Ancient Israel – A Brief History (876 – 722 BC)

As described in the previous article – Ancient Israel – A Brief History (1207 – 876 BC) – the settlement phase that began the formation of the pre-Jewish kingdoms of Judaea and Israel, in the mountains of southern Canaan (the area now known as the West Bank and the western mountain ranges of Jordan), was 3rd in a sequence of such phases. The previous 2 phases had come and gone, having risen when the Canaanite culture around them had been in decline and dissipated when it re-emerged.

The 3rd phase was different, and this difference was not unique to southern Canaan – the region that became Israel and Judaea and, later, modern Israel and Palestine (and western Jordan). I guess you could say that human civilization, in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, had taken a step forward in its evolution during the Iron Age. The causes – social evolution, supported by, and supporting, in turn, the gradual growth of human population; technology – though it is worthwhile to mention Harari‘s comment, at this point, that the most important innovations of the empires of old had been in the field of social organization, not of technology. The settlers of the Iron age were greater in number, than those of the 2 previous phases.

This, and other factors, caused the emergence, amongst the great civilizations of the Middle East, of many small nations and nation-states. In the Area of Canaan those were the Philistine city states, Judaea, Israel, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Aram-Damascus and the Phoenicians of Lebanon. I might have missed somebody – I know there was an Arabic nation to the east of ancient Israel, possibly the predecessors of the Nabataeans, but I am not certain of their identity (they are mentioned among the allies who fought in the Battle of Qarqar – on that, in a bit). Most of those did not survive the harsh condition of Canaan and the upheavals of the Iron age – Canaan being the bridge between Africa and Asia, between the great state of Egypt and the Empires of the Fertile Crescent and of Anatolia. They had been absorbed by other nations, eradicated by the harsh Assyrian population-transfer practices (the nations of Syria were destroyed by them, for example) and, finally, absorbed by the Arab conquerors of the 7th century AD. As Harari has commented, all nations of today are made up of many older nations that had been fused together by empires.

The Kingdom of Israel was first to emerge, possibly as early as the 11th century BC. It was bigger and had a larger, denser, population. There had been an even bigger phase, in the 10th century – the Biblical kingdom of Saul – that was ended by the Egyptians, possibly with the help of the Philistines. To the south of it an in its shadow appeared another semi-tribal state formation, probably as early as the late 10th century BC: the kingdom of Judaea. As described in the previous article, its founder – David – might have been an Appiru, a leader of a group of Appiru – outlaws, brigands – who had taken over the local Judaean clans and clobbered them together into a nation.

The early relationships between the two states (before 876 BC, that is) are not too clear. There are echoes of many conflicts, in the Bible. There had never been a unified monarchy, as the Bible claims, and the areas belonging to Israel had never been ruled from Jerusalem. If anything, Judaea had been a vassal of Saul’s kingdom. David never succeed Saul, Judaea and Israel had been two separate nations. I believe what succeeded Saul was anarchy, or a temporary breakdown of the early Kingdom of Israel. Judaea remained small and rural into the 9th century, when it became a vassal of the Omride dynasty of Israel and began to flourish under its hegemony.

One last thing to mention before we start with the Omride dynasty and with the events of the 9th century BC, in Canaan, is that no monotheism had existed anywhere around the world, at that time. The revolution of Akhenaten, in Egypt, in the 14th century, had probably been henotheistic in nature, but even assuming it had been a step towards monotheism, that step had no continuation, and it left no mark of the cultures of Egypt and of the region, in general.

All the nations of the region, and, specifically, the ancient Judaeans and the Ancient Israelites, worshiped statues of gods and goddesses that stood in temples. They worshiped the local manifestations – statues, simply put – of the various gods, and this practice, and the fact that gods had, indeed, been statues and had a ‘face’, is also echoed in many passages of the Bible – the ones we are not supposed to read literally.

Many small nations also worshiped local, ‘national’ gods, in addition to the gods of the regional pantheon (in our case – the Canaanite Pantheon, headed By the god El). Examples are Chemosh, in Moab, and Yahweh, in Edom, and later – in Judaea and in Israel.

The monotheism described in the bible is a product of a later age, most likely – the Persian period (6th – 4th centuries BC). The final editions of the Old Testament are from the 2nd century BC. In 622 BC, during the reign of Josiah, when the ‘Ancient Torah book’ had been discovered, what happened, in reality, was an attempt to reform the religion. It had been completely polytheistic until then, with an already evolving local flavor. The reform, started by Josiah or, rather, by his priesthood – in Judaea – as a reaction to the collapse of the Assyrian power that happened just then, and very abruptly. It had definitely been a large step towards monotheism, though, it was not yet monotheism as we know it today. But, more importantly, what it really means, is that before 622 BC the people of Israel had not simply been living in oblivion, having forgotten an ancient covenant they had had with god. Having, in other words, abandoned their monotheism, as the Bible keeps complaining.

This is the monotheism that never existed. A fiction. The people of Judaea and of Israel had only been sinners in retrospect, from the outlook of the 622 Judaean religious revolution, which took place 100 years after the Kingdom of Israel had ceased to exist. When inventing new sacred laws and practices, the best way to make the people accept them is by claiming those are, in fact, ancient, sacred, laws that had been rediscovered. And, of course, the writers of the 622 edition of the Bible used those apologetics to justify all the calamities that had befallen the kingdoms of Israel and Judaea until then. Later, after the fall of Jerusalem, in 586 BC, more apologetics were added, to explain how the city, the temple and the dynasty that were supposed to last forever, by the unconditional promise of God, could have been so utterly destroyed.

Josiah’s reform, though short lived, had been picked up by later generations. The religion absorbed many Persian and Hellenic elements until it became monotheistic, at last, though pagan elements and beliefs had survived well into the Roman period (and, some say, to this very day).



The Omrides

  1. Omri           876 – 871
  2. Ahab           871 – 852
  3. Ahaziah     852 – 851
  4. Joram          851 – 841 *

In 876 BC, almost 50 years after the fall of the kingdom of Saul, Omri became king of Israel – the northern kingdom. The Bible claims that Jeroboam I (ruled: 922-901 BC, according to Albright) had been his ancestor, and the founder of the kingdom, whereas other nations referred to Israel under the Omrides as BitUmri  – meaning ‘House of Omri’ –  the kingdom ruled by the dynasty founded by Omri. We can’t say for sure. Jeroboam I may have been a strongman who took power after the fall of the House of Saul. One of his successors was, eventually, replaced by another strongman named Omri.

The Bible treats this dynasty with particular disfavor. It accuses it of idolatry and pins the destruction of Israel (732 and 722 BC) on that. In reality – which even the Good Book cannot cover up completely – the Omrides were very successful kings under whose rule the northern kingdom reached the pinnacle (or one of the 2 pinnacles) of its existence.

Kings Omri and Ahab, in addition to subjugating Judaea and making it their vassal, conquered lands from surrounding nations – Moab, Aram-Damascus. When a coalition of local kings formed against the expansion attempts of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria (ruled: 859 – 824 BC), into the region, it was headed by Aram-Damascus and By Israel. King Ahab led one of the strongest armies of the coalition, said to have numbered 2000 chariots and 10,000 infantry – which may have been an exaggeration – to the Battle of Qarqar, 853 BC. In this battle the Assyrian king was forced to give up his plans, for awhile (though he had later claimed victory in it).

The construction projects of this dynasty were some of the greatest ever carried out in the Levant, until the time of king Herod the Great. The royal palace of Samaria and other government buildings, built by Omri or by Ahab, were constructed on a large podium, 6-8 meters high, braced by a massive supporting wall and filled with compacted earth. A similar podium was built in Jezreel, to exist only for a short time.

As the result of the annexation of many foreign territories – the spread down from the mountains – the population of the Kingdom of Israel became very heterogeneous, under the Omrides. It had been composed of Israelites (from the mountains of today’s Samaria), Arameans, Phoenicians, Canaanites and members of other nationalities. They conquered the coastal regions, including many ports, taking control of many of the trade routes passing through the lowlands of Canaan.

In the 840’s a new king assumed power in Aram-Damascus, by the name Ha’za’el. Assyria having been temporary occupied elsewhere, he attacked Israel, in 841, aiming, according to his own claims, to take back from it the land conquered by it in the reign of Ahab. Israel had been defeated and lost many important cities in the north – among them were Hazor, Megiddo, Rehov – and along the coastal regions. A lot of its land had been occupied by Aram-Damascus, for awhile.

The King of Israel, Joram, and his vassal, the king of Judaea, Ahaziah, were killed on the same day – either on the day of their defeat by Ha’za’el, or shortly after. They were killed by Jehu, according to the Bible, a usurper. Ha’za’el claims, in the Tel Dan Stele, which he left in Tel Dan to commemorate his victory, that it was he who had slain the kings. We are inclined to believe Ha’za’el’s inscription, for he lived closer to the events, or maybe to interpret this as a sign that Jehu was Ha’za’el’s agent.

In any case, Jehu assumed the throne of Israel in 841 BC. He made himself a vassal of Shalmaneser III of Assyria, shortly afterwards. Shalmaneser calls him the man of BitUmri in his inscription commemorating the event, meaning the kingdom still retained it’s older name.

Ha’za’el also attacked the city of Gath, causing its permanent downfall. This was probably done because Gath competed against the Phoenician traders, who’d been under Aramean control.

Jeroboam II

Then, in 811, the regional balance of power between the world power, Assyria, and the regional powers – Aram-Damascus, Israel and Phoenicia – changed again. Adad-nirari III (ruled: 811-783) assumed the throne in Assyria and began campaigning in all directions, as any good Assyrian king is obliged to do, by custom and by his religion. He also campaigned into the west to hammer it into a shape desirable to him (from Assyria’s perspective, Canaan was in the west). His target was, first and foremost, the kingdom of Aram-Damascus.

Aram-Damascus was attacked and its capital, Damascus, was besieged by the Assyrian king (796 BC). This attack led to an eclipse of this kingdom’s power, allowing King Joash of Israel (ruled: 798 – 782 BC) to retake land, from Aram-Damascus, that had been lost in the reign of Joram. Dan, Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, among many other cities, were re-taken and were prospering again, in the 8th century BC. Monumental buildings and fortifications were being built, again, and the economy was booming.

This prosperity had been almost unprecedented, and may have even surpassed that of Omride times. The population of the northern kingdom reached a height of about 300-400,000 people, more than ever before. A period of peace began, that lasted 50 years – very uncommon in those times.

(A word on population – in Roman and in Byzantine times the population of Israel, west of the Jordan river, was, at its height, close to 1 million people. In the 8th century BC and in the Middle Ages, up until the 1870’s, it had been pretty much the same – around 400,000 people, with the Iron Age taking the slight lead; you will reach the same number – so says Finkelstein – if you subtract from this number the population of Judah, Philistia, and of other parts of Israel that had not been under ancient Israel’s control, and add the populations of the areas east of the Jordan River it did control, you will reach the same number, approx.)

Jeroboam II assumed the throne in 782 BC, or in 786 BC, or in 793 BC. He may have been co-regent to king Joash, for 4 or for 9 years, at the beginning of his reign – just to demonstrate the problems that still exist in modern Iron Age history and archaeology.

He and his predecessor lived under the regional Assyrian hegemony, which lasted until 622 BC, and ‘did as they were told’, including paying pretty heavy taxes to the empire. In those 50 years of peace the economy flourished. Assyria was an eager importer and trader of many goods; chief among those were olive oil and horses – 2 things that are uncommon in the heartlands of Assyria, today’s northern Iraq. Olives were grown and pressed in the mountain regions – the old Israeli heartland; the remains of this industry are numerous and many have been dug by archaeologists.

The famous horse-stables of Megiddo, that had originally been attributed to king Solomon, the great horse trader of Biblical myth, have been later dated to the 9th century or to the early 8th century – an opinion Finkelstein and a few others hold. This puts them squarely in the long reign of Jeroboam II (who died in 753 or 742 BC). The location of these stables – of which 17 have been discovered in Megiddo – is somewhat perplexing: they were built in the best part of the city, where real-estate tends to be expensive.

Horses were as costly back then as they are now. The kings of Israel bought fine Egyptian horses to Megiddo, bred and trained them, to be used in their own chariot forces or in the Assyrian army, then sold the bulk of them to Assyria at a very large profit.

The kingdom’s trade had been extensive. In addition to signs of luxury visible in the excavations of Samaria – the capital – and other major cities of the realm (which was also heavily criticized by the early prophets of the Bible), two major ports have been excavated along the northern shoreline – Atlit (a coastal town south of Haifa) and Dor – both dating to the 8th century BC. Two drowned Phoenician ships from that period have also been found along the Israeli coastline. Collaboration and trade with the Phoenicians was extensive, in those days, carried out with the blessing of the empire, and it has been conjectured by Finkelstein that the port in Atlit, which was built Phoenician-style, was probably given to the Phoenicians as a concession, by Israel.

Israel and Judaea were also involved in the Arab trade – or desert trade – going to Egypt and to Arabia. A trading post along one of the southern trade routs – a place for rest and for worship – was recently discovered in Kuntillet Ajrud, in the northeastern Sini Peninsula.

There is also evidence of a culture of writing (though not widespread literacy as we are used to seeing today). Many ostraca dating to the 8th century were discovered in Samaria, and some in other places. It is very likely that writing was used in the northern kingdom in the 9th century as well, but the evidence to that effect are inconclusive. It may just be back luck – the evidence may have been destroyed or is yet to be discovered.

These ostraca are mainly of an administrative nature, dealing with ownership and with the shipment of goods. Many names that are mentioned in them appear in genealogical lists in the Bible. Those lists are talking of ancient times, going back to the mythological conquest of Canaan by Joshua, but they are using 8th of 7th century names and associate them with the places that were connected with those names at the time of writing, which was either the late 8th or the late 7th century BC. This happens a lot in the Bible and it might actually deserve a separate article. In any case, it is obvious that Israel of the early 8th century BC had an advanced bureaucracy.



The Fall of The Kingdom of Israel

In 745 a new king ascended the throne of Assyria. His name was Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled: 745 – 727 BC). Thus began a new era of imperialism, an era of aggressive expansion, in which conquest and direct rule over provinces replaced the relatively more gentle economic and political intervention of the earlier phase of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 – 612 BC). The countries west of the Euphrates, which had, previously, been granted the status of vassal states, began being annexed, one by one, and turned into Imperial provinces.

A period of political unrest followed the death of king Jeroboam II, in Israel. After the throne changed hands several times, Pekahbecame king in 740 BC. In 732 he allied himself with Rezin, king of Aram-Damascus, with the intention of overthrowing Assyria’s rule. They tried bringing Judaea into their conspiracy but Ahaz, the Judaean king, responded by appealing to Assyria, informing Tiglat-Pileser of the plot and offering much gold and silver – taken from the temple, according to the Bible – as tribute.

Tiglat-Pileser’s response was swift: he first marched down the Mediterranean cost, taking all the coastal cities of Canaan, thus cutting off the rebels’ access to the sea. He then turned on Israel, defeated its army in battle and reduced its territory to the original mountain ranges of Samaria. The rest of the territory of Israel came under direct Assyrian rule and was organized into provinces. He placed a puppet king – Hoshea (ruled: 732 – 723 BC) – on the throne. It’s worthwhile to note that Assyrian destruction of cities, as expressed in the archaeological record, had not been random. Some cities were completely destroyed while others were destroyed only in part, often – a small part. The purpose of Assyrian conquest was economic, and, consequentially, they were always trying to preserve as much of the population as possible so that it would produce more, for them, and pay more taxes, after the conquest and pacification phases were complete.

In 726 BC Shalmaneser V besieged Samaria, which fell in 722. This was in response to king Hoshea’s attempted rebellion, supported by Tyre and hoping, also, for Egypt’s support, which never came. In 720, under Sargon II, the Assyrians returned to Samaria and deported some of its population to lands in the east of the Empire. This was the second expulsion – some population from the northern parts of the kingdom was deported 10 years earlier.

And here lies the problem: the Bible claims all 10 tribes of the northern kingdom had been deported (ie – the entire population of the north), so that part of the nation of Israel was lost, forever. Assyria brought other deportees to the vacated lands to fill their place – to keep the economy going, so that they could collect their heavy taxes – so the inhabitants of all the lands that belonged to the former kingdom of Israel were considered, traditionally, to be foreigners.

But the Assyrians never deported entire nations. They deported the elite, never more than around 10% of the population. In Samaria the total number of deportees, in both expulsions, had been about 50,000 – a little over 10%. But the system proved effective. The deportees were spread among the local population in the area they were brought to, and would soon assimilate into it completely, losing their original identity. The population left behind, having lost its elite and mixed with newly arrived immigrants, effectively lost its ability to resist, and, eventually, also its national identity (as was the case with the ancient nations of Syria).

In fact, had the Neo Assyrian empire lasted for 50 more years, they might have stopped the ethnogenesis of the Jewish people dead in its tracks. One more rebellion by Judaea, which, indeed, happened, in 586 BC, against Babylonia – people of the time, especially the Judaeans, needed frequent reminders of the might of imperial power – and it would have not just been destroyed, as a political entity, but eradicated completely as a nation. Luckily for the Jewish people (or maybe not so lucky), in 586 it was Babylonia that destroyed the ‘first temple’ and deported them for the last time, to southern Iraq. The Babylonians did not attempt to destroy the culture of the deportees by spreading them too thinly among the local population, but allowed them to live together in one large community and maintain their identity, instead. In time, this community of former exiles had become the most important Jewish community of the ancient world and the birthplace of the new Jewish nation.



Judaea had been a Vassal of Israel from its nascence, in the late 10th century, a thing that had greatly accelerated its development. I will discuss it in depth in my next article.


(Next: Judaea in Vassalage, 9th century BC – 722 BC; Previous: Ancient Israel – A Brief History (1207 – 876 BC))


* – These dates are a combination I made of dates from several dating conventions (all differing by a few years), with some adjustments, to make them all fit, and, therefore, are not overly accurate; just to give you an idea of when and how long they reigned.

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