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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: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

Israel / Samaria (Canaan)
925 - 723 BC

Around 1035 BC the comparatively weak Semitic-speaking Israelites reputedly founded a small kingdom of Israel. The process seems to have been due - at least in part - to attacks by Ammon. The Israelites realised the only effective response was to unite their tribes. Once it had been regained from the Philistines, another major threat, the capital became the small walled city of Jerusalem. The kingdom held a largely united front until an internal civil war caused it to be divided in two (according to the Old Testament), creating Samaria in the north and Judah in the south.

The capital of the rebellious north was initially Shechem (Sichem - usually associated with the archaeological site of Tell Balata in the West Bank). By the time of its third king, Baasha, the capital was at Tirza (Tirzah - now Tell el-Far'ah (North)), which the Israelites had conquered around the 1160s BC, during the settlement period. From about 875 BC the capital was at Samaria thanks to Omri, and this is sometimes used to name the kingdom as a whole. The city of Bashan formed part of its northern territory at first, as did Moab and Ammon to the east, but Israel's break-up allowed its enemy Damas to greatly increase its own power. The situation was not helped by Samaria and Judah continuing their civil war, on and off, under successive rulers.

To help break the northern population's ties with Jerusalem still further, Samaria's first king, Jeroboam I, created two sanctuaries, at Bethel in the south (very close to the border with Judah), and Dan in the north, both of which were important cultic centres. He introduced forms of worship which could easily be accepted by the people but which were also easily attacked by Judah as being idolatrous. However, it was in Judah, or by Judeans, that much of the Old Testament was written, so Samaria was often painted in unflattering tones.

Additionally, even the Old Testament is unable to completely hide the fact that polytheism seemed to be prevalent throughout Canaan, even Hebrew Canaan. The early god El, who unmasked himself to Abraham as Yahweh, may have had a consort called Asherah, and a court of lesser gods in the typical format of Canaanite societies. Perhaps Jeroboam was simply being more true to the origins of his people while the Babylonian-period Judeans who wrote down the books which make up the Old Testament required a more unifying message.

All dating here is arguable to an extent. Various scholars have proposed their own dating which can result in variances of four or five years up or down from the dates shown here. The kingship was somewhat unstable in that it was often seized by usurpers and the previous ruling family would be murdered in its entirety. Ishida (see references) suggests that this was due to internal feuding within the kingdom, with tribe pitted against tribe in a quest for superiority.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Wayne McCleese, from the BBC documentary series, Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 22 March 2011, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from The Changes of Dynasties in the Northern Kingdom, Tomoo Ishida (Walter de Gruyter Gmbh, 1977), and from External Links: Israel and the Aramaeans (Quartz Hill School of Theology), and Jewish Encyclopaedia, and Bible Hub: Menahem.)

925 - 907 BC

Jeroboam I

Son of Nebat. Former Ephramite chief of Solomon's labour gangs.

928 - 925 BC

The break-up of Israel has allowed Damas to rapidly grow in power and at times even threaten the existence of its southern neighbour. It is frequently called upon by Judah to help against Samaria and probably gains some of the latter's northern towns during this period. Also not specifically mentioned in the Old Testament, Wayne McCleese believes that a treaty exists between Tab-Rimmon of Damas and the kingdom of Judah (based on 1 Kings 15:19).

Samaria excavations
This general view of the 1933 excavations of the city of Samaria shows them while looking towards the north

c.925 BC

Egyptian Pharaoh Sheshonk mounts a full-scale invasion of the kingdom, mainly ignoring Judah to the south. Many treasures are captured but the Ark of the Covenant, contrary to some opinion, is not taken to Egypt.

Some modern scholars outside the orthodox Egyptologists and Biblical scholars prefer the idea that the Shishak who attacks Israel is probably not Sheshonk but Ramses II of Nineteenth Dynasty Egypt instead, placing the event a clear two centuries before the generally accepted date of Israel's foundation as a kingdom and even further before the building of the First Temple into which the Ark is placed.

906 - 905 BC

Nadab

Son. Killed by Philistines (or by Baasha, his successor).

905 BC

Nadab's reign is brief. He leads the siege of a Philistine town by the name of Gibbethon when he is killed. The Old Testament's first book of Kings states that this is by one of his own captains - one Baasha - rather than by a Philistine. Baasha goes on to wipe out the remainder of the royal family, thereby extinguishing the House of Jereboam.

Relief from Medinet Habu
Shown here is a relief from Medinet Habu which details Philistines with their distinctive feathered headdresses, making them an unusual sight on the battlefield

905 - 883 BC

Baasha

Former army captain. Usurper? Capital at Tirzah.

While attacking Asa of Judah, Samaria certainly does now lose some of its northern towns to Damas, although this event goes unrecorded by the Old Testament. Samaria's king probably has to make important concessions to the Damascene king, Ben-Hadad. Control over Ammon is also lost around 880 BC.

883 - 881 BC

Elah

Son. Murdered by the captain of chariots.

881 BC

Zimri

Usurper. Ruled for seven days. Suicide.

881 - 870 BC

Omri

Army commander. Oppressor of the Moabites.

c.880 - 848 BC

Moab is oppressed by Omri and his son, Ahab. These two Israelite kings head a new dynasty in Samaria, and this is the first direct mention of Israelite rulers outside of the Old Testament. Omri also establishes closer ties with the Phoenicians at Tyre in an attempt to draw away some of Damas' wealth and prosperity.

The Assyrians make themselves known, referring to Samaria as Bit-Humri ('House of Omri'), and his successors as Mar-Humri ('Son of Omri'). Omri's footprint in history makes him far more credible as a powerful early Israelite than his predecessor, Kind David, but he is barely mentioned by the Old Testament, which is written down by people from Judah.

Plains of Moab
The Plains of Moab lay on the eastern side of the River Jordan, opposite Jericho, and it was here that the Israelites mourned the death of Moses for one month prior to entering the 'Promised Land' (presumably the Moabites lacked the resources to hurry them along)

870 - 848 BC

Ahab

Son. m Jezebal, dau of king of Tyre. Killed by Damas.

860s? BC

Asa of Judah and Ba'asa (Baasha), ruler of Ammon, maintain a near-lifelong feud. When Ba'asa pushes Samaria's frontier to within five miles of Jerusalem, Asa, just like his father before him when under pressure, calls on Damas for help. In this case it is Ben-Hadad who responds to Asa's offer of payment if Damas will break its treaty with Ammon.

855 - 854 BC

Ahab further strengthens Samaria's position by concluding a treaty with Tyre which is cemented by marriage (to Jezebel, daughter of Ittobaal (I) of Tyre). To that he adds a protective alliance with Judah, sealed with the marriage of his daughter, Athalia, to Jehoram, the crown prince of Judah.

In 855 BC, the long-awaited attack by Damas arrives. After burning Hazor, King Ben-Hadad and thirty-two vassal kings suddenly appear before the gates of Samaria, but they are strategically defeated twice in two years (although this attack may be a misattribution by later editors of the Old Testament and may instead refer to the throwing off of Damascene domination by Jehoash in the early eighth century BC).

853 BC

FeatureAhab is a member of an alliance of states which also includes Ammon, Arqa, Arvad, Byblos, Damas, Edom, Egypt, Hamath, and Kedar (seemingly despite the recent conflict between Damas and Samaria). Together they fight Shalmaneser III of Assyria at the Battle of Qarqar which consists of the largest known number of combatants in a single battle to date (see feature link), and is the first historical mention of the Arabs from the southern deserts.

Map of Canaan and Syria c.850 BC
When the Neo-Assyrian empire threatened the various city states of southern Syria and Canaan around 853 BC, they united to protect their joint territory - successfully it seems, at least for a time (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Despite claims to the contrary, the Assyrians are defeated, since they do not press on to their nearest target, Hamath, and do not resume their attacks on Hamath and Damas for about six years.

850 - 848 BC

The alliance of states of 853 BC breaks up when Ahab, assisted by Jehoshaphat of Judah, wages war against Damas at Ramoth-Gilead, where Ahab meets his death in 848 BC. Damas subsequently removes Bashan from Samarian control. Ahab's third successor (in 842 BC) is Jehu. Almost immediately after his accession, Hazael usurps the throne of Aram Damascus, murdering the incumbent king in the process.

848 - 847 BC

Ahaziah

Son. Weak and sickly. Moab rebelled during his reign.

847 - 842 BC

Joram / Jehoram

Son of Ahab. Killed by Jehu.

c.847 BC

Joram, together with Jehoshaphat of Judah, and the king (or governor) of Edom, form a coalition which attempts to retake Moab by force but, despite some initial gains, the attempt is unsuccessful. Despite Old Testament claims to the contrary, Moab even invades and defeats Samaria.

842 BC

Ahaziah of Judah and Joram of Samaria engage Hazael of Damas in battle at Ramoth-Gilead (seemingly a common location for battles in this period). Joram is wounded and retreats to Jezreel where Ahaziah rejoins him. Both are killed there by Jehu, who then seizes the throne of Samaria.

Damascus wall
This colour photochrome print shows a wall in Damascus' defences which is rumoured to be the one over which St Paul escaped in the first century AD

842 - 814 BC

Jehu

Army commander. Usurper?

c.840 BC

Jehu puts an end to the house of Omri by massacring the entire royal family and seizing the throne. The only known survivor is Omri's daughter, Athaliah, who is queen in Judah. Soon after his reign begins, and despite Old Testament claims to the contrary, Moab defeats Samaria and Damas takes all the Hebrew possessions east of the Jordan, ravaging Judah, and rendering Samaria impotent.

Later in his reign, Jehu is also represented on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III as submitting to Assyria, the only representation of an Israelite ruler in existence today.

814 - 800 BC

Jehoahaz

Son. Remained cowed by Damas.

800 - 784 BC

Jehoash / Joash

Son.

c.796 BC

Ben-Hadad III of Damas is not the man his father had been. Initially he occupies the greater part of Samaria but introduces repressive controls which are so strongly resented that the Samarians even welcome the return of the Assyrians.

 Shamshi-Adad V stela
Shown here is a stela which has been dated to the reign of Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria one of Damascus' main enemies during this period who was often, fortunately, distracted by the northern threat that was Urartu

Return they do around this time, attacking Damas and forcing tribute from it. This attack is almost certainly led by Shamshi-ilu from his western base at Kar-Shulmanu-Ashared. He is perhaps the most powerful man of his time, one of a small group of almost equally powerful magnates - princes who govern Assyria under the sovereignty of Adad-Nirari and his three immediate successors.

Gradually losing his father's empire, Ben-Hadad also leads a coalition of states against Zakir of Hamath, and Luash to the north of Damas, but is defeated by the latter. Samaria under Jehoash is even able to recover to the extent that it is able to throw off his domination, and later makes Damas a vassal state.

784 - 748 BC

Jeroboam II

Son.

748 BC

Zachariah / Zechariah

Son. Ruled for 6 months. Murdered.

748 BC

Shallum

Army captain. Usurper. Ruled for 1 month. Killed.

748 - 738 BC

Menachem / Menahem

Son of Gadi. Army captain. Usurper.

748 BC

Wayne McCleese has pointed out that the name Menahem is missing (defaced) from the Assyrian inscription which describes Tiglath-Pileser III overwhelming him 'like in a snowstorm'. McCleese assumes that the name has therefore been assumed, although from where is unclear. The name means 'one who comforts' - ironic for a king who is claimed as being a tyrannical and cruel idolater. His name may, however, exist on more recently-discovered Assyrian tablets, as well as being recorded in the Old Testament's 2 Kings.

Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria
Tiglath-Pileser III dominated the Levantine city states during the later years of the eighth century BC, terminating the kingdom of Samaria and, shown here, with his foot on the shoulder of Hanunu of the Philistine city of Gaza, a gesture of dominance in the face of Hanunu's crouched submission

738 BC

The Assyrians are now extremely active in the Levant. The city of Byblos pays tribute in this year, and the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, campaigns in Sam'al against a rebellion there. Both Samaria and Damas become vassals following an invasion of their lands. However, the kings of the two cities are allowed to continue to rule.

738 - 733 BC

Pekahiah

Son. Murdered.

733 - 732 BC

Pekah

Son of Remaliah. Army officer. Usurper. Murdered.

734 - 733 BC

Pekah and Rezon II of Damas form an anti-Assyrian coalition. They try to force Ahaz of Judah to join them but are stopped when Tiglath-Pileser III marches an army into Syria and the Levant (partially thanks to payments of silver and gold by Ahaz). Over the next two years he re-conquers all the rebellious states, and takes Damas. Judah is reduced to vassal status in 733 BC. Just a year later Pekah is assassinated by Hoshea who then takes over the kingship.

732 - 723 BC

Hoshea

Ostensibly pro-Assyrian to assuage Tiglath-Pileser III.

722 - 721 BC

After Hoshea stops paying tribute, Samaria is invaded and eventually falls to Assyria. The ten (of twelve) Hebrew tribes in Israel are relocated by the Assyrians (27,290 inhabitants in all).

A proportion of them are resettled in Media in the Zagros Mountains, forced to walk all the way, while a small community is later to be found in India in the form of the Bene Israel Jews, claimed to be part of this enforced movement via a shipwreck in the first two centuries AD.

It is often assumed that the rest may be massacred by the Assyrians, although it now seems more likely that they are eventually absorbed into general Assyrian society. Their contribution to the later Jewish Diaspora is unknown.

Sargon II of Assyria
Sargon II usurped the Assyrian throne, seizing it from the last of the Ashur-Rabi monarchs, but he brought with him Assyrian resurgence and a drive to expand the empire

In their place, the residents of the rebellious city of Hamath are shipped in, and it is these people who form the core of the later Samaritans (whose name may be due to their relationship with the lands of Samaria - although this is a contested claim).

The former kingdom is divided into provinces: Megiddo (north-west), Samaria (west of the River Jordan), and Gilead (east of the River Jordan). Now only the sister kingdom of Judah survives as an independent Hebrew-dominated stronghold in Canaan.

 
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