of Kings suggests something of the floor plan by giving the measurements of the outer shell and details of the insides.

The floor plan would seem to resemble that of other temples in Canaan, built by people who practice polytheism. The closest match is a temple at modern Ain Dara in Syria (near the ancient city of Alep), even down to very similar dimensions and guarding cherubim.

The Ain Dara temple dates to about 1300 BC and remains in use until about 740 BC. Despite the building of their own temple to one god, archaeological findings of pagan figurines show that Israelites are far from entirely monotheistic at this stage.

965 BC

Adonijah

Son. Attempted to steal the throne before submitting.

965 - 928 BC

Solomon / Jedidiah

Brother. Died of natural causes around the age of 60.

c.965? BC

Solomon has to give up a number of towns in Galilee to settle his debts with Hiram I of Tyre following the succession struggle, but the two remain on good terms nevertheless. Solomon also meets the queen of Sheba (Saba) and, according to legend, becomes the father of Menelik, founder of the Ethiopian empire.

Queen of Sheba
This medieval depiction of the queen of Sheba riding a horse unfortunately has no basis in fact as no images exist of the mysterious Arabic queen

Tradition declares that Solomon sends Jewish merchants to Saba (today's Yemen) to prospect for gold and silver which will adorn the new temple in Jerusalem. Such a trade-related mission is entirely likely given the relations between the two states, but could these merchants and their families form the basis of the later Yemenite Jews?

Probably in the same decade, a ruler of the Philistine city of Gath named Achish is mentioned in connection with two servants of Shimei who flee to him. Shimei himself goes to Gath in pursuit of them, in breach of Solomon's orders, and is subsequently put to death by Solomon.

c.955 BC

The First Temple of Jerusalem is completed, apparently by craftsmen from Sidon under King Hiram of Tyre. The temple now houses the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon also enters into a matrimonial alliance with Sidon and imposes taxes on Iberian exiles, presumably Israelites who have joined the Phoenician colonies in Iberia (such as Gadir).

Although no archaeological evidence has been found to support such a presence in this period, it would provide the very earliest basis for the later existence of the Sephardi Jews.

c.930s BC

Solomon's elaborate building operations and lavish personal existence have already led to forced labour, high taxes, and increasing unrest amongst the populace. In the later years of his reign, his enemies increase, 'divinely raised up to chasten him'. One of these is Rezon, the son of Eliada, a former officer of Zobah who has assumed control of Aram Damascus.

Tell Habua
The archaeological discovery of the Egyptian fort of Tell Habua (ancient Tharu, built around 1000 BC) near the Suez Canal underlined Egypt's policy of maintaining border fortresses on its eastern flank: the location of Arab tribes and Israelites

928 - 925 BC

Rehoboam

Son, by Naamah the Ammonite. In Judah alone (925 BC).

925 BC

As mentioned above, circa 1005 BC, there is a possibility that the northern and southern regions of Israel are never fully united. The Old Testament's attitude towards the northern kingdom, and a sidelining of its major rulers and successes by later writers who all hail from Judah, suggests that a level of antipathy always exists between the two regions.

The story of David's united kingdom may be propaganda, an attempt to back up later claims to a single Israel and all of the territory which this may encompass.

Now those potential differences are laid bare. Because Rehoboam fails to heed the demands of the people to rescind Solomon's heavy tax and labour demands, the ten tribes of the north refuse to accept him at the confirmation ceremony at Shechem. Civil war ensues. Rehoboam is left with just the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south as the kingdom permanently divides into Samaria (Israel) and Judah.

 
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